The mother tongue

If I had a pound for every time someone speaks to me in Russian, after telling them I am Georgian, I would be a millionaire. And of course, I smile back, appreciating the friendliness and good heart they mean it with, but only after correcting and informing them that Georgians speak Georgian, and it is different from every other language they have ever heard.

Having  spent most of my adult life away from my birthplace, I have assimilated to the world. As a cosmopolitan believing in the equality and richness of all languages and cultures, I know that I am saying this not because I am Georgian, but because it really is true – my mother tongue, Kartuli (Georgian), is unique. I am immensely proud of it and will keep telling its story to my last breath, to anyone willing to listen.

Standing out from the two largest family groups in the Eurasian continent – the Indo-European and the Cine-Tibetan languages, Kartuli has a tiny language family of its own.

Unrelated to any surrounding/neighbo-uring languages, with its own original, authentic script, rich and ancient literary, poetic and academic traditions, Georgian stands its ground firmly.

The oldest Georgian language artefact was found by Italian archaeologist, Virgilio Canio Corbo, near the Judaean Desert, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, on the mosaic floor of ruins of a Georgian monastery, and is dated 430 AD. The earliest palimpsests, or ancient manuscripts, that have survived the ruthless tides of history were found in the Mount Sinai Monastery and date back to 869. Over 12,000 palimpsests are preserved in museum and church treasuries, both in Georgia and abroad.

Many do not know that over 6,500 languages currently spoken in the world use only fourteen alphabets, one of them being Georgian.

There are in total three scripts that Kartuli has created throughout its history. The first one, called Asomtavruli, is the alphabet that many ancient manuscripts are written in and from which Nuskhuri evolved, circa IX-X century. Mkhedruli was created a bit later, around the XI century. All three are still functioning in Georgia in their different cultural, social and practical roles.

The significance of Georgian alphabets was recognised by UNESCO in 2016, by inscribing the living culture of the three writing systems of the Georgian alphabet on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Every year Georgians celebrate ‘Deda Ena’ day (the day of the mother tongue) and have a dedicated statue to the Mother Tongue in the Mother Tongue Garden in central Tbilisi.

The most predominant alphabet, Mkhedruli, is a source of fascination to linguists.  A phonetically perfect alphabet of 33 symbols designates each letter to one sound only, so that the letters are always pronounced the same way. There are no diphthongs, no silent letters, no capitals, no accents, apostrophes, niqqudim, umlauts, dots or other alterations, making Georgian spelling unbelievably easy: if you can pronounce the word correctly, you will always write and read correctly!

This pain-free orthography is made up for by Kartuli’s grammar, with seven noun cases, a vigesimal number system (the notion of the score in English) that only the Basque and Old French languages share, and the king of the jungle, the verb, with its unusual tense-modality-aspect categories. All this, despite the complete absence of grammatical gender, places Georgian among the most difficult languages in the world to learn. And for this reason alone, any attempts of tourists and expats at speaking Georgian is genuinely and gratefully cheered on by locals.

The mother tongue has become the strongest symbol of identity to the nation. The people have fought for it. Throughout centuries, various invaders have stripped Georgians of their wealth, their land, their dignity and even faith, but these people have never surrendered their language. During the Soviet regime, when Russian became the state language in the majority of Soviet republics, Georgia retained Kartuli as the official state language, demonstrating complete determination to defend it at all costs.

Every language is wrought by the history of the people, their land, their labour, their character, customs, mentality, faiths and attitudes. Languages are a testament to the things that matter to its native speakers. The incessant state of war in the country is reflected in Georgian greetings. There is no ‘hello’, ‘good morning’ or ‘good night’ here, instead it’s ‘victory to you’ or ‘morning of peace’ and ‘night of peace’.

The significance of kinship and friendship is expressed in Kartuli through many separate words for all members of the extended family, distinguishing different levels of closeness. Where English would use one term, such as ‘aunt’, ‘cousin’, ‘in-laws’ or ‘friend’, Georgian uses three, four or more words to specifically designate an aunt from the father’s side, the mother’s side, etc. clearly marking the origin of the specific relationship line and the level of attachment.

Georgian has the richest vocabulary for viticulture and drinking, for weather, agriculture, iron smithery, crafts, cattle and horse-breeding, knitting and dressmaking, for feasting, drinking and toast-making, familial relations and an unfathomable number of expressions for love and affection.

Kartuli is venerated by every generation in its own way. There is even an alphabet-ornamented jewellery brand in Tbilisi, called ‘Atare Anbani’ (Wear the Alphabet), designed to further emphasise the sanctity and value of the language.

So, on your next visit to Georgia, raise a glass to the one and only Kartuli, the eternal language, the heart, soul and lifeblood of Georgians (‘Kartvelebi’ in Georgian) and enjoy the reaction of your local hosts.

By Maya Zedelashvili-Nichols

Tbilisi – World Book Capital 2021

Tbilisi has been granted World Book Capital status by UNESCO – The official opening ceremony was held on the 23rd April, 2021, as Tbilisi officially took over the annual World Book Capital status from Kuala Lumpur. Within the framework of the project, various initiatives and programs are planned in Tbilisi that will significantly contribute to the development of the publishing and library sectors, as well as popularising literacy among children, and adults.

Over the period of a year, Tbilisi will host world renowned authors, publishers, and literary agents. Moreover, entertainment activities (book flea market, literary quest, CosPlays, etc.) will be arranged to ensure the involvement of lots of people, specifically children, in the process.

Project Concept
A book is energy, an adventure, a roadmap to knowledge and freedom.
A book is a source of intelligence, an ocean of emotions, and food for thought.
A book is an opportunity to be independent and self-confident. It is the possibility to think, enquire, explore, be strong and share the energy with others.
What is your next book?

Project Director, Ninia Macharashvili:

How did Tbilisi go about winning this title?’

– “The application required for the status was assigned by Tbilisi City Hall and filled out by the Union of Tbilisi Multifunctional Libraries. A few months after applying, UNESCO assessed our project with the highest score followed by the official draw-up of a collaboration memorandum between Tbilisi City Hall and UNESCO. We then started working on the project straight away.”

What does it mean for Georgia?

– “Tbilisi’s World Book Capital status will not only support the introduction of contemporary Georgian authors, but will also increase interest in reading books through different types of activities. In addition, this project will support areas directly or indirectly related to the book world.

From our point of view, a great society is created only by educated, progressive and free-thinking people, therefore, the list of projects submitted by us to UNESCO is designed for people of all age groups and interests.

Another challenge this will help us to overcome is that the Georgian language is not spoken and read by the majority of people outside of Georgia and our literature is not often translated into foreign languages. Therefore, one of our main goals is to overcome these shortcomings. I am confident that the world will become more familiar with our talented and unique authors by the end of the year.”

Street Art in Tbilisi
Several buildings in Tbilisi will be covered with literary illustrations. Georgian and international artists will take part in the project.

Literary Quest
A treasure hunt project that will include the whole city. The plan of the game will be based on a book. Any person or group of people will be able to participate in the treasure hunt.

Book Flea market
The flea market will be held four times over the course of the year. Following the leadership of a specific author, the activity will be arranged in different districts of Tbilisi, where the author will also sell books from his/her collection. Within the framework of the same event, culinary shows and other interactive activities will be held with the participation of the authors.

Literary CosPlay
This activity is a competition involving creating and displaying costumes of characters from the books. The activity will be held at Tbilisi International Book Festival and flea markets. Participants of the competition will win prizes from the sponsors. 

Urban Stories
Four literary-musical performances will be arranged throughout the year, when authors and musicians will perform together in the old districts of Tbilisi. The authors will read, while musicians will perform improvised songs and melodies.

Film and Books
In cooperation with the Georgian National Film Center, the Short Movie Scripts competition will be initiated. The creation of the adaptation of the literary work is the main focus point of this contest.

Participation at International Book Fairs and Literary Festivals
Georgian authors will participate in the Book Fairs of Paris, London, Leipzig, Bologna, and Frankfurt. The project aims to popularise Georgian literature and books.

130 Years Since the Birth of Galaktion Tabidze
The 130th anniversary of the birth of the great   Galaktion Tabidze will be celebrated in cooperation with the Giorgi Leonidze Literature Museum. The poet’s [until now] unknown material will be displayed from the archive during the event.

Opening of the Children’s Library & Children’s Book Festival
The first ever children’s library will be opened in Tbilisi as a part of this project.
The first Children’s Book Festival is also planned to take place.  Children’s literature and educational projects will be the main purpose of the festival. An exhibition of children’s books will be held, where various age-appropriate, educational products will be also displayed.

Interactive Books
The project aims to create interactive books based on Georgian publications for children, to arrange short, practical courses, and to share knowledge on technologies. The attendees will also learn to create games using the multiplatform game engine, Unity. The course is tailored for high school students and freshmen/sophomore university students.

Tbilisi International Book Fair (Professional Program for Foreign Publishers)
Within the framework of the World Book Capital project, the book fair will offer further opportunities: a professional program for foreign publishers will be included (fellowship program). A competition will be announced for foreign publishers and editors on both a regional and international level.

Tbilisi International Literary Festival
Famous international authors will visit Tbilisi during the International Literary Festival.

Literary Forum for Georgian and Foreign Publishers and Literary Agents
The forum aims to support the popularisation of Georgian literature abroad, as well as to promote foreign literature in Georgia. To that end, international and Georgian publishers, translators, literary agents, and writers will establish said network, and will plan further projects for future cooperation.

Enriching Public School Libraries with Books
Also included as part of the project, all public schools in Tbilisi will receive books for libraries to ensure that every pupil has the opportunity to read a new publication.

Library Conference
In cooperation with the National Library of the Parliament of Georgia, a conference will be hosted for local librarians. The event will be dedicated to discussing the main challenges the libraries faced during the pandemic.

International Conference for the Development of Publishing Sector
To discuss prevailing issues, an international conference will be arranged specifically for publishers. The main topics of the conference will be freedom of expression, royalties, intellectual rights and the publishing of textbooks.

Scholarship for Writers
A contest will be announced for creating new books, whereby a one-month scholarship will be granted to authors. The scholarship aims to support and develop the priorities and aspirations of modern Georgian literature. ​

Audiobook Fund
Audiobooks of modern Georgian authors and foreign literature translations will be created for people with disabilities. The books will be also published in braille font.

By Vazha Tavberidze

History of Tbilisi from Ancient Times to Modern Period. Part I.

Tbilisi is one of Europe’s oldest capitals. “Tbilisi is like a Janus: one face towards Asia, and the other towards Europe”, wrote Russian newspaper Zakavkazskiy Vestnik in 1847. Ideal geographical conditions have propelled Tbilisi into a prominent hub, not only between Europe and Asia, but also as a connection point between modern day Russia and the Middle East.

Tbilisi’s location conditioned the city’s urban and commercial development. It also influenced the direction of foreign invasions. The city’s central location in the Caucasus made its control the paramount goal for every invader. From Tbilisi, it was remarkably easier to control Caucasian passes used by barbarians to overrun the country. Tbilisi also allowed foreign troops to reach the Western part of Georgia, as well as the Eastern region which later became known as Kakheti.

But at the same time, Tbilisi’s topography complicated the establishment of continuous control over the city. Shaped like a large amphitheater surrounded by mountains on three sides, invading the city was easier than setting up a long-term presence. At the time, foreign presence was costly, both financially and in terms of human resources, Georgians would easily hit back from the surrounding territories. In a way, these physical conditions, favorable for controlling the valleys and repelling external threats, represented a significant obstacle for urban growth, whether in the Middle Ages or in recent times.

The city is located on the Mtkvari River at its dissection of the Trialeti and Kartli ranges. Located 120km south of the Great Caucasus Mountains, Tbilisi shares the same latitude as Rome and Barcelona. This is the reason for the city’s mild climate. However, the climate, topography, and hydrography have also given Tbilisi a unique cityscape, attractive panoramas, and distinctive architecture.

Founded in the mid-5th century, the capital of the Georgian kingdom was transferred to Tbilisi from Mtskheta. The city had a strategic position, controlling the route between Western and Eastern parts of the South Caucasus, as it’s known today. Legend has it that Tbilisi was first founded by King Vakhtang Gorgasali. He encountered numerous hot springs while hunting in the area – a new city was established in this area as a result. The city’s name, Tbilisi, means ‘a warm place’ in Georgian. But there is a much more historical record behind the founding of Tbilisi. Archaeology attests that the area around Tbilisi was inhabited well before the 5th century, as far back as the 4th millenium BC. Monetary finds of Asian and Black Sea coins on the territory of Tbilisi indicate that the space served as a busy commercial line from well before the transfer of the capital. What is certain is that under Vakhtang, the enlargement of city settlement took place, while his son, Dachi, is said to have made it the permanent capital. The new status also meant that the city began to expand and required reliable defence. Under Dachi, the expansion of the fortress wall that lined the city’s new boundaries took place. However, the commonly known Narikala fortress was likely established by Persians in the 4th century as a Sasanian citadel, and was known under the name of Shuris-tsikhe (‘Invidious Fort’). It was continuously reworked and expanded by subsequent foreign rulers such as the Umayyads in the 7th century and Georgian kings of the unified Georgian monarchy. The name Narikala, under which the fortress is commonly known nowadays, is first attested in the work of the German traveler Johann Anton Güldenstädt, who visited Georgia in the 70s of the 18th century.

Tbilisi was always considered as the commercial, territorial and political center of the region. When the Persians abrogated the kingdom of Kartli, the supreme government of the territory passed into the hands of the vice-regent of Shah – Marzban, the residence of which became Tbilisi.

From the mid-7th century, Kartli came under Arab rule. The governor of Arabs, Emir, ruled from Tbilisi and governed the conquered part of Georgia from there. In 735, Murvan Ibn-Mohamed conquered Tbilisi. Arabs imposed taxes on Tbilisi’s population. The city’s strategic and economic importance was also underlined in the early 8th century, when the first coin, called the Tbilisi-Arabian drahma, was issued by a minting institution in Tbilisi.

The city’s strategic location between Europe and Asia made it geopolitically vulnerable as rivalries between Persia, Byzantium, Arabia and the nomadic people from the Eurasian steppes were strong. Foreign domination was a feature of Tbilisi until the 12th century. In 1121, David Aghmashenebeli re-took the city from the centuries-old Arab control. Thence began a new history of the city – a veritable commercial hub, which was closely linked to the famous Silk Road, which then traversed the Middle East.

By Emil Avdaliani