Georgia: Europe or Asia?


Georgia: Europe or Asia?

This question is asked frequently, and especially persistently in connection with Georgia’s accession to the Council of Europe, as well as in view of the growing tendency of Georgia’s integration into the European structures.

From the point of view of physical geography Europe and Asia form a single continent, subsumed under the name Eurasia. The division of this single continent is largely conditional, due rather to geopolitical factors and based mainly on cultural historical traditions.

The geographical names Europe and Asia stem from the Classical world, being Greek proper names widespread in Greek mythology. According to a well-known Greek myth, Europa was a Phoenician princess who inspired the love of Zeus and was carried away by him in the form of a white bull from Phoenicia to Crete. There she became by him mother of Minos, the legendary King of Crete. The building of the Labyrinth, the renowned palace, is linked to the latter king, as well as the killing by Theseus of the Minotaur in the labyrinth and tracking his way out with the clue supplied by Ariadne.

The Greek words Europe and Asia are related to words of Semitic provenance, respectively with the meanings of ‘evening’, ‘sunset’ and ‘coming out’ (‘emergence’), ‘sunrise’. It is probably not accidental that in Greek mythology Europe was a Phoenician (i.e. Semite) princess.

For the ancient Greeks the boundary between Europe and Asia ran along the river Phasis (identified with the modern Rioni). However, in the Greek world Phasis was used in reference to other rivers as well, perhaps to the river Chorokhi, too. Thus, according to traditional conceptions, the Rioni should be taken for the southern boundary of Europe, drawing the line between Europe and Asia not along the Caucasus Range but rather along the course of the rivers found in the South West of Georgia.

From this point of view, for the Greeks Colchis and the Kingdom of Colchis were located wholly in Europe, belonging to the properly "European" part of the "Eurasian" continent. The Zan language – the ancestor of modern Megrel-Laz – was the language of the Colchian State, presumably spoken by Ayetes, king of the "Land of Aya", i.e., Colchis. Professor A. Shanidze called this language Colchian. It is from this language that the Greek Argonauts borrowed the Colchian word *tqovi / *tkovi to express the "golden fleece" (Gk. Kov-) in quest of which they set out for Colchis in those far-off days.

The trimillennial of Georgian statehood, to be marked by the entire Georgian people at the end of this century derives from the recognition of Colchis as a Georgian-Kartvelian state. Ancient Georgian statehood dates precisely from Colchis, i.e. Colchian statehood. It is not fortuitous that among the various scholarly views on the date of inception of ancient Georgian statehood the "Colchian version" has been adopted.

According to the latest studies, the existence of Colchian statehood should be assumed by the 15th century B.C., since many names known to us from the "Argonautic myth", including such names as "(the land of) Aya", Colchis, Jason, etc., are recorded in Greek inscriptions of the Mycenaean period (15th/14th cent. B.C.).

It may be assumed from the foregoing that according to ancient beliefs, a major part of Georgia and, in general the Southern Caucasus, lay in the European part of the Eurasian continent, unlike the regions lying to the south of the Rioni and the Chorokhi (Anatolia, the Iranian Upland, Mesopotamia) which, according to the same beliefs, belonged to the "Asian" part of the Continent and is known in modern geographical nomenctature as Vorderasien (in German) and South West Asia (in English). The same area is often called the Near East (Russian: Ближний Восток). Thus, Georgia and "South Caucasus" in general, should be considered a region lying in the European part proper, which it is proposed to be called South East Europe (Russian: Юго-Восточная Европа), in analogy with South East Asia (Russian: Юго-Восточная Азия).

Therefore, the European part of the "Eurasian" continent comprises "Western Europe", "Eastern Europe" (with boundaries running along the Urals and the Caspian Sea) and South East Europe, comprising Georgia and the other countries of South Caucasus.

Thus, Georgia’s membership of the "Council of Europe" serves as a corroboration of the Georgian state always included into the European part of the Eurasian continent, in other words, recognition of our traditional "Europeanness".

But how "purely" European is the Georgian culture and the Georgian civilization itself? To which world does Georgia belong cultural-historically – to the "West" or to the "East"? What cultural-historical relations does the Georgian State evince over its trimillennial history?

Inasmuch as Georgia lies in the extreme south-eastern part of Europe, bordering on the "Asian" part of the continent, Georgian culture and civilization should naturally constitute a synthesis and symbiosis of Western and Eastern cultures, arising as a result of a merger and mixing of these cultures.

Classical Greek culture is rightly considered the cradle of European culture and civilization. This Greek or "Hellenic" culture itself is closely linked, with its roots, to the Ancient Near Eastern civilizations.

The so-called "Hellenistic" culture and civilization took shape after the campaign of Alexander the Greek in the East, being a merger of Greek, or Hellenic, culture with Oriental cultural traditions (the term being coined by the German scholar Dreusen). Pre-Christian Georgian cultural traditions must have contributed to some extent to this process, too. These Eastern cultural impulses and influences on Western culture and civilization are reflected in the well-known Latin maxim Ex Oriente Lux.

Byzantine cultural traditions took shape through a merger of this symbiotic culture with Eastern Christianity, embracing the countries exposed to the Eastern Christianity area, including Georgia. Based on Hellenistic cultural tendencies, new cultural centres came into being in the bosom of Eastern Christianity, with their own national scripts and national cultural traditions, based on East-West civilizations. Herein lies the uniqueness of Georgian material and spiritual culture – its attractiveness both to the West and to the East.

Georgia developed into one of the major Christian states and cultural centres, suffering many ups and downs throughout its centuries-old history, before attaining today’s sovereignty and independence.

We are now given a unique historical chance of opening up this culture and demonstrating it to the rest of the world. Good advantage must be made of this opportunity.

History disposed so that in the 1990s such political forces came to power in Georgia that extricated the Georgian state from the then total international isolation and, thanks to their chiefly Western orientation, brought the country into the wide international arena.

This was facilitated, in the first place, by the geopolitical situation of Georgia and the entire South Caucasus, as a region lying at the crossroads of East and West linking the Asian and European parts of the continent, and considerably by the current political and state activities of Georgian Authorities.

It was President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze who put forward and implemented in practice the conception of turning Georgia into the main artery linking the East and the West – the principal transit route corridor between East and West.

As is known, this function was historically performed by the Great Silk Route, by which, along with other goods and products, mainly Chinese silk was transported from the East to the West. The question of the restoration and revival of the Great Silk Route is being placed on the agenda.

The term "Silk Route" was coined at the end of the 19th century by German scholars, being used in reference to the ancient trade route from China to the West, for in ancient times silk was the most valuable fabric and one of the luxuries imported from China. Like oil today, silk in the past was not only one of the most important commodities but one of the chief items of tender in the East.

Thus, historically it is fully justified to name, metaphorically, the new trade and transit route linking the East and the West the "Silk Route". But whereas the historical Great Silk Route ran much to the south of Georgia, with but a peripheral branch reaching the South Caucasian region, today it is the main artery of the New Silk Route that will cross Georgia, the latter being in the center of the region linking the East and the West. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak not of the restoration and revival of the historical Great Silk Route but of creating a New Silk Route whose principal East-West artery will run precisely through Georgia, this fully corresponding to Georgia’s historical mission of culturally merging and uniting the Western and Eastern civilizations and cultural streams. And all this is taking place today, before our very eyes, and in the shortest periods of time – in a country burdened by internal wars and conflicts.

By acquiring a new geopolitical function of a link between East and West, which at the present stage has doubtless more political significance and value, Georgia enters the sphere of world strategic interests, creating thus additional guarantees for the country’s sovereignty and independence. On the other hand, this evokes bitter opposition on the part of forces opposed to this latest geopolitical and cultural function of Georgia. This resistance will probably cease only when the aforementioned forces become convinced in the irreversibility of this geopolitical function of Georgia and that nothing can change Georgia’s current major cultural-historical and political-economic trend.

Throughout the trimillennary history of Georgian statehood, Georgia has never been so widely represented in the international arena as now, and all this is occurring with unprecedented speed – over a period of several years.

The implementation of these grandiose geopolitical plans naturally calls for an establishment of real peace and stabilization of the situation in Georgia as well as the entire Caucasus. To this end, Eduard Shevardnadze advances the idea of a "Peaceful Caucasus" and of "Dialogue of Cultures in the Caucasus"; wide International Conferences are being held in Tbilisi dedicated to these problems, these ideas being basically opposed to the widespread concept of the "Clash of civilizations" deriving from Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard.

According to Dr. Samuel Huntington, future wars will occur not between individual states and political unions but between differing civilizations. And this will take place in zones of confronting civilizations, at fault lines between civilizations, Caucasus being named as one such zone. The idea of the "Peaceful Caucasus" and of the "Dialogue of cultures and harmonious coexistence in the Caucasus", put forward by Eduard Shevardnadze, by the way, an Honorary Doctor of the same Harvard University, is thus opposed in a sense to Samuel Huntington’s concept of the "Clash of civilizations". Thereby the idea of the "Peaceful Caucasus", as an antithesis to the concept of the "Clash of civilizations", acquires an international sounding, securing thus its proper place in the world system of modern politological concepts.

In the autumn of 1999 a major Conference has been held under the aegis and funding of UNESCO, at the "International Research Center for East-West Relations" attached to the Acad. George Tsereteli Institute of Oriental Studies (Georgian Academy of Sciences) dealing with the above issues and a wide range of general problems of East_West relations. The participation in the Conference of such eminent figures of modern political science as Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress, Professor Richard Pipes of Harvard and others, gave the Conference a special international value and importance.

Hopefully, all this will help further strengthen the international prestige and reputation of Georgia as a European state and as a country linking East and West in the sense of Wolfgang Goethe’s verses from "Ost-Westlicher Diwan":

"Wer sich selbst und andre kennt,

Wird auch hier erkennen,

Orient und Okzident

Sind nicht mehr zu trennen".

By  Prof. Thomas V. Gamkrelidze