Most people know Georgia only as a country lying somewhere in Central Asia—one of the 15 former republics of the U.S.S.R. and the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. But the nation of Georgia has a long and illustrious history that predates the rise of the Soviet Union.

A tiny mountainous country about the size of West Virginia, Georgia lies just north of Turkey, between the Black and Caspian seas. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the nation is composed of several smaller, culturally distinct regions and is home to more than 100 different ethnic groups (including Sunni Muslims, Armenians and Jews). Georgia’s relatively mild climate, fertile soil and abundant natural resources attracted settlers as early as the fifth millennium B.C.

Archaeological evidence suggests that three Neolithic, proto-Georgian tribes (the Svans, the Megrels-Chans and the Karts) controlled the area until around 500 B.C., when most of what is now Georgia was colonized by the Ionian Greeks. The Greeks divided the country up into two distinct principalities, the kingdom of Iberia in the east, and the kingdom of Colchis in the west. Both of these kingdoms then fell under the sway of the Roman Empire in 63 A.D., and the Romans later helped establish Christianity throughout the region. (Christianity became the official religion of most of Georgia in 330 A.D.) Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the Byzantine and Persian empires vied for control of both Iberia and Colchis, and the two kingdoms were eventually conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century A.D.

Georgia’s first appearance as a geographically coherent, politically independent state came in the 11th century A.D., when the country’s many feuding principalities were united under the great Georgian king David the Builder (1089–1125). From the late 11th to 13th centuries, the country experienced an unparalleled cultural and economic flowering. Many of the exquisitely wrought gold objects, elaborately decorated manuscripts and literary treasures included in the Georgian national exhibition date from this period.

Georgia’s floruit was savagely interrupted by the Mongol invasions of the 1400s. In the early 1500s, the country was conquered once again by the Persian and Ottoman empires; it was then annexed by Russia in the late 1800s and was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922. In April 1991 the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared its independence from the U.S.S.R. and established the modern Republic of Georgia.

Despite their long domination by foreign powers, the people of Georgia have retained a remarkable degree of cultural autonomy over the last 5,000 years. The native language of the country is still Georgian—a unique Indo-European language with its own writing system; more than 70 percent of the country’s five million inhabitants still belong to the independent Georgian Orthodox Church; and Georgian art and architecture still reveal strong traces of the country’s splendid Byzantine heritage. According to Ori Soltes, catalogue editor and curator of the Georgian national exhibition, the Georgians have maintained a firm grip on “that elusive thing we call Georgianness.”