The Beautiful Fonts and Scripts of Georgia

By Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Beautiful story of the three living cultures of the Georgian alphabet. Centuries-old Georgian alphabet and peculiarities of the most
important developing epochs of Georgian writing, printing and script . 

Traveling necessary of Dimitri Kipiani (1850) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Asomtavruli Alphabet

There is an apparent similarity between the Georgian alphabet and the Georgian nation – they both are very old and very interesting. The origin of the Georgian script is poorly known, and no full agreement exists among Georgian and foreign scholars as to its date of its creation, who designed the script, and the main influences on that process. There are three important periods in the history of Georgian writing: Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri and Mkhedruli. Each of these alphabets has its own graphic style, though each subsequently follows the predecessor. The Nuskhuri alphabet was formed because of the development of Asomtavruli; and Mkhedruli alphabet was created after development of Nuskhuri. The main reason for these modifications was an aspiration of the Georgian people to refine and simplify their writing system.  

Asomtavruli inscription (430 AD) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Letters found on the walls of a Georgian monastery, discovered by the Italian Archaeologist Virgilio Corbo in 1952, in the Judean Desert, are considered to be the oldest Georgian inscriptions. One of them is dated to 430 AD and refers to Bacurius the Iberian.

Georgian Inscriprion (493/503) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Early samples of Asomtavruli inscriptions are mainly found on the walls of old churches. In this regard, inscriptions on the walls of the Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral dated 493-494 AD, and the inscriptions of the VI-VII cc. on the Jvari Monastery in Mtskheta, are especially important.

Gospel of Luke (XII c.) by unknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Many old and precious manuscripts were created in the Asomtavruli alphabet. Among them manuscripts from the IX-X cc. preserved in the library of St. Catherine's Monastery, on Mount Sinai are especially significant. In the modern Georgian ecclesiastical architecture and iconography the Asomtavruli alphabet still maintains its significance.

The name Asomtavruli means "capital letters". It is also known as Mrgvlovani because of its round letter shapes. Despite its name, this "capital" script is unicameral, just like the modern Georgian script, Mkhedruli.
The graphic structure of the Asmotshvili letters is simple: they are made through circles and straight lines; all letters are of equal height and they are written with several hand strokes.

Gospel (XVII c.) by unknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Nuskhuri Alphabet

The Nuskhuri alphabet is the second stage of the development of the Georgian alphabet. Samples of the this script are dated the IX c. The letters here are tied and bent to the right.

‘Nuskhuri’ is formed from the word ‘Nuskha’, which according to the Georgian scholar and writer of the 18th century, Sulkhan Saba Orbeliani, means 'rapid writing'. The oldest Nuskhuri inscription appears in 859 AD and was found on the wall of the Ateni Sioni Church. The first manuscript with the Nuskhuri alphabet is the testament of ‘Sinuri Mravaltavi’, (864 AD). It is noteworthy that only a small portion of the testament is written in Nuskhuri letters, and the majority using the Asomtavruli script.

The Book of Hours (1717) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Like Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri is still a living alphabet. The Georgian Orthodox Church still uses Nuskhuri script for liturgical books.

Interestingly, the transitional period of the Georgian Alphabet can be best seen in manuscripts where the text is copied from Asomtavruli and words lost or damaged in the text are restored using the Nuskhuri script.

Among the unique manuscripts dated for the tenth century, it is very interesting that in some, after damage, Asomtavruli letters are replaced by Nuskhuri.

The most famous legal document written using Nuskhuri letters is the testament of David IV of Georgia (1089-1125), which the king gifted to the Shio-Mgvime Monastery.

Nikoloz Cholokashvili (1585 -1659) (1610/1659) by Teramo Cristoforo CastelliArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

The First Georgian Font

The first Georgian font was created in Europe. In 1625, the King of East Georgia, Teimuraz I, sent Niceforo Irbach (also named as Nikoloz Cholokashvili – Georgian clergyman, politician, ambassador and scholar) to Italy, Rome, as a Georgian envoy to seek allies and to ask for assistance in holding off the Turks and Persians.  The ambassadorial mission did not have much political success, but it did bring about a significant cultural event – the printing of the first Georgian book.

Georgian and Italian Dictionary (1629) by Stefano PaoliniArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Published in Rome in 1629, the Georgian-Italian dictionary was the first book printed in Georgian using moveable type. The dictionary was compiled by an Italian, Stefano Paolini, with the assistance of Niceforo Irbachi Giorgiano. (portrait on the previous slide)
The dictionary was published by the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, which was established in Rome in the early XII c. for the purpose of spreading Catholicism in non-Catholic countries. From 1628, the congregation sent missionaries to Georgia, and the dictionary was intended for use by missionaries who needed to learn Georgian.

Francisco-Maria Maggio (1826)Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

The First Georgian Grammar

The Italian missionary Francisco-Maria Maggio was one of the first who commenced scientific study of the Georgian language, when the young man received an extraordinary assignment from the Pope and was sent to Georgia for the missionary work. Maggio's work is the first known grammar of the Georgian language. At the same time, it is the first grammar in the Ibero-Caucasian linguistic world. On the first page of ‘The Georgian Grammar’ is written: “The work on Eastern languages which are used in Georgia". The first edition contains grammatical rules of Georgian or Iberian colloquial.

Rules of writing the Georgian letters (1670) by Francisco-Maria MaggioArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Compiled in Rome in the printing press of the ‘Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith’ under the Supreme’s permission, the book consists of 143 pages. The first part of the book refers to the orthography, the second part to etymology, the third to syntax, the fourth to prosody, the fifth to Christian catechism, and the sixth part refers to the prayer of the Mother of God.

Nicolaes Witsen (1641/1717) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Georgian Font in  Amsterdam  

In 1692, the Amsterdam mayor and amateur scholar Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717) published a compendium titled "Noord en Oost Tartarye" (“Northern and Eastern Tartaria”), describing Siberia and the surrounding areas, though without literary references. He consulted classical authors and Arabic medieval writers as well as his learned contemporaries in Europe. In his second enlarged edition, Witsen gave an account of all the information available to the Europeans at that time about the northern and eastern parts of Europe, Asia, the Caucasus, etc. In this addition, Statesman included list of 900 Georgian words and illustrations of the Georgian language's writing system.   

Portraits of the Georgian Kings - Archil (1647-1713) and Heraclius I (1642-1709) (1705)Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Through Witsen's assistance a Hungarian letter cutter, typeface designer, typographer and printer Miklós Tótfalusi Kis, who lived in Amsterdam, received in 1686 the commission of king Archil Bagrationi to produce Georgian print types in Amsterdam.

Vakhtang VI of Kartli (1716/1724) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

The First Printing Press in Georgia

The history of the Georgian printing press and typography starts from 1708-1709. This is the time when the first Georgian printing house was established by Vakhtang VI in a specially constructed building on the left bank of the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi. The King appointed Hungarian-Romanian typographer Mikheil Ungrovlakheli as a director of the printing house. After the Gospel, in 1709-1712, the printing house published eleven books. Among them the most notable editions were 'The Knight in the Panther's Skin' of Rustaveli, with the basic scientific research accompanied by scholarly commentaries from the King himself (1712). In 1712, Vakhtang left for Persia, after which the working process of the printing house slowed. Only five books were published in 1713-1720. In 1721-1722, the printing house experienced some kind of revival when Bakar, son of Vakhtang and Vakhushti Bagrationi, published a scientific textbook ‘Faith of Man’ or ‘Yayati’, which was translated by Vakhtang VI. The printing house’s last publication was ‘The Book of Hours’ (1722). In 1723, it was closed due to an Ottoman invasion.

Gospel - the first printed book in Georgia (1709) by Mikheil UngrovlakheliArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

In total, nineteen books were published in the first Georgian printing house, notably of the same quality as those produced in Europe at that time. The printing system had several types of fonts: Georgian Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri and Mkhedruli, as well as Greek and Latin; both black and red was used.

The gravures in the books, good quality of paper, excellent binding system and decorations - all technical aspects indicate an eminent standard of printing work for the time.

Miniature Collection of Prayers (XIX c.) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Mkhedruli Alphabet

Mkhedruli is the third and current Georgian alphabet. This script first appears in the 10th century. The oldest Mkhedruli inscription is found in Ateni Sioni Church dating back to 982 AD. The second oldest Mkhedruli-written text is found in the 11th-century royal charters of King Bagrat IV of Georgia. Mkhedruli was mostly used then in the Kingdom of Georgia for the royal charters, historical documents, manuscripts and inscriptions. It was used for non-religious purposes only and represented the "civil", "royal" and "secular" script. Though Khutsuri (Nuskhuri with Asomtavruli) was used until the 19th century, mkhedruli became more and more dominant over the two other scripts and became so popular that it was fully embedded in Georgian literature writing; during this time, all significant literary works or poems were written using this alphabet.

Book of Law (1756/1760) by UnknownArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

‘Book of Law’
The collection contains seven legislative acts: The Law of Moses, Law of Greek, Law of Armenia, Law of Catholicoses, Law of King George, Law of Agbuga and Law of Vakhtang Batonishvili.

‘Deda Ena’ (Mother Language) (1906) by Iakob GogebashviliArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Since 1876, every Georgian has learnt to read and write in their native language using the book - a children's primer - ‘Deda Ena’ (Mother Language). The type, which the author Iakob Gogebashvili used while working on his ‘Mother Language’ and textbooks, was created in 1837, in the printing house of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Academy. The font was known as "Academical" and it was created by the French painter De Lapour according to the handwritings of Teimuraz Batonishvili (1782-1846).

Georgian alphabet and Georgian dictionary (1705) by Nicolaes WitsenArt Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

The Three Living Cultures of the Georgian Alphabet

At the end of 2016, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added the Georgian alphabet to its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The decision came after the 11th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, held in the the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Credits: Story

Georgian State Museum of Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography - Art Palace

George Kalandia
Mary Kharaishvili
Irakli Zambakhidze
Irina Moistsrapishvili

Special thanks to Archil Gelovani, Chairman of the Art Palace’s Board of Trustees.


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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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