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 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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Sayat-Nova (Սայաթ-Նովա, საიათნოვა, Саят-Нова) was an Armenian troubadour poet and musician. He is an important figure in the history of Armenian literature, but he composed songs in all the major languages of the South Caucasus and maintained friendly relations with Georgians and Azeris. For this reason, it has become something of a cliche in writings about the South Caucasus to invoke Sayat-Nova as a symbol of peace and ethnic neighborliness. Besides his intrinsic importance, Sayat-Nova was also the quasi-subject of Sergei Parajanov’s brilliant film The Color of Pomegranates.

sayat nova sofiko chiaureli

Sayat-Nova as portrayed by Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli in The Color of Pomegranates

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Four Grades of Language Borrowing

Since the nineteenth century, the Georgian language has been significantly influenced by Russian. More recently, Georgian has begun to import words from English. Consequently, some Georgians are concerned about the “purity” of their language, and prescribe the use of “Georgian” words instead of “foreign” words. But some foreignisms offend the linguistic purist more than others. In this post I’ll give four categories of foreign words and phrases which are “foreign” and “native” to different degrees, with examples in both Georgian and English.

IMPORTANT UPDATE 4/20/14: New example added to Category III!

georgian russian street sign

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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.

The Names of Georgia

[For an updated and expanded version of this post, see The Names of Georgia (Reprise)]

Georgians do not call their country Georgia. They call it Sakartvelo (საქართველო), which is based on their name for their ethnic group, Kart.

So why do we call them Georgians? One theory is that the name was given to them because of their reverence for Saint George. This makes some sense — after all, their flag features the cross of Saint George, and many boys in my village are named George (Giorgi). Another theory is that the name comes straight from the Greek word for farmer, georgos (literally, earth-worker). This makes sense, since Georgians are now and always have been farmers, as opposed to the pastoral peoples of the Caucasus.

But these theories are both bullshit. Continue reading

Georgia Q&A

Q: Where are you going?

A: Georgia.

Q: Cool, I have a cousin in Athens.

A: No, I don’t mean Georgia the American state. I mean Georgia the country.

Q: There’s a country called Georgia?

A: Yeah.

Q: Oh right, I think I’ve heard of that. Isn’t it, like, in Eastern Europe?

A: Not quite. It borders southern Russia, but it also borders Turkey, and it’s much closer to Iran than it is to any European country. But it’s not really Central Asian either. You could say it’s part of the Middle East if you didn’t care about being sloppy, or you could call it Near Eastern if you didn’t care about sounding like you’re from the 1800s. Take a look at this map if you don’t believe me.

caucasus political map

Georgia is in Europe, just like Iran.

Travel advertisers typically bill Georgia as being “at the crossroads of East and West,” which, while cheesy, might be accurate. All this generally holds also for Armenia, which borders Georgia to the south, and to a lesser extent for Azerbaijan, which borders Georgia to the southeast.

Q: But they must be European, since they play in the big European soccer league.

A: And the Rams play in the NFC West. So what?

Q: Fine, but it was part of Russia, right?

A: Yes. Having been conquered and destroyed several times over the centuries (by the Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols, and the Turks), Georgia looked to Russia for protection and was annexed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After the Russian Revolution, Georgia enjoyed a few years of independence, but was soon re-conquered by the (Soviet) Russians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia became independent again. That’s pretty much where things stand today.

Q: And they speak Russian there?

A: No.

Q: Some other Slavic language?

A: No.

Q: A language even distantly related to Russian?

A: Wrong again, idiot. The Georgian language is not related to any major language. It is not part of the Indo-European language family (which includes most European, Persian, and Indian languages, as well as Armenian), the Uralic language family (which includes Finnish, Hungarian, and some Siberian languages), the Afro-Asiatic language family (which includes Arabic and Hebrew), or the Turkic language family (which includes Turkish and Azerbaijani). Georgian belongs the Kartvelian language family (also called South Caucasian), which also includes Laz, Mingrelian, and Svan. However, none of these other languages have standardized written forms, all are spoken alongside Georgian, and the three combined have fewer than a million speakers, so practically speaking we can ignore them and say that Georgian is not related to any language anywhere at all.

south caucasian kartvelian georgian languages

Don’t worry, I had never heard of these either.

It has been proposed that Georgian might be related to Basque or some other language isolate, but this is just linguists’ fanfic.

Q: So the Caucasus is home, if I’ve counted right, to three distinct language families?

A: You did count right, but no. In fact there are two more. Georgian is spoken on the south side of the Caucasus mountains. To the northwest of the mountains are spoken the Northwest Caucasian languages, including Abkhaz, and to the northeast of the mountains are spoken the Northeast Caucasian languages, including Chechen. Neither of these families is related to the other, or to Georgian, or to anything else.

Q: The Caucasus sounds like a very linguistically diverse region.

A: I’m glad you asked. Take a look at this map, which gives a good idea of what a mess the whole place is.

caucasian languages

A mess

Q: Do they use the Latin alphabet or the Russian?

A: No. They use their own alphabet. It doesn’t look anything like either of those alphabets or the Greek alphabet.


This alphabet has two T’s, two P’s, two K’s, two TS’s, and two CH’s, which makes transliteration a crapshoot.

Armenian also uses its own alphabet, and it doesn’t look anything like the Georgian one.

armenian alphabet

Believe it or not, this is a real alphabet in use today.

To make things more confusing, there is an old form of the Georgian alphabet which does look like Armenian. Fortunately, it’s not in use anymore today except for decorative purposes.


There’s another alphabet that came after this one and before the modern one, but I won’t bore you with it.

Incidentally, the phrase “Russian alphabet” is a pet peeve of mine. Although the Russians do have an alphabet different from ours, many other languages also use that alphabet. Us saying “Russian alphabet” would be like Russians talking about the “French alphabet.” The proper name for their alphabet is “Cyrillic,” so-called because it was devised by ninth-century missionary and burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr.

lili st cyr

St. Cyr and her brother Methodius are credited with inventing two alphabets for the Slavs.

In case you were wondering, Azerbaijani and the rest of the Caucasian languages generally use Latin or Cyrillic according as whether or not they hate the Russians.

Q: Good story. So are they Muslims over there or what?

A: No, for the most part. About 10% of Georgians are Sunni Muslims, and most of them are located in the southern “autonomous republic” of Adjara. The rest of the Georgians are Orthodox Christians.

Q: Oh, are they Catholic or Protestant?

A: Wow you’re stupid. Orthodoxy is distinct from both, and in fact Orthodoxy is older than Protestantism. It is exactly the same age as Catholicism, since the two resulted from a schism in what was one church. Basically, cultural differences and political problems led the Western and Eastern parts of the old Roman Empire to excommunicate each other around 1100. Orthodoxy is the church that resulted in the East and Catholicism is the church that resulted in the West (which would, of course, later splinter again with the Protestant Reformation). Georgia is in the East, so it’s Orthodox.

east west catholic orthodox schism map

Georgia is on this map, but it almost isn’t.

Q: So that’s why Greek and Russian churches look so weird.

A: Right.

Q: And Armenians too?

A: No. The Armenian church is part of Oriental Orthodoxy, as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy. The Oriental churches (which today also includes the Christianity practiced in Egypt and Ethiopia) broke off from the rest of Christendom in the fifth century. Their separation was due not to any power struggles, but to a good old-fashioned Christological debate. The question was simple: is Christ human? divine? both? neither? or what? The Nestorians held that he had two natures, one divine and one human (the two-nature view is called dyophysitism). The Eutychians held that although Christ was both human and divine, his humanity was vanishingly small in comparison with his divinity, so that his nature was pretty much just divine (monophysitism). To settle this problem, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 came up with a compromise: Christ has two natures, but just one person, and the two natures are united perfectly in that person (this is the doctrine of hypostatic union). The churches that would eventually become Oriental Orthodox rejected this solution, arguing that it amounted little more than Nestorianism. Instead, they claimed that Christ had only one nature, but that this nature was itself both divine and human (they call this position miaphysitism), and they went on to establish their own church on this basis.


I bet you didn’t think you would learn anything about Christology on this blog.

Q: That is so boring that I can’t even finish the paragraph.

A: Well, that’s pretty much how theology goes. The take-away here is that the Armenians don’t belong to the same church as the Georgians.

Q: But there are Muslims near Georgia, right?

A: Yes. The Chechens and some other people to the north of the Caucasus are Sunni Muslims, and in Azerbaijan nearly everybody is a Shia Muslim (this is due to Persian conquest).

shia sunni demographics map

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find Azerbaijan on this map, and also to figure out what the colors mean.

However, such self-identification is mostly nominal, Azerbaijan is one of the most irreligious countries in the Muslim world. Indeed, my understanding is that this is also true in Georgia, where being Orthodox is more of an national affiliation than a religious one (just as being nomincally Catholic is often considered an important part of being Italian or Mexican).

Q: How are the gender roles in Georgia?

A: I’ve heard it’s very patriachal, but I can’t say for sure yet. Expect a report on the matter.

Q: What about the food, scenery, weather, etc?

A: I’m there will be plenty of time to discuss that stuff when I get there.

Q: It sounds like you intended this Q&A to cover general cultural, historical, and geographical background, and not so much the concrete details of everyday life with which you have no experience.

A: Uh…yeah, that about sums it up.