Sunset in Shulaveri (2022), by Marie-Luise Schega
It was a sunny but chilly morning. We were driving to Shulaveri village from Tserakvi village. Shulaveri is a village located in the South of Marneuli municipality of the Kvemo Kartli region in the southeastern part of Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan and Armenia. The village is mostly known as an old and historical village. It is considered to be the homeland of Shulaveri–Shomu culture, one of the earliest known Neolithic cultures, which dates back to the mid 6th or early 5th millennium BC.
This was our first visit to the village. The main purpose of our visit was to research the common areas for the population of the village. According to the 2014 census, the population of Shulaveri was 1551 people, of which 49% were Azerbaijanis, 31% Georgians and 17% Armenians. Thus, diversity is the main characteristic of the population of Shulaveri.
We were all very excited since we did not know the village and could not predict the reaction of the locals. Our minibus
dropped us off in the center of Shulaveri, which was crowded and noisy due to supermarkets, hairdressers, bakeries and chaikhanas (from “chai” meaning tea, and “khana” — room). However, I must emphasize that we were most impressed by the hill of the village even before we reached the center. The hill is called Shulaveri Hill, also known as “Surudashi” (from “suru” meaning sharp, and “dashi” stone) among the locals. The hill is visible from every corner of the village and left me with the impression of the Eiffel Tower of Shulaveri. In fact, the hills are considered to represent wilderness, freedom, or the border between civilizations, but I think that Shulaveri Hill can be called a common space for the villagers because of the historical traces of their ancestors.
We started walking along the road. We felt the glances of local residents on us, as they realized that we were strangers to the village. Passing the bakery along the road and noticing the smell of bread coming from there, it was impossible not to slow down. The bakery was owned by an Azerbaijani villager who worked there with his wife. They invited us to try their freshly baked bread, which was called Shoti, traditional Georgian bread. We couldn’t refuse them. I still remember the amazing taste of this bread. Their warm attitude was a genuine sign of the hospitality of the villagers and slightly reduced our nervousness.
After walking for some time, we noticed an unused transport wagon, which later directed us to the Shulaveri railway station. The former name of the station was Ashaga Seral and various stories are associated with it. According to one of the employees of the station, during the Silk Road, a hotel was located at the present site of the train station, where travelers (caravaners) could rest. The railway station is also known as a historic battlefield because of the Battle of Imiri (Emir) that took place there during the German military operations in Southern Georgia on June 8, 1918. Some historians even claim that two German soldiers who died during the battle were buried near the station. Currently, the station does not serve passengers. It was closed with the onset of the global pandemic situation in the country and has not been reopened. Before the closure, it was the main and cheapest transport route for the villagers, especially for merchants trading in Sadakhlo and Marneuli. Today, the main occupation of the population of the village is trade. Trade has become the main source of the village economy, especially after the destruction of a woolen factory.
During the Soviet Union, Marneuli Municipality was one of the main economic regions of Georgia. Among the key industries was a woolen factory located in Shulaveri. The factory is considered a common space because it brought together thousands of local and regional workers who contributed to the economic development of the village. The collapse of the Soviet Union, as in other villages of the Marneuli municipality, led to the destruction of the factory in Shulaveri. This caused a sharp increase in poverty, unemployment and migration to cities and abroad among residents of the village. Currently, you can only find the remains of a factory in an abandoned area full of garbage. However, walking among these remains takes you back to the 90s.
The railway station left me with two impressions. Firstly, I saw it as a common space for the villagers before its closure, where dozens of people from different communities of the village traveled together every day. Secondly, it led to a split among the residents of the village. The railway station seemed to me to be the Kura of Shulaveri, dividing it into two parts, one part leading to a landscape mainly inhabited by Azerbaijanis, and the other by Armenians.
During our two-day visit to Shulaveri, we had the opportunity to visit families from every community (Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani) in the village. The Georgian family we
were able to visit was originally from Adjara. In 1989, after landslides in the villages of Adjara, about sixty Georgian families were resettled in Shulaveri.
These family visits helped us to understand the several main commonalities that exist between the multicultural community of the village: unity, hospitality and uniqueness.
Language is considered an expression of unity or diversity. In Shulaveri, it is mainly unity, since most of the villagers can speak the language of another community, which, in turn, comes from long-standing friendships, good neighborliness and friendly cooperation. Shulaveri can be considered the best example of interethnic peace in the South Caucasus, especially among Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
Hospitality is another common feature of Shulaveri residents. Whatever door you knock on in the village, be it Azerbaijani, Georgian or Armenian, be sure you will be greeted with full of warmth and love. The family visits also showed us that despite the fact that the inhabitants of the village share common areas, each community has been able to create its own landscape and preserve its own cultural uniqueness, such as religion, traditional norms, values, cuisine, festivals or holidays. Therefore, Shulaveri reminds me of a sandwich culture. In sociology, sandwich culture is defined as the culture of migrants living in a new place where they retain their traditional and cultural values. But it must be emphasized that in the landscape of every community of the village one can still find a very small common tradition that binds them together: grapevines. After all, archaeologists found the oldest wine vessel in Shulaveri, confirming a long lasting tradition of wine production in the village.
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