For the first few months of our time in Georgia, we’ve been living in Tbilisi, the capital and largest city in Georgia.
The name “Tbilisi” is derived from the Georgian word for “warm” (“tbili”). The city was famous for its natural sulphur baths, and there is still a district named for them. I haven’t gone yet, but definitely want to.
By the way, if you can’t figure out how to pronounce this name, you’re definitely not alone! A lot of foreigners approximate something like “Tuhbleezee” since “tb” isn’t a very kind consonant cluster (“tbeeleesee” is more accurate though). I guess it’s only fair; naming the capital city thus is like a big “beware of dog” sign for foreigners, warning them to stay away from this language since it gets even harder…
Tbilisi has a long history, dating from its founding around 450 CE. It was attacked and partially destroyed many times, whether by Arab, Turkish, Mongol, or Persian armies; due to this, few really ancient buildings are still around, although there are some really old fortresses and churches and the like. During this time (and actually until about 1930), most of the world referred to the city as “Tiflis.”
Around 1800, the Russian Empire annexed Georgia (they were partially invited as protection against the Persians, but it’s a complex scenario).
The 1800s brought a lot more European influence to the city via its new Russian overlords, including such necessities as an opera house and ballet. A lot of the older buildings still standing in Tbilisi date from the Russian colonial period.
Throughout the 1800s (as in most earlier periods), Armenians were actually the majority population of the city, with ethnic Georgians being primarily a rural people at the time. It wasn’t until the Soviet period that the city’s Georgian numbers first matched and then began to overtake those of the Armenians. Tbilisi was the largest city in the Caucasus for most of its history, until Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, experienced an oil boom around 1900.
In addition to these big apartment blocks, many people today live in “Italian courtyards,” which include several small flats or houses encircling a small open space (mostly a parking lot crossed by clotheslines). They are set back from the road by a short passage, making street noise more bearable. Here’s the entrance to our courtyard.
The 1990s were pretty dark times in Georgia (both figuratively and literally–civil war, roving militias and civil instability meant that basic utilities like electricity and water were unpredictable or just totally nonexistent). Some damaged areas still haven’t been repaired–I don’t know if that’s the story with the house directly below or not, but something’s clearly not right.
Today, Tbilisi comes across a little bit like a silent film diva who has reached her tenth decade and is dressed in the garments from her first starring role. The beauty is still there if you look for it, but it’s seen better days.
The intricate ironwork of doors and balconies is often now overshadowed by peeling paint and crumbling walls.
The neoliberal phase that followed 2004’s “Rose Revolution” saw the construction of a whole lot of flashy new buildings and monuments, some of them wildly out of step with the style of their surroundings. This is the famous “Peace Bridge,” which some people like and others despise.
The picture below (taken from the Peace Bridge) shows 3 of Tbilisi’s most obvious new structures, the Presidential Palace (the thing with the pickle dome on top), Sameba cathedral (the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch), and this odd pair of shiny slugs that apparently was supposed to become a concert hall but has remained unopened for more than 5 years (when viewed from another angle, Yok likens it to a pair of prone spread legs, which hopefully is not what the architect was going for).
Tbilisi can be a pretty hectic place. These cars are driving past the Justice Hall, a large building which conveniently combines the functions of institutions like the DMV, social security, national health insurance, and most other civil services under one (OK, one oddly sectioned and overlapping) roof. Many people refer to it as the “mushroom building.”
At 1.5 million, it’s the largest city any of us has lived in (hey, we’re from Winnipeg, OK?), but it still has its quieter spots, perfect for a leisurely family stroll.
Of course, the hilly terrain can turn even a leisurely stroll into a feat of endurance.
But the hills are worth it when you can get blossoms in February (the day this was taken it was about -14 in Winnipeg).
There are also enough parks nearby to keep Rosa happy most of the time, plus we get to try to decipher graffiti in multiple languages and alphabets.
The verdict for now? Tbilisi’s an interesting place to live in and experience, despite some obvious shortcomings. You’re welcome to come visit us any time!