The Culture of Writing in Medieval Abkhazia

Among cultural values created by mankind a central place is occupied by the culture of writing the origination and evolution of which often serves as a criterion for defining the place of a nation in the general system of civilizations.

To speak about the culture of writing in the medieval Abkhazia is impossible without consideration of those written sources which were created in this historical region of Georgia.  Collecting the written monuments being at our disposal, the present research has restored the historical picture of the development of written culture in Abkhazia.

Along with the study and analysis of general theoretic issues of paleography, deciphering of old scripts and graphical structure, the sphere of the researchers' interests include those historical conditions which favored the origination and evolution of this significant achievement of civilization. General historical conditions of the origins and development of the world's writing systems have been singled out and specified. It appeared that the origin of writing in this or that country is linked with certain historical regularities. For example, the genesis of hieroglyphic, cuneiform or cuneiform syllabary scripts is connected with the origin of the statehood in old Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylon and Urartu. The origin and development of alphabetic writing in Phoenicians, Greek and Latin is bound up with the expansion of trade and economic interrelations and genesis of the state [D.Diringer, 1963; A.G.Lundin, 1982].

Another essential historical condition for the origination of the written language is that the fact of adopting Christianity as a state religion in a country. People who shared this belief created their own literacy and develop it. At the initial stage of the establishing Christianity the development of literacy and writing in national languages was dictated by historical necessity. Christianity favored the creation of a new writing system for the national language and translation of the Bible and other canonic books in these languages. This happened during the creation of Coptic, Gothic, old Armenian, old Slavic and other alphabets [Gamkrelidze, 1987:3; Gamkrelidze, 1990: 185]. In a word, among the historical regularities of the origin and development of the writing systems two necessary conditions are named. The first is the emergence of the state; the second is ideological aspect i.e. the proclamation of Christianity as a state religion. The scholars link the origination of the Georgian writing proper with two historical phenomena: the emergence of the state in Kartli and the announcement of Christianity as official religion. In both cases historical regularity of the origin of writing is not broken and both historical realities are acceptable to the science for the origins and development of Georgian alphabet.

How can the mentioned regularities be applied to historical realities of the origination of the Abkhazian Kingdom and Christianity in Abkhazia? If we trust the historiographical "sketches" published in separatist Sokhumi, then "The Kingdom of Abkhazians" created by the initiative of Leon II on the territory of Georgia in the nineties of the 8th century had neither political nor cultural links with the Georgian Kingdom. [Bgazba, Lakoba, 2006]. If it is so, then proceeding from the above mentioned, historical regularities adopted in historiography, "The Kingdom of Abkhazians" must have had all historical preconditions for the creation of the own alphabet. "The Kingdom of Abkhazians" which according to the Abkhazian historians  conducted well-expressed anti-Byzantine policy must have started the struggle for the creation of the Abkhazian alphabet  and, correspondingly, must have composed Abkhazian Christian literacy as it happened with ancient Armenians, Copts, Goths, Slaves and other Christian peoples.

In reality the history evolved in different way. When the Abkhazian kings started the struggle for enhancing the independence, in the first place they activated the ecclesiastical policy in several directions: 1.Disconnection of Western Georgia from the ecclesiastical dominance of Constantinople; 2.The struggle for the unification with Catholicosate of Mtskheta; 3.Expansion of the church building to the west and the establishment of new ecclesiastic centers.; 4.Struggle for Christianization of the neighboring North Caucasian peoples and protection of security of borders [Akhaladze, 2004: 56-64].

At that time Christianity as one of the most important means of spreading and development of national alphabet played an active role in the Kingdom of Abkhazians too. The key role of Christianity in the matter of unification of the country is manifested. The Kings of Abkhazians exactly repeated those ways of strengthening Christianity which were known to ancient Armenians, Goths, Copts and Slaves. They started active struggle for the establishment of Georgian language, scribes and writing in West Georgian (The Kingdom of Abkhazians) church which was clearly displayed in the written sources reflecting their activity that came down to us. It is interesting to note that all existed major historical sources relating to the Kingdom of Abkhazians and the Kings of Abkhazians are in Georgian and it is seen namely from this period (VIII-IX centuries) Georgian written sources on the territory of  Western Georgia or the historical "Kingdom of Abkhazians". The Kings of Abkhazians tried to eliminate the Byzantine religious influence. They abolished Greek metropolitanates of the West Georgia and in their place the Abkhazian kings established new Georgian episcopates. It is thanks to the efforts and support of the "the Kings of Abkhazians" that Georgian language became the ecclesiastic language of the Western Georgia and the process of unification of West-Georgian church with Eastern Georgian autocephalous church was accelerated.

While studying the epigraphic culture existed during the Middle Ages on the territory of the present day Abkhazia, it is essential to consider those written monuments which have been found in this region. The material monuments preserved on the territory of present day Abkhazia as on the entire West Georgia (historical "Kingdom of Abkhazians") are represented in three languages: Georgian, Greek and Turkish. Greek and Turkish monuments have survived only as lapidary inscriptions.  According to the data of a recognized researcher of Greek epigraphs in Georgia T.Kaukhchishvili on the territory of the present day Abkhazia as well as entire West Georgia the obtained Greek epigraphic monuments were mainly performed before the 9th century and they belong to that epoch when a part of Western Georgian church (perhaps mainly along the sea coast - L.A) belonged to Constantinople domain yet. Of them around 22 Greek epigraphic monuments are from the present day Abkhazia [Kaukhchishvili, 2004: 59-79].

There are known six epigraphic monuments in Turkish of which the earliest is the inscription of a certain Mechmed dating from 1598. Besides this, there exist 18-th century inscriptions by Jirkhva and Chlous (Chala and also Mechmed Emin's inscription dated to 1785. The inscriptions done by BatalBei Marshania and Khasanbei  Shervashidze dated to the 19th century [Bgazhba, 1967: 27].

The absolute majority of the written monuments of Abkhazia are Georgian. The samples of the medieval Georgian writing have been found in abundance on the territory of the present day Abkhazia. Among the written source there are both epigraphic monuments (inscriptions) and manuscripts performed on soft material. Many of them are epigraphic monuments. All in all there are recorded over 100 lapidary, mural and chased inscriptions [Akhaladze, 2005: 4]. Among written sources came down to us there are about 15 epigraphic monuments with the names of Abkhazian kings proper [Akhaladze, 2004: 56-64] and one historical chronicle - Abkhazta Mepeta Divani [Takaishvili, 1913: 46-54], which was considerably renewed during the reign of the first king of kings Bagrat II (978-1014).

The display of old epigraphic culture  of contemporary Abkhazia is impossible without known icons  from Bedia, Bijvinta, Tsebelda, Ilori and approximately 30 Georgian inscriptions inscribed on them [Chubinashvili, 1959: 22-25; 86-97; 98; 385; 530-532; 533;534; 543; 568; 593].

It is interesting to note that the majority of these epigraphic monuments which are made by the order of the "Kings of Abkhasz" or those in which they are mentioned are found beyond the boundaries of the present day Abkhazia, in other historical regions of Georgia (on the territory of the historical "Kingdom of Abkhazians") namely: Samegrelo, Kartli, Imereti and Javakheti). Of special importance is the fact that almost all inscriptions (total of 15) are made in Georgian Asomtavruli script and carved on the samples of Christian art: cathedrals and ecclesiastical items.

In historiography it is known that important sites of Georgian culture were functioning on the territory of Abkhazia: Mokvi, Bedia, Alori, Likhni, Tsebelda, Tsarche, etc., where in the course of centuries the centers of Georgian culture existed. Here of particular importance are book depositories where original Georgian compositions were written, spiritual literature was translated from Greek, and manuscripts were created. The following monuments of culture have come down to us: the unique Mokvi Gospels embellished with miniatures, Gulani from Bedi, Iadgar from Bijvinta, Mokvi omophorion, translation of Gospel by Giorgi Mtatsmindeli, Vardzia Gulani which due to the historic vicissitudes of fate appeared in Bedia and renovated there, etc. [Georgian... 2007:68, 70, 72]. All historical monuments mentioned above are remarkable specimens of Georgian writing and are inherent part of Georgian writing culture.

Georgian written sources obtained on the territory of the present day Abkhazia supply rich material both for historical-source study and paleographic research and from the viewpoint of study of the history of evolution of epigraphic culture. Three stages of the development of Georgian writing are presented here: Asomtavruli, Nuskha-Khutsusri and Mkhedruli. Of them Asomtavruli script in which a majority of the monuments of this historical region of Georgia are done, is mainly presented. The manuscripts are mainly performed in Nuskha-Khutsuri script, although in separate cases Mkhedruli epigraphs are also found.

The fact is worth noting that study and comparison of Georgian epigraphic monuments of Abkhazia with writing specimens of other historical regions of Georgia from the viewpoint of historical-source study and paleography clearly shows advanced cultural and historical trends of this region. It appeared that this region was one of the first that responded to current changes in Georgian Asomtavruli script in the 10th-11th centuries, an also the process of formation of Mkhedruli from Nuskhuri. Moreover, the analysis of the Abkhazian epigraphic material evidences that in this region the foundation was laid to one of the remarkable trends of Georgian writing culture, particularly, calligraphy school of pointed-end style of script [Akhaladze, 2007: 32-40].

Not only in the Middle Ages but also in the 19th century in the north-western part of Georgia occupied by Russia - Abkhazia - under the policy of russification, the Abkhazians used Georgian literary language during official correspondence as well as Christian liturgy and cultural activity. The Georgian language was well spoken not only by the upper class but the greater part of the lower social strata too. Moreover, during the 19th century the Abkhazian nobility exercised the official correspondence with Russian authorities only in Georgian language and intelligentsia considered Georgian language and culture as their own native language [Gvantseladze, 2009: 209]. The mentioned facts are evidenced by numerous historical documents which are kept in Georgian as well as Russian historical sources, archives and acts.

As to the modern Abkhazian alphabet1 it was created by known Abkhazian public man Dimitri Gulia in the 20th century on the basis of Russian graph [Bgazba, 1967: 60].

Thus, epigraphic monuments created on the territory of the present day Abkhazia in the Middle Ages prove that in writing culture of this region leading position was occupied by Georgian writing which is represented through three stages of its evolution: Asomtavruli, Nuskha-Khutsuri and Mkhedruli. Also, all those calligraphic trends or schools which existed in any historical region of Georgia are evidenced. Hence, besides Georgian writing cultures any other culture, other writing system or even an attempt to substitute Georgian with any other writing system in the medieval Abkhazia has not been traced.

1 It should be mentioned that the area of using Abkhazian alphabet is very small and it is mainly used among the narrow monoethnic socium due to the fact that in separatist Abkhazia there are two official languages: Russian and Abkhazian. Abkhazian is taught only in Abkhazian schools but only up to the third grade, and as to the state office work it officially proceeds in the Russian language.


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