By Katharine Vivian

The Author

Katharine Vivian has translated several Georgian classics, notably Rustaveli’s The Knight in Panther Skin, Orbeliani’s Book of Wisdom and Lies and a section of The Georgian Chronicle. She has also contributed to symposia on the literature and culture of Georgia in London, Bari and Tbilisi.

The following post is an extract from the full paper which can be downloaded free at:


Casual readers may be forgiven for thinking of Georgia in purely modern terms – as the birthplace of Stalin and the location of recent wars. But as Katharine Vivian shows, rather like Sicily, it has a rich history steeped in both the influences of East and West. This is reflected in certain Georgian masterpieces of literature well worth re-examining now we know their origin in a world tradition.

Sufic Traces in Georgian Literature

Georgia in Transcaucasia has a literature with a long history, constantly enriched by contact with the great civilisations on its frontiers. The first known works date from the fifth century, and even before the Georgian alphabet was formed the people possessed a store of learning and legend brought from Greece and Persia.

These ancient myths and tales were transformed and developed into a vast body of folklore. Some of the most popular legends are those centred on the hero Amiran, a Georgian Prometheus. For his crime of stealing fire from Heaven and bringing it to men, he is chained to a rock on Mount Elbruz in the Caucasus where an eagle tears perpetually at his liver.

Waking into sleep

According to the writer Grigol Robakidze, the liver is the seat of the force which controls the transition from the waking state to sleep. The Georgian words for liver and vigil – ghvidzli and ghvidzili – are almost identical.

Thus in attacking Amiran’s liver the eagle causes it to become enlarged and keep him constantly awake. He can never sleep: a possible explanation of his curious punishment.

Early literature

The date of the earliest known inscriptions is about 150 AD, and the first literary work of note – the Passion of St Shushanik – dates from the fifth century.

Literary activity in the beginning was confined to religious subjects – hagiography, liturgical poetry, commentaries and translations of sacred texts. Gradually it extended to history, with a chronicle of the conversion of Georgia to Christianity, followed by annals of the Georgian kings.

These were collected and revised at the end of the seventeenth century under the title of the Georgian Chronicle or, literally, ‘the life of Georgia’. In the Middle Ages the scope of literary work was greatly enlarged through the influence of the Greek renaissance, and the establishment of a number of centres of learning by an enlightened monarch, David IV.

The Golden and Silver Ages

There were two periods in the history of the Georgian kingdom when literature of outstanding quality appeared. The first was the Golden Age, the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, epoch of the Sufi poets of Persia and the troubadours of Western Europe. At the end of the twelfth century Shota Rustaveli, a poet at the court of Queen Tamar, composed his epic The Knight in Panther Skin, one of the treasures of world literature.

There followed a long period of invasion and internal strife, until late in the seventeenth century came a new renaissance of art and letters, the so-called Silver Age.

Illustrious literary figures of this period were the scholar statesman Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani and a number of poets, among them David Guramishvili. One of Orbeliani’s principal works was a Georgian lexicon; another was the splendid collection of stories, jokes and sayings translated as A Book of Wisdom and Lies.

Georgian writers have always drawn deeply on the national store of tradition and legend, as well as events in their long and eventful history.

In the beginning

There is a story of the Creation which provides a backcloth to the scene of our present study, an introduction to the country and the people: When the Creation was finished the Lord God called together representatives of all the countries of the earth, to allot to each his own territory. They assembled to wait in the ante-room – among them, naturally, being four Georgians.

These were the last to arrive, fond as they were of idling in the sun. Finding that they would have long to wait, they went off to visit one of the charming little inns to be found in the Georgian countryside.

When they returned the antechamber was empty. They knocked at the Lord’s door. He opened, and looked at them in dismay. ‘I have distributed all the land on earth,’ he told them. ‘There is nothing left for you.’

Far from giving way to despair, the Georgians set themselves to charm and delight the Lord. They sang, they danced, they beat out the liveliest measures on their drums, until the Creator could hold out no longer. ‘You sing and dance so well, you are so full of joy in life – I cannot let you go empty-handed! Take this corner of the earth that I was keeping for myself, settle here, be fruitful and multiply!’

So it was that the Creator took up his abode in the heavens, and the Georgians found themselves in possession of Eden.

Powerful neighbours

The small mountainous country with its fertile plains and upland pastures was a prey from the earliest time to invaders greedy for conquest or plunder, as well as a battlefield in wars between powerful neighbours.

It is bounded in the north by the Caucasus range, in the west by the Black Sea, and in the south by the marches of Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

To the south-east lies Iran and to the east, between Georgia and the Caspian Sea, the Republic of Daghestan. For long periods under the monarchy the country was split into two kingdoms – a division which greatly lessened the Georgians’ power to resist aggression.


In the tenth and eleventh centuries, successive kings laid the foundations of unity between the several provinces; when the great King David the Builder came to the throne in 1089 the political unification of the nation had been established.

The two natural divisions of the country, the kingdoms of Eastern and Western Georgia, had always lain within different spheres of influence. There had been Greek settlements from remote antiquity in the western kingdom of Colchis, which later came under the sway of the empires of Rome and Byzantium.

The eastern kingdom, Iberia, lay on the border of the mighty Persian empire. Thus Greece and Rome in the west, and Persia in the east, played an extensive part in shaping Georgia’s destiny, as did the Arabs and later the Mongols and Turks, who came to invade the little kingdom in successive waves of conquest.

In 1801 the united kingdom was annexed to the empire of the Tzars. It is today a Republic of the Soviet Union [Georgia’s status has changed considerably since this was written in 1982].


Christianity came to Georgia in 337, and became a rallying point in the people’s constant battle for national independence. From the time of the Arab conquest there was continuous pressure on the Georgians to adopt the Muslim faith.

In spite of this religious conflict, however, there are passages in the Georgian Chronicle – as elsewhere – to indicate that beneath the surface of political opposition there often existed close and friendly relations between Christians and Muslims.

Translations were a form of literary expression that could cross the lines of political, religious or military adversaries with a freedom not possible for original work.

Moreover, these were by no means the severely literal renderings that modern scholarship demands, but often a re-creation of the source material in new form and clothing.

The Buddha

An early example of this process is Balavariani, a story based on the life of the Buddha but transposed into Christian terminology, describing the conversion of India to Christianity.

This work of Georgian literature (translated by Professor D. M. Lang as The Wisdom of Balahvar), which contains many interesting passages, is believed to have been adapted in the ninth century from an Arabic source.

Pavle Ingorokva gives valuable data on the place of Muslims in medieval Christian Georgia, as for example that Muslim poets of the twelfth century composed odes in honour of Queen Tamar and other Georgian sovereigns.

The reign of King David IV, the Builder, 1089–1125, great-grandfather of Queen Tamar, is of particular interest in this respect. A great military commander, he drove the Arabs out of Georgia after four centuries of Arab rule and recovered the capital, Tbilisi, for the Georgian crown.


In the following year he liberated the Armenian capital of Ani from the Turks and annexed it to Georgia. These and other military successes were due in part to his reorganisation of the army, with emphasis on training and discipline, and largely also to his statesmanship, completing the long task of unifying the Georgian lands and bringing the Church under the authority of the State.

Although Georgia was a Christian country, there were a number of Muslims among the population. Under David’s rule Muslims were by no means subject to persecution. King David spared their clergy, protected their merchants and formed ties of friendship with Muslim poets and philosophers. There were many Muslims living in the capital of Tbilisi, and David IV granted them various privileges. He forbade the Christians to do anything which might offend the religious sensibilities of their Muslim fellow citizens, or disturb them in the practice of their religion.

The King was well versed in the teaching of Islam, and took part in theological discussions on themes from the Koran with the Qadi of Ganja.

On Fridays, attended by the Crown Prince, he would go to the great mosque, listen to the prayers, the reading from the Koran and the sermon, and distribute alms to the clergy. He built a community centre for Muslim and Sufi poets and provided the means to maintain it.

In addition to his qualities as a soldier and statesman, David IV was highly cultivated, and learned in a wide range of subjects. His life shows a striking contrast, which will be seen again in the reign of Queen Tamar, between the vigorous and effective military action that the well-being of his people demanded, and a wise and humane attitude in matters of administration.


The word Sufi, which occurs in the passage quoted above, is used by different writers in more than one sense. Sufism is often identified with the mysticism of Islam.

‘Others hold that Sufism is a natural development of the ascetic tendencies which are essentially Mohammedan though not entirely independent of Christianity…’ Asín Palacios holds that originally Sufism was an imitation of Christian oriental monasticism and that later its pantheistic elements developed from Neo-Platonism.

Other, and stranger, definitions can be found. The Sufis’ own writings however make it clear that for them mystical experience is not an end in itself – any more than the flow of blood through the body is halted after its purification in the lungs.

They are here, as they have always been, to serve humanity – to show people the Way to transcend ordinary limitations and realise their true nature as beings formed in the image of their Creator. It is not, then, always certain what a writer has in mind in using the word Sufi.

Different meanings

When a Georgian king was held captive in Persia, the Persian shah was referred to in a letter as ‘the Sufi’; there the word may have meant simply ‘the Muslim’, or possibly ‘the Persian’.

In the case of the academy built by King David for ‘Muslim poets and Sufis’, however, it seems probable that his chronicler used it in a wider connotation, closer to that of a seventeenth century scholar: ‘The Sufis are poets and lovers. According to the ground in which their teaching grows, they are soldiers, administrators or physicians…’

Queen Tamar

The prosperous and stable conditions of David’s great grand-daughter, Queen Tamar’s reign were fertile soil for the growth of art, literature and scholarship.

Among the circle of poets at her court was Shota Rustaveli, composer of Georgia’s greatest classic The Knight in Panther Skin. At the same period, Chakhrukhadze was at work on his famed Tamariani, a lyric anthology of odes to the Queen and her consort – a virtuoso performance, a sparkling display of erudition and poetic talent.

There are points of likeness between the two works, such as allusions to Greek philosophy and legend, and to the Persian romances Vis and Ramin and Layla and Majnun.

Both poets write from a religious outlook far broader than that of Christian orthodoxy. They work in different metres – one is a lyric poet, the other epic – and both display brilliant technical accomplishment in their versification.

Within exacting confines of rhyme, stress and assonance their verse flows in a glorious cascade of sound which often conveys the sense even when the words are obscure. ‘Not with random step shall the lover pursue his calling,’ Rustaveli says in his Prologue, and the impression made by these poems does not appear to be produced at hazard.


Like other young men of rank, Rustaveli and Chakhrukhadze would have had a thorough grounding in the classics – the literature and philosophy of Greece – either in Athens or at one of the academies in Georgia. Allusions in the poems show that they were also familiar with works of Persian and Arabic literature. It may have been part of their education – as it has until recent years with classical scholars in the West – to study the technique of versification.

After Chakhrukhadze had composed the Tamariani he left Tamar’s court and travelled to every part of the then known world. He ‘appeared in Iran and the Arabian countries as a wandering minstrel, reciting his verses in Iranian and Arabic’.

It is not known what impelled him to take up that way of life; but from his writing and what is known it appears that he lived and worked as others did who followed the Sufi path, carrying out whatever task he was given to the best of his powers, and learning from it what he needed to learn.

Knight in Panther Skin

Unsurpassed in Georgian literature is Shota Rustaveli’s Knight in Panther Skin – a work having many features that a student of Sufism will recognise. The poet observes the principle of ‘time, place and people’ in speaking to his fellow countrymen in terms that all could understand, with a story based on their own conditions of life and allusions to Georgian history and the various religious beliefs extant among them, in a form which would enable it to survive through oral transmission, as well as in manuscripts vulnerable to loss or destruction.

This magnificent work is widely known and quoted and its influence felt up to the present day – almost eight centuries after it was written. It has been translated into all the major languages of the West, and also into Japanese and Arabic.

A traveller in Georgia may gain the impression that here is a country where the blessing of an influence from another dimension than any in ordinary life has once been manifest. Traces of it can be found in literature, as also in music, architecture and the arts. Its imprint is in some ways impalpable as a taste of honey in the air: it is in people’s attitudes and expressions, manners and customs, turns of phrase, unexpected notes of gentleness or laughter.

In this brief survey we have tried to indicate what appears to be clear evidence of Sufi thought in Georgian literature – literature which plays a more active part in everyday life than we are accustomed to see. Beyond what is clear, this literature has other features that point to Sufi influence, giving the impression that at some time in the past the doctrine of love held sway, with a power that can still be felt. In terms of the present day, its effect could be described as skill in the art of living.

Suggested Further Reading

W. E. D. Allen, A History of the Georgian People, Kegan Paul, 1932. C. M. Bowra, Inspiration and Poetry, Macmillan, 1955. D. M. Lang, A Modern History of Georgia, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962. H. D. Luke, Cities and Men, vol. II, Geoffrey Bles, 1953. F. Maclean, To Caucasus, Jonathan Cape, 1976. S.S. Orbeliani, A Book of Wisdom and Lies, Octagon Press, 1982 I. Shah, The Elephant in the Dark, Octagon Press, 1974; The Way of the Sufi, Jonathan Cape, 1968. O. Wardrop, The Kingdom of Georgia, Luzac, 1977. R. Wood, Kalila and Dimna, Octagon Press, 1981.