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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Religion in Istanbul: Mosques, Churches, Cemeteries, Cats

In the comments section of my post on the Georgian Catholic church in Istanbul, a reader requested “a series of posts on some of the odder churches of Istanbul“. As far as I know, the Georgian church I wrote about is the only one in Istanbul, and so a whole series of posts about Istanbul churches would be too far afield from the main focus of this blog. But one post about churches in Istanbul is still somewhat related to Georgia, and so that’s what this post is. Of course, a post about churches in Istanbul would not be even remotely similar to a post about religion in Istanbul, since the modern city is overwhelmingly Islamic. So in the interest of comprehensiveness, this post will also cover some mosques of interest.  Religious life also deals with cemeteries, so I’ve included those too.

Still, as a post dealing with the general topic of “Religion in Istanbul”, this discussion will be woefully incomplete. For one thing, I won’t talk about big, flashy tourist spots like the Hagia Sophia or the New Mosque. There’s plenty of information and pictures of that stuff out there already, and the world really doesn’t need any more. For another thing, in several cases I wasn’t able to enter the church or cemetery or whatever, and even if I could, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. So this post will be more uneven than I would have liked. On the other hand, there will be a lot of nice pictures (all taken by me).

This post is really long, so for your convenience, here’s a clickable table of contents (seriously, click the links to go straight to what interests you the most!):

Again, this is a long post. But the photos really are cool, so I recommend taking some time to look at them. Maybe look at the different sections over the course of a few days.

And as a special treat for my loyal readers…cat pictures!

istanbul mosque cat

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The Georgian Alphabet and the Arabic Alphabet

The Arabic alphabet is a script used as the basis for the writing systems of many languages, including Arabic, Persian, and, up until the 1920s, Turkish. Given that peoples speaking these languages have conquered various parts of Georgia many times, it’s somewhat surprising that the Arabic alphabet has never been used systematically to write the Georgian language. I would have thought that at least the Muslim Adjarans would have written Georgian in Arabic letters, but as far as I can tell, this has never been widely done.

So I considered this problem: how would I write Georgian using the Arabic alphabet? Here’s what I came up with:

georgian arabic alphabet transliteration

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The Laz (Laz: lazepe, Georgian: lazebi or ch’anebi, Turkish: lazlar) are a Kartvelian people who live in Turkey. They used to live in western Georgia (first called Colchis and later Lazica), but beginning about 1,000 years ago were driven south. Today they inhabit what is sometimes called Lazistan (Laz: lazona, Georgian: lazeti or ch’aneti), a littoral strip of Turkey stretching from about Artvin in the east to Trabzon in the west.


I added the arrow because some readers were too lazy to find Lazistan. Get it?

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The Adjarans (Georgian: აჭარლები, ach’arlebi) are an ethinic subgroup of Georgians who live in Adjara, a region in southwest Georgia. They are distinguished from other Georgians by their dialect and by being (at least historically) Sunni Muslims instead of Orthodox Christians.

Adjarans Acaralılar

Just another day in Adjara!

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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 Names of Georgia (Reprise)

Two months ago I made a post called The Names of Georgia about the names Georgia has in different languages. It wasn’t very well-written. Recently I became a guest blogger for the official blog of Teach and Learn with Georgia, the program of the Georgian government by which I am employed as an English teacher. For my first post, I decided to revisit this topic and do a better job at it. Although there aren’t any pictures of maps in foreign languages, I’m happy with it.

For the benefit of readers of this blog, here’s the post in its entirety:

Every TLG volunteer has had the horrible experience of hearing someone say, upon being told about teaching English in Georiga, “What, you mean like Atlanta or something?” Subsequently we’ve probably all had the thought, “Seriously, why do Georgia the country and Georgia the American state have the same name?” Well, to answer that question, we need only answer the two separate questions “Why is Georgia (the American state) called Georgia?” and “Why is Georgia (the country) called Georgia?”

The first question is easy: Georgia was founded by English settlers during the reign of King George II of England, and so it was named after him. Might this answer the second question as well? Georgia (the country) had twelve kings named George (Giorgi). Of them, the most remarkable was George III, whose reign marked the beginning of medieval Georgia’s golden age. But the name “Georgia” dates from around the First Crusade, which took place about half a century before he became king, so the country couldn’t have been named after him.

The next most obvious suggestion is that Georgia was named after Saint George. They do seem to love him here. There are hundreds of churches dedicated to him, there are pictures of him in regular people’s houses, and most of the boys at my school are named Giorgi. It’s quite possible that the Georgians loved him just as much one thousand years ago, and this might have impressed the Crusaders enough for them to name the country after him. According to another (much less likely) theory, “Georgia” comes from the same place as the names “George” and “Giorgi,” namely the Greek word for farmer, georgos (literally, earth-worker). Supposedly this name was given to them (probably by the Romans) because they, unlike the nomadic herding peoples of the North Caucasus, were settled farmers.

However, another theory suggests itself when we look at the names other languages have for Georgia. “Georgia” and variations thereof (Géorgie, for instance) are used in most European languages – Latin, Germanic, and Celtic languages, plus Greek, Albanian, Finnish, and Maltese – as well as in most languages of peoples conquered by Western Europeans (Hindi, for example).  The rest of the world generally uses one of two names. In Slavic languages, Georgia is called something like Gruzia. Because of Russian influence, this name is also used by Hungarian and Estonian, Yiddish and Hebrew, and the Baltic languages, as well as most languages in East Asia (notably Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean) and some languages in Central Asia (like Kazakh and Turkmen). In most languages of the Islamic world (most Persian and Arabic languages, plus Turkish and Azeri) Georgia is called something like Gurjistan, formed by adding the usual -stan suffix to the root gurj.

So the most widely-used names for Georgia are based on three roots – george, gruz, gurj – which are fairly similar. This fact raises two problems for the Saint George theory of etymology: 1) Why don’t the Slavs use the name “Georgia” (or Giorgiya or whatever), especially considering that some of them also love Saint George? 2) Why would the Islamic languages use a name so similar to George when that name is not native to those languages?

Indeed, to explain the similarity among the names, a proponent of the Saint George theory (and similarly for the georgos theory) would have to say that the name George came first, and was subsequently transformed into gurj and gruz. But this makes no sense historically, since the Persians dealt with the Georgians long before the Western Europeans did. So the more plausible explanation  is that the name gurj came first, probably from a Persian word for “wolf” (the founder of Tbilisi was given the name Gorgasali, meaning “wolf’s head”), and that “Georgia” came about through some crude process of rationalization. That is, when Europeans heard Georgia referred to as “Gurjistan,” they thought “Hmm, Gurjistan…Gurj…George…They love Saint George…Georgia!”

So the next time you have to endure an inane conversation in which you explain that Georgia is a country near Russia, blame the Crusaders.

By the way, this is not the only idiotic geographical mix-up with which Georgia is involved: the ancient Greeks called Georgia “Iberia,” even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with Spain or Portugal. Where that name came from is not clear. It may be related to the Armenian name for Georgia, Vrastan, or it might be related to an old Mingrelian name for eastern Georgians.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with what the Georgians call their country. The name they use is Sakartvelo, which is derived from the endonym kart. This in turn is supposedly derived from Kartlos, the mythical founder of the kingdom on which modern Georgia is based (of course, it’s more likely that the reverse is true, and Kartlos was named after his tribe). The Georgians are not the only ones who use this name; names based on kart are used in the Northwest Caucasian languages. In particular, the Abkhaz name for Georgia is Kirtwila.

Finally, we should note that, although it would be hilarious, the Georgians do not call the American state Sakartvelo – they just call it Jorjia.

Update 10/23/13: The Mingrelian name for Georgia is Sakortuokort being the Mingrelian version of kart.