Georgia has been at a strategic crossroads throughout history and remains so today, a fact that has often fueled conflict, but also trade and wealth.
Officially, Georgia first entered world history 2,800 years ago through contact with Greek traders during the Hellenic age. (The Kolkhida Lowland was once the Kingdom of Colchis, where Greek myth places the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts.) In relation with Greeks and Georgians another myth comes to mind: either Hellenic or Georgian in origin, it is tellingly bloody—that of Prometheus. According to the myth, a peak in the Caucasus was the spot where Zeus had the Titan chained to a rock, and doomed him to have his regenerating liver pecked out by an eagle every day for eternity for the crime of having given humanity fire. The myth’s notions of gory plunder reflect a basic truth: for three millenniums Georgia has been a battleground among empires, torn apart by invaders and internal rivalries, and betrayed by allies.
In the first century B.C., Colchis stood with Rome against Persia, until, in A.D. 298, the Romans switched allegiance and recognized a Persian as Georgia’s king, Chrosroid, who founded a dynasty that would rule for two centuries. Then, in A.D. 337, Georgia’s affiliation with the Greeks led to a fateful event: its king at the time, Mirian, converted to Christianity, making Georgia only the second Christian state, after Armenia. Centuries later, when Islam spread throughout the region, Georgia remained Christian, adding to its isolation.
The capital of medieval Georgia was Kutaisi. It is a burial place of King David IV, who is considered one of the country’s founding fathers. Born in 1073, King David took the throne after an Arab Islamic occupation that had lasted from the seventh to the ninth centuries. He annexed the region of Kakheti (now Georgia’s easternmost province), drove the Seljuk Turks out of Tbilisi (which he made the capital in 1122), and turned his country into one of the wealthiest in the region. His followers called him the Builder. Only the reign of his granddaughter, Queen Tamar, who enlarged Georgia’s borders to the Caspian, would shine more brightly than his. The golden age that the Builder ushered in would not last, however. The Mongols invaded in 1220, bubonic plague devastated the population and, in 1386, Tamerlane’s armies tore through. After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Ottoman and Persian empires fought over Georgia, killing or deporting tens of thousands.
But there is more to discover about Georgia: walk up a steep hillside of Dmanisi (one of the administrative centers of Lower Kartli region) reveals some of its long hidden treasures: once it was an important gateway for travelers and traders, and even Georgians’ prehistoric ancestors found it a good place to stay.
Archaeologist Jimsher Chkhrimiani has been working here for the past nine years and has uncovered some surprising secrets. "In these layers of rock, we found remains that are older than 1.7 million years," he said. "We found at least five individuals. It's significant because these are the oldest human ancestors found outside of Africa."
The discovery of ancient human skeletons and largely intact skulls put Dmanisi on the archeological map. "These finds are the missing link connecting Asia, Europe and Africa," said Lordkipanidze, General Director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.
Ancient migration routes turned into trade routes. And for centuries, rulers from within those same walls controlled trade to and from China, Persia and Byzantium, and they collected customs duties for it all as archeologist Chkhrimiani explains.
"This was the intersection of two big routes," he said. "People used to call it 'the camel route,' which went south through the mountains through Armenia and the Middle East. The other route went to western Georgia, to Byzantium and to the sea. Georgia owed its success to the Silk Road."
Back then, archeologists say, Dmanisi was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious town of some 10,000 inhabitants - an important stop on the Silk Road.
Today, wealth lies in oil and gas. And again, Georgia is a major transit point. Lawrence Sheets, senior Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that is crucial for Georgia today. "These transit routes are very important because this is a small country of four million people," he said. "It's a largely agrarian economy, not an industrial economy and it relies very heavily on trade through Georgia [and trade in general].
Some say, Georgia's position between two continents - Europe and Asia - enhances its strategic importance, but also makes it vulnerable to big power rivalries. One example - the brief war Georgia fought in August with neighboring Russia over the breakaway Georgian enclave of so called “South Ossetia” (Samachablo). Georgians are well aware of their place in history, as a young woman is quick to point out. "Let me remind you that we are the first Europeans," she said. "We always looked westward." There is obvious pride that this was a crucial transit point for early humans over the vast Caucasus mountain range.
Paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze says it's part of Georgia's identity. "Georgia was always on the crossroads -- in prehistoric times, in historical times," he said. "If we look back on the archeological record, Georgia always had a place, the role of the connection [between] East-West. I'm sure Georgia will continue to play this role in the future too."
For modern day Georgia, the question is how it will navigate its position as a crossroads to shape its future positively.
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