“Some are building monuments, others are jotting down notes…”

So the Ossetes, who straddle the Russia-Georgia border, claim descent from the Alans, the ancient warrior-nomads who helped forge the early medieval West. That connection, rooted as much in Caucasian history as in recent Ossetian political needs, makes for clever trivia—but what about medieval Georgia? Where does Georgian history begin, and what does a newcomer read first?

History buffs with a high threshold for whimsy might start with W.E.D. Allen’s A History of the Georgian People. Published in 1932, Allen’s book was once the standard history of Georgia in English, but the author of a more recent English-language survey calls it “antiquated.” Perhaps he’s thinking of passages like this one:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

I’m kidding—but only a little. Here’s W.E.D. Allen’s take on the Caucasus in the 7th century B.C.:

And when the Swarming Time was over, and men began to rule in cities, and others to write again, these shifting peoples emerge into the light of history; with changed names, moulding languages and old traditions, borrowed from the word-of-mouth anthologies of conquerors and conquered, woven to the doubtful fabric of a common history.

Here’s Allen’s snappy summary of how a medieval quasi-state emerged in the Caucasus:

For two generations or more there were difficult manoeuvres, obscure dynastic skirmishes, ferocious little wars between the pushful princes of young mediaeval Georgia.

Here’s Allen’s description of the Georgian national character, which I think he considers flattering:

The Georgians retain in a remarkable degree, both individually and as a people, the clear and gentle outlook, the free and inquiring intelligence and the high amoral and untrammelled mind of primitive man. The generosity, the loving simplicity and the humanity, the animal love of life which characterizes the Homeric poems and the ancient literature of the Celts and Scandinavians lights the pages of the mediaeval Georgian epics and declares indeed the mind of the Georgian these days.

At the same time the climate is a mellow joyous climate and the wine is good, so that neither the air nor the diet are conducive to the worrying over principles and the gnawing over grievances.

And here—and oh, how I love this one—is Allen’s ode to the ancient city of Kutais:

In the last foothills of the Caucasus fineing to the Colchian plain, in the sparkling sunshine, the river gleaming past down from the mountains to the sea, the lovely city stretches lazy brave and laughing, like as it were to some free woman who has known so many grasping dirty masters, and remains fresh in all her shame.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find an affectionate city-as-whore simile in an overview of Georgian history. By that point, I was lost in a twisting maze of tribes, dynasties, and place-names—but I was also determined to find out what Allen, with his own strange sense of decorum, intended to swoon over next.

Who was W.E.D. Allen? Born in 1901 to Ulster Protestant stock, Allen was the Eton-educated scion of a printing-and-advertising family. In addition to A History of the Georgian People, which he wrote when he was 29, his scholarly work included the much-touted Caucasian Battlefields and the journal Georgica. Allen served as a war correspondent, worked for the Foreign Office in Beirut, Mosul, and Ankara, and endowed the National Gallery in Dublin with Orthodox icons and other treasures, many of which he had found being sold as “debris” in Istanbul bazaars. At the time of his death in 1972, his private library on Russia and the Caucasus was hailed as “probably one of the best on the subject outside the Soviet Union.” Allen also represented West Belfast in Parliament as an independent Unionist, and—although his scholarly biographer passes over the fact in silence—he was a behind-the-scenes Fascist who wrote for the periodical The Blackshirt under a pen name.

What Allen’s biography doesn’t tell you is that A History of the Georgian People is not a logical endeavor. No, it’s a glorious mess—a rhapsodic brain-dump by a scholar so sunk in his subject that he can no longer outline it for newcomers. Calling his own treatment of Georgia “horizontal rather than chronological,” Allen assumes his readers possess encyclopedic knowledge of Caucasian, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern history. His narrative, too detailed to convey the wider drama and too burdened by minutiae to be novelistic, often gets ahead of itself: Why herald the death of King Bagrat III—a would-be Charlemagne of the Caucasus—when you haven’t yet told us who he was?

After a hundred pages, I stopped reading, but I’ll regret that. Allen beguiles me still with the promise of more florid musings like this one:

Here are no serried ranks of causes and effect, no steady march of progress, no smug train of evolution. All the nations of the world have drifted through the Caucasus; all their leavings are to find—but little has been built. Here are the ways of God and men, most horrible and lovely, uncertain and not comprehensible. Such things we may contemplate, learn somewhat, understand a little, and wonder at the colour and the clouding and the sun upon it all.

A History of the Georgian People may be obsolete, but only as scholarship. As a love letter to Georgia, it’s remarkable—and, like a love letter, it’s worth digging out every now and again, if only for that fleeting scent of the past, awakening as it does fond memories of youth and reckless adventure, regret over possibilities lost, and wistfulness that someone thought enough to write.

3 thoughts on ““Some are building monuments, others are jotting down notes…”

  1. ahh, quinn the eskimo, takes you back doesn’t it?
    i just found your site and it is an odd synchronicity as i have been reading your charlemagne this week. the book is really a delight.
    thanks bye.

    Like

  2. Oh, dear! First Gogol Bordello, then James McMurtry and Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah and now the Pogues?! I’m forced into the position of granting my eternal approval. [Seated, right hand solemnly raised. Held until lactic acid buildup necessitates graceful and dignified exit. Nod, bow, exeunt!]

    It’s really, really interesting what used to pass for scholarship. Wait, let me rephrase: it is fascinating to observe the changing standards and expectations of scholarship over time, is it not? The book is probably best suited for a night of cheap wine, close friends and reading aloud.

    Like

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