A throaty tenor danced across the inky night. I followed a wide path toward the Kartvlis Deda statue, her form illuminated with an eerie, green glow. Moments later, a chorus of lighter voices floated along the first. Each voice joined in perfect harmony. The song sounded old and traditional. I sat on a ledge above the group, they sang a capella and I let their beautiful voices wash across me. They were an invisible welcoming committee as I sat under Kartvlis Deda, a statue known as the Mother of Georgia.
The songs floating into the night sounded ethereal and ancient. During my two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, I had come to love the lilt of the language. Georgian is a class unto itself. Dating to the 4th Century B.C.E., it’s one of the world’s oldest languages and is unrelated to any other on earth. To an outsider, the confusing jumble of consonants is hard to replicate, but melodic to the ear.
Twenty minutes passed as I listened to them sing. The calm peace of the night flowed over me. The city lights flickered in the distance; I picked out landmarks on the dark horizon. The point of church steeples poked the heavy clouds. The glitzy bridge crossing the Mt’k’vari River winked in technicolor. All the while, the group pitched their voices into the crisp air. They cut through the chill with deep, heartfelt emotions.
(If you’re reading via RSS or email, click here to hear a sample of Georgian a capella singing.)
I had heard this type of singing throughout my wanderings; it’s used in churches and it was showcased at the Tbilisoba festival. Over hundreds of years, each region developed distinct singing styles to express culture and traditions. Throughout war and oppression, modern Georgians maintain strong links to their aural history. Georgia’s polyphonic singing is so unique it even made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
In time, curiosity overcame my timidity. I wanted to venture closer, but was nervous that they would see it as an intrusion. I crept down the staircase, pausing when I was within their view. It took but a moment for one woman to motion me closer. I leaned against the wall, now given an open invitation to listen. As the song faded to a close, a woman in her 20s broke from the group to sit near me. Natia was the only one able to communicate in English. She opened the conversation by passing me a beer and snacks from their communal pile. Then she plied me with questions about my reasons for visiting Tbilisi.
Likewise, I fed my curiosity. She spoke of how her friend-group gathered in the cool evenings to share company and share songs. It wasn’t a special occasion, but rather a way to revel in their friendship. Inviting me to join them was in that same spirit — an open offer devoid of expectation. Her invitation was a quintessential gesture of Georgian hospitality. She wanted me to feel welcome as a guest in her country.
In the 12th century, Georgia’s most beloved poet wrote The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Many believe that Shota Rustaveli’s poem encapsulates the true spirit of Georgia. Rustaveli espouses the idea of friendship as a powerful bond, a cult worthy of revere. A man is judged for his friendship over all other things. In Georgia, one single word, hospitality, epitomizes any visit.
Peter Nasmyth wrote of Rustaveli’s poem:
“Certainly he espoused the doctrine of perfect love or the cult of friendship, still prominent in modern Georgian culture – and indisputably linked with the convention of hospitality.”
Sitting under the Mother Georgia statute seemed serendipitous for an evening of Georgian hospitality. She stands tall and proud over the city. The items in her hands represent the twin beliefs underpinning much of modern Georgia. One hand holds a sword; a reminder to enemies that Georgia stands proud, free, and independent. In her other hand she offers a bowl of wine — an entreaty for visitors to feel welcome. For all the city to see, this statue is a reminder of the Georgian belief that “a guest is a gift from God.”
In the mid 2000s, Georgia pulled out of its tumultuous history, and opened to tourism. A new generation of travelers, like me, can now experience the country’s renowned culture of hospitality. Still far from a tourist hotspot, the country is growing in popularity. Their food, wine, and traditions draw interest to their corner of the world. I had dreamed of visiting many places as a child. Georgia wasn’t on the list. It didn’t have the gloss and glamour of Paris, Rome, and Prague. It was several years into my travels that I first considered visiting Georgia. I had little exposure to the Georgian culture, which is why, perhaps, it bowled me over with surprise. It’s such a lovely place and people. Like all countries, Georgia has issues. But also like all countries, fascinating cultural nuances lie just under the surface.
The hours melted away. As a group, we sipped beers and chatted. As a group they continued breaking into song when they felt the urge bubble up within them. It was never out-of-place to pause the conversation and join harmonies. Each time, they finished a song with voices in perfect unison. Several songs were toe-tapping and lively. More often, their voices evoked a deep and heartfelt feeling of loss and longing. They seemed to echo the pain of a thousand centuries.
Today, I have few ways to get in touch with them. I left with one person’s contact information. Instead, I see it as a gift. They offered an evening free and clear of expectations, even the expectation of friendship. Instead, it was a chance to feel welcome. It was a chance to experience a side of Georgia I’d yet to see. They welcomed me into their lives, into their circle of friendship, for an evening of cheerful camaraderie and song. Perhaps they sang of politics. Perhaps they sang of love. There’s even a chance they sang of friendship — I like to imagine that tenuous thread connecting me to them in that moment.