Editor’s note: back before I was a writer, I worked in the Jewish community doing major gifts fundraising. One organization I worked for hosted a community trip to Tbilisi – about two months before I started there. So I missed out. Sam’s article about the city – and all the things he saw in a single day – make me want to plan a trip. For more of Sam Spector’s adventures, click here for his index page.
When I talked to people in Armenia and Azerbaijan, they found one thing they agreed on, “Thank goodness for Georgia.” Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are not particularly fond of their neighbors. Armenia borders Turkey and Azerbaijan, with both of whom they are engaged in constant conflict, and Iran, who they have decent relations with. Azerbaijan borders Russia, Iran, and Armenia, and does not have particularly good relations with any of these countries, despite all the religious and cultural commonality it has with Iran. A lot of these tensions come because Iran and Russia have more closely sided with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Turkey is a staunch ally of Azerbaijan. Yet both countries border Georgia (the Caucasus nation, not the American state), which has seen itself as the peacemaker between the two countries, having great relations with both of their neighbors (Georgia is also not particularly fond of Russia, which, in true Vladimir Putin fashion, invaded Georgia in a land grab in 2008). As I had been next door in Azerbaijan, I decided to swing up to the Republic of Georgia to meet with young leaders of their vibrant Jewish community of a few thousand individuals.
Upon arriving in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, I encountered my first of many surprises that the country had to offer. I landed in the middle of the night, and yet Tbilisi was alive and full of young people out and about. Tbilisi has a youthful, exciting, and almost hipster vibe to it, making me feel more like I was in a city like Prague or Berlin than the very border of Europe meeting Asia in the former Soviet Union. A second surprise that I would learn about Georgia is that Georgia is one of the best culinary destinations that I have been to anywhere in the world. Believe it or not, Georgia is where wine was invented dating back to 6000 BCE. As a result, wine is served with nearly every meal, and hot wine is sold on the street, as is wine ice cream (which contains a lot of alcohol). At wine parties throughout the centuries, a person would be appointed as the toastmaster of the party and would have to drink out of a horn that they cannot put down. These horns are sold throughout the country and are one of the best souvenirs that I have purchased. A couple of other must-tries in Georgia are that they serve jam in tea, giving it an extra sweet and fruity taste, and everywhere is candy on a string called churchkhela, which looks like a candle. The churchkhela can come in many flavors, and the more expensive ones definitely taste better. The two national dishes of Georgia are khachapuri, a filling bread with cheese and egg served hot that is amazing and filling, and the a dumpling dish called khinkali. Khinkali is eaten with your hands and has inside a mixture of pork, beef, and soup broth. I was disappointed that since I keep kosher that I thought I would miss out on this delicacy that has become a symbol of the country; however, behind the beautiful and eclectic 19th century Great Synagogue of Tbilisi is a wonderful kosher restaurant called King David that serves a kosher version of this must-try food.
A couple of other surprises I learned about Georgia is that the Georgian language is part of its own language group and unlike any other alphabet or language in the world, making it one of the hardest to learn. Another interesting fact is that while the country of Georgia is only half the size of the American state that has the same name, it is home to twelve different climate zones from alpine mountain to subtropical. While Azerbaijanis could not really tell me if they were in Europe or Asia, Georgians unequivocally identify as part of Europe, and boast that should they one day be admitted to the European Union, their tallest mountain, Shkhara, which can be seen on a clear day from Tbilisi, will be the tallest peak in the European Union at 17,037 feet. In fact, Georgia has four mountains taller than the European Union’s tallest, Mont Blanc.
However, Georgia’s biggest surprise was that Tbilisi became one of my favorite cities in the world. Aside from the excellent nightlife and culinary scene, not to mention the tremendous affordability, Tbilisi is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With the Kura River cutting through the town, Old Tbilisi is situated in a bit of a canyon with dramatic cliffs on either side of it and the river running down the middle. On one side of the river is the Metekhi Church looking down on the old town, while the other side has on top of its cliff the beautiful 4th century Narikala Fortress and the Mother of Georgia statue, standing at 20 meters high and holding in one hand a sword and a bowl of wine in the other while looking down at the whole city. To get up to the fortress and statue take the scenic cable car up over the old town and across the river, while also being treated to views of the modern Sameba Cathedral, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. In the old town, make sure to visit the 6th century Sioni Church. While it looks simple on the outside, the inside is filled with beautiful paintings, and a choir sings on Sundays with some of the best voices that can be heard anywhere. Also in the old town be sure to go into the many souvenir shops and especially the Meidan Bazaar underground tunnel with its great shopping. In the old town you will notice the balconies on all the buildings, which are built in Persian style dating back to the Persian conquest of Tbilisi, which also is the reason for a large Persian building in the middle of the old town. This building is a bathhouse, and it is one of a cluster of bathhouses in the square there, which has a little creek that runs through it that smells strongly of sulfur. These bathhouses provide saunas, steam rooms, and baths that come from the sulfur and are enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. It is best to reserve your time slot a day prior as each private room fills up nightly; these baths are very affordable and for a cost of only about $10 extra, a professional comes in and provides a scrub and massage, as well as instruction of going from the hot to cold baths in the room. Just beyond the sulfur baths is a pathway that leads to a narrow canyon that has a beautiful waterfall that can be visited day or night.
Outside of the old town, there are still plenty of attractions in Tbilisi. A noticeable and controversial attraction is the glass Bridge of Peace that goes across the river. Its modern design connecting the old town to the park on the other side of the river does not appeal to everyone, but the thousands of LED lights that illuminate it nightly make it quite a spectacle. In the Rike Park below the parliament building is a statue of Ronald Reagan sitting on a bench. The locals will tell you that President Reagan is facing towards Russia, as if he is staring down Georgia’s adversary as a tribute to his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. An attraction that I was unsure of that blew me away was a monument on the outskirts of the city called the Chronicle of Georgia. Often called the “Georgian Stonehenge”, construction began in 1985 and some say is still not completed. The monument is atop a hill overlooking a poor neighborhood in northern Tbilisi that is full of Soviet-era apartments and the Tbilisi Reservoir. The sixteen 30-meter-high columns depict 3000 years of Georgian history at the top and the nearly 2000-year-old history of Christianity in Georgia and the life of Jesus on the bottom. The columns are spectacular and grandiose, dwarfing all visitors who walk through them, while also offering in breathtaking views.
However, the main place to visit when you go to Tbilisi is the city of Mtshketa, located 12 miles outside Tbilisi. This small town was the capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE, and is the holiest and most important cultural town to the Georgian people. Walking through the town, you will pass a lot stalls of vendors selling really worthwhile souvenirs and Georgian sweets before you reach the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which for over a thousand years was the largest Orthodox cathedral in the country. While the cathedral dates back to the 4th century, the current structure is from the 10th century. It was built in a location and size so that it would be visible from all the surrounding hills, where pagan shrines were located, to show Christianity’s victory in the valley. The cathedral is surrounded by medieval walls and towers protecting it, and on the outside façade is a statue of an arm and a relief scripture referring to the hand of the architect who built the cathedral. According to legend, the king was jealous of the architect for having a beautiful wife who he wanted for himself, and thus had the architect’s right hand cut off. Inside the cathedral are beautiful frescoes that date back hundreds of years, and also an important shrine that Georgians claim contains the tunic that Jesus wore when he was crucified.
Perched on a mountaintop above Mtshketa is the Jvari Monastery, an early church from the 6th century that has been completely unchanged. As I was there on a Sunday, there were many weddings taking place inside the church. The Jvari Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as is Svetitskhoveli) and it is said that it was at this location, which had been a pagan shrine, that Saint Nino converted the Georgian king to Christianity in 334 CE. The Jvari Monastery not only gives epic views of the surrounding mountains and Mtshketa, but it also looks down on the converging of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. The harmony between Jvari’s architecture and the surrounding nature makes this one of the most memorable churches to visit in Europe.
Believe it or not, I was able to see all of these things in one very action-packed day, but Georgia is worth more time than I gave it, so perhaps plan on doing this over two days to be less rushed. Had I had more time, I would have loved to take a trip an hour north of Tbilisi to the town of Gori, the birthplace of Georgia’s most notorious son, Joseph Stalin. You can visit Stalin’s home and also a controversial museum dedicated to him, that critics say glorifies him. If taking a guided tour of Tbilisi, be sure to have your guide point out the different places where Stalin studied theology in his younger years when he pursued the priesthood. Further north is the Georgian military road, which takes you through the Caucasus and to more stunning monasteries, which I will do on my next visit to the country. While people often mistaken this country with the American state, go visit and you will see that there is nowhere on earth like the Republic of Georgia, which is starting to get discovered for good reason.
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