Icebergs in the caucasus
By Meyer, Karl E
Publication: World Policy Journal Date: Summer 2001
Location: Georgia (Country)

Georgia seems an archetypal case. That it even exists is cause for wonder. Its four to five million inhabitants speak an ancient language of enigmatic origin, using a script resembling macaronic shorthand that has endured with little change for eleven centuries. Following the conversion of King Mirian III in A.D. 337, Georgia became the world’s second Christian state, Armenia being the first. Georgians preserved their distinctive culture despite conquest and colonization by Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Russians. These earlier subjugations culminated, after a brief interlude of independence from 1918 to 1921, in Georgia’s forcible absorption into the Soviet Union, an operation supervised by its fiercest son, Joseph Stalin.
It is a history imprinted on the face of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital since the twelfth century. On encircling hills rise ancient cone-roofed churches: squat stone structures that look like and indeed served as forts. On the main avenue, named after the national poet, Shota Rustaveli, an ugly Soviet-era hotel houses Georgians displaced in unresolved civil conflicts, their laundry flapping on the balconies. Down the street in the history museum, amazing golden artifacts of pre-Christian cultures gleam in the crypt (this was the land of the Golden Fleece), but the museum’s other galleries are dark for want of funds. In the art museum, an impressive cache of Persian Qajar portraits is a memento of dominion by the Peacock Throne. Nearby is a blank spot on the wall where a now-missing plaque recalled that Stalin studied theology in the same building, formerly a seminary. Passing heroic statues of medieval rulers, including the formidable Queen Tamar, a visitor wanders through a cramped old city filled with crumbling wooden houses; incongruously followed by two McDonalds, a Sheraton Hotel, agencies supplying cellular phones, internet cafes, and Prospero’s, a popular English-language bookstore. The city is a palimpsest; its epochs and influences piled on top of each other.

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