The crazy alphabets of the Caucasus seem to always say the same thing: that you are very far from home.
On the Caucasian Challenge, we travel a very long way, and at no time is this more noticeable than when attempting to read signs! Both Georgia and Armenia speak unique languages, which each have their own alphabets. While it’d be useful to learn some local phrases, the chances of you being able to understand signs (like the one above, which says Zestafoni) are slim. But still, here is what you do need to know about the crazy alphabets of the Caucasus.
The Story of the Alphabets of the Caucasus
They may be new to you, but the alphabets of both Georgia and Armenia are very old. They were developed at roughly the same time, more than a 1500 years ago. The scripts were both crucial in translating Christian texts, both countries being (very) early adopters of Christianity. The Armenian alphabet was created by Mesrop Mashtots, a scholar who lived in the 4th Century AD. Many claim that he also invented the Georgian alphabet, while Georgian are taught that the inventor of their alphabet was actually by King Pharnavaz of Kartli (an ancient Georgian kingdom). However, it’s instead likely that the Georgian alphabet was formed at a similar time to the Armenian alphabet, though probably not created by Mashtots.
The Famous Jokes about the Alphabets of the Caucasus
Armenians often say (and we do mean often, or at least according to our tour guide in Yerevan…) that after Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet, Georgians were so impressed that they came to him and asked for him to to create an alphabet for them too. It’s said that he was eating spaghetti at the time, and threw his pasta onto the wall, saying, “there you go, that’s your alphabet”. While not true, it gives us an insight into the jovial rivalry between the two nations. (NB: do not tell this joke to a Georgian…)
Caucasian Alphabets: The Pride of the Caucasus
To get an insight into how proud Georgia and Armenia are of their respective alphabets, consider that in both countries there are alphabet monuments! In Batumi, the first city we visit in Georgia, you can see the Alphabet Tower, a round building covered in a double helix structure. This is meant to represent how Georgian is the DNA of the Georgian nation. You can find the Armenian Alphabet Monument in Artashavan village, near where Mashtot was buried. This was built in 2005 to celebrate the 1600th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet.
Why Everything is Actually More Complicated than it Seems
Predictably, when the alphabets of the Caucasus were invited so long ago, some things have changed. Three addition letters were added to the Armenian alphabet, but it more or less remains the same. Georgian, however, has three scripts. So even if you learned how to read modern Georgian (not necessarily easy) the ancient texts would still be incomprehensible. The ancient way of writing is still sometimes used for religious texts. It’s fine though: on the Caucasian Challenge we get by with smiles and good will (okay, and an occasional dollop of Russian).