Georgia, The People of Georgia
The population of Georgia is 4,960,951 (2002 estimate), giving the country an average population density of 71 persons per sq km (184 per sq mi). Some 61 percent of the country’s inhabitants live in cities. Population is concentrated mainly along the coast of the Black Sea and in river valleys, especially the valley of the Kura River, where Tbilisi, the capital and largest city, is located. The next largest city, K’ut’aisi, is located on the upper Rioni River. Other important urban centers include Bat’umi and Sokhumi, which are the capitals of Ajaria and Abkhazia, and Rustavi, located on the Kura downstream from Tbilisi.
Nearly 100 different ethnic groups make up Georgia’s population. Georgians are the largest group, making up about 70 percent of the population, followed by Armenians (about 8 percent), Russians (about 6 percent), and Azerbaijanis (about 6 percent). Significant numbers of Ossetians, Greeks, and Abkhazians also reside in the republic.
Georgian has been the country’s official language since 1918, when Georgia briefly gained its independence. The language belongs to the South Caucasian, or Kartvelian, language family and uses a distinct alphabet that was developed in the 5th century. A non-Indo-European and non-Turkic language, Georgian is unrelated to any other major world language. Georgian remained the official language of the republic during the Soviet period, although Russian predominated in communications from the central government in Moscow. Georgian is not spoken by many of the country’s ethnic minorities, such as the Ossetians and Abkhazians, who speak their own native languages and frequently Russian as well. Russian is the first language of about 9 percent of the population.
The Georgian identity has been closely tied to religion since the introduction of Christianity in the early 4th century. After about 100 years of subjugation by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which predated the former, reclaimed its independence after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. During the Soviet period, religious practice was strongly discouraged because the Soviet state was officially atheistic; however, the Georgian Orthodox Church was allowed to function openly.
Orthodox Christianity is the religion of about 58 percent of the Georgian population. About 19 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, with ethnic Azerbaijanis, Kurds, and Ajars (ethnic Georgians who converted to Islam in the 17th century) being the principal Muslim groups. Judaism is also practiced, although to a lesser extent.
Georgia has an adult literacy rate of 99.5 percent, a result of the Soviet emphasis on free and universal education. Georgians were among the most highly educated of all the nationalities in the former USSR. Since independence, however, all levels of education in Georgia have been seriously underfunded, resulting in lower educational standards. Most schools are state operated and provide tuition-free education; however, a number of private schools have opened since the early 1990s. Education is compulsory from the first through eleventh grades, and most students enter the school system at age six. Institutions of higher education in Georgia include the University of Tbilisi and Georgian Technical University, both located in Tbilisi. Abkhazia has its own university, Abkhazian State University.
Despite centuries of foreign domination, Georgia has maintained a distinct culture, one influenced by both Asian and European traditions. The Georgian language is one indication of this cultural individuality. Georgia’s ancient culture is evident in the republic’s architecture, which is renowned for the role it played in the development of the Byzantine style. The republic also has a long tradition of highly skilled metalwork, with excavations of ancient tombs revealing finely wrought pieces in bronze, gold, and silver.
Although a Georgian literary tradition dates from the 5th century, the 12th and 13th centuries are considered the golden age of Georgian literary development. The national epic of Georgia, Vepkhis-tqaosani (The Man in the Tiger’s Skin), was written during this period by poet Shotha Rusthaveli. Western European cultural movements, especially romanticism, began to influence Georgian writers and artists during the 19th century. Many Georgian writers produced works of high quality in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Beginning in the 1920s, however, the Soviet regime required artistic works to glorify socialist ideals. Georgian writers and artists were censored and in some cases executed for noncompliance. During the Soviet period, Georgian author Konstantin Gamsakhurdia won acclaim for his historical novels.
The State Literary Museum of Georgia, located in Tbilisi, contains a thorough history of Georgian literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. The State Museum of Georgia, which contains archaeological exhibits, and the Georgian State Art Museum also are located in Tbilisi.