Tbilisi, capital city of Georgia, had the fortune, or perhaps misfortune, of being situated at the crossroads of two ancient, perpetually-vying empires; that of Persia and Byzantium. More recently it’s been sandwiched between the Russian and Turkish Empires.
The city has been invaded, sacked, conquered, and pillaged more times than you can count. It’s one of those sort of places. Evidence of its complex, multiethnic history is embedded in its streets.
Founding of Tbilisi
Humans have been living in this part of the Caucasus for at least the last 6,000 years.
The name Tbilisi means warm spot in the ancient Georgian tongue, in reference to the natural hot springs that exist in the city centre, which you can still visit and bathe in today.
Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia
The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia (formerly the State Museum of History of Georgia; now one of the numerous facilities that make up the National Museum) contains a range of fascinating exhibits from Georgian history ranging from the Bronze Age to modern day.
Amongst the treasures on display are astonishing works of gold and silver from the ancient realms of Colchis (Western Georgia) and Kartli (Eastern Georgia).
The gold and silver ornaments were recovered from kurgans (burial mounds) dating from between the 8th Century BCE to the 3rd Century BCE, long before the founding of Tbilisi.
Each article is (as the museum is fond of putting it) without parallel.
King Dachi of Iberia (Iberia is the Ancient Greek/Roman term for Kartli – i.e. Eastern Georgia) is said to have founded Tbilisi in approx. 520 CE.
Why did he found a new city in 520 CE? Because he was sick of the old capital (Mtskheta – approx. 20km from Tbilisi) and wanted a new one.
Anchiskhati Basilica, which dates to the 6th Century CE, was commissioned by King Dachi and is the oldest surviving church in the city.
Narikala Fortress is a sprawling defensive structure that traces the profile of the ridge above Old Town.
The foundations of the fort date to the 4th Century CE – preceding the founding of Tbilisi itself – when the region was under the control of the Persian Empire.
If you find yourself thinking the name Narikala sounds oddly similar to that of Toprak Kala, Ayaz Kala and, for that matter, all the other kalas or desert fortresses of Qaraqalpaqstan, then you’re on to something; there is a connection.
The word kala (or kalat) is found in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish.
Use of the word – to describe a fortress or castle – has spread throughout the Islamic World.
When was Georgia Islamic?
In the 8th Century CE, following the invasion of the Umayyad armies, who conquered Tbilisi in 736 CE.
What happened next?
King David IV of Georgia (also known as David the Builder) regained control of Tbilisi in 1121 CE, seizing it from the Seljuk Turks (who had by then claimed the hot seat). Doing so, he kickstarted the Golden Age of Georgia.
In 1236 CE the Mongols arrived (Genghis’ mob) and took control of Georgia, along with the rest of the Caucasus. They stuck around for the next 100 years.
Georgia became independent in 1320, with Tbilisi its capital, but in 1386 the city was invaded by Timur of Uzbekistan, followed by the Oghuz Turks of Tabriz in 1444, the White Sheep Turkomans in 1477, and the Safavids (of Iran) from 1510. Iran, under various guises, controlled Tbilisi for more or less the next 300 years.
Bank of Georgia Headquarters
In 1801, following an appeal for help to the Russian Empire, Georgia found themselves at last free of the Iranians. Events didn’t quite go as planned though, as they suddenly found a new yoke around their necks, that of the Russians.
Apart from a brief moment of independence, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia remained under Russian control until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Bank of Georgia Headquarters, pictured above, was completed in 1975 in the style of the Russian constructivists.
Rike Concert Hall
Rike Concert Hall (the odd, tubular structure on the righthand side of the photo above) was completed in 2013, during the government of Mikheil Saakashvili.
The former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has since fled the country, and is now wanted on criminal charges of embezzlement and the exceeding of government powers.
Georgia has not had a great run of governments since becoming independent.
Old Town, Tbilisi
Tbilisi has seen more than its fair share of turbulence, and there are signs the upheaval is not over just yet.
The best place to observe its complex, multiethnic history is Old Town, next to the sulphurous hot springs that first attracted people to these regions all those years ago.
Here you can observe mosques, synagogues, and Orthodox churches crammed in on top of one another. And the Jumah Mosque (seen in the background of the photo above) is – purportedly – the only mosque in the world where Sunni and Shi’a Muslims pray together.
Surely there is a message to be found there?
Practical information and how to reach Tbilisi:
The city is serviced by Tbilisi International Airport with flights to cities throughout Europe and the Middle-east. Trains run from Tbilisi to Batumi, Georgia (trip time = 5 hours), Yerevan, Armenia (11 hours), and Baku, Azerbaijan (11 hours). More transport info here.
Or visit my crappy capital city page.
Tbilisi is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.