Tbilisi

 

Tbilisi is one of Eastern Europe’s undiscovered gems. At once modern and ancient, European and Asian, it is the sort of city where many visitors want to settle down permanently. Over the centuries Tbilisi has become synonymous with gracious living and warm welcomes. The name means ‘warm spring’, and comes from the natural hot mineral water springs that dot the centre of the city. The superb sulfur baths in the Old Town attracted travelers from Marco Polo to Alexander Dumas. Many great artists like Pushkin, Lermontov, and the composer Tchaikovsky have all sat and composed work under one of the baths’ brick domes.

Tbilisi is known as a multicultural place, and it is one of the few places in the world where you can find a church, a synagogue and a mosque next door to each other. Today the city remains very cosmopolitan, with populations of Jews, Armenians, Azeris, Kurds and Russians all living side by side.

The city boasts dozens of theatres, a world-class opera and ballet house, and a wealth of museums. In the 19th century Tiflis (as Tbilisi was then called) was known as “The Paris of the South”, because of its beautiful architecture and sophisticated, avant-garde scene. After a break of almost 100 years, Tbilisi is finally living up to its potential once more.

Old Tbilisi, the ancient centre of the city, which boasts medieval churches and fortresses, 19th century mansions and fabulous art nouveau palaces, is being lovingly restored to its former glory. Overhanging balconies wreathed in grapevines, winding cobbled streets and spectacular views mean there is always something new to discover. With a climate similar to northern Italy, the café scene in Tbilisi is renowned.

Tbilisi is situated in an amazing place, where the massive chains of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains almost touch, along the fast flowing river Mtkvari. Just ten minutes outside the town centre takes you into alpine meadows and virgin forests.

With a great climate and an even better atmosphere, the only problem about coming to Tbilisi is that you might never want to leave.

 

THE LEGEND
The foundation myth of the city takes us back to the reign of Georgia’s mighty 5th century monarch Vakhtang Gorgasali. Out hunting with his falcon in the wooded Mtkvari valley, just a short distance from his then capital city of Mtskheta, the king noticed a pheasant. Sending off his falcon to retrieve the bird, he suddenly lost sight of it. After searching for a while, he found the pheasant had fallen into a hot spring, and had been cooked to perfection. Seeing the tremendous benefits of having such wondrous springs close at hand, he decided to found a new capital city on the site, and name it Tbilisi, or warm waters.

 

GENERAL INFORMATION
Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia and the largest city in the country. It lies on both banks of the Mtkvari river and from the three sides is surrounded by mountains, the Sololaki Ridge and Mount Tabori from the south, Mount Makhata from the east and the Trialeti range from the west. Until 1936 the name of the city was Tiflis, which is how Arab and Persian conquerors pronounced Tbilisi. The city covers an area of 726 square kilometers and has a population of approximately 1.5 million who come from about eighty ethnic backgrounds.

 

HISTORY
Although the foundation of the city by King Vakhtang Gorgasali in 479 AD marks the date of Tbilisi emerging as a capital city, archaeological material shows us that the area was first settled as far back as the Neolithic age. King Vakhtang and his son Dachi developed the city into an important political, cultural, and trade center, building on both sides of the river, in the districts of Kala and Soghdebili. Tbilisi was first sacked in 627 by a combined force of Byzantines and Khazars. Soon after, it was captured by the Arabs, and would remain the capital of an Islamic emirate for 400 years.

In 1122 King David IV, known as ‘the Builder’ finally recaptured Tbilisi, which soon became the de facto capital of the entire Caucasus, and one of the richest and most developed cities of the near east.

Starting in the early 13th century, wave after wave of invaders swept through, from the Mongols to Tamerlane, the Ottomans and Persians. The city was last sacked in 1795, by the Persian Shah Aga Mohamed Khan. With the annexation of Georgia into the Russian Empire in 1801, Tbilisi lost its status as a capital, but soon reinvented itself as a civilized and cosmopolitan boomtown.

Over the course of the 19th Tbilisi grew and grew. Theaters, opera and ballet companies and fine restaurants were opened. This period of prosperity was brought to a sudden halt by the Bolshevik invasion of 1921.

The city was much expanded during Soviet times, but most of the development was in dormitory suburbs made of typical soviet blocks. Fortunately, Tbilisi managed to retain most of its ancient buildings and true character throughout the soviet regime. When Georgia achieved independence in 1991, Tbilisi once again became the capital city of an independent Georgian state.

As Tbilisi moves forward into the 21st century it is transforming and restoring itself. The extensive old town is being painstakingly restored to its former glory, new shops, cafes and clubs are being opened every day, and the city is once again living up to its potential.

 

Top Sights in Old Tbilisi

Tbilisi’s Old town stretches along both sides of the Mtkvari underneath the imposing bulk of Narikala Fortress (4th c). Narikala is a great place to visit to escape the bustle of the city. Climbing on the ancient walls reveals amazing 360 degree views of the city and surrounding countryside. A well marked path can take you from there back down the cliff into the old town, or on to Mtatsminda Amusement Park, a steep 40 minute walk away. Nearby is the slightly odd statue known as Mother Georgia, the current statue is a larger reproduction of a Soviet period one. Mother Georgia holds a bowl of wine in one hand to welcome guests, and a sword in the other to fight off enemies. From the base of the statue steps lead down into the old town.

The Metekhi Church of the Virgin (13th century) is a superb example of Georgian architecture that looks straight out towards Narikala from the left bank. Originally home to another royal place, the promontory on which the church stands now has a massive statue of Tbilisi’s founder Vakhtang Gorgasali.

Tbilisi is famous for its Sulfur Baths. Back in the 12th century the city had 68 of them, now just a few remain, mostly concentrated around Abano Street (literally, Bath Street). Only the terracotta domes of the subterranean baths appear above the ground, along with a characteristic sulfur smell.

The Botanical Garden, opened in 1809, is located behind the Sololaki Ridge. The gardens are in an extraordinarily beautiful wooded valley, once the royal hunting grounds of the kings of Georgia. Along with a great collection of rare and endemic plant species, the gardens also contain a spectacular plunging waterfall, and it is possible to walk up from the gardens to the forests overlooking Tbilisi.

The Sioni Cahtedral of the Dormition is named after Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. It was originally built in the 6th to 7th centuries, but has been destroyed by foreign invaders and reconstructed several times. The current church is based on a 13th century version with some changes from the 17th to 19th centuries. The cross of St. Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century, is kept inside. The interior is decorated with highly unusual frescoes from the early 20th century, while outside there are two bell towers, one dating from 1425 and a second from 1801, reportedly the first ever work of Russian classicism built in the Caucasus.

The Anchiskhati basilica is the oldest church in Tbilisi, dating back to the 6th century, and the time of Vakhtang Gorgasali and his son Dachi. Though it has suffered during invasions and earthquakes, much of the structure is original. The church was once home to the famous, miracle working Anchiskhati icon, now in the state art museum. The choir here is regarded as one of the best in Georgia.

Leselidze Street is one of the oldest in the city, and was the main trading street of the Old Town. Today, Leselidze is home to beautiful 19th century synagogue, an orthodox and an Armenian church, a little way up the hill there is a mosque.

The Holy Trinity Cathedral was constructed in 2002, and is visible from all over the city. It is the largest church in the whole Caucasus, and, at 101 meters high, one of the tallest Orthodox Churches in the world.