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The Georgian Collections of the Library of Congress, Part I: Early Works

The Library of Congress was founded in 1800 as Congress’s library, but through the decades it became the de facto National Library of the United States and, ultimately, the largest library in the world. Those of us, however, who deal with foreign languages and scripts in this wonderful institution delight in pointing out that some estimate that up to 60% of the Library’s collections are not in English. In short, the Library of Congress boasts an international collection that preserves the cultural and literary history of the entire world’s population.

This collection did not grow overnight, of course, and it developed at varying speeds for different languages and cultures. The Georgian language collections at the Library of Congress are a case in point.

Joseph Nicolas de l’Isle’s “Carte de la Géorgie et des pays situés entre la Mer Noïre et la Mer Caspienne,” (Venice, 1775) shows Georgia’s geographic position astride the Caucasus Mountain range between the Caspian and Black Seas. (Geography and Map Division)

Georgia has always been home to peoples with whom the ancient Greeks and Romans had much to do. Those who read the tale of “Jason and the Argonauts” might not realize that Medea, for instance, the woman with whom Jason fell in love, was a princess of Colchis, a region of ancient Georgia.

One of the early color photographs of Tbilisi (Tiflis), the capital of Georgia, by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

Thus, works about or including Georgia have been part of the collections at the Library from the start, but few were in Georgian. Those in the distinctive Georgian language itself, with its beautiful vernacular script, slowly entered our collections starting in the 19th century. That script was created after Georgia became a Christian state in the 4th century AD. While the Library does not possess any  early manuscript, in the years from 1948 to 1952, it microfilmed select manuscripts from three major repositories in the Middle East. Two of these sets have recently been digitized and mounted and both contain significant numbers of Georgian language manuscripts—85 from the renowned collections of the Monastery of St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai and 125 from the ancient Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

As with Hebrew, Armenian, and Arabic, the first books in Georgian published in moveable type were produced outside of Georgia, in this case, Rome in 1619.  Here are two books—one on the Georgian alphabet and the other, an Italian-Georgian Dictionary created by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), which was founded by the Roman Catholic Church in 1622 in part to spread Catholicism to the already Christian regions of the Middle East. The font the Congregation cast for the publication of these little treasures is exquisite and a perfect reflection of that vernacular script. Fully digitized versions of both works are now available through links provided in their online cataloging records.

Title page of “Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum.”

The title page of “Dittionario giorgiano e Italiano.”

The beginning of the As in “Dittionario giorgiano e Italiano.”













The title page of the French translation of the “Kartlis cxovreba” by the 19th century French orientalist, Marie Félicité Brosset. Brosset also published the Georgian text.

Nineteenth century academic Europe and Russia grew increasingly interested in the peoples and the lands of the Caucasus and many learned and studied their languages and historical works. Many of these studies involved the text, translation, and examination of the important “Kartlis cxovreba” (The Georgian Chronicles). To this day the work remains central for the study of the early history of the Georgian people.

It is impossible to speak of early Georgian works and literature without highlighting the exquisite Georgian national epic, “Vepvistqaosani” of Shota Rustaveli (12th/13th century). Often translated as ‘The Knight in the Panther Skin,’ this extended poem dedicated to the Georgian Queen Tamar has been widely translated and studied. The Library of Congress houses  several fine editions of the work, including one published in 1888 with  beautiful illustrations by the Hungarian illustrator, Mihaly Zichy.



A Zichy engraving for the 1888 edition of Rustaveli.

We end this breathlessly brief survey of early works about Georgia in the Library of Congress with research tips. Many of these early works are in European languages; as such, they are kept in the General Collections of the Library of Congress and should be consulted in the Main Reading Room. Items published in the Georgian language itself are in the custody of the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division and should be consulted there.

Finally, to find Georgian language materials in the online catalogs, the the Library of Congress / American Library Association  system of transliteration must be used.

Feel free to send an Ask a Librarian  question about the Georgian language materials to the Near East Section.

Part 2 of this series will discuss the growth of the Georgian language materials during the 20th century from a minimalist collection to its present shape as a major resource in the United States on Georgia and its people.


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