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Georgia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Georgia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Natia Abramia

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Georgia lies between Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea. This small Caucasian country is used to playing a significant role in global geopolitics, and its strategic location at the crossroads of different civilizations has been a curse as well as a blessing. Once a battlefield of the Christian and Muslim


Georgia lies between Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea. This small Caucasian country is used to playing a significant role in global geopolitics, and its strategic location at the crossroads of different civilizations has been a curse as well as a blessing. Once a battlefield of the Christian and Muslim worlds, today it is caught between its NATO aspirations and its location in Russia’s backyard. The Silk Road brought the best of the world to Georgia. Its ancient Christian culture shows the influence of Arab, Persian, and Ottoman conquerors. Combined with this is a southern, “Mediterranean” feel, traces of the Soviet legacy, and a strong Western influence. What awaits the visitor is a unique culture that goes back thousands of years. Georgia has a rich historical heritage, wonderful food and wines, unforgettable scenery, authentic folk music and dances, an attractive business climate, and an educated and hospitable people for whom indulging a guest is more a religion than a duty. Culture Smart! Georgia offers invaluable insights and practical tips for tourists and business people alike. The author, Natia Abramia, guides you through the past and present-day realities of her motherland, explaining what makes people tick, how they live and feel, and how to get on with them. You will discover that the Georgians will not let you down. Learn how to reach their hearts, and they will charm you back.

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By Natia Abramia

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Natia Abramia
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-658-0




Georgia is situated at the junction of Eastern Europe and Western Asia in the region known as the Caucasus — Caucasia, as the locals call it. It shares borders with the Russian republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia to the north and northeast, with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey to the south. The shoreline of the Black Sea forms its western border.

With an area of 26,216 sq. miles (67,900 sq. km), Georgia has a dramatic and varied landscape, encompassing snowcapped mountains, valleys, glaciers, gorges, volcanic plateaus, hot springs, lakes, forests, subtropical wetlands on the coast, and semidesert plains in the southeast. It ranks among the world's top twelve countries for geographical diversity.

The northern border is formed by the Greater Caucasus mountain range, and the southern border by the Lesser Caucasus mountains. The Greater Caucasus is the higher of the two, with peaks rising to more than 16,404 feet (5,000 m) above sea level.

Georgia has about 25,000 rivers, flowing westward into the Black Sea and eastward through Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea. The most important river is the Mtkvari (also known by its Turkish name, Kura), which flows 847 miles (1,364 km) from northeast Turkey across the plains of eastern Georgia, through the capital Tbilisi and into the Caspian Sea.

Thanks to a benevolent climate and fertile soil, agriculture has always been important to Georgia. There are about a thousand mineral springs, the best known of which are the springs at Borjomi. For millennia Georgia has been famous for wine making, and today it produces hundreds of different wines. The Georgians have a creation story explaining how they came to be so blessed (see box overleaf).

If you should hear this story in Georgia, it will be told with some humor and a lot of pride: Georgians truly believe that they are chosen and that they got extremely lucky with their homeland. Compare this account to "God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands" and make your own judgment of the national character.


Georgia's temperature varies widely because of its diverse landscape, but in general the country has all four seasons: summers are very hot; fall is warm and sunny; winters are white, and give way quickly to exhilarating springs. If you like the idea of living in a sunny country with breathtaking fall foliage and an occasional snowfall, this is the place to be.

The climate is moderated by the Greater Caucasus mountain range, which serves as a barrier against cold air from Siberia. The climatic zones are determined by their distance from the Black Sea and by altitude; warm, moist air spreads inland from the Black Sea.

Tbilisi is moderately humid and subtropical, with relatively cold winters and hot summers: January is the coldest month, July the hottest, and May the wettest. An average January temperature is 33.6°F (0.9°C). In July it reaches 75.9°F (24.4°C). The absolute minimum recorded temperature is –9°F (–23°C) and the absolute maximum is 104°F (40°C). Snow falls on average 15 to 25 days a year. Tbilisi is beautiful when it's wrapped in white.

In west Georgia, the climate is subtropical up to about 2,133 ft (650 m); above that altitude (and to the north and east) is a band of moist and moderately warm weather, then a band of cool and wet conditions. In the eastern part of the country summer temperatures average 68°F (20°C) to 75.2°F (24°C), winter temperatures 35.6°F (2°C) to 39.2°F (4°C). Humidity is lower, and rainfall averages 19.7 to 31.5 in (500 to 800 mm) a year.

All over the country March is the only month with totally unpredictable weather: it might be sunny in the morning, windy in the afternoon, and rainy in the evening. So, when describing impulsive characters, Georgians often say that they are like the sky in March.


According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, in 2011 the population of the country was 4,469,200, out of which 1,162,400 lived in Tbilisi.

Genetic studies classify Georgians as Caucasoid. The country's main genetic group is one that is also found in Greece and Italy.


According to the 2002 census, 83.8 percent of the population are Georgian Orthodox. Fewer than 10 percent are Muslim; because of Persian influence East Georgian Muslims are Shias, mainly Azerbaijani and North Caucasian ethnic communities. West Georgian Muslims on the Black Sea coast are Sunni and are strongly linked with Turkey. The Armenian Apostolic Church accounts for 3.9 percent, most of whom are ethnic Armenians living near the border with Armenia, where they constitute the majority of the local population.

Jews have lived in Georgia since ancient times, and a number of Jewish communities still exist across the country. After two major waves of emigration, in the 1970s and late 1980s, only one-twelfth of the country's previous Jewish population — around eight thousand individuals — remain in Georgia.

Regions and Subcultures

Georgia is divided into nine regions, one city, and three autonomous republics, two of which are not under the control of Tbilisi. The natural barriers presented by the Lesser Caucasus mountain range have had a strong influence on the cultural and linguistic differences between the Georgian regions. History has also played its part in fostering diversity between subgroups. After the medieval period Georgia broke up into several states that were often at war with one another.

The process of nation formation has been a complex one, and the Georgian people today comprise a colorful set of subgroups, each with its own characteristic traditions, manners, dialect, and, in the case of Mingrelians and Svans, their own language.

Because of the high elevation and poor roads, the mountainous regions of Svaneti, Mtiuleti, and Khevi are virtually cut off from the outside world during the long winters. The villagers there are ascribed particular characteristics, and are often the butt of jokes by other Georgians. People say, for example, that if a Svan's feet hurt because his shoes are too small, he'll think that what he needs is a painkiller. Another joke is that Svans will keep their computer mouse locked away so the cat doesn't eat it.

People in eastern and central Georgia are said to be thoughtful, direct, quiet, and earnest, but a little dim-witted; they've somehow earned the reputation of being slow on the uptake. Western Georgians — Imeretians, Gurians, Mingrelians, and Ajarians — on the other hand, are considered to be more lighthearted and to have a better sense of humor — with the caveat that they might not be as open and honest as their eastern brothers. Such perceptions have never been evaluated objectively, but there are hundreds of jokes and anecdotes about these differences, which Georgians like to tell to their guests and to each other.


Sir Fitzroy MacLean, the Scottish soldier, writer, and diplomat who was posted to the British Embassy in Moscow in the 1930s, made many unauthorized journeys to the eastern USSR. It has been speculated that he was one of Ian Fleming's inspirations for James Bond. This is how he described Tbilisi in his 1949 book Eastern Approaches. Back then it was known as Tiflis:

"Tiflis ... has a graceful quality, a southern charm, an air of leisure, which I had so far found nowhere else in the Soviet Union. In the old city the houses, crazy structures with jutting verandas, hang like swallows' nests from the side of a hill. Beneath them a mountain stream tumbles its rushing waters and more houses cluster on the far side. Where the valley opens out a broad avenue leads to the newer part of the town, built by the Russians after the conquest of Georgia a century ago . ... Half of the charm of Tiflis lies in its people. They are southerners and wine drinkers, mountaineers and fighters. They combine a truly Mediterranean expansiveness and vivacity with the dash and hardiness of the Highlander. As a race, they are strikingly good-looking: the men dark, wiry and aggressive in their long cloaks and sheepskin hats on the side of their heads; the women high-breasted and dark-eyed, with straight classical features. Racially they are neither Slavs, like the Russians, nor Turks, like the Tartars, but belong to a race of their own with its own ancient language and customs."

Situated on the banks of the Mtkvari (Kura) River, Tbilisi occupied a strategic position at the crossroads of important Silk Road trade routes, and has been influenced by many rival powers and empires. It has been destroyed and rebuilt around twenty-nine times, and the city's history is apparent in its architecture. Central Tbilisi is a mixture of different styles, including the narrow streets of the medieval Kala district, the ruins of the Narika fortress guarding the city, the ancient Turkish baths, and Paris/Hausmann-inspired Rustaveli Avenue featuring the Moorish-style Opera House.

The urban architecture also carries strong reminders of the Soviet era, with modern housing developments alongside the massive buildings of the "Stalin period" and identical blocks of "Khrushchev apartments" that were built quickly and cheaply for Soviet families.


The Georgians call themselves Kartvelebi, and their land Sakartvelo. These names are derived from a mythical king, Kartlos, said to be the father of all Georgians. According to the Georgian Chronicles Kartlos was the great-grandson of the biblical Japhet, one of Noah's sons. The name Georgia, used throughout Western Europe, is mistakenly believed to come from the country's patron saint, St. George. The country actually got its foreign name from the Greeks, who were impressed by the way the Georgians worked the land (earth is geo in Greek). Other names for Georgia are Gurj in Turkish and Gruzin in Slavic languages.

The first Georgian state, the kingdom of Colchis, came into being in the eleventh century BCE, along the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Colchis civilization flourished with the development of smelting and metal casting. Sophisticated farming implements were developed and the fertile, well-watered lowlands and mild climate contributed to the growth of advanced agricultural techniques. In the sixth and fifth centuries BCE the ancient Greeks established trading cities on the Black Sea coast. In time the kingdom of Colchis disintegrated, but a successor kingdom known as Egrisi continued until the seventh century CE. Shortly before Colchis disintegrated, the kingdom of Kartli (known as Iberia to classical writers), was established in east Georgia with its capital in Mtskheta. Kartli and Colchis shared a common fate under Roman and Persian invaders. The history of Kartli would be dominated by the power struggle between the neighboring empires.

The first king of Kartli was Parnavaz I, whose story is saturated with legendary imagery and symbolism. According to medieval sources, this model pre-Christian monarch ruled in the third century BCE. His paternal uncle was a leader of the Georgian tribes around Mtskheta; it is believed that his mother was Iranian. The story of Parnavaz, although written by a Christian chronicler, is reminiscent of an ancient Iranian myth. The young Parnavaz's family was destroyed and his inheritance usurped by Azon, according to various sources a local ruler's son who was installed as king of Kartli by Alexander the Great during his campaign there (which the Greek historians did not, however, record).

Parnavaz was brought up fatherless, but was encouraged to undertake heroic deeds by a magical dream, in which he anointed himself with the essence of the sun. He then set off and went hunting. In pursuit of a deer, he came across a mass of treasure stored in a hidden cave. Parnavaz retrieved the treasure and used it to raise a loyal army against the tyrannical Azon. He was aided by Kuji, lord of Egrisi (previously Colchis), who eventually married Parnavaz's sister. Azon was defeated and killed, and Parnavaz became king of Kartli at the age of twenty-seven. He supervised the erection in Mtskheta of the idol of Armazi (supreme deity in the pre-Christian Georgian pantheon), and the construction of a similarly named fortress. He is also alleged to have invented the Georgian alphabet.

The Coming of Christianity

In the fourth century Christianity became the state religion of the kingdom of Kartli, at that time ruled by King Mirian III.

With the adoption of Christianity, Kartli and Egrisi forged political ties with the Eastern Roman (later the Byzantine) Empire, which exerted a strong cultural influence over them. The kingdom of Kartli, however, fell under Persian control for long periods throughout the fifth century.

According to Donald Rayfield, professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, before the tenth century Georgian history is composed of legends, myths, and stories that are possible but not probable.

In the tenth century Bagrat III (978–1014) gradually united the Georgian kingdoms and lands, becoming the first king of Qartvelta Samefo — the Kingdom of Georgians. The Bagrationi dynasty, said to have descended from the biblical King David, ruled continuously until the end of the eighteenth century, when the Russian Empire dethroned the heir. They were the longest ruling dynasty in Europe.

By the late seventh century, Byzantine–Persian rivalry for control of the Middle East had given way to the Arab conquest of the region. In the second half of the eleventh century, Arab invaders and Seljuq Turks devastated most of Georgia, to such an extent that by the end of the 1080s they outnumbered Georgians there.

David Agmashenebeli (1073–1125) led the struggle against the Seljuq invaders. The sixteen-year-old heir of the Bagrationi royal family acceded to the throne in 1089. After a successful military campaign he liberated most of the Georgian lands apart from the capital, Tbilisi. In 1121, the Seljuq Sultan Mahmud declared jihad on Georgia and sent a large army to fight the Georgians. Although significantly outnumbered by the Turks, the Georgians managed to defeat them at the Battle of Didgori, and took Tbilisi — the last remaining Muslim enclave in the area formerly under Arab occupation. "David the Builder" ushered in a reign of enlightened religious tolerance and established institutions of learning. His successors continued the policy of expansion by subordinating most of the mountain clans and tribes of the North Caucasus.

David's great-granddaughter, Queen Tamar (1160–1213), was the most glorious sovereign of medieval Georgia. First co-regent with her father, and then ruler in her own right, she created a strong feudal monarchy that controlled a great pan-Caucasian empire. Her era is considered the golden age of Georgian history, marked by political and military achievements and the development of culture, architecture, literature, philosophy, and sciences.

The Mongols invaded Georgia in the 1220s, along with the South Caucasus and Asia Minor. Georgian King George V "the Brilliant" expelled them, united the country, and converted the pagans of the mountain regions to Christianity. In the later fourteenth century the Islamic Turko-Mongol conqueror of Asia, Tamerlane (Timur-e Lang, or Timur the Lame) raided Georgia on eight occasions, devastating the economy, slaughtering the population, and sacking its cities. Although Tamerlane was not able to defeat the Georgians decisively, he dealt the country a crippling blow. By the middle of the fifteenth century, most of Georgia's old neighbor-states had disappeared from the map. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 isolated the Georgians from the rest of the Christian world.

From the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire and a new Muslim power, Safavid Persia, divided the Georgian lands between themselves. In the next few hundred years Georgia would become a battleground for these rival powers. The west fell to the Turks and the east to the Persians. Tens of thousands of Georgians were killed or deported to Persia by the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas.

The Russian Empire

By the seventeenth century, as the result of constant warfare, both east and west Georgia had sunk into poverty. Erekle II (1720–98), king of East Georgia, or Kartl-Kakheti, turned to Russia and in 1783 signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, according to which Kartl-Kakheti would receive Russian protection against Ottoman and Persian attacks. But the Russians soon withdrew their troops from the region for use elsewhere. In 1795, the Persian Shah, Agha Mohammad Khan, invaded the country and razed the capital, Tbilisi, to the ground.

The Georgian rulers still felt they had nobody else to turn to, and in 1789 the ailing King George XII sent envoys to ask Russia for protection once again. In the midst of negotiations, however, in 1801, Tsar Paul I of Russia signed a decree unilaterally incorporating East Georgia into the Russian Empire, abolishing the Bagrationi dynasty and the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In 1810, the west Georgian kingdom of Imereti was annexed by Tsar Alexander I. As a result of numerous Russian wars against Turkey and Persia, several formerly independent Georgian territories were occupied by the Russians. So Georgia was reunified for the first time in centuries, but had lost its liberty.


Excerpted from Georgia by Natia Abramia. Copyright © 2016 Natia Abramia. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Natia Abramia is a Georgian journalist based in London. Before joining the BBC she worked in Tbilisi as a TV presenter and reporter covering news and current affairs. She also taught Conflict Reporting at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, and worked as an interpreter for high-profile negotiations and top-level meetings. After completing an MA in International Journalism at Cardiff University, Natia went on to produce TV documentaries, including films in the Balkans and Kashmir, an interview with the Dalai Lama, and features on multiculturalism and diversity. Currently she trains journalists in multi-platform production and works as a producer on flagship programs at the BBC World Service.

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