Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Georgia and Armenia - are they in Europe or Asia?

Tbilisi looks a little like Prague from its hillside fortress.
Georgia and Armenia – are these countries in Asia or in Europe? 

Their status has been debated for at least a century, with commentators from outside the Caucasus region usually plumping for south-west Asia, until relatively recently.  Now, more frequently, they are described as European, although that trend is influenced at least as much by politics as geography.

I can’t answer this thorny question.  It is a sensitive matter, linked to the identities and perceived futures of Armenians and Georgians.  However I can give a few impressions of how it feels to visit two fascinating countries.

Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia is a sprawling, modern city, congested with traffic and, in July at least, hot and dusty.  Yet it also feels distinctly European.  Looking down from the Nariqala Fortress at the Old Town, with its narrow streets of stone houses and churches bisected by the Kura River, you could almost be in Prague.

The Georgian people certainly seem to have decided in favour of a future in Europe.  On Rustaveli Avenue the EU flag flies alongside Georgia’s national flag at the old parliament building and the symbol is displayed prominently across the city. 


On the other hand, the curly Georgian alphabet has a distinctly Asian appearance, although, in central areas, it is often accompanied by Latin script.  There are hints of a more Oriental atmosphere at the picturesque, domed sulphur baths or when eating the food, which has a  Middle Eastern inflection.

Outside the city, things are predictably a little chaotic.  Potholes aren’t the only obstacles on Georgia’s roads, as drivers frequently have to contend with cows, pigs and other livestock. 

We travelled into the mountains via the Georgian Military Highway, the traditional route into the southern Caucasus from Russia and the north.  We stayed in Stepantsminda (more commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi), in a stylish, modern hotel, affiliated to a German hotel group.    
The view from Rooms Hotel toward Mount Kazbek. 
The town stands on the banks of the Terek River which, in the lore of imperial Russia, marked the boundary between Europe and Asia.  It is a few miles from the border and about 40 minutes drive away from Vladikavkaz, where the Russian military would once muster before embarking on its campaigns further south.  

Stepantsminda is full of tourists from Russia, but the local businesses most frequently fly flags from the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, or countries in western Europe, pointedly omitting emblems from their northern neighbour.  In a bar in the town’s main square, some Russian tourists were eating and drinking below the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought on the German side during World War 2.  The symbol has been revived by modern Ukrainian nationalists.  

In some respects Armenia felt a little more Asian, or at least Middle Eastern, than Georgia, which is borne out by the region’s geography. 

The food is even closer to Lebanese and Persian fare, featuring Lavash flat-breads, baba ganoush and baklava for dessert.  The landscape around Yerevan is dry and arid in July, with barren hills dropping down to a parched plain, stretching toward Mount Ararat and the Turkish border.  The people often look a little more Iranian and a little less Italian than their counterparts in Georgia.

Yerevan is a delightful, laid-back city, less choked, last week at least, with exhaust fumes than Tbilisi.  It has lots of open spaces, wonderful museums and a thriving café culture.  You’ll see far more Russian language signs and hear more Russian spoken.  

The influence of the French, German and British cultures are also in evidence across the city.  In Republic Square the fountains ‘dance’ nightly to a soundtrack including Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Handel’s Messiah and Rule Britannia, complete with vocals.
Crowds enjoy Yerevan's 'dancing fountains'

In the lusher, greener north of Armenia, the town of Dilijan looks rather Swiss, with wooden chalets climbing the steep hillsides.  Lake Sevan’s shores are fringed with shady camp-sites and picnic spots which could almost be on the west coast of France.

The influence of the diaspora is evident in Armenia.  There were people of Armenian origin from the Unites States everywhere in Yerevan.  We met a French Armenian diplomat and witnessed the christening of an Armenian child from Switzerland, in one of the city’s oldest churches.  A priest even outlined a theory linking Armenia to Ireland, citing some unconvincing etymology based on the two countries’ names. 

In his excellent book about Georgia, Bread and Ashes, Tony Anderson concludes that the distinction between Europe and Asia is arbitrary and largely ‘irrelevant’.  ‘We might much more usefully think of one Eurasian continent and then annoying bits of geography like the Caucasus resolve themselves easily’.

In my view, the most interesting places lie where different cultures and influences converge.  Unfortunately the resulting confusion of ethnicities, identities and languages can also prove combustible.  The Caucasus region, which includes three disputed states and has witnessed numerous wars, is a classic example. 

I’ll be looking at some more aspects of Georgia and Armenia in the days to come. 

16 comments:

Jonny Blair said...

Hi Owen,
I personally have classed these countries as "Central Asia/Middle East" (mostly due to space on a blog header I might add) as Caucases is too small a category (there's 6/7 countries at most in the Caucases, 3 of which are debated) and Europe is misleading. Asia is simply too far away. I don't see Georgea or Armenia as Europe and I certainly don't see them as Asia. In the same category I include Transnistria, Azerbaijan and Iran. I've met Iraqis and Iranians who have told me off for calling them Asian. I told them it was only because they play in the Asian World Cup qualifiers.I'm all for separatism and the word Europe in itself is misleading as there are so many individual regions within it with their own names (UK, Baltics, Scandinavia, Balkans etc.), some of whom don't wish to be classed as European.

Owen Polley said...

Hi Jonny,

Thanks for the comment. I'd visited Don't Stop Living before my trip and noticed your classification. The Middle East and Central Asia are definitely two other big influences. It just shows again how arbitrary all these categories are. Especially because generally people use 'European' when something feels western and modern and 'Asian' when it feels exotic and foreign. I visited Tatarstan in the European part of Russia before the Northern Ireland game over there, for instance, which everyone says has a really Central Asian feel. The 'Asian' part of Istanbul feels like pretty much like any modern city in Europe, while Sultanahmet feels pretty exotic.

Maybe it's because of the wee country we come from, but I always find the places that confuse people to be the most interesting!

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