zondag 23 november 2014

Mingrelian mourning.

Eastern Georgia is the home of the Mingrelian people. At times, Mingrelians are called 'the Jews of Georgia'. With both Europe and the Middle East at reasonable distance, this shouldn't be mistaken as anti-Semitism. Actually, Georgia is a good friend of Israel internationally. As such, the label 'Jew' can even be seen as a compliment. However, Georgians from the Eastern regions call them untrustworthy and cunning as well - or even sly. But, how come? Traditionally, the Mingrelians are traders.

Trading in Megruli. 

I am fascinated by cross-border communities as the Mingrelians. It is striking how many of them - Armenians, Lebanese, Tuareg, Dutch (?) - are involved in trading (without being particularly affluent per se, by the way). People from peripheral regions seem to fulfil a middle-man position. 

Indeed, the capital of Samegrelo, Zugdidi, is not exactly what you would call a thriving trade centre (although I do love the place). 

Mingrelian is related to Kartuli, the main Georgian language, but the languages aren't mutually intelligible. The Mingrelians inhabit both the region stretching from the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea, Mingrelia or Samegrelo, and parts of Abkhazia, the region further West along the coast. Abkhazia is de facto independent since 1993, when it fought a short separatist war with Georgia (see earlier posts).

Another view of Zugdidi. 

Many of the Abkhaz Mingrelians where expelled from Abkhazia during and after the war, as they were seen as Georgians (and many see themselves as such indeed) - but some of them stayed. Mingrelian surnames tend to end in -ia, -aia, -a, and -ava - just like many the names of ethnic Abkhaz do. In a territory where there is many inter-ethnic marriage, and where the language of day-to-day communication is Russian anyway, it is often rather difficult to differentiate between Mingrelians and Abkhaz. Furthermore, many of the government jobs are reserved for ethnic Abkhaz. Since 1993 in particular, it's quite beneficial to register as an Abkhaz, therefore. (When Abkhazia was under control of the Georgian state, many Mingrelians were registered as Georgians, for the same reasons.)

A typical Mingrelian house, both in rural and residential areas. 

Characteristic for Samegrelo are the two-storied detached houses surrounded by a large, green, fenced yard full of palm trees (and if you're lucky apricots, tangerines, pears, etc.). All houses have an elevated veranda. Often there's water tanks on a high platform. Houses are strikingly often painted in mint green, by the way.

A front door with the characteristic mint green plaster. 

As the Likhi mountain range divides Georgia in two, the Western part of Georgia was often separated from it's East. The Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires had a bigger influence here than in Karli and Kakheti (there it was Persians before and Persian after). Only during Russian and Soviet rule both parts were properly unified again since long. Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, the poet father of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first President of independent Post-Soviet Georgia, was from Abasha in Samegrelo. Therefore, the support for Zviad was higher in Samegrelo than elsewhere. However, Zviad was a Georgian nationalist. Not all Mingrelians feel that Georgian though. When I was around, it happened several times that the ubiquitous toast 'Gaumarjos Sakartvelos!' (Long live Georgia!) was replaced with 'Samegrelos gaumarjos!'

The yard and the colour are typical Mingrelian - the architecture less.

Traces of the different past of Western Georgia can be found in the existence of milk kinship, for example. Milk kinship is also present in many Muslim societies. However, just like the Georgians, Mingrelians are Christians for centuries. They are Georgian-Orthodox. Therefore, the literary language of the Mingrelians is Kartuli (Georgian), and and attend church service in Georgian. However, like anywhere, many pre-Christian rituals are preserved. It wouldn't surprise you that liquor is involved in many of them, even during funerals and the subsequent mourning process.

A funeral company in Zugdidi. 

Mingrelians mourning is quite ritualized. Libation or drinking offerings are part of this. It's fairly common to see small glasses of wine or liquor on a gravestone. Sometimes there's grapes as well - or even flowers. During the visiting of the body, a banquet for close kin is organized - although the food shouldn't be prepared in the same house. Night wakes last for four to six days. The women in particular scream, howl and sing polyphonic songs. Forty days later and a year later again, commemorate feasts are held. During these commemorations, food, drinks and candles are put on the grave. Interestingly, it is also tradition for male relatives to not shave on Saturdays for a year after the deceasing of their family member.

A grave stone with drink offering.