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For a little known language with only a few million speakers, Georgian has produced an extraordinarily rich body of literature. Disappointingly little Georgian writing has been translated into English, though there are at least four versions of Shota Rustaveli's 12th-century national classic, The Knight in the Tiger Skin.

In antiquity the Georgian oral tradition abounded in ballads, songs, legends, and proverbs. The legend of Amirani has come down to us through Apollonius of Rhodes, who makes reference to it in the third century ВС.

After the development of writing, folk poetry flourished in Georgia. The earliest epigraphic monuments that have survived date from the first half of the fifth century AD. These literary examples are so highly developed that the existence of precursors cannot be doubted.

In the 470s, Jacob Tsurtaveli wrote The Martyrdom of Saint Shushanik, an original hagiographic work that demonstrates by its literary standards a pre-Christian writing tradition. Georgian literature over the next six centuries was exclusively religious in character, with writers primarily involved with translating biblical and scriptural texts into Georgian.

The 12th century is the classical period of Georgian medieval literature. Amiran-Darejaniani, ascribed to Mose Khoneli, is an adventure of derring-do and chivalrous acts that has its roots in the early folk tales surrounding Amirani. Much of this secular literature shares similarities with Moslem literature of the time. Tales written in Persian were recast in Georgian, most importantly Shahname by Firdausi and Vis-o-Ramin by Gurgani; the latter's plot is very similar to that of Tristan and Isolde.

Many of the best writers of the 12th century belonged to the courts of the Georgian kings, notably Shota Rustaveli, the most celebrated figure of Georgian culture. His major work, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, is regarded as the national epic, a work which every Georgian can quote from. Written in the 12th century, this classic was not translated into English until 1912 (by Marjory Wardrop, who learned Georgian by comparing a Georgian bible to an English one).

The plot of the poem is long and complicated. An old Arabian king, Rostevan, has crowned his daughter, the wise and beautiful Tinatin, as regent. Tinatin is in love with Avtandil, the commander-in-chief of her father's army. One day when Avtandil and Rostevan are hunting they see a knight wrapped in a panther's skin, weeping inconsolably by a stream. Their repeated attempts to speak to him are unsuccessful, and eventually the knight vanishes. Rostevan takes this very badly so Tinatin commissions her champion, Avtandil, to find the mysterious knight at any cost. Avtandil readily accepts the will of his lady and after much hardship discovers the knight Tariel. Tariel tells his story: he is a prince and military leader to the King of India, Parsadan. Tariel is in love with Parsadan's daughter, Nestan-Darejan. The king, however, is determined to marry his daughter to the son of the King of Khwarazm, who would then succeed him to the throne. Nestan-Darejan persuades her lover, Tariel, to murder his rival and take power. Whereas he succeeds in the first, he fails in the second.

Nestan-Darejan is severely punished for her love of Tariel and is spirited away from India. Tariel does not get to his lover before her abduction and despairs of ever finding her. He leaves India and goes to live alone in a cave. This is where Avtandil finds him. The two warriors become friends and together they set off to find Nestan-Darejan. After many adventures they finally locate her imprisoned in the fortress of Kajeti. Tariel, Avtandil, and a third knight and sworn brother, Phridon, capture the fortress and free Nestan-Darejan. Triumphant, the heroes return to their native countries.

During the 13th century Georgia was devastated by the Mongol invasions. With Tamerlane's death in 1405 the process of national renewal could begin, but it was not until the 16th century that a new literary spirit flowered. Patriotic in nature, the work of this period is marked by interpolations and sequels to The Knight in the Panther's Skin. The Omaniani, written at the beginning of the 17th century, follows the adventures of Tariel's grandson, Oman.

Georgian literature in the 16th century had renewed many of its ties with Moslem oriental verse. The major 17th-century poet and statesman, King Teimuraz I, was a great admirer of Persian poetry, having been brought up at the court of Shah Abbas I (1587-1629). He recast many Persian poems into Georgian. Despite his affection for their language, King Teimuraz suffered both personally and politically at the hands of the Persians. His long narrative poem, The Martyrdom of Ketevan, is about his mother's torture at the hands of Shah Abbas.

In the first part of the 18th century, King Vakhtang VI (1675-1737) was the central figure in Georgia's intellectual life. A monarch, scholar, and poet, he collected and edited many historical works and wrote his own laws, The Code of Vakhtang. He is responsible for setting up the first press to print books in Georgian in 1709; a 1712 edition of The Knight in the Panther's Skin contains his extensive commentary.

Eastern Georgia was incorporated into Russia in 1801. The literary school of Georgian romanticism that had been born in the exiled community of Vakhtang VI found full expression at the beginning of the 19th century in the work of Alexander Chavchavadze (1786-1846), the son of Garsevan, King Herekle II's ambassador to Russia. Chavchavadze's verse expressed his deep disappointment at Georgia's loss of independence.

One notable 19th-century movement was known as the Tergdaleulebi, literally meaning 'those who have drunk from the Tergi River', which flows from Georgia into Russia - the reference being to Georgians who had studied in Russia and imbibed liberal ideas there. This group promoted public, educational and political reform in Georgia, and its leading lights were Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli.

Grigol Orbeliani (1804-1883) was Chavchavadze's artistic brother, a fellow Romantic who longed for the restoration of Georgia's independence. This patriotic movement reached its apogee with Nikoloz Baratashvili (1818-1845), who dreamed of liberty and independence for his motherland, while recognizing the futility of retreating into an idealized vision of past glory. In Twilight on Mtatsminda he found solace in nature, and in Meditation on the Mtkvari's Bank he focused on selflessly serving his countrymen.

Some Georgian writers in the second half of the 19th century turned to their country's mountains for inspiration. The most prominent were Alexander Kazbegi, novelist and dramatist, and Vazha Pshavela, whom many consider the greatest Georgian poet after Rustaveli.

The principal poetic movement of the early 20th century was the symbolist Blue Horn group, responsible for literary innovations as part of the symbolist movement. The group began publishing a magazine of the same name in 1916. Paolo Yashvili, Titian Tabidze, Galaktion Tabidze, Kolau Nadiradze, and Valerian Gaprindashvili thrived in the years of Georgia's independence between 1918 and 1921 but were suppressed in the years of Bolshevik domination. Group's most famous members, Titsian Tabidze and Paolo Iashvili, both met tragic ends. Tabidze was arrested and shot in the purges of 1937, and Iashvili killed himself at a Union of Writers meeting when he heard the news of Tabidze's death. Perhaps the best-loved poet of the 20th century was Titsian Tabidze's cousin Galaktion Tabidze (1892-1959), a superbly lyrical writer who also committed suicide.

Novelist Konstantine Gamsakhurdia (1891-1975) explored Georgia's past in his historical novels, The Hand of the Great Builder, The Abduction of the Moon, and David the Builder. They are still read widely throughout Georgia.

Leading contemporary authors writing in Georgian include novelist Aka Morchiladze and novelist, playwright and travel writer David Turashvili. Fasil Iskander (b 1929) is an acclaimed Abkhaz author writing in Russia (and Russian). His novels Sandro of Chegem and The House Under the Cypress Tree are set in western Georgia and Abkhazia.

Perhaps the two most widely published of contemporary Georgian writers both write in Russian and live in Russia. Several of Boris Akunin's highbrow detective and historical novels in the Erast Fandorin and Sister Pelagia series are available in English, as are Abkhazian Fasil Iskander's Sandro of Chegem and The House Under the Cypress Tree.

A great read for anyone interested in Georgia's section of the Caucasus, with a bit of Azerbaijan and Turkey thrown in too, is Tony Davidson's Bread and Ashes (2003), filled with the character of the land and its people. The author walks from Tusheti to Svaneti, with a couple of detours and many fascinating digressions.

The Spiritual Treasure of Georgia (Khelovneba Publishers, 2005) is a lovely coffee-table tome covering the architecture, art and history of nearly 100 of the country's churches, monasteries and convents, with text in both English and Georgian. National Treasures of Georgia, edited by Ori G Soltes (2001), is a similarly lavish look at the whole spectrum of Georgian arts and crafts. For out-and-out history there's The Making of the Georgian Nation by Ronald Grigor Suny (1994).