During my two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia’s charming capital city, I had come to love the quick flash of a smile and the musical lilt of the Georgian tongue as locals welcomed me into the city’s shops and restaurants. The Georgian language is unrelated to any other on earth. Dating to the fourth century B.C.E., it’s also among the world’s oldest languages. Spoken Georgian pops and rolls from the mouth, with gritty consonants softened by a liquid cadence reminiscent of Italian. It’s the ending vowels on most words that affords the language a melodic quality, which carries into the nation’s long tradition of song.
Twenty minutes passed. I sat on the ledge and listened to them sing, their peaceful melodies flowing around me like a warm hug to insulate against the chilly hint of winter in the air. The city lights flickered in the distance. Landmarks glowed on the dark horizon—church steeples poked the heavy clouds, a glitzy bridge winked in technicolor. All the while, the group pitched their voices to carry far across the mountainside.
(Press play to hear their voices piercing the night with deep, heartfelt emotions.)
During my weeks wandering Georgia, I listened in awe as this style of singing filled the country’s many churches. Over hundreds of years, each region of Georgia developed a distinct singing style to record and express its ancient traditions. Throughout war and oppression, modern Georgians maintain strong links to their aural history. So beloved to the Georgians, and so unique to the world, the country’s polyphonic singing is now inscribed on 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 axiom 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 can experience the country’s renowned culture of hospitality. While far from a tourist hotspot, the country is growing in popularity. Its food, wine, and traditions draw interest to that corner of the world, smack between the Great and Lesser Caucasus Mountains. 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 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 the urge bubbled to the surface. It was never out-of-place for someone 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.
The sounds of that evening provided a soundtrack for my memories of traveling Georgia. They offered me a simple gift free of expectations. Taken in as a friend, they made me feel welcome. As their friend, I experienced a part of Georgia I hadn’t known awaited me. 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.