The Alps we already knew, and the Pyrenees, but this was finer than anything we had ever seen or even imagined in our wildest dreams! This was the Caucasus….How I wish I had brought my copy of Aeschylus!
Alexandre Dumas père (1858)
“It is a magical place, Georgia,” wrote John Steinbeck during a visit in the late 1940s, “and it becomes dream-like the moment you have left it.” Georgia’s landscape, wine and extravagant people consistently win it friends. John Steinbeck heard from Russians about Georgia’s charm long before he set foot here. “Wherever we had been in Russia, in Moscow, in the Ukraine, in Stalingrad, the magical name of Georgia came up constantly….. They spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.” Indeed, Georgia perhaps is the world’s most beautiful country – from sublimely perched marionette churches and fantastic mountain scenery to green vineyards and sunny beaches. It is the second oldest Christian state in the world and the most “Caucasian” among its neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Equally special are its proud, high-spirited, cultured, loyal and compassionate people, whose generous spirit was rightfully captured in the 12th century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli‘s aphorism about his people “What you give is yours, what you keep is lost”. If I were to write about hospitality, Caucasian and, particularly, Georgian hospitality would have neither boundaries nor equivalents in the world, it is the very stuff of life. Locals will greet you as the most-welcome guest, and often, as a blessing, and see you off as the dearest sister (or brother). Even though USSR dissolved over 20 years ago, everywhere I went, Georgians considered me as their fellow country-woman – we spoke the same language, Russian (lingua franca of Soviet time) and we shared the same history. For old and young (unlike in Azerbaijan) I was one of them and all of them had a few good things to say either about Belarus or my people.
A deeply complicated history and location, at the Eurasian crossroads, have given Georgia a wonderful heritage of architecture and art, from cave cities to the inimitable canvases of Pirosmani. Georgia claims to be the birthplace of wine, but without doubt, as the inheritor of an ancient culture, it produced Byzantine-era emperors as well as remarkable figures, such as -Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, known by millions as Joseph Stalin and George Balanchine – the founder of the American ballet. Georgian beautiful polyphonic singing is genuinely unique, a seldom claim among other Caucasian cultures, that look outward to Iran and the Middle East; its writing is like a re-arrangement of flower petals; its karakul sheep papakhas and chokhas can never be mistaken with any other national dress, and its traditional dance is like nothing you’ve seen in your life.
My very first encounter with Caucasus and Georgia, as I mentioned in my Azerbaijan blog, was through literary works of A. Pushkin, M. Lermontov and L.Tolstoy. However, the image of Georgian people also came from the movies inspired by the WWII events – as there was always a Georgian solder, fighting alongside his Red Army comrades. Despite the context and the tragic events of the Great Patriotic War, the Georgian character was always the luminous one, the most uplifting, friendly and humorous. In the reality of war, and in my childhood movies, all characters would eventually die, but I remember mourning the death of a Georgian solder the most. Another childhood memory I cherish was the one of my grandmother, who as a doctor in Kapyl, a small town in Belarus, was entitled to a yearly 30-day state-sponsored vacation at a sanatorium (recreational area) in Batumi, Georgia’s main Black Sea resort. It was her favorite place on earth, and according to her – a “paradise”. That is why and how my 11-day trip “Baku to Batumi” came about. My travels around Azerbaijan can be found here and could be considered as prequel to this blog.
- Lonely Planet. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
- Charles King. “The Ghosts of Freedom: A history of Caucasus”
- Thomas de Waal. “The Caucasus: An Introduction”
- Stephen Jones. “Georgia: A Political History since Independence”
- Kurban Said. “Ali and Nino. A Love Story”
- Alexander Pushkin “A Prisoner in the Caucasus” (A.C. Пушкин “Кавказский пленник”),
- Mikhail Lermontov “Mtsiry” and “A Hero of Our Time” (Михаил Лермонтов “Мцыри” и “Герои нашего времени”)
- Lev Tolstoy “Hadji Murad” (Лев Толстой “Хаджи-Мурат”)
- John Colarusso. “Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs”
In Sheki (Azerbaijan) I hired a taxi for about $90 to take me to Tbilisi via Balakan – Lagodekhi (Azerbaijan-Georgia) border post. We left Sheki early in the morning and it took us about 2-2.5 hours to reach the border crossing. As I mentioned in my Azerbaijan blog, the part of the Azeri customs I had to walk with my suitcase in hand, though my newly purchased carpet remained in the car with a driver and when he mentioned that it was a new (and not antique) carpet, custom officers let him through without any problems. Crossing the Georgian customs was a bit more hassle, simply because they wanted to know how much cash and gold I was bringing with me to Georgia. After everything was cleared, off we went without any delays. For 160 kms and almost 3 hours I enjoyed the splendid views of Georgia’s countryside before finally catching the first glimpse of the capital – Tbilisi.
The discovery of fossilized skulls, 1.8 million years old, in Dmanisi, in 1991-2005, sent Georgians into a frenzy. Stenciled images of “Zezva” and “Mzia”, as these newly imagined first European settlers were nicknamed, proliferated on Tbilisi’s walls. Dmanisi proved that the earliest human settlers in Europe were in Georgia, and without extra modesty they were classified as Homo erectus georgicus. Diauehi, a tribal union of early-Georgians, first appeared in written history in the 12th century B.C. Archaeological finds and references in ancient sources reveal elements of early political and state formations characterized by advanced metallurgy and goldsmith techniques. As a result of cultural and geographic delimitation,by the end of the 8th century B.C. two core areas of future Georgian culture and statehood formed in western Georgia, as the Kingdom of Colchis and as the Kingdom of Kartli (also known as Iberia) in eastern Georgia. The Georgians know themselves as Kartvelebi and their country as Saqartvelo (land of the Kartvalebi), tracing their origins to the nation of Kartli and Noah’s great-great-grandson Kartlos. A definitive etymology of European term “Georgia” has never been established, but it has been explained by various theories as derived from the Greek words γεωργός (“tiller of the land”) and georgicus (“agricultural”), the name of St. George, the Persian designation for Georgians, or the confluence of several of these theories. Word “Gruzia” (“Грузия”) as the country is known in Russian and several other languages, comes from “Gurjana”, “Gurzan” of Arab-Persian and Syrian origins.
The kingdom of Colchis, which existed from the 6th to the 1st centuries B.C. is regarded as the first early Georgian state formation. In Greek mythology, Colchis was home to sorceress Medea and held the famous Golden Fleece, sought by Jason and the Argonauts in the epic tale “Argonautica“. According to several modern scholars, the incorporation of the Golden Fleece into the myth may have derived from the western Georgian practice of using fleeces to sift gold dust from the mountain rivers. Starting around 2000 B.C., northwestern Colchis was inhabited by the Svan and Zan peoples of the Kartvelian tribes, along with Greeks who between 1000 and 550 B.C. established many trading colonies in the coastal area. Between 653 and 333 B.C., both Colchis and Kartli survived successive invasions by the Iranian Median Empire and the Achaemenid Empire, remaining independent. At the end of the 4th century B.C. southern Kartli witnessed the invading armies of Alexander the Great. Even though neither Kartli nor Colchis was incorporated into the empire of Alexander or any of the successor Hellenistic states of the Middle East, the culture of ancient Greece still had a considerable influence on the region, and Greek was widely spoken in the cities of Colchis (in Kartli – Aramaic was dominant language).
In 66 B.C., the Roman Empire completed its conquest of the Caucasus region, incorporating Colchis as one of its provinces. The political arrangement was different for Kartli which became a vassal kingdom – it enjoyed significant independence and, with the lowlands frequently raided by fierce mountain tribes, paying a nominal homage to Rome in exchange for protection was a worthwhile investment. As a result of these processes, the early Georgian kingdoms were intermittently Roman client states and allies for nearly 400 years.
From the first centuries A.D., the cult of Mithras, Greco-Roman mysteries, paganism, Zoroastrianism, idolatry, and various local mythical beliefs were commonly practiced in Georgia. In the 4th century, a Greek-speaking Roman woman, Saint Nino, began preaching Christianity in the kingdom. Having cured the queen Nana of a mysterious illness, St. Nino convinced her and her husband, King Mirian to accept Christian faith. In A.D. 337, a quarter century after Armenia, Mirian officially declared Christianity as the state religion, a move that effectively tied the kingdom to the neighboring Eastern Roman Empire – which exerted a strong influence on Georgia for nearly a millennium, determining much of its present cultural identity. Christianity also gave great stimulus to the development of Georgian literature, arts, and ultimately playing a key role in the formation of the unified Georgian nation. In the 5th century, western Georgia became tied to the expanding Byzantine Empire, while Kartli fell under Persian control. At the end of the 5th century though, Prince Vakhtang I Gorgasali (447-502) orchestrated an anti-Persian uprising and restored Kartli statehood, proclaiming himself the King and moving his capital from Mtskheta to Tbilisi. After this, his armies launched several campaigns against both Persia and the Byzantine Empire, however, his struggle for the independence and unity of the Georgian state did not have lasting success. In 591 Byzantium and Persia decisively agreed to divide Kartli between themselves, with Tbilisi to be in Persian hands and Mtskheta to be under Byzantine control. By the late 7th century, the Byzantine-Persian rivalry for the Middle East had given way to Arab conquest of the region.
Resistance to the Arabs was spearheaded by the Bagrationi dynasty of Tao-Klarjeti, a collection of principalities straddling what are now southwest Georgia and northeast Turkey. They later added Kartli to their possessions and when in 1001 these were inherited by King Bagrat III of Abkhazia (northwest Georgia), most of Georgia became united under one rule. The Seljuq Turk invasion set things back, but the Seljuqs were gradually driven out by the young king David IV (Davit Aghmashenebeli, “David the Builder”) (1089-1125) who defeated them at Battle of Didgori in 1122, recaptured nearby Tbilisi and made it his capital. David IV made Georgia the major Caucasian power and a center of Christian culture, however it reached its zenith under his great-granddaughter Queen Tamar (1160-1213), whose writ extended over much of present day Azerbaijan, Armenia, part of Turkey and southern Russia. Tamar became the first female ruler of Georgia, and her 29-year reign is considered to be the most successful in the nation’s history. She managed to shield much of her Empire from further Turkish onslaught and successfully pacified internal tensions, including a coup organized by her Russian husband Yury Bogolyubsky, prince of Novgorod. The temporary fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1204 to the Crusaders left Georgia and Bulgarian Empire as the strongest Christian states in the whole East Mediterranean area. The same year Queen Tamar sent her troops to take over the former Byzantine Lazona and Paryadria and in 1205, the occupied territory was transformed into the Empire of Trebizond, which was dependent on Georgia (and Tamar’s relative Prince Alexios Komnenos was crowned as its Emperor). Additionally, she pursued policies that were considered very enlightened for her time period, such as abolishing state-sanctioned death penalty and torture. Tamar is still so revered that Georgians today call her, without irony, King Tamar.
The golden age ended violently with the arrival of Mongols in the 1220s. King Giorgi the Brilliant (1286-1346) shook off the Mongol yoke, but then came the Black Death. Georgia’s geopolitical situation worsened after the Fall of Constantinople, which effectively marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and turned Georgia into an isolated Christian enclave, surrounded by hostile Turco-Iranic neighbors. Renewed incursions by Timur (Tamerlane) from 1386 led to the final collapse of the kingdom into anarchy and its split into multiple kingdoms by the end of the 15th century. Large neighboring empires were quick to exploit Georgia’s weakness, and from 16th to 18th centuries, the Ottoman Turkey and Iran subjugated the western and eastern regions of Georgia, respectively. For these few centuries, Georgia would become a battleground between these two great rival powers and the Georgian states would sink into poverty and despair while struggling to maintain their independence by various means. Since at least the mid-15th century, rulers in both western and eastern Georgian kingdoms have repeatedly sought aid from Western European powers to no avail. A notable episode of this type of effort was initiated in the early 1700s by a Georgian diplomat Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, who was sent by his former pupil, King Vakhtang VI, to France and the Vatican in order to secure assistance for Georgia. Orbeliani was well received by King Louis XIV and Pope Clement XI, but no tangible support could be secured. Lack of Western assistance not only left Georgia exposed but sealed the personal fates of Orbeliani and King Vakhtang – pushed by the invading Ottoman army, both were eventually forced to accept the offer of protection from Peter the Great and escape to Russia, from where they never returned. In modern-day Georgia, the story of Orbeliani’s diplomatic mission to France became a symbol of how the West neglects Georgian appeals for protection. In 1744 a new Persian conqueror, Nader Shah, installed local Bagratid princes as kings of Kartli and Kakheti. After Nader Shah’s assassination, the Persians were expelled and for the first time in 300 years, King Erekle II, ruled unified eastern Georgia as a independent state from 1762 till 1798.
In 1783, Russia and the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, in which they recognized the bond of Orthodox Christianity between the Russian and Georgian people, established Georgia as a protectorate of Russia, and guaranteed Georgia’s territorial integrity and the continuation of its reigning Bagrationi dynasty in return for prerogatives in the conduct of Georgian foreign affairs. Georgia at the same time, according to the terms of the treaty, abjured any form of dependence on Iran or another power, and every new Georgian monarch would require the confirmation and investiture of the Russian tsar. However, despite the commitment to defend Georgia, Russia rendered no assistance when the Iranians invaded in 1795, capturing and sacking Tbilisi while massacring its inhabitants, as the new heir to the throne sought to reassert Iranian hegemony over Georgia. Despite a punitive campaign subsequently launched by Russians against Qajar Iran in 1796, this period culminated in the 1801 Russian annexation (signed by Tsar Paul I of Russia on January 8, 1801 and confirmed by Tsar Alexander I on September 12, 1801) of eastern Georgia, followed by the abolition of the royal Bagrationi dynasty, as well as the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church. A part of the Georgian nobility did not accept the decree until April 1802 when General Knorring compassed the nobility in Tbilisi’s Sioni Cathedral and forced them to take an oath on the imperial crown of Russia. From 1803 to 1878, as a result of numerous Russian wars against Turkey and Persia (ex. Russo-Persian War (1804-1813) and the Treaty of Gulistan) as well as the suppression of King Solomon II‘s resistance, eastern, southern and western (Imereti) Georgian territories were annexed to the Russian Empire and together with Batumi, Artvin, Akhaltsikhe, Poti, and Abkhazia, they represented the majority of the territory of the present state of Georgia. The country was finally reunified for the first time in centuries but at the price of its independence.
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 plunged the Empire into a bloody civil war during which several outlying Russian territories declared independence. Georgia was one of them, proclaiming the establishment of the independent Democratic Republic of Georgia on May 26, 1918, which was recognized by major Western powers, as well as Soviet Russia itself (Treaty of Moscow (1920)). To maintain its fledgling sovereignty and keep both Russia and Turkey at bay, Georgia became a protectorate of the German Empire, whose involvement was short-lived but effective – Berlin pressured Turkey into respecting Georgia’s ethnic borders and by July 1918, Turkey handed over all Georgian ports and railways it had controlled up to that point. Germany also lent millions of deutschmarks to the new republic. Despite cordial German-Georgian relations, Germany had to retreat from the country shortly after Germans lost in World War I. Following the German defeat, Georgia came under British protection and influence, however, Britain’s sole aim was to prevent Bolshevik Russia from acquiring oil fields near Baku and the British General Cooke-Collins appeared to care little as to what happened inside Georgia. As a result of this myopic attitude, the British were less liked than the Germans, nevertheless, the locals continued to view Britain’s presence as a stabilizing force.
Due to the terms of the Moscow Treaty, Britain had to withdraw from Georgia in 1920. With both Germany and Britain now out of the picture, the Red Army attacked Georgia in February 1921, defeating its army and sending the Social-Democratic government into exile to France. On 25 February 1921, the Red Army entered Tbilisi and installed a communist government loyal to Moscow. At first, Georgia was incorporated into the Transcaucasian SFSR, which united Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Later, in 1936, the TSFSR was disaggregated and Georgia became the Georgian SSR. Soviet rule was harsh – more than 150,000 were purged under Stalin and his secret police chief, the Georgian Lavrenty Beria between 1935–1951, nevertheless, Georgian nationalism was still at its height when on March 9, 1956, about a hundred Georgian students were killed when they demonstrated against Nikita Khrushchev‘s policy of de-Stalinization. The WWII didn’t reach Georgia, but along with other Caucasian countries, it contributed over 700,000 fighters to the Red Army, 350,000 of whom never returned home. Controversially, but not-unknown, a number of Georgians fought on the side of the German armed forces, forming the Georgian Legion. The decentralization program introduced by Khrushchev in the mid-1950s was soon exploited by Georgian Communist Party that actively and tacitly supported a thriving pseudo-capitalist shadow economy which emerged alongside the official state-owned economy. While the official growth rate of the economy of the Georgia was among the lowest in the USSR, such indicators as savings level, rates of car and house ownership were the highest in the Union, making Georgia one of the most economically successful Soviet republics. Widespread and blatant corruption in Georgia became an embarrassment to the authorities in Moscow.
Georgia’s independence movement became an unstoppable force after the death of 19 hunger strikers when Soviet troops broke up a protest in Tbilisi on 9 April 1989. Georgia’s now anti-Communist government, led by the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, declared independence on 9 April 1991. Almost immediately the country descended into chaos and by December 1991 the newly elected president, Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown and replaced by a military council, led by invited from Moscow retirement Eduard Shevarnadze, a former leader of Soviet Georgia and the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs. Shevarnadze’s presence did wonders for Georgia’s reputation abroad but didn’t diminish the internal conflict – the hampered economic growth, staggering corruption, allegations of vote-rigging, bomb attacks are just few to mention. But things got much worse when two internal wars, first in Abkhazia and then in South Ossetia, broke up in early 1990s. Both Georgian territories, supported and, perhaps, instigated by neighboring Russia were lost to Georgia and became de facto independent, with its budgets full of “Moscow money” and its citizens traveling on the passports of the Russian Federation. The famous resorts of Sukhumi and Gagra even today are a no man’s land, its buildings and streets scarred by the war and its population (hundreds of thousands) refuged either to Georgia or to Russia. Together with Nagorny-Kharabakh, wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia constituted the only military conflicts evoked by the collapse of Soviet Union.
For a decade after the Abkhazia disaster, Georgia oscillated between periods of relative peace and security and terrible crime waves, gang warfare, kidnappings, infrastructure collapse and rampant corruption. Shevarnadze staved off a total collapse into anarchy, but by the early 21st century Georgians had lost all faith in him. In 2003, Shevardnadze (who won re-election in 2000) was deposed by the peaceful Rose Revolution led by Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, former members and leaders of Shevardnadze’s ruling party. A US-educated lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili was elected as President of Georgia in 2004. The 36-year-old Saakashvili appointed a team of young, energetic, outward-looking ministers and set about liberalizing the economy, and announced campaigns against the plague of corruption. The Saakashvili government had a strong pro-Western, especially pro-US, foreign policy, with ambitions to join NATO and the EU. Within a short period of time almost the entire notoriously corrupt police force was sacked and replaced with much better paid, better trained officers. Foreign aid and investment in telecoms, electricity, transport and construction improved and electricity shortages ended, however such achievements could only result from the use of unilateral executive powers, failing to achieve consent and initiating a trade-off between democracy-building and state-building.
In August 2008 Russia and Georgia engaged in the 2008 South Ossetia war, leading to the 2008–2010 Georgia–Russia crisis, which is still very much a reality. In October 2012, Saakashvili’s party lost in parliamentary elections and in November 2013, Giorgi Margvelashvili won the Georgian presidential election with 62.12% of the votes cast. With this, a new constitution came into effect which devolved significant power from the President to the Prime Minister. Stephen Jones in his book “Georgia: A Political History since Independence” gives a very detailed account of the times from Gamsakhurdia to Saakashvili, but for me, it was a huge revelation to speak with local Georgians who, despite passed time, were still very much living in Saakashvili’s time, demonizing or idolizing him. I was told quite a few anecdotes about his rule, some of which were downright scary and personal, and some were quite humorous. They say that after Saakashvili left power, the very next day people didn’t show up for work, as they were fed up with his idea that every Georgian must possess US work ethics, which isn’t necessary a bad thing, but it didn’t go well with a relaxed Caucasian mentality. However, I was also told the stories of hanged, gunned down and vanished, often business people, who shortly prior their death came into conflict with Saakashvili.
After 6 hours of driving, I was happy to finally check into my hotel, located just above Meidan, in the heart of Old Tbilisi. The views were fantastic, as were the service and the room. Home to a quarter of Georgian population (1.5 million), Tbilisi (or as it is also commonly called – Tiflis) brims with history and has a dramatic setting on hillsides of either side of the swift, but muddy Mtkvari River. Its Old Town is still evocative of an ancient Eurasian crossroads with meandering lanes, old balconied houses, silent mosques, leafy squares, graceful churches, and countless cafes, shisha-bars and restaurants overlooked by the 17th century-old Narikala Fortress.
However, Tbilisi is also a modern city that tries to distant itself from the Soviet past, and move forward in the 21st century in style, judging by the new lavish constructions and flagship building projects that sprung up by the river not far from the Old Town. For the next 5 days, beautiful and authentic Tbilisi became my town too.
History of Tbilisi.
Evidence of settlement in the area stretches back to the 4th century B.C., but the Georgians like the legend that King Vakhtang I Gorgasali of Kartli (r. 447-502) went hunting in this heavily wooded region with a falcon. The king’s falcon caught a pheasant, but both birds fell into a nearby hot spring and died. King Vakhtang was so impressed with the discovery that he decided to build a city on this location, calling it “Tbilisi”, a word derived from the Old Georgian for “warm location”. The name was given to the city because of the area’s numerous sulfuric hot springs, which are still heavily exploited, notably for public baths, in the Abanotubani district at the foot of Narikala Fortress. This mythical account is very popular, but archaeological evidence shows that Vakhtang revived, or rebuilt parts of the city (such as Abanotubani, or the Metekhi palace, where his statue now stands) but did not found it.
King Dachi (beginning of the 6th century), the son and successor of Vakhtang Gorgasali, is said to have moved the capital of Kartli from Mtskheta to Tbilisi to obey the will left by his father. During his reign, Dachi finished the construction of the fortress wall that lined the city’s new boundaries and Tbilisi started to grow at a steady pace due to the region’s favorable location, which placed the city along important trade and travel routes between Europe and Asia. However, its strategical location had also become a reason for most major regional powers to struggle during the next centuries for its control. In the 7th century, the city was conquered by the Arab conquerors who established the Emirate of Tbilisi. The following four centuries of Arab rule brought a certain order to the region and introduced a more formal and modernized judicial system into Georgia, while Tbilisi prospered from the trade with the whole Middle East. The Arab rule heavily influenced the cultural development of the city, as even though few Georgians converted to Islam during this time, Tbilisi became a mainly Muslim city.
In 1122, after the battles for Tbilisi that involved at least 60,000 Georgians and up to 300,000 Turks, the troops of the King of Georgia David the Builder stormed Tbilisi. He concluded his victory by moving his residence from Kutaisi to Tbilisi, making it the capital of a unified Georgian State and thus inaugurating the Georgian Golden Age. From 12–13th centuries, Tbilisi became a dominant regional power with a thriving economy (well-developed trade and skilled labour, known for its production of weapons, jewelry, leather and silk clothing) and a well-established social system. By the end of the 12th century, the population of Tbilisi had reached 100,000. The city also became an important literary and a cultural center not only for Georgia but for the Eastern Orthodox world of the time. During Queen Tamar‘s reign, Shota Rustaveli worked in Tbilisi while writing his legendary epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.
The golden age ended with a vengeance by the Mongols in 1235, followed in turn by the plague in 1366, then by conqueror Timur, who destroyed the city in 1386 and by the Persians who captured it in the 1540s. Tbilisi recovered somewhat under the Persians during the 17th and 18th centuries, and in 1762 it became a capital of an independent eastern Georgia under King Erekle II. Erekle’s protector, Russia, however, withdrew its troops to fight the Turks allowing Agha Mohammad Khan to inflict Persia’s most devastating assault in 1795. His army killed tens of thousands and burnt Tbilisi to the ground: few buildings today predate 1795 in any substantial form. Russia annexed Georgia in 1800 and re-built Tbilisi laying out wide streets and squares and erecting new buildings, mainly of European style, building few roads and railroads connected Tbilisi to other important cities in Russia and in Transcaucasia. By the 1850s Tbilisi once again emerged as a major trade and a cultural center, visited by Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and the Romanov Family. Important to mention that by 1899, Tbilisi had 172,000 people, one-third of them were Armenians and a quarter each Georgian and Russian.
During Soviet rule, Tbilisi’s population grew significantly and the city became more industrialized. Stalinist buildings such as the current Parliament of Georgia were built on the main avenues, but most ancient neighborhoods retained their character. Many religious buildings were destroyed during anti-religious campaigns, and in their sites came new places for culture and entertainment. New standardized residential areas (mikrorayen) were built from the 1960s and a Metro system was developed to link them all with the old city center. The 1990s were dark years in Tbilisi – literally, with frequent power cuts blacking out the city – as living standards sank and corruption and crime became rife. However, since 2003, Tbilisi has experienced considerably more stability, decreasing crime rates, improving economy, flood of investments and refurbishment and a booming tourist industry. However, bear in mind that prosperity is still barely trickling down to the less advantaged population, so please support local Georgian tour agencies, hotels, vendors, entrepreneurs by buying local services and goods.
In the evening, I was meeting Levan, a friend of a friend who, never having met me, helped to plan my trip to Georgia and whose Georgian hospitality shone even through his facebook messages. After a brief shower and one-hour rest, I still had a few free hours to be lured to the winding streets of the Old Town with a quest to buy a Caucasian carpet or two.
About 10 m down the very steep hill from the hotel was the large Armenian Cathedral of St. George, founded in 1251, although the current structure is mainly 18th century. Built in brick on a traditional plan of a partitioned, open cross with a rectangular perimeter, in July 2015 it was still under restoration, due to open in October. Nevertheless, the most important site of the cathedral, the tomb of the King Erakle II’s fame Armenian court-poet Sayat Nova, killed here during the Persian invasion of 1795, is just outside the main door.
Following the main road down, I passed by a few souvenir shops and hotels and in 2 mins appeared at the small yet very much engaged Meidan. Formerly, the setting of Tbilisi’s bustling bazaar, it is a very busy, traffic-infested junction bringing both, people and cars from one bank of Mktvari River to another. It is also a perfect place to grab a lunch or dinner, as I did at the perpetually busy two-storied Machakhela restaurant, enjoy the galleries, live music, drinks and shisha at one of the places on Jan Chardin, Bambis Rigi or Erakle II Streets, buy yourself a day-tour at one of the multiple travel agencies (I used travel agency “Holidays”, located next to the Chateau Mukhrani Wine shop and bar), chat with fellow-travelers or simply enjoy its hustle and bustle.
Across the river from Meidan Square, perched on the elevated cliff is the Historic Neighborhood of Metekhi, with its eponymous Metekhi Church of Assumption and the equestrian statue of King Vakhtang I Gorgaslan. Many legends are associated with this elevated bank of the river. According to one, King Vakhtang I Gorgasali (447-502) erected here a church and a fort which served as a king’s residence; hence its name “Metekhi”, dating back to the 12th century, means “the area around the palace”. They also say that it was a site where the 5th-century martyr lady Saint Shushanik, tortured by her husband in 475 for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism, was buried. However, none of the mentioned above structures have survived the Mongol invasion of 1235. Legend has it also that the Metekhi cliff was a site of the martyrdom of Habo (8th century), Tbilisi’s patron saint and a small church in his honor is now under construction at the foot of the cliff. The extant Metekhi Church of Assumption, resting upon the top of the hill, was built by the Georgian king St. Demetrius II circa 1278–1284 and is somewhat an unusual example of domed Georgian Orthodox church. King Rostom (r. 1633-1658) fortified the area around the church with a strong citadel garrisoned by some 3,000 soldiers. Under the Russian rule in 1801, the church lost its religious purpose and was used as a barrack, the citadel was demolished in 1819 and replaced by a new building which functioned as the infamous jail up to the Soviet era, and was closed only in 1938. Amid the Great Purges, Beria intended to destroy the church, but met an opposition by a group of Georgian intellectuals led by the painter and art collector Dimitri Shevardnadze, who was later executed but the church stood. In the late Soviet period the church was used as a theatre until it returned to its original function in 1988. The statue of King Vakhtang I Gorgaslan by the sculptor Elguja Amashukeli was erected in front of the church in 1961.
While keeping an eye on the antique carpet shops, I continued walking along Kote Abkhazi Street, the main thoroughfare of the Old Town, winding down from Tavisuplepis Moedani (Freedom Square). In the middle ages this street was called Shuabazaari, meaning “middle Bazaar”; it divided the city into the upper and the lower parts and served as an unofficial centre of trade. You can spend a whole day on this 800 m stretch and never have a need to leave as it is strung with assorted shops and eateries, wine tastings ($5 all you can drink) and hostels, churches and synagogues, street vendors selling cheap but delicious churchkhela (try to pronounce it!) and souvenir shops. In the next few days, I will walk up and down this street but never get tired of its alluring authentic vibe.
Almost at the beginning of the Kote Abkhazi Street is Tbilisi’s main synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue. It was founded by Jews from Akhaltsikhe, who settled in Tbilisi in the late 19th century, and sometimes referred to as “synagogue of the people of Akhaltsikhe”. Adjoining it was another prayer house founded by the Jews of Tskhinvali. The synagogue was built with bricks, in an eclectic style, between 1895 and 1903 and surmounted by a dome and a lantern. The two-story structure measures 24.5 m (length) x 15 m (width) x 14 m (height) and contains two prayer halls. The upper hall, the bigger of the two, is used for services on Sabbath and festivals and has a gallery for women. Its walls and the ceiling were painted in the 1940s with geometric and vegetable motifs, biblical verses and prayers. The smaller lower prayer hall is used for daily services and doesn’t have a women’s section. There is a Holy Ark – heikhal in each prayer hall with Torah cases covered with a small garment (kabah) which resembles a Torah mantle. The Torah staves on top of the cases are adorned by kerchiefs donated by women of the local community. The scrolls are crowned by pairs of engraved and soldered silver and wood carved Torah finials (rimonim), made in Tbilisi, and reflecting an earlier artistic tradition.
Further up the street stands the large, disused, cracked in the middle Armenian Norashen Church. Norashen Holy Mother of God Church was founded by Sadat in 1467 and renovated in 1650 by Khoja Nazar, when the cupola was created by the master Petros (the church was repeatedly restored in 1795, 1808 and 1875). The interior of the church was decorated with frescoes by Ovnatan Ovnatanian, who was a court-artist of Erekle II. In the western part of the church there is an untouched tombstone on the grave of the merchant and patron of art Tamamshev and his wife. The names of this branchy merchant’s clan are often met in Tbilisi toponymy (place-name study). In Soviet times Norashen church was converted into a library and nowadays it remains closed. Recently the church has been the subject of dispute between Armenians and the Georgian Orthodox Church which has sought to convert it into a Georgian Church – it was enclosed with a concrete fence, the Armenian inscriptions on tombstones were defaced, and Georgian tombstones were brought in.
Right next door, sharing the same courtyard, is a smaller Jvaris Mama Church sitting on the site of a 5th-century church which was built by King Vakhtang I Gorgasali but destroyed by Mongols. Named after the Georgian church in Jerusalem, the current structure dates from the 16th century (renewed in 1825) and its interior is almost completely covered in recently restored frescoes in striking reds, golds and blues. Its lack of visitors brought an atmosphere of piety and calmness. In the church’s hall, I met a woman who I thought was a local attendant since she knew lots of things about the church and spoke with me for 15-20 minutes about its history and frescoes. In the end, she asked me for money to pay for her godson’s cancer treatment. Not for a second I doubted her story, and as a recent cancer-survivor myself, I asked her to say a prayer for all of those who succumbed to it. Church’s leafy and cozy courtyard was a perfect place to relax before jumping back onto the busy street.
Slowly, I reached the end of the Kote Abkhazi street, where old Tbilisi meets modern Tbilisi -a photogenic Tavisuplebis Moedani (or Freedom Square), where Georgia’s last Lenin statue, toppled in 1991, used to stand in place of the golden St. George spearing his dragon. The square was originally named after Ivan Paskevich, the Count of Erivan, a Ukrainian general of the Russian Imperial Army, who earned his title in honor of his conquest of Erivan (present-day Yerevan) for the Russian Empire. Under the Soviet Union, the square was renamed, first “Beria Square”, and then “Lenin Square”. Freedom Square was the site of the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery and of various mass demonstrations including those for Georgia’s independence and the Rose Revolution. In 2005 from here, U.S. President George W. Bush and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addressed a crowd of around 100,000 people in celebration of the 60th anniversary marking the end of WWII. During this event, Georgian-Armenian Vladimir Arutyunian threw a live grenade at President Bush in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. It is still a pretty dangerous place taking into account mad traffic, so, I made sure to use one of the pedestrian underpasses to cross it. The Square is adorned with beautiful buildings of Tbilisi City Hall, the former headquarters of Bank of Georgia and the Marriott hotel and serves as the beginning of Tbilisi’s main artery – Rustaveli Avenue.
In the evening, Levan with his friend Davit picked me up near Meidan and together we caught a Funicular to the top of Mount Mtatsminda. There, at the edge of the Mtatsminda park, Tbilisi offered its most splendid views – the falling asleep city unwrapped before our eyes like a Caucasian carpet with its myriad of lights and patterns. At the top, we settled at a very fashionable but cozy Lounge bar of the Funicular restaurant where Levan ordered us a little wine tasting of his favorite, and I presume the best Georgian wines and delicious seasonal fruits that this country grows – watermelons, peaches, grapes, melons and raspberries. We were enjoying the wonderful mountainously fresh evening outdoors but don’t forget to check out the inside the Lounge, which is decorated with the historic fresco created by Koka Ignatov in the 1960s, entitled “Tribute to Pirosmani”, that has been carefully restored to its original condition. I had a fantastic first day in Tbilisi and instead of a perfect carpet, I found a perfect city and a new friend.
The very next day I spent walking around Tbilisi and visiting many of its tourist sights, except for the museums (which are fantastic, but I simply didn’t have time). But first of all, I finally found my preferred carpet shop – Caucasian Carpets Gallery on 8/10 Erekle II street, near Sioni Church (for information call: +995 577 75 30 69 or email:email@example.com). Manana Arkania, the owner, carefully learnt my carpet “requirements” – size, color and fabric – before showing me at least a few dozen of full carpets and kilims. While in Caucasus, you will notice that red, blue, green and yellow are the happy colors and many carpets have very geometric patterns and designs, however, I was looking for something neutral to go well with the furniture and paintings in my New York City apartment. Instead of one, I obviously got two carpets (without a bargain as I thought they were very reasonably priced) and together with the one that I purchased in Azerbaijan, I just had enough to cover the entire floor in my apartment and give somebody as a gift too! Many carpets at Caucasian Carpets Gallery are antique (which means they are handmade) but don’t try to get the exact year of their manufacturing or the region; however, Manana’s and her employees have enough experience and knowledge to tell with a certain degree of confidence many facts about the carpets. While some of them have an easily identifiable ornaments belonging to a specific carpet-making region, many – don’t. The same applies to the exact year of production. Manana told me that during tough 1990s old people would bring and sell their inherited carpets, antique furniture, jewelry without giving much details about when and where they acquired those items, hence each carpet has its own story to tell.
So, if you are buying a carpet in Georgia and taking it outside the country, there are several things you need to know:
- If it is an antique carpet (made before 1950s-1960s, after which carpets were mostly machine-manufactured), you would need to get a separate permit from a Ministry of Culture of Georgia for each carpet or kilim. Many carpet shops would do this for you (as did Caucasian Carpets Gallery) however, you can apply for permits yourself. Call the Ministry for the exact address and hours and bring with you a copy of your passport, the invoice from the shop and a few printed pictures of the purchased carpets. Permits are free and usually issued within 24 – 48 hours. I got permits for all my carpets including the new one I bought and brought from Azerbaijan, just to be on a safe side.
- If you are taking the carpets with you – bring permits (and carpets) to the airport and be aware that the customs might ask you to unrolled the carpets so they can compare them to the ones on the permits (which would have a picture attach to it) before they let you pass.
- If you are shipping the carpets, as I did, use www.lasare.ge (+955 32 245 03 30) a shipping company located at the Tbilisi airport (for the taxi, as it is not easy to find, please tell to go to the old airport building with the columns). Even though Lasare is open 24 hours, they have to run all shipments through the airport cargo customs, so make sure to call them (or the customs – +955 32 226 28 10) to confirm the customs’ business hours. I think I got a pretty good deal – 2 large and 1 small carpets, 37 kg for $216 and it took me about 3 hours on a Saturday morning.
With clean conscious and “task accomplished” attitude, I could finally relax and leisurely enjoy my time in Georgia. I came up with a 1,500 m long Narikala Tourist Route that runs from the Old town to the foot of the Mother Georgia monument on top of Narikala hill. Let’s walk it together as it offers stunning views at every turn.
The very first place I went to were the famous Sulphur baths in Abanotubani. They are easy to find on the map (Abano Street), in person (look for the hive-like domes) and by the trail of strong sulphuric egg-like smell they release. Both, the founding of the city and its name, originated in this very place (see the legend of Tbilisi above), however, some archaeological evidence has found Roman-style baths in the city that date as far back to the 1st century A.D. Today’s hub of thermal baths is based on the Persian tradition and became a draw of the city at the height of the Silk Road, when there were 63 baths back in the day. During the period of the Russian Empire, there were 10 baths and they were widely popular and visited by famous bathers like A.Pushkin and A.Dumas. The hot springs along the river attracted both the healthy and the infirm. “I must not omit to mention that the baths of the city cannot be surpassed even by those of Constantinople”, write a visitor in 1840. “They have also the additional recommendation of being remarkably clean and well kept”. Today there are only five baths, most of them are subterranean, with delicate cupolas rising at ground level. Some of baths are public – simple and inexpensive, where you share the washing areas and the pools with everyone of the same sex and some have private bath-suites consisting of 3 or more rooms and accommodating up to 10 people. You can also hire a masseuse or order a body scrub for just a few extra lari. And the benefits of the sulphur baths are plentiful – it gives you perfect skin, rid you of skin diseases, calm nervous system, solve insomnia problems, help with arthritis, etc. The most beautiful, adorned in turquoise, royal blue tiles and mosaic is the Orbeliani Bath, that looks more like a mosque than a bathhouse. Unfortunately, it was under renovation when I visited it. However, I took a tour of the private rooms at The Royal Bath House (just ask an attendant). There are also “Sulphur Baths”, “Bakhmaro Baths” and “Bathhouse #5” so, I am sure you will find the one to suit your taste and budget.
The excavation work in the area that started in 2011-2012, enabled public access to the exceptional sites of Old Tbilisi which had been restricted to visitors since the mid-20th century. As the result, the historical Tsavkisistkskali river-bed was opened and cleaned from earth making old bath houses, hidden portions of the so-called “multicolored bathhouse”, a blind arcade leading to bathhouses, fragments of an old bridge and other elements visible. A historical water-supply and reservoir system that served the city were uncovered in the depth of the gorge which culminates with a beautiful waterfall. The tourists paths, bridges and resting place along this original river bed is an excellent quiet alcove to rest. P.S. In order to reach Dzveli Tbilisi Sulphur waterfall, walk along the left back of the river bed till the end and if you are lucky, you will be the only person there.
Up the hill and across the street from the Sulphur baths is Tbilisi’s red-brick Jumah Mosque, the only one that survived Beria’s purges in 1930s. It was built in 1895 and, unusually, Shia and Sunni Muslims pray together here. Interior is prettily frescoed and visitors are welcome to enter, after removing their shoes and covering their heads (for women). Please do not confuse the Orbeliani Bath with a Jumah mosque.
I simply followed the Botanikuru street up to the hill toward the Narikala Fortress and it was, perhaps, my favorite city walk. There were old and renovated houses, beautifully decorated in-and-out and just the sad carcasses of somebody’s long ago well-beloved residencies, but all of them were living and breathing in a unique and authentic way. In my blog about Azerbaijan, I mentioned that I was very surprised to find Icheri Sheher, the old Baku town, looking as new as if it was fixed just a few years ago, but in fact, it was rebuilt in 2010-2012. Tbilisi was original, pure, old time Georgian! And so were its people who stopped me on every corner and chatted in Russian as if we were the best of friends, and not in an annoying but in affectionate grand-fatherly manner, suggesting me some restaurants to visit for lunch or inviting for a glass of Georgian tea.
At the top of the street, there is an entrance to the expansive 300 year old Botanical Gardens, a place of easy wander and extensive waterfall-dotted gardens. It occupies the area of 161 hectares and possesses a collection of over 4,500 taxonomic groups. First described, in 1671, by the French traveler Jean Chardin as royal gardens, they might have been founded at least in 1625 and were variably referred to as “fortress gardens” or “Seidabad gardens” later in history. Pillaged in the Persian invasion of 1795, the garden was revived in the early 19th century and officially established as the Tiflis Botanical Garden in 1845. Between 1896 and 1958 it was expanded by acquiring the territory around the former Muslim cemetery. Several graves have survived till today, including that of the prominent Azerbaijani writer Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878).
But as much as I would liked to visit the Gardens, I was attracted by the views opening on the other side of the path – that are of the city from the top of the hill. I held Tbilisi on the palm of my hand.
Here I reached the Narikala Fortress, also called the Mother Fortress of Tbilisi. It was established in the 4th century, around the period when the city itself was founded and you can still see the oldest remains of the original fortress (tower and the north-east part). It was then known as Shuris-tsikhe (Invidious Fort); the name “Narikala” is said to derive either from a Persian or Mongol word “Narin Qala” meaning “little fortress”. It was considerably expanded by the Umayyads during the 7th and 8th centuries, when the Arabs built the Emir’s palace within its walls. King David The Builder further extended the fortress in the 11th century, however most of the fort’s existing fortifications date from the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1827 it was damaged by an earthquake and was not resorted till modern time. According to the Tbilisi Plan of 1800, the Narikala Fortress had two underground tunnels connecting the citadel to the Mtkvari River and Tsavkisi Water, it also hosted an observatory, however, only a solar clock was found so far. Parts of the fort still stand and serve as a most recognizable Tbilisi’s landmark, while others vanished in the jungle of the Botanic Gardens below.
In the 1960s, during the archeological work, St. Nicholas church was discovered inside the fortress walls. It was built in the 13th century by Demetrius II and represented a construction of excellent curved stone with blue glazed tiled-roof, frescoes and inscriptions. Archeologists also found a part of stone iconostasis that dates back to the 5th-6th centuries implying that perhaps, there was even an older church in its place. Destroyed in a fire long ago, St. Nicholas church was restored in 1996-1997 in a “prescribed cross” style, having doors on three sides. The internal part of the church is decorated with the frescos showing scenes both from the Bible and history of Georgia.
To the east of the church, there are the remains of a big structure called Emir’s Palace and a lot of interesting things such as water clay pipes, reservoir, different types of pottery, royal vessels, coins, bath and other administrative structures. It is hard not to notice, but Narikala also offers some of the best panoramas of the city and I guess the number of churches in sight, 4-5 at the time, wouldn’t fail to remind you that after all, Georgia is the second oldest Christian country in the world. Well, take a moment or two and enjoy the views!
I continued to follow a path west to the Statue of Mother Georgia – Kartlis Deda. Erected in 1958, this 20-m tall aluminium woman symbolizes the Georgian character – it holds a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other – warmly welcoming guests and passionately fighting off her enemies. Past Kartlis Deda are the ruins of the Shahtakhti (Shah’s Throne) fortress which housed an Arab observatory. Interestingly, there were a few plaques here and there, claiming the land to be a property of the Greek government. I wonder?!
My map wrongly showed that I could actually descend from the hill into the city, but after 20 mins of solo walking, I decided to turn around and take a cable car back to the old town.
There is a wonderful area that runs along the west embarkment of Mtkvari River, from Meidan on the south to Nikoloz Baratashvilli street on the north. During the medieval times, this string of narrow, traffic-free streets was the heaving commercial hub of Old Tbilisi. At the north end, there is a quirky Clock tower. Just south stands the lovely little Anchiskhati Basilica – Tbilisi’s oldest surviving church, build in the 6th century. Further south, there is a peaceful little park, Erekle II moedani, facing the walled residence of the Catholicos-Patriarch, head of the Georgian church. From here, you can cross the river via the Peace Bridge which opened in 2010, or continue along Erekle II street towards Meidan. This is an area of endless cafes, art galleries, modern design shops, loud bars and the Sioni Cathedral, which was originally built in the 6th-7th centuries. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times and present building is mainly 13th century, though the southern chapel was built and the cupola restored in 1657. The stone iconostasis, which replaced the wooden one burned during the Persian invasion in 1795, dates to the 1850s. To the left of the altar is the venerated Grapevine cross which, according to tradition, was forged by Saint Nino, who baptized the Caucasus in the early 4th century. The Sioni Cathedral was where the Russian Imperial manifesto on the annexation of Georgia was first published on April 12, 1802, and the nobles, assembled in church, were forced to take an oath to the Russian Imperial crown or be taken into custody. Interestingly, Sioni Cathedral remained functional through Soviet times, and was partially renovated between 1980-1983.
After all the walking, I finally stopped for lunch at the busiest place on Meidan – a two storied Machakhela restaurant. Georgian food is original, organic, delicious and very filling, so if you want to try khachapuri, make sure you have a friend to share it with, and if you want to order khinkali – start with 2 or 3 pieces and see how it goes. In reality, Georgian cuisine as well as Georgian cheeses, chacha, wine, fruits and veggies deserve a whole separate culinary tour. While at the restaurant, I struggled to order the dishes I’ve never heard of, and a lady with a child at the next table offered to help me. We started talking and one hour slowly turned into two. Natalia T. turned out to be a fascinating person, a Russian women’s team basketball coach from Moscow, she was visiting her son and granddaughter in Tbilisi. She was powerful, outspoken, extremely smart and charismatic, a type you can either be put off by or fall in love and become immediate friends with. We instantly clicked and she asked me whether I wanted to come with her to see her son at his restaurant, called Famous in Old Tbilisi. The restaurant was hard to find however, the space turned out to be very stylish and cozy, petit fours and desserts were delicious. Natalia and her granddaughter Lilu were just too adorable together and they gave me very well-needed energy boost!
After we parted our ways, it was almost 17.00 but I decided to stroll along Rustaveli avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare. Laid out by the Russians in the 19th century, its entire length of 1,5 kms represents an eclectic mix of Modern and early-19th century important buildings, a large number of governmental, public, cultural, and business structures along with historical luxury hotels, high-end shops, elegant restaurants and theaters. It starts at the Freedom Square and runs north.
Georgian National Museum, reopened in 2011, displays a wealth of pre-Christian gold, silver and precious stone work from burials between the 3rd millennium BC and the 4th century A.D., along with the fabulous adornments from Colchis (8th-3rd century B.C.). Across the street is the Parliament building, built between 1938 and 1953 for Georgia’s Soviet government, it served as the seat of Georgia’s Parliament after independence till 2012 (when the government moved to Kutaisi). It has seen momentous events in Georgian history, including the deaths of 19 Georgian hunger strikers in 1989, Georgia’s independence declaration on 9 April 1991 and the Rose Revolution in 2003.
Further north Kashveti Church stands on a spot where it is said pagan rituals used to take place. The first church here is supposed to have been built in the 6th century by Davit Gareja, one of the ascetic “Syrian fathers” who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia. According to legend, a nun accused him of impregnating her, to which he replied that if this were true, she’d give birth to a baby, and if not, to a stone, which duly happened. Hence, “Kashveti” means “Stone birth”. The current building was built in 1910 as a copy of the 11th century Samtavisi Church, 60 km away from Tbilisi.
Brand new National Gallery is located just beside the Kashveti church and houses the wonderful canvas by Georgia’s best known painter Niko Pirosmani as well as other top 20th century Georgian artists. Still further up is Tbilisi’s Opera and Ballet Theater, founded in 1851, it is one of the oldest establishments of this kind in Eastern Europe. Following the country’s annexation in 1801, in order to better integrate Georgia into the Russian Empire, new Viceroy of the Caucasus, Count Mikhail Vorontsov, implemented a number of cultural initiatives, one of which was the foundation of the opera. To satisfy Georgians, Vorontsov went on to patronize Georgian-language theater performances and did everything Saint Petersburg would permit to win over locals. On 12 April 1851, the theater held its grand opening, attended by the high society of Tiflis. As the theater stage was not yet complete, instead it held a masked ball and charity fundraiser for the Saint Nino Women’s College. Several months later the popular Parisian newspaper L’Illustration (issue 25 October 1851) printed a large article by Edmond de Bares with two pictures of the interior of the theater. The author wrote, “This is the only theatre in the city, the interior of which is totally Moorish in style, and is doubtless one of the most elegant, beautiful and fascinating theatrical constructions, conceived by man.” Rustaveli Avenue is a lively street to stroll during the day or at night, even if you aren’t visiting any of the above places, simply enjoy the walk.
Day Trip to Kazbegi via Georgia Military Road.
They say people are generally divided into those who like the sea or those who prefer mountains. I belong to the second category. As much as I love to put my scuba gear and dive into the blues, I still choose graceful royal silence of the mountains over anything else. The famous quote from Vladimir Vysotsky‘s song says that “Better than mountains could be only mountains… where you haven’t set your foot yet”. I grew up watching the legendary Soviet movies (for ex. 1967 “Vertikal”, in Russian – “Вертикаль”) about the conquest of the arctic circle or heroic ascends of the snowy peaks, and they always made me dream of accomplishing those things myself. And of course, Kazbegi (other version – Kazbeki or Kazbek) has always been on my list, and if not to climb then just to visit.
The Greater Caucasus chain is the highest mountain range in Europe – marking a barrier with the Russian plains to the north, it curves in a magnificent arc for 1,300 kms from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Among the crowning peaks are the two extinct volcanic cones of Mount Elbrus (5,642m) on the Russian side of the mountains and Mount Kazbegi (5,033m) in the north of Georgia. For centuries, the name Caucasus was synonymous in Europe with wild cold mountains and with the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and was punished by being chained to the icy peaks. In two references to the mountains, Shakespeare asked, “Who can hold fire in his hand / By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?” and wrote of a lover “And faster bound to Aaron’s charming eyes / Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.” But two centuries later people still had a very vague idea of where the mountains actually were. French consul in Tiflis, recorded his impressions on first passing through the mountains in 1820, “Italy, the Tyrol, Switzerland: none offers anything more admirable and romantic than the valley of the Aragvi….. After the steep crags which continually threatened to crash travelers under their debris, after the mountains covered in snow and ice….now came hills and prairies of the most beautiful verdure…. Before us, the landscape was alive with a throng of villages set amid well-tended agricultural lands.” The Caucasus has never been one place but many, including arid plains, semitropical foothills, craggy gorges, and alpine peaks. Moving through these varied landscapes – crossing rivers or coming down out of the hills – literally means exiting one world and entering another.
I purchased a day trip to Kazbegi (69 lari, $31) from travel agency “Holidays” located on Meidan. It was cheap, even by Georgian standards, so I didn’t expect anything but basic transportation and a bit of information from a guide. Luckily, we had Galina as our guide and even though her “delivery” was a bit rehearsed, she was very competent and friendly. At 8.45 in the morning, a group of 10-12 people gathered by the agency’s office on Meidan and promptly at 9.00, our mini-bus took off for Kazbegi. It is a whole day trip (about 160 km each way) so make sure to seat by the window and enjoy the world’s most breathtaking views. Also, while doing day-trips keep in mind that sooner or later you would make a stop by one of the many churches, so dress appropriately – skirt below the knees and a scarf, to cover your head are must, no pants – otherwise, you would be denied entry.
We traveled via famous Georgian Military Road which many travel books describe as “one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world”. It is 212 kms long and runs from Tbilisi (Georgia) to Vladikavkaz (Russia) along the Great Caucasus Range. Clinging to the side of the turquoise Zhinvali Reservoir it passes below the walls of the sublime medieval fortress of Ananuri, follows the Tetri Aragvi River from the town of Pasanauri up to Mtiuleti, before reaching the Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument and the ski resort of Gudauri. After, it heads through the Georgian region of Khevi to the Jvari (Cross) Pass (Крестовы перевал), where it reaches its maximum altitude of 2,379 meters. It descends the Tergi valley to Mount Kazbegi and Gergeti Trinity Church and heads through the Darial Gorge (which marks the border between Russia and Georgia) north towards Russian Vladikavkaz.
Mentioned by Strabo in his “Geographica“ and by Pliny, the Georgian Military Road has existed as a route for traders and invaders since before the 1st century B.C., but had only evolved into a crude horse trail by the time the Russians finally converted it, through the Herculean efforts of 800 soldiers, into a carriage road in 1783. It was properly engineered as a road in the 19th century when Georgia joined the Russian Empire and by 1876 it was of a high quality with two or three lanes and “iron bridges over the torrents”, something that was considered astonishing given that within Russia proper at this time decent roads were virtually non-existent. Today it serves as the best route via which we all can enjoy the dramatic scenery, crystal-clear air and indescribable grandeur of the mighty Caucasus Mountains. The local landscape – formidable mountains, great defiles of gorges and isolated valleys – inspired Leo Tolstoy, Alexandre Dumas and Maksim Gorky to feature it in their writings. For the most part, the road was smoothly paved, but some parts desired some repair, luckily, nobody expected it to be a perfect German highway.
The very first stop we made by the site where Tetri Aragvi (“White aragvi”) that flows from Gudauri down to the town of Pasanauri joins Shavi Aragvi (“Black aragvi”), the main river of Gudamakari. There is a myth associated with the junction of these rivers. Once upon a time, two beautiful sisters lived in the highest mountains in the Caucasus, one of them was blonde, the other – brunette. Both of them fell in love with the same Prince but he chose the blonde girl to be his wife. A brunette sat by the edge of a mountain and cried for many days until her tears turned into the Black Aragvi river. Heart-broken, she plunged into the black abyss and disappeared forever. When the blonde princess learned about her sister’s death, she sat on the opposite side of the mountain and cried till his tears turned into the White Aragvi, after which, she jumped into the river and drowned. The moral of the story is that sisterly love was so strong that they couldn’t be without each other neither in life, nor after their death. That is why, both rivers meet and continue across Georgia together.
Our next stop was by the picturesque Ananuri fortress. It’s location, on the bank of the Zhinvali Reservoir, and a compact size make you wonder whether it was indeed a fort, and not just a duke’s dacha (country home). However, Ananuri was a castle and seat of the eristavis (dukes) of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty which ruled the area as far as the Tergi valley from the 13th to 18th centuries. The fortress was built in the valley between the two rivers, so that no enemy army could pass by unnoticed. In the 16th – early 19th centuries, Ananuri was the main stronghold on the way from Russia to Georgia and it played a critical role in numerous wars between local feudal eristavis. In 1739, Ananuri was attacked by forces from a rival duchy, commanded by Shanshe of Ksani, its towers and churches were set on fire and the entire Aragvi clan was massacred. However, four years later, the local peasants revolted against a new ruler, killed the usurpers and invited King Teimuraz II to come and govern directly over them.
The fortifications consist of two castles joined by a crenellated curtain wall. The upper fortification with a large square tower, known as Sheupovari, is well preserved and is the location of the last defense of the Aragvi against the Shamshe. The lower fortification, with a round tower, is mostly in ruins. Our guide told us that it was possible to climb the tallest of the fortress towers, the tower where the last defenders of Ananuri were burnt alive, however, it was closed that day. The small fortress also contains two churches. The older Church of the Virgin, which abuts a tall square tower, has the graves of some of the Dukes of Aragvi. Built of brick, it dates to the first half of the 17th century. The interior is no longer decorated, but of interest is a stone baldaquin erected by the widow of the Duke Edishera, who died in 1674. The larger Church of the Assumption (Ghvtismshobeli) was built in 1689 for the son of Duke Bardzem. It is a central dome style structure with richly decorated façades, including a chiseled north entrance and a carved grapevine cross on the south façade. It also contains the remains of a number of frescoes, including a Last Judgement, most of which were destroyed by the fire in the 18th century. It is a functioning church, so please be dressed appropriately and cover your head before entering.
Just outside the fortress, you could have your picture taken dressed in a traditional Georgian costume with tall sheep hat (papakha) and long heavy sheep coat. From Ananuri, we drove further north, through Gudauri, a place of Georgia’s most famous ski resorts and hillsides of different degrees of difficulty – blue, red and black. Between Gudauri and Jvari Pass, we stopped at the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument (however, I am pretty sure the word “Russia” was omitted by our guide). Built in 1983 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk and ongoing friendship between Georgia and Soviet Russia, it is a large 3/4 round stone and concrete structure overlooking the Devil’s Valley. Inside, the large tile mural depicts scenes from Georgian and Russian history. It was an interested monument, but it was the Devil’s Valley and the mountains around it that brought tears to my eyes – I believe this is where I realized that it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
We were given a short break to walk around and take pictures before we proceeded to our final stop – Stepantsminda village and Gergeti Trinity Church. On our way, we stopped by the Iron Water Spring, slowly flowing from the top of the hill towards the Georgian Military Road, mineralizing and bleaching everything on its way.
Village Stepantsminda (“Saint Stephan”) was named so after a Georgian Orthodox monk Stephan, who constructed a hermitage at this location, which later became the border-town between Russia and Georgia. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was called Kazbegi, however in 2006 the name was changed back to Stepantsminda. Today, it is a tidy village with multiple home accommodations for travelers who come here to climb Kazbegi, hike Caucasus, enjoy horse-riding, paragliding, water-rafting and other mountain activities. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to walk through the village as we switched our mini-bus for a 4-wheeler and immediately drove off to the top of the nearby mountain to visit Gergeti Trinity Church – the highlight of the trip to Kazbegi and an unofficial symbol of Georgia. Note that you can also walk to the top which might take 2-3 hours, time that we didn’t have. Our jeep driver, Gia, was very talkative and didn’t mind answering to all my questions about the people in Kazbegi and their winter activities, when no tourist come to town, primary education and family traditions. He seemed content to find a traveler who could speak the same language with him. Gergeti Trinity Church (also known as Tsminda Sameba Church), located at an elevation of 2170 meters, under Mount Kazbegi, was built in the 14th century, and is the only cross-cupola church in Khevi province. The separate bell tower dates from the same period as the church itself and living quarters for monks, from the 15th century. The beautifully weathered stone of the church and bell-tower are decorated with intriguing and seemingly accidental carvings, one of which (above the window) very much resembles two kissing dinosaurs. Its interior is modest and pious (pictures are not allowed inside).
Its isolated location on top of a steep mountain surrounded by the vastness of nature has made it a symbol for Georgia. The 18th century Georgian author Vakhushti Batonishvili wrote that in times of danger, precious relics from Mtskheta, including Saint Nino’s Cross were brought here for safekeeping. During the Soviet era, all religious services were prohibited, but the church remained a popular tourist destination. In 1988, authorities constructed a cable-car line to the church, but the people of Kazbegi felt it defiled their sacred place and soon destroyed it. The church is now an active establishment of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church. We were given about 20-30 minutes to enjoy the views of the mountains and villages; sadly, the top of the Mount Kazbegi remained covered with clouds.
And of course, at some point we had to re-fuel our energy and stuff our stomachs, so we stopped at the Khevi restaurant for lunch. Food was delicious, it was served quickly and efficiently, which is essential for long day-trips. Don’t forget to ask for Tarhun – Georgian carbonated drink flavored with tarragon or woodruff.
On the way back, half the people on the mini bus passed out, however, I continued to enjoy the views from my window. When we reached Tbilisi, around 19.00 -20.00, Stepan from St. Petersburg, Nancy from New York and I crashed at one of the shisha bars on Erekle II street. It was a long, tiring but very revelating day!
Day trip to Gori, Uplistsikhe, Mtskheta and Jvari.
I guess a visit to Georgia wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Mtskheta – the holiest place in the country, where St. Nino converted the Iverian kingdom to Christianity, and Gori – the birthplace of the (in)famous Soviet leader – Joseph Stalin. I purchased a day-trip from the same “Holidays” travel agency (49 lari – $20) and found out that pretty much everyone from the trip to Kazbegi also came to this trip. It was sort of a small reunion of friends.
Our first stop was in Gori. I frankly don’t like bus tours as I feel like bus-tourists always descend on the cities or sites like the locust on the field – they orderly run to see one or two places before vanishing into abyss and not learning a bit about the town or site itself. Well, that is how we toured Gori too, unfortunately. The territory of Gori (from the word “gora” which means “hill”) has been populated since the early Bronze Age. According to the medieval Georgian chronicles, the town of Gori was founded by King David IV (r. 1089-1125) who settled refugees from Armenia there. However, the fortress of Gori (Goris-Tsikhe), appears to have been in use already in the 7th century, and archaeological evidence indicates the existence of an urban community in Classical Antiquity. In 1299, Gori was captured by the Alan tribesmen fleeing the Mongol conquest from their original homeland in the North Caucasus, however, the Georgian king George V recovered the town in 1320, pushing the Alans back over the mountains. With the downfall of the medieval Georgian kingdom, Gori – strategically located at the crossroads of major transit routes – was frequently targeted by foreign invaders, and changed its masters on several occasions. From the late 15th till mid 18th centuries it was successively occupied by either Persians or Ottomans, until it returned to the Georgian control under the kings Teimuraz II and Erekle II whose efforts helped to advance economy and culture in the town. Following the Russian annexation of Georgia, Gori was granted the status of a town within the Tiflis Governorate in 1801. It grew in size and population throughout the 19th-20th centuries and turned into an important industrial center in Soviet times. After independence, Gori suffered from an economic collapse and the outflow of the population. In the 2008 war over South Ossetia (whose border is just 30 km north of the city), Gori was bombed by Russian Air Force; 20 people died and most of the population fled before the town, for 10 days fell under Russian control. This is how Gori was when we visited it – clean, quiet, war-scarred and very Soviet-like.
The only place foreigners come to visit in Gori is Joseph Stalin Museum (entry fee, pictures are allowed, exhibits are in Russian and Georgian languages only), a museum, as you have guessed correctly, dedicated to the life of Stalin who was born in Gori in 1878. People of Georgia never talk about Stalin, however we were warned that Gori was full of citizens who still revered their home-town boy who made such an indelible mark on human history. We were advised to take the words of the official museum tour-guide with a bit of salt, however, I have to admit that the delivery was pretty fair and covered not only Stalin’s achievements but also his shortcomings and brutality that caused millions of deaths. Museums consists of 3 sections: the impressive main building, the tiny wood-and-brick house where Stalin was born and Stalin’s train carriage. The main complex is a large palace in Stalinist Gothic style, begun in 1951 as a local history museum, but clearly intended to become a memorial to Stalin, who died in 1953. The exhibits are divided into six halls in roughly chronological order, and contain many items actually or allegedly owned by Stalin. They chart Stalin’s journey from the Gori religious seminary to leadership of USSR up to his death in 1953. There is also much illustration by way of documentation, photographs, paintings and newspaper articles. Upstairs, the first hall details Stalin’s childhood and adolescence, including his rather talentless religious poetry, and then his early revolutionary activities in Georgia, organizing unions and setting up illegal printing presses. One of the exhibit takes us through Stalin’s seven jail terms under the tsarist authorities (six of them in Siberia), the revolution of 1917, the Civil war and Lenin’s death in 1924. The hall displays the text of Lenin’s 1922 political testament that described Stalin as too coarse and power-hungry, advising Communist Party members to remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary.
One of the rooms is devoted to one of twelve copies of the bronze death mask of Stalin taken shortly after his death. In itself, it doesn’t make a statement, but the lighting and bizarre, personality cult-chic, red velvet display will surely remind you of the mausoleums of long-dead leaders (ex. Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong) .
Other rooms contain the reconstructions of Stalin’s first office in the Kremlin, as People’s Commissar for Nationalities in 1918 and his personal memorabilia such as his famous pipes, glasses and a large collection of tributes and gifts from world leaders. At the foot of the first-floor staircase, there are few rooms that are dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s purges, Gulags and political repressions under his regime. However, when we visited the museum, some of the rooms hosted a picture gallery of Gori during the Russian occupation in 2008.
In the museum’s courtyard, “enshrined” within a marble Greco-Italianate pavilion with a stained glass roof, is a small brick-and-wood hut, in which Stalin was born in 1878. The rest of this poor neighborhood in which it once stood was demolished in the 1930s but the hut, with its “Here I.V. Stalin was born on 21 December 1879, and here he spent his childhood until 1883” remained. Stalin’s father Vissarion Jughashvili, a local shoemaker, rented one room on the left hand side of the building and maintained a workshop in the basement. You can’t walk in, but feel free to peek inside the room.
Next to the hut is Stalin’s personal armor-plated Pullman train carriage. He didn’t like flying and used this train from 1941 onwards, including his attendances at the Yalta Conference and the Tehran Conference. The train’s elegant interior was specially designed to accommodate the Soviet leader’s requirements of comfort and included a modest bedroom with a single bed and a desk, a bathtub and a small conference room. The train carriage was recovered from the railway yards at Rostov-on-Don in 1985 and was sent to the museum.
Our next stop was at the fascinating and once enormous stone-hewn cave city – Uplistsikhe (entry 2 lari, $0.90; please allow 45-60 mins). Located along the Mtkvari valley, just 10 km from Gori, it is truly one of the most interesting sites in Georgia. ‘Fortress of the Lord’ (as it translates), is an ancient town which played a significant role in Georgian history over a period of approximately 3,000 years. Founded around 2nd millennium B.C. Uplistsike has been identified as one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia. Back then, the city was a very important cultural centre for pagan worship in the Kartli (Iberia) region. Archaeologists have unearthed numerous temples and findings relating to a sun goddess, worshipped here prior to the arrival of Christianity. After the 4th century A.D., the city lost importance in favor of the new Christian centers, most notably Mtskheta and Tbilisi. Nevertheless, life continued in Uplistsikhe. Christian structures were built, and for a short time Christianity and the old faith coexisted together here. After the Arabs occupied Tbilisi in A.D.645, Uplistsikhe reemerged as a principal Georgian stronghold and became the residence of the kings of Kartli, during which the town grew to a size of around 20,000 inhabitants. However, its importance declined after King David the Builder retook Tbilisi in 1122 and it was irrevocably destroyed by the Mongols in 1240. Since then, the site was virtually abandoned, used only occasionally as a temporary shelter in times of foreign invasions.
Uplistsikhe is remarkable for the unique combination of styles from rock-cut cultures of the region, most notably from Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) and Northern Iran. What is visible today is 40,000m2 Shida Qalaqi, or Inner City, less than half of the original whole. Almost everything here, including numerous artifacts belonging to different time periods, such as gold, silver and bronze jewelry, and samples of ceramics and sculptures, has been uncovered by archeologists since 1957, when only the tops of a few caves were visible. You will appreciate the site more if you visit it with a guide; even though many caves have plaques, describing their “purpose”, it is still hard to make up things and imagine what it was like 10 centuries ago. The rock-cut structures include dwellings, a large hall, called Tamaris Darbazi (Queen Tamar’s Hall, where she allegedly accepted the crown of Georgia), pagan places of sacrifice, and functional buildings, such as a bakery, a prison, storage rooms, apothecary, wine cellar and even an amphitheater (1st or 2nd century A.D.), all connected by stone-curved alleys and tunnels. Some of the fronts of the caves have been carved into house-like shapes with triangular roof peaks. In some areas you can tell there were columns standing from floor to ceiling, but they are nowhere to be seen now. The majority of the caves are devoid of any decorations, although some of the larger structures have coffered tunnel-vaulted ceilings, with the stone carved in imitation of logs. Some of the larger caves also have niches in the back or sides, which may have been used for ceremonial purposes.
The church near the top of the hill is Uplistsikhe Eklesia (Prince’s Church), constructed of stone and brick in the 9th-10th centuries. This triple-church basilica was built atop the ruins of what was probably Uplistsikhe’s most important ancient pagan temple to the Caucasian sun god.
After the lunch at Gamarjoba Restaurant, located just outside the cave-town, we proceeded towards our next stop – the Georgia’s spiritual heart – Mtskheta. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia in 337, and the “Holy City” proclaimed by the Georgian Orthodox Church, Mtskheta holds a near-mystical significance in Georgian culture. Founded in the 5th century B.C., it was capital of the early Georgian Kingdom of Iberia (Kartli) from the 3rd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. It was the location where Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of Kartli and till now it remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Even when the capital was moved from Mtskheta to the more easily defensible Tbilisi (in early 6th century), Mtskheta continued to serve as the coronation and burial place for most kings of Georgia until the end of the kingdom in the 19th century. The old city lies at the confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi. The rare blend of cultural values had ruled in this part of the world since the Bronze Age until prosperous Christian era offers the unique eclectic lifestyle creating the mood of the town which is as old as the history of Georgia itself.
Mtskheta is home to Georgia’s two most important religious sights – Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Jvari Church. The grand (and for its time, enormous) Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the UNESCO site and the second largest church in Georgia, famous to have been built on top of the Christ’s mantle. According to Georgian hagiography, in the 1st century A.D. a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Elias bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it back to Georgia. Returning to his native city, he was met by his sister Sidonia who upon touching the robe immediately died from the emotions engendered by the sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it and with time, everyone forgot the exact site. When King Mirian was baptized by St. Nino in the 4th century and decided to built the first church in Mtskheta, the wooden column designed to stand in its center could not be raised from the ground. But after an all-night prayer vigil by St. Nino, the column miraculously lifted and moved on its own to the burial site of Sidonia and the robe. They say that the column worked many miracles and gave its name to this cathedral (Svitiskhoveli means “life-giving column”). An icon portraying this event can be seen on the second column on the right-hand from the entrance. Reproduced widely throughout Georgia, it shows Sidonia with an angel lifting the column in heaven. Saint Nino is in the foreground, King Mirian and his wife, Queen Nana, are to the right and left.
In the 5th century Vakhtang Gorgasali replaced Mirian’s original church with a stone one, whose modest remains are visible to the left of the cathedral today. The present building was constructed between 1010 and 1029 under Patriarch Melqisedek, and is still one of the most beautiful churches in the country. The defensive wall around it was built in 1787. Built in a cross-dome style, two bulls’ heads on the east façade, remnants of the 5th-century church, attest to the folk influence on Christian iconography in that early period. The cathedral interior walls were once fully adorned with medieval frescoes, but many of them did not survive. Today, after much careful restoration, some frescoes survive, including a 13th-century depiction of the “Beast of the Apocalypse” and figures of the Zodiac. The decoration of the church stonework also features carved grapes (as in many churches of Georgia), reflecting the country’s ancient wine-making traditions.
On the right side from the entrance of the Cathedral is a stone baptismal font dating from the 4th century. It is thought to have been used for the baptism of King Mirian and Queen Nana. Immediately behind the font is a reproduction of the relief of Arsukidze’s right hand and bevel found on the north facade. On the south side there is a small stone church built into the Cathedral. This is a symbolic copy of the Chapel of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Built between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries, it was erected here to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most sacred place in the world (after the church of Jerusalem), thanks to Christ’s robe. In front of this stone chapel, the most westerly structure marks Sidonia’s grave. Remains of the original life-giving pillar, built in the 17th century, are also here. Scenes of the lives of King Mirian and Queen Nana, and portraits of the first Christian Byzantine Emperor, Constantine I, and his mother Helena, were painted by G. Gulzhavarashvili at that time.
Svetitskhoveli was not only the site of the coronation of the Georgian kings but also served as their burial place. Ten are known to have been buried here, although only six tombs have been found, all before the altar. The tomb of King Vakhtang Gorgasali can be identified by the small candle fortress standing before it. King Erekle II’s tomb is identifiable by the sword and shield upon it. His son, George XII was the last king of Georgia and his marble tomb is next to his father’s. Also in front of the altar are tombs of David VI, George VIII, Luarsab I and various members of the Bagrationi royal family including Tamar, the first wife of George XI, whose epitaph dating from 1684 is written both in Georgian (Asomtavruli) and Arabic script.
Visible for kms around on its hilltop overlooking Mtskheta and at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, the Jvari Church (monastery) (Church of Holy Cross) is, to many Georgians, the holiest of holiest. According to a legend, on this exact place in the early 4th century Saint Nino erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus. Between 585 and 604 Stepanoz I, the eristavi (duke) of Kartli, constructed the church over the cross. The importance of Jvari church increased over time and attracted many pilgrims. In the late Middle Ages, the complex was fortified by a stone wall and gate, remnants of which still survive. During the Soviet period, the church was preserved as a national monument, but access was rendered difficult by tight security at a nearby military base. After the independence of Georgia, the building was restored to active religious use.
Jvari is a beautifully symmetrical little building and a classic of early Georgian “four-apsed church with four niches” domed tetra-conch design. It has a cross-shaped plan with four equal arms, the angles between them being filled with corner rooms, and the low dome sits on a squat, octagonal drum. Varied bas-relief sculptures with Hellenistic and Sasanian influences decorate its external façades, some of which are accompanied by explanatory inscriptions in Georgian Asomtavruli script. The entrance tympanum on the southern façade is adorned with a relief of the Glorification of the Cross, the same façade also shows an Ascension of Christ. Our guide pointed a treasure room whose entrance was located on the outside wall, high above the cliff and accessible only by a narrow stone path. She offered us to take a peek inside the room but I didn’t feel like taking a risk.The interior of the Jvari church is rather bare and the wooden cross inside reminds us of the origin of this site.
Perched high on the hill, the location had the most spectacular views over Mtskheta and the convergence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers. It was a perfect picture to take with me back to Tbilisi.
My last day in Tbilisi, I spent with friends. I could have taken another day trip to the alpine Svaneti or to medieval Vardzia, to cave monastery of Davit Gareja or to the wine country in Kakheti, but I decided to spend my day surrounded by wonderful, generous, hospitable Georgian friends. I met Levan in Vake Park where we took a stroll around Mediathek – local media/library space free for everyone to use. After that, we drove to Levan’s dacha, just 15-20 mins outside Tbilsi and spent a few hours there, before going out for late lunch.
In the evening, we stopped by a famous Georgian artists’ country house, which they turned into an upscale outdoor restaurant, with fabulous amenities like indoor pool and fantastic views of the ravine. I ended my 4 days in Tbilisi on a high note and I wish I will be given a chance to reciprocate to my Georgian friends for their unbelievable hospitality.
Batumi, Adjara. I took the very first morning flight from Tbilisi to Batumi (with Airzena, $69) and 50 mins later landed in the capital of Adjara and the final stop of my journey. This gorgeous region with the semitropical climate and beautiful green hills rising behind the Black Sea coast is my grandmother’s most cherished memory and now, it is my memory too. I stayed at the Dzveli Batumi Hotel in the center of a small old Batumi. Hotel’s owner was very nice to come and meet me at the airport (free to charge) at 7 in the morning and drop me off two days later (also for free).
History. Adjara (also know as Adjaria) is an autonomous province located in the Georgia’s southwest corner on the coast of the Black Sea, north of Turkey. Occupied by an ancient Georgian tribe of Moskhs from ancient times, the territory of Adjara was a province of Colchis from the 7th to 3rd centuries B.C. Colonized by Greeks in the 5th century B.C., the region fell under Rome in the 2nd century B.C. Bathus (the present day Batumi) and Apsaros (Apsaruntos) (modern Gonio) were the key cities and fortresses at that time. By the 2nd century A.D., Bathus was an important military base for Roman legions, while Apsaros was famous for its theatre. In the 11th century, Adjara became a part of the unified Georgian Kingdom, however shortly the region was ravaged by Seljuks and by Mongols in the 13th century. After the disintegration of Georgian monarchy and subsequent internal wars, Adjara was passed from hands to hands until it became a part of the Principality of Guria in 1535.
The Ottomans conquered the area in 1614, which was divided into two sandjaks and submitted to the Pasha of Childir (Akhaltsikhe). While some of Adjarians fled to other Georgian regions, those who remained were converted to Islam. The Ottomans had little direct control of Adjara and local Muslim Georgian nobility, such as the Khimshiashvili, ruled as semi-autonomous beys until the Ottoman government’s centralizing reforms tanzimat eliminated them and brought the region more closely within the empire by 1850. In March, 1878, the Ottomans ceded Adjara to the Russian Empire and under the new rule, thousands of Muslims fled the region to Turkey in an immigration process called Muhajiroba. The same year, Batumi was declared a porto franco (free port) and the city became one of the world’s most important seaports. At the turn of the 20th century, Batumi was linked to the oil fields of Baku by one of the earliest pipelines (Baku-Batumi pipeline) and a railway, and on June 22, 1892 the “Markus”, a huge tanker ship departed Batumi for Bangkok, becoming the first oil tanker to transit the Suez Canal.
After a temporary occupation by Turkish and British troops during WWI, Adjara became part of the Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1920. The Soviet Union established the Adjar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921 as a component part of Georgia, but with considerable local autonomy. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Adjara became part of a newly independent but politically divided Republic of Georgia. It avoided being dragged into the chaos and civil war that afflicted the rest of the country between 1991 and 1993 due largely to the authoritarian rule of its leader Aslan Abashidze. Although he successfully maintained order in Adjara and made it one of the country’s most prosperous regions (though the majority of the Adjarians remained poor), he was accused of involvement in organized crime—notably large-scale smuggling to fund his government and enrich himself. The central government in Tbilisi had very little say in what went on in Adjara during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. Adjarian leadership often refused to pay taxes to the central budget and Abashidze took control over the customs, Batumi seaport and other strategic objects. He created his own semi-official armed units and had full control over the Batumi-based 25th Brigade of Georgia’s Defense Ministry. This changed following the Rose Revolution of 2003 when Shevardnadze was deposed in favor of a new president, Mikheil Saakashvili causing Aslan Abashidze declared a state of emergency in the region. Saakashvili told the Adjarian leader to comply with the Georgian constitution and start disarming. In response, in May 2004, Abashidze claimed that Georgian forces were preparing to invade and ordered his forces to blow up bridges connecting the region with the rest of Georgia. Eventually, Saakashvili’s ultimatums and mass protests against Abashidze’s autocratic rule forced the Adjaran leader to resign in May 2004 and flee into exile in Russia. On January 22, 2007, the Batumi city court found Abashidze guilty of misuse of office and embezzlement of more than $57,3 millions in state funds, and sentenced him to a 15-year imprisonment in absentia. He also faces a charge of murder of his former deputy, Nodar Imnadze, in 1991.
Batumi, the capital of Adjara and the second largest city in Georgia, is a beautiful holiday spot full of charm and fin-de-siècle elegance of its original boom time a century ago. Despite new constructions and American hotel chains sprouting by the Boulevard (known as Batumis Bulvari) like mushrooms after the rain, I am sure it changed little since the times when my grandma used to vacation here in the 60s and 70s. Many buildings and monuments were restored or given facelifts, but I felt that the people of Batumi, the Batumians, remained the same and only because of them, the city preserved its character and unique charisma of a Soviet resort town. I guess, having never been there before, but through my grandma’s stories, I felt strangely nostalgic about this place, but at the same time, I thought the city brought us together and gave us more shared memories to cherish.
The history of Batumi is inextricably bound with that of Adjara. Founded on the site of the ancient Hellenic colony of Bathus (means “deep harbor”), it was a small fortified town in the medieval kingdom of Georgia. Hardly mentioned during that time, it reemerged in both Georgian and European accounts in the 15th century as “Batumi Vati” or “Vathi” – one of the two ports of the lord “Bendian” (the title of the Dadiani princes who governed several western Georgian provinces). Between late 15th and 17th centuries, Batumi exchanged rulers but was finally conquered by the Ottoman Empire, the city’s population was Islamized and its port served as a big center of the Caucasian slave-trade. After becoming the last Black Sea port annexed by the Russian Empire in 1878, Batumi grew into a major port city on the crossroads of Eurasia. It quickly developed as the western terminus of a railway from Baku that then carried one-fifth of the world’s oil production. A pipeline and refinery built by Ludwig Nobel, soon followed and Batumi bloomed into a fashionable resort town at the souther tip of the Russian empire. During 1901, Joseph Stalin, the future leader of the Soviet Union, lived in the city, work at the Rothschild’s refinery and organized strikes. After the region passed to the Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1920 Batumi became a capital of an autonomous republic of Adjara within the Soviet republic of Georgia and now, of independent Republic of Georgia.
On the way from the airport, the hotel owner pointed out interesting things and buildings along the main Sherif Khimshiashvili Street (becoming Rustaveli St in Old Town) for me to come back and explore later. This compact town is easy to see on foot in one day, but of course, you need many more to enjoy everything it has to offer. The conveniently located tourist information offices have plenty of brochures and day-trip suggestions, however, I’ve also got a very elaborate and detailed answer to my question of “what are the best things to see in Batumi in one day?”. Their suggestions were:
- promenading along Batumi Bulvari
- exploring the Old town
- taking a Cable way to the hill
- Architectural stroll along Rustaveli Street
- visit to the Batumi Aquarium
- and of course, sunbathing on the beach, attending a music event (Snoop Dogg was giving a beach concert the same evening), eating well and drinking Georgian wine, shopping for souvenirs, etc.
It was an overcast and the perfect morning weather to start exploring the town. First of all, I went to the Batumis Bulvari (Batumi Boulevard) – the park strip fronting the main beach. First laid out in 1884, it is now stretches for over 8 kms along the coast. With its trees, fountains, paths, arts, cafes, performances, free outdoor libraries (where you can borrow a book while lounging by the sea), bars, ice-cream stalls, outdoor stages, recreational areas, a Ferris Wheel and a kaleidoscope of original buildings scattered throughout its length, Bulvari is the perfect place to spend a few hours or a few days. You will definitely be drawn to the multiple nightly singings and dancing fountains or to the Alphabetic Tower – a 130 meter-high structure, designed in a familiar double helix pattern of DNA, with each of the helix bands holding 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet, symbolizing the uniqueness of Georgian people and their language. Don’t miss the mid 19th century Light House and a 7m-high ethereally moving metal sculpture of a man and woman by Tamar Kvesitadze, universally known as Ali and Nino after the protagonists of Kurban Said’s love novel of the same name. I was thrilled to find on Bulvari another beverage of my childhood – kvas, a fuzzy bread drink sold out of huge metal barrels and is known to easily quench the thirst. Hmm, delicious.
At the northern end of Bulvari, I stood in a long line to get on a Cable car (5 Lari – $3, allow 15 mins each way) which took me for 2,586 m-long ride to the hill 252 m above the city. From the top, you have the best views of the old town, the new town, the port and yacht club, the Black sea and the lush green hills adorning the city. There was a cafe on the top with cozy sitting area and wonderful views.
Once I came down from the hill, I went to explore the old Batumi, street by street. Even though this is a tiny area of a dozen cobble-paved streets with 2-3 storied houses built in the 19th century, the area is very original and densely occupied by shops selling handcrafted goods, beer gardens and cafes, private mansions and small museums, churches and a few squares. The old city is known for the variety of architectural subtleties: buildings are decorated with chimeras, mermaids, atlantes and other mythical creatures. The architecture features the combination of European and Asian styles and it is possible to see buildings with elements of Georgian, Turkish, Imperial Russian, Soviet, English, French and colonial architectures. Please allow 3-4 hours.
In the very heart of the old town stands the St Nicholas Church, built in 1865 by the Greek community of Batumi, it is one of the oldest churches in the city. An initiator and the main contributor of the Church was Batumi’s Greek mayor – Ilya Efremidi, who sought and received the Turkish authorization for the construction of the church, though sans bells. From 1894 till 1898, there operated male and female schools as well as a cantorial which was considered one of the best choirs in Batumi. In 1878 Russian military troops brought a bell, which still decorates the church up to date. Early in the 20th century, the Greeks from Keros island presented the Church with the icons of St. Nicholas, Blessed Virgin Maria and St. George. On the western wall of the Church there is a memorial stone bearing an inscription in Greek “The Greek Church of St. Nicholas. Construction period is 1865-1871”.
Right next to the St. Nicholas Church is Piazza – an interesting, Venice-inspired square built in an unmistaken Italian style with a real Clock Tower (housing a hotel), fashionable boutiques and street cafes.
A few blocks south, there is The Cathedral of Christ the Savior (aka Armenian Apostolic Church). Batumi has always been a multinational city where the representatives of different religions among which are the Orthodox Armenians lived. The church was constructed between 1885 and 1887 by the Austrian architect Robert Marfeld, and operated up to the beginning of the 20th century. In the Soviet time, it was closed by the communists and used as a storehouse, until 1959 when the building was converted into an observatory. After disintegration of the Soviet Union, in 1992 the structure was given back to the Armenian Diaspora and in 1995 it reopened again as a church. The Armenian Apostolic Church is small and rather simple in its decoration and décor. One of the features of the Church is glass painting with eight-pointed stars which are not normally characteristic for Christianity in general. However, since the Armenians were the first orthodox Christians, their symbolics is more ancient and close to the original (number eight in the Christianity has a meaning of the future, since God created the Earth in six days, the seventh day will last till the Judgment Day and the eighth day represents the Paradise or Eternity). Another feature of the Armenian Church is the tree planted by the well-known artist, collector and art patron Ivan Aivazovsky in the Church yard.
Old town hosts other religious sites – a catholic church, a mosque and a synagogue to accommodate the diversity of its citizens. One of the most original and my favorite places was Evropis Moedani (Europe Square), a broad attractive open space surrounded by restored facades and modern architecture of unique and exquisite buildings. After Adjara joined the Assembly of European Regions in 1997, the square was re-named Europe Square, highlighting Georgia’s aspirations towards Europe. Completed in 2007, the statue of Medea is a symbol of Georgia’s ancient ties to Europe, and is also a reminder of Georgia’s cultural connection to many ancient civilizations. That is a good place to sit down and contemplate the history of civilizations.
Then I strolled along the main Rustaveli Street trying to figure out what were the building the hotel’s owner was talking about earlier today. They were easy to locate simply by their design – The White Restaurant (as an up-side-down White House), curved Radisson Hotel, the unusual building of the Batumi Technology University, building with human face by Vahan Abrahamyan, etc. Just don’t forget to cross the street back and forth to appreciate the original ideas of the architects.
It was already evening, so I stopped by the Batumi Dolphinarium, located in the 6 May Park, to see if they had tickets for today’s 21.00 performance and indeed, they did. I got my ticket (20 lari, $11.5, 45 min show, 3 times a day, closed on Mondays) and walked in. I have been told a story that after the collapse of USSR, shortage of money almost caused the closure of the Dolphinarium. However, the children of one powerful government official really loved coming to Batumi and visiting its Dolphinarium and hence, it was given a new chance and full financial support – a new building opened in 2011. Since childhood, I always wanted to be a marine biologist or at least a dolphin coach – a curse of a person born in a landlocked country – which explains my enthusiasm and excitement about visiting this place. However, I have to admit that the show was impeccable with 4 performers and 8 dolphins flipping, dancing, racing, pushing, playing, etc. Well, except for one dolphin who was still a baby and for whom it was her first performance ever. She did whatever she wanted in the pool which made it even more interesting and hilarious.
After the show, I walked along Bulvari back to the old town. I expected it to be packed with tourists like Atlantic City’s boardwalk usually is during the summer months, however, there weren’t lots of people – some visitors from Turkey, a few from Russia and former Soviet republics, but mostly Georgians. After speaking with some local business owners and residents, I learnt that it was a very slow summer season for them and they all blamed the Russian annexation of Crimea earlier that year as a cause, as many Russians were “forced” by their employees to go and spend their vacation in a newly acquired Black Sea peninsula. On my way home, I stopped at the Snoop Dogg’s open-air theater concert and even though it was a ticketed event, the doors were wide open for everyone to come in. I wish i stayed longer but it started to rain so everyone ran for the cover, and I – back to my hotel.
Next day I spent with my school friend Olga who happened to be in Batumi as well. We met in the morning for brunch at one of the cozy little outdoor cafes run by a family who recently escaped the Russian-Ukrainian war. I struck up a conversation with our waitress, the owner’s daughter, who told us how they were slowly settling in a new place and trying to make their cafe work, until we noticed a few mobster-looking men come in and, what I think it was, try to extort money or favors from the cafe’s owner, a middle-aged woman. By the time we finished our syrniki with sgushenoe moloko, the situation inside grew very hostile. I am not the kind of person who hides behind somebody’s back or passes by a situation without reacting (I don’t suffer from the Stockholm syndrome), in addition, I knew the fear, or likely reservation the locals feel when they encounter an American in their country. So I came inside and addressed the owner in English, inquiring whether everything was ok and if I needed to call the cops. I don’t know whether she understood what I said (likely not), and neither did the extorters, however, they packed up and left almost immediately. I am pretty sure that one day I will get hurt for my blunt actions, but until then, I am going to use all my privileges backed by the passport issued by the most powerful country in the world. That’s the truth, no one wants to get into a conflict with an American.
That afternoon, Olga, her friend Lena and I spent on a beach, and I finally completed what I intended to do at the start of my trip – swim in both seas – Caspian and Black. Pebble beach has never been my favorite but it was clean and almost empty.
In the evening, I went out shopping for wine and some souvenirs (check out Georgian House at 11B Gorgasali Street that offers distinctly Georgian souvenirs, clothes and delicious churchkhela). And at night, my friends and I met up at San Remo restaurant for dinner. The service was slow, the outdoor sitting was no frills but the food was good. Unlike the beach earlier that day, the restaurant was very busy and an all-men table next to us, kept screaming the toasts (in Georgian) and getting up every time they did it (which was every 10-12 minutes).
That was the end of my 11 day adventure that took me from Baku to Batumi. I’ve seen places that made me cry, I’ve learn things I’ve never heard of, I ate foods that I still dream of and I’ve met the most incredible and amiable hosts – the Georgians.