Georgian Literature 


The Georgians are the descendants of the ancient Iberians, whose territory was bounded on the South by the Armenians and on the North by the Caucasus.  To the Armenians they were known as the Virkh (Verastan = Iberia or Georgia), a term which is linked to Iveria or Iberia on one hand and on the other to Hyrcana (the Veherkana of the ancient Iranians).  Among the Persians and Turks the country was known as Gourdjistan, its people the Gourdji (in ancient literature, Ghartchigan and Ghar), derived from an original Gourgi or Gourki, itself only a modification of Virkh.  Georgians call themselves Kathveli or Karthouli and the land Sakarthvelo.  The modern term Karthli denotes especially the eastern part of the country.  The ancient term Cardoukhes (Armenian, Kordoukh) likewise must refer to them.  The nation is a linguistic unit, with several fringe dialects.  Bordering on several major cultures, the country has always been under the influence of one or another of its neighbours. 


Literacy begins in the 3th century BC under Persian influence; the country became dominated by Zoroastrianism, and the most ancient form of the Georgian alphabet is of Irano-Aramean form, being derived from an archaic form (s.V-IV BC) of pehlevi, itself derived from Aramean.  According to the Georgian Annals this introduction of letters, religion and culture was due to King Pharnavazi I, the first ruler of the Iranian dynasty of Karthlosids or Pharnavazids, at the start of the 3rd century BC. "This monarch, says the Chronicle, extended the use of the Georgian language to such an extent that nothing else was spoken in Karthli, and likewise invented the national script." (Brosset).  This script, known as Mkhedrouli, (civil or military writing) was used for all Georgian literature up to the 5th century AD, when Christianity arrived in Georgia.

The literature of this period has entirely disappeared, apart from episodes of folklore which have become embedded in later texts.  Its existence is mentioned in many passages in the Ancient Chronicle of Georgia, e.g. "...many books old and new in Iberian language from the pagan period, among others a Book of Nimvrod."  The process whereby this literature was lost is not documented, but probably derives, not from the activity of the missionaries, but rather from the repeated devastations of the country in which only the most  important and modern books had much chance of survival.


Christianity came to Georgia with a partial evangelisation of the country by a group of missionaries from Cappadocia.  According to tradition, the mission was organised and led by St. Nino.  This paved the way for the official introduction by King Mirani, ca. 325AD.  Zoroastrianism had been the state religion for some centuries, modified by local religious star-cults, and the priests resisted the new faith.  Only slow progress was made among the people, despite a series of Christophile Kings such as Vakhtang Gourgaslan (446-499) who built churches at Tiflis and Mtzkhetha.  Only after the introduction of monasticism and the foundation of a series of monasteries did Christianity penetrate into the ordinary people, and become in fact the religion of the nation. 

Until 545AD the Georgian church was dependent on the patriarchate of Antioch.  13 missionaries were sent from Antioch in order to resist the spread of monophysitism, who are known as the 13 holy Syrian fathers, and they laid the foundations of monasticism.  The most famous were founded by John the Syrian and his disciples David and Chio the Troglodyte.

The creation of the Armenian script by Mesrob led to modifications in the5th century AD of the ancient Georgian alphabet to create a revised form Khoutsouri, 'religious writing.'  The creation of this script reflects a clerical tendency to distance themselves from the pagan literature.

The oldest Georgian literature is almost entirely ecclesiastical, originating with the regular clergy.  This literature dominates from the 5th-12th century.  During these centuries, the language made steady progress, under the successive influence of first Armenian and Syriac (400-750AD); then exclusively Byzantine-Greek (975-1150); reaching its apogee around the 11-12th centuries, the period in which the Georgian Convent of Iviron at Mount Athos was founded.  This coincides closely with the reign of Queen Thamar, and is the golden age of Georgian literature.

During the first period, the Georgians maintained monastic communities in the Holy Land.  The Georgian Convent of the Holy Cross at Jerusalem already existed in the 5th century when it was restored by the Emperor Justinian.  This acted as a conduit for literature into Georgia.

...(I'm afraid Karst's book is both wordy and disorganised, and I got bored at this point.  Maybe more later...)


J. KARST, Littérature géorgienne chrétienne. Paris: Libraire Bloud & Gay (1934).  Checked.
G. PERADZE, Die altchristliche Literatur in der georgischen Ueberlieferung : OC 3-4 (1928-29) 109-116, 282-288; 5 (1930) 80-98, 232-236; 6 (1932) 240-244; 8 (1933) 86-92, 180-198.  Not checked -- details from Quasten.

M.F.BROSSET, Histoire de la Géorgie [T.1, Annales anciennes de Djouancher]  Reference from Karst.

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This page has been online since 16th September 2002.

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