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Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia [Hardcover]

Donald Rayfield
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

25 Sep 2012
Georgia is the most Western-looking state in today's Near or Middle East and, despite having one of the longest, most turbulent histories in the Christian or Near Eastern world, no proper history of the country has been written for decades. Donald Rayfield redresses this balance in Edge of Empires, focusing not merely on the post-Soviet era, like many other books on Georgia, but on the whole of its history, accessing a mass of new material from the country's recently opened archives. The book begins with the first intimations of the existence of Georgians in ancient Anatolia and ends with today's volatile President Saakashvili. It deals not only with the country's internal politics, but with its complex struggles with the empires which have tried to control, fragment or even exterminate the country. All the world's history - Xenophon's Greeks, the Arabs, the invading Turks, the Crusades, Chingiz Khan and Timur Lang, the Persian empire, the Russian empire, Soviet totalitarianism - is reflected in Georgia's history. Donald Rayfield describes Georgia's swings between disintegration and unity, making full use of primary sources, many not available before in an English-language book. He examines the history of a country which, though small, stands at a crossroads between Russia and the Muslim world, between Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and is a dramatic example of state-building and, also, of tragic political mistakes.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Reaktion Books (25 Sep 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1780230303
  • ISBN-13: 978-1780230306
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.8 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 204,373 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Donald Rayfield is Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian in the Department of Russian, Queen Mary, University of London. He has published the standard history of Georgia's literature, and is editor-in-chief of the immense Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary. His Stalin and His Hangmen has been translated into nine languages.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars author's afterword 25 Nov 2012
Format:Hardcover
As the author, I'm obviously not going to praise or criticize what I've written. I'll just apologize for a few misprints that crept in after, or despite the final proofs. Readers who buy this book might like to paste this list of Errata (I omit a few very minor ones), and print it out on a slip of paper to improve their reading experience:

p.12, l. 7-8: Another non-Indo-European should be
Another curious linguistic factor is the presence in Georgian of plant names (e.g. for the box tree) of non-Indo-European
p.13, l. 3: Umartu should be Urartu
p.34, l. 5 from end: Parsman II should be Parsman III
l. 4 from end: Amazasp III should be Amazasp II
p. 120, l. 16: uncluded should be included
p.199, l. 11 from end: son-in-law should be father-in-law
p.210, l. 20 from end: Mumtaz should be Murtaz
p.213, l. 11: resultred should be resulted
p.333, l. 7 from end: make should be made
p.403, l. 10: Se Hipani should be Settipani
p.415, l. 20: Avon should be Aron
p.418, year 370: Emerpor should be Emperor
p.419, year 1155: ovethrown should be overthrown
p.435, bold heading: IMERTIAN should be IMERETIAN
p.444, l. 2 from end: tarei should be tsarei
p.448, l. 2 from bottom: usually just should be usually listed just

On some copies, the first five lines of the endnotes on page 416 may be blank. These lines are:

19 Khronika tekushchikh sobytii 50 1978, pp. 20-40
20 saarkivo moambe 8, 2010, pp. 150-6
21 saarkivo moambe 9, 2010, pp. 146-150

23 INDEPENDENCE RESTORED
1 For extracts of Gamsakhurdia rhetoric, see: Charles van der Leeuw Storm over the Caucasus (Richmond (UK), 1999), pp. 152-3
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An exhaustive history of a remarkable country 15 Mar 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a work of historical-political reference in English, this seems to be the most weighty tome available. Donald Rayfield is very good on linguistic and etymological differences and connections. The book comes alive with the ascent of Queen Tamar to the throne in 1178, because there is more of a narrative thread, linked to her long and successful reign, in contrast to the usual rapid rise and fall of so many others. There are also many memorable vignettes, not least the terrors before and under Beria and the more recent shenanigans of Gamsakhurdia.

The coverage is admirably broad in terms of historical compass but I found myself frequently overwhelmed by detail and the repetitive round of feudal squabbling which seems to characterise Georgian history - judging by this book. I could have done with some analysis and broad thematic discussion as well as more cultural and sociological references. The rapid succession of battles, warlords, invasions and coups (through the Communist era and up to the present day) is bewildering at times and threatens to be indigestible.

Maps are particularly necessary for this complex, highly diverse and shifting region, but the author's immense erudition is badly served by the cursory maps at the back of the book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Specialist subject 31 Dec 2012
By TC1973
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Chose this as a different present for a close relative who has visited Georgia on a number of occasions. He loved the book so much he hasn't put it down.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading 11 Sep 2014
By Clive B
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An amazing history. I am a regular traveller to Georgia and learned so much from this book. My only criticism would be that it is a rather relentless march through the centuries, and would benefit from a wider perspective on the recurring themes.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cramped, confusing, and often dull 27 Oct 2013
By Le Panda Du Mal - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The goal of telling the history of Georgia inherently presents a huge challenge to any historian- it is not only long, but owing to the fragmented character of the country, and the frequent invasions and infighting, extremely tumultuous, complicated, and confusing. The sheer violence of Georgian history makes it seem a miracle that the Georgian people are still around. It is not impossible to tell their story, but it does need to be told with a level of care, patience, and attention to detail that Donald Rayfield does not display here. I am honestly amazed to see all the glowing reviews of this book- I have soldiered through many a tedious book but this is quite possibly the most tedious history I've endured.

To put it briefly, the book often reads like Rayfield did little more than throw all of his notes together between two covers. In fact, in some places, I am certain that this is exactly what he did, since there is at least one part where he forgot to convert the notes into complete sentences. In Chapter 2, in the middle of a paragraph about a King Rev, the following text appears: "Family connections- Rev may be a son of King Vologas II of Armenia, and thus have established the Arsacid dynasty in Iberia; he married a Greek princess named Sephelia- kept Iberia out of the war." Clearly, the book was rushed and little attempt was made to make it interesting reading.

The early chapters are especially bad- a bewildering succession of kings and wars is trotted out with all the excitement of the list of "begats" at the beginning of St. Matthew's gospel. At first I assumed Rayfield was doing this because of the scantiness of solid historical sources for this period, but his narration of later eras improves little. What emerges as a dominant flaw throughout the book is a lack of color- interesting anecdotes are few and are given little to no context. Rayfield tantalizes the reader with scattered, brief quotes from primary sources and then disappoints him by providing nothing further. Even highly important figures such as Queen Tamar, Davit the Builder, Erekle II, Beria, or Stalin are portrayed with distressing faintness. Developments in Georgian culture are barely alluded to. Illustrations and pictures of the various people, places, and artifacts described are also scanty and a sense of human interest is largely absent. What was life like in Georgia in any of the periods Rayfield describes? A reader of this book will come away with nothing more specific than "pretty damn rough." If the reader were not already somewhat familiar with Georgian culture, he would have no idea from this book what makes Georgian culture and history so fascinating, or what would animate someone to write (or read) a book about it.

Rayfield says surprisingly little about the Georgian Orthodox Church, considering its immense importance in Georgian political and cultural life. Some major developments, such as the acceptance of the council of Chalcedon, are barely mentioned. Or later, when, say, a Catholicos shows openness toward entering communion with Rome, the book gives no insight as to what would lead to such a monumental shift or how others in the Church perceived or discussed it. Some details the book simply gets wrong, such as describing the Church as initially a dependency of Constantinople (it was actually under Antioch). Reflecting an inappropriate Latin mindset, Rayfield describes the liturgy as "Mass" and the Orthodox monks as "Basilian." When Russia annexes Georgia, Rayfield tell us that the Sioni Cathedral was made to say prayers in "Russian"- actually, it would have been Church Slavonic; not even Russian churches pray in Russian. He wrongly identifies St. Grigol Peradze, who died in Auschwitz in place of a Jewish prisoner, as a Catholic priest- he was Orthodox.

Discussing the various ethnic and cultural groups in and around Georgia (e.g. Abkhaz, Lezgi, Khevsurs) is another extremely weak point of the book. If someone is reading Edge of Empires to learn about Georgian history, it can be reasonably assumed that he doesn't know much about these other groups as well, but Rayfield gives them little or no introduction and provides no clue as to how these groups differ culturally, linguistically, or politically from Georgians. Even Georgian sub-groups like Svans or Tush are given short shrift- one gets little sense of the rugged and fierce reputation Svans enjoy in Georgian culture. What distinguishes Ajaria from other Georgian cultures? I have no idea after reading this book Perhaps most relevantly to current events, Rayfield says pretty much nothing after the early chapters (and not much there either) about the development of the Abkhaz culture and Abkhaz identity, and its important differences from Georgian culture.

On the very remote chance that Donald Rayfield cares what Amazon reviewers say, some suggestions for a revised edition:

1. The fractious nature of Georgian history requires a lot of jumping around from one region to another- chapter subdivisions would have been helpful, along with some bolder narrative threads to keep everything together.

2. Expand on everything. I mean everything. Especially the medieval parts. If it means splitting the book into several volumes, that may be what is necessary. Provide more anecdotes, quotes from primary sources, and lots of pictures.

3. Add a who's-who appendix, with brief biographies of all the important or semi-important actors.

4. Get a collaborator or two. Such a complicated and monumental task as presenting a comprehensive history of Georgia needs all the help it can get.

As it stands, the only real advantage this book enjoys is being the first one in English to tackle the complete history of Georgia. Hopefully, either it will be substantively improved in later editions, or someone else will publish a better one.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Endless struggles and horror 4 Feb 2013
By othoniaboys - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I previously had only a very sketchy idea of the history of Georgia. I now see, only too clearly, that the history of this small nation has been full of struggles and horror. The author provides an extremely detailed and comprehensive narrative. It was nothing but fight, fight, fight. The Georgians, when they weren't busy fighting the Turks, Iranians and Russians, were busy with internal strife and dynastic conflicts. It is a wonder that anything was left after all the bloodshed.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Difficult first have, better second half 24 May 2014
By Matthew Lerner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The first half of the book, going from ancient times until the Russian occupation at the start of the nineteenth century, is a real rough read, and the reason I took so long to finish the book. Rayfield, easily one of the foremost English historians on Georgia, effectively just lists off kings and battles. It seriously at times simply goes "this king began his reign this year, and married this wife, had these children, and fought these battles. He died this year, and then this king came along." For nearly 200 pages it goes on like that, real dry reading, the type of thing you'd expect from early medieval chronicles or something of the sort.

However this is partially redeemed in the second half. The writing definitely improves, and there is more to it than listing off rulers, though that still plays a prominent part until the (temporary) end of Russian rule (1918-21). This section provided a lot of information and details, though he is somewhat critical of the Georgians as a whole at times, suggesting that because Mein Kampf and The Prince are best sellers in 2010 or so means they lack political sophistication. To try and paint an entire country of 4 million like that is near impossible to do, and not something that should have been included.

The book also lacks on the sourcing, and maps. Now, granted I can understand if the publishers wanted to limit the endnotes/bibliography, but its quite pitiful, there only being a handful of sources listed, and few endnotes to consult. As for the maps, they were real small and hard to properly consult, which was a shame considering the volatile nature of the region throughout history. Better maps would definitely help people trying to read the book to try to understand where things were happening, and not have cities/landmarks printed in microscopic type.
3.0 out of 5 stars This book would be better if the history were unpacked and combined with a ... 8 Sep 2014
By Tedo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Too much information packed into too short a space. Ironically, in the parts of Georgian history that are most undocumented, the author recounts every bit of information he seems to have been able to collect. So for example the pre-Christian and early Christian eras of Georgia are just a litany of leaders with similar names, and very little narrative or analysis. Same for the 16th - mid-18th Century period, when the country was in chaos following Tamerlane's invasion, broken into warring principalities, and trying to survive between the Ottomans to the West and the Persians to the East. These parts of the book are simply unreadable (I mean, you can read them, but they make no sense). On the other hand, when dealing with the parts of Georgia's history that are relatively well-documented - the peak of the country's power and unified monarchy in the high Middle Ages - from about the 11th Century through the 15th Century, the author takes a "higher view," selects more carefully the facts he relates, and provides some narrative and analysis. The coverage of the late 18th Century through the present is quite well done. It seems that Mr. Rayfield has a hard time working with periods where the historical record is thin, and deals with it by just piling in lists of facts and people and events that come from whatever sources exist. This book would be better if the history were unpacked and combined with a flow of narrative and analysis. The author should take more time with the periods that are thinly documented to construct a history with the available information that tells a story, or alternative stories; puts forth theories and hypotheses. I.e., what good historians do when working with eras in which the specific subject is not well documented. The book is almost like a précis or synopsis of what should be a 3 volume history of Georgia. As it is, I did learn a lot from reading it; one does emerge with an idea of a trend, even if one has to read pages and pages of mind-numbing detail to get to it. A well-written book would make this a more author-led, and less painful process.
5.0 out of 5 stars At last . . . 17 Aug 2013
By Peter Skinner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Covering three millennia, this widely researched, dauntingly detailed and magisterial work is a "must have" for any serious student of Georgian -- and Transcaucasian -- history. It will assuredly become the new standard, and will not be surpassed in the foreseeable future.
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