T’ao-K’larjeti: The cradle of the Georgian Empire

From crumbling cathedrals to gleaming spires

Boundaries of the Kingdom of T’ao-K’larjeti in 900. (source)

In the late ninth century CE, after centuries of foreign domination in Tbilisi, the Bagratid family fled to their ancestral lands of ტაო T’ao and კლარჯეთი K’larjeti to the south. Here in their place of refuge, the Bagratids established the Kingdom of the Iberians. In doing so, they launched a cultural, religious, and political renaissance which would culminate in the establishment of the Georgian Empire and a dynasty that would endure for a millennium…

Niko Kontovas and a local in the village of Cevizli in Artvin Provice, Turkey, formerly known as ტბეთი T’beti in Georgian.

My name is Niko Kontovas. I work as the Nizami Ganjavi Subject Librarian and Curator for the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Ottoman Turkish. Almost every summer for the past decade, I have toured the ruins of the Kingdom of the Iberians (Georgian: ქართველთა სამეფო Kartvelta Samepo, existing from around 888 to 1008 AD) in what is now southern Georgia and northeastern Turkey. Also known as the Kingdom of the Georgians or The Kingdom(s) of T’ao-Klarjeti, after its constituent regions, this state holds a special place in the memory of many Georgians as the place where the Bagratid dynasty established itself as the rulers of an “independant” Georgia. This is the same dynasty which would go on to found the The Georgian Empire (Georgian: საქართველოს სამეფო Sakartvelos Samepo) a.k.a. the Georgian Kingdom, the Empire of Georgia, or the Kingdom of Georgia. Though the Empire would only last around 500 years from 1008 to 1490/1493 AD, the Bagratids continued to play a role in Georgian political and cultural life, and remain the only serious current claimants to the Georgian throne — even though Georgia itself has become a republic.

Though my adventures in ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti began long before my position here at Oxford, the collections of the Nizami Ganjavi Library hold materials on the region which are truly unparalleled in terms of their breadth and depth in collections outside Georgia. Our current book display combines photos and notes from my fieldwork in the region with selections from the library for readers to learn more about this fascinating but little studied slice of Eurasian history.

The devil’s in the details

The Devil’s Fortress at Çıldır. (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023)

Among the most impressive structures in historical ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti is the Devil’s Fortress (Turkish Şeytan Kalesi) in the Turkish province of Çıldır. Though its origin is uncertain, it had already attained its current form by 1064, when it is mentioned by the invading Seljuk Sultan آلپ آرسلان Alp Arslan, suggesting it dates to the period of the Kingdom of the Iberians.

In Georgian, the fortress is known as ქაჯის ციხე Kajis Cixe “The Kaji’s Fortress”. The ქაჯი kaji are a race of magical beings in Georgian mythology or, alternatively, a tribe of humans similarly adept at magic appearing in შოთა რუსთაველი Šota Rustaveli’s 12th c. epic ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vepxist’q’aosani “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”. Many Georgians equate the ქაჯის ციხე Kajis Cixe in Çıldır with the ქაჯთა ციხე Kajta Cixe “Fortress of the Kajis” mentioned as the home this tribe in Rustaveli’s poem.

The heroes of შოთა რუსთაველი Šota Rustaveli’s ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vepxist’q’aosani “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” look out upon the ქაჯთა ციხე Kajta Cixe “Fortress of the Kajis”. From a 2011 illustrated Georgian edition of the text available to read the the Nizami Ganjavi Library.

The unassuming origins of empire

If ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti is the cradle of the Georgian Empire, კლარჯეთი K’larjeti is the cradle of the Kingdom of the Iberians which started it.

Ardanuç Fortress (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023)

On a hilltop plateau in the centre of the modern town of Ardanuç in Turkey (Georgian არტანუჯი Art’anuji) stand the ruins of an impressive fortress. This fortress was built by the Bagratid prince and Duke of კლარჯეთი K’larjeti, აშოტ I დიდი Ašot’ I Didi, a.k.a. Ashot I or Ashot the Great, around 813-818 on the site of an older castle, supposed to have been built by ვახტანგ I გორგასალი Vaxtang Gorgasali, or Vakhtang the Wolf’s Head – the semi-legendary ruler of an earlier Georgian kingdom in the 5th c. Later Georgian historiography has tended to view Ashot I’s choice of location as a conscious reassertion of an older tradition of Georgian kingship, though whether Ashot I also thought this way is a matter of some debate.

It was from here that Ashot I launched numerous campaigns against the Muslim rulers who had taken over various Georgian duchies – a process continued by his son, ადარნასე II Adarnase II, who united კლარჯეთი K’larjeti with the neighbouring dutchy of ტაო T’ao, and his twice great grandson, ადარნასე IV Adarnase IV, the first ruler of the Kingdom of the Iberians. In time, these Bagratid-lead campaigns would result in the takeover of the old capital of Tbilisi and the proclamation of the Empire of Georgia.

Ashot I also sponsored the creation and expansion of Georgian Orthodox churches in the region, supporting the efforts of გრიგოლ ხანძთელი Grigol Xanżteli, or Gregory of Khandzta – another village currently located in Turkey which houses the ruins of one of the many monasteries which he built. Monks trained by Gregory would act as emissaries to the Byzantine Emperor, and may have been instrumental in his granting Ashot I the title of κουροπαλάτης kouropalatēs – employed as a sort of Byzantine Christian “defender of the faith” at the time in the Caucasian borderlands of the Empire.

You can read more about the rise of Bagratid არტანუჯი Art’anuji and Byzantium’s recognition thereof in Evans, N. “Kastron, Rabad and Ardūn: The case of Artanuji” in Matheou et al. (ed.) From Constantinople to the frontier: The City and the cities (2016).

What makes an empire?

Scholars debate whether the Georgian polity which followed the Kingdom of the Iberians in T’ao-K’larjeti should be referred to as the Georgian Kingdom or the Georgian Empire. Whatever you choose to call it, it is beyond doubt that it had a profound impact on neighbouring empires and, as a result, the history of Eurasia as a whole.

Its imperial nature is exemplified by the Georgian Bagratid dynasty (ბაგრატიონი Bagrat’ioni in Georgian), which for numerous reasons epitomized Georgian interconnectedness. In his article on Iberia on the eve of Bagratid rule (in Le muséon LXV, 1952, pp. 199-259), Toumanoff argues that the Georgian Bagratids emerge as political players from a branch of the Armenian Bagratids (Բագրատունի Bagratuni in Armenian). While this is a matter of much debate amongst scholars, the Georgian Bagratids undoubtedly controlled many lands previously inhabited by Armenian-speaking peoples and polities.

Exterior view of Սուրբ Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ Եկեղեցի Surb Grigor Lusavorič’ ekeɫec’i The Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator at Ani, popularly referred to as Տիգրան Հոնենց Եկեղեցի Tigran Honenc’ ekeɫec’i The Church of Tigran Honents. Built during the period of Georgian imperial domination.
(photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023)

If a kingdom becomes an empire through its incorporation of foreign states, no single Bagratid ruler bears more right to claim the title of Emperor than თამარ მეფე Tamar Mepe Queen Tamar. Under her rule, the Georgian Empire helped to liberate the ancient Armenian capital of Անի Ani, which it then ruled first directly and then by proxy through the semi-Georgianised Armenian Զաքարյան Zak’aryan or Zakarid dynasty. Several churches the ruins of which are still well preserved at Ani were built during the period of Georgian domination, such as the splendidly decorated Սուրբ Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ Եկեղեցի Surb Grigor Lusavorič’ ekeɫec’i Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, popularly referred to as Տիգրան Հոնենց Եկեղեցի Tigran Honenc’ ekeɫec’i The Church of Tigran Honents after the wealthy merchant who funded its construction.

To read more about the integral role which the Georgian Empire and other Georgian polities have played throughout Eurasian history, see Donald Rayfield’s Edge of Empires (London: Reaktion, 2012).

Likewise, the Empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine rump state centred around the Black Sea coastal city now called Trabzon, owes its existence to Bagratid Georgia. Though founded by the Κομνηνός Komnēnos family, the Empire of Trebizond’s founder, Αλέξιος Α΄ Μέγας Κομνηνός Alexios I Megas Komnēnos or Alexios the Great, had like his grandfather before him taken refuge in the Georgian imperial court during in-fighting over the Byzantine throne. Though the extent of Trebizond’s cultural Georgianisation has been debated, Alexios was no doubt aided in establishing the independence of his Empire by his maternal aunt, Queen Tamar.

How the mighty have fallen

Just northwest of the village of Penek in Turkey’s Erzurum province lies the ruins of a royal cathedral known as ბანა Bana in Georgian and բանակ Banak in Armenian.

Bana Cathedral (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023).
You can read more about Bana – and the other sites mentioned in this exhibit – in Giviashvili and Akder(ed.)’s The Georgian Kingdom and Georgian Art: Cultural Encounters in Anatolia in Medieval Period (Istanbul: Koç University Press, 2014).

Bana Cathedral is a testament not only to the splendour of ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti, but to its interconnectedness with the other regional powers. Though some have argued that it was built on the site of an earlier Armenian church (see Bogisch & Plontke-Lünning, “The Cathedral of Bana in Tao: Architectural Tradition and Liturgical Function” in Kudava (ed.) Tao-Klarjeti: Abstracts of Papers. Tbilisi: National Centre of Manuscripts, 2012. p. 126-7), the ruins which remain reflect a structure built by ადარნასე IV Adarnase IV, the Georgian Bagratid prince who proclaimed the Kingdom of the Iberians in ტაო T’ao and კლარჯეთი K’larjeti provinces in the year 888.

Heavily damaged by Russian fire in the late 19th c., Bana was once the royal cathedral of ტაო T’ao. In 1032, it hosted the wedding of ბაგრატ IV Bagrat IV of the newly established Georgian Empire and the Byzantine princess Ἑλένη Ἀργυρή Elenē Argyrē.

ႱႠႳႩႳႬႭ ႾႱႤႬႤႡႠ (Memory eternal)

Along with ტაო T’ao and კლარჯეთი K’larjeti, the historical region of შავშეთი Šavšeti (Turkish Şavşat) also occupies a special place in the Georgian imagination – in part because of the many monasteries which Georgian monks built there under Bagratid patronage. During the spring and summer months, the ruins of these monasteries are awash with Georgian pilgrims and tourists, many of whom light candles and leave offerings on the very walls built by the Bagratid rulers over a millennium ago.

The monastery of ტბეთი T’beti, now located in the town of Cevizli in Turkey’s Artvin province, was once home to the famous monk, გიორგი შავშელი Giorgi Šavšeli. He would later move to the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem, where he would be known as Saint Prochorus the Iberian. Among other exemplary manuscripts, he penned a book of hours now housed in the Weston Library.

Pilgrims’ offerings at the ruins of ტბეთი T’beti monastery (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023).
Leaf from Saint Prochorus the Iberian’s book of hours, 11th c. Jerusalem. Prochorus was born გიორგი შავშელი Giorgi Šavšeli, i.e. George of Shavsheti, and was trained at ტბეთი T’beti Monastery in what is now Cevizli village, Şavşat Prefecture, Artvin Province, Turkey. Written in Middle Georgian in ნუსხური nushkhuri and ასომთავრული asomtavruli scripts. (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Georg. b. 1)

Who cares for shared heritage?

The physical remnants of ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti are overwhelmingly located within the borders not of the Georgian Republic, but of the Turkish Republic.

Though the region was the site of bloody battles between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few now seriously challenge Turkish claims on these lands. Relatively free movement across the Georgian-Turkish border means that Georgians can visit medieval sites in Turkey fairly easily.

Tourism to ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti generates significantly less revenue than, say, tourism to Ottoman or Classical Hellenistic sites in Western Turkey. Still, several joint projects have been undertaken to excavate and restore some Georgian sites within the region. You can learn more about these construction projects in გრემელაშვილი, „ტაო-კლარჯეთის ხუროთმოძღვრული ძეგლების კვლევისა და რესტავრაციის შესახებ“ in Kudava et al. (eds.) International Conference Tao-Klarjeti: Materials. Tbilisi: National Center of Manuscripts, 2010, pp. 106-124.

The fully restored church of იშხანი Išxani Ishkhani (Turkish İşhan) in Artvin Province; restoration complete as of 2019, yet still closed to the public as of 2023. (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2021)

Some of these projects, such as the reconstruction of the church of იშხანი Išxani Ishkhani (Turkish İşhan) in Artvin Province, were nearly complete as of 2019. Others, such as the reconstruction of the massive cathedral at ოშკი Ošk’i Oshki (Turkish Öşkvank) in Erzurum Province have proceeded much more slowly.

Even in the case of successful reconstructions, most sites which have been the object of big projects have, sadly, still not fully opened. While the reasons for this are officially uncertain, locals often claim that municipal and provincial governments are worried that an influx of Georgians may prompt official requests to hold religious services at these sites, which could aggitate local sensitivities and possibly provoke irredentist claims from Georgia. Some also claim that official openings have been delayed until Georgian authorities show similar interest in restoring Muslim religious sites in Georgia.

Read more about the fascinating history of ოშკი Ošk’i Oshki cathedral through two of the inscriptions found on the structure itself in ჯობაძე, ოშკის ტაძარი. თბილისი: მეცნიერება, 1991.

Despite this, some of the best preserved site still fully visitable in the region today are those which have been transformed into mosques, such as the church of the monastery of ხახული Xaxuli Khakhuli (Turkish Haho) in the village of Bağbaşı, Erzurum. Additionally, many Muslims in the region of შავშეთი Šavšeti Şavşat consider themselves both Turkish and Georgian, sometimes even speaking Georgian at home. Even where destruction of Georgian sites has been documented in the past, locals now overwhelmingly want to see the sites restored and reopened, as much out of a sense of pride for this shared heritage as to attract more revenue from tourism to otherwise impoverished rural areas.

You can see some older pictures of sites in the region with less destruction in Kalandia, Ekvtime Takaishvili and Tao-Klarjeti. Tbilisi: Zviad Kordzadze, 2017.

Here be dragons…

April 23rd is celebrated as the Feast of St. George here at Oxford!

It is often that St. George was proclaimed as the patron saint of England at the Synod of Oxford in 1222, and though historians cast doubt on this claim, St George’s feast day has, in the minds of many, a special relationship with our city.

As it turns out, the patron “saint” of our library, the 12th c. CE poet نظامی گنجوی Niẓāmī Ganjavī, was also a huge fan of dragons, and featured them prominently in his story of the هفت پیکر Haft Paykar or “Seven Forms”.

In honour of our library’s doubly special relationship with dragons, we here at the NGL have decked our display table with a selection of literature on dragon myths from across our region of expertise.

Of course, given our namesake’s fondness for these scaly beasts, it’s no surprise that the centrepiece of our display is حسن وحید دستگردی Ḥasan Vaḥīd Dastgirdī’s 1936 CE Persian edition of نظامی گنجوی Niẓāmī Ganjavī’s Haft Paykar — one of only a number of original language editions held int he NGL’s collections.

Niẓāmī Ganjavī, and Vaḥīd Dastgirdī, Ḥasan. Haft Paykar. Tihrān, 1936. Print.

When is a dragon not a dragon?

Carving from the 10th c. Georgian ხახული Khakhuli monastery (now in Bağbaşı village, Erzurum, Turkey) which depict the swallowing of Jonah by the “whale”. (picture courtesy of Niko Kontovas)

Various traditions within our region acknowledge numerous types of fantastic creatures which, though distinct from one another according to those traditions, are all sufficiently recognisable as dragons according to our modern conception of the term.

Across much of Eurasia, for example, there is ambiguity – both in language and, often, in form – between dragons and snakes.

In Abrahamic religions, there are numerous creatures which are variously conceived of as both snake-like and dragon-like. In Hebrew, the word תנין tannīn can refer to many such creatures – snakes, sea snakes, crocodiles, dragons, and even whales – often associated with the sea and almost always associated with evil.

Translations of the Old Testament into various languages throughout history have reflect differing interpretations of the same word in different contexts, sometimes translating תנין tannīn the same way as נחש‎ nāḥāš “serpent”. This further reinforced the association between serpents, dragons, and the Devil.

Eventually, in some eastern Christian traditions, giant sea monsters began appearing where none existed in the Hebrew. This carving from the 10th c. Georgian ხახული Khakhuli monastery (now in Bağbaşı village, Erzurum, Turkey) is thought to depict the swallowing of Jonah by the “whale” – here nearly unrecognizable as such – though the original Hebrew refers only to a דג גדול dāg gādōl “big fish”.

Hāṇḍā, Omacanda. Naga Cults and Traditions in the Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Indus Pub., 2004. Print.

Similarly snake-like are the nāga of the Indic tradition. Though the exact characteristics of nāga vary widely across South Asia, like the Hebrew תנין tannīn, the Sanskrit नाग nāga is usually supernaturally powerful and associated with water. In contrast to Canaanite serpent-dragons, however, nāga are often portrayed as part human and can be either neutral or benevolent in their interactions with the human world.

Handa’s Naga cults and traditions int he western Himalaya (2004) details the worship of nāga deities in the Western Himalaya, where they are particularly associated with the weather, agriculture, and – curiously – bees. Like snakes, nāga deities in this region spend much of their time underground or underwater, and they occasionally claim a sacrifice – probably reflecting the occasional loss of life to snakebites in the fields.


In his classic tome on Tree and serpent worship (1873) in India, also on our display, Scottish Orientalist James Fergusson theorised, in part on the basis of the absence of any mention of nāga worship in the Vedas, that the veneration of nāga in these regions of India is a remnant of indigenous traditions dating back to before the Indo-European invasion of the Subcontinent – even, perhaps, before the spread of Dravidian-speaking peoples.

Connected at different points in pre- and early history to both the Biblical תנין tannīn and the Sanskrit नाग nāga is the Avestan Aži Dahāka, the most evil demon serpent of Zoroastrianism.

The word aži is cognate to Sanskrit अहि ahi “snake”, but Aži Dahāka much more closely resembles the Biblical sea monsters than the Indian objects of worship. Where nāga can control wind and rivers, Aži Dahāka merely entreats the Zoroastrian angels of the winds and rivers to lend their power so that he may pervert it to destroy humanity.

Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f. 30a.
ضحاک Żaḥḥāk is nailed to Mount Damāvand as punishment.

In later Iranian myths, preserved most famously in Firdawsī’s epic poem شاهنامه Šāhnāma, Aži Dahāka is anthropomorphised in the form of the immortal tyrannical ruler ضحاک Żaḥḥāk who, after permitting the evil deity اهرمن Ahriman to kiss his shoulders, sprouts from them two serpents who demand to feast on human brains.

You can see this in folio 30a of Ouseley Add. 176, a beautifully illustrated Persian manuscript of the شاهنامه Šāhnāma held at the Weston Library. Some of you may also remember from our post back in March for Nowruz that the NGL hosts a number of editions of the شاهنامه Šāhnāma, so you can come read the gruesome tale of ضحاک Żaḥḥāk yourself in at least four different languages!

Incidentally, the modern Persian word for “dragon” اژدها aždahā is derived from the name of Aži Dahāka, whence also the word for “dragon” in many other languages, like Turkish ejderha and Kurmanji Kurdish ejdeha/ejdîha.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them… in a Mediaeval Turkish manuscript at the Weston!

By the Islamic Middle Ages, dragons in much of the Middle East had become, much as they had in contemporary Christian Europe, fantastic beasts of various shapes and sizes.

In an illuminated manuscript of مصلح الدین سروری Muṣliḥuddīn Sürūrī’s 17th c. CE Turkish translation of زکریا ابن محمد قزوینی   Zakariyyā ibn Muḥammad Qazwīnī’s 13th c. CE عجاٸب المخلوقات Ajā’ibu l-maḥlūqāt, housed here in the Weston Library (shelfmarked MS Turk. d. 2), we can see two depictions of dragons, accompanied by an explanation of their form, nature, and purported habitat.

The first (folio 140a) demonstrates how dragons in this period are depicted as largely malevolent and associated with the destructive forces of nature. Here we see repeated the common trope, whereby dragons are associated with the end of the world – here as the food for Gog and Magog, the monstrous lords who will wreak havoc upon the Earth before the Day of Judgment. The notion that Gog and Magog feast on a dragon flesh is first attested in Firdawsī’s Šāhnāma.

Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
MS Turk d 2, folio 140a.

“And (another) one is the dragon in the sea, which harms sea creatures. God on high sends a cloud to lift it from the bottom of the sea. It has a body like a big black fish and the colour of it sends out lightning, such that if its tail as big as a tree should touch a building it would ruin it. Whatever its breath reaches burns, and that cloud raises it up to the region where Gog and Magog are and drops it there, so that it might be their food, such that each of them brings a knife and cuts it and feeds upon it […]”

In a second (folios 144b-145a) depiction, we see another dragon fulfilling roles as both an object of conquest and a bearer of magic. Any man brave enough to slay it can employ its oil and meat to a variety of magical ends, further enhancing his valour and virility. In the interest of space we’ll leave them off this blog post, but you can come see these and read a translation of these folios in the NGL!

A case of mistaken identity (Part 1)

The northern half of the Armenian Highlands (composing parts of what is now Armenia, north-eastern Turkey, and southern Georgia) is littered with megaliths known in the Armenian scientific literature վիշապաքարեր višapak‘arer (singular վիշապաքար višapak‘ar) in Armenian – literally “dragon stones”.

While the dating of these stones – and, therefore, the ethno-linguistic characteristics of those who constructed them – is uncertain, they have become associated in local cultures for centuries with “dragons”, with which they share a name in local languages: Armenian վիշապ višap and Kurmanji Kurdish ejdeha.

Early research, such as Marr & Smirnov’s Les vichaps (1931), relied heavily on this association in their analysis of these stones. They note that an early Georgian translation of the Bible employs the word ვეშაპი vešap’i for the sea creature which swallows Jonah, often confused with a whale. They further suggest that the location of the dragon stones near high-altitude lakes and rivers seems to suggest an affiliation with water, which is also a characteristic of dragons in pre-Christian Armenian folklore. If the dragon stones were sites of veneration of dragon-like water deities for ancient Armenians, they argue, the veneration of the fire god Վահագն Վիշապաքաղ Vahagn Višapak‘ał “Vahagn Dragon-culler” and the vilification of dragons by later Armenians may suggest successive inversions of older beliefs by Zoroastrian and Christian authors.

Later research, such as Капанцян Kapant͡si͡an‘s О каменных стелах на горах Армении O kamennykh stelakh na gorakh Armenii (1952), has preferred to analyse the stones outside the context of their later mythical association with dragons. They identify the two figures which frequently appear on these stones as a “fish” and a “sacrificial animal” – probably a bull – but the popular association with dragons and the name višapak‘ar has remained.

Հայերեն: Վիշապաքար ցուլի պատկերով, Ք.ա. 3-2 հազ. Կառավարական երրորդ շենքի գլխավոր ճակատի մոտ.

A case of mistaken identity (Part 2)

With a name like “Georgia”, you might expect the largely Orthodox Christian Caucasian nation to celebrate St. George’s feast day – and indeed it does, though not when you might expect.

The festival of გიორგობა Giorgoba in Georgia is celebrated differently and at different times in different parts of Georgia, with common dates being 6 May, 23 November, and 14 August. Even the name of the holiday differs from place to place, though the association with St. George remains. Veneration of St. George in general is common across the country – so much so that, upon its independence from the Russian Empire, the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia made St. George its patron saint, as he remains to this day. You can read all about the various folk incarnations of St. George in Charachidzé (1968)’s Le système religieux de la Géorgie paienne.

Charachidzé, Georges. Le Système Religieux De La Géorgie Païenne : Analyse Structurale D’une Civilisation. Paris: F. Maspero, 1968. Print. Textes à L’appui.

You may be surprised to learn, then, that the country was not named after the saint – at least not originally. While the country bears the name Georgia (or names like it) in English and many European languages, the name for the country in Georgian is საქართველო Sakartvelo, ultimately related to a geographical term and ethnonym from a certain part of the country. The common European name seems to stem from the Persian ethnonym گرچی gurjī, ultimately probably related to the word گرگ gurg “wolf”, transformed by European pilgrims to the Holy Land some time during the Middle Ages – perhaps noting Georgian pilgrims’ veneration of St. George.

Funnily enough, while the story of St. George and the Dragon is known in Georgia, it does not seem to have played a major role in his traditional veneration. Instead, Charachidzé argues, many of the St. George myths from Georgia are ported over from pagan myths, usually of an old lunar deity.

Pre-Christian Georgian mythology does, however, feature dragons – usually known as გველისფერები gvelisperebi (singular გველისფერი gvelisperi), literally ‘serpent-coloured’ or ‘serpent-like’. In some legends, the გველისფერები gvelisperebi are servants or guards of certain gods or demigods. In others, they specifically guard the entrance to the underworld and are at war with the birds – sometimes eagles or the phoenix-like ფასკუნჯი Pask’unji – perhaps betraying an older association with the earth and water in opposition to the sky and fire.

Coat of arms of the Democratic Republic of Georgia depicting St. George with the sun and moon – but no dragon!