Georgia - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section of Georgia: the Bradt Travel Guide.

It can be said that the history of Georgia goes back to the dawn of time.

Noah’s son Thargamos settled in the land of Japhet, somewhere between the Ararat and Caucasus mountains; the Georgians claim descent from him. Protohuman remains about 1.7 million years old and human remains about 200,000 years old have been found (at Dmanisi), as have Palaeolithic artefacts.

Defensive towers, Tusheti Region, Georgia by Leonid Mylnikov, ShutterstockDefensive towers such as these in the Tusheti region were used for centuries across the country © Leonid Mylnikov, Shutterstock

During the 17th and 18th centuries Georgia was the subject of constant struggles between Russia and Turkey. By the late 19th century more than half of Georgia’s area was owned by Russia. After the Russian revolutions of 1917 Georgia briefly regained independence, but found itself the pawn of larger countries competing for access to the Caspian oil fields. In 1918 Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) declared itself an independent federal state, but soon after, Georgia broke away, having been persuaded by Germany that it would provide protection against the Bolshevik threat.

After the defeat of Germany and Turkey at the end of 1918, 15,000 British troops landed in Batumi to occupy Transcaucasia. The British left in 1920, and in 1921 the Red Army invaded. Georgia became a Soviet socialist republic.

In 1989, as the Soviet Union began to fall apart, the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared Georgian law superior over USSR law, and multi-party elections were held in October and November 1990.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section of Georgia: the Bradt Travel Guide

Despite its small size, Georgia is ecologically very interesting. Located between the forests of northern Eurasia and the tropical deserts of Iraq and Iran, and incorporating Europe’s highest mountains and a subtropical coastline, it has Europe’s highest level of biodiversity and is a route for many migratory bird species. It is characterised by its complex interaction of west Asian, east European and purely local communities.

Caucasian snowcock, Georgia by Elena Ms, ShutterstockCaucasian snowcock is just one species of bird that can be found in Georgia © Elena Ms, Shutterstock

Forest covers 2.7 million hectares (36.7%) of Georgia’s area, of which only 59,500ha is artificially planted; around 6% of the natural forest is virgin, and 40% has avoided serious human impact.

Overall, Georgia can be split into two main biogeographical regions: firstly the Colchic and Caucasian districts, forest landscapes with plenty of autochthonous animals and plants, and others related to middle and eastern European species; and secondly the uplands of the Lesser Caucasus and the Mtkvari district, with species related in some places to Anatolia and the Middle East, and in others to the arid and semi-arid Turanian region, beyond the Caspian. Between these two main regions are mixed zones, notably the Borjomi Gorge and the Trialeti Ridge, as well as the southern slopes of the High Caucasus in eastern Georgia.

The Caucasus district lies at 2,000m, with a severe climate and over a metre of precipitation per year. It harbours some of the most diverse and distinctive temperate coniferous and deciduous forests in Eurasia. The plateaux of the Lesser Caucasus are largely treeless grassland, as well as forest and semi-arid steppes. There’s a severe continental climate, with annual precipitation between just 400mm and 800mm.

The ‘mixed’ zones, at the borders of these main zones, are the most biologically fascinating regions of Georgia. There are three main mixed zones: firstly the northern slopes of the Trialeti Ridge, from the northwestern side of Tbilisi to the Borjomi Gorge, mostly dry deciduous mountain forests with a temperate climate and 400–800mm of precipitation per year – the fauna and flora are mostly Caucasian, with some Turanian and Colchic elements, and no great diversity; secondly the forests of eastern Georgia, which are relatively similar to the Trialeti forests, but with more Turanian elements – the climate is subtropical/mild, with 400–600mm of precipitation; and thirdly the smallest but most interesting is the Borjomi Gorge, which has a well-balanced range of elements from all over Georgia with a mild temperate climate and 800–1,200mm of precipitation per year. The gorge marks the divide between the humid west and the arid east, and between Mediterranean and Turanian fauna.

People and culture


With 15 major ethnic groups (and up to 80 in Tbilisi), Georgia is the least homogeneous of the Transcaucasian states. The population is probably about 4.7 million, although statistics are unreliable, due to population movements since the 1989 Soviet census, when the population was 5.5 million, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many Russians, Armenians, Jews and Greeks have left the country, some Georgians have returned home but some still live and work in Russia. Life expectancy is 77 on average (74 for men and 81 for women), and the population is ageing, 16.4% now being over 65 years old. The birth rate is falling, due to economic disruption and the fact that many of those of working age are abroad. 56% of the population is urban (one-third of them in Tbilisi).

Local people, Georgia by Tony HanmerGeorgians pride themselves on their hospitality © Tony Hanmer

Overall, Georgians are impulsive and passionate people for whom hospitality and having a good time are the highest aims. Unlike the more serious Armenians, the Georgians have managed to dance their way through history and come out laughing. The Georgians grew out of a blend of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures, and the present-day nation is still a mix of very different types – including the Megrels or Mingrelians in the west who are quick, smart, boastful and can’t be stopped from feeding guests, the naïve and funny Svans, the extremely hospitable and talkative Imeretians, the slow and careful Rachvels, the political and humorous Gurians, and the calm wine-loving Kakhetians. As for the Adjarians, they are said to have all the above qualities; they are ethnically and linguistically Georgian but about 30% are Muslim in religion.

Other groups share ethnicity and religion with the majority population but are linguistically distinct: these include the million or so Megrels, the Svans, and the Laz, most of whom (around 200,000) live across the border in the Hopa region of Turkey. Related to the Megrels, the Laz are very extrovert and humorous, and tend to have reddish hair; the Laz and Megrelian languages are basically the same but with different alphabets.


Participant of Georgian Folk Autumn Festival, Tbilisi, Georgia by Anna Bogush, ShutterstockFolk music and dance is popular in Georgia © Anna Bogush, Shutterstock

Lovers of architecture will already be aware of Georgia’s churches. On a compact ground plan they combine simple and efficient forms with attractive proportions and perfect harmony with their setting.

Many of the churches are decorated with frescoes, which are largely based on Byzantine traditions. Until the mid 9th century the church discouraged the painting of human images, but Byzantine art then entered a Golden Age in which the development of the cruciform church was matched by the flowering of fresco and mosaic art. Icons (religious images) were also produced, of three types: silver, painted on wood, and combined (silver and painting), the silver surface of the icon being generally covered with gilt. The images, of Christ, the Virgin and saints, followed the same stylistic patterns as the frescoes.

There is also a strong tradition in Georgia of public art, most notably monumental sculpture and mosaics that somehow managed to avoid being totally derailed by communist dogma (there are also quite a few surviving Stalin busts across the country).  

Georgia has a wonderful and highly distinctive tradition of polyphonic singing.

Polyphonic singing developed several hundred years before it appeared in western Europe. Instrumental music and music for dancing are also quite common, but as later developments from the vocal tradition. Folk songs span many genres, with women singing traditional lullaby and healing songs, while men, often accompanied by large quantities of wine, sing war and feasting songs; some festival songs may have been sung by men and women together. Georgian folk music is modal and often breaks out of simple ‘major’ or ‘minor’ classifications, being characterised more by the dissonance and resolution of close harmony. This produces a rich sonorous flow of sound stabbed from time to time by startling disharmonies, often repeated, before returning to the smooth flow.

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