Tbilisi's Four Ancient Histories
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Each neighborhood in Tbilisi feels as if it is a separate city, with unique geography, unique architecture, and a unique history. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the four historical districts of Central Tbilisi--Old Tbilisi/Kala, Avlabari, Mtatsminda, and Aghmashenebeli/Marjanishvili. Each of these four neighborhoods has a unique beginning which would come to influence their architecture, culture, and atmosphere.
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 the political and cultural center for Georgia throughout the ages thanks to its historically large population of Armenians, Jews, and Persians. Jewish people first arrived in Mtskheta in the 6th Century BCE, but have had a long presence in Tbilisi. Today, the neighborhood has 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.
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-neighborhoods of Kala best reflect this, with most of the balconies and woodwork having strong Persian and Turkish motifs and influences.
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.
Avlabari is Tbilisi’s second oldest district, 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” and ბირ bir “edge,” which is a reference to its proximity to the bluffs that overlook the Mtkvari River past Metekhi Church.
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.
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.
Mtatsminda is one of Tbilisi’s most geographically unique neighborhoods. Here, the Trialeti Range--a subset of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains--comes crashing to the Mtkvari River. The neighborhood is named after the most prominent geographic feature, Mtatsminda “Holy Mountain” which is a large, flat mountain. Rustaveli Avenue runs along the mountain’s base.
Mtatsminda began to grow from a small village outside of Tbilisi (the Kala district) to an important district in the early to mid 18th Century. Initially, the area grew around Orbeliani and Liberty Squares and then expanded along what is now Rustaveli Avenue. During this time, the district reached present-day 9 April Park, which used to be the royal Alexander Garden and was later made the first public park in the city.
Much of this area was built during Georgia’s time under the Russian Empire and, as such, the neighborhood is known for its grand, stately buildings. Like the rest of the Russian Empire during the 18th Century and 19th centuries which modeled its architecture on the neoclassical and baroque buildings of Paris, the streets of Mtatsminda would fit in with a street in France or Germany.
The neighborhood that is centered around Marjansivhili Square--where Aghmashenebeli and Marjanishvili Avenues intersect--has one of the most unique backgrounds of Tbilisi’s neighborhoods. During the 18th Century, the neighborhood was part of the Kukia Forest (today the only reminder of the forest is Kukia Cemetery). This neighborhood was merely a rural village on the edge of Tbilisi. Beginning in 1817, settlers from Germany arrived in Georgia and began to live in this area and then gave the area the name of Neu-Tiflis, or “New Tbilisi." Under Russian Imperial rule, the area was known as Немецкая Колония Nemetskaya Kolonia, or “The German Colony,” and the “German Quarter.” Opening in 1897, an Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in traditional German neo-Gothic architecture on what is now Marjanishvili Avenue, close to Marjansivhili Square. The church was subsequently demolished during Soviet rule in 1946.
The neighborhood first appeared on a map of Tbilisi in 1845 and was officially incorporated under the Viceroy of Caucasia Mikheil Vorontsov in 1862. Following the death of the prominent Russian Marxist philosopher Giorgi Plekhanov, what is today Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue was named Giorgi Plekhanov Avenue. In 1990, Plekhanov Avenue was renamed Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue, after the medieval Georgian king.
Despite having a strong German heritage, Aghmashenebeli/Marjanishvili is currently the heart of Tbilisi’s Middle Eastern community. Marjanishvili and Aghmashenebeli Avenues are lined with Turkish and Iranian restaurants, hair salons, and markets. Additionally, there are numerous theaters located on Aghmashenebeli and Marjanishvili Avenues, such as the Nodar Dumbadze Theater, the Kakhidze Music Center, and the Marjanishvili Theater.