Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.01


Robert W. Thomson (trans.), Rewriting Caucasian History. The Medieval Armenian Adaptation of the Georgian Chronicles. The Original Georgian Texts and the Armenian Adaptation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp 408. ISBN 0-19-826373-2.


Reviewed by Antony Eastmond, University of Warwick, a.d.eastmond@warwick.ac.uk.

This is an excellent book, which I highly recommend. If, as I suspect, the majority of readers of this review are Western medievalists, with a passing interest in Byzantine history, and rather less in that of the Caucasus, they may well be wondering whether they should be interested in this book. The answer is that they should, and, as a result, this review is two-fold: it provides not just a review of the book, but also some pointers as to its potential uses and value to all medievalists.

Georgia and Armenia have long remained two of the least accessible outposts of the medieval Christian world -- cut off both by language and by twentieth-century politics. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union solved the latter problem, and both countries have opened up more readily to outside scholars (civil wars allowing). This has left a more fundamental problem: that of language, and the difficulties inherent in learning either or both Georgian and Armenian. Recently, a number of publications have begun to open up the history, culture and literature of the Caucasus; but this is the most fundamental work published to date.

1) The book

Rewriting Caucasian History (hereafter RCH) presents not one, but two translations of the same core text: Kartlis Cxovreba (= literally the "Life of Kartli/Georgia", but which may effectively be translated as the "Royal Annals of Georgia"). This is not a simple text, but a compilation of chronicles written between the eighth and thirteenth centuries which provide the principal account of the history of Georgia from its legendary foundation by the giant Targamos, among whose sons were Kartlos and Kavkaz, to the reign of David IV the Builder (1089-1125), who was king at the time of the first Crusade, which coincided with the first great phase in the expansion of Georgia against the Seljuq Turks who then surrounded them to the south. Thomson's book presents the first six chronicles contained in Kartlis Cxovreba [KC], which also covers the conversion of Georgia to Christianity by the female evangelist St Nino in the fourth century, the reign of Vakhtang Gorgasal at the time of the Persian invasions of the sixth century, and the darkest period of Georgian history in the eighth century, when the monarchy was abolished by the Persians and the country wrecked by war, famine and disease. As such it is the principal primary source for the history of Georgia, and so indispensable for anyone working on Near-Eastern history.

The bulk of the work is taken up by a translation of the Georgian text of KC, taken from Qaukhchishvili's Georgian edition of 1955. Some of these texts have been translated into European languages (and even English) before, but never in full or in such an accurate and careful way. Thomson has kept his translation close to the Georgian, which allows for easy reference back to the exact wording of the original, but has still managed to provide a readable (if not always fluent) English text. This is the most precise translation available in any Western European language and as such will become the authoritative edition to which historians will refer. Thomson also provides a translation of the abridged version of KC which had been translated into Armenian in the thirteenth century. The two translations are presented in parallel format on each page so that the relative versions can be compared. In addition, there are extensive notes on problems in the language, as well as historical references.

The dating of the various chronicles is controversial (we must await publication of Stephen Rapp's excellent thesis on the history of Kartlis Cxovreba for a full discussion of the latest arguments on this thorny issue). This is why the Armenian translation is so vital since it provides the earliest manuscript version of these first six chronicles, albeit in an abridged version. The Armenian manuscript dates to the thirteenth century (whereas the oldest Georgian manuscripts date only to the sixteenth century).

In his introduction Thomson also provides a concise overview of both Georgian and Armenian history as well as their respective chronicle traditions. This acts as an admirably clear introduction to the history and culture of the Caucasus, which will aid all those unfamiliar with the region. Such a brief but up-to-date outline is not available elsewhere at the moment, which makes the work even more valuable.

The only quibble with this book is its choice of title: Rewriting Caucasian History (not to mention the length of the sub-title). The title raises hopes of major textual discordances between the Georgian and Armenian versions of KC which might give insights into a non-royal Georgian history, or even a non-Georgian version of Georgian events. Neither of these hopes is, in the end, borne out. The Armenian version is too much of an abridgement of the Georgian to be able to hope to spot meaning in its omissions and, as Thomson notes in his introduction (p.xlvii-xlix), the discrepancies in interpretation turn out to be relatively minor and have no impact on our understanding of Georgian history.

In his introduction Thomson presents himself very much as an Armenian scholar -- a role in which he is, of course, well-known, being responsible for a large number of important translations of other Armenian historical chronicles. Thomson presents the Armenian translation of KC as his principal work in this study, and his introduction stresses the relation between the Armenian text and Armenian historical writing. In his discussions, for example, of the Armenian and Georgian traditions of historical writing, it is the Armenian which is examined in greater depth. This makes a valuable contribution to the problem of the history of historical writing in the Caucasus, but I suspect that this book will be used and remembered more in the area Thomson downplays: its contribution to the opening-up of Georgian history. Here, for the first time, accurate translations of the early Georgian chronicles are presented in translation with full critical apparatus. Reviews to appear elsewhere (e.g. by Prof. George Hewitt in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies [BSOAS]) will provide a more detailed analysis of Thomson's translation.

2) the value of the text

The value of RCH to medieval historians lies in the fact that it opens up new ways of looking both east and west from the Caucasus. The geographical position of Georgia on the fringe of the two most powerful empires of the medieval world, Byzantium and Persia, forced it to deal with both. RCH allows the reader to search for the ways these two powers were able to affect their smaller neighbour and equally how Georgia was able to innovate and affect the empires around them. As ever, it is by studying the 'other' to these major societies that it is sometimes easier to understand their society more clearly.

More importantly, it is possible to look back from this 'fringe' region into the heart of the great empires to see how they were perceived from outside. The reinterpretation of classical learning, of Christianity, oroastrianism and Islam, and of western and eastern mythologies all appear in the pages of KC to reveal how far they percolated around the Near East, how they intermingled, and how they were transformed by those that learned about them.

The texts as a whole reveal much about the differing attitudes to Georgian history as the circumstances in which the chronicles were written changed. The fact that the texts were translated so early into another language says much about the importance of written history in the Caucasus and the various ends to which it could be put. The individual texts also provide fascinating new information on a wealth of other issues currently much under discussion among medievalists. The position of Jews in the Caucasus, and their importance in the bringing of Christianity to the region is described in The Conversion of Kartli. This text also raises many questions about attitudes to gender in the Caucasus, given the conversion of Georgia by a female evangelist. KC can act as a new source for all of these issues.