Americans interested in Georgian art and culture will be missing out on more than one exhibition this autumn.

When the Shevardnadze government recently canceled the Georgian national exhibition, it also pulled the plug on a related exhibit devoted to Georgian Jewish culture. A diverse collection of more than 100 ritual objects, textiles, paintings and photographs, the Jewish exhibition was envisioned as a celebration of 2,600 years of Jewish life in the Central Asian country. It was scheduled to open at the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. this past October, and then to follow the main Georgian exhibit to San Diego and Houston in 2000. For now, however, most of the objects in the Jewish exhibition remain in limbo, locked away in the moldy basements of the Georgian archaeological museum.

No one is really sure when the first Jews arrived in Georgia, but local legends claim that a small group of Israelites resettled there after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 B.C. A second wave of Jewish immigrants is said to have arrived after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. Since that time, the size of Georgia’s Jewish population has waxed and waned (ranging anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people in recent years); but relations between the country’s Christians and Jews have remained harmonious throughout the centuries.

After Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the country in the fourth century A.D., Georgia’s Jews continued to enjoy most of the same legal rights and privileges as non-Jews. They were, for example, permitted to own serfs during the Middle Ages. (There are even a few recorded cases of Jews owning Christians!)

During the Soviet era—when religious freedom for all groups was strictly curtailed—relations between Georgian Jews and Christians continued to be relatively amicable. Jewish literature and art experienced a flowering during the 1930s and 1940s, giving birth to some of the country’s most celebrated playwrights and painters. (Amazingly, in 1933, as Europe teetered on the brink of war and experienced one of its most vicious outbreaks of anti-Semitism, Georgians founded the Historical and Ethnographical Museum of Georgian Jewry in Tbilisi, which remained open until the 1950s.) Only in recent years—as ethnic feuding and political instability have raged over much of the former Soviet Union—have anti-Semitic violence and persecution become serious threats in Georgia.

The many objects assembled for the canceled Jewish exhibition reflect the Georgian Jews’ long and prosperous heritage. Some of the feature attractions in the exhibit would have been a copy of the 11th-century Lailash Pentateuch (one of the three or four oldest virtually complete copies of the Pentateuch); a glorious assortment of elaborately embroidered Jewish ceremonial garments and textiles, and an extensive collection of paintings by prominent 20th-century Georgian Jewish artists like Shalom Koboshvili and David Gvelesiani.

According to Ori Soltes of the Foundation for International Arts and Education, the Shevardnadze administration hoped the traveling exhibition would create a renewed interest in preserving Georgian-Jewish culture. The Georgian government is eager to raise funds to reopen and restore the Historical and Ethnographical Museum (and to maintain good diplomatic relations with its chief foreign investment partner, Israel). For the moment, however, such hopes remain unrealized, and the unusual cultural heritage of Georgia’s Jews seems destined to remain unseen and unsung.