What we know now as the country of Georgia was once a kingdom. Georgia lies at a crossroads in the world. Nestled in the east of Eastern Europe and the west of Western Asia, Georgia lies on the coast of the Black Sea underneath the southern borders of Russia. Such a central location makes Georgia a historical stopping point for the silk road as well as every major crusade in the surrounding areas from the Greek and Roman empires, the Turkish and Mongol takeovers to the most recent control of the area by Russia. Georgian territory has been an acquisition of them all.
There is a period of history where Georgia was not simply a part of another empire, but a Kingdom and empire in its own right. From the year 1008 AD to the 14th Century, the kingdom of Georgia stood tall. They even experienced a golden age from the 11th century to the 13th century. This was a period of military advancement, as well as achievements in art, architecture and literature. In the middle of this golden age lived King George III. King George was a wise and revered king but he did not have any sons to succeed him. Pressed by the nobles to choose an heir, George chose not the next closest male relative, as many expected, but his eldest daughter, Tamar.
The Rightful Ruler
Believing that Tamar would have a hard time inheriting the throne because she was a woman. King George organized a coronation for her to become his co-ruler in 1178. For six years she ruled alongside her father, learning everything she needed to know in order to rule in her own right, until his death in 1184. At his death, there was opposition from the nobles to her succession due to the fact that she was a woman. There had never been a woman ruler in the history of the Georgian Empire, they argued.
At the age of twenty-five, she proved herself the sole ruler of the Kingdom of Georgia by organizing a second coronation. The coronation was performed by the leader of the Georgian Church who was loyal to her because she had granted him a high government office, and so it was in 1184, by clerical authority, that Tamar was crowned the sole ruler and, in many historical records, “mepe” (King) of Georgia.
Its central location made the territory of Georgia a common battle ground for the empires that surrounded it, including the Greeks, the Romans, the Turks, and the Mongols. The reign of Queen Tamar saw military success almost immediately with the retaking of Georgian and Arminian properties under the control of Muslim forces. Dismayed by their uncharacteristic success, the Muslims gathered a large army to march against the Georgian empire. The speech she gave to her men as they gathered for war is described as being so moving that the troops gained strength, leading to an astounding victory. This victory led to many future victories and conquests, making the Georgian kingdom not just a kingdom but an empire in its own right.
The Grand Capital
One of the most unbelievable accomplishments of the reign of Queen Tamar was the construction of one of the most defensible cities ever built. Consisting of six thousand apartments or living spaces, twenty five wine cellars, a meeting room, a large reception centre, a pharmacy, a grand throne room, and a fully functioning church, the city of Vardzia sounds like many other cities except for one large difference. The entire city was built inside of a mountain.
Resembling a fabled dwarven city from stories such as Lord of the Rings, the Georgian people carved their entire city, 13 floors, into the heart of a mountain. People who live in caves or cavemen are often depicted as unintelligent and undeveloped. Why else would people want to live in a cave? Despite these depictions, the people of Georgia had an extremely good reason to build their city inside a mountain. Defence. The city was built with defence as a primary concern, as their military accomplishments made them far more visible on a global scale than they had previously been. The Mongol empire was one of Georgia’s biggest threats at the time of Vardzia’s construction.
With defence as their primary concern, Vardzia only had one entrance and, because the entire city was enclosed inside the mountain, it was difficult to find if you did not know where it was. In order to invade the city, an army would first have to find the entrance and then file into the city one at a time. Once inside the city, they would have to navigate the labyrinth like tunnels and rooms, also single file. This would give the Georgians ample time to prepare traps and attack stratagems. This made the city almost completely immune to outside attack. Perhaps for the first time in their history, Georgia had no fear of attack from other nations. With an impregnable city and abundant military success, the Georgian people were able to set their minds on things other than survival.
With this newfound safety, the Georgians saw a period of cultural advancement. Innovation was abundant as seen by the city itself. Vardzia was entirely self-sustainable. Running water was piped throughout the city from freshwater springs found in the mountain’s depths. Growing food was also quite easy on the mountain side because of the extremely fertile soil in the area. Conquests of the military and trade through the Silk Road made Georgia one of the richest kingdoms at that time.
Queen Tamar valued and supported the arts. Literature, art, poetry, music, metalwork, and culinary arts all saw rapid advancement during this period. Much of the poetry directly refers to Queen Tamar and legend says that many of the writers were madly in love with her. The most famous literature to come from Georgia, The Man in the Panthers Skin, was written in this time period. Much of the religion of Georgia was defined and refined in this time period as well.
The End of the Kingdom
The prosperity brought by Queen Tamar and her city of Vardzia lasted for 100 years until an earthquake caused the mountain to partially collapse and reveal its hidden city. Additionally, just 20 years after the death of Queen Tamar, an invasion by the Mongols further plundered the city and its people. Today, tourists can visit Vardzia and explore many of its underground rooms, traverse its underground tunnels, and partake in the breath-taking views of the valley below. While much of the city is now open to the outside and not enclosed as it once was, viewing the city and its architecture is a must for any world traveller.
Anthropologists study culture, not necessarily history, so why would history from thousands of years ago come up in an anthropology blog? The answer is that history shapes culture.
The first word that I learned in the Georgian language was the word for hello (Gamarjoba). I memorized this word and used it every day for about a year before I had a conversation about what the word Gamarjoba actually means. I never thought to question the meaning of the word hello. After all, it means hello. As it turns out, Gamarjoba does mean hello, but it also means more.
The root of the word Gamarjoba comes from the word for victory (gamarjveba). I was told that while Mepe (King) Tamar was giving her famous speeches to the warriors going into battle, she would yell VICTORY from the balcony and the soldiers below would yell VICTORY back to her. The speech was so moving to the soldiers that they adopted the word victory into their everyday conversations until it became a common greeting among them. This then spread to all Georgian people regardless of their knowledge of Queen Tamar. To say Hello in Georgian then can also be translated as ‘victory to you”.
I was unaware of the historical significance of the word Gamarjoba for about a year and yet I used it every day. Culture can encompass everything people do and much of what people do, they do without thought.
In the well-known movie Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevia, describes many aspects of his culture that he describes as traditions. “Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Even though Tevia did not know the origin or reason for many of his actions, they helped him define who he was as a person and where he belonged in his community.
Where are you from?
This concept can be applied to other cultures as well. The Georgian people understand that a person’s history, at least in part, shapes who a person is. A common question I was asked while I lived in Georgia was, “Where are you from?”
“America” I would reply.
“No, where are you FROM?”
“I’m from America…..”
“No, where is your family from?”
“My family lives in America.”
“No, no, I know your family lives in America, but where is your family FROM?”
“Oh, well, I have some ancestors from Germany…”
“Germany! That’s great! Actually, I know someone from Germany….”
Like many Americans, I can trace my family back to several countries in Europe. My mother’s family name is German in origin, so I would say that Germany was my country of origin. For many Georgian people, it was important to know my history to understand who I was. The Georgians can trace their history to before biblical times. Their history is old and it is deep. With so much from ancient times still so relevant to them today, the United States of America seems like an infant country with not much history at all. It is for this reason I believe that they often wanted to know where I was from before I was from America.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
Culture, then, is not only something that is, but something that is passed down and inherited. Culture is always changing because people are always changing. Behaviour changes to match circumstances. The Georgian people adopted a new form of greeting due to their need for comfort, assurance, and courage in their constant state of war. Now, there is not so great a need as then, but this has been passed down as a reminder of where and what the Georgian people came from. Cultural anthropology is a study of people and their cultures today. In order to understand today, it is also important to understand what came before. What has come before us affects people in ways that are not always immediately apparent and history can give us clues as to why people behave the way they do.
Learning about others always makes me reflect on myself. What aspects of my own culture were passed to me from my ancestors? What can I learn about myself from learning about them? It could be said that my ancestors of pilgrims and cowboys have shaped the circumstances in which I was born and shaped my culture. What I do and how I act defines who I am just as it did for Tevia. I am grateful to those who came before me because just a part of them is what makes me who I am. It also makes me excited that part of me will live on in those that come after me. Perhaps my decedents will speak in the way I speak, or they will eat food that I have enjoyed. The present was made in the past and the future is made in the present.
The Mirisch Production Company presents a Norman Jewison film. Fiddler on the Roof. Santa Monica, CA :MGM Home Entertainment, 20011971.
Kendall, Bridget “Queen Tamar: The myth of a perfect ruler.” BBC Sounds, Dr. Ekaterine Gedevanishvili, Senior Researcher at the National Centre for the History of Georgian Art in Tbilisi; Alexander Mikaberidze, Professor of History at Louisiana State University; Dr. Sandro Nikolaishvili, researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, who works on retracing connections between the Byzantine and Georgian worlds; and Donald Rayfield, Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London, The Forum, 17 September 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3cszjvx