The Laz: Two Tales of One People

Author: Irakli Dzneladze


The Laz: Two Tales of One People


Half of Merab Narikadze’s family identifies itself as Georgian, the other half as Laz. In fact,  both sides are Laz. Oddities around ethnic identity in Narikadze’s family mirror the peculiar story of Sarpi, a remote village at the bottom left-hand corner of Georgia, on the Turkish border, which encapsulates the twists and turns of history and territories in the Caucasus.

The village is populated mostly by the Laz - an ethnic group, native to Turkey and Georgia, which is closely related to Mingrelians, a Kartvelian subgroup close to the Georgians. The Laz language is particularly close to Mingrelian.

In 1921, in mapping the border between Turkey and the then-Soviet Republic of Georgia, the village was split into two -- Sarp ended up in Turkey, and Sarpi in Georgia. The frontier was closed but authorities agreed to abolish a buffer zone. Given the hostility between the two at the time, this was a highly unusual decision, taken as both feared more the possibility of having the buffer zone occupied by another Western country, particularly Great Britain or its ally, France. The political decision had a tremendous influence on the life of Sarpi’s villagers including Merab’s ancestors, who suddenly found their families divided by an impassable line and with no possibility to keep in touch with one another.

Over time the Laz living on either side of the frontier have developed different conceptions of what it means to be Laz. Today, most of those living in Turkey do not consider themselves Turkish, but uphold their Laz identity as a separate one. In contrast, most of the those living in Georgia believe that being Laz and Georgian is pretty much the same thing. Some Turkish Laz say, “Mingrelians are our brothers, but Georgians are our cousins.” They are impressed how well the Laz from Georgia speak the Laz language, but consider them to be completely assimilated and, to some extent, to have lost their Laz identity. Besides, they claim it was a political choice for Mingrelians to become Georgians - after all, “Mingrelians have long lived on the territory and have contributed to development of the Georgian State.”

Although the border reopened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the communities have remained more or less separate. These images are a snapshot into the lives of the Laz living in-between borders, in Sarpi and Sarp. They mostly depict the lives of Georgian Laz and their relationship with the Laz identity, as they try to recover and sustain it through folk songs, ancient weaponry, and the arts.

Children in the village of Sarpi, Georgia, are the best local guides to escort visitors right on the dividing line between Turkey and Georgia.
The frontier splitting their village in two was traced in 1921.
Merab Narikadze, 42, owns the Lazi hotel in Sarpi. The village division, decided by the Turkish and Soviet authorities, deeply affected his family whose members found themselves on opposite sides of the border. They still live apart - same family, two countries
Merab Narikadze (centre) with his grandfathers - both Turan Oghl (left) and Orhanj Chakir Oghl (right) live in Sarp, Turkey
Lili Abdulish is a singer. In Sarpi, her house is located closest to the Turkish border. Over the years, the sixty-something singer has collected Laz song lyrics and music and she has recently founded a school of Laz folk music.
Nodar Kakabaze. The 80-year-old Georgian literature teacher is the only person known to have collected pieces of Laz ancient weaponry.
Nodar handling an old Laz weapon, the "kvashurduli"
The Laz armour, made with a thick cloth, was used by fighters in battles while wielding the "kvashurduli".
Ancient Laz weaponry - "kvashurduli", "kudbacra" and "topaji."
Narime Helishimi is a Russian language teacher. The 68-year-old is the daughter of a famous Laz painter, Hasan Helimishi and an artist herself.
Narime on her father’s grave.
Narime gazing at her father's grave
We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.