The Perception of Ethnicity in the Georgian Hagiography

The history of the research of ethnicity and nationalism is presented in the western historiography. However, it becomes more and more interesting for the Georgian researchers. The appearance of social theories has brought together history and sociology. “A new history” drew forward those questions, which were needed for a combined research. The issues of ethnicity and nationalism became a subject of a broad discussion. Social issues together with a political history filled a historical narrative and made the history more perceptive. There are national societies around us. From the first sight, their history originates from the European modernization. In reality, they have a “deep” ethnic past. This theory is developed by ethno-symbolists, whose works are used in my work1. Some Georgian scholars view skeptically the research of ethnicity. However, everyone recognizes the influence of a “deep” ethnic past on the formation of the self-consciousness of the Georgian nation. Despite an empirical research, the Georgian historians (among them Iv. Javakhishvili) of the 30s-40s of the 20th century guessed that there was something in ethnicity that facilitated its continuation. The scholars often reject innovations of those, who work in this field. Obviously, it is natural that ethnicity is a perceptive phenomenon. However, its depiction in different historical sources as well as the type of a chain of development and demonstration of terms denoting ethnicity has created a complete picture of this phenomenon. What is the ethnicity?

    There are a lot of definitions related to it. According to one of the widely-recognized definitions, an ethnic unity is a common self-named unity, which has a myth of a common ancestor, a shared historical memory and one or more differentiating elements of a common culture [Smith, 2008:27]. The study of ethnicity is impossible without a theoretical frame. I apply to it.

   Another important issue is a selected source, which will assist me during the study of this phenomenon. I use hagiographic sources for the understanding of this question. It is worth mentioning that they have an outstanding value for the solution of those problems, which will better show “the history from beneath”.  The study of such sources has its tradition in the Georgian hagiography. However, hagiographic works have mainly been observed by philologists. The historians applied to these sources for the determination of a historical person or a date, for the comparison of redactions, etc.2 The interest towards hagiography rose after the appearance of new       issues. Moreover, an informational capacity of hagiography facilitated the study of ethnicity and nationalism as well as a systemic observation of different social, cultural and mentality-related issues. The role of the Georgian hagiography must be underlined during the researching of these issues. The Georgian hagiography is outstanding with its historism. Therefore, it becomes an exceptional historic source during the study of the issue of ethnicity.

    The Georgian hagiography is charged with a national ideology. It is characterized with the abundance of terms expressing ethnicity. The authenticity of sources helps us to consider the issue of ethnicity well.

    Conventionally, we can single out several stages from the viewpoint of the representation of the phenomenon of ethnicity: the first – characterized with the prominence of the issue of religion and its defense; the second – a transitional period, which is characterized with a particular steadiness (hence, the abundance of terms expressing ethnicity and the depiction of the contours of national ideals can be seen in the Georgian hagiography of this period); the third – characterized with the development of national ideals and their advance.

    My aim is the observation of a transitional period of hagiography, particularly, the examination of the monuments of the 8th -10th centuries.  Therefore, the focus of my research comprises “The martyrdom of Abo Tbileli” and “The life of St. Grigol from Khantsta”. A lot has been written and said about a literary value of these works. I will put an accent on the following terms expressing ethnicity in the above-mentioned sources: ნათესავი/natesavi (relative), ერი/eri (nation). They facilitate the prominence of “we – group” more than the hagiographic monuments of the previous period.  Ethnicity is a permanent, but a changeable phenomenon. Therefore, the contents of the terms expressing ethnicity is also changeable. The alteration of the contents of these terms in the above-mentioned monuments obviously indicates to the alteration of the perception of inner social ties. It is interesting to make observations from this point of view.  

    The study of the terms expressing ethnicity was not started by me. Scholars tried to find out the meanings of ethnic terms (ნათესავი/natesavi, ერი/eri) during different periods via the observation of diverse works: the Sacred Writings or historical sources. It is impossible to discuss all the cases in a paper. Therefore, I will present several samples from the works of Georgian researchers. Damana Melikishvili concludes that “a relative is a circumscriber of a tribe, the nation is a general name of “people”, “a group of people”, while more concretely it denotes God’s elect nation (Israel)” [Melikishvili, 2009:587]. During different periods, the term nation has been considered as an army, people and an inhabitant. Nation of the Middle Ages is considered with its contemporary meaning too3. L. Pataridze studied the Georgian scholars’ observations related to these terms and expressed the following viewpoint: “nation reflects the meaning of people’s general assembly according to a societal structure in which it functions” [Pataridze, 2002:14]. Factually, the term nation denotes an identity-group, which is met either with a broad meaning or with a narrow one. The term relative is more loaded with ethnicity. It puts an accent on a general origin. During the process of the observation of these terms, Z. Kiknadze makes the following conclusions: “In contrast to relative (which means ethnic belongingness), nation, especially, in the word-combination every nation, denotes a social-political unity in old Georgian historiography” [Kiknadze, 2002:17]. It is obvious that the Georgian reality comprises a large number of researchers of ethnic terms. Iv. Javakhishvili and S. Kaukhchishvili were also interested in this issue. Despite a variety of results, the aim of these scholars was not the research of ethnicity. Their works, which must be taken into account and which left their footprint in the Georgian hagiography, do not have a systemic character and the hagiography, as an entity, has not become an object of the research. Therefore, I think that the given research will particularly fill the discourse, which refers to the perception of ethnicity.

     Generally, we can call ethnicity the we-group. However, its elements are constituted by religion and language. They create an inner dependence, which can be called the origin [Erikson, 2002]. The study of the Georgian ethnicity is original. The observation of this issue from the narrative sources of Georgia’s history requires more carefulness and responsibility. The assessment of a transitional period is especially difficult, because the transformation is always painful and the expression of a national thinking of this period requires a careful observation.  

     An ethnie is similar to a living being. It is characterized by the continuation in time. The prominence of the we-group fixed in relation to other becomes interesting during the study of a collective cultural identity. The unity we is  separated from other. The we-identity is unique. Its unity, land and memory are sacral.  The saints’ martyrdom creates a sacral space.  A sacral space is the place, where people are given an opportunity to interrelate with the divine. It is confirmed with an idol or after the appearance of any mark [Pataridze, 1993:31]. The meaning of the term ერი/eri is observed by A. Bogveradze. The researcher cites historical sources as well as the passages from “The martyrdom of Abo Tbileli” and “The life of St. Grigol from Khantsta”. According to A. Bogveradze’s viewpoint, the meaning of the term ერი/eri varies in different contexts. This term may unite plebeians, slaves, peasants, serfs, etc.  According to his viewpoint, “during the epoch of an absolute monarchy, “nation” is a term denoting different strata of a producer-society having different rights while sitting on a feudal’s land or while being placed in his “domain” (Chorchaneli’s  expression)” [Bogveradze, 1973:319]. M. Chkhartishvili researches the phenomenon of ethnicity according to an ethno-symbolist paradigm. In accordance with historic and hagiographic monuments, she studies such markers of ethnicity as self-naming, religion, territory, collective memory, essence5

     The observation of ethnicity is possible before the researched period. The perception of ethnicity is created by the level of an inner-catenation of a unity. The Georgian nation is a continuous nation. This fact enables us to create a chain of processes reflecting the development of a unity, which ends with the transformation of this unity into the contemporary nation. An ethnic unity is the most developed form of an ethnie. It is a cultural unity, which is not characterized with the homogeneity. We can speak about four levels of an ethnie while observing the ethnicity: “an ethnic category, when there is a very low level of self-perception; an ethnic net, where the interrelation between the members of an ethnie is more intensive; an ethnic association (the third level) – the members of an ethnie develop common interests and political organizations in order to present a single collective; an ethnic unity (a final level)   -  a unity, which has a distinct physically boarded territory with a leading political force” [Tonkin, 1996:20]. The levels of an ethnie are determined after an inner intensity of characteristics of the ethnicity is manifested. It seems that the ethnicity is perceptible in the Georgian reality of the 8th century.  Ioane Sabanisdze put a special accent on Abo’s ethnicity: “Dear friends of saint and desired martyr Abo, Christ wants me to inform you how he came to us. He was a descendant of Abraham, from a tribe of Ismail. He was not a son of a mistress. He was Arab from paternal and maternal sides” [Abuladze, 1963:56]. The identity does not exist without considering other. Our group is perceived towards other. In “The martyrdom of Abo Tbileli” we-group separates itself from the Arabs, Abo (S.K.): was afraid of the Arabs – the conquerors and governors of the village” [Abuladze, 1963:57].

     In contrast to the Georgian hagiographic works of the previous period, the above-mentioned monuments present more vividly the following terms denoting ethnicity: relative and nation. The definition of these terms is the major aim of this paper. A relative means the multitude, which comes from a single root. Nowadays, a relative mainly has a narrow meaning with an accent on a blood unity. It is obvious that such examples are met in both hagiographic monuments. However, in the 8th-10th centuries the term relative expressed a broader meaning than during the following period. It is obvious that in this case, the term relative does not exclude a common origin, but it is more imaginary and indicates to the entity, which has the belief in a common ancestor. There are a lot of examples connected with this in the monuments selected by us. I will single out some of them:

     St. Abo, who was standing before the judge, was addressed in such a way: “You are from the Arabian tribe. You have the Arabian relatives. Why did you leave your native confession and became sinful as the Christians?” [Abuladze, 1963:64]. It is clear that a tribe and a relative are synonyms and indicate to the origin.

    The monk answered Bagrat Kurapalati’s question (regarding having no reaction on Saba Ishkhneli’s first letter) in the following way: “You are the king of relatives, while Christ is the king of everyone” [Abuladze, 1963:274]. 

    The grief stipulated by the death of Ashot Kurapalati is emotionally described “in the life” of a holy father. After hearing this, Grigol Khantsteli said: “Where do I have to wait for you - in the east or in the west, in the north or in the south? You are the possessor of all the relatives” [Abuladze, 1963:264].  Besides having a narrow meaning, the term relative mainly conveys a broader meaning in the monuments of the 8th-10th centuries. The above-given examples indicate to this fact. The term relative puts an accent on a common ethnic origin, on the people with the same root.

    Historical monuments preserve the memory of the Middle Ages and an epochal perception of different issues. During the study of the ethno-term relative we came across the term ნათესავით აზნაური/natesavit aznauri. I want to pay a reader’s attention to the following example: “At that period Father Arsen, ნათესავით აზნაური/natesavit aznauri, was the leader at Khantsta’’ [Abuladze, 1963:277].  ნათესავით აზნაური is met several times in “The life of St. Grigol from Khantsta”. It seems that the author purposely intends to indicate to Arsen’s hereditary (ნათესავით) nobility via putting an accent on  the origin of his ancestors. This example demonstrates the considerations of the Middle Ages very well. Arsen is not a nobleman by mercy. His forefathers were noblemen.

    The alteration of a cultural identity is possible. Abo perceived and shared the Georgian culture via the acceptance of Christianity. The world historiography remembers similar examples very well. Ethnicity creates a collective identity, which is principally closed, but practically can be open. The meaning of the term relative becomes clear from the above-mentioned monuments. Kinship and nature are synonymous to a particular extent. Abo’s nature is obvious – he is Arabian. The ethnicity of the Middle Ages is not determined only by nature or origin. A major marker of the identity is the religion, which is decisive for the ethnicity. The interesting examples of the perception of the ethnicity is met in “The martyrdom of Abo Tbileli”. The leader of Abkhazia addressed Abo: “Do not go out of the country, because the country of Kartli is occupied by the Arabs and you are Arabian by nature” [Abuladze, 1963:61].  Abo was not forgiven for changing his confession because of his nature, for being Arabian. Abkhazian leader’s perception of Abo’s nature is absolutely understandable. However, the perception is different according to the words of the denouncer: “There is a young man in this town. He was Arabian by nature and was reared according to the confession given by Prophet Muhammad. He rejected his confession and became Christian” [Abuladze, 1963:64].  Abo calls himself the Arabian by nature: “I am Arabian by nature, from paternal and maternal sides. I was taught the confession of Muhammad. I had been in ignorance before God chose me among brothers and relatives” [Abuladze, 1963:65]. The given examples reveal that despite sharing the Georgian culture, Abo maintains his identity. However, he seemingly loses his identity according to the second example. Different perceptions, which are presented in the text, can be connected to the author’s unclear position towards the essence of an ethnic identity.

     The term nation generally indicates to the collection.  In the Middle Ages it had a narrower meaning. It denoted different identity groups. We have already given certain examples. The term nation is met eight times in St. Abo’s “life”. Nation denotes a suit – Abkhazian leader “forgave Nerse and his suit” [Abuladze, 1963:58]. The same meaning has nation in the second example:  “he was accompanied by 300 men from his  nation” [Abuladze, 1963:58]. Besides having a narrow meaning, this term presents a broader sense in St. Abo’s “life”: “and via his mercy (St. Abo – S. K.) he was loved by the whole nation…” Abuladze, 1963:57]. 

      The term nation conveys different meanings in “The life of St. Grigol from Khantsta”:

     Nation denotes laymen – The laymen recognized Arsen as the Catholicos of Kartli: “and King Guaram and the whole nation said: “Amen!” [Abuladze, 1963:289].

     Nation denotes a parish – “After this, blissful Father Grigol saw a revived nation in Shatberdi” [Abuladze, 1963:283].

     Nation denotes a priesthood – “A group of God’s angels surrounded him and the fragrance of incense surrounded a group of Fathers”.

    Nation denotes people – Nerse “was severely fought by the nation of the Arabs” [Abuladze, 1963:58].

     Nation denotes every people – “Christ made Blissful Grigol’s dream come true and granted him the honor to build up deserts with sanctities to the consternation of kings and every nation” [Abuladze, 1963:283].

    Besides different considerations of nation, hagiographic monuments, particularly, “The martyrdom of Abo Tbileli” and “The life of St. Grigol from Khantsta” present the examples, where the meaning of the term nation is not well-defined. Consideration of the content of a text is very important for the understanding of ethno-terms. The study of the content of a text enables us to determine the load of terms. The above-given examples were chosen via the consideration of this fact. I did not give all the examples from two monuments. However, I tried to present the meanings of relative and nation exhaustively.  It is worth mentioning that the terms denoting ethnicity were researched by different scholars. However, they were not studied in dynamics and hagiographic monuments were not  systematically observed from the point of view of ethnicity.

    The given paper is a part of a long work, which aims at researching ethnicity on the basis of the Georgian hagiographic monuments of the 10th -18th centuries. The above-given observation reveals an interesting situation from the point of view of the study of ethnicity. It highlights the Georgian cultural identity, which acquires a developed form in the hagiographic monuments of the following periods.

1 Generally, an ethnie can be defined as a unity of people, which has common cultural and social characteristics. This term has been widely used since the 60s of the 20th century.  Some social theories discuss an ethnic essence of an ethnie. It is obvious that a precise choice of a theory has the greatest significance. It is a key issue for the determination of the phenomenon of the ethnicity.  For this reason, I use an ethno-symbolist theory, which was suggested by E. D. Smith. According to it, the nation is a contemporary phenomenon, which has deep ethnic roots. This theory widely defines the essence, levels, types and categories of ethnicity. See Smith E. D., 2008. 

2 The situation regarding the study of hagiography in Georgian as well as in western historiography can be seen in my paper: The study of hagiographic compositions from the point of view of historiography and source studies, in Georgian and western literature, GSEU, Faculty of Humanities, Center of History and Archaeology, collection of works, 2016, pp. 181-194.

3 See Giorgi Macharashvili’s the meaning of ერი/eri and არაერი/araeri in old Georgian, Kartvelology, Ilia State University, N 6.

4 Mariam Chkhartishvili, The Georgian ethnie in the epoch of religious conversion, Tbilisi, Caucasian House and also St. Father Giorgi Mtatsmindeli and borders of Georgian identity in the 11th century, Georgian source studies, Tbilisi, Chronicler, 2006, Vol. 11, pp. 87-101, Mariam Chkhartishvili: Saint George of Mtatsminda and the Forging of Georgian Identity in the 11th Century. Histoire, mémoire et dévotion. Regards croisés sur la construction des identities dans le monde orthodoxe aux époques byzantine et post-byzantine Editor: Radu G. Păun, 2017, pp.73–89.

5 Theoretic works are not only translated in the Georgian scientific space. Ethnologists, culturologists and historians practically process the issues of ethnicity. This is vividly proved by conference materials as well as by recently held conferences, for instance, see “Ethnic and religious-confessional relations in Georgia: history and contemporaneousness”, the texts of the papers of the regional conference of 2013, TSU, Educational-scientific Institute of Ethnology.


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