Georgia has many historic places to visit, from the “cave cities” of Uplistsikhe, Vardzia, and Davit Gareja to the grand Baroque and Neoclassical Rustavi Avenue along with dozens of medieval churches and castle ruins. Each well-known location in Georgia made its way to fame for a reason, but which of these locations gives you the most insight into Georgia? We’ve listed what we think are the top five most insightful locations for understand Georgian history.
1: Gori and Uplistsikhe
Many people wouldn’t think that Gori and Uplistsikhe would claim the top spot, but Gori and neighboring Uplistsikhe represent something that is rare not only for Georgia, but for the world--nearly 4,000 years of continual human habitation.
Uplistsikhe was first inhabited sometime in the 2nd millenium BCE and since grew to become one of the largest urban centers in Georgia during the Iron Age. Even into the Middle Ages, Uplistsikhe was a major trade center for Kartli--the central region of Georgia. The decline of Uplistsikhe went hand-in-hand with the rise of Gori.
Gori grew around Gori Fortress, which overlooks the Kartli Plain and offers commanding views of the Caucasus Mountains. The city is home to the most well-known Georgian, Joseph Stalin (Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili), who would become the leader of the Soviet Union during World War II. Gori would then re-enter the world stage on 08 August 2008. Despite the cause of the brief war between Russia and Georgia being the question of South Ossetia, much of the bombing and destruction occurred in Gori. The city was bombed, and subsequently rebuilt. Bullet holes riddle buildings throughout the city, including its city hall, as a grim reminder of Georgia’s never-ending fight for independence.
No list would be complete without Mtskheta. Like Gori and Uplistskhe, Mtskheta has been inhabited for a few thousand years. The city was the capital of Georgia until 479 CE, including the very first truly Georgian kingdoms. In 326 CE, led by St. Nino, King Miriani III and his wife, Queen Nana converted to Christianity, making Georgia one of the first countries in the world to convert to the religion. The graves of King Miriani III and Queen Nana are in Samtavro Monastery on the northern end of the city.
Svetitskhoveli is the heart of Mtskheta. The present building is over 1,000 years old and is the first example of European-style ecclesastical architecture in Georgia, with heavy influences from Byzantine and Romanesque architecture. Svetitskhoveli, according to the Eastern Orthodox rite, holds the mantle of Christ, which has been in Mtskheta since the death of Jesus. As such, Mtskheta took the moniker of “the Second Jerusalem” during the Byzantine era.
Not much is left of this fortress, but during the time of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Ujarma was one of Georgia’s largest cities and was the country’s second most important center for the spread of Christianity, after Mtskheta. Ujarma is located above the Iori river in a narrow pass in the Gombori Ridge, which divides the Alazani Valley from the Iori Plateau. The fortress once connected trade and commerce between central Georgia and Kakheti. Due to the fort's prominence on Georgia's southeastern border, Ujarma also served as Georgia’s main defense from the Persians, who would often attack from the southeast. Vakhtang Gorgasali used Ujarma as his second residence, and, ultimately, died here. Following the death of Gorgasali, the fortress began to decline in its importance. Nevertheless, Ujarma played a crucial role in integrating Kakheti into Georgia.
4: Parliament of Georgia
Aside from being the main government body in Georgia, the Parliament of Georgia has stood witness to many of Georgia’s most infamous moments in recent history. It is from the small square in front of the Parliament that the 9th of April protests occurred, which would ignite the Georgians’ desire for independence from the USSR. The building fell victim to grenades, shellfire, and arson during the civil war that engulfed Tbilisi during the early 1990s, and it was in the parliament chamber that President Eduard Shevardnadze and the remnants Soviet rule were overthrown in 2003 in the Rose Revolution. Today, this building and its plaza are at the heart of Georgian society, hosting somber protests and joyous celebrations alike.
5: Gelati Monastery
Located just outside of Kutaisi, Gelati Monastery was Georgia’s leading political, educational, and religious institution. King Davit Aghmashenebeli ordered the monastery to be built--a move meant both to connect the Georgian Orthodox Church to the crown by requiring the church to repay the crown for the monastery's construction, but also tied Georgia to the West. As a physical structure, it is Georgia’s best example of Medieval Byzantine architecture, and one of the largest Byzantine structures east of the former Byzantine Empire. The monastery has over 40 portraits, has exquisite mosaics and artwork, and its architectural integrity hasn’t been lost over the centuries. As a cultural institution, Gelati Monastery represents not only Georgia's desire for Western integration, but also the battle between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Georgian state for authority in Georgia.