The Fascinating History of Tbilisi

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The Fascinating History of Tbilisi

The history of Tbilisi is rich and incredibly interesting. The capital of the country of Georgia used to be Mtskheta and there is plenty of legend and theory about how Tbilisi came to be the capital. It is all to do with Vakhtang I Gorgasali who played a large part in Tbilisi’s history.

The legend is that the King of ancient Iberia was hunting with his falcon in around the 5th century and, after it made a catch, fell into a nearby hot spring and died from their burns. The discovery of these hot springs intrigued the king and he decided to build a city around them.

In the present day, those springs are still a major attraction in Tbilisi as the Sulphur baths are one of the most popular destinations. The name of Tbilisi comes from the Old Georgian word of Tpili which meant ‘warm’. From this point, there was no looking back for the great capital.

Ancient history

The history of the area goes back much further than that as there has also been evidence of the Stone Age, showing that the area was once thriving long before Vakhtang I Gorgasali ever visited the area. At that time there were approximately up to 4 thousand people there compared to the over one million who live there today.

This isn’t the only evidence of settlements in the area as there have also been remnants found from the Bronze Age, as well as other periods. It’s accepted that Tbilisi was declared as the capital around 1,500 years ago but there is evidence of a city being there a few hundred years before that.

All of this history results in Tbilisi being one of the oldest capitals in Europe. There is a recorded history of the once fortified city going back to the fourth century. Fast forward around a hundred years and that fortified city became the capital.

It was in the 4th century that the famous Narikala Fortress was built. It has gone through a few restorations and expansions since then but the fortress still stands proudly over the city and is one of Tbilisi’s main attractions.

The battles for Tbilisi

As with any European city, the history of Tbilisi isn’t an entirely peaceful one. The first battles for the area came in the latter part of the fifth century as the King had to deal with almost constant revolts from Iran with Vakhtang expelling Iranian representation from Tbilisi.

These battles resulted in huge damage to the city but once it had been rebuilt, Tbilisi became the capital of the Kartli Kingdom. It was an ascension that Vakhtang wasn’t able to see through, unfortunately dying in one of those battles against Iran.

His great legacy would be continued by his son Dachi who helped to vastly increase the size and population of Tbilisi. In this time Tbilisi was seen as the capital of Kartli which was a region that covers most of modern-day central Georgia.

The Georgian rule of Tbilisi didn’t last for very long. In 735 it was invaded by Arabs and they took over the region and this rule would last four centuries up until 1121. At this time, Georgia’s place as an intermediary between Europe and Georgia could be seen as more of a negative than a positive.

David IV Aghmashenebeli was the man who bought back Georgian power and retook Tbilisi from Arab rule. This happened in two parts with a war in 1121 before reuniting all areas of the country in the following year.

The Golden Age

Following this was an era seen as the Golden Ages in Georgian history and this continued for around two hundred years. In this time Tbilisi grew its reputation as an important part of the world trade as it handled goods from many parts of the world.

In this Golden Age, Tbilisi was well-known throughout the world but this was halted in the 13th century with invasions from many different empires. The Iranians once again attacked during this time but also the Ottomans and Mongols attacked.

This almost constant invasion damaged not only the city but also its reputation as an important hub for goods. Unfortunately, this lasted for a few centuries and it wasn’t until the 1800’s that a bit more stability was given to Tbilisi.

This rejuvenation was the responsibility of Erekle II who in 1762 merged the Kartl and Kakheti regions into one kingdom, with Tbilisi at its heart. At this time we saw a lot of construction throughout the city which developed it from a lot more than just a residential center.

The city thrived with its beautiful gardens restored with palaces built and the likes of publishing houses and actor’s troupes bringing a lot more culture to the city. At this point, Tbilisi was the capital of Kartl-Kakheti but in 1801 it became a part of the Russian empire. This was still a fairly peaceful time in the region but there was a hunger for independence.

At this time a lot of investment was given to Tbilisi as the new rulers planned to make Tbilisi into a more dynamic and sophisticated city. The architecture was very European but also contained Russian elements as well as traditional Georgian design.

The (short) independence of Georgia

That independence came in 1918 but it was short-lived. It was declared in on the 26th of May 1918 with Tbilisi at the heart of the new Republic of Georgia. Unfortunately, Russia would stop being distracted by its own revolution and once again have Tbilisi in its sights.

It meant that the independence of Tbilisi and Georgia would only last for just over 1,000 days. In 1921 the Red Army invaded Tbilisi and quickly the government fled. Tbilisi came under Soviet rule but it was never accepted as a way of life in the country. In the 70 years of rule, there were numerous demonstrations and protests. This all led up to a tragedy on the 9th of April in 1989.

On this date, there was a large demonstration in the streets of Tbilisi against Soviet rule with a demand for independence. The Soviet government responded with an iron fist and ended up killing 21 Georgians on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue, the main street in the capital.

There were many other casualties and this started a relentless fire in the hearts of many Georgian people and made independence even more likely. This tragedy has become a public holiday with the members of the protest being remembered.

Just over a year later and Georgia held its first elections where multiple parties could be voted for. The movement for a free and independent Georgia won and in the November of that year the country was once again called the Republic of Georgia.

A vote for independence happened in 1991 and over 99% of the country voted for them to once again become an independent nation. In April 1991 Georgia was once again an independent nation and has been ever since, with Tbilisi at the heart of it.

The timeline of Tbilisi

  • 4th century – Narikala Fortress built in the fortified city
  • 5th century – Tbilisi becomes the capital of the region
  • 570 – Persians first take control of the city
  • 653 – Arab rule begins
  • 1122 – David IV Aghmashenebeli unites the regions
  • 1236 – Mongols come to power
  • 1477 – Aq Qoyunlu gain power of the city
  • 1522 – Persians retake control
  • 1799 – Russians control the city
  • 1801 – The city becomes a part of Russia
  • 1918 – Tbilisi becomes the capital of the Democratic Republic of Georgia
  • 1921 – The city is besieged by the Red Army
  • 1936 – The name of the city changed from Tiflis to Tbilisi
  • 1989 – April 9 Tragedy
  • 1991 – Georgia declares independence from USSR
  • 2002 – The population surpasses one million
  • 2008 – Tbilisi bombed by the Russian Air Force during the Russo-Georgian War
  • 2010 – Bridge of Peace built

Modern day Tbilisi

All of this history can be seen throughout Tbilisi which helps to make it one of the best places to visit in Georgia and Europe. You can see the buildings built by the Old Russian Empire such as the Tbilisi City Assembly and the Tbilisi State Opera House which are beautiful but also the Soviet buildings such as the Bank of Georgia Headquarters which have that distinctive style.

You also have the much older buildings such as the beautiful churches, the Sulphur baths and also Narikala Fortress. Since its independence, the Music Hall, House of Justice and Bridge of Peace have been build which is modern and beautiful.

This history can also be seen on the streets too. Tbilisi is a very cosmopolitan city with a rich mix of ethnicities and cultures. It all adds up to a wonderful place to visit and you’ll see that is you travel to Georgia. It’s great to be able to explore this history for yourself as what we’ve looked at here is only a brief snapshot of Tbilisi’s incredible history.

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