Dreaming of Caucasia: Georgia Then and Now with Joseph Becker Phillips

In 2019, I was visiting a dear friend living at the time in Tbilisi, Georgia. After a week or so getting to know the city—ancient, Soviet, and modern—and experiencing first hand Georgia’s legendary hospitality (including endless toasts with, of course, lots of wine—Georgia does have the oldest winemaking tradition in the world, after all)—my friend and I decided to try to venture out into the countryside and see some of the beautiful ancient castles and monasteries nestled into the verdant mountainsides. We had seen images online and thought we could just drive right to some of these places. We did not, however, have a car.

We took the majorly subterranean Soviet era metro to the outskirts of the city, where we then hired a cab. The driver spoke limited English and my friend spoke limited Georgian (though she was actively learning). I could say “yes,” and that “thank you,” and that was about it. After quite a while driving and stopping once—seemingly randomly—to pick up another man on the side of the road (this is normal, but I did not know that at the time!), we were dropped off in the middle of a tiny village. We had asked to go to Kakheti, 85 kilometers (about 52.82 mi) east of Tbilisi, thinking it was a region with tourist stops. The driver took us to the small town and just drove off without a word.

What we thought we would see in Kakheti. The earliest structures of Alaverdi monastery date back to the 6th century. The present-day surviving cathedral is part of an 11th century Georgian Orthodox monastery. Located in 20 km (about 12.43 mi) from Telavi, in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia. Photo by Paata Vardanashvili, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm, what to do now? We looked around and saw no dramatic castles or monasteries, so we walked to what looked like a restaurant. Luckily, the young man there spoke English and filled us in on our mistake. The castles were quite far away and difficult to get to. He also let us know that it may be difficult to get back to Tbilisi. We laughed, knowing we had a delightful story in the making, and we were soon proven correct. What we thought was a small restaurant was actually a lovely winery (Kakheti is in Georgia’s wine region). The young man gave us a tour and a tasting, and even showed us some examples of the massive clay casks ancient Georgians used to make wine. We were then treated to a wonderful dinner and conversation with a great spread of traditional Georgian foods (I still dream about Khachapuri).

By the time we finished our dinner, the young man had managed to get a cab to come all the way from Tbilisi to pick us up (yes, all while entertaining and feeding us) and we communicated our sincere thanks and goodbyes. When I say that Georgians have legendary hospitality skills, I’m not kidding. We did not see any castles or monasteries, but we certainly had a real Georgian experience that day.

Many people before me have been inspired and intrigued by the Caucasus region. Just a few months ago, I had a student from Tbilisi in one of my classes visiting the American Heritage Center (AHC). She was researching Georgia. I thought for sure I would not be able to find much to help her. We are, after all, the American Heritage Center! But I did find one collection that had some information about Georgia from a journalist stationed in Moscow in the years leading up to WWII. Like my friend and I, Joseph Becker Phillips was drawn to the mountains outside the city when he visited Tbilisi in 1936 (he went north while I went east toward Azerbaijan).

The Collection

Joseph Becker Phillips (1900-1977) was working as a journalist for the New York Herald-Tribune. He had been stationed in Paris, London, Rome, and Moscow. Though part of the Russian Empire, Georgia’s independence was recognized until Stalin and his Red Army invaded in 1921, annexing Georgia into the Soviet Union in 1922. Phillips interest in Georgia, then, makes sense while he was stationed in Moscow.

His collection at the AHC is small, only filling two document boxes. But contained within are hundreds of articles he wrote for various magazines and newspapers. There are also detailed notes about a trip he undertook to the then difficult-to-reach Khevsureti region, northeast of Tbilisi on the border with Chechnya.

Presumably Joseph Becker Phillips or his companion, US Foreign Service officer Elbridge Durbrow, in Khevsureti, 1936. Box 2, Joseph Becker Phillips Papers, 1926-1948, Collection #6311, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Although it did take me four days, four different itineraries, and four flights (thanks to a bomb cyclone that hit Denver just after I arrived and effectively shut the city down), my trip to Georgia was undoubtedly much easier than Phillips’ was in 1936. He and a fellow journalist started out in Moscow and took two planes. The first one had to make two emergency stops to “take on water” because the engine was overheating. Unlike my two-hour-or-so cab ride from Tbilisi, Phillips was advised it was better to travel by horse the (approximately) 100 kilometers (about 62.14 mi) from Passanauri (he called it Passanaur) to Khevsureti (he called it Khevsuretia or Hevsuretia, though Khevsuria is also correct). They needed a guide to show them the way through the mountains and a lieutenant from the NKVD (internal affairs of the USSR, who acted as police for prison and labor camps) also insisted on going along. His notes offer a detailed account of his travels, including descriptions of castles on picturesque mountains, sylvan passes, the villages, and an incident where their horses stepped into a yellow-jacket nest!

Once he made it to the Khevsur region, he took some relative rare photographs of the region and began to document his experience with the people. In 1937, he published an article about the “peaceful” Russian takeover of the Khevsur region and described how the Soviets were building roads, hospitals, and schools in this once truly remote region. Because of its difficult geography, Phillips described the annexation as “one of the most interesting and difficult experiments in penetration into an isolated community which the Soviet Government has made.” Even after the Soviet road was built, Phillips commented that it was easier to traverse the 12,000-foot pass by horse than by truck, just as his guides had suggested.

That doesn’t, however, mean the trip was easy. Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish Ukrainian writing under the pseudonym Essad-Bey in 1931, described how difficult it was to access Khevsureti in his book, Twelve Secrets of the Caucuses

A gigantic wall of rock surrounds Khevsureti and separates it from the rest of the world. After surmounting this wall, a precipice confronts you. Far below in the valley are to be seen the free villages of the Khevsurs. From the cliff wall down into the void there hangs a long rope. Whoever has the courage can catch hold of the rope and let himself down to the Khevsurs.

Like much of what Essad-Bey wrote about Khevsureti, this is probably embellished and romanticized. Phillips, traveling there just a few years after this book’s publication, described a difficult journey but nothing so outlandish. Essad-Bey described this nearly impossible descent via a rope to reinforce the idea that the Khevsurs were unusually independent and uninfluenced by outside forces since medieval times. He even goes so far as to say that this rope was used by political refugees and criminals to escape the police, who dared not go into Khevsureti.

The Untruth of Crusader Khevsureti

Like Essad-Bey and other writers, particularly westerner writers, before and after him, Phillips promoted a long-held belief that the Khevsurs are descended from a lost group of medieval Crusaders. Essad-Bey said the Khevurs were a “strange and mysterious mountain race. Who they are and whence they originate nobody knows. They are surrounded by a secret which it is now impossible to unveil.” Of particular interest to those who perpetuated the Crusaders myth was the unique form of battle dress the Khevsurs held onto. Into the 1900s, they still wore chain mail and fitted breeches, which admittedly looked very medieval European.

Kavkaz. Khefsur.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 17, 2023.

To top it off, writers like Essad-Bey and, more broadly, Richard Halliburton in his popular 1937 book, Seven League Boots, claimed that Khevsurs sewed Maltese crosses onto their clothes and their weapons bore the letters A.M.D., which they say stood for the Crusaders’ motto: Ave Mater Dei. Though he didn’t go into such romantic detail, instead relying more on his own observations as a journalist, Phillips still talked of how the men wore chainmail and carried armor from the Middle Ages, while women dyed their hair “in the manner of the ancient Greeks.”

The Real Khevsurs

It is impossible to summarize the complex history and culture of Khevsueti in such a brief article. I will, instead, point to a recent article by Ryan Michael Sherman from Cornell, “Kicking the Crusaders out of the Caucuses,” to help reinforce his argument that Khevsur ethnicity, tradition, history, and origin stories are more interesting and valid than the attempts to Europeanize or Russianize them. Despite Essad-Bey’s claim that “who they are and whence they originate nobody knows,” it is likely they broke off from other nearby groups to begin farming practices in the mountains, as their origin stories claim. It is a demanding terrain that is difficult to trek, resulting in a somewhat isolated set of small communities that depended greatly on their horse, cattle, and one another. Likely because of minimal outside influence, they also kept very traditional forms of dress, music, language, and an interestingly unique religion.

Khevusr people in 1936, dressed in both traditional and more modern clothing. Box 2, Joseph Becker Phillips Papers, 1926-1948, Collection #6311,  American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Luckily for us, a few outsiders who ventured in Khevsureti, like Phillips, took photographs while they were there. However, the Khevsurs, like much of Georgia, has kept an admirable amount of their traditional culture alive and well despite time, outside influence, and Soviet attempts to quash or destroy it. You can see many photos of modern Khevsurs in traditional dress, listen to a traditional Khevsurian folk song, or if you’re feeling ambitious enough to try to hunt down the ingredients in the US (I’ve tried, it’s not easy), try a Georgian recipe.

Georgia is a magic place of vast and intricate history and the most beautifully welcoming people, and I encourage everyone reading this to find out more. It’s amazing to me that I found such an unexpected pearl of Georgian history tucked away in a small collection at the AHC, but that just goes to show that you never know what you’ll find at the archives until you start digging in. Who knows where your next archival adventure will take you?

Post contributed by AHC Public History Educator Brie Blasi.


Sources consulted:

Essad-Bey. Twelve Secrets of the Caucuses (New York: Viking Press, 1931).

Halliburton, Richard. Seven League Boots (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1937).

Phillips, Joseph B. “Russia Takes Peaceful Way to Win Tribesmen of Caucasus who Bear Weapons used in the Crusades.” May 4, 1937. St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Reiss, Tom. The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life (New York: Random House, 2006).

Sherman, Ryan Michael. “Kicking the Crusaders out of the Caucuses: Deconstructing the 200-Year-Old Meme that the Khevsurs Descended from a Lost Band of Medieval Knights,” Nationalities Papers 49, no. 1 (2021), 54-71.

Soldak, Katya. “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Georgia’s Path from Soviet Republic to Free Market Democracy.Forbes. November 23, 2021. Accessed on May 16, 2023.

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