Re-imagining Tbilisi

GEORGIANS like to claim that they are the original Europeans. It wouldn’t be a push to classify the Georgian government as “aspirational European”. In seeking to distance themselves from overbearing neighbour and long-term “protector” Russia, and endeavouring to strengthen ties with the West, theirs is an entirely Westward tilt. And in aspiring to be a part of “modern” Europe, some Georgians are briskly modernising their capital, Tbilisi.

Long regarded as the most attractive city of the Caucasus (including, by no less an authority than Lonely Planet!), Tbilisi betrays a diverse architectural heritage replete with Persian, Russian belle époque and native Caucasian influences. On my one visit to Tbilisi in 2007 I found its old town to be an intriguing warren of narrow cobbled lanes, stately churches and distinctive housing. Buildings feature a range of idiosyncratic flourishes; broad cantilevered balconies, wrought iron embellishments, intricate wooden lattice work, decorative architraves add charm, whimsy and human warmth to neighbourhoods that buzz with street life and appropriately neighbourly goings on.

There is no denying that parts of Tbilisi are quite dog-eared. Balconies sag, masonry is chipped, gutters sprout with tufts of grass and wild fig. Tbilisi’s elegance is faded, like a grand dame fallen on hard times. This, apparently, will not do for the city’s developers, or rather it presents opportunities for them. Gentrification is happening apace – too fast for some people.

According to this report, building works are often started on the premise that they are “restoration” projects when in fact what results is redevelopment. Even iconic buildings and locations are not immune. Gudiashvili Square is one area boasting notable buildings, yet developers have waded in with little understanding of the significance of buildings or awareness of the sensibilities of residents and have thrown up concrete and plate glass monstrosities, sometimes with plastic detailing in imitation of local styles.

European cinema-goers may already be familiar with some aspects of Tbilisi through the marvellous 2003 movie, Since Otar Left. This film won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival; it’s a loving and detailed portrait of Tbilisi in the immediate post-Soviet period. There are plenty of bleak panoramas, and the film documents the electrical black outs and financially straitened circumstances of the era whereby the heroines of the film have to sell heirlooms to get by. But the central European ambience of the city is also exquisitely captured: the depths of the Metro, dusty buses, post offices with terrazzo counters and glass partitions, the long summer gloaming, the explosions of greenery within residential districts, garden plots and plum trees, steep cobbled streets where neighbours tinker with cars and children kick footballs, grassy verges bursting with Queen Anne’s lace. And the distinctiveness of the Georgians and Tbilisi are on view: Georgian singing and conviviality, a city that is a medley of stately architectural styles and Soviet design motifs.

In fact, Tbilisi, like the other major cities of the Caucasus, has a very multicultural history. The city saw centuries of foreign control as Byzantines, Ottomans, Mongols, the hordes of Tamerlane and Persians rumbled through, and numerous peoples commingled. As recently as 1899, Armenians were in the majority, alongside sizable Georgian and Russian communities, as well as “Tatars” (Azeris), Ossetians, Persians, Greeks, Jews, Germans and Poles. In fact, the significance of Tbilisi for Armenians is strong: it was the birthplace of the great Armenian film auteur Sergei Parajanov, and – as was pointed out to me by some Armenian youths in 2007 – Sayat Nova, the celebrated bard of the Armenians.

What was noticeable on my visit was that Armenian Cathedral of St George (which houses the tomb of Sayat Nova, incidentally) sits just a short distance from Tbilisi’s only mosque, a place where the local Shiites (ie. Azeris) congregate to pray – proof that the two peoples can comfortably live side by side despite the bloodletting that has been unleashed on occasion in Yerevan and Baku. There is also a noticeable Turkish community centred on Aghmashenebelis gamziri in the neighbourhood of Marjanishvili. I wondered past several Turkish restaurants, a Turkish Airlines (THY) office and heard the familiar cadence of Turkish banter. In the early evening near the Metekhi Church on the imposing cliffside plaza gazing across the Mtkvari River at the old town I heard groups of Turkish tourists chattering on their mobile phones to people back home in Istanbul.

There is also a faint Persian ambience in Georgia, something that distinguishes the entire Caucasus from other parts of southern Europe. The Safavid Persians took Tbilisi temporarily in 1522, then reappeared in the 17th century when the region was the scene of a wrestling match between the Safavids and the Ottomans. It was the Persians’ sacking of the city in 1795 that prompted Georgian king Erekle to seek the “protection” of the Russians. Interestingly, despite being a staunch US ally, the Georgians are now experiencing a warming of relations with Iran, having dropped visa requirements for Iranian tourists and enjoying an increase in two-way trade.

Getting back to my original discussion of the “restoration” of Tbilisi, I will end by remarking that it is not unreasonable that Georgians should want to refurbish their capital city and it may be trite for a distant observers like me to lament the loss of quaintness and hail Tbilisi’s ragged elegance. But the wholesale trashing of the city’s architectural legacy would be a shame, particularly because, if tourism numbers from Europe are to increase, as the government hopes, Tbilisi will be the primary magnet. Peter Nasmyth in his fabulous In the Mountains of Poetry, an account of post-Soviet Georgia, remarked that the Georgians are forgiving of any job that is not perfectly executed as long as the task is undertaken with heart, but it appears that in Tbilisi redevelopment is being undertaken only in pursuit of faux-Western modernisation and heart does not enter into it.

Incidentally, another fantastic book about Georgia is Tony Anderson’s Bread & Ashes – highly recommended.

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