In 2005 I was approached by John Wilkinson, the former director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and the founder of FaRiG (Friends of Academic Research in Georgia), and asked if I would consider spending a week lecturing at Tbilisi State University. At that point I was only a year into my first academic appointment and John explained that, given the upheavals of the civil war of the 1990s and the Rose Revolution of November 2003, the Georgian education system was facing a variety of problems. He felt a pressing issue was the fact that young women in particular were turning away from the idea of an academic career and he wanted a young female with a position at an established university to offer career advice to talented Georgian undergraduates and research students. In addition he had identified that the syllabus was rather narrow and suggested that my research into Late Antique Syria would offer useful comparative material for Georgian Art Historians who were in many cases focussed exclusively on Georgian case studies.
During my university ‘reading week’ in November 2005 I flew to Tbilisi and met with great hospitality. In between the daily lectures I delivered over the course of a week, I was taken to see the exceptional collection of medieval art and artefacts in the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts and was amazed at the world-leading collection of enamels, liturgical objects and icons in the museum treasury. A trip was also arranged to take me, along with a group of students, to the ancient Georgian capital of Mtskheta at the conjunction of the Mktvari (Kura) and Aragvi Rivers. Here I was introduced to Jvari, the hill upon which St. Nino the evangelist of Georgia first raised the cross and now the site of an early seventh century church, and Svetiskhoveli, the national cathedral. The trip ended with an exceptionally good lunch over which I was intrigued to learn that as well as St. Nino bringing Christianity to Georgia in the fourth century, Georgians believed that a second wave of ‘Thirteen Syrian Fathers’ had consolidated the faith and introduced monasticism to the country in the sixth century.
Back in the UK I endeavoured to find out more, but just over a decade ago the internet was not as all pervasive as it is now and relatively few library catalogues or periodical indexes were available online. As I have since discovered, my failure to find literature on this subject was not due to a less than diligent search; there was simply very little material available on the subject. I was also puzzled that during my time in Syria I had found no references to the Georgians. If nothing else, the geographical location of the country meant that any overland pilgrims to the Holy Land had to pass through Syrian territory so that the country had evidence of artefacts and graffiti left by a variety of different peoples over the centuries. There was plentiful information regarding the relationship between Syrian Christians and the Georgians’ neighbours, the Armenians, but the sole reference to the Georgians that I could find was a passage in Theodoret of Cyrrhus where he listed the ‘Iberians’ as amongst the different nationalities who visited Symeon Stylites the Elder at Qalʿat Semʿan.1
In 2006 I returned to spend three weeks in Tbilisi as a break from an extended period of fieldwork in Iran. During this time people I had met the previous year generously accepted me into their homes and others took me further afield so that on one particularly memorable occasion I spent a weekend in the remote mountain villages of Tusheti. However what was to make the most lasting impression on me with regards to my future research was the trip I took with Zaza Skhirtladze and his student Anna Shanshiashvili to the church in the village of Tsilkani, a few miles north of Mtskheta. Zaza explained that the site was linked to Ise Tsilkneli, one of the ‘Thirteen Fathers’ and pointed out that the earliest phase of architecture at the site seemed to offer stylistic links with that of the Syrian Limestone Massif. He was absolutely right in this opinion and I began to wonder if the material culture of Georgia might offer some way of supporting the local belief in these somewhat shadowy figures of the past.
The 2008 Georgian-Russian war over South Ossetia/Tskhinvali meant that I delayed my return to the country and at the end of 2009 I accepted an offer from the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus to direct my second archaeological expedition in Syria, meaning that my curiosity regarding the ‘Syrian Fathers’ of Georgia was set aside once more. However as the civil unrest in Syria prevented me returning to that country to continue my work there in 2011 and it became increasingly clear that the country was heading for a vicious civil war, I returned to my notebook of half-planned projects and decided that the time was now right to try to get to grips with the ‘Thirteen Syrian Fathers.’
In November 2011 I submitted an application to the European Research Council for a project entitled Architecture and Asceticism: Cultural Interaction between Syria and Georgia in Late Antiquity and, after an interview in Brussels in June 2012, in August 2012 I was informed that my application had been successful. This has freed me from the constraints of ordinary academic life for a substantial period of time and made this research possible. Therefore the last five years of my life have been devoted to immersing myself into Georgian culture and history, including studying the language and spending prolonged periods of time living and working in Tbilisi.
I have been exceptionally fortunate in finding Natalia Bukia-Peters as a tutor. Finding a native Georgian speaker in Devon is a difficult task in itself, but to locate somebody who is a trained language teacher and a translator of Georgian literature into English, as well as being (like myself) married to an Archaeologist so that she has some familarity with historical and archaeological terminology, was nothing short of miraculous! Nata has become a great friend and it is no exaggeration to say that much of this project would not have been possible without her support and guidance—although naturally any mistakes in Georgian comprehension or controversial readings of material are all my own …
Which leads me to my next point. As a young, and no doubt naïve, student in Syria I was initially confused by the multiplicity of Christian denominations and it took me some time to work out how the doctrinal controversies of the fifth century had shaped the ecclesiastical landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean region. Despite these differences and without romanticising the situation, ecumenical relationships were relatively well developed, perhaps as a consequence of living as a minority within a Muslim majority society. As is often the case, in Aleppo I found that the more educated members of Christian society were more open to interaction with those of different confessional identities and those with the least access to education were often the most hostile to relationships across denominational boundaries. Out in the villages and rural towns where Christians were less numerous than they were in Aleppo, there was a more pragmatic and, for the most part, cordial interaction between those of different churches. One phenomenon that went against this general attitude, and was especially the case in Lebanon where the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war was manifested in fractious inter-denominational relations, was the practice of amateur scholars publishing ‘histories’ through small, often ecclesiastical, regional presses. These volumes were often partial and flawed accounts that would view the subject of the research through a mono-denominational viewpoint. It was recognised by a number of Syrian academics that this situation would persist as long as subjects such as art history and ecclesiastical history were not taught as academic disciplines in Syrian Higher Education and whilst related fields, such as history and archaeology, were not highly regarded in wider society. It was widely acknowledged that until there was more of a movement towards a stronger civil society in Syria and a retreat from over-privileging disciplines such as Medicine and Engineering, which were prized for the material advantages afforded by careers in these areas as much as for their contribution to wider Syrian society, then research in the Humanities would fail to attract the brightest and best students, which in turn meant that it was evolving quite slowly.
Having said that, at the time that the Syrian civil war began, the fact that these problems had been identified and that Syrian scholars agreed that there needed to be a change in attitude if their disciplines were to keep pace with international developments, was in itself an encouraging sign of progress.
In Georgia there have been a different set of problems. Until the break up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 the country was firmly part of the Soviet academic network, which despite its obvious ideological restrictions, was nevertheless a rigorous and world-respected system that trained and developed the careers of world-class academics. The demise of the Soviet system meant that Georgia had to re-write and re-formulate syllabi and even to reconsider the language of academia. Georgia had fought fiercely for the right to have a bilingual pubic life, most recently in 1978 when they had protested the proposed imposition of Russian as the state language, and free from the constraints of Moscow, the education system swiftly privileged a Georgian language only programme. Such a decision is natural, especially in a case where national identity has previously been so emperilled, but in this instance there was no corresponding move to encourage students to pursue the study of other languages. In a country of less than four million people2 this has a significant impact on the amount of material that is available for research. If scholars are unable to read other languages than their own, it is inevitable that eventually the resources available for study will become more insular and miss many of the debates being conducted in other tongues; in short this entirely understandable reluctance by many younger people to engage with Russian language and literature left the Georgian academic milieu increasingly isolated and introspective.
Twenty-five years on from the fall of the Soviet Union a number of Georgian academics have expressed their fears for the future of research in the Humanities in the country. They point out that the last Soviet-educated scholars have now reached the age of 60 and that the most talented scholars in their 50s, 40s and 30s have largely gone overseas on scholarships and failed to return meaning that there is a shortage of qualified younger people in a wide range of fields allied to archaeology, art history, history and linguistic studies. One senior academic stopped me when I referred to fears in Syria of a ‘generational skills gap’ after five years of war in that country by pointing out that nothing was done in the aftermath of the Georgian Civil War and that he felt he was dealing with a gap of more than twenty years, rather than merely the five I was concerned about.
Along with this linguistic isolation there have been other signs of Georgian society turning inward as well, most notably the rise of immensely influential nationalist movements espousing views that Georgian ethnicity and national identity are inextricably linked with the Georgian Orthodox Church; at its most extreme these views argue that being Georgian Orthodox is a prerequisite for being a ‘true’ Georgian. Taking this even further, an acquaintance even heard a Georgian Metropolitan refer to the Armenians in his diocese as ‘not Christians.’ Such is the influence of this sector of Georgian society that there is increasing timidity amongst many scholars to be seen to criticise the Church, or its authorised view of the past, in any meaningful manner. This has meant that a lot of ‘revisionist’ scholarship of the past decade has furnished circular arguments as much of the most recently published material on ecclesiastical history, including writing on the ‘Thirteen Syrian Fathers’, has referred back to assertions by like-minded writers without grounding the arguments in firmly established factual findings.
This issue needs to be addressed here at the outset of this volume because it is clear that a book written by a non-Orthodox, non-Georgian woman will be dismissed by a number of people within the country simply on the grounds that a foreign woman of a different Christian denomination will never be able to fully understand the intricacies of Georgian history—sadly a position that I have had repeated to me not infrequently over the last few years. An additional problem is that, with the notable exception of several brilliant linguistic scholars,3 there is very little understanding of Syrian history and culture in Georgia and those who write about the ‘Syrian Fathers’ have not sought to examine the Syrian evidence or, if they have, are consulting outdated sources that do not reflect the current issues being discussed in the field. This is not their fault—the continued financial difficulties of the country have made securing access to foreign journals and monographs exceptionally difficult—but these writers should perhaps be prepared to acknowledge these factors rather than refuse to engage with those who have experience of more current streams of debate.
After explaining the problems of disinterest (on the Syrian side) and misunderstandings (on the Georgian side) between the two cultures and histories discussed in the work that follows, I would beg the understanding of learned colleagues if what follows seems, at least at the beginning, to recap debates and attitudes that seem somewhat well-worn. The intention in the first few chapters is to introduce Syrian Studies to scholars of Kartvelology and vice versa as well as to offer a coherent introduction to these fields for anybody reading this book from outside these areas of research. Progressing from this intentionally broad approach at the outset, the work will highlight selected specialist arguments in the later chapters, by which time it is hoped that all readers will have gained a basic knowledge of current issues in both fields of expertise.
Naturally this is not to say that this book will provide a definitive answer to any of these issues. This work is intended to open a conversation, it is the first book to be written in a western European language on this subject and, it is the intention that it will raise awareness of an intriguing episode of Caucasian and Eastern Mediterranean history. The process of researching this book has provided many false starts and blind alleys and it is to be hoped that by recounting these misconceptions as well as considering the more concrete evidence, what follows may be used as the basis to continue future research in a fascinating subject in a complex and often troubled region of the world.
At this point I must thank all those without whom this project would not have been possible. Foremost is the European Research Council. The research leading to this monograph has received funding from the European Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) / ERC grant agreement no 312602. Without the time away from my normal university duties giving me the opportunity to study Georgian and Russian and spend prolonged periods of time living and working in Tbilisi none of this would have been possible. Many individuals have helped along the way and I apologise to anyone who is overlooked in the following list, but thanks are due to Nino Simonishvili and Irina Koshoridze for their hospitality and help from my first visit to Georgia in 2005 onwards, Maia Simonishvili of the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia, Zaza Skhirtladze of Tbilisi State University, Tamila Mgaloblishvili, Nodar Bakhtadze of Ilia State University and the Georgian National Museum and his team of students who were all impeccable hosts at their excavation in Kakheti, many members of staff at the Georgian National Museum but especially the ‘Stone Age Fund’ gang of Nino, Tata, Tengo and Anna who allowed someone with a dubious grasp of early man to share their office space for many months. Mikheil Abramishvili must also be mentioned for helping me understand the significance of odd gaps in the Georgian archaeological record. Several colleagues at the University of Exeter read sections of the manuscript whilst it was being written and offered helpful feedback and Kevin Tuite kindly spent time helping me understand Georgian vernacular religion and patiently advised me as to whether my ideas about relations with the Georgian highlands had any validity. He corrected many errors, and it must be stated here that any mistakes that remain in the text are mine alone and not the responsibility of anybody who was generous enough to help me during this research.
Finally the greatest thanks must go to my husband Peter Leeming. We were married in the first months of the project and he was very understanding about beginning married life in a rented apartment in Tbilisi. He was a helpful assistant and tolerant companion in my church-hunting expeditions and a calm presence in times of crisis when serious ill health struck. This book is dedicated to him with love and in the hope of many more adventures in the future.
Emma Loosley Leeming
Tbilisi and Exeter 2017
XXVI, 11,13, p. 165 & p. 167, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Trans. Price, R.M., A History of the Monks of Syria, Cistercian Publications; Kalamazoo, 1985.
Thinking in particular of the excellent work of Gocha Japaridze and Mariam Nanoblishvili in the field of Arabic and related languages.