Cultural Geography

How cultural differences, ranging from language and religion to sports and music, influence geographical patterns

The Geography Indian Chess Grandmasters

The prolific blogger, economist, and public intellectual Tyler Cowen recently reposted a map on the geography of Indian chess grandmasters (reproduced below). The map was originally posted on X [Twitter] by “The_Equationist” under the heading “This chart speaks for itself.” I am not sure that it does, nor do several of Cowen’s commenters. But for those who understand the basic spatial contours of socio-economic development in India, the map does show a familiar pattern. Almost all Indian grandmasters come from the more economically vibrant and educationally developed states of southern and south-central India. Conversely, few come from the densely populated and economically lagging Ganges Valley, India’s historical core, or indeed from any other northern part of the country. Based on socioeconomic development alone, one might expect a few more grandmasters from Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi, but the pattern remains unexceptional.

What is especially striking is that three states in particular stand out for producing grandmasters: West Bengal (labeled here simply as “Bengal”), Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. But again, for those familiar with the geography of Indian intellectual life, this pattern is not particularly surprising. West Bengal has long been famed as India’s intellectual center, particularly in fields in the humanities. This feature of Indian geography has occasionally hit home. I few years ago, I was peripherally involved in a search at Stanford University for a new faculty member specializing in the history of modern South Asia. Well into the process, a South Asian member of the search committee asked whether the rest of us had noticed that all the top candidates were Bengali, hailing from West Bengal. I had not noticed.

Tamil Nadu, which really stands out on the map, is also famous for the intellectual achievements of its inhabitants, which veer in a more scientific and technical direction. Such intellectuality is particularly notable among the Tamil Brahmins (or “Tam Brahms”), who have been subjected to some reverse discrimination in their homeland and are thus well represented abroad. Maharashtra does not have the same intellectual reputation as the other two states, but it is, in many regards, India’s economic standout and its center of popular-culture production.

One of Cowen’s commenters, Sathish, mentions that almost all of Tamil Nadu’s grandmasters come from its largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), noting as well that 15 of the 29 studied at the same school. Another commenter, sxb, provides the necessary background information:

It started in the 50s with the first Indian international Master, Manuel Aaron. He started the Tal chess club in Chennai, brought in Soviet chess books and even a Soviet Grandmaster for a month with more visiting and Anand, the Indian prodigy, was his pupil. Basically all the local players worthy of note went through that chess club. It blossomed from there.  Anand was born and lives in Chennai and has been a great role model for chess in India and got many youngsters interested in the game.


As geographers have long noted, place matters. So does personality, as this story so well demonstrates.

The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community

I was surprised to recently read that the Taliban are trying to marginalize the Persian language in Afghanistan, given its near majority status, stature, and role in inter-ethnic communication (see the previous GeoCurrents post). On resuming power in 2021, moreover, the Taliban had promised to pursue less brutal and divisive policies. In their first stint (1996-2001), they had viciously attacked the country’s minority Shia population, mostly found among the Hazara people in central Afghanistan. Some observers viewed these campaigns as almost genocidal (see this earlier GeoCurrents post). But as Radio Free Europe framed the Taliban’s new attitude:

After regaining power, the Sunni militant group tried to assuage Hazaras’ fears of discrimination and persecution. The Taliban visited Shi’a mosques in the Afghan capital and deployed its fighters to protect ceremonies marking the Shi’ite month of Muharram.

Given the Taliban’s previous animosity toward Shia Islam, I had expected that that any reversal of its newly formulated toleration program would be directed against the Hazaras, and perhaps also the smaller non-Hazara Shia communities in western Afghanistan. Yet I had encountered nothing of the sort. It turns out, however, that my reading on this subject had been far too limited. The July 17, 2023 Radio Free Europe article cited above went on to note that:

Last week, the Taliban prevented Shi’a from celebrating an important religious festival. The militants have also restricted the teaching of Shi’a jurisprudence in universities in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban reportedly banned marriages between Shi’a and Sunnis in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The Shi’ite community has accused the Taliban of failing to prevent deadly attacks on Hazaras by the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. Meanwhile, rights groups have documented the forced evictions of Hazaras by the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, in several provinces.

Other reports are even more worrisome. As noted by Jurist, “The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) issued a statement on Friday calling for an end to the systemic killing of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan in order to prevent a possible genocide under Taliban rule.” According to Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, “These violent deaths are further shocking proof that the Taliban continue to persecute, torture and extra judicially execute Hazara people.”

Also shocking is the lack of reporting on this situation in the American media. Afghanistan’s Shia population is massive, constituting something between 9 and 29.5 percent of the country’s population of 40 million (see the two highly divergent pie charts below). Continuing attacks on these people could quickly generate a humanitarian crisis of the first order.

Although most Shia Muslims in Afghanistan follow the Imami, or Twelver, majority sect of the faith, a significant minority adhere instead to the minority Ismaili sect. Most Afghan Ismailis are also ethnic Hazaras, but a few are ethnic Tajiks (both of which are Persian-speaking peoples). One might expect that the Taliban would be especially hostile to the Ismailis, given their heterodox, esoteric, and cosmopolitan orientation. Scant information, however, is readily available on this group. But according to one prominent 2001 report:

Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities. Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically.

The news searches that I conducted for information on Ismailis in Afghanistan mostly returned articles about a recent deadly knife attack by an Afghan refugee on women in an Ismaili center in Lisbon, Portugal. A Shia Wave article, however, notes that the Taliban are trying to convert Afghan Ismailis to Sunni Islam, and evidently with some success. I was disappointed to find no information on Afghan Ismailis on the website of the Aga Khan Foundation, the well-funded and highly effective humanitarian wing of the global (Nizari) Ismaili community. The Foundation does highlight its extensive humanitarian work in Afghanistan, but sidesteps the country’s sectarian divisions.

Afghanistan’s Language Policies and the Cartographic Marginalization of Persian (Farsi)

A fascinating recent article in The Diplomat (“Decoding the Taliban’s Anti-Persianism” by Javeed Ahwar) outlines how the new government of Afghanistan is attempting to sideline the country’s dominant Persian language in favor of Pashto, the main language of its Taliban rulers. As Ahwar writes, “One of the first things that Taliban did after taking over in August 2021 was to remove Persian from public billboards,” noting that the new policy “came at the cost of marginalization of the Persian-speaking population and undermining their rights to political participation.” As he further argues, the drive against Persian is rooted in a quest for Pashtun political dominance and reflects the overriding influence of the harsh South Asian Deobandi school of Sunni Islam, which favors Urdu over Persian. It also stems from the desire of the Taliban to disconnect the people of Afghanistan from the extraordinary riches of the Persian literary tradition, much of which is too cosmopolitan and secular for their taste.

Although the word “Afghanistan” literally means “land of the Pashtuns” – the Pashto-speaking people – Persian is still the country’s first language. As can be seen in the table posted above, roughly half the people of Afghanistan speak Persian as their mother tongue, with more than three quarters speaking it as either their first or second language; the comparable figures for Pashto are 40 and 48 percent. Persian is clearly the country’s main language of interethnic communication.

The importance of Persian in Afghanistan, however, is commonly obscured both in written depictions and especially on maps. Consider, for example, the Wikipedia map “Languages of Afghanistan,” posted below. Although it purports to be a language map, it is actually a map of ethnic groups that are only partly based on linguistic affiliation. Importantly, the term “Persian” does not appear on the map. Instead, the Persian-speaking population of Afghanistan is divided into three ethnic groups: Hazara, Aimak, and Tadjik [Tajik]. Although minor dialectal differences separate these groups, they are mostly divided by religion (the Hazaras being Shia) and traditional lifestyle (the Aimaks being pastoralists). The map also minimizes the extent of the Tajik people, especially in western Afghanistan. The second map rectifies these problems, but still avoids the term “Persian” in favor of “Dari,” following the long-established usage of the Afghan government. But Dari is merely the main variant of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and in written form is essentially identical with Farsi, as Persian is labeled in Iran. The terms Persian and Farsi denote the same language and are themselves variants of the same word, “Persian” being “Farsi” as translated into Greek; the term “Dari,” on the other hand, is generally thought to mean “court,” implying the “language of the court.” Occasionally one finds a map that portrays most of northern Afghanistan as Farsi-speaking, such as the Deviant Art map by H.G.[TRKM_JOSE] posted below. Such depictions, however, are relatively rare in scholarly and journalistic sources. Finally, some maps, like the last one posted below, do  show northern Afghanistan as Persian speaking.

According to the erudite scholar Nile Green, current holder of the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, “the impulses behind renaming of Afghan Persian as Dari were more nationalistic than linguistic.” The Wikipedia article on Dari summarizes Green’s argument as follows:

Afghanistan’s Persian-speaking population still prefer to call their language “Farsi”, asserting that the term “Dari” has been imposed upon them by the dominant Pashtun ethnic group as an effort to detach Afghanistan from its deep-rooted cultural, linguistic, and historical connections with the wider Persian-speaking world, encompassing Iran, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan.

The broader context and consequences of Afghanistan’s anti-Persian/Farsi policies will be considered in the next GeoCurrents post

India’s Kota Factory: Producing Enhanced University Entrance Exam Scores

To an American viewer, the premise of the Indian television show Kota Factory (available on Netflix) might seem absurd. The show is set in a city of over a million inhabitants that is economically based on a single “industry,” that of tutoring teenagers preparing for college entrance exams. Yet the city of Kota, located in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan, is real, as is its focus on exam preparation. More than 150,000 students are reported to come annually to this city, most of them staying for two or three years. Dozens of exam-coaching companies – private schools, essentially – compete for students, most of whom live in cramped hostels. The aim of most students is admission into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), a highly prestigious 23-campus institution with branches scattered across the country.

Kota Factory is shot in black-and-white, with camera angles and other techniques reminiscent of those of an art film. It is best described as a serious sitcom. According to the Wikipedia article on the show, its creator “aims to change the popular narrative surrounding Kota and preparation for [entrance exams] in Indian pop culture to a more positive one via the show.” Despite the popularity of studying in Kota, the city’s educational industry has acquired a somewhat negative perception due partly to a string of well-publicized suicides linked to its extraordinarily competitive atmposphere.

I find this show particularly interesting for the light that it sheds on the differences between the Indian and American educational systems. In Kota, a successful teacher – meaning one whose students have a relatively high acceptance rate at IIT – can have something of a celebrity status. The show’s most interesting character is a charismatic physics lecturer who is harsh but caring, deeply involved in his students lives. He is precisely the kind of mentor who can successfully shepherd shell-shocked 16-and 17-year-old pupils through the grueling process. As noted by the Wikipedia article on the show, this character is played by “Jitendra Kumar as Jitendra Kumar a.k.a. Jeetu Bhaiya: a fictionalised version of himself.” (Kumar was a civil engineering student at IIT Kharagpur before going into acting.)

Kota’s rise as an educational coaching center began in 1980s, when it was an industrial town producing, among other goods, polished building stone and synthetic fabric. At the time, however, many of its local industries were failing, a process that accelerated after the Indian economy opened to global forces in 1991. Adversity, however, generated some creative responses. As explained by Neelam Gupta in a 2016 Governance Now article:

The story begins with Vinod Kumar Bansal, who was once an employee of JK Synthetics. … As he had good mathematics skills, children from the neighbourhood flocked to him for help. One day he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a condition that rapidly weakens one’s muscles and bones. This disease restricted his movement and he could no longer work in the factory. Fearing he might lose his job, Bansal started giving maths tuitions at his home. In 1986, one of his students cracked the IIT joint entrance exam (IIT-JEE). Next year, some 100 students had joined his classes and by 1998, Bansal was coaching more than 1,000 students. Soon he built a big building in the city’s industrial area and set up Bansal Classes. In 2000, one of his students topped and 300 others cracked the IIT-JEE. It created a stir. “There was a long queue outside my study centre and I finally selected 18,000 students that session,” he recalls.

As often happens, Bansal’s success generated spin-off companies founded by his own employees. Students increasingly flocked to Kota partly because few Indian secondary schools offer adequate preparation for the demanding higher-education entrance exams. It is perhaps not coincidental that the state of Rajasthan, in which Kota is located, has one of India’s worst educational systems (see the literacy map below). Another draw is social. Many students find that it is much easier to devote themselves to intensive study in a city where tens of thousands of people their own age were doing the same than they would at home, as the show itself emphasizes. By 2010, 40,000 students a year were coming from all over northern India to study in Kota. Enrollment jumped a few years later when some key entrance exams changed from a state-level to a national basis. The annual figure, as noted above, is now around 150,000.

Not surprisingly, other Indian cities are hoping to profit from the educational coaching boom. A 2018 Hindustan Times article features the headline, “Why Are There ‘Education Malls’ in Ranchi? Inside the New Kotas of India.” Ranchi, like most rising coaching centers, and Kota itself, is a sizable but secondary city located in India’s poorer and educationally lagging north-central belt (see the map posted below). An exception is Madurai in the south, which has long been noted as a major university city and as the “cultural capital” of the state of Tamil Nadu. As Wikipedia notes, “Madurai has been an academic centre of learning for Tamil culture, literature, art, music and dance for centuries.”

As the creators of Kota Factory know what they are writing about, one can even learn a little science from watching the show. Episode Three, which focuses on inorganic chemistry and the many exceptions to its rules, including exceptions to the exceptions, is the prime case in point. The prolonged diatribe of Mayur More (playing the student Vaibhav Pandey) about the frustrations of studying the subject is one of the most amusing and riveting bits of acting that I have ever seen – and by far the most intellectually informed.

Religion Trumps Language in Turkey’s Hatay Province in the 2023 Presidential Election

Turkey’s Hatay Province, which forms a small “panhandle” extending southward along the eastern Mediterranean, is one of the most distinctive parts of the country. Hatay is characterized by linguistic and ethnic diversity. It has the highest percentage of Arabic speakers in Turkey. It is also home to several Christian communities (Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Maronite, Antiochian Greek, and Armenian Apostolic) and minority Muslim sects (Alawite and Alevi). As noted by Wikipedia, “Unlike most Mediterranean provinces, Hatay has not experienced mass migration from other parts of Turkey in recent decades and has therefore preserved much of its traditional culture.”

Hatay did not join Turkey until 1939, having previously been part of the French-ruled Mandate of Syria. When the French departed Syria, a referendum in Hatay led to union with Turkey, which was the outcome favored by France. Many observers, however, question the legitimacy of the vote. Many Syrians, moreover, reject the Turkish annexation of the region.

In the 2023 Turkish presidential election, incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the vote in Hatay by a relatively small margin. As the map below indicates, Erdoğan took some of Hatay’s districts handily, while his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu won others by an overwhelming majority. What might account for these differences? Following to the Wikipedia language map posted above, language does not seem to be the main factor, as some Arabic-majority districts voted heavily for Erdoğan and others for Kılıçdaroğlu.

The language map in question, however, is imprecise. Another Wikipedia map, limited to Hatay, provides a much better depiction, although it does not take population density into account (see the second map posted below). Here Arabic-speaking areas are noted with green markings, with Turkish speaking areas marked in red. Three districts in Hatay have Arabic-speaking majorities, which I have indicated on the paired electoral with the letter “A.” As can be seen on this map, one of these districts overwhelmingly supported Erdoğan, one overwhelmingly supported Kılıçdaroğlu, and the either had mixed results.

The key to explaining this seeming discrepancy is found in religion, which is also noted on the Wikipedia map in question. Here Arabic-speaking Sunni areas are marked with green squares while Arabic-speaking Alawite districts are marked with green circles. As can be seen by comparing these maps, the Alawite-dominated areas strongly supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas the Sunni-dominated areas strongly supported Erdoğan – as did Arabic-speaking Sunni areas elsewhere in Turkey.

Alawites should not be confused with Alevis, although they often are, and they do have a number of similarities. Both are members of highly heterodox Shia offshoot sects who generally favor a resolutely secular political order. The Turkish-speaking population of Hatay includes some Alevis, although they are not indicated on the map posted above, or on any other map that I have found. Alawites, in contrast, are almost entirely Arabic speaking. Most Alawites live to the south, in the coastal area of Syria, where they form the majority population. The Assad government of Syria is dominated by Alawites, although they have been long disparaged and are often despised by their country’s Sunni majority. Alawites in Turkey’s Hatay province show pronounced hostility to Erdoğan, who supported the “Arab Spring” movement to overthrow Syria’s Alawite-dominated Assad regime. Erdoğan also gave sanctuary to millions of Syrian Sunni refugees, who tend to exhibit hostility towards Alawites.

This situation was depicted by Soner Cagaptay in a 2013 article:

Warning signs of this have been evident for months. For example, local Alawite groups such as the “Platform Against Imperialistic Interference in Syria” have been organizing pro-Assad rallies for some time — the largest, held last September, drew over ten thousand people. As one Alawite put it during an interview with Aljazeera, “Western imperialistic powers, along with Sunni-led regimes, are trying to topple a legitimate regime in Syria.” Minor tensions between Sunni refugees from Syria and Hatay Alawites have been reported as well. Alawite business owners and civil servants complain of Syrian refugees questioning them over their sectarian identity, with some claiming they have been blacklisted and harassed by Sunni Arab emigres.

For more information on the similarities and differences between Alevis and Alawites, see Cagaptay’s interesting but no doubt controversial 2012 article, “Are Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis the Same?”

Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey

The Republic of Türkiye (Turkey) is characterized by stark discrepancies in regional economic productivity. In 2021, nominal per capita GDP figures ranged from 153,479 Turkish Lira (17,089 US$) in Kocaeli Province, located east of Istanbul, to 26,837 Turkish Lira (2,988 US$) in Ağrı Province, located along Turkey’s eastern border. Although maps of Turkish per capita GDP by province are readily available, I made my own to highlight these regional disparities, accomplished mainly by using a two-color scheme.

The correlation between economic productivity and ethnicity in Turkey is close, at least on the low end of the spectrum. As can be seen by comparing the two posted above with that posted below, Turkey’s least economically productive provinces are all located in the primarily Kurdish southeast. The most economically productive provinces are concentrated on the other side of the country, in the northwest. This latter region includes both coastal provinces and provinces located in the northwestern quarter of the central Anatolian Plateau.

Historically, Turkey’s western coastal strip was much more productive than most of the rest of the country. Over the past several decades, however, a number of cities on the Anatolian Plateau have seen significant industrialization and rapid economic growth. Several have been deemed “Anatolian Tigers,” defined by Wikipedia as cities that “have displayed impressive growth records since the 1980s, as well as a defined breed of entrepreneurs rising in prominence and who can often be traced back to the cities in question and who generally rose from the status of small and medium enterprises.” Some of these “Tiger cities,” however, are located closer to the coast than the plateau. (The locations of the “Anatolian Tigers,” as defined by Wikipedia, are shown on one of the maps below.)

A comparison of the map of Turkish economic productivity with that of the 2023 presidential election (see the previous post) reveals some interesting connections. To illustrate these patterns more clearly, I have outlined in red the provinces that supported challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, superimposing them on the per capita GDP map.

As can be seen, a majority of the Turkey’s richer and poorer provinces supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas most of its mid-level provinces supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Closer analysis, however, reveals that other factors are more important than per capita GDP for understanding the election results. For example, Kocaeli, Turkey’s most economically productive province, supported Erdoğan, as did most of its prosperous northwestern neighboring provinces. Support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the poor southeast, moreover, is less a reflection of economic standing than of Kurdish ethnicity, as most Kurds reject Erdoğan’s pronounced and ethnically inflected Turkish nationalism.

An interesting exception to the general patterns of anti-Erdoğan sentiments in the southeast is Şanlıurfa, which is one of Turkey’s poorest provinces; it also has, according to Wikipedia, a Kurdish majority. Yet Şanlıurfa decisively supported Erdoğan, as it had in the past several elections. But Şanlıurfa is more ethnically mixed than the Wikipedia article on it indicates; a 1996 study found that it had a Kurdish plurality but not a majority. Şanlıurfa is home to a substantial Arab community, as well as a very large refugee population. As the paired set of maps post below shows, the Arabic-speaking part of Şanlıurfa voted overwhelmingly for Erdoğan. (The pattern is markedly different, however, in Turkey’s most heavily Arabic-speaking province, Hatay, as will be examined in a later post.)

Kılıçdaroğlu’s other main region of support was the far west and southwest, covering the European portion of Turkey and the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Historically, this was the wealthiest part of Turkey, and it has long been the most liberal and Western-oriented part of the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that it supported the more liberal and Western-oriented candidate.

As the upper map posted above shows, Erdoğan’s main bastions of support are located in the core Anatolian Plateau, with the important exception of those areas dominated by the Alevi religious minority, and the Black Sea coast. Much of this region has seen substantial economic growth and infrastructural investment under Erdoğan’s leadership, has long been noted for its more conservative interpretations of Turkish nationalism. Many of the districts along the eastern half of the Black Sea coast had been heavily populated by ethnic Greeks before the early 1920s; when the local Greeks were expelled, Turks moved in, many of whom had themselves been expelled from Greece at the same time. It is not surprising that the descendants of such people are noted for their pronounced Turkish nationalism.

Two important provinces in the western portion of the Anatolian plateau supported Kılıçdaroğlu the 2023 election. One is Ankara, where the national capital (of the same name) is located, and the other is Eskişehir, which is noted for its large and strong universities. It is not surprising that these more cosmopolitan provinces voted against Erdoğan. Yet both provinces, and that of Istanbul as well, supported Erdoğan in the 2018 election, when his opposition was divided (see the maps below). From 2018 to 2023, Erdoğa lost ground in major urban areas, along the southern Mediterranean coast, and in the far northeast (another area with large ethnic minorities). Yet his overall vote stayed roughly the same, indicating a solidification of support over the core Anatolian region. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi faith may have played a significant role here.

Georgia’s Three Unique National Scripts

Although many writing systems have been developed over the years and across the world, relatively few are still in use. As the Wikipedia map posted below shows, most countries today use either the Latin, Arabic, or Cyrillic scripts for their own national (or major regional) languages. Only a handful or countries have their own unique scripts that are used to write their own national and official languages. Determining which countries fall into this category – shown on the second map below – is somewhat tricky. The Hangul script, for example, is unique to the Korean language and nation, but that nation is divided into two states: North Korea and South Korea. The Greek alphabet is essentially limited to the Greek language, but Greek is the national tongue of two countries, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus (although the break-way Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus uses the Latin alphabet). The Ethiopic script, or Ge’ez, is employed for official purposes only in Ethiopia, but is also used extensively in neighboring Eritrea (along with the Latin and Arabic scripts). I have included all three of these scripts in the map below. I did not, however, include the Chinese writing system, because it is also used in three countries other than China (exclusively in Taiwan, alongside the Latin and Tamil scripts in multi-lingual Singapore, and in combination with two indigenous scripts [hiragana and katakana] in Japan).

Other than Israel (which uses the Hebrew script), the remaining countries with their own unique scripts used to write their national languages are located either in mainland Southeast Asia (Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) or the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia). In the Caucasus, the Georgian language stands out for having three separate scripts of its own: Mkhedruli, Asomtavruli, and Nuskhuri. Mkhedruli was at one time the country’s “royal script,” but is now used for almost all secular writing. The Georgia Orthodox Church, however, still uses the other alphabets in “ceremonial religious texts and iconography.” As a result, the “living culture of three writing systems of the Georgian alphabet” was granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016” (direst quotation from this Wikipedia article).


(The Wikipedia table above above shows only 14 of 33 letters in the 33 letters of the current Georgian  alphabet.)

Today, the Georgian script (Mkhedruli) used mainly for the Georgian language, but it is also sometimes employed for the three related Kartvelian languages of northwestern Georgia and northeastern Turkey: Mingrelian, Svan,* and Laz. When the Georgian script is used to write Mingrelian and Svan, three additional letters are employed. Svan and Laz are rarely written, however, and Laz is now also expressed in a modified Latin alphabet and may at any rate be dying out as a spoken language. In earlier times, Georgian scripts had been used for several unrelated languages of the Caucasus, including Chechen, Ossetian, Abkhazian, and Avar. As this example shows, Georgian culture was historically influential over a much larger area than that currently included within the Republic of Georgia.


*Despite their different languages, Mingrelian and Svan speakers are counted as ethnic Georgians, and almost are fluent in Georgian and generlly employ Georgian when writing.

Ancient Transsexual Pot Smokers? Wildly Divergent Interpretations of Ancient Scythian Culture

The Scythians, who maintained a powerful nomadic state north of the Black Sea during the classical period, have been interpreted in many ways. As we saw in the previous post, historian Christopher Beckwith go so far as to credit them with the origin of philosophy. Ancient Greek thinkers usually viewed Scythians as quintessential barbarians – the cultural opposite of the Greeks themselves. But some Greek thinkers turned the table, portraying the Scythians, or at least some of them, in highly positive terms. According to the historian Ephorus (cited by Stabo), “[T]he modes of life of the Scythians are unlike, for, whereas some are so cruel that they even eat human beings, others abstain from eating any living creature whatsoever,  … and excel all other men in justice …”  The original vision of the “noble savage” thesis is arguably found in the pro-Scythian views of some ancient Greeks. Alfonso Moreno** writes of continuing depictions of “the Scythians of Homer and the Ephorus: the justice and wisest, drinkers of mare’s milk, frugal, nomadic, wagon-dwellers, strangers to money making, communists, invincible warriors, lords of wheat and livestock, the people of Anacharsis …” But as is true of all such “noble savage” depictions, the aim is not that of accurate description but that of criticizing one’s own society. The ancient Scythians of the fourth-century BCE, after all, were very familiar with money-making and their society organized in a class- or even caste-based manner.

Such alternative visions of Scythian society persist to the present. Rather than emphasizing formidable Scythian warriors, some modern writers turn instead to Scythians shamans and healers, especially the enarei. The enarei, a caste-like group, are traditionally depicted as transvestites, as they were biological men who wore women’s clothing and acted in a feminine manner; today they would be more precisely depicted as transsexuals. As such, they are now in fashion – literally.  The design firm Lila Bare, for example, offers a clothing line called “The Enarei,” marketed as the “epitome of non-binary clothing.” The feminine nature of the enarei is also attracting attention. It has been reported, for example, that “Ovid wrote about Scythian shamans known as ἐναρής who were born male, presented as women/feminine, and feminized their bodies using a potion made from the urine of mares in heat.”

The Scythians, and especially their religious practitioners (whether transsexual or not), have also been linked to the use and spread of cannabis as a drug. Recent genetic research indicates that cannabis was domesticated in China, where it was valued for its fibers, seeds, and medicinal properties. Breeding high-THC cannabis for mind-altering purposes, however, is usually credited to either the Scythians or earlier Indo-European pastoral peoples of Central Asia. For interesting and informative YouTube videos on this subject, I recommend “Survive the Jive’s” “Scythian Gods” and “Ancient Cannabis Cult.”

The Scythian use of mind-altering drugs is also linked to that of their Indo-Iranian forebears, who referred to themselves as Aryans. Both the Rig Veda and the Avesta, the earliest accounts of Indic and Iranian peoples, refer to a powerful ritual substance known as soma and haoma respectively. The mystery of the source of soma/haoma has not been solved, and several interpretations are still debated, ranging from the currently favored Epheda, a simple stimulant, to Amanita muscaria, a powerful psychedelic mushroom, to Syrian rue, another hallucinogenic substance. Some writers have speculated that it might have been a combination of cannabis, ephedra, and opium, the residue of which has been archaeologically attested from ritual vessels. It has also been argued that Soma/Haoma was not used by the earliest Indo-Europeans, but was rather borrowed from the people of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, who had an urban-agricultural society and interacted extensively with the early Indo-Iranians.

** Cannabis was not directly smoked by the ancient Scythians. Rather, it was burned in braziers in enclosed spaces, where the fumes were inhaled.

* Alfonso Moreno, 2007.  “Athenian Wheat Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture. In The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges, edited by Vincent Gabrielsen and John Lunn. Aarhus University Press

The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia

The current ethnographic map of the northern Caucasus mountains shows scattered groups of Circassian people, now numbering roughly 750,000 in Russia. In 1850, however, the Circassians occupied the entire northwestern quadrant of the Greater Caucasus range. But as the Circassians refused to submit to imperial Russian rule, the Russian military engaged in a campaign of displacement and extermination. As reported by Wikipedia, “The Circassian genocide, or Tsitsekun, was the Russian Empire’s systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion of 80–97% of the Circassian population.”  Most of the few Circassians who managed to remain in their homeland were Kabardians, members of the easternmost of the twelve Circassian groups (or “tribes”). The western groups were essentially eliminated. As noted in a different Wikipedia article:

The Zhaney were a very powerful Circassian tribe in the past. They lived the north of the Natukhai tribe’s land on the coast of the Black Sea and Azov Sea in Eastern Europe. … As a result of the bloody Russian-Circassian War,  Zhaney tribe was almost wholly destroyed, as only 3 families survived.

After their genocide and expulsion, the Circassian people largely vanished from the historical memory of the West, just as “Circassia” disappeared from its maps. In earlier times, Circassia had been well-know and well-represented, appearing prominently on many maps. On a 1744 map of Asia by George Willdey, for example, “Circassia” is depicted as one of the primary divisions of the Asian continent. As it is difficult to see this representation on the map as it can be reproduced here, I have re-outlined and re-labeled Willdey’s divisions on the second map posted below.

Willdey’s map seems to be an outlier, as no others that I have seen give Circassia such a prominent position. But Circassia was often mapped as covering a large area – much larger, in fact, than the area occupied by Circassian people circa 1850. In a Latin-labeled map of 1716 by Johann Baptist Homann, for example, Circassia is shown as extending along the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov, covering much of the steppe zone north of the Caucasus Mountains. Intriguingly, Homann labels the area as a kingdom: “Circassia, seu Regio Circassiorum.” Similar patterns are seen on French-language maps of the same period. An uncolored Nicholas Guedeville map of 1718, for example, shows “Circassie” as extending from the Sea of Azov to the Caspian Sea. It excludes, however, part of the Circassian homeland along the Black Sea coast, labeling it instead as belonging to Abkazia (“Abcassie”).

Nineteenth-century depictions of Circassia typically exclude some of the northern lowland areas included on Homann’s and Guedeville’s maps, but cover most of the northern Caucasus and its lowland fringe, often extending to the Caspian Sea (see Woodbridge map of 1828 posted below). In an unusual French map of 1863, the coloring scheme depicts “Circassie” as a two-part region, interrupted by the lands of the Ossetian (“Ossetes”) people of the central Caucasus  Range. Maps published in the United States at the time often depicted an expanded Circassia, shown as extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea (see the detail from a Jacob Monk map of the world, published in Baltimore in 1859, that is posted below).

The geographical category of “Circassia” could even extend into the Black Sea itself. In a 1693 map by Vincenzo Coronelli, for example, the waters of the northwestern portion of the sea are labeled “Mare de Circassia Caucaseum”

By the late 1800s, however, the label “Circassia” had essentially disappears from maps made in Western Europe and the United States. Genocide, in other worlds, was followed by cartographic erasure, as will be explored in more detail in the next GeoCurrents post.

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens

As noted in the previous post, the “marginal sea” concept has little utility for geo-historical analysis. More useful is the idea of what might be termed an “enclosed sea,” meaning one whose entrance to the open ocean, or strait, is narrow enough that it could have been controlled by a strong state in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. Such enclosed seas are few. If we limit our attention to parts of the world that had states during these times, there are really only four straits that count: the Strait of Gibraltar, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic; the Danish straits, separating the Baltic Sea from the open margins of the Atlantic; the Strait of Hormuz separating the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean; and the Bab-el-Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. Of these, the 13-kilometers-wide Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest. The Bab-el-Mandeb, in contrast, is 26 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, whereas the Strait of Hormuz is 39 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent. The Danish Straits do entail some narrow passages, but there are three of them, and the most important, the Great Belt, is 16 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.


The Mediterranean is not only the most enclosed sea, but is also the largest by far. More significant, it opens up to its own enclosed seas, all of which are connected by even narrower passages. The long and meandering Dardanelles, which links the Mediterranean’s marginal Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, is only 0.75 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, as is the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The Strait of Kerch, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, is much wider, 3.1 kilometers at its narrowest extent, but is still significantly narrower than the Strait of Gibraltar.

Such observations lead to an inescapable conclusion: the Black Sea system, including Marmara and Azov, is a unique physical-geographical entity. There is nothing else remotely like it on earth, an oddly unrecognized fact. It is also noteworthy that the Black Sea lies near the center of the segment of the world that includes the other enclosed seas, as can be seen on the maps posted below.

The enclosed nature of the Black Sea system has been geopolitically important during several historical periods. Consider, for example, the situation of Athens during its heyday in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. After the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens was eager to secure access to the Black Sea and its many resources. The Delian League that is soon created maintained control over both the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. After its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Athens lost this informal Aegean empire, and thus found itself in a strained situation. It eventually cobbled together a new but less-imperial Second Athenian League, which included cities along the Dardanelles and Bosporus. It was at this time that Black Sea grain became essential for the sustenance of Athens (and several other Greek city states). Securing access to the essential grain supply also entailed maintaining a tight alliance with the culturally hybrid Greco-Scythian Bosporan Kingdom, which sat astride the Strait of Kerch (then called the Cimmerian/Kimmerian Bosporus). Fish supplies from the highly productive Sea of Azov and the rivers that flowed into it were also an important resource for Athens, underscoring the significance of its connection with the long-lived (438 BCE –527 CE) Bosporan Kingdom.

For a fascinating account of this relationship, I recommend Alfonso Moreno’s “Athenian Wheat-Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture,” which is found in an important book entitled The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges. Moreno highlights the close ties between Athenian elites associated with the school of Isocrates (an extremely important although under-appreciated intellectual and political operative), and the Greco-Scythian elites of the Bosporan Kingdom. His final words are worth quoting:

Two things only were needed to ensure the permanence of this system: the good-will of the Bosporan kings, and Athenian control of the route between [the Cimmerian Bosporus and Athens]. As long as Athenian political leadership could provide this, Athens would be fed and a few of its politicians gain enormous power. If correct, we may have here a very different way of understanding this trade: an oligarchic grain supply sustaining a professedly democratic state.

Although the fifth century BCE is usually considered the golden age of ancient Athens, the fourth century BCE was in many respects a more intellectually vibrant period. To a large extent, the culture that allowed such intellectual flourishing was underwritten by the grain and other resources that flowed in from the Black Sea, which in turn entailed maintaining close relations with the states that controlled the crucial choke points leading from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Azov.

Language, Religion, and the Changing Ethnic Geography of the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia is a clear example of an ethno-national state. According to its 2014 census, 86.8% of its people are ethnic Georgians. Ethnic Georgians are generally reckoned as those people who speak either Georgian or one of its sister Kartvelian languages (Mingrelian and Svan) as their mother tongue. Most ethnic Georgians identify with the Georgian Orthodox Church, although the Georgian-speaking Sunni Muslims of Adjara in the southwest are also included in the ethnic group. As the map posted below indicates, western Georgia (excluding the break-away state of Abkhazia) is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Georgians, whereas eastern and especially central Georgia are more diverse.

Of Georgia’s de facto lands, the south-central area has the largest non-ethnic-Georgian population. Most language maps of the country show four linguistically marked non-Georgian ethnic groups in this region: Azerbaijanis (or Azeris), Russians, Greeks, and Armenians. The latter three groups are of Christian heritage and the first is of Shia Muslim heritage. As was explored in a previous post, Georgia’s Azerbaijani population is essentially stable. It is a different story, however, for the country’s ethnic Russian, Greek, and Armenian communities. As a result of their decline, Georgia has become more ethnically Georgian than it was under Soviet rule, a process also propelled by the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ethnolinguistic mapping, however, has generally not kept pace with these changes.

As can be seen in the table posted below, Armenians and Russians together accounted for more than 20% of Georgia’s population in 1959. By 1989, however, their joint total had declined to a little over 14%. After independence, the Russian (and Ukrainian) population declined precipitously, dropping to less than 1% in 2014. The population of the Armenian community was roughly cut in half in the same period. The Greek population increased slightly between 1959 and 1989, but it too collapsed after independence in 1991. Most Greek communities in both Abkhazia and south-central Georgia migrated at this time to Greece.

Georgia’s Armenian population is concentrated in the south-central part of the country, although Tbilisi still has a substantial community. As can be seen on the map below, two municipalities in the south-center have large Armenian majorities, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, which are partly located on the sparsely populated Javakheti Plateau. The reduction of Georgia’s Armenian population is related both to local ethnic tensions and to strains between Georgia and Armenia, which are of relatively long-standing. In 1918, the two countries fought an inconclusive border war when they enjoyed a brief period of independence after the fall of Russian Empire. At that time, the large Armenian community in Tbilisi was subjected to various forms of persecution. (In the nineteenth century, Tbilisi had an Armenian plurality.) Since independence in 1991, relations between the two countries have been reasonably good. They are complicated, however, by both Armenia’s military alliance with Russia, which supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by Georgia’s close ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main adversaries.

A Wikipedia article outline some of the more specific sources of ethnic tensions in south-central Georgia:

Tensions in Samtskhe–Javakheti have run high at times. One reason is based in the official Georgian language policy that does, officially, not allow the Armenian Language to be used in public or administrative offices, even if citizen and officer speak better Armenian than Georgian.

Some Armenian political groupings of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, among them most notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), claim that Javakhk (the Armenian name for Javakheti) should belong to Armenia,United Armenia shall include all territories designated as Armenia by the Treaty of Sevres as well as the regions of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabkh), Javakhk (Armenian name for Javakheti), and Nakhchivan. However, Javakhk (Javakheti) is not officially claimed by the government of Armenia.

Ethnic Russians in Georgia have historically been concentrated in urban areas, and therefore have a minor presence on language maps of the country. The Russian-speaking area that does appear on maps is found in the now overwhelmingly Armenian-speaking municipality of Ninotsminda. Most of the Russians in this area were Doukhobours, members of a pacifist and long-persecuted religious sect that rejects the Russian Orthodox priesthood and its rituals. The Doukhobours initially settled in the region in the 1840s. Many subsequently moved to Canada, but others remained. In Ninotsminda, they enjoyed relatively “favorable conditions” according to the Wikipedia article on the municipality. After the independence of Georgia, however, most of them abandoned their homes and moved to Russia.

Over the past decade, the population flow between Georgia and Russia has reversed as ethnic Russian now move to Georgia to escape the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Vladimir Putin. According to the official BusinessSetupGeorgia website, “in 2015, the highest number of immigrants in Georgia came from Russia, with a total of 92,937.” This movement accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Over the next year, more than 100,000 Russians relocated to Ukraine, mostly young men seeking to avoid military service. It remains to be seen whether most of them will remain in Georgia. It is also unclear what effects they are having on the country. According to a VOA article, their presence, along with the money that they carried in, have resulted in an unexpected economic boom, while also driving up rents into Tbilisi. Many Georgians welcome these refugees, sympathizing with their plight and appreciating their technical and economic talents. An article in France 24, however, claims that Russian emigres have found a “bleak new home,” arguing that they have not always been welcomed by local residents.

Many of the former ethnic Greeks of Georgia lived in cities and towns in the Black Sea region, particularly in Abkhazia. Another sizable population, visible on the maps posted above, resided in Tsalka municipality in the south-central region. In 1991, ethnic Greeks constituted roughly three-quarters of the population of the town of Tsalka and its environs. Most of their ancestors had fled the Ottoman Empire and were given refuge by the Russian Empire in semi-depopulated areas. Although identifying as Greek due to their heritage and faith, many if most of these people, known as Urums, actually spoke Turkish (see this 2012 GeoCurrents post on the Urum people). After independence, most members of this Greek community relocated to northern Greece. Some, however, attempted to returned to Tsalka, but found their houses reoccupied, generating another round of ethnic tension.

Religion often trumps language in the generation and maintenance of ethnic identity, as the case of the Turkish-speaking Greek Urums  demonstrates. But in Georgia, ethnic tensions seem to have been more intense among communities divided by language and national origin but united by faith.* Why this should be so deserves further investigation.

*The people in question do not, however, all belong to the same religious branch. The Georgian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches are in in communion with each other. That is not the case, however, with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the so-called Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity. Many Armenians in Georgia, moreover, belong to the Armenian Catholic Church, which is under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Orthodox Christianity, Nationalism, and Islam in the Republic of Georgia

A large 2017 Pew Research study found a relatively close connection between religious beliefs and national identity in the Republic of Georgia. According to the Pew data, 89 percent of Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. By some measures, the level of religiosity in Georgia is also high, with 99 percent of respondents reporting that they believe in God (as opposed to 49 percent in Estonia and 29 percent in Czechia). Religious belief in Georgia has strengthened markedly since independence and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Pew, 87 percent of Georgians think that their country is “very or somewhat religious today,” with only 25 percent stating that it was equally religious in the 1970s and 1980s. But at the same time, only 38 percent reported daily prayer and only 17 percent said that they attend church weekly. Information on fasting and other important Orthodox religious practices was not reported. (The teachings of the Orthodox Church on fasting are quite strict.)

The same Pew polling also found a strong sense of Georgia national identity. 78 percent of Georgians surveyed reported that they are “very proud to be a citizen of their country,” the highest figure among all central and eastern European countries covered, with 85 percent agreeing with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Georgian culture, moreover, was explicitly linked by most respondents to Orthodox Christianity, with 81 percent agreeing with the statement “being Orthodox is very or somewhat important to truly be a national of your country.”

Such religiously inflected ethnonationalism confronts a challenge in Georgia’s sizable Muslim community, which includes roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. As can be seen on the map posted below, Muslim Georgians are concentrated in two areas, the southwest and the south-center-east. As most Muslims live in rural areas, their presence is exaggerated by this map; of Georgia’s major cities, only Batumi has a sizable Muslim population (25 percent). In Tbilisi, the figure is only 1.5 percent.

Georgia’s two main Muslim areas are demographically distinct. Most Muslims of the southwest follow Sunni Islam and speak Georgian; those of the south-center-east mostly follow Twelver Shia Islam and speak Azerbaijani. Before the 1944, a sizable population of Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims lived south-west-central Georgia; in Adigeni municipality they constituted approximately 75 percent of the population. These so-called Meskhetian Turks were genocidally deported by Joseph Stalin near the end of WWII. Today, only some 1,500 live in Georgia.

But despite the close association of Orthodox Christianity and nationalism in a country with a sizable Muslim presence, there seems to be relatively little overt religious tension in Georgia. One would expect any such tensions as does exist to be most pronounced in the east, where the local Muslim population speaks a language identified with a neighboring country (Azerbaijan) and is largely monolingual. According to the 2014 Georgian census, only 18.7 percent of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia speak Georgian fluently. Not surprisingly young Azerbaijani-speaking Georgians often pursue higher education in Azerbaijan. Yet even so, most members of their community nationally identify with Georgia. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Azerbaijanis in Georgia, “According to the 2008 UN Association of Georgia report, 98% of Azerbaijanis surveyed in Kvemo Kartli considered Georgia their homeland, 96% acknowledged that the problems they face are common to citizens countrywide and around 90% linked their futures with Georgia.”

It is also notable that the ethnic Azerbaijani population in Georgia has increased since independence, rising from 5.7 percent of the national population in 1989 to 6.3 percent in 2014. In contrast, the county’s main non-Georgian-speaking historically Christian peoples – Russians, Greeks, and Armenians – has seen major population decreases in the same period, as will be explored in a later post.

The lack of religious/ethnic tensions in the Azerbaijani-speaking part of Georgia is linked to the generally cordial relations found between the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, which are of long standing. The two countries trade extensively and have cooperated on several major projects, most notably the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Tensions between them have occasionally emerged, however, generally over such issues as football (soccer) rivalries and historical sites. Even the border demarcation remains contentious, due primarily to the presence of a historically important monastery complex that straddles the existing boundary.

The lack of religious/ethnic tension in the Azerbaijani-speaking region of Georgia might also be associated with the general low level of religiosity among the Azerbaijani people. Both Pew and Gallup polling find that Azerbaijan is a largely secular country, with most people reporting that religion is not particularly important in their lives. As the detail of a Pew map of religiosity that is posted below indicates, Azerbaijan groups with Europe rather than the Middle East in regard to intensity of religious belief. Georgia, in contrast, is in an intermediate position.

The East/West Divide in the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia exhibits a marked east/west division. This divide is especially notable in physical geography. As can be seen on the first map posted below, western Georgia is dominated but a sizable coastal lowland, with its rivers draining into the Black Sea, whereas eastern Georgia is more elevated and drains into the Caspian Sea. As is also evident on this map, the breakaway Russian client statelet of South Ossetia extends across much of north-central Georgia, partially separating the country’s two macro-regions. As the satellite-based map of Georgia reveals, a band of forested land also marks the divide between the two halves of the country. And as can be seen in the third map posted below shows, the area in which most people speak Georgian and related Kartvelian languages as their mother-tongue is almost bifurcated into eastern and western segments by a band of rough topography that is mostly occupied by non-Georgian-speaking peoples.


Eastern and western Georgia are also climatically differentiated. The west experiences heavy year-round precipitation, with its coastal areas approaching a humid subtropical climate. Eastern Georgia, in contrast, is subhumid, with parts of its eastern extremity verging on semi-arid status. In the east, rainfall is concentrated in the late spring and early summer, as can be seen in the precipitation table posted below.

The division between western and eastern Georgia is also found in the historical and cultural spheres. Through much of the ancient period, western Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Colchis, whereas eastern Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Iberia. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Georgia was united into a single kingdom that became a powerful empire in the 12th and early 13th centuries. In the post-medieval period, however, Georgia was split into several competing kingdoms, and in the sixteenth century the western half of the country came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire while the eastern half came under the rule of the Safavid (Persian) Empire. In the early 19th century, both halves of the country were annexed by the Russian Empire. Independence as a single state did not come until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Western and eastern Georgia are also differentiated on cultural grounds.  Most notably, western Georgia is characterized by a deeper level of cultural diversity. As the map below shows, the northwest has its own distinctive languages, Mingrelian and Svan. Although these tongues are related to Georgian, they broke from the common ancestral language many centuries ago. Today, however, Mingrelian and Svan are declining and are considered endangered, as local people increasingly switch to Georgian. The breakaway statelet of Abkhazia in the far northwest is characterized by pronounced ethnolinguistic diversity, although its diversity was significantly reduced when most of the local Georgian population was expelled after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the southwest, the Adjara region is noted for its distinctive dialect of Georgian and for the prevalence of Sunni Islam rather than Orthodox Christianity in most rural areas. Owning to such cultural distinctiveness, Adjara is officially classified as an autonomous region. (As will be explored in a later post, Shia Islam is dominant across much of south-central Georgia.)

Despite such differences between western and eastern Georgia, the country is characterized by a strong sense of national cohesion, with muted regional divisions. Georgia’s deeply rooted national identity will be explored in more detail in later posts. For the time being, I would only note that it may be of minor significance that the demographic core of western Georgia is offset to the east (in the Imereti region), while that of eastern Georgia is offset to the west (in the Tbilisi region). This pattern is clearly visible in the population cartogram posted below.

It might seem surprising that the core area of western Georgia is not located in the Black Sea coastal lowlands. The historical disease environment helps explain this pattern. Until recently, the humid and flat lands of far western Georgia had a high incidence of malaria, reducing its population and marginalized its political and economic position. Malaria was finally eliminated in the 1970s, but it returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was not fully extirpated until around 2010.

Lichen-Eating Across the World, and Among the Lichenophilic Limbu of Eastern Nepal

Lichen are one of the most ubiquitous forms of life, found in some of the Earth’s most inhospitable environments. We have long known that lichen are composite organisms, formed from the symbiosis of fungi and either algae or photosynthetic bacteria. Recent research shows that they can be more complicated, sometimes composed of several species of multicellular fungus as well as different kinds of algae and many kinds of bacteria. Single-celled fungi are also sometimes involved; a widely reported 2016 study was summarized in one headline as, “Yeast emerges as hidden third partner in lichen symbiosis.”

 Some 20 percent of fungi species can “lichenize,” or incorporate algae or cyanobacteria to reap the benefits of photosynthesis. The Wikipedia article on symbiosis in lichen includes this quip by naturalist Trevor Goward: “lichen are fungi that have discovered agriculture.” Goward takes this idea several steps further on his own website: “lichens are fungal greenhouses; lichens are algal farmsteads; lichens are ecosystems; lichens are organisms; lichens are emergent property.”

Lichen produce and store carbohydrates, and as a result can be an important source of food for animals, most notably reindeer (including caribou) and northern flying squirrels. They are seldom eaten, however, by people. Although only a few kinds are poisonous, many have compounds that can cause unpleasant effects. More important, the carbohydrates that most lichen produce are indigestible by human beings. But some are both digestible and nutritious. Yet over most of the world, edible lichen are eaten, if at all, only as a famine food. Perhaps this will change. One food specialist now touts lichen as a possible survival resource for a post-apocalyptic future.

Historically, the main areas of widespread lichen consumption were Scandinavia, East Asia, and the Pacific Northwest of North America. In northern Europe, mis-named Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica) was once widely consumed, “cooked in many different ways, such as bread, porridge, pudding, soup, or salad.” Its bitterness can be removed by boiling and its carbohydrates are easily digestible. But as Scandinavians gained access to more diverse foodstuffs, Iceland moss dropped out of their diets. As the Wikipedia notes, “It is not in great demand, and even in Iceland it is only occasionally used to make folk medicines, and in a few traditional dishes.”

Among many indigenous societies of the Pacific Northwest, a horsehair lichen called wila (Bryoria fremontii) was gastronomically important. Care had to be taken in gathering it, as B. fremontii sometimes contains vulpinic acid, toxic to human and most other mammals. Evidently, even the edible specimens produce a carbohydrate that is largely indigestible by people. If so, why would wila have been such a highly desired foodstuff? According to the Wikipedia, “It is theorized that these peoples may consume the lichen because when it is cooked with other foods, it may capture carbohydrates from these other foods that would otherwise be lost in the fire pit method used to cook it, increasing the carbohydrates by 23 to 122%.”

Globally, the most widely consumed lichen are the so-called rock tripes, grouped together in the genus Umbilicaria. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They are edible when properly prepared; soaking extensively and boiling with changes of water removes the bitterness and purgative properties.” In North America, Umbilicaria has generally been a famine food, but in parts of East Asia one variety is consumed on a regular basis, known as iwatake in Japanese and seogi beoseot in Korean. In Japan, traditional iwatake gathering was an arduous process (see the illustration below). This form of lichen is also valued for its medicinal properties. The Korean gastronomic website Maangchi emphasizes its health benefits:

Seogi-beoseot (rock ear mushrooms*) are a rare, precious Korean ingredient that’s prized for its medicinal properties. It’s found high up on rocks deep in the mountains, and is kind of in the shape of an ear, which is probably where it got its name. It’s picked from the rocks, dried, and sold in small quantities. It’s hard to find outside of Korea. [*Despite its Korean name, seogi-beoseot is not a mushroom.]

Among the world’s few lichen-eating cultures, one stands out above all others: the Limbu and related Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A recent article in the Kathmandu Post explores this Limbu proclivity:

The Limbus, an indigenous people from Nepal’s eastern hills, have interesting and unique food traditions. Wild edible lichen, known as yangben, is the community’s signature speciality. Limbus cook yangben with meat, especially pork, to make a variety of dishes. And one of the most loved delicacies is yangben-faksa, pork with lichen. Another popular dish is blood sausage, known as sargemba or sargyangma, which is made by adding lichen to minced meat…

Several different kinds of lichen are grouped together as yangben by the Limbu. A few scientific studies have been conducted on their consumption. In one research project,

Three lichen species …., Parmelia nepalensis, Ramalina farinacea, and R. conduplicans, were chemically analyzed to assess their food value. The lichens were found rich in carbohydrate, fat, crude fibre, and minerals. Their carbohydrate and protein contents were comparable to that of rice. If cooked mixed with other food, these lichens will provide various minerals in sufficient amount and add carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fibre.

Another study examined the “use of seven species of lichens belonging to four families” among several ethnic groups of eastern Nepal. Along with the Limbu, the Sherpa were found to be decidedly “lichenophilic.” Among these groups, one kind of lichen is used extensively to treat wounds; another is hung above the entryways of houses due to the belief that it “wards off evil spirit and maintains peace at home and among family members.”

According to the Kathmandu Post, yangben consumption is spreading to other ethnic groups in Nepal, leading to overharvesting. As it characteristic of lichen in general, growth is slow. The same article also notes that, “there are others who believe that the dust from vehicles that ply the roads built through rural forests have also barred the lichen from flourishing.” This thesis may have merit, as lichen are highly sensitive to air pollution. Lichen health is often used to gauge pollution severity; an organization called UK Air Pollution Information System (APIS) has even developed a mobile “lichen-app” that uses “lichens to assess atmospheric nitrogen pollution effects.”

Although the consumption of lichen has spread from the Limbu to neighboring ethnic groups, other Limbu delicacies seem unlikely to find much appeal outside their homeland. Consider, for example, wachipa, which probably tastes better than it sounds: “Wachipa is a special dish made by cooking rice, minced local chicken meat along with burnt downy feather follicles and offal. It has a unique bitter taste and aroma that you get from firewood roasted meat.”

As a final note on lichen, my quest to find maps of their distribution and used by humans was partially frustrated by the existence of the “map lichen,” or Rhizocarpon geographicum, which dominated most searches. As described by Wikipedia, “the map lichen is a species … which grows on rocks in mountainous areas of low air pollution. Each lichen is a flat patch bordered by a black line of fungal hyphae. These patches grow adjacent to each other, leading to the appearance of a map or a patchwork field.”

I am not sure how map-like map lichen actually are, but they can be strikingly beautiful.

  GeoCurrents will run one more article on the Limbu before turning to the recent Czech election.

The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion

On January 28, 2023, SBS Nepali ran a brief article with the intriguing title “Like the Vedas, the Mundhums are Limbu Community’s Hymns. Now It Has Been Published for the First Time.” Although the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism, are very well known, the religious literature of the Limbu people is extremely obscure. It deserves more recognition, as do the people who created it. Numbering up to 700,000, the Limbu once had their own kingdoms (or kingdoms), recorded in their own annals and written in their own script. The study of Limbu history and the use of the Limbu script were severely curtailed after Limbuwan – the Limbu country – was conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire, later called the Kingdom of Nepal, in the late 1700s. Subsequently, many Nepali speakers streamed into the region, making the Limbu a minority in their own homeland. Today, Limbu scholars are reclaiming their rich history and Limbu activists are trying, although probably in vain, to create their own semi-autonomous region in Limbuwan.

The Limbu people form a subset of a larger group known as the Kirati people, who live in scattered areas of eastern Nepal and adjacent parts of India. The Kirati speak several languages, one of which is Limbu, but their tongues are closely related and they all have similar cultures and histories. Most other Kirati people follow the same ethnic religion as the Limbu, called Kirat Mundum, which has its own body of oral scriptures, some of which have now been published. This corpus is noted for its size, conceptual complexity, and the fact that it is not expressed in ordinary language. According to one recent study:

The mundum is the oral tradition among the Kiratis in east Nepal, and it is also a long-standing, and ancient, though not unchanging, ritual practice. But it is very difficult to say what the mundum is exactly. There are many issues about the mundum which so far have remained untouched by systematic and scientific publications.  …

The mundum language is also seen as a divine language, which is unlike the day-to-day language. It is used only for superhuman beings, like the ancestors, or special ritual ceremonies where the ancestors are evoked. The mundum language is different from the ordinary language in many respects, like the morphology of nouns, politeness register, chanting, etc.

A variety of ritual specialists, referred to as shamans in English, go to great lengths to master this intricate faith. Some must devote more than a decade to study and meditation before they are viewed as accredited practitioners. In the Kirat Mundum religion, nature is regarded as holy and a variety of deities are venerated, two of which, one male and the other female, are generally held as supreme. Some adherents focus their worship on a paramount goddess, Yuma Sammang (“Mother Earth” or “Grandmother”).

The survival of this indigenous religious complex in an area where most peoples long ago embraced either Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism is rather remarkable. Where local faiths, collectively referred to as animism, persist in the Himalayan belt, it is generally among small-scale (or “tribal”) populations, found mostly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Limbu and other Kirati peoples retain their animistic beliefs despite having long had sophisticated states of their own that interacted extensively with neighboring kingdoms and empires.

Despite its complexity and persistence, the Kirat Mundum faith is all but cartographically invisible. World maps of religion typically portray Nepal as either entirely Hindu or completely Buddhist, with the better ones showing its as mostly Tibetan Buddhist in the high-elevation zone of the north and mostly Hindu in the lower elevation zones of the center and south. I did, however, find an impressive map world religion map that depicts the inhabitants of eastern Nepal as following an unspecified “folk religion” (see the detail of this map posted below). Unfortunately, I was unable to trace the origin of this map; it came up on an image search linked to a Vibrant Maps web page, but the map itself does not seem to be posted on that page.

The religious tradition of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples is by no means static or disconnected from modern currents of thought. In recent decades, a new syncretic form of the faith has emerged, drawing on Kirat Mundum practices and concepts but synthesizing them with elements from other religious and philosophical traditions. As the abstract of Linda Gustavson’s essay entitled “Yumaism: A New Syncretic Religion among the Sikkimese Limbus” reads:

This chapter discusses localized religious-modernist developments within the Limbu community in the borderlands of Buddhism in the eastern Indian Himalayas. It examines the invention of Yumaism by focusing on the Limbu middle class’ agency in relation to their lived contexts, through an actor-oriented and processual approach. Yumaism draws on elements from indigenous religious traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, scholarly and orientalist discourses, and modernism in general. The proponents of Yumaism are similarly attempting to define their religion as such a way of life, a philosophy that is both rational and modern, while at the same time being steeped in the long historical tradition of the Limbus. While the process of modernization involved in the creation of Yumaism and the impact of Buddhism upon this process should not be underestimated, the dynamics of the modernization of the Limbu religion are grounded in local economic changes, politics, and ethnic relations.

Yumaism is not limited to the small Limbu community in the Indian state of Sikkim. It has evidently spread widely in Limbuwan proper and among other Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A pie chart of “religion in Nepal” (which I found on the website indicates that roughly 3% of the people of Nepal now follow it.

The Limbu are characterized by other unique and interesting cultural features, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article devoted to the ethnic group. They have distinctive clothing, architectural forms and decorative motifs, music, and athletic events. Matrilineal cultural patterns are clearly evident. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They believe that lineage is not transmitted patrilineally. Rather, a woman inherits her mother’s gods, and when she marries and lives with her husband she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the household deities.” Alcohol consumption, particularly of millet beer, plays a prominent social role: “Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and conflict resolution involve consumption of alcohol, especially the Limbu traditional beer popularly known as thee which is drunk from a container called tongba.” Limbu cuisine is especially interesting, meriting its own later GeoCurrents post. As a foretaste, it is notable that the Limbu are perhaps the most “lichenophilic” (lichen-loving) people in the world.

A relatively cosmopolitan people, the Limbu have spread widely across the globe. Their main social-service organization in Nepal, the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, has branches in the UK, the United States, the UAE, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Portugal, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Macau. Among the main aims of the British branch of the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung are “To plan and carry out appropriate programmes in order to wipe out superstition and ignorance of people about health problems both in UK and Nepal [and] to work for human rights, indigenous rights, and women and child rights.”

Why the important Limbu people have been largely ignored and generally excluded from historical and geographical accounts of Nepal will be the subject of another GeoCurrents post.