According to a Georgian legend, God took a supper break while he was creating the world.
He became so involved in his meal that he by accident tripped over the high peaks of the Caucasus and as a result he spilled his own food onto the land below. The land below blessed with the scarps of Heavens table was Georgia.
Georgia (Sakartvelo) is a transcontinental country in the Caucasus region, situated at the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The country´s geographical location with borders to the Black Sea, the modern Russian federation, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, has meant that through pre-history and history it has been a crossroad between the East and the West.
Due to its location, the country has been invaded several times over the course of history by for example the Greeks, Persians and the Ottomans, to name just a few. The invasions mean that much of the antique and Islamic worldview still exists at the country’s borders- which are a unique cultural situation. The invasions have also left its footprints on Georgia’s food- and drinking habits and traditions. This has resulted in the existence of many different gastronomical and culinary branches in the foodway’s of today’s Georgia.
The beginning of human civilizations is closely connected to the development of agriculture and the history of cultivated plants, and Georgia played a crucial role in this process. One of the reasons for that is that wine culture in Georgia can be traced to early prehistoric times. The research of linguists indicates that the root of the Indo-European term for ‘wine’ – u(e/o) iano which means wine – might derive from the Georgian word Rvino [Rvino].
These linguists are of the opinion that the word would have been transferred into the Proto-Indo- Europian language before this language started to separate into its various branches in the fourth millenium B.C. The separation transformed the word in different ways, leading to the English ‘wine’, Italian ‘wino’, and Russian ‘vino’, to give but a few examples.
The archaeological discovery of cultivated vines in Georgia supports the linguistic theory of the origin of the word ‘wine’. Cultivated grape pips have been found on the archaeological site ‘Shulaveris Gora’ (situated in the trans-caucasus region of modern Georgia). The site is dated to sixth – fourth millienium B.C. and belongs to the Shulaveri-Shomu Tepe chalcolithic culture.
Even if there is a large time span for the culture itself C14 (Radiocarbon dating is a radiometric dating method that uses (14C) to determine the age of carbonaceous materials up to about 60,000 years old) analyses of the cultural layer where the pips were found gives a dating of 6625±210 years millenium B.C. At other sites belonging to the Shulaveri-Shomu Tepe culture a ceramic vessel which had ornamentation in relief was found. The ornamentation appears to show grapes and could very well be the earliest ‘label’ for grapes and wine that it is known of today. In the vessel also sediment was found that after analysis showed too consisted of wine residue.
After the initial evidence of cultivated grapes and of wine-making. cultivated grape pips were found in many other archaeological sites dating to the Bronze Age, Antiquity, and the Middle Ages. This indicates a situation of continuity in the cultivating grapes of Georgia. It is not until the Bronze Age that table grapes for eating are found which indicates that humans in the earlier chalcolitic societies cultivated vines and grapes for wine-making and not for eating.
Wine was, therefore, the primary reason why the vine was cultivated.
It is not only grape pips that appear in the archaeological sites that can be linked to wine. At a site belonging to the Trialeti Culture (third – second millenium B.C.) a superb example of toreutic art, a silver wine cup richly decorated, was found. This cup has become known as the “Silver Cup Of Trialeti”. There is ongoing debate about what the scene depicted on the cup means.
Some researchers state that it is a depiction of the God Mithra surrounded by worshipers, and of the tree of life. Others, however, are of the opinion that the depiction is that of the God Mithra surrounded by hops and worshippers drinking haoma . Mithra means ‘contact’ or ‘pact’ and these terms are closely associated with a God known among the Persians around 1200 B.C. Mithra was understood as a personification of the sun and a God of justice. The God Mithra is often described as a forerunner of the God Mithras who became known as a very important God in Greece and Rome during Antiquity. The people of Georgia worked not only in silver during their middle Bronze Age period; they also mastered the art of working in gold as is evident from the discovery of a wine cup made of a gold sheet dating from that period. The cup, which has a double wall and hollow legs, is richly decorated with sardonic, lapis lazuli, red jasper, agate, and amber stones. The cup is a stunning example of glass- pasted filigree work.
During an archaeological excavation in 2006 (Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia) a small bronze figurine depicting a ‘Tamada’, holding a drinking horn in his right hand, was found. The figurine is dated to the beginning of first millennium B.C . To this day; the Tamada is the toastmaster at banquets or special dinners in Georgia. The occasions on which the Tamada is present are called ‘supra’ (table).The Tamada’s main task at the supra is to salute the toasts. The Tamada is elected at the beginning of the supra and it is considered a great honour to be so selected for this function. A supra goes on for hours and the Tamada gives the toasts in a special order.
The first toast is for the host and his family; thereafter follows a toast for the mother country of Georgia, then toast to the memory of the deceased heroes of the country and families of Georgia, followed by a toast to parents (especially mothers), friends, relatives, and the future of Georgia, to name a few of the toasts performed at a supra. Usually the guests empty their wine glasses on each toast and the glasses are filled again for the following toasts. No wine is drunk between the toasts. When the Tamada has given the last toast and rises up from the table the banquet or dinner, this is a signal that the event is over.
A special kind of artifact known as a ‘kvevris’ has been found in the course of many excavations. A kvevri is a wine vessel which became known as an amphora during Antiquity in Greece and the Roman Empire; In Georgia, however, this kind of vessels has always been termed ‘kvevris’and still is. It is known from sites that can be dated as far back as Antiquity, that the kvevris was placed up to its neck in the ground and then filled with grape juice.
The kvevris was sealed with a lid and the juice was left to ferment. The wine-farmer looked after the fermentation process until the wine was ready. The wine was then transferred to bags made of animal skins. In Georgia, there is no tradition of carrying wine in kvevris; skin bags have been used for this purpose since antiquity – perhaps even at an earlier period also.
There are many reasons for this, including the fact that it was easier to carry a skin bag full of wine on one’s back than to transport a hard kvevris. Furthermore, the skin bags did not break as easily as the kvevri did during transportation on ships or in chariots. The kvevris was mainly used for during the fermentation process of the wine. However, it is evident from several archaeological sites that, during Antiquity the kvevris were also used for non-cremation burials.
Georgia was one of the world’s first Christian countries, and dates such as 337 A.D. and 319 A.D. have been put forward for the country’s adoption of Christianity . Georgia’s conversion to Christianity is closely linked to St. Nino. According to one tradition, St. Nino was from Kolastra, Cappadocia (in today’s Turkey) and she was a relative of St. George (the patron saint of Georgia). She was said to have come to Georgia from Constantinople. Other sources claim that she came from Rome, Jerusalem or Gaul. According to legend, St. Nino saw the
Virgin Mary in a dream and she told Nino that she should enter Georgia with a cross made of the wood of vine stocks. When Nino woke up from her dream she found herself holding two pieces of wood from vine stocks and she tied them together with her own hair. With this cross made of wine she fled Roman persecution in Cappadocia and made her way into Georgia and started to teach Christianity.
The legend also tells that she performed miraculous healing and converted the Georgian queen, Nana, and eventually the pagan king, Mirian III, of Iberia. Mirian III declared Christianity an official religion in c. 327 A.D. and Nino continued her missionary activities among Georgians until her death in 338 or 340 A.D.
St. Nino’s tomb is still shown at the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti – which is also the main wine region– in eastern Georgia. She has become one of the most venerated saints of the Georgian Orthodox Church and her attribute, a Grapevine cross, is a unique cross in the Christian world. Since, according to the legend, it was the Virgin Mary, who told St. Nino to go to Georgia and teach Christianity, the Grapevine cross became a symbol for and of Georgian Christianity.
Wine also plays a very important role in the daily lives of the Georgians (not only in a religious worship) that can be classified as sacred. One example of this is when for example a family is moving from a homestead and there is land connected to it. The family or a member of the family makes sure that a jar of wine is left in the soil and family members comes back to attend it.
As mentioned earlier in the text, Georgia as a nation has been invaded several times and other times been under occupation; for example under the Soviet era. The politics of the statesmen of the Soviet Union tried to forbid wine in Georgia during a period. This did not turn out very well since the Georgians always found a way to drink wine, both on a day to day basis and at festivas.
One way was for example to serve the wine from teapots etc. Even today the Russian government are using wine export as a mean of control since there is an embargo against Georgia to export wines to Russia and the Kremlin, even if there has been some discussion lately about letting Georgia export wine once again to Russia.
Header Image : Kvevris during an excavation at Atskuri church, Georgia , 2006. © Söderlind, Ulrica
Written by Ulrica Söderlind
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