Edge of Empires by Donald Rayfield

Edge of Empires is a one-volume history of Georgia from the earliest discernible traces through June 2018, a remarkable feat of synthesis and scholarship. In fact, the main text runs just four hundred pages, so in some sense Rayfield positively gallops through four millennia of events in the Transcaucasus and eastern Anatolia. He’s very up front about the kind of history he is writing: primarily a tale of who ruled what bits of land when, and who contested that rule.

Edge of Empires

Here’s Rayfield on his geographic scope:

“… [Georgia] as a country in its modern (de jure) boundaries; secondly geographically, as the region of Transcaucasia between the Black Sea to the junction of the Iori and Mtkvari (or Kura) rivers, and between the high Caucasus to the little Caucasus around the lower reaches of the Çoruh and the upper reaches of the Mtkvari (or Kura) rivers; finally, historically, with boundaries which at periods reached far into today’s Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia.” (p. 7)

And here he is on the people who form the subject of this study:

“To Georgians, a Georgian has always been both someone whose native language is Georgian, as well as any native of Georgia, regardless of ethnicity. The Georgian language belongs to the Kartvelian group of languages (a group never proven to be cognate with any other language group): to this group also belongs Mingrelian (Georgian megruli) and Laz. … Both Mingrelian and Laz are as close to Georgian as, say, Portuguese is to Spanish, so that there is a degree of mutual intelligibility. Two thousand years ago, the differences may have been merely dialectical. The fourth member of the Kartvelian group is Svan, now spoken by 50,000 people in the high mountains of the central Caucasus. Svan is an archaic member of the Kartvelian group, further from Georgian than, say, Romanian from French. Most Mingrelians and Svans are (and have long been) bilingual in Georgian.” (p. 7)

I’m very glad Edge of Empires exists. The next most recent one-volume, general history of Georgia that I know of is The Making of the Georgian Nation by Ronald Grigor Suny and first published in 1988, with a revised edition appearing in 1994 that added a chapter about the end of the USSR. Quite a bit has happened in the intervening quarter century, both in Georgia and in Georgian history. When Suny’s second edition appeared, Georgia hadn’t finished its 1990s slide toward anarchy, nor had it yet suffered the Russian invasion of 2008. In Georgian history, study of the Soviet period has been greatly assisted by the rescue of both Communist Party and secret police archives by people I know who carried them out of a building that was due to be developed as a hotel. The documents were moved to a location where electromechanical telephone exchanges had only recently been replaced by electronics, a huge empty space with the reinforced floors necessary to support vast amounts of paper. It all worked because a historian had a day job with the phone company. True story. To my knowledge, they are the most openly accessible archives of any former Soviet republic Communist Party and secret police; I have held the first volume of Cheka reports from newly Bolshevized Georgia. Rayfield has been able to incorporate new scholarship, new sources, and new perspectives in his work of synthesis.

The early history and the more modern history are the best parts of the book. There has also been quite a bit of linguistic and archeological research since Suny’s history, and Rayfield sketches it well. The linguistic bits are just plain neat:

“The oldest linguistic evidence lies in the modern Kartvelian languages: basic items of vocabulary … suggest links to an Indo-European dialect with a consonant system reminiscent of the Italo-Celtic group from which Latin derives. Furthermore, names of ‘noble’ animals — those hunted by the aristocracy such as deer and boar — seem to have Indo-European origins: this phenomenon resembles the Norman element in English, or the Magyar element in Hungarian, implying an invasion of a settled community by an alien aristocracy and its language. Georgian also has grammatical features … which resemble Indo-European. These similarities are found in Svan, too, and since Svan broke off from Proto-Kartvelian millennia ago, the Indo-European element in Georgian must be ancient: it may coincide with the movement of Indo-Europeans from the Balkans into Anatolia three to four thousand years ago. … Another curious linguistic factor is the presence in Georgian of plant names (for example for the box tree) of non-Indo-European origin which are also found in classical Greek: the Kartvelian languages communed with the pre-Indo-European Mediterranean world.” (pp. 11–12)

Rayfield is also direct about the challenges facing historians looking at this era. “From the middle of the first millennium BC, more extensive narrative accounts of the inhabitants of northeast Anatolia and western Georgia (Colchis) are provided by Greek historians and geographers, but the chronology is blurred, as are the lines between observation, legend and rumour.” (p. 11) After the fall of the Hittites, Kartvelians interacted with “the Urartu empire that dominated central and northeast Anatolia from the early Bronze Age (about 1200 BC) to the early Iron Age (about 700 BC)” (p. 12), as attested in Urartu records and names whose traces survive into the present. As Georgia emerges from legend into history, it coalesces in three areas: Colchis, at the western end of the high Caucasus and ostensible home of the Golden Fleece; Svanetia, which began with today’s Svan highlands but reached into the surrounding areas; and Iberia, further east, around the Kura river.

With the stage set, Rayfield commences with the drama of Georgian history which is, in the main, that it was always between at least two imperial powers who played out their contest for dominance on Kartvelian territory. Initially Greeks and Persians, then Romans and Persians, then Arabs everywhere for a while, then seven (or perhaps eight) devastating visits by Tamburlaine (whom Rayfield calls Timur Lang), then Mongols, then Ottomans and Persians, joined in the seventeenth century by the Russians, who eventually edged out the other two in the most recent centuries, followed by nearly 30 years (so far) of independence after the latest retreat of Russian power. The sheer volume of conflict is at odds with Rayfield’s admirable goal of telling his tale in one reasonably sized volume, and differentiating detail tends to fall away.

For much of the middle of the book, even a reader with a reasonably solid grasp of Georgia’s regions (though there are maps and genealogies to help) could be forgiven for not quite keeping all of the dynasties, grudges, hostages, regents, and ambitious non-royals straight, not least as many of them change names when they change sides. Which is too bad, really, because much of Georgian history is ker-blam bonkers, making Westeros look stable and friendly by comparison. To take a page (p. 135) more or less at random:

“In 1270 Davit VII Ulu died of typhoid on the unsanitary Mongol ramparts between Shirvan and Georgia. His eldest son, by Jigda Khanum, had died two years previously, aged eighteen. His heir was Dmitri (or Demetre) II, the eleven-year-old son by his second queen Gvantsa, whom Hulagu Khan beheaded. The boy was educated by a regent, Sadun Mankaberdeli, a former serf of the Mkhargrdzelis who had interpreted when Davit Ulu was interrogated by Arghun Agha on suspicion of treason. Dmitri was taken to the [Golden] Horde in 1272 and told by Abagha Khan to make Sadun Mankaberdeli atabag, i.e. prince: for ten years Sadun was Abagha’s viceroy of Kartli and Kakhetia [Georgia’s two principal regions in this era]. He took command of the Georgian army, too, and acquired vast landholdings.”

Just that paragraph could be a miniseries! Unfortunately, the effect of a couple hundred pages’ worth of such paragraphs is the sense that this section of the book is better suited as a reference than as a narrative. The canonical major figures of Georgian history (Davit the Builder, Tamar the Great, etc.) do raise their heads a bit above the various parapets, but even their personalities are difficult to see clearly. A feel for life in the various eras is nearly wholly lacking. That’s not because Rayfield can’t write about such things — he does both in later chapters when the pace is less frenetic — but because he has chosen to give an almost year-by-year account of the struggle for territorial supremacy, and something had to fall by the wayside if the book were to remain a manageable size.

Once the Russians move in to stay, though, the speed of the narrative slows down and, correspondingly, the constructive use of detail picks up. That holds doubly true for the last 40-plus years of Georgian history, in which Rayfield has been personally engaged. He mentions having hosted Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the mid-1970s, when the Georgian (son of the country’s most noted 20th century novelist) was a dissident working against Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. After mistreatment in Soviet institutions, Gamsakhurdia recanted his dissidence, only to take that back a few years later. After further twists and turns, he emerged as the first president of independent, post-Soviet Georgia, leading the country into civil war and poverty, nearly into anarchy entire. He perished under peculiar circumstances in 1993. Ok, maybe Georgian history hasn’t gotten all that less bonkers despite the passage of centuries.

One theme that does emerge is that Georgia flourishes when its larger neighbors are occupied elsewhere. Georgia’s medieval golden age took place when the Crusaders were distracting Muslim powers of the Middle East that, at other times, were engaged in the Transcaucasus. When Persia was strong, it ruled eastern Georgia, either directly or as vassal states. (Georgians, for their part, led Persian armies and governed Persian provinces, so the relationship was not just oppression.) Rayfield observes that the independent Georgia created after World War I would have been “one of the most egalitarian and free states in the world, if only the government had the money, expertise, time and peace in which to implement [its legislation].” (p. 329) Unfortunately, a neighboring empire had other ideas.

Edge of Empires offers a modern telling of the long duration of Georgian history, though much of it focuses exclusively on the various struggles for ruling different parts of the Georgian lands. As a reference, it’s solid throughout. As a narrative to read, it’s strongest in the very earliest years and after about 1800.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/10/23/edge-of-empires-by-donald-rayfield/

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