To the Caucasus

In August 2014 I went to Georgia in search of Romanian shepherds. This is an extract from my notes from the trip.

So far, without much luck: all I’ve got to go on is a book called ‘Oieri margineni in Crimeea si Sudul Rusiei’, a collection of memories, documents and photos charting some of the adventures that befell shepherds from Marginimea Sibiului, an enclave in the southern Carpathian Mountains, when they migrated east with their sheep.

One of the maps in the back of this great little publication has a big yellow stain marking the diaspora.  It began in about 1870 and lasted until Stalin put an end to any aspirations of prosperity the Romanians might have had.  Their move to the east was only one example of Carpathian shepherds’ long-distance transhumant journeys, but while it lasted, they not only used the winter pastures available on the northern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea, but settled there as well, establishing farms and families in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and Georgia. Some of them went further afield, reaching Astrakhan, Azerbaijan and even Iran.

I first heard about the phenomenon in 2007, and I’ve become rather obsessed by it, as though those particular pastoralists were heroes of some kind.  It’s a tricky argument to maintain.  Shepherds are usually pragmatists: they’ll go where they can find better, cheaper pastures, following economic principles not romantic ones.  There’s a difference between sheep owners and hired shepherds, and nowadays the latter often live like dogs.  Yet talking to transhumant shepherds in Romania has revealed something else.  Masters and employees often relish the freedom and fellowship of the road and they have a relationship to their animals that belies mere functionality.

Over the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been travelling through Georgia following some of the clues in Toma’s book.  There aren’t that many, in fact the only concrete fact I have lighted on is that Stefan Nanu of Tilisca went to Georgia at some point, either while he was working as a hired shepherd, or afterwards, when he became some sort of fixer, or a businessman.  We know he tried to intercede on the Romanians’ behalf with Kalinin, pleading the shepherds’ cause so they wouldn’t lose their hard-won wealth to the steely Soviet state.  We also know he wrote letters home to Tilisca, and they are still in his family’s possession.  But when and for how long he went to Georgia is a mystery.

Helping me in my quest has been Devi Asmadiredja.  Half Sundanese (Indonesian), half German, Devi deserves a book to herself.  She’s been living in Georgia for the last three years, during which time she’s learnt to speak Georgian and Chechen and has established herself as an intrepid mountain guide.  Devi loves the shepherding life, and thanks to her, we’ve been chasing up any leads we can find – names of people and villages mostly – to justify that yellow stain leaking into the space between the two chains of Caucasus Mountains. (Since Tara Isabella Burton wrote about Devi for the BBC magazine, Devi could well become a household name, so I’ve added some photos of her here – they may not appear alongside this post, so if you can’t see them, try scrolling up or down.)

Our best hope on this trip was finding out that there are two villages with names exactly or nearly the same as margineni ones.  Both are in Javakheti, south-central Georgia, near the Turkish and Armenian borders.  Hearing the word ‘Tilisca’ made me jump out of my skin: it was one of Devi’s friends who mentioned it casually, as a place near the town of Akhalkhalaki.  Devi and I hot-footed over there by marshrutka (minibus), a journey of 15 minutes costing roughly 50p each way.  Consusingly, the windscreen bore the name ‘Dilisca’ in Cyrillic letters: I still don’t know which is the correct spelling.

Letters apart, I could hardly contain myself, but everything went rather flat when we met a 70 year old farmer from the Georgian Tilisca, or Dilisca.  He was said to know everything about the place but told us he’d never heard of any Romanians there.  On the contrary, it had been an Armenian village since Armenians were expelled from eastern Turkey in 1830.  Before that, it was a Georgian one, with a history leaping back to a misty past that didn’t seem to have room for Transylvanians.  A family of Armenian folk singers that runs the Cultural Centre in Akhalkhalaki told us that Tilisca comes from ’tiliscari’ which is a Georgian word.  It means ‘the door of the morning’.  If only it had opened.

We didn’t make it to Vale, the other place with an identical name in Marginimea Sibiului, but a Georgian historian agreed with my hunch that the direction of influence could just as well have gone in reverse, with Georgian names being taken to Transylvania, not the other way round.

Both countries have a strong Orthodox Christian tradition, and in the late 17th century, Bishop Antimos, a Georgian from the southern region of Samstkhe, was invited by Prince Constantin Brancoveanu to visit Wallachia.

In 1694, Antimos was installed in Snagov Monastery, in the forests near Bucharest.  He founded a printing press and commissioned a lot of other monasteries, before being exiled to Mount Sinai for fomenting trouble.  Antimos supported Wallachia’s struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkey and the Greek Phanariots who had a stranglehold on Romanian politics after Brancoveanu and four of his sons were murdered by the Sultan in 1711.

If there is a wider connection between Georgia and the Romanian principalities, Antimos could well be one of the keys.  But there are other links: eastern Romania and the Caucasus were once part of Cumania, a Turkic polity that ruled a large area to the west and east of the Black Sea for several hundred years after the Roman empire ended.  Cumania gets its name from the Caucasian Kubans, whose forebears came from Syria.  There is a fortress called Cumania on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.  Coman is a well-known Romanian Christian name.  One of the Romanian sheep farming families I know in Marginimea Sibiului traditionally gives the name Coman to one of its boys in each new generation.

Why start with Georgia, when there are more definite accounts of Romanian shepherds settling in the northern Caucasus, Crimea and eastern Ukraine? Maybe it’s just about the name, because St. George is the patron saint of England, because George comes from the Greek word for farmer, and my quest was about farmers.

And now it’s nearly time to leave, saying goodbye not only to the first stage of what I hope will be many other Georgian journeys, but also to the other travellers I’ve met here: adventurous young things who have been stopping off in Tbilisi for a few days – or sometimes weeks – while crossing entire continents on cycles, motorbikes, by hitching, on horseback or in a tuktuk (that one was Romanian!).  Fearless of political or psychological propaganda that might persuade others to stay at home and cover their heads, they’ve made me want to get up and go even more.

And then there is Devi: her story, and her struggle, are for another time, and would be told better in her own words.  Without her help, I’d have got nowhere, without even the small progress made so far.  I wouldn’t have met Kists (Chechens of Pankisi), Ossetians and Svans in their own homes, I wouldn’t have shared chips and onions with the shepherds of Patara Khanchali, or met Ani, a German woman who’s working with destitute villagers to give them new ways of making a living from their land and their skills.

Without Devi and her self-confidence, humour and survival skills, I wouldn’t have hitched lifts with Turks and Georgians, spent nights in an abandoned workmen’s cabin surrounded by scented shrubs and a tremendous river. I wouldn’t have found myself sleeping on a verandah which felt like a private viewing platform for nightly lightning storms that reverberated around a natural amphitheatre of soaring mountains, wooded valleys and orchards.  If not for Devi, I would have missed meeting the young eco-warriors who are fighting to save Tbilisi’s much-needed lung, Vake Park. And perhaps it’s unlikely I’d have spent a few crazy hours sitting in a carpark with nobody but stray dogs and boy racers for company at one moment, and at the next, lounging under a lime tree sipping wine and nibbling delicious sausage with its producer who copies the ancient Georgian fermentation method in which huge ceramic pots are buried two metres in the ground and the wine is made by chucking everything into the mixture, including grape flesh, skin, seeds, and stalks.

True, I could have done without being marched through the streets of Devi’s favourite village in 40 degree heat, no doubt to tease the supercilious westerner in me and ‘to show to my friends what a tourist looks like’, and I got a bit hot under the collar when she kept ordering me, with mock-Germanic severity, to ‘SIT DOWN’.  But Devi knows Georgia from the inside out.  She understands what it’s like to go without food, shelter, medical help, and why Georgia’s indigenous peoples are so proud of their origins. She has a passionate interest in those origins and reads prodigiously about Georgia’s culture to increase her knowledge. ‘I’m no angel’, she told me after telling me some of her life story, but I wouldn’t trust anyone who believed that they were. She is compassionate and sensible. Had I not heeded her warnings not take photos or notes in sensitive situations, I might have more accurate records of our conversations with people who were living so precariously on the edge, caught in a no-go area which the outside world regards with suspicion – or doesn’t regard at all – but I might also not be here. Learning about other people’s lives, and understanding their points of view is about listening patiently, not just clicking camera buttons and looking for punchy sound-bites.

As I think about buying stamps for last minute postcards and packing my gear for my early morning flight, I know that without Devi, I wouldn’t have got nearly so far, and I wouldn’t have had so much fun.

Sadly we didn’t make it to Tusheti this time, but I’m saving that up for cooler weather.

For more information on my search for Romanian shepherds in the Caucasus, visit this page and follow the links.

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