Testament to tolerance

I recently took a trip to the remarkable country of Georgia, invited to participate in a conference at the Institute of Iranian Studies in Tbilisi. Aside from spending time in Tbilisi itself, I had the opportunity to visit several parts of the country, and especially the countryside of Kartli and Kakheti. What follows are a few observations about my trip

Located at the eastern tip of the Black Sea, Georgia also lies at the fault line of a number of civilizations and empires that over time have dominated and influenced it. These include pre-Islamic Iran and its Zoroastrian faith, Islam in the form of the Arab invasion, Iranian control during the Safavid period, and Turkish overlordship of the western half in Ottoman times, and more recently, the Russians, first in the form of the Tsarist Empire and later in the form of the Soviet Union.

Yet, throughout the ages Georgia has retained its own, unique character, which is bound up with language and faith. The Georgians speak a unique language, which is written in a similarly unique script, and the Georgian church, established in the 4th century, is of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Both give the country a distinct identity without leading to a narrow-minded nationalism. Thriving Muslim and Jewish communities throughout the country testify to the tolerant character of the country and its people. 

Georgia has been closely linked to Iran since Achaemenid and Sasanian times, when the country was intermittently part of the Persian Empire. Georgia, or more precisely, the eastern half of its territory, Kartli and Kakheti, again fell under Iranian domination during the reign of Shah Abbas I in the early 1600s, and remained part of the Iranian sphere of influence until the incorporation of the country into the Russian Empire at the turn of the nineteenth century. Following the Iranian conquest, Georgians, deported to Iran in large numbers, came to play a decisive role in the Safavid military and bureaucracy.  

Much in eastern Georgia reminds one of the ties with Iran forged in that period. There are the amazing Qajar paintings in the National Museum in Tbilisi. There is the beautiful, 11th-century monastery of Alaverdi in Kahheti, set against the stunning backdrop of the North Caucasus range that separates Georgia from Chechnia and Daghestan. Shah Abbas visited this monastery as part of his 1614 Georgian campaign, and the ruins of the Safavid governor’s palace are still visible within its walls. There is the palace of King Herekle II (r.1762-98) in Telavi, built in the Zand style and surrounded by fortress walls that look like a replica of the Arg in Shiraz. There are the 18th-century houses in the beautiful town of Sighnaghi, with brickwork that resembles Qajar architecture.    

Emerging from seventy damaging years of Soviet rule and a civil war in the 1990s, and led by a young, energetic and popular president, Georgia is now in the process of building a modern society. The capital, Tbilisi is an exciting city, blending ancient history and a cosmopolitan present. Dramatically set on the banks of the Mtkvari River, Old Tbilisi, rebuilt after being sacked by Agha Mohammad Khan in 1795, is a romantic quarter of narrow streets that feature a number of traditional, 19th-century houses with wooden balconies, a large synagogue, and a mosque. Many new restaurants have opened in the last few years in this part of the city, most notably on Chardin Street.

One bizarre holdover from previous times is found in the town of Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Djugashvili, better known as Stalin, located some 50 miles west of Tblisi. The main avenue in Gori is still called Stalin Avenue and a huge statue of the dictator still stands in the city’s central square.

The country at large is becoming more accessible, too, in spite of strained relations with Russia and the government’s lack of control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Visa regulations have been abolished for visitors from the West, roads are being repaired, and efforts are made to improve the country’s overall infrastructure. The myriad churches and monasteries filled with luminous frescoes and icons are marvels of architectural beauty. The food is wonderful. Georgian cooking exhibits overtones of Iranian cuisine in its creative use of pomegranate and walnut, but has its own distinctive ingredients and flavor. The wines are great — Georgia ranks with Iran as the oldest site of viniculture in the world. The Georgian people, finally, are sophisticated, know how to live well, and with that, are amazingly hospitable.

Rudi Matthee is professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Delaware and the prize-winning author of the book “The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900“, Princeton University Press (July 5, 2005).


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