History of the Modern Middle East (Richard Bulliet)

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I love listening to audio recordings of lectures, especially of university classes. I prefer them to books because I can put them on my phone and then listen to them while walking around, which prevents me from falling asleep (something that happens often when someone with a video-game-rotted brain tries to sit down and read a book). I prefer them to audiobooks because listening to someone read straight from a book is even more boring than actually reading the book yourself. Of course there are bad lecturers who just read straight from their notes or whatever, but a good lecturer is able to deliver the same information and ideas in a more conversational style, which is more interesting to listen to and also easier to follow.

One of my favorite audio-recorded lecture series is History of the Modern Middle East by Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet. HMME was given as an undergraduate history class at Columbia in Spring 2009 (so in particular it doesn’t cover the Arab Spring). It consists of 26 lectures which are about 75 minutes apiece (for a total of a little over 30 hours). Bulliet covers a wide variety of topics related to the Middle East, but also spends quite a bit of time discussing whether the Middle East is even a real thing (see below for his answer to the question of whether Georgia is in the Middle East!).

Before I go into a more detailed review, let me say that I recommend this course without reservation to anyone who reads this blog.

strip mall ottoman fountain

The Modern Middle East

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Is Georgia in the Middle East?

Is Georgia in the Middle East? I’ve found that most people give one of three anwers:

  • The general familiar-with-Georgia public usually says “no”, the reasoning being that Georgia is part of Europe / Russia / whatever, and the Middle East is a whole other thing.
  • Nerds and people who are boring at parties will tell you that the question is meaningless because the so-called “Middle East” is a eurocentric ideological construct designed to bolster Britain’s interests in the blah blah blah…
  • Georgians themselves, as far as I can tell, don’t consider their country to be part of the Middle East mainly because of their religion.
    • Related to this, some non-Georgians say that the only thing to do look at is how Georgians self-identify, and that anyone who disagrees with that self-identification is an asshole.

Now to be fair, the nerds are basically right. The “Middle East” is ultimately a bullshit concept, and any purportedly definitive claim about its would-be borders is bullshit too. The problem with this kind of approach is how unsatisfying it is. It’s one thing to be told an answer that you don’t want to hear, but it’s another thing to be told that your question is no good from the beginning. And besides, is the term “Middle East” really completely meaningless? Does it literally have no meaning at all? I think it does have some kind of meaning, even if it is used in wildly varying and even contradictory ways, and I think there is some value in considering whether Georgia (or any other country) belongs to it.

So assuming that the Middle East is a thing, how can we tell if Georgia is a part of it? Clearly we can’t refer to any definitive borders for the Middle East, so what is there to do? In this post, I would like to look at various properties — geographical, cultural, linguistic, etc — that the Middle East presumably has, and see whether Georgia has them too. If it turns out to have enough of them, then maybe Georgia is in the Middle East. (Spoiler alert: it does, and it is.)

georgia middle east

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The Northwest Caucasian Language Family

The Northwest Caucasian language family is a family of languages that originated in the northwest part of the Caucasus. It consists of Abkhaz (with its numerous dialects, including Abaza) and Circassian (the two chief dialects of which are Kabardian (East Circassian) and Adyghe (West Circassian)). It used to include Ubykh, but that language’s last speaker died in 1992.

northwest caucasian languages

The family is also known as Abkhaz-Adyghe.

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The Kartvelian (South Caucasian) Language Family

The Georgian language is not genetically related to any major language anywhere. But it is related to a few minor languages: Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan. Together, these four comprise the Kartvelian language family (from ქართველი, kartveli, the Georgian word for “Georgian”). Kartvelian is also known as the South Caucasian language family, after the region in which its members are spoken.

kartvelian languages south caucasian

The current distribution of Kartvelian langauges

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Ingilois

The Ingilois (Georgian: ინგილოები, ingiloebi) are an ethnic subgroup of Georgians who live in Azerbaijan. They are distinguished from other Georgians by their dialect and by being Shia Muslims instead of Orthodox Christians.

[“Ingilois” rhymes with “noise”, not “Illinois” or “Galois”.]

georgian writing azerbaijan ingiloi

Georgian writing, Azeri flag — Photo by Archil Kikvadze

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The Origin of the Georgian Alphabet

The origin of the Georgian alphabet is controversial. Whereas the Roman and Greek alphabets are the results of slow and gradual transformations of older scripts (rather than of deliberate creation), the Georgian alphabet shows up in history pretty much out of nowhere. This makes it plausible that it was invented, either by one person or several. So the obvious question is: who did it?

Historical tradition gives two conflicting answers. The first comes from a medieval Georgian chronicle called “The Lives of the Kings of Kartli.” It tells of Parnavaz, the first Kartlian king, who reigned in the third century BC. Among other exploits, the chronicle has it that Parnavaz devised the Georgian “script” (მწიგნობრობა, mtsignobroba). Some have interpreted this to mean that he developed the Georgian alphabet, but mtsignobroba can also mean “literacy” or simply “writing.” This writing could have been writing in the Georgian alphabet, but more likely it was writing in the Aramaic alphabet, which at the time was the script of the Persians. This is confirmed by archeology, which has found pre-Christian traces of the Aramaic alphabet in Georgia, but none of the Georgian. Georgian schoolchildren are taught this story.

georgian alphabet mug

The gift shop of the Georgian National Museum sells coffee mugs depicting the old Georgian alphabet. The mugs state that the alphabet was created in the 3rd century BC. I tried explaining (in Georgian) to the gift shop worker that this is not correct, but I don’t think I convinced her.

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The Georgian Alphabet: A Gallery of Specimens

The Georgian alphabet is an alphabet used in Georgia and (with minor exceptions) nowhere else. To most people, it looks like a fake alphabet, like something invented for a movie. Actually, most people don’t know that the Georgian alphabet exists — they assume (as I myself once did) that Georgia, like Kazakhstan and other former Soviet countries, uses Cyrillic. But if they did know about it, they would find it to be a headache-inducing jumble of squiggles.

georgian transliteration

The Georgia alphabet with my preferred Latinization scheme

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