For me Guria starts with my native village of Shemokmedi, where a traditional wooden house built by Grandpa is always ready to welcome guests. The yard with its emerald green lawn is guarded by vines twisted around the high trees. The cool wine cellar is used for huge clay vessels filled with the locally produced wines “Chkhavera” and “Adesa”. There is a neatly built well by the passage leading to the nut-grove - that’s where you go to get delicious ice cold water. Various traditional tools associated with the village routine hang on the wall in the granary. They are the inanimate witnesses of the past.
The only noise that can disturb you at sunrise is the ripple of a nearby
creek or the sound of the local sweet ripe pear falling on the grass
glistening with dew.
The village slowly resumes its daily activities. Well-built and graceful, proud and neatly dressed, Gurians appear on the road. Some are hurrying to the maize field, some are going to the hazelnut or tea plantations. The sun is slowly rising and dispersing the clouds - lively Guria has become animated again.
This time we are introducing you to one of the most beautiful parts of Georgia. And since we are talking about Guria, this might prove to be a difficult task - Gurians are hard to please. But being a native of this land, I am ready to throw myself to their mercy.
Let us go back to Shemokmedi, since our journey has started with it. It is one of the oldest villages of Guria. Two ancient monasteries are situated on the green banks of the turbulent river Bzhuzhi - the Church of the Transfiguration and Zarzma. The graves of local residents and the secure place for the sacred icons from the South of Georgia used during the wars are here. There used to be three eparchies in Guria - Shemokmedi, Jumati and Ninotsminda. The are several monasteries and over two hundred churches in this part of Georgia. The latter are mainly built of wood due to the high humidity.
Compared to other parts of the country, Guria is a relatively young.
It is first mentioned in the annals of the 8th century A.D., when Georgia
was invaded by the ferocious Arab leader Murvan-ibn-Muhamad with 120,000
of his warriors. He plundered the eastern and western parts of the country
and camped out in Guria before the decisive battle. Because he paid no
attention to the pleas and groans of the people he was called Murvan the
Deaf. In Guria heartless people are called Murvanas to this day.
After the disintegration of the unified Georgian State, Guria became a principality. Its ruler was called a Gurieli. Gurielis were the descendants of Svanetian feudal lords, the Vardanisdzes, like another noble house of Georgia - the Dadianis. This is why another popular name for Gurielis was Guriel-Dadianis and for Dadianis correspondingly Dadian-Gurielis. The most popular first name in both houses was Mamia. Not Gurian has ever became a king of Georgia (however, several of them were kings of Imereti - Western Georgia). The Russian Empire finally abolished the title of Gurieli along with the Georgian monarchy. However, it has been preserved to this day as a family name.
As for the etymology of the name of Guria, some say that the root of the word refers to restlessness and the word should mean “the land of the restless”. The famous Georgian geographer and historian Vakhushti Batonishvili refers to the times when “Leon became the King of the Abkhaz (king of Western Georgia), Gurians refused to obey the ruler of Odzrakho, ceased their vassal relations with Adarnase and Ashot Bagrationi and united with Leon”.
Another explanation is based on the following legend. King Shedat of India decided to build a paradise on earth, thinking that the nation would worship him as a God. But the nobility said that the heavenly garden lacked angels. The king ordered them to bring “gurias”(beautiful people) from all over the world to India. But the Lord punished the king for this heresy. The story of the king’s death reached the gurias in the Caucasus and they decided to settle there. And their land was called Guria.
According to the latter explanation, in the times of Georgia’s prosperity, when its borders stretched from “Nikopsia to Daruband”, Guria was situated in the heart of the Georgian territory. The linguistic evidence for the above hypothesis is the Mingrelian for “heart” - “guri”.
Gurians apitomise all of the above - they are indeed energetic, restless,
and good-looking, and despite the recent territorial conflicts Guria is
still the heart of Georgia.
As for the borders of Guria, the Gurian principality covered the following areas: the Kobuleti-Chakva ridge, part of the Black Sea coast, and the territory situated between the lower part of the River Rioni and the mouth of the River Chorokhi, including Ozurgeti, Lanchkhuti and Chokhatauri. Ajara and the northern part of Chaneti (Gonio) were also within the borders of Guria at times. The Gurian village of Machakheli was famous for its skillful gunsmiths. The arms produced in this village were used to fight enemies in all parts of Georgia. The sound of “machakhelas”, locally produced guns, would frighten and confuse anyone who dared to attack. There is a legendary story about a Gurian warrior named Bolkvadze who once met six Ottoman Turks and immediately disorientated them,. Then, before they could regain their senses, injured one, captured two and shot two.The remaining Turk beat a hasty retreat.
The mountains of Guria form a marvellous pattern in the Meskheti range. The territory is abundant in game, covered with giant trees and various wild berries curled underneath. The sources of the cold Gurian rivers - the Bakhvis Tskali, the Supsa, the Gubazouli, the Natanebi, the Bzhuzhi and the Achis Tskali - are located here. The local air is pure and the famous mountainous resort Bakhmaro is crowded with “oxygen hunters”. People suffering from a peculiar type of local fever used to travel to Bakhmaro and the place always provided a miraculous cure.
Bakhmaro is situated at an altitude of 1,926-2,000 metres above sea level. The whole of Guria, part of Imereti, half of Samegrelo and the turquoise Black Sea can be seen from its steep mountain slopes.
Water is one of the Guria’s main assets. Roaring rivers, crystal-clear springs and turbulent creeks are the attributes of this part of the country. But the most outstanding of these is the mineral water of Nabeglavi, which is similar to Borjomi in its chemical composition. Since the resorts and mineral waters have been mentioned, it is worth naming another resort - Ureki. Situated on the Black Sea shore, Ureki is famous for its magnetic sand. In the summertime thousands of people soak in the sun and find a cure for various diseases here, on the land of ancient Colchis.
In 1774 the Ottoman Turks separated the region of Kobuleti from Guria and the spread of Islam started in the Gurian lowlands. This led to extensive migration of the population and even to the splitting-up of families. A good example of this is the famous Tavdgiridze family, some of whom stayed in Kobuleti and were converted to Islam. But every cloud has a sliver lining - two unique Gurian songs - Khasanbegura and Alipasha - were based on the sad story of the breach of faith in this family. After listening to these songs Igor Stravinsky, amazed by the singular vocal technique called “krimanchuli” exclaimed: “Never in my life have I listend to anything beter than this.”
Gurian song is as mysterious as the Gurian nature itself. It is polyphonic, complex in structure and harmonized. Good singers have always been valued in this country. The so-called Dumbadze style of chanting has been popular all over West Georgia. It was invented by a priest from Shemokmedi, Anton Dumbadze, who would teach chants to the talented young people. The chants were not written down and they passed from one generation to another orally. Only at the end of the 19th century, with the assistance of the Georgian Society for the Promotion of Literacy, did Philimon Koridze start to transfer the songs to paper. Koridze was a soloist at the Opera Houses of Italy and St. Petersburg. He would place his portable harmonium on a cart and track down different versions of Gurian chants all over the country. This was a difficult task, because Gurian singers often improvise and one song may sound different in different places. In 1907 the British company Gramophone opened a recording studio in Tbilisi. This is how the unique performances have been preserved to this day.
The magic sounds of Gurian songs can be heard through the hissing of the old gramophone record. The Erkomaishvilis, Chavleishvilis, Khukhunaishvilis, Varlam Simonishvili, Giorgi Babilodze, Melkisedek Nakashidze and Nestor Kontridze create a whole whirlwind of coloratura and counterpoint while singing the famous “Naduri”, “Khasanbegura” and “The Blackbird”. However, the final part of each song is usually coordinated and calm and ends with a traditional Gurian laudatory exclamation. The tunes are so catchy that the audience is often involved in the performances. And Galaktion Tabidze’s opinion that nowhere else can one hear such singing appears to be true.
Gurians sing in all kinds of situations - at work, at festive events
and in grief. Work is easier with a song. The songs demonstrates
the turbulent nature of these people. Some one hundred years ago,
Gurian riders performed before the President of the United States and the
Queen of England. They participated in the world-famous Buffalo Bill’s
Wild West Show and amazed the public and especially the native Americans
with their brilliant riding.
Gurians could never come to terms with the suppression of their freedom. They always rebelled against injustice and abuse. During the period of the Russian rule they would escape into the forests and assault the Russian “strazhniks” from there. They would never collaborate with the so-called execution teams in the villages. If someone did, the revenge would be terrible. But as soon as peace was restored, the Gurian rebels returned to their homes.
This is why peace is so important to these people. A toast to peace and a corresponding song have always been the first at Gurian tables. There were times when people would laugh at this tradition, but because of the recent developments, this is not the case anymore. Our foremost Gurian, the President of Georgia, has proved this peace-oriented policy to the whole world.
As mentioned above, Gurian princes never became kings, but the main Georgian leaders of this century have been Gurians. According to the famous Georgian poet, Akaki Tsereteli: “It is hard to find people as lively, dynamic and open to innovations and progress as the Gurians are.”
The New Year, or Kalanda as Gurians call it, is approaching - the time for a Gurian to decorate a chichilaki (a kind of Christmas tree), to place a khachapuri, a pig’s head, sweets and wine on a wooden plate and to drink a toast to happiness and prosperity.
May you have many happy kalandas!