Avlabari is one of Tbilisi’s four historical districts, and the second oldest, after Old Tbilisi/Kala. Avlabari is located on the left bank of the Mtkvari River, opposite to Kala, on a relatively high plateau. The name Avlabari dates to 1392 from the Arabic words ,ჰავალი havali “nearby” ბირ bir “edge,” a reference to its proximity to the bluffs that overlook the Mtkvari River past Metekhi Church. Prior to the Middle Ages, this area was considered to be on the outskirts of Tbilisi. One of the first structures to be constructed in Avlabari was a fortress originally built by Vakhtang Gorgasali, founder of Tbilisi in 479 CE, where the present-day Metekhi Church is located. It was in this fortress where numerous kings once lived.
Due to the location of the royal fortress being in Avlabari, numerous ecclesiastical figures and nobles from various communities, notably Persians, Greeks, and Armenians, lived in Avlabari. During the 18th Century, due an epidemic, numerous swamps and areas of Avlabari and Tbilisi were drained. Many Armenians, particularly from Yerevan and the Lori region of Armenia, moved to Avlabari during this period.
Between 1821 and 1831, Avlabari was due to be reconstructed along a grid-like pattern in an effort to better organize the haphazardly-laid streets, however, this plan was never implemented. By 1902, the current plan of Avlabari came into existence, with its central square (located at the modern-day Avlabari M/S) taking its trapezoidal form and the consequential radial roads.
Today, Avlabari is in the beginning stages of a renewal. Partly thanks to Riqe Park’s location in the district, Avlabari’s proximity to Kala, and its plethora of old traditional Georgian-style houses, the neighborhood is becoming an alternative to the heavily-touristed area across the Mtkvari River.
The history of Metekhi Church predates the church itself. St. Abo--the patron saint of Tbilisi--was credited with helping defend Georgia from the Abbasids, who were trying to force the newly Christianized Georgians to renounce their religion. When a new emir was appointed to rule in Tbilisi, Abo was captured and told that if he didn’t convince the locals to renounce their religion, he would be killed. Abo had refused to attempt to assist the new emir’s wishes, and was subsequently killed, his body and garments thrown into a sack, burned, and then thrown again into the Mtkvari River. That evening, locals saw a star shining above a cliff which overlooked the Mtkvari River, and at that spot, found the remains of St. Abo. On that spot, a small chapel was built. Today, this chapel is located on the banks of the Mtkvari River below Metekhi Church and Bridge.
Sitting on a bluff overlooking a point where the Mtkvari River does a sharp turn, Metekhi Church was of strategic importance due to its views of Kala. On the site of the present-day church was a fortress, which was built by King Gorgasali following the founding of Tbilisi in 479 CE. The fortress that once adorned this spot was the residence of various Georgian kings. The current church was built by King Demetre II and construction lasted from 1278-1289. The church was damaged and rebuilt numerous times, with the most notable reconstruction happening during the reign of King Rostom (1633-1658) and King Erekle II (1720-1798).With the exception of a few exterior walls and Metekhi Church, nothing is left of the fortress that once stood here and, in its place, is a statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, which looks over the city which he founded.
Shamkhoretsots Armenian Church
This church now lies in ruins, with only the back wall still standing. The ruins are located in the southern portion of Avlabari. There was an Armenian church built on this site in 1775, but it was destroyed in 1809. The current building was built in 1845. During the Soviet era, the church was decommissioned, as were most religious buildings during the Soviet-era. On 14 April 1989, the church was found ruined. The Georgian authorities blamed the church’s destruction on a 4.0 earthquake that happened the previous day, but it was later found that the church was demolished to make way for a new head church for the Georgian Orthodox Church. Later, the decision was rescinded and the location for the new church was to be at the Armenian Pantheon--Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral’s current location.
Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral
Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral is located on the slopes of Makhata Mountain. In 1989 it was decided by the Georgian Patriarch-Catholicos Ilia II that a new head church for the Georgian Orthodox Church was needed. Construction of the cathedral began in 1995. Placed in the foundation of the cathedral were holy artifacts from sacred Christian places. Construction of the building and its surrounding grounds was finished in 2004 and the cathedral was consecrated on გიორგობა Giorgoba St. George’s Day (23 November) of 2004.
Prior to the completion of Sameba, the tallest church in Georgia was Alaverdi Monastery, near Telavi, Kakheti, which stands at a height of 50 meters (164 feet), whereas Sameba rises 87 meters (285 feet) from the base of the main building to the top of the cross, and 101 meters including its foundation (the foundation is built into a hillside, so the back is underground while the front is ground-level). Sameba is also the third tallest orthodox church in the world and one of the largest Christian churches by volume.
The cathedral is composed of two parts. The lower sanctuary that is composed of nine chapels dedicated to St. Nino, St. Andrew, St George, St Nicolas, St. John the Baptist, the Archangels, and the Apostolic Saints. The cathedral takes the form of a traditional Georgian church, with a cruciform style and a 12-sided cylindrical dome in the center. The interior of the cathedral is largely unfinished, with most of its walls still lacking the traditional murals and mosaics found in Orthodox Churches, although work is still ongoing to complete the vast interior.
Despite Sameba being an architectural and religious landmark in Tbilisi, it does have many controversial aspects--the cathedral was built on what was once Georgia’s largest Armenian Pantheon (cemetery), and also that cathedral’s size is seen as ostentatious by many Tbilisi residents. To further this second point, the cathedral was built during one of the darkest periods of Georgian history, at a time when most residents of Tbilisi lacked 24-hour access to electricity and running water, making the construction of such a large cathedral seem unnecessary.
Riq'e (Rike) Park
Riq'e, located directly opposite of Kala and “below” Avlabari, was once a small micro-district of Avlabari. Culturally, the district acted as a transition zone between the village of Chughureti (located between present-day Avlabari and Aghmashenebeli/Marjanishvili) and Avlabari. During the 19th Century, Riqe had a large bazaar with many workshops. By the 1970s, the area had fallen into disrepair. In 2010, the current park was constructed.
One of the most notable aspects of Riq'e Park is the Bridge of Peace/Peace Bridge, which connects Riq'e Park to Kala on the opposite side of the Mtkvari River. This bridge is a pedestrian-only bridge that has a large glass and metal canopy covering it. Constructed between 2009-2010, the bridge is supposed to be a permanent monument to peace following the country’s five day war with Russia in August, 2008, over the now-occupied South Ossetia region. The bridge has been considered as one of the world’s most unique bridges. At night, the glass canopy and glass railings are lit with thousands of LED lights with the patterns and colors changing for special occasions.
Other notable elements of Riq'e Park is a sculpture of a giant grand piano, a large chess board, and, during the summer months, “dancing fountains” that have shows syncopated to music and lights. Additionally, behind the dancing fountains is a staircase that connects the park to Avlabari (it runs from the park to Baratishvili Rise, which runs from Avlabari M/S to Orbeliani Square). From Baratishvili Rise it is possible to see excellent views of not only the park below, but also of most of Historic Tbilisi, Mtatsminda, and even the Greater Caucasus Mountains on a clear day.