5 Fascinating Things You Need to Know About Georgia

Essentials & Advice | Europe | By Tom Abraham

The first and most important thing you need to know is that this blog post is about the fascinating and enigmatic European country of Georgia, not the golf-loving, tea-swilling, great state of Georgia (though we’re fans of that place, too.)

An oasis of history and civility in the farthest reaches of Europe, Georgia’s on everyone’s minds – not to mention their hot lists – this year. Here at B&R, we’re adventurers at heart, and this remarkable country is near and dear to mine. Currently undergoing rapid change, in 2018 Georgia will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its revolution and its emergence as an independent state.

As the world (finally) turns its attention to Georgia, I thought I’d break down some of the most fascinating aspects of this incredible country so that you can discover its rich history – before everyone else does!

1. It’s the birthplace of wine

The French will tell you that they perfected wine-making (a claim the Italians and Spanish might each take issue with), but Georgia has been making wine since the days of antiquity.

With abundantly fertile valleys and slopes that protect it against the elements, the Transcaucasia have played home to grapevine cultivation and neolithic wine production for 8,000 years!

“Talk about aging of wine. Here we have an 8,000-year-old vintage that we’ve identified,” Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told The New York Times after publishing a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As you can imagine, after that many millennia spent perfecting their oenological offerings, Georgia’s wine traditions are closely entwined with both its economy and its national identity. In fact, Georgia’s unique wine-making process, which utilizes a clay jar called a qvevri, was recognized by UNESCO as a piece of “intangible cultural heritage.” 

And Georgia’s vintages are almost as diverse as they are ancient, with a whopping 400 varieties of grapes, and a culture that takes great pride in this rich heritage. Kakheti is one of the better known wine regions, which is further divided into micro-regions Telavi and Kvareli. Other regions include Kartli, Imereti, Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti, Adjara and Abkhazia.

2. It looms large in ancient history…

Things to Know About Georgia
Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece

According to ancient mythology, Georgia played home to one of the world’s most precious treasures, Jason’s famed Golden Fleece.

The Golden Fleece, so the myth goes, was the fleece of the gold-haired winged ram, which was held in Colchis, an ancient kingdom and region on the coast of the Black Sea, now in present-day Georgia.

When Jason, the rightful king of  Iolcus in Thessaly, challenged the sitting king Pelias for the throne, Pelias replied that Jason could have the throne only after he brought him the Golden Fleece. Jason accepted the challenged and assembled a team of heroes, including Heracles – better known today by his Roman name, Hercules – to sail for Colchis on his ship, the Argo.

After an epic journey, the Argonauts arrived in Colchis, where Jason had to perform three tasks in order to win the Golden Fleece from Aeetes, the King of Colchis. With an assist from the sorceress Medea, Jason managed to plow a field with fire-breathing oxen, sow the teeth of a dragon into a field and overcome the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece (and you thought your chores were annoying).

Winning the fleece, Jason and the Argonauts eventually managed to return home in what’s become one of the best known stories in Greek mythology.

3. …and in modern history

While Georgia played home to mythical heroes, it has also given birth to some extremely influential, though decidedly less admirable, figures.

One of the most significant figures of the 20th century, Josef Stalin, was born in Georgia in 1878.

Stalin was born, raised and educated in Georgia before joining the Bolsheviks and eventually becoming supreme ruler of the USSR. He was born in Gori, an eastern city that served as an important military stronghold during the Middle Ages, where he grew up speaking Georgian.

Today the city plays host to the controversial Stalin Museum, housed in an ornate building that collects artifacts chronicling Stalin’s life. The museum is a divisive attraction, and has prompted articles with headlines like “Georgia divided over Stalin.”

While an aging and increasingly small population of Georgians, particularly in Gori, still respect Stalin for his role in the industrialization of the Soviet Union and in defeating Nazi Germany in the Second World War, many regard him as the bloodiest dictator in history and resent the fact that Stalin, as head of the Soviet Union, invaded Georgia in 1921, shortly after it had become a parliamentary democracy.

4. It’s got one of the world’s most wonderful feast traditions

Things to Know About Georgia
A supra depicted by artist Niko Pirosmani, 1905

An important part of social culture, Georgians take their feasts, called supras, very seriously.

Supras include a strict set of rules that apply regardless of the size or type of the feast. A toastmaster, or tamada, is elected by the guests and introduces each toast during the feast. According to tradition, the tamada must not only have great rhetorical skills, but also be able to consume large amounts of alcohol without showing signs of inebriation.

Throughout the meal, the tamada will propose a toast with a specific theme and speak, after which the guests raise their glasses but do not drink. After the tamada speaks, toasts about the chosen theme continue in a counter-clockwise fashion, with each guest who wishes to speak raising their glass, holding forth, and then downing its contents. (Guests who prefer not to speak may drink from their glass only after uttering some words to themselves that have particular meaning to them.) Once everyone has had a chance to speak to the theme, the tamada proposes a new one – and the whole process repeats again!

Fortunately, eating is entirely appropriate and allowable during a toast, but talking while it’s not your turn is frowned upon.

5. Its most successful ruler was a woman

Queen Tamar, the first woman to rule over Georgia in her own right, was – and there’s really no other way to put this – a badass.

How do we know? Well in addition to being named “Badass of the Week” back in 2014, she reigned from 1184 to 1213, presiding over a period that today is referred to as the pinnacle of the Georgian Golden Age.

Tamar was born in 1166 to King George III and Queen Burdukhan. According to legend, King George decided early on that his daughter, his first child, would inherit his throne.

But at that point Georgia had never had a female leader, so to soften the ground and ease the noblemen into the idea, George named Tamar his co-ruler in 1178, when she was just 12 years old. Tamar then became sole ruler of Georgia after George died in 1184.

There’s some debate as to whether George’s gambit worked; some believed that Tamar obtained the nobles’ approval, while others interpret the same events as Tamar’s quashing of a rebellion. What’s undisputed is that Tamar eventually cemented her power, and wielded it effectively.

During this time, multiple threats of invasion from neighbouring Muslim rulers hung over Georgia, but the Georgian army, under Tamar’s rule, fended them off. And Tamar did not just defend her kingdom, but grew it, launching successful military campaigns to extend Georgia’s borders.

While she was racking up military victories, Tamar also oversaw a blossoming of Geogrian culture. Many works of art, including monuments and pieces of literature, were produced during her reign, including the epic poem “The Knight in Panther’s Skin,” which was dedicated to the Queen.

Photography credit: Qvevri photo Levan Totosashvili via Wikimedia