Overseas Georgia is located between the Black and Caspian Seas. Georgia is a remote periphery for Europe as well as for Asia since its territory spans both of these continents.
Georgia's neighboring countries are: Turkey and Armenia from the south, Republics of Russia from the north, and Azerbaijan from the east.
Georgians call their country Sakartvelo, Russians call it Gruzia, and the Muslim neighbors call Georgia Gurjistan. Ancient Greeks and Romans called the western part of contemporary Georgia Colchis, and the eastern part of the country Iberia.
Most parts of the highlands of this miniature country (26.831 square miles, population 5.3 million) are situated in the northern and southern slopes of the Caucasus mountain range, the highest mountain range in Europe.
One of the historical and most remote provinces of Georgia, Khevsureti (405.3 square miles, winter population approximately 3200 people) is located in the central part of this mountain range, neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia.
The Russian serviceman and ethnographer Arnold Zisserman who spent 25 years (1842-67) in the Caucasus, believed the exotic group of Georgian highlanders, dwellers of these steep mountains, were descendants of the last Crusaders. The publicity attracted by his opinion renewed the interest in the ethnography of this super-periphery of Europe. In addition, the political situation of that period served as a feeding background of this interest, since at that time Russia had already been conducting a war against the unconquerable Muslim highlanders of the Caucasus for almost a half a century.
In Zisserman's time, most of the Khevsurs, who were under constant threat of attacks from the North Caucasus, were still forced to live in isolated medieval fortress-villages. The hypothesis that the Khevsurs had a Frankish ethnic background was based on the fact that their folk culture: the material, social and religious practices, greatly resembled a style of the Crusaders. Khevsur men, covered and dressed in chain mails and armed with broadswords, wore garments decorated with crosses. They worshiped flags-crosses and considered themselves permanent members of the army of the sacred flags and guards of Georgian kings. For the Khevsurs a major task was defending the northern borders of their country, as well as protecting and strengthening the folk version of Christianity, the religion of their ancestors.
In fact the Khevsurian mythology is a local version of a holy war ideology. At the same time these testaments (as the locals call their myths) are oral histories of the military actions under the guidance of holy flags-crosses. In a very dramatic manner the Khevsurian myths portray wars of old that have resulted in the conversion to Christianity and georgianization of unbeliever and pagan highlanders of the Central Caucasus. These myths are rich in socio-cultural context; they narrate stories of the past through the description of fights and confrontations between the local heroes, so called Sons of God and the adverse creatures, smiths-ogres.
Up until today the truly peaceful successors of the Caucasian Crusaders carry out some very old folk traditions of their ancestors, viewed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church as "pagan." Through performing these ceremonies, the highlanders are remembering the past on which their sub-ethnic identity has been based. Even in a Soviet period of harsh restrictions against any religious activities, the Georgian highlanders together with the group of local Crusaders—self-made priests, would organize and perform the annual peaceful crusade-pilgrimages. During these pilgrimages they still use the real and symbolic routes of their ancestors' military campaigns. In those places where the important battles of the past have taken place and the small prayer-towers have been built as the signs of victory of flags-crosses, the highlanders replicate fights and liberation of these towers from an enemy. They perform ritual combat-tournaments and horse races on the steep rocky hills.
The customs, institutions and mythology of highlanders described above were shaped in the 11th-13th centuries under the influence of pro-crusade politics and the official culture of the medieval Georgian monarchy. The Christianity and Feudal order of this period became a basis for the next stage of nation building, and Georgians, aided by the arrival of the Crusaders in Near East, together with the other peoples of the Caucasus created a united parliamentary monarchy-type of state in the Transcaucasia.
After several Mongol invasions starting in the 1230s, the state gradually weakened and 13 years after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, disintegrated into semi-independent kingdoms and principalities, most of which are the historical-ethnographic provinces of present-day Georgia.
The curators collected materials for this exhibit during their ethnographic fieldwork. The photo exhibit shows many examples of the folk architecture and artifacts that no longer exist.
The ethnographic film for this exhibit presents one of the highlander festivals in the Gudamaqari gorge. The film shows preparations for the festivity and a 3-day pilgrimage. During this ritual journey, the participants travel from Gudamaqari to their neighboring province Khevsureti to pray and make offerings to the sacred shrines of their ancestors.
The photos for this exhibit were taken by Vakhtang Chikovani, who is also a scriptwriter for the ethnographic film.
For more information about the region see: Georgia's Pankisi Gorge: An Ethnographic Survey by Shorena Kurtsikidze and Vakhtang Chikovani, available at the following web site: http://repositories.cdlib.org/iseees/bps/2002_03-kurt/
The Exhibit Curators
SHORENA KURTSIKIDZE, Research Associate with the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies at UC Berkeley; PhD in Cultural Anthropology, Academy of Sciences of Georgia. Please view her website at http://webdisk.berkeley.edu/~shorena/
VAKHTANG CHIKOVANI, Freelance Researcher Anthropologist, Former Head of the Department of the Ethnology of Caucasus, Institute of the History and Ethnology, Academy of Sciences of Georgia; PhD in Cultural Anthropology
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For information regarding images for press purposes please contact Nicole Mullen at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 510-643-7649.