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.