Basque and Georgian

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to find non-existent links and connections with a mythical past just as it is easy to believe something because you want to believe it? This seems most evident to me when I am travelling.

In most places in Western Europe and elsewhere, links between a Celtic heritage and other cultures can be easily found. After all, Celtic tribes pretty much covered most of Europe and Asia Minor before the rise of the Romans.

Consequently, I could always find some connection to my Irish / Celtic past both real and imagined, no matter how tenuous. wherever I found myself, in a museum, a bar or faced with some artistic design.

However, recently in Georgia, I came across a common understanding in a shared belief that seemed to have no logical basis whatsoever.

Everyone I spoke with insisted that their Kartvelian language, spoken primarily in Georgia, and part of a language family indigenous to the Caucasus, is related to the Basque language spoken by a minority in the western Pyrenees, straddling the border between France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.

People I chatted with in bars or with some inquisitive soul on a street or a park, one and all repeated the same thing.

Rome used to call their part of the world East Iberia as opposed to West Iberia, modern day Portugal and Spain and the Georgian language they speak today is also known as Iberian.IMG_1607

One excellent craft beer in a small bar in Batumi led to another and there were three or four young men, all speaking better English than my flimsy grasp of a smattering of European languages, all insisting on the similarities between their language and Basque.IMG_1605

When they discovered that I used to be a language teacher, they embarked on a list of grammatical and lexical similarities between the two languages, based on common names for landscape features such as river mouths and hilltops.

They had me there of course, because I didn’t know anything about Georgian or the Basque language except that ‘pinchos’ were the same as tapas! What I did know was that Basque is one of the living languages which did not descend from a proto-Indo-European group of families and that the Basque linguistic family tree is called an isolate, meaning it has no relation to any other known language.

Similarly on a wine ‘search and consume’ mission in Sighnaghi – one of the premium wine growing areas in Georgia, – an elderly women working in a veg plot in front of a ramshackle house beckoned me over and began to explain – in fluent but accented English – the history of the town walls around which I had been strolling.

IMG_1677Proud of her fluency, she confided in me that she had been a lecturer in languages at the University in Tbilisi.

Aha, thinks I, I’ll check what the boys in the bar had told me and no sooner had I mentioned the possibility of a Basque Georgian link, than she pounced.

Absolutely and not only that, she insisted, when she found out where I was from, the Irish had their origin in the area of the Basque refuge during the last Ice Age, at least 18,500 years ago and so must also be related to Georgians because Georgians and the Basque language of Euskera have a common origin! Just look at the etymology of words, she insisted. Then, as further proof, she cited Biblical evidence, reminding me (!) that Noah’s Ark had landed nearby and Tubal, the grandson of Noah and the fifth son of Japheth, commonly believed to be the father of Europeans, left the southern slopes of Mt. Caucasus to settle between the Pyrenees and the river Ebro, and that the Basque people are his direct descendants.

Barking mad, I thought and after handing over a few Georgian lari as a requested ‘donation’ for the town wall, I rushed off for the solace of a glass of wine.

I had no doubt that there was an ancient kingdom of Iberia – next door to the kingdom of Colchis (see my post on Medea) and I suppose there could be some typological similarities between the two languages but to suggest that Basque and Georgian were related seemed an impossibility.

The Basques are a pre-Indo-European remnant population of Europe that trace their ancestry to Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups at the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago, OR they date back to later Neolithic groups who introduced agriculture, later mixing with local hunters before becoming genetically and linguistically isolated from the progress of the Indo-European languages in the rest of Europe.

More than likely there would have been a multiplicity of language families in pre-Ice Age Europe, from one of which Basque, or Euskera, originated. Whatever their origins, it is the only Pre-Indo-European language that is extant in Western Europe.

The only thing that’s clear is that it existed in that area before the arrival of the Romans with their Latin that would eventually develop into the French and Spanish Romance languages.

While not a language isolate like Basque, there are only four Kartvelian languages, Georgian, Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan, all spoken within Georgia, and all unrelated to any other language in the world.

Georgian, along with other Kartvelian languages, appeared in what was known as the Kingdom of Iberia sometime around 1000 BC. The Roman grammarian Marcus Cornelius Fronto in the 2nd century mentioned the emperor Marcus Aurelius trying to understand their “incomprehensible tongue”, unlikely if there were a connection between Georgian and a language spoken in the Roman Pyrenees territory.IMG_1746

Georgian evolved into a written language with an original and distinctive alphabet, when the royal class converted to Christianity in the mid-4th century adopting the status of Aramaic, the literary language of the new national religion and the oldest surviving literary text dates from the 5th century AD.

However, the hypothesis of a relationship, linking the Caucasian languages with other non-Indo-European of ancient times, is generally considered to lack conclusive evidence.

Musing over a very pleasing bottle of wine on the terrace of my hotel, I could sympathise with the Georgians and their determination to connect with Basque. After all, I had wandered through the museums in TbilisiIMG_1636 and Yerevan finding ‘proof’ of a Celtic past in shards of broken pottery and vague spiral like designs because that is what I wanted to find. And there I laid it to rest until I noticed label on the bottle of wine I was drinking.IMG_1685

Yerevan and Environs

During the Yalta conference towards the end of the Second World War when the three Allied leaders, all with a penchant for booze, (Winston Churchill favoured champagne and brandy, Franklin D Roosevelt enjoyed martinis while Jozef Stalin, a native of Gori in Georgia, indulged in vodka and – to the detriment of the Georgian wine industry – super-sweet red wine), met to carve up post-war Europe, Armenian brandy was served which, apparently, won over Winnie’s heart.  Good enough reason for me to relinquish the delights of Georgian wines for Armenian brandies.

The overnight train from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, groaned in past grimy, dis-used lots, abandoned factories and unfinished, ugly concrete slab buildings – an air of  neglect, lovelessness, and dilapidation, dismal and decrepit. Not the most welcoming entrance into Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, sandwiched between Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.

IMG_1878It was early morning and still cool so I decided to walk from the, admittedly, statuesque central station to the hostel I had booked at random before leaving Tbilisi but the walk didn’t change my initial opinion of the city despite the plenitude of park benches and drinking water fountains. Overall the impression was one of grey, concrete drabness. The hostel was small, cramped but cheery with two Filipina girls laughing and cooking breakfast in the tiny kitchen but only a small, top bunk was available and I decided to move on.

Untended vines, the thickness of my thigh, sprouted from broken pavements, climbing above fashionable shops on the ground floor, masking the ugly, squalid looking apartments two, three, four and five stories above while a dusty church  topped a small bare hill opposite aIMG_1881 Carrefour supermarket. I was beginning to regret having made the sweaty overnight trip here until I turned a corner and  ended up in the English Park, a shady, IMG_1921fountain filled park with a cafe and bar in its centre beside the big screen showing the latest matches from the 2018 World Cup.  Just around the corner from my new hostel was an elegant and upmarket food hall IMG_1882leading to a broad, pedestrianized avenue with a stream of fountains running down the central area, culminating in Republic Square. Massive, monolithic buildings of naturally coloured tufa, a rock made of compacted volcanic ash, in various shades, IMG_1885ranging from light pink pastels with a hint of orange formed a semi-circle around the Central Bank, and the National Art Gallery and Museum, almost completing one arc around the huge central fountain – musically choreographed and floodlit by night, as I was to discover later.

Fountains, parks, churches – Armenia was the first “European country” to become Christian in something like 330 A.D. – almost a century before St. Patrick arrived in pagan Ireland in 432A.D – and grapevines seemed to crowd the city,  which I could look down on after climbing the endless steps known locally as ‘the Cascades’ to the multi-level IMG_1898IMG_1904Cafesjian arts centre, named after the Armenian-American who funded the completion of the former Soviet era construction.

Cold beers – I loved the Name ‘Zadecky Goose’ – and lamb kebabs in the English park, watching the world cup matches at the convenient time of 4PM IMG_1915followed by classical concerts at the National Concert Hall with brandy chasers afterwards began to pall and it was time for a change of scenery.

IMG_1890I have spent twenty-odd years living in Asia and during that time visited most of the ruined and fabled lost cities and temples – Pagan in Burma, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Ayutthaya in Thailand and My Son in central Vietnam, so I decided to do something similar here in Armenia.

Garni is the only pre-Christian structure remaining in this devotedly Christian nation. Built by Tirdates I around 77A.D., with reparation payments of 50 million sesterces along with Roman craftsmen provided by Roman Emperor Nero, the classical Graeco-Roman style building may have been a tomb, thus explaining why it escaped destruction during Armenia’s militant Christian past. Possibly IMG_1980

a temple dedicated to Mihr, the sun god in the Zoroastrian mythology, the massive colonnaded building, perched on the edge of sheer cliffs, would have been a perfect spot from which to hurl sacrifices! Huge steps led up the front IMG_1996entrance, forcing me to scramble up, practically on my hands and knees, proper style for entering a pagan temple, I thought.

A twisting road lined with cherry and other fruit trees led to a spectacular monastic settlement at Geghard a few kilometres away. Established in the early 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator, on a former pagan sacred site, inside a cave with a freshwater spring, and surrounded by towering cliffs and tumultuous drops on every side, IMG_2006 the incredible monastery huddled in the rock face where ascetic monks must have eked out a precarious existence in caves in the cliffs reached only by ladders or ropes, ‘adding prayer to shivering prayer’* and exposed to the elements. IMG_2039Apparently, the old monastery had, along with the monks’ quarters, churches, shrines, a seminary, an academy of music and, of course, a manuscriptorium where, presumably Gregory hung out. And all this was all just as the Armenian alphabet was being invented! To add gloss to the whole place, relics included the original spear used by the centurion to pierce IMG_2024Christ on the Cross, brought here by St. Jude – known, inexplicably here as Thaddeus The spear pictured here was just the case for the relic now kept elsewhere in Armenia, – as well as a chunk of wood said to be from Noah’s Ark!

Lake Sevan, about 70 k outside Yerevan and at 2,000 metres, promised cooler weather from the city’s stifling, hot summer where daily temperatures seemed to always be north of 38°C and the idea of bathing my feet in a local lake rather than Armenia’s beer, wine and brandy appealed to me. IMG_1967 No-one could call Sevan a pretty town and on the advice of another passenger on the bus, I skirted the town completely and headed out towards the Sevanavank monastery, founded in 874 A.D., built on the southern shore of a small IMG_1942island, which, after the lake was drained during the Stalinist era, transformed into a peninsula at the north western shore of the lake.IMG_1966

The lakeside was more appealing with a smattering of fashionable hotels clustered around rusty shipping container-like ‘rooms’ offering cheaper rates and massage to gawking tourists, many of them from neighbouring Iran, judging by the head-scarved women wearing what looked like voluminous dressing gowns.

Determined to watch the World Cup games, which my hotel was not showing, I ended up with a taxi driver, willing and smiling to my demands for ‘fussball’ and beer, who obligingly drove me around from betting shop to betting shop inm Sevan town before throwing up his hands in despair and taking me to a micro brewery on the edge of town where the staff were either unwilling or unable to turn the channel to the impending Australian Vs. Peru game. The taxi-driver – grinning maniacally – seemed happy to wait on the opposite side of a two lane motor highway while I gulped darkish beer and gnawed on tough lamb / goat bones before sullenly returning to my lakeside hotel and back to Yerevan the following morning.

Another day to stock up on Very Superior (VS); Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP); and Extra Old (XO). brandy and then the clunky train back to Tbilisi.IMG_2632

* ‘adding prayer to shivering prayer’ is a line from the poem September 1913 by William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s first Bobel Prize winner for Literature.

Georgia Reconsidered

A big red M outside Tbilisi’s main station marked the entrance to the city metro – probably the longest, deepest and fastest escalator I have ever been on and, like the bus fare from the border to Batumi which cost something like 30 ct, the trip on the metro were priced similarly or even cheaper.

The Georgians I met – generally local punters in a bar or café or wait staff in the same places – were all terribly proud of being Georgian and were especially keen to distance themselves from anything Russian, having finally extracted themselves from the sphere of influence wielded by Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia and The Russian Federation. Armed only with red roses, protesters demonstrated for twenty-three days outside the Georgian parliament in November 2003 in order to bring about peaceful change and a new slant towards westernisation.

A waiter or waitress’ recommendation from the local menu invariably followed the same line, ‘this very, very good, this very good, this very good, this … Russian, this very, very good’.

This ‘turning away’ from their former rulers led to increased tensions with Russia, culminating in the brief 2008 war where the Federation forcibly backed two separatist revolts against the Georgian state. One night in a small bar half way up a hilly side street near the Opera, a fluent speaker of English confided in me that he hated the Russians. They killed his brother during the war in South Ossetia.IMG_1759

IMG_1760 2Popping up from the metro two stops away from the main station – again an incredible ascent – onto Shota Rushtavelli Ave I was amazed to see how fashionably modern Tbilisi was. I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps something slightly less developed than a Western capital, perhaps something slightly shop worn – but what I got was an amazing melange of old and new.

Opposite the Opera house where I was staying, it was only a IMG_1732short walk past the parliament buildings and down to Liberty Sq. and from there to the old town where crumbling buildings and shaky balconies edged fashionable pedestrian areas and parks.

IMG_1752 2Flea markets selling Russian junk crowded the bridge before a maze of small streets leading back up to Liberty Square in which the centre plinth was so high that I couldn’t actually make out what stood on top. IMG_1632

And then, as if this wasn’t enough, there was a cable car connection to the old Persian fortress overlooking the city and the hot spring baths with fashionable wine-bars and restaurants spread out below in inviting pedestrian areas and squares.IMG_1642

Despite having lived in Milan for almost three years, to my shame I never once went to La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. This time, staying opposite the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre House on broad Shota Rustavelli Avenue, all I had to do was take the underpass and the Opera house was right there.

IMG_1769 2I saw the premiere of one of Verdi’s little known (certainly to me anyway) operas – Simon Boccanegra – an opera with a prologue and three acts with one intermission, the brochure informed me. A Google search of the plot baffled me but the splendour, the lighting, the colour, the drama and the music and the voices had me entranced – although the only word I actually heard was ‘Maria’ – and I became an opera lover overnight!

IMG_1619But time to leave the capital and explore the Kaheti wine region, the major wine growing area in the southeast. After all, in this part of the world, Neolithic farmers were making, drinking, enjoying and worshipping vitis vinifera 8,000 years ago so I assumed they knew how to make a decent drop.

And then there was the idea of  hiking in the Sveneti – the mountains region up in the northeast, rubbing shoulders with the breakaway state of Abhazia.IMG_1825

More of that later.

 

2 Georgian Lari = about $1.15 Australian cents

3 Georgian Lari = about $1.70 Australian cents