Archives for posts with tag: Turkey

Two (Relatively) Recent Mainstream Novels about the Armenian Genocide: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

I’ve recently read two novels about the Armenian genocide and its rippling effects on the Turkish and Armenian families who witnessed it. One of these novels was written by a Turk, the other by an Armenian (though both the writers have global biographies). The writing styles and literary genres of the books were different, as were (obviously) the plots, but nonetheless there were undeniable similarities between the two books. Both were powerful and compelling reads. While The Bastard of Istanbul had a dreamy feel to it, Orhan’s Inheritance was more of a page-turner. Both are recommended, though the different styles are likely to appeal to different readers.

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The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (image from GoodReads)

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul: A Novel. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and e-book editions; English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops.

The Bastard of Istanbul tells the story of the many generations of the Kazanci family, particularly the women including their youngest member, Asya (most of the men have mysteriously or tragically died). Entwined with this family’s saga is Armanoush and her family’s own tale. Armanoush is an Armenian-American who decides to secretly visit her grandmother’s home city of Istanbul as a way to better understand her Armenian heritage. She contacts her stepfather Mustafa’s family, the Kazancis, and she and Asya become friends despite Armanoush’s (and her online community’s) skepticism of Turks. Asya’s mystical Auntie Banu becomes curious about the truth of the Armenian genocide and consults her djinn to show her the truth of Armanoush’s family…and later to reveal her own family’s secrets. A family emergency in America leads Armanoush’s mother and step-father to come to Istanbul, the stepfather’s first visit in 20 years, where Auntie Banu’s knowledge brings old events to a head, leading to shocking events that permanently change both families.

I particularly liked the structure of this book–with each chapter titled with the name of an ingredient that is used in Mustafa’s favorite food, ashure. The titular ingredient of each chapter also make an appearance within the chapter, and a recipe for ashure is provided in the latter part of the book. This dish even plays an important role in the plot. Other foods are also described in mouth-watering detail. This is very much a novel for foodies.

The author Elif Shafak was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” because of this book. If you like reading as a way of fighting the power, this novel is a great choice.

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Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (image from GoodReads)

Ohanesian, Aline. Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2015. Kindle e-book.

Availability: Available in the US (physical and e-book) and UK (physical book); English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops

Orhan’s Inheritance made many lists of the best books of 2015, which is where I first heard of it. Like The Bastard of Istanbul, the novel features a multi-generational Turkish family, though unlike the Kazanci family, the Turkoglu family is oddly lacking in women. When the family’s patriarch, the title character Orhan’s grandfather, passes away, his will leaves the family home in the village to an Armenian woman no one has ever heard of. Orhan travels to an Armenian retirement home in California, where he meets his grandfather’s surprise heir, Seda Melkonian, and ultimately learns her story which gives him the explanation as to why his grandfather has left the house to her.

Much more of the action of this novel is set in the past as Seda’s story is told. Her story is, unsurprisingly, quite upsetting, but Ohanesian’s writing is compelling, and I wanted to get through the tragedies to find out how Seda lived and learn the mystery of why she inherited the house and how she came to be living in California.

One thing I particularly liked in this book was the interactions between the characters from different ethnic groups, both in the past and in the present. All the characters had flaws, and many were prejudiced against other ethnicities, but in the end the main characters were all people and recognized the human core in others, even when they disagreed. In this way, Ohanesian makes an argument for tolerance, even when the past cannot be forgotten.

I went to Tao-Klarjeti a few weeks ago. If you chose to take a break and look for that on a map, you may be very confused at this point. Tao-Klarjeti isn’t the name of anywhere anymore. It was the region where the Bagrationi dynasty of Georgian monarchs were from, and now it’s part of Turkey; the places we visited were mostly in Artvin province. It’s a pretty popular destination for Georgians to go on tours, but not somewhere many Americans visit, so when a friend asked if I wanted to join, I said “Why not?”. We went on an organized, but not guided, tour. We had two mini vans full of people, including a professional driver for each, and the organizer. The drivers were very good and did not suffer from lead foot or road rage, and the organizer had a route worked out and pre-arranged cheap hotels. We paid 270 GEL/person for a 3-day trip, which included everything except food–we didn’t stop at restaurants or stores (though one evening we went to a teahouse and bought some olives and baklava); we brought pretty much everything with us from Tbilisi, and ate in the car en route.

We left Tbilisi early in the morning and made for the Vale-Türkgözü border crossing. There was a long line of trucks, but very few passenger cars, so they let us skip ahead and we crossed quite quickly. It was interesting to see the change as we crossed the border. The geography in the region was the same on the Georgian and Turkish sides, but nonetheless it was obvious that we were in a different country–the cemeteries were different, the houses were a different style, and there were tractors and mechanized agriculture all around us. As we drove further into Turkey we got into higher and higher mountains. There was still quite a bit of snow, and we were even caught in a blizzard in the mountains between Ardahan and Savsat. There was some sort of nature reserve or natural park in the mountains, and it reminded me of the American West–pine forests, rugged mountains, and well-maintained picnic areas. As we drove through a village on the Savsat side, one whole village was outside (despite the poor weather) having some sort of festival.

Late in the afternoon, we made our first stop: Tbeti Monastery, the first of many old, abandoned Georgian churches in various states of ruin. Apparently this church survived fairly well for a long time, but was “exploded” in the mid-20th century…sounds like there’s a story there, but I didn’t get any more information than that. One of the villagers speaks some Georgian and runs a little souvenir shop (and paid toilet) next to the site. Next, we stopped at Savsat Kalesi, the former citadel of the town of Savsat (in Georgian, შავშეთი/Shavsheti) which was kind of a big deal back in the Georgian era. There are archeological excavations ongoing sponsored by the Turkish government. The fortress has some typically Georgian features–there’s a tone (traditional Georgian bread kiln) and kvevri (Georgian amphorae), and a “pharmacy” very similar to the one at Vardzia. Then we took a break from historical sites and clambered around “Hell’s Canyon” (Cehennem Deresi Kanyonu). It was a nice enough canyon, I suppose, but as I’ve spent a lot of time in the American West, a canyon in and of itself is nothing so impressive. This was the place where it became abundantly clear that our organizer’s footwear recommendations were way off the mark. She had recommended galoshes or rain boots, which I don’t have, so I wore what was closest: snow boots. Even though my snow boots are made by an outdoors/hiking brand, they are absolute clodhoppers, and I had real difficulty maneuvering through the canyon and leaping from stone to stone. I also picked up a good few kilos of mud in the treads, making me kind of miserable. But I made it through. Our next stop was the fortress Artanuji / Gevhernik. We approached from behind, and it was perched atop a sheer rock face. When my friend told me we were climbing up there, I joked about not having brought any rock climbing gear. We walked around to the other side, and though there was a path (of a sort) it was still tough climbing in the aforementioned clodhoppers. It was worth the climb, as the fortress was filled with wildflowers, and was really, really beautiful.

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Artanuji Fortress

After one more stop at Dolishane Church, which is supposed to have lovely frescoes, but I couldn’t tell you as it was pitch black by the time we got there, we returned to the town of Savsat and stayed in a pension run by a guy called Jemal, who is the widower of a Georgian woman and loves all things Georgia. The place was basic, but clean (until we tramped mud through), and the beds were comfy and showers were warm.

The next day, I ignored any further fashion advice and switched to my trail runners, so I had no further climbing issues. First, we drove up a narrow, windy, frightening/beautiful mountain road to Porta monastery.  We saved some time getting there by scrambling up a stream bed rather than following the path. This was once a massive complex; now much of it is buried, but bits are still accessible. The ground we stood on was once one of the upper roofs. Apparently a large piece of the dome (which is still above ground) had fallen just a few days before our visit, so I was rather wary of exploring very much. It was also interesting that the village is still inhabited, and though it’s tiny and remote, electric lines do reach up there.

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You can understand why bits of Porta are falling down, right?

We also visited the village spring to refill our water bottles with cool fresh water. The Georgians said it had some special health/religious properties, but I was mostly happy to get a cool drink.

Our next stop was Artvin Castle, which is now part of a Turkish military base (so no photos). At first they told us we couldn’t enter, but then a nice young soldier who spoke very good English came to escort us. On the road to our next destination, there was a distinct change in the landscape. The area around Savsat was one of the lushest, greenest places I’ve visited (we drove past a hotel called Green Valley: they were not lying), and as we went further on, the landscape become much more arid (and brown). We visited many churches this afternoon: Ishan Monastery, which was closed for restoration–the Georgian government has protested the way the Turks were renovating, allegedly frescoes were destroyed, but they seem to be back at work; Haho/Hahuli which is now used as a mosque; there are supposed to be good frescoes, but it was locked so we couldn’t see; and the Oshki Monastery, which was relatively intact except for the lack of roof, and also had an academy. Our last stop of the evening was  Tortum Waterfall, the highest in Turkey, which had rather nice tourism infrastructure and cafes. We were due to spend the night in the town of Yusufeli, so we wandered around a bit, bought some edible souvenirs, and met and chatted with a Georgian Turk in a teahouse. We then proceeded on to our accommodation at Hotel Agara, which was lovely, and a sakalmakhe (საკალმახე, trout restaurant) as well as a hotel. This day was particularly poignant as much of the area surrounding these places, apparently including the town of Yusufeli, will soon be flooded with the completion of planned dam projects. I’m not sure about the status of the historical sites themselves, though the ones on mountaintops are likely to be fine.

On the third and final day of our trip, we began at the Tekkale/Otkhta Monastery (the “Monastery of Four”), then visited Esbek, which was interesting as it was the ruins of a village, rather than a religious site. Apparently snakes like it there, though, so we had to be careful. There was also quite a view down into the valley. Then we visited Bana, my favorite of the old churches. It was really, really, ruined, but in a very picturesque way. Apparently its current gravity-defying structure is the result of being used as a military installation in the Crimean and Russo-Turkish wars. It’s also located on a small rise in the middle of a broad valley surrounded on all sides by colorful mountains, giving you stunning views in all directions.

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Ruins at Bana

One of the mini-vans got a flat tire at Bana, so we had to stop for repairs before we went on our way home. Along the road we saw the source of the Mtkvari, the river through Tbilisi. Our last stop was Seytan Castle (allegedly the setting of Georgia’s most famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther Skin).

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You remember “Where’s Waldo?”, right? This is “Where’s Em?” at Seytan Castle

We crossed back to Georgia at the Çıldır-Aktaş-Kartsakhi crossing point, which the internet says is closed, but seemed to work mostly fine for us (one of our drivers had a little trouble and was taken for interrogation because he had the same name as someone on the deportation list…it got sorted out, though). We returned to Tbilisi late at night, tired from a jam-packed three days of sightseeing.

I can’t write a post about traveling in Turkey and ignore the security/terrorism question. I thought long and hard before I chose to take this trip, and asked a lot of questions. I’m lucky that I have friends who are experts on security in the region, and family who support me in making these kinds of decisions. Just before I went to Tao-Klarjeti, the US State Department updated its Turkey travel warning, and it is kind of grim, so I debated this trip a lot. On the one hand, I really don’t want to get hurt, and on the other hand, I believe that staying at home, not going anywhere or doing anything out of fear is playing into the hands of terrorists. In summary: this particular area neither has much of a Kurdish population, nor is it near Syria, so in those ways it’s not a likely target. This is also a very sparsely populated area: the most populous town we spent any time in was Artvin, with a population of 25,771. I could count the number of other tourists we came across on my fingers. However, as this area was the Soviet-NATO border, there are a large number of military installations, and there is also a good amount of strategic infrastructure, particularly dams and reservoirs, which I was unaware of before I traveled. To be honest, there’s much more immediate danger from road accidents than there is from terrorism–the mountain roads were very steep and windy, though much better maintained than their Georgian equivalents. Overall, I didn’t feel that I was in any particular danger while I was there. My conclusion was (and is) that this is probably the safest area of Turkey to visit right now, but it’s not without risks (but even home is never 100% safe).

My Grandmother (Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother
(Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother: A Memoir by Fethiye Çetin 

Çetin, Fethiye. My Grandmother: A Memoir. Trans. Maureen Freely. London: Verso, 2008. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions; originally published in Turkish, and translated into many other languages.

I’m publishing this post today as April 24, 2015 is the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (It’s also my birthday, so…yeah). This memoir was significant as the first book in Turkey to break the silence surrounding the Armenian Genocide. Because of the intended audience, the story shies away from discussing the politics or the big picture, and focuses on one woman’s life and stories. Fethiye Çetin’s grandmother, our main character, lived as a formidable Turkish housewife and materfamilias, but she had hidden her Armenian identity and past, and only revealed it to her granddaughter late in life. Çetin discusses her own reactions to her grandmother’s revelations: the challenge she felt to her Turkish identity, and her confusion over how such tragedies could square with her view of Islam. She also mentions her distant American cousin’s similarly tumultuous reaction to meeting her, a relative who identified as Turkish, and his feelings on the complicated situation. “All my life I’ve been afraid of Turks. I nurtured a deep hatred of them. Their denial has made things even worse. Then I found out that you were part of our family but Turkish at the same time.” (p. 113). This quotation captures what I think is the real message of the book. Though it’s a book about the Armenian Genocide, it’s more a book advocating love over hate, and illustrating that ethnicity is not so important as humanity. (Çetin is a lawyer and human rights advocate in addition to memoirist, so this squares with what I imagine to be her goals). Çetin’s love for her grandmother glows through every word. This makes reading about an incredibly difficult topic so much easier. The writing style is simple and clear, the right choice for this kind of book and message. It’s a relatively easy read (in terms of skill, not emotion): I finished it in an afternoon. Recommended, particularly as a first source on the Armenian Genocide.

at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

This post is long-overdue, but when I returned from Easter weekend in Istanbul, I was distracted by all the drama in Georgia.  Now, of course, Istanbul has it’s own drama ongoing (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, catch up here or at any major news source).  Because of the protests in Istanbul, don’t follow my itinerary without doing some research and figuring out how the political situation will affect your travels.  Here’s the current update from the US State Department.  Now that I’ve said that, I talked to a friend who was in town as a tourist last week, and he said that the tourist attractions weren’t affected, and he found it interesting to watch the protests outside his hotel window and get the occasional whiff of tear gas–it certainly gives his stories of his long weekend in Istanbul a very different flavor than mine.

But, back to your postcard.  Meghan and I had both really wanted to go to Istanbul, and the long weekend off work for Orthodox Easter (which fell very late this year) gave us the perfect opportunity to hop on a plane and visit Turkey.  Because we were flying from Tbilisi to…well, anywhere, but in this case Istanbul, our flight left at the usual ridiculous 4 AM.  Meghan chose option A and opted for a nap before taking a cab to the airport; I chose option B and took the bus and pulled an airport all-nighter.  Needless to say, neither of us was particularly well-rested for our first day in Istanbul.  We didn’t even make it out of Ataturk Airport before we rejoiced in the spread of American businesses and indulged in some Starbucks.  (I’m not generally a fan of American cultural hegemony making street corners all over the world indistinguishable, but MAN was that chai tea latte amazing!).  Slightly invigorated by some caffeine, we headed into the city and found our way to Istanbul Hostel, where the staff took very good care of us in our slower-thinking-than-usual states (giving us an extra day of free breakfast–including more coffee).

We spent our first day in Istanbul just wandering around and getting our bearings.  We stumbled across the main sights quite quickly and saw the exteriors of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  We wandered more through the Sultanahmet neighborhood, and found ourselves at the Grand Bazaar, where we had more caffeine, absorbed the sights, and got turned around.  Since we had exited the Bazaar nowhere near where we thought we had, we wound up exploring the Laleli neighborhood, which was quite an experience.  It’s the wholesale clothing district, so we kept going into shops where we weren’t allowed to buy anything.  Interestingly enough, the common language of the area (probably in addition to Turkish) is Russian.  I assume this is because this is where all the clothes for sale in the boutiques on the streets of Tbilisi and other former Soviet republics come from.  It was a very different side of Istanbul, and it felt like a glimpse into the inner workings of the Caucasus.  Eventually we got our bearings and made our way back to the hostel for an early night.

Golden Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia--sparkly!

Golden Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia–sparkly!

The next day was our big tourism day.  The Underground Cistern, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.  We started at the Underground Cistern, because travel guides recommended that that was the most efficient route to minimize time spent standing in line–I think other people have read the same suggestion, so I don’t know if it’s really such a great strategy right now.  That being said, the Underground Cistern is definitely worth a visit–it’s cool and dark and really quite impressive in its scope.  The line for the Hagia Sophia was quite overwhelming, and at first I was unimpressed “Oh, look, another old Orthodox Church, I’ve seen a million….WOW”.  The splendor is somewhat overshadowed by the crowds of tourists, but it really is a spectacular place.  The number of exclamations from visitors saying “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful” suggest that the architects’ goal is to this day being achieved.  (The Russian tourists were, however, incredibly obnoxious.  Our Russian skills came in handing pointing out to the новые русские that lines did, in fact, apply to them as well).

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Topkapi Palace–see what I mean about the tile?

We stopped by the Blue Mosque, but it was closed for prayers, so we proceeded on to lunch.  We chose a restaurant at random, and found ourselves in the Stone House Restaurant.  It was exactly what we were looking for: classic, simple Turkish food that was delicious.  As it turned out, the staff were Georgians (Unfortunately, I hadn’t miraculous developed the ability to understand Turkish: they were speaking Georgian).  Our new friends Zaza and Natia overwhelmed us with a combination of Turkish and Georgian hospitality, and we got lots of delicious extras with our meal.  We still had a busy afternoon of sightseeing, though, so we had to make our excuses and find our way to Topkapi Palace.  It lived up to its name and was certainly palatial.  Although I had read the descriptions in tour books, I was unprepared for just how extensive the museum and grounds are.  We didn’t even bother trying to see everything and felt quite fatigued from trying.  The additional 15 lira to see the harem was, in my opinion, worth it.  What impressed me most about the palace was not the jewels or the opulent living quarters, but the beautiful, beautiful tiles covering almost every surface in jewel tones and geometric and floral designs.  Very impressive.

The next day was a bit more relaxing, we started off with a visit to the Blue Mosque, which was (of course) incredibly beautiful.  Then we were horrible American tourists and went to the mall.  It was awesome.  I was able to replace some of my clothes that Georgia has killed, and I got some food souvenirs at the Carrefour (better quality and lower prices than at a candy shop near the tourist attractions. Pro Tip).  That evening we gathered together a group of friends from all over the world and various parts of our lives who all happened to be in Istanbul for the weekend (so great) and had dinner together.  It was fantastic to get together with people who’d never met before, but all had something in common and spend time together sort of like old friends.  We went to Galata Kiva, a restaurant specializing in “Modern Eastern Turkish Fusion” or something like that (the fancy menu is only available in the front portion of the restaurant) where I was able to mark Orthodox Easter with the traditional Georgian Easter dish of lamb with plums and tarragon (ჩაქაფული chakapuli), which is apparently also popular in Eastern Turkey.  Not that surprising, really, but still a nice surprise.  I also highly recommend the “eggplant dessert”.  It’s weird, but amazing.

The next morning we were off to the airport.  I woke up early, though, partially due to my nerves about flying, and partially because I still had a few things I wanted to do.  I savored a last Starbucks drink, changed some last money into lira to get me to the airport, and bought a scarf.  This was actually my favorite wander around Istanbul, though.  It was lovely to see the city when it was quiet and peaceful and empty of tourists.  It left a good final impression of the city (and I saw some kitties).

istanbul panorama

Overall, Istanbul is crowded and expensive and stressful.  And I loved it because it’s also welcoming, and beautiful and exciting.  Nonetheless, I was glad to arrive back “home” in Tbilisi.

Thanksgiving festivities started Monday evening when my roommate S and I decided that we should actually mark the occasion somehow.  Like good 20-somethings, we created a Facebook event inviting our friends over for non-Thanksgiving.  We had no interest in trying to cook a full Thanksgiving spread in our kitchen, or even a turkey, so we invited people over for snacks.  As I see it, the best part of living abroad is being able to take the best parts of your culture and leave the rest, and combine different cultures.  So we had a celebration in honor of Thanksgiving rather than a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Tuesday I trekked to the main bazaar (bazroba ბაზრობა) for ingredients for my contributions: pumpkin spice chocolate chip cookies (with Barambo chile chocolate) and green tomato salsa (inspired by multiple recipes).  The bazroba was great fun–I got all my ingredients for about 5 lari, and was showered in compliments on my Georgian.  I don’t think they get many foreigners there…  That evening I hunkered down for the pumpkin slaughter, and transformed the whole pumpkins into puree, since that isn’t available in a can in Georgia.  Wednesday morning I made my cookies (slowly and in very small batches with our glorified Easy Bake Oven).  We made follow-up trips to the big supermarkets (Smart and Carrefour) to make sure we had all our ingredients and had purchased other necessary things like bread and drinks.  That evening we cooked up a storm–I assembled my salsa, and S made an amazing pumpkin pie.  Thursday we scrambled to make our apartment less dirty, roasted some garlic and mixed some sangria.  I had a full day of work that day, and I amused myself and my (adult) students by having an arts and crafts hour making hand turkeys.  They seemed to enjoy the break from work, and it got me into the spirit of thankfulness. I returned home from work and readied the apartment for guests–we didn’t invite too many American friends, because we were afraid they would be disappointed in our non-traditional Thanksgiving.  Instead we had a mixed crew from many parts of the world–the plurality were, I believe, Germans.  It was one of our guest’s birthday, so we marked the occasion by putting a tea light candle on top of the pumpkin pie (we improvise).  Amusingly, we realized that we didn’t have nearly enough drinking vessels for all the people we’d invited, so we scrounged around the apartment for various things in which to serve beverages–a yogurt cup might not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but it transports liquid to your mouth quite effectively.

Friday I had a more traditional American Thanksgiving with more established ex-pat friends–we had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, the whole nine yards (I made an apple-quince crisp and some bacon-wrapped dates).  This event couldn’t have been more different from the previous night, but both events captured the most important part of Thanksgiving–spending time with people you care about.  The rest of the weekend was one of my most “American” in Georgia–Saturday I went to a Super League basketball game and watched the Police defeat the Army, and that evening I hung out with Americans and watched Ohio State beat Michigan in American football (yay on both counts!).  Watching an American college football game abroad is a very strange phenomenon–I haven’t been in a room with only Americans in a long time, and I found it disconcerting.

In the best Thanksgiving tradition, I still have plenty of leftover turkey and some sides. But like a good ex-pat, I’ve been combining cultures while I eat them.  Mashed potatoes with Georgian cheese make an excellent potato pancake, and leftover turkey is really improved by dousing it in tkemali.

Now, I don’t want you to go and think that I’m “selling out” by posting this, but my friend Cat has a really great project that I think is worth supporting and is related to the topics I post about here.  She’s developing a honey-tasting walking tour in Northeastern Turkey.  It’s food, it’s travel, it’s environmentally friendly and it’s empowering women.  (Also, she’ll be nearby and I should get to hang out with her!)  You can read more about the project and support it at their Kickstarter campaign: Walk the Honey Road with Balyolu  I really do recommend giving it a read.

(Sorry again for lack of posts.  It’s been busy–more content soon).

Georgia’s geographical location between the Black and Caspian Seas and between Europe and Asia has made it a strategic and therefore contested location throughout history.  The area which is now the Republic of Georgia has been linked to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.  This land has changed hands many times, and each ruling power has left some mark on the modern Georgian nation.  All three of the regional powers in the Caucasus—Turkey, Iran, and Russia—have controlled all or part of what is now Georgia at some point in its history.

Though Georgia was long a part of the sphere of influence of the great Muslim Empires of the medieval period, it was the Peace of Amasa in 1555 which formalized Persian and Turkish control over the region.  This treaty “divided Georgia into spheres of influence.  Kartli, Kakheti, and the eastern part of Samtskhe saatabago were declared to be Iranian, while Imereti, its ‘vassal’ states, and western Samtskhe were to be Turkish” (Suny, 48).  All told, the period of Persian influence in the Georgian lands lasted nearly a thousand years (de Waal, 24).

In the late sixteenth century, Muscovy began to gain power and exert its influence southward into the Caucasus (Suny, 49).  The successor state to Muscovy, the Russian Empire, became a power in the Caucasus in the eighteenth century when it became involved in a series of wars with Turkey.  The Georgian monarchs saw an opportunity to better the position of their state in the regional order, and arranged for protection from their co-religionists in Russia against the Muslim Turks and Persians (Suny, 57-59).  In 1783, the Treaty of Georgievsk was signed which officially made the Georgian kingdoms a Russian protectorate (de Waal, 38).  In 1828, the Persians signed the Treaty of Turkmenchai which solidified this relationship between Russia and Georgia (de Waal, 38).  A year later in 1829, the Treaty of Adrianople was signed by both the Turks and the Persians, who ceded all claims to the Caucasus and made the region an undisputed part of the Russian Empire (de Waal, 40).

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the countries of the Caucasus enjoyed a brief period of independence.  Though short-lived, this period profoundly influenced political thinking in the region (de Waal, 64).  Georgia was an independent, parliamentary democracy from 1918-1921.  Thomas de Waal, a scholar of the Caucasus from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes this system as “fairly democratic” (de Waal, 64).  The leader of the Democratic Republic, Noe Zhordania, “believed in ruling by consensus” and “was genuinely popular and earned the support of the peasantry” (de Waal, 65).  Despite its democratic features and many positive traits, this system was also marked by an antagonism toward Georgia’s national minorities and was built upon a foundation of strong ethnic-Georgian nationalism (de Waal, 64-65).  This nationalistic streak became a source of trouble for Georgia later.  Georgia, the last independent holdout of the independent states of the Caucasus, was conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1921 and subsumed into the Soviet Union.

Though Georgia’s position in the Soviet Union was in many ways parallel to its position in the Russian Empire, de Waal cautions against seeing the Soviet Union as a mere continuation of the Russian Empire.  In the Soviet Union there was less of an emphasis on Russianization, and nationalism was at times encouraged as a political tool.  In fact, many high-ranking Bolsheviks (most notoriously Josef Stalin and Lavrenti Beria) were Georgians, illustrating the possibility for social advancement in the Soviet Union (de Waal, 72).  Georgia, in particular its Black Sea coast, was billed as “Soviet Florida”.  This status as a vacation destination coupled with the climate which allowed the cultivation of luxury crops such as tea and citrus made Georgia one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. (de Waal, 89).

Ethnic Georgian nationalism was on the rise in the late 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing instability exacerbated the situation.  Ethnic conflicts broke out in the Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  South Ossetia initially asked for autonomy within Georgia, and then declared independence in 1990.  The ensuing violence developed into an inter-ethnic war.  During the conflict, the South Ossetian separatists saw the Soviet troops in the region as their allies against the Georgians (Mackinlay and Sharov, 74-75).  The war in Abkhazia also started as a result of a desire for post-Soviet independence from Georgia.  Fighting broke out in August of 1992, and over the course of this conflict 11,000 people were killed and 300,000 were displaced (Boden, 56).  Abkhaz separatists called for Russian assistance against the “Georgian aggression” and Mountaineers and Cossacks (Russian citizens of ethnic minorities from the Russian-controlled North Caucasus) travelled across the border and joined the fighting either as mercenaries or to support their fellow Caucasians against the common Georgian enemy (Dale, 124).  The degree of official Russian involvement in the conflict in Abkhazia is still debated, though these conflicts made it obvious from the beginning of Georgia’s independence that the Russo-Georgian relationship would be a fraught one.  Following these conflicts, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia and was elected President.  Though the conflicts remained under control, a period of corruption and stagnation characterized the Shevardnadze period.

In 2003, a new generation of reformers ousted President Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution.  The three leaders of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, implemented a program of anti-corruption, democratization and Westernization. However, their coalition did not last.  Nino Burjanadze departed the Rose Revolution coalition and became a leader of the opposition while Zurab Zhvania, died in February of 2005.  The post-Rose Revolution political environment, led by an increasingly-powerful President Saakashvili, is characterized by a fragmented party system and an opposition focused primarily on nationalism and personality rather than on a particular political agenda.  The most recent developments in Georgia will be the topic of subsequent posts.

References:

Boden, Dieter. “The Role of the UN in the Settlement of the Conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia.” Promoting Institutional Responses to the Challenges in the Caucasus:     the OSCE, UN, EU and the CIS; Analyses, Case Studies, Outlooks; International Peace Academy, 31st Vienna Seminar, Diplomatic Academy Vienna 5-7 July 2001. Comp. Vienna School of International Studies. Wien: Diplomatische Akademie Wien, 2001. 56-60. Print.

Dale, Catherine. “The Case of Abkhazia (Georgia).” Peacekeeping and the Role of Russia in Eurasia. Ed. Lena Jonson and Clive Archer. Boulder: Westview, 1996. 121-38. Print.

de Waal, Thomas. The Caucasus: an Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Mackinlay, John, and Evgenii Sharov. “Russian Peacekeeping and Operations in Georgia.”Regional Peacekeepers: the Paradox of Russian Peacekeeping. Ed. John Mackinlay and Peter Cross. Tokyo: United Nations UP, 2003. 63-110. Print.

“Protests in Georgia: On Rustaveli Avenue.” The Economist [London] 2 June 2011, Print Edition ed., Europe sec. The Economist. The Economist Group, 2 June 2011. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://www.economist.com/node/18774744>.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Making of the Georgian Nation. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.

 

Due to its brevity, many interesting parts of Georgian history have been glossed over or omitted entirely.  If there’s something you feel should not have been forgotten, please share in the comments!  Likewise, I’ve tried hard to be accurate while also being brief, but if there are any factual errors, please let us know!

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