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Fereydani Georgians: Emic-Coherence, Hegemonic and Non-hegemonic Representation and Narration of Ethnic Identity

Babak Rezvani Introduction

Fereydani Georgians are a self-aware ethnic group in Iran. Unlike the Georgians of Georgia who are predominantly Orthodox Christians, Fereydani Georgians are Shi’ite Muslims. There are and there have been many Georgian communities in Iran. However, Fereydani Georgians are the last remaining Georgian-speaking Georgian community in Iran. Their ancestors arrived in the seventeenth century in central Iran from the Caucasus, a region located between the Caspian and Black seas.

The Caucasus is located between the Black and Caspian seas on the conjuncture of the Middle East and Eurasian landmasses. While through most of its history it has been incorporated into the Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and therefore has been part of larger civilisational

B. Rezvani (*)

Amsterdam School for Regional, Transnational and European Studies, University of Amsterdam

Nijmegen School of Management, Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Radboud University, Nijmegen Faculty of Arts, Royal University of Groningen

© The Author(s) 2017

E. Sideri, L.E. Roupakia (eds.), Religions and Migrations in the Black Sea Region, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39067-3_6

and geopolitical entities to its south, from the nineteenth century onwards it has looked more to its north. As part of the Russian Empire it has undergone European influences and modernity. Throughout history it was most often regarded as part of Asia. However, nowadays it is more often regarded as part of Europe due to modern day realities; for example, countries in the Caucasus are all members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

The Caucasus is home to many religions, such as Russian, Armenian Gregorian and Georgian Orthodox Christianity, Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, Judaism and Yezidism. It is also home to many languages and dialects. The Caucasus is often called the “mountain of languages”. Perhaps it is not exaggerated to state that more than a hundred languages and dialects were or are spoken in the Caucasus (see Rezvani 2013, 139-152).

Throughout history the Caucasus has been both a source and a destination of forced and voluntary migrations. Since its incorporation into the Russian Empire, many Russian and Ukrainian (Cossack) migrants have settled in the Caucasus, and particularly in the North Caucasus, an area which was largely depopulated owing to the massacres and deportation of Circassians in the nineteenth century. In the early 1940s the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (whose native Georgian name was Ioseb Jughashvili) deported the Ingush, Chechens, Karachays, Balkars and Muslims of Meskheti to Siberia and Central Asia, as a punishment, accusing them of having collaborated with Nazi Germany (see among others Pohl 2015 and Rezvani 2014). The Caucasus has been a scene of deportation and mass migration even earlier than the twentieth or the nineteenth century. Already in the seventeenth century large numbers of Armenians and Georgians were moved to Iran. Most narratives describe it as punitive forced migrations. However, a better look at the realities of that time casts doubts on such a claim. Unlike the claims by the Armenian ethno- nationalists, the Armenian resettlement in central Iran was probably not a punitive measure.

The migration of Georgians to Iran has generally had a forced nature, but it is likely that there have also been voluntary migrations, owing to the fact that many Georgians could make good careers and build a better life in central Iran than in war-torn Georgia. In order to understand the nature of these migrations—which are not the scope of this book chapter—one has to understand the political realities of that date. At that time, much of the South Caucasus belonged to the Iranian Safavid Empire. Georgians had served in the Safavid Empire already since the sixteenth century. However, the onset of Georgian “golden age” of the Safavid empire is in the seventeenth century, when Shah Abbas assembled a modern army manned by Caucasians, in order to counterweight the increasingly disloyal and autonomous-acting Qizilbash troops. Soon Georgians ascended to important military and administrative positions in Iran. The Undiladze family was among those whose success in achieving military and administrative status was notable.

Eastern and central parts of Georgia were dependencies (or suzerainties) of the Safavid Empire and held high degrees of autonomy. In fact, the Safavids by default accepted the Georgian kings as their own appointed governors. However, Georgia itself was a scene of power struggle and intrigues between many internal and external forces, and not all governors were loyal to the Safavid shahs. As a result, the Safavid Empire intervened, often brutally, to support a king (or throne pretender) over his rivals, or dethrone a ruler in favour of the other. All these wars had a devastating impact on Georgia and its population suffered enormously. The uneven division of labour and the caste-like social stratification in Georgia served as yet another factor which contributed to the depopulation of Georgia, because the serfs were more easily transportable as they could not easily decide about their own destiny.

The displaced ancestors of Iranian Georgians have originated from different places in the Caucasus, notably from the Georgian regions of Kartli and Kakheti, and adjacent areas in the modern day republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia. They were resettled in many areas in Iran. Notable places of settlement in Iran include the imperial capital Esfahan, the central-western Iranian region of Fereydan, Mazandaran along the Caspian shore, the area around the (old) Esfahan-Shiraz road (the so-called Esfahan-Shiraz axis, in and around towns such as Dehaghan, Abadeh and Aspas), and the north-eastern Iranian region of Khorasan. The total number of displaced Georgians can be estimated at slightly more than 300,000 souls (see Muliani 2001, 204, 226-231; Rezvani 2009b, 197).1 Today, their descendants have varying levels of Georgian ethnic self-awareness. Most of those in Mazandaran and particularly in Fereydan have a high level of Georgian awareness. Yet, Fereydani Georgians are the only Georgian community in Iran who still speak Georgian.

Fereydani Georgians’ ancestors arrived in Fereydan in the seventeenth century (most probably in 1614 AD), during the reign of Shah Abbas I, and (most likely) have originated from the Georgian region of Ertso- Tianeti and its vicinities (see Rezvani 2008, 606). Fereydani Georgians speak a Georgian dialect that resembles features of many dialects that are now spoken in the eastern-central mountainous areas of Georgia, along the frontier between the Kakhetian and Tianetian mainland and the mountainous regions of eastern Georgia (Rezvani 2008, 606-608). Today, Fereydani Georgians count between 61,000 and 100,000 (Rezvani 2008, 594-595, 614-615; Rezvani 2009a, 52).

Fereydan is the name of a historical region, 150-170 km to the west of the Iranian metropolis and the seventeenth century capital Esfahan. In Fereydan, Fereydani Georgians are mainly concentrated in the town of Fereydunshahr and many villages and towns (e.g. Buin-Miandasht and Afus) around it. However, thanks to recent migrations, they also live in other parts of Iran, mainly in Tehran, Shiraz, Karaj, Esfahan, and in other towns of Esfahan province such as Najaf-Abad, Amir-Abad and Yazdanshahr.

Several toponyms in Fereydan have similar or the same names as places in Georgia; examples include Mart’q’opi, Sopeli, Choghruti (Chughureti), Tor(el)i, Racha, Dashkasan (T’ashisk’ari) and (Si-Vake, or Vashlovani) (see also Rezvani 2008, 608-612). However, these toponyms have their counterparts in a vast area in Georgia, and therefore these similarities do not necessarily reveal the geographic origin of the Fereydani Georgians’ ancestors. It is remarkable, but not surprising, that in a book by Sharashenidze (1979)2 which discusses the encounters between Fereydani Georgians and Lado Aghniashvili, a Georgian from Georgia who visited rural Fereydan in the nineteenth century, the ethnonym Gurji (Gorji) is used for the Fereydani Georgians instead of Kartveli, an ethnonym familiar to both Caucasian and Fereydani Georgians. Probably, the author or Aghniashvili may have intended to emphasize the differences in identity between Shi’ite Fereydani and Christian Caucasian Georgians by choosing an ethnonym which is used by Iranians and other Muslim peoples rather than the one used by Christian Caucasian Georgians. Other ethnic groups in Fereydan are the Persian-speakers, the Turkic-speakers, the Bakhtiyaris, Khwansaris and the Armenians. Only Armenians are Christians, while Fereydani Georgians and all other ethnic groups are Shi’ite Muslims (see Rezvani, 162-168).

This book chapter deals with the mechanisms by which Fereydani Georgians reaffirm their Shi’ite identity in harmony with the Iranian Georgians’ role in the Iranian history, and will discuss a few alternative and non-hegemonic narratives and representations of Fereydani Georgian identity and history.3

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