Sunday, 7 February 2016

Historical Book Review: Edge of Empires, A History of Georgia by Donald Rayfield

The history of Georgia and the Caucasus region in general, is not abundantly found in the English language, there is only a limited range of books on the subject and those that are available tend to focus on the latter days of the monarchies of Imeretia, Kartli and Kakhetia, even so some still focus only on post-Soviet history. Therefore, when a book that claims to cover the history of Georgia from the earliest linguistic traces to as late as 2012, it is a valuable commodity for those interested in this area.

Edge of Empires is therefore a broad sweeping history, one of the few options available on Georgia with such breadth. The book follows a relatively chronological pattern, however when in a large portion of instances Georgia is disunited, Rayfield tends to talk through each division (usually kingdom) rather than in strict chronology. The author defines the areas of land covered in this history as politically modern de jure Georgia and the historic borders of Georgia, but also geographically as 'the region of Transcaucasia between the Black Sea to the junction of the Iori and Ntkvari (or Kura) rivers, and between the high Caucasus around the lower reaches of the Coruh and the upper reaches of the Mtkvati (or Kura) rivers.' As suggested the historic borders of Georgia have in the past stretched beyond the contemporary nation Georgia, so the books remit covers parts of modern Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, when appropriate.

What Edge of Empires certainly makes clear is that Donald Rayfield is an expert on Kartvelian languages, as he uses this at the start of the book to identify the earliest Kartvelians (Georgian is part of the Kartvelian language group.) This is also emphasised  through the wide knowledge of Georgian literature he displays, the most famous being the national epic The Man in the Panther's Skin. Although, it is a history of Georgia, it is not necessary always a history of the Georgian people Abkhazia and Ossetia have often been part of the Georgian state and so it can also be said to be sometimes a history of Abkhazians and Ossetians, as well as communities such as the Georgian Jews and Armenians, etc.

As the title suggests, Georgia was often an object of contention between various empires, the Iranian/Persian empires arguably matched only by more recent Russian influence. Although, those such as the Ottoman Empire have also had a profound effect. The disunity of Georgia at times is emphasised by Rayfield's narrative, sometimes even after just a small paragraph monarchs have either died or been usurped (in earlier instances, sometimes a sentence or two). This can make the book heavy reading, perhaps Rayfield did not intend Edge of Empires to be a highly readable narrative of Georgian history, but rather intended it to simply provide a clear history. Edge of Empires may also be more of a political history, but the often quick succession of monarchs, means the economic and cultural history in Edge of Empires often makes better reading.

The book is at its strongest when a monarch lives long enough for Rayfield to go in depth, as is the chronological structure of the book. This is more evident in chapters where a large portion of text is dedicated to particular monarchs such as Queen Tamar, Davit IV the Builder, Teimuraz I and Solomon II (often these form the name of the chapters.) Despite this, strong characters such as the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Mikhail Vorontsov, still emerge as colourful. In these instances, we often learn more about cultural and economic output. Vorontsov was the only foreign ruler of Georgia to be commemorated with a statue, although he did crush revolts, one of his most famous feats is establishing the Tbilisi theatre. It is instances such as these we learn more about permanent changes which are in contrast to the seemingly endless political upheaval (depressingly, Georgia has always seemed to have recovered, when more chaos emerges.)

Below we can see two maps that emphasise the politics of Georgia and the Caucasus region. The first map is under Queen Tamar and shows Georgia at its greatest geographical extent. It may initially  look complex along with, although nowhere near as much as, the second map from after the dissolution of a unified Georgian state (the map is from 1490, but the the dissolution had  been taking place earlier during the 15th century), but Queen Tamar's state acted more in unison most of the time, rather than the principalities and kingdoms which did not act in unison a large portion of the time after the dissolution.


Nevertheless, explanations of the political situation sometimes leave an impression of the importance, such as the Tratkat and the official division of Georgia between Persia and the Ottomans. However, the status of principalities such as Mingrelia and Guria could have been made more made more clear, whether they are de jure or de facto independent  from the Kingdom of Imeretia, in this instance. Furthermore, as Edge of Empires progresses closer to our own time it is inevitably more politicised, even the author himself has personally met with some of the figures (being an expert in the area, even at this time). This of course offers an interesting insight, but thankfully he maintains a distance as much as possible , most of the time.

Edge of Empires also contains a number of black and white images. The only criticism is that these are occasionally shown before  the character fully enters the stage. At the end of the book, we have complimentary maps and dynastic trees. The maps are useful, as the geography of Georgia is unfamiliar for many, though one may still find it hard to visualise more specific places instantly such as Tao or the city of Akhaltsikhe. A more general map could have been beneficial. There is also a timeline at the back, which is useful as a reminder. The timeline compares events in the wider world (that are relevant) to more localised events in the region.

In terms of practicality, is the expensive price, nearing at least £20 hardcover, but more often or not closer to £30. This is arguably justifiable due to the speciality of the topic and also the lack of other literature on Georgia of this breadth. Nevertheless,  if you have an interest in Georgia and the Caucasus in general and want to read in the area, Edge of Empires is a good option if you want breadth, especially in terms of politics. If you are looking for economic or cultural history, then you will find it a significant minority in this book, however it is no doubt a valuable resource and a comprehensive and mostly enjoyable reading on Georgian history.

Image credit goes to and Wikipedia

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