At the west end of the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia is the home of an ancient Christian kingdom, and of a people speaking a non-Indo-European language, which has affinities with other Caucasian languages, but none elsewhere. The Roman client states of Colchis/Lazica and Iberia had long been in existence when they converted to Christianity around 330. A unique alphabet was created for their unique language about the same time that the same thing was done for Armenian -- in fact it is supposed to have been done by the same person, St. Mesrop. The modern alphabet, as seen above, is a more recent creation. Unlike Monophysite Armenia, Georgia adopted the principles of the Ecumenical Councils, the Roman Catholic Church at the time, or the Greek Orthodox Church now. Subsequently, like Armenia, Iberia was often under Persian control, while Lazica remained Roman in the ongoing Persian tug-of-war with Romania (and another Georgian state, Abasgia, was independent).
This list begins about the time Iberia came back under Roman protection. Briefly under the Persians again, a much longer period of foreign rule commenced with the Islâmic conquest. Part of Georgia, Abasgia, became independent first. When Iberia followed, it was for a time even under Abasgian rule, but then Abasgia and Iberia were unified in what might be called the first complete state of Georgia.
The Seljuk Turks only occupied part of Georgia, and were expelled from the rest by David II. Georgia was then largely unmolested until the Mongols arrived, when, like any sensible small state, it became a client. The Mongol grip loosened, but then Tamerlane arrived, intent on terrorizing the small Christian kingdom. Aftewards, Georgia was then relatively unmolested again, until it became a plaything of the new Empires, Safavid Persia, Ottoman Turkey, and Tsarist Russia. In the 18th century, there were new Georgian kings, but the Russians eventually did away with the line.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia is again independent. Its President ended up being the well known figure, formerly the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze. Nevertheless life has not been easy. Abkhazia (the old Abasgia) fought a nasty civil war for independence and did gain autonomy. The Ossetians, descendants of the Alans, also have been aggitating, and fighting, for union with the other Ossetian region that remained in Russia.
Although Georgia now may be best known for Shevardnadze, the most important Georgian ever will always have a much more sinister fame: Josef Stalin, born Iosif Dzhugashvili. It is not clear that Stalin spared his homeland any of the ferocity that he consistently applied elsewhere. That would have been, in the finest Marxist-Leninist terms, "bourgeois sentimentality."
The Abkhazian language, as it happens, is not actually Georgian, but an unrelated language from another Causasian language group, of which there seem to be three. Abkhazian is related to Kabardian, better known as Circassian -- the source of famous slave troops, like the Mamlûks, in Mediaeval Islâm. The languages have extraordinarily large sets of consonsants and few vowels. The best known language in the third unique language group is probably Chechen, whose speakers have been fighting a nasty independence war against Russia. Georgian and these other related and unrelated languages of the Caucasus are the last examples of non-Indo-European and non-Semitic languages in the Middle East. They may be the remnants of once extensive ancient language families, which could have included the languages of the kingdoms of Sumer, Elam, and Urart.u, as well as of the Hurrians and the Kassites. Except for Sumerian and Elamite, however, these languages are poorly attested, and many years separate the last examples of Sumerian and Elamite from the first attested examples of the Caucasian languages. I have heard about some affinities, even with the Dravidian languages, but I do not have recent scholarly sources that express any confidence about such things. On the other hand, Georgian is an "ergative" language, like Basque, the surviving non-Indo-European language of Western Europe, which could well have been related to the known ancient non-Indo-European language, Etruscan. In ergative languages, the subject of intransitive verbs is marked in the same case ("absolutive") as the objects of transitive verbs. The subject of a transitive verb is then in the "ergative" case. This "ergative/absolutive" distinction contrasts with the "nominative/accusative" distinction of Indo-European (and Semitic) languages. That Basque could be related to Causasian languages is always possible, but nothing has been demonstrated with any certainty. All these mysteries highlight how much information was lost about human history before such things started getting preserved in historical records.
This list is based on Bruce R. Gordon's Regnal Chronologies. Some of the dates he gives seem inconsistent with other sources about Georgian history, and the numbering is a little mysterious (two David II's), but I have never seen any other list of Iberian or Georgian kings elsewhere. Good linguistic information about the Caucasus is in The Atlas of Languages (Facts On File, 1996, pp.50-52). For specifics, I have used Georgian, A Reading Grammar by Howard I. Aronson (Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1989).
Georgia, like Armenia, a kingdom with an ancient history, is not only poorer than Armenia but has lost territory rather than gained any. The northwestern province of Abkhasia and Southern Ossetia on the north central border both broke away. The fighting involved in this was beyond the resources of Georgia, and in 1993 Russia itself had to be brought back in to restore some kind of order. This is still not all settled, and meanwhile fighting spills over the border from Chechnya, with Russians in pursuit. Recently, advisors arrived from the United States to help train the Georgian army. Not long after independence Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev and a familiar international figure, became President of Georgia. His tenure must have seemed a sad and humiliating business, with the scope of his purview so reduced, and his country not even able to maintain its own integrity. This must seem an especially cruel irony when in the history of the Soviet Union itself, the most powerful and dominant ruler was himself a Georgian, Josef Stalin (Iosif Dzhugashvili). In November 2003, however, Shevardnadze resigned, after massive protests, the "rose revolution," against corruption and an alleged rigged parliamentary election. He was succeeded as Acting President by the Speaker of the Parliament, a woman, Nino Burdzhanadze. In January, 2004, Mikhail Saakashvili, an American educated lawyer, has been inaugurated as President. A new flag has accompanied Mr. Saakashvili, featuring the Cross of St. George and smaller smaller crosses in each quarter. Although the former flag had long symbolized an independent Georgia, and had not been used in the Soviet era, the overtly Christian symbolism of new flag has evidently come to be prefered. Other flags, with green, orange, and burgundy colors substituted for the red, are seen. Meanwhile, in the United States, a man of Georgian heritage, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997.
One wonders what the future holds for both Armenia and Georgia, as remote and isolated as they are, in an area with little history of economic development, democratic government, or liberal society. Yet it is a spectacular area.
Although remote and obscure, the Caucasus nevertheless somehow became the eponym in traditional racial clasifications for the "white" race. For some time, the area was certainly a prefered source for white slaves for the Ottoman Empire, including Christian boys, typically Circassians, who were converted to Islam and impressed into the elite Janissary corps of the Turkish army. "Racial" classifications of the human race are now out of favor, but it has also become evident that the traditional division, between just "Caucasoid," "Negroid," and "Mongoloid," actually doesn't fit the facts very well. Modern genetic mapping shows that South-East Asians and Pacific Islanders form a group clearly distinct from other East Asians or American Indians. East Asians, American Indians, and "Caucasians" are all more closely related to each other than to South-East Asians and Pacific Islanders. Nevertheless, the traditional "Caucasoid" group, including people from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India, does form an identifiable genetic branch of humanity, with the Caucasus roughly at the crossroads. Calling this "white," however, would be a misnomer, since people in India, although with identifiable "Caucasoid" features, can have very, very dark skins. Dark skin, indeed, occurs independently in Africa, in India, in Melanesia, and in Australia.
Chechen belongs to the Nakh-Daghestanian family, which also has the largest number of surviving languages.
Confined to the Caucasus, these languages appear like islands in a sea of extensive and more familiar language groups -- as Basque is isolated in the Pyrenees. The Middle East, however, has a past with many more such unrelated languages. In a broad swath from the south, we have the ancient Elamites, Sumerians, Kassites, Guti, Hurrians, and Urartuans, all of whose languages are distinct from the Semitic, Indo-European, and Altaic languages that later dominate. They have all disappeared utterly. Since the Caucasian languages, except for Georgian, are poorly attested before the modern era, there are obstacles to comparing them with the ancient languages, however much we might suspect affinities. Speculation links Sumerian to the Dravidian languages in India, but this may have more to do with Indian nationalism than with the evidence, which is as thin for ancient antecedents of the Dravidian languages as it is for the Caucasian. The surviving Caucasian language families, if nothing else, testify to the linguistic complexity of the ancient Middle East and remind us how much information is lost in the march of history.
The list and discription of the language families in the Caucasus is mainly from The Atlas of Languages (Facts On File, 1996, pp.50-52).