30 June 2023
Georgian Manuscripts in the British Library
Georgian manuscripts have a long history in the collections of the British Museum and the British Library. The first two manuscripts were acquired by the British Museum in 1837. Today, we hold seven medieval manuscripts, one eighteenth-century manuscript, one nineteenth-century manuscript, and one twentieth-century manuscript. We also hold six contemporary illuminated manuscripts created since 2018.
Our early manuscripts cover a period from the eighth to the seventeenth century. The most important among them is an 11th-century manuscript (Add MS 11281). It is a parchment written in the Georgian monastery of the Holy Cross near Jerusalem, which became an important centre of learning and was known to Western pilgrims as the Monasterium Georgianum.
Lives of the Holy Fathers, 11th-century, Add MS 11281.
Written in the Georgian language by a scribe, who refers to himself as Black John, the manuscript recounts the lives of 15 saints from Palestine, Egypt and Syria. Created during the golden age of Georgian church literature in the 11th century, it remains one of the principal sources of information about monastic life during the Byzantine period. This manuscript includes unique copies of works by Cyril of Scythopolis and Athanasius of Alexandria.
The earliest Georgian manuscript in the British Library collections is a palimpsest with Hebrew commentaries of the 11th or 12th century, written over the original Georgian text (Or 6581). These are three fragments of a parchment leaf with a highly irregular outline. The underwriting is Georgian in large capitals (asomtavruli script), while the overwriting is Hebrew. The Georgian text contains portions of the Book of Jeremiah.
Palimpsest fragments, Or 6581
This manuscript came from the Genizah in Cairo. In England there are also Genizah palimpsests (old Hebrew over Georgian) in both Cambridge and Oxford. They were published by Professor Robert P. Blake in the Harvard Theological Review. He dated this manuscript to the middle of the eighth century, but other scholars consider that it could have been written much earlier. It is also written in asomtavruli and therefore it is one of the rare examples of an Old Testament text in Georgian written in this script.
An 18th-century manuscript (Add MS 47237) consists of three letters from the Georgian Queen Anna Orbeliani of Imereti, a province in western Georgia, addressed to the Emperor Paul, to the Empress Maria Feodorovna, and to an unnamed Russian official. The Queen sought Russian protection and help in recovering her throne.
From the 19th century we hold the handwritten monthly journal of the Georgian Socialist Revolutionary Party, Musha (1889-1891; Or.5315), which was donated to the British Museum by Prince Varlam Cherkezishvili.
We also have a collection of of four letters and one postcard from the 20th century (Or 16935), written by the prominent Georgian writer Grigol Robakidze (1880-1962), to his friend David Kurulishvili. Robakidze could not tolerate the Soviet regime and left Georgia in 1930. He lived in Germany and then moved to Geneva.
Manuscripts created in the present century have recently been added to the British Library’s collections. In addition to four illuminated manuscripts donated to the Library in 2019 by the Art Palace of Georgia, we have recently received another two.
These two illuminated manuscripts were created in 2022 as a part of the project funded by the grant programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, ‘Support for Diaspora Initiatives’. This was initiated by Tamar Latsabidze and Giorgi Kalandia.
The texts, ‘Life of the King of Kings – David’ and ‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’, were copied from the ‘Kartlis Tskhovreba’ (the Georgian Chronicles, literally ‘Life of Kartli’ or ‘Life of Georgia’) by the Georgian artists and calligraphers, Giorgi Sisauri and Otar Megrelidze. The ‘Kartlis Tskhovreba’ is the principal written source for the history of Georgia, a collection of biographies, chronicles and other historical works.
The calligraphers have thus produced two manuscripts that did not exist before in an illustrated form. They were created exclusively for the British Library, and they observe the centuries-old traditions of the Georgian calligraphy school. The calligraphers carefully examined the tradition of writing and illuminating manuscripts. Paper, ink and paint were prepared as they were in early medieval Georgia. In order to maintain historical traditions and in keeping with their cultural roots, both artists employed 12th-century painting principles and used as models the ‘Georgian astrological treatise’, a manuscript dated 1188, and a 12th-centuey Byzantine manuscript known as the ‘Madrid Skylitzes’.
‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’ recounts the life of Queen Tamar the Great (1160-1213). It is believed that the author of the work was Basili Ezosmodzghvari, a contemporary historian of the Queen. Created by Giorgi Sisauri, this manuscript consists of 86 pages. Five of its miniatures with gold ink. Among them are portraits of Queen Tamar and her historian. At the end of the manuscript, according to the Georgian tradition, the miniaturist depicted himself.
Portrait of Queen Tamar (‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’) [awaiting shelfmark]
Battle scene (‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’) [awaiting shelfmark]
‘Life of the King of Kings – David’ tells the life of the Georgian king, David IV Aghmashenebeli (1089-1125). It was written by an unknown historian in the twelfth century. The manuscript presented to the British Library consists of 116 pages. The beginning of each chapter is decorated with floral ornaments and figures of birds of paradise (peacocks, pheasants, doves). The image of King David is depicted on page 91 of the manuscript.
Portrait of King David IV (‘Life of the King of Kings – David’) [awaiting shelfmark]
‘Life of the King of Kings – David’, p. 42-43 [awaiting shelfmark]
These illuminated manuscripts are a significant addition to the Library’s Georgian collections. We held no illuminated Georgian manuscripts prior to this donation. They will thus enhance the significance and usefulness of our collection of Georgian manuscripts. They can be presented alongside our Georgian medieval manuscripts, and they will assist in the promotion of the country’s cultural heritage and contribute to Georgia’s academic and research development.
We are very grateful to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, to Tamar Latsabidze, to Giorgi Kalandia, to the Art Palace of Georgia, and to all who have contributed to this remarkable project.
Anna Chelidze, Curator, Georgian Collections
References and further reading
Robert P. Blake, ‘Catalogue of the Georgian Manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library’, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (July 1932), 207-24. Ac.2692/13.
Robert P. Blake, ‘Khanmeti Palimpsest Fragments of the Old Georgian Version of Jeremiah’, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (July 1932), 225-72.
J. Oliver Wardrop, ‘Catalogue of Georgian Manuscripts’, in Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare, A Catalogue of the Armenian Manuscripts in the British Museum… to which is appended a Catalogue of Georgian Manuscripts in the British Museum. (London, 1913) pp. 397-410. 11925.h.3.
Gregory Peradze, ‘Georgian Manuscripts in England’, Georgica. A Journal of Georgian and Caucasian Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (Oct. 1935), 80-88. Ac.8821.e.