Sridhar Balan | Toast to Tbilisi’s golden storytelling heritage

There is a saying in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia that the month of March is quite unpredictable in terms of weather. The weather can change very drastically in a short time, from hot and sunny to cold, windy and humid. Sure enough, the town had snows in March, causing people to rush to find woolens and shelter. As for April, it was said to borrow two weeks from March! We wondered if our hosts had the weather in mind when we visited Tbilisi in mid-April this year. The visit marked the official closing of Tbilisi as the Unesco World Book Capital for the year 2021-22.

The World Book Capital is an initiative launched by Unesco in 2001 after the idea was first mooted in Madrid in 1995. The idea was to designate a city each year with an innovative program that supported creativity , education and knowledge through books and reading. The World Book Capital designation was won through tenders by cities that supported the “free flow of ideas by word and image” among different sections of the community, with particular emphasis on the children. Appropriately, Madrid was named the first World Book Capital in 2001, followed by Alexandria in 2002 and New Delhi in 2003. We were in Tbilisi not only to bid farewell but also to welcome Guadalajara as the World Book Capital in 2022-23 followed by Accra (Ghana) in 2023. The Book Capital of the World launches its program on April 23 of the designated year and runs until April 22 of the following year. April 23 was a special day for books and for reading.

Unesco marked it as World Book and Copyright Day and all over the world the book was celebrated through special literary and reading programs. The day was chosen as it marked the birthdays of Shakespeare and Cervantes, the creator of the classic ‘Don Quixote’.

For Tbilisi, April 23, 2021 was even more special as it marked St. George’s Day, as St. George was the patron saint of the state and a golden dragon-slaying statue of the saint takes pride of place on its Liberty Square. The year-long program launched that day aimed to introduce Georgian literary heritage not only to its citizens but also to the world. In the process, Georgia also introduced its historical heritage located at one end of Eastern Europe bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Our meeting in Tbilisi was important for another reason. It marked the official launch of the World Book Capital Network, connecting cities to the World Book Capital movement, sharing our past experiences and seeking ways to secure the future of books and reading.

We realized how much Tbilisi values ​​books the moment we checked into the two designated hotels. It was hard to spot the check-in counter as the whole lobby was decorated with books on shelves from floor to ceiling. The books covered a range of subjects from fiction to non-fiction and many of them were in English given the international traffic in hotels. Georgia celebrated the year with more than ten book fairs, literary exchanges of authors and writers, strengthening the network of libraries in schools, a book flea market that ran for three months and was filled with bargain hunters, an international literary festival, international author residency programs, reading programs and an international publishers conference. Above all, the countless storytelling sessions incorporating both urban and rural traditions and fairy tales based on mythology, fantasy and legend.

Georgia indeed had a rich tapestry of such stories and Georgians are proud of their heritage. Music is an integral part of Georgian tradition. Scratch a Georgian and he may sing. Scratch a little harder and he or she can burst into a story. We saw plenty of evidence of this when our guide Mariam told us stories on our trip to Kakheti, the wine region, and on our walking tour of old Tbilisi. St George, a soldier in the early crusades, was originally from Cappadocia but had never visited Georgia. Christianity was brought to the region by its relative a female monk named Ninia. George was the most popular name for boys and Ninia for girls. It is common to assume that the name Georgia is derived from St. George, but is actually of Persian origin. We were told stories about King David the Builder (1073-1125), one of Georgia’s greatest rulers, who did much to consolidate and unify Georgia. Queen Tamar of Georgia (1160-1213) was David’s great-granddaughter. She ruled Georgia’s Golden Age and showed such leadership that she was called “King” Tamar. Shota Rustaveli (1160-1220) was the greatest poet of the Golden Age and his poem “The Knight in the Panther Skinis a national epic.

During our walk we saw the photo of Tamada, the toastmaster who is the master of the toasts in all wedding ceremonies and parties. Each toast undoubtedly included a story about the happy couple. While Prometheus was chained in the Caucasus Mountains for offering fire, we are told that Jason and the Argonauts traveled up the river to the Kolkheti region in search of the Golden Fleece. It was at the Museum of History and Ethnography in Svaneti that we saw the depiction of gold mining being washed from the bottom of the river using a sheepskin fleece known from Jason as the name “golden fleece”. The museum, among other valuable artifacts, also housed medieval manuscript manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments. The local population had preserved them from invaders. Many 9th-century watchtowers dot the area. These towers may well sound the alarm in the event of a future threat to books, reading and speech.

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