The Warmth of an Old Town

Tbilisi, Georgia
May 31, 2018

Cobble-stoned streets wind every which way, studded with the conical towers of churches and cathedrals around just about every corner. Along with churches are a smattering of synagogues and a mosque or two. Mulberry and cherry trees line the streets, but the ripe berries hang tantalizingly out of reach. There are balconies wrapped in grape vines, some of the vines trailing down across the narrow street along power lines.

Tbilisi might have come into prominence only in the fifth century AD, when King Vakhtang Gorgasali moved the capital of the kingdom of Kartli here, but archeological studies point to this area being settled far earlier. In the fourth millennium BC, the peoples of this region may well have been contemporaries of the Sumerians and Egyptians. This is a city that has long seen the march of humans.

Today it bustles with all the trappings of tourism. The gilded statue of Saint George glistens in the busy roundabout that leads to Kote Abhkazis, the main artery of the old town. It winds through the old town lined by a continuous array of souvenir shops, wine bars, ice cream shops, cafes, restaurants and travel agencies. Smaller streets veer off it into dead ends and alleys.

A nightmare for drivers they may be, but a delight on foot. Some boast yet more cafes, eateries and art shops scattered among carpet and kilim shops and boutique hotels. But not all the buildings have undergone facelifts. In hidden lanes and alleys are plenty that lean at impossible angles, their decaying walls and broken windows a stark contrast to the slickness of the newly renovated buildings.

Tbilisi is a city with long-established love of art and learning. The many sculptures that dot the streets and avenues are beautiful in their craftmanship and beguilingly quirky. The abiding penchant for learning shows in the many browsers of book stalls that mushroom around the city every day. An almost forgotten feature these days, any city that boasts second hand book stalls gets my vote!

The narrow streets of the old town are punctuated with churches and cathedrals, their domes, spires and towers popping up apparently every couple of hundred meters. The Anchiskhati Basilica, Sioni cathedral, Armenian church, Metekhi church, the church of the Holy Trinity, a couple of synagogues are all part of this bustling quarter. Most if not all, date back to the fourth of fifth century but the constant struggle for power among the Georgians, Persians and the Turks that played out in this part of the world, meant periodic destruction and subsequent reconstruction. At one corner of the town are the baths, grown out of the natural hot springs. These hot springs also gave this city its name, tpili in old Georgian, meaning warm.

The brown waters of the Mtkvari river swirl by the edge of town, bridged at several points. The modernistic architecture of the saddle shaped bridge of Peace strikes discordant note amid the stone and brick facades of the spires and domes. An even more bizarre note is that of the concert hall and exhibition center, looking like a pair of fallen power plants. And looming over the city like a row of broken teeth are the remains of the Narikala fortress, its broken tower providing a sweeping view of the city and the curve of the river. Keeping watch over it all is the tall statue of Mother Georgia, ready to defend against marauders with her sword but equally ready to welcome visitors with a cup of wine.

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