The oldest neighborhood of Tbilisi, Old Tbilisi, or more formally known as კალა Kala, is located in a geographically strategic choke-point on the Mtkvari River. Kala has been not only the political and cultural center for Georgia throughout the ages, but also for Armenians, Jews, and Persians alike. Jewish people first arrived in Mtskheta in the 6th Century BCE, but have had a long presence in Tbilisi. Today, the neighborhood holds two synagogues. Additionally, most churches in the neighborhood were, at one point, Armenian Orthodox churches, with St. George’s Armenian Orthodox Church still acting as the head Armenian church for Tbilisi. Finally, the Persians have long held a special place in Kala since much of the district dates back to Persian rule of Georgia.
Kala has frequently been called the “Persian Quarter.” The architecture of this district reflects this as well. Kala’s streets are narrow and winding, with each building having a small inner courtyard lined with balconies. The Bethlehem and Abanotubani micro-districts of Kala best reflect this, with most of the balconies and woodwork having strong Persian and Turkish motifs and influences. The best example of this is the Orbeliani Bathhouse, which has a stunning and vivid bright blue facade which resembles a miniature version of the facades of the great mosques of Bukhara, Samarkand, or Isfahan.
The southern boundary of Kala is the Sololaki Ridge, which runs nearly perfectly straight from Mtatsminda to the river. To the west of Kala is Mtatsminda, a large mountain ridge that is a part of the Trialeti Range, itself a part of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The eastern boundary of Kala is the Mtkvari River. This means that Kala only needed man-made defenses on its northern boundary. Today, the remnants of the original walls can be seen along Baratishvili Street. From the Mtkvari River to Orbiani Square, much of the walls are above ground, however, from Orbeliani Square to Liberty Square, they were covered by Aleksandr Pushkin Street, but are still visible.
Gorgasali Square, located at a five-point intersection at the foot of the Metekhi Bridge, is where camel caravans from Persia and Central Asia would meet with merchants from the Russian and Byzantine Empires. The square has known many names, such as Shaitan Bazaar, Tatri Square, and Fortress Square. The square has gone from the heart of Kala’s trade to the heart of Kala’s nightlife. Today, most of the streets that merge onto the square have restaurants, cafes, and bars along them. The most notable street is Shardeni Street, which also sports numerous nightclubs and pubs.
Lado Gudiashvili Square
This square, located close to Liberty Square, is named after the 19th Century poet, Lado Gudiasvhili. The oldest buildings on this square date back to the 19th Century, however, many artifacts, such as pottery fragments, ceramic cutlery, and even a compartment for a clay oven dating from the 16th-17th Centuries have been found in the vicinity of the square. Despite the square’s lackluster current history, it once was a prominent place in Tbilisi, with many institutions once headquartered here, such as the Russian Empire’s headquarters for the Caucasus, which later served as the office for the literary newspaper ლიტერატურული საქართველო Literatuli Sakartvelo “Literary Georgia.” In 2018, extensive renovation plans for the square and the surrounding vicinity were launched to restore buildings and streets to their original form.
Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral
Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral is located in the heart of Old Tbilisi, next to the Mtkvari River. Sioni is one of Tbilisi’s most important and well-known churches. On the spot where Tbilisi Sioni sits was the first church built by King Vakhtang Gorgasali, who founded Tbilisi in 479 CE. Construction of the present structure began in the 6th Century and ended in the 7th Century CE. Sioni Cathedral is best known for housing the holiest artifact of the Georgian Orthodox Church--the Cross of St. Nino, which was used by the Saint when she converted the Georgian peoples to Christianity in the 3rd Century CE. Another important point of interest is the grave of Ioane Mkhrgrdzeli, chamberlain to King Tamar, who ruled Georgia at the height of its Golden Age from 1184-1213 CE. During the time when Georgia was ruled by the Persians and Temurlane, the church was damaged by numerous earthquakes and was subsequently restored. The dome that exists today was rebuilt in 1710 CE. The bell tower that sits in the church’s courtyard was initially built by King Aleksandre I in 1452, but has since been renovated numerous times, with the current structure dating to 1812 CE. During the 1850s, Grigol Gagarin completed numerous paintings within the church. Starting in the 1980s, much of the interior space and walls were renovated by Levan Tsutskiridze.
Tbilisi Great Synagogue
The Tbilisi Great Synagogue was the seventh synagogue built in the city when construction began in 1904. The synagogue was built by Georgian Hebrews from Akhaltsikhe. The synagogue takes up 1,020 square meters/10,100 square feet and was built using traditional Georgian red-brick. The interior of the religious space is highly decorated, with ornate stonework and paintings covering the walls and ceilings. The synagogue is facing south so that it is oriented towards Jerusalem. The structure is composed of two floors, with the main religious space on the second floor, and according to Ashkenazi traditions, has a “women’s gallery.” In 2000, a Hebrew school was established and a memorial plaque was placed by the synagogue to commemorate the special traditions and history of Georgian Hebrews.
This micro-district of Old Tbilisi, along with Abanotubani, is part of the original Old Tbilisi. This micro-district clings to the Sololaki Ridge, with Kartlis Deda and Nariqala Fortress looming overhead. This area is a maze of narrow, steep, cobblestone alleys that wrap from behind Nariqala towards Lado Asatiani Street. Some streets here, most notably Bethlehem Rise, are actually tight staircases that ascend the ridge with the buildings’ front doors only being small landings.The area was also home to much of Tbilisi’s Armenian population, with the Upper Bethlehem Church and the Church of St. George once having been Armenian churches and St. George Armenian Church still remaining Tbilisi’s primary Armenian Orthodox church.
Upper Bethlehem Church and Church of St. George
Both churches are built on a steep ridge overlooking Old Tbilisi and sit under the Kartlis Deda statue. Lower Bethlehem Church was built during the 18th Century CE as an Armenian Orthodox church, but for Georgians it remains a sacred site since the structure was built by both Georgians and Armenians alike and consecrated by Georgian King Givi Amilakhvari. The Church of St. George was originally the site of a Georgian Orthodox church, but the current structure was built as an Armenian Orthodox church. Both churches were re-consecrated as Georgian Orthodox churches following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Literally named the “Bath District,” Abanotubani is the oldest area of Tbilisi. The city takes its name from the Georgian old Georgian word ტბილი t’pili (now თბილი tbili) meaning “warm” due to the warm sulphur springs located in the area. Running from the Botanical Gardens above and behind Abanotubani is a small creek. The creek crashes into the district at a small waterfall located at the back of the district, under and behind the Nariqala Fortress. The pathways along the creek have been recently constructed and the creekbed restored to its natural state. The buildings that cling to the ridge between the creek and Nariqala Fortress are what remain of the original ტფილისი T’pilisi. Located in this area is the Central Mosque, the Tbilisi Botanical Garden, and numerous sulphur baths which have rooms that can be rented for small and large groups along with public bath halls.
St. George Armenian Orthodox Church/Surpgevorki
The church is located behind Gorgasali Square on the road leading to Nariqala Fortress. In 1251, a church was built on the existing church’s location, which was within the castle district of Old Tbilisi, by Armenians living in Tbilisi. In 1616, the church was given to the Persian garrisons by Shah Abbas. King Erekle II returned the church back to the Armenians in 1748, but it was subsequently burnt down by the Persians in 1795 after they invaded Georgia. Located at the front of the church is the tomb of the well-known Armenian poet, Sayat-Nova (né Harutyun Sayatyan), who died during the Persian invasion
Nariqala Fortress sits atop a ridge where the Mtkvari River does a sharp turn. This allows excellent panorama views of Tbilisi from the fortress. The oldest portions of the current fortress date back to Mongol rule of Georgia. The citadel was one of numerous fortifications that once protected Tbilisi from invasion. The fortress was destroyed, rebuilt, and reconstructed numerous times by each successive empire which ruled Tbilisi and Georgia. Nariqala has two underground exits, one which leads to the Mtkvari River and one which leads towards the creek that runs behind the ridge on which the fortress sits. The church in Nariqala was built by Vakhushti Batonishvili in 1735 CE. Between 2016 and 2017, the ruins of Nariqala were reconstructed by the Tbilisi City Hall.
Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) Statue
Like Russia, Ukraine, and Armenia, Georgia also has a “Mother” statue, which was built by the Soviet Union. Kartlis Deda is located on the Sololaki Ridge, a short walk away from Nariqala Fortress, and overlooks most of Tbilisi. She was built during the Soviet-era in 1958. The statue was designed by Elguja Amashukeli, stands at a height of 20 meters, and was built to commemorate Tbilisi’s 1500th year of inhabitation. The statue has a bowl in one hand, representing Georgians’ renowned hospitality and welcoming personality, and a sword in the other hand to show their loyalty to defending their country and traditions. Kartlis Deda can be reached from Nariqala Fortress or from Bethlehem Rise, which is a stairway/street that begins on Lado Asatiani Street and goes to the Upper Bethlehem Church.
Tbilisi Botanical Garden
The National Botanical Garden of Georgia is located in a valley between the Sololaki Ridge, where Nariqala Fortress sits, and the Teleti Ridge, which is a large mountain ridge in the southern end of Tbilisi. There were originally three gardens in Tbilisi that belonged to various kings and nobility. On 01 May, 1845, the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Mikheil Vorontsov, decided that the garden which was then known as the “Fortress” garden would become the “Tbilisi Botanical Garden.” In 2012, the Botanical Garden was given the status of the national botanical garden. The garden carries out the conservation of rare and endangered flora found throughout Georgia, housing around 3,500 different species of plants, including both natural vegetation and man-made gardens. Running through the middle of the garden is the Tsavkisistskali River. Within the garden itself is a tall waterfall with an arched pedestrian bridge over it, offering visitors amazing aerial views of both the waterfall and the gardens itself. The river then has a second waterfall near the main gate of the Botanical Garden, where it falls into the Abanotubani district below. Added in 2017, a zip line runs from Nariqala Fortress to the central area of the garden.