Friday, November 13, 2009

Tbilisi, Capital of Georgia

This roughly patched together panorama shows Tbilisi from the Narikala Fortress that looms over the city. Most of the city, including the oldest parts, are on the left hand bank of the Mtkvari River.

However just over the bridge is the Metekhi Church which stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking a sharp bend in the river. Fortifications at this point were used to control the river, together with the castle on the hill:

And Tbilisi definitely needed defending as there have been wave after wave of invasions from Russia, Persia, Turkey, Arabs and Romans. My guide for the two tours I took out of the city said that there had been 40 odd invasions, which can well believe. Well I think she said 40, it might have been 14 given she had a distinct accent, but the bigger figure in this case sounds more plausible

Georgia has a very long history and in classical times there were two kingdoms called the Colchis in the west and the Kartli in the east and south. The Colchis were the land of the Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts searched for. This story apparently has an element of truth, in that sheep's skins were used to pan for gold.

The Kartli were also known as known as Iberia which was the term my guide used, which confused me initially. She also kept saying things like "the Russian invention of Georgia was followed by the Persian invention of Georgia".

Eventually I twigged that one should mentally replace "invention" with "invasion" but by this point it had been said too many times to be able to politely correct the pronounciation so let it go.

Actually it was in a way quite appropriate because Georgian culture is a mix of all these different cultures, so in a way it was invented by all these invasions.

Alas a lot of the old town was burnt in one of the many sackings of the city but it has been re-built in wood with lots of lovely winding streets and over-hanging balconies:

My guide book compared it to the house of Miss Haversham in Dicken's Great Expectations, but to me it unfortunately reminded me of another building in another Dickens, namely the House of Clennams in Little Dorrit.

This building collapsed into a pile of dust at the end of the book and that has clearly happened more than once in Tbilisi. Many of the quaint buildings are at closer inspection in need of some repairs:

This city does not have the oil wealth of Baku and there is none of the frantic re-generation, though some reconstruction is evident.

There is also a sense of edge, with more police cars screetching by or stopping and men with machine guns (!) emerging. SUVs with blackened windows go rushing by and on the motorway on the way back from some monastories we passed a military convoy with trucks full of bombs (big ones).

As well as having a troubled ancient history, Georgia has had a troubled recent one too. The war in South Ossetia resulted in Russian tanks only 60 km from the capital. Previously there were civil wars and other regional troubles.

Despite good relations with the west they now know that in the end their three big neightbours of Russia, Turkey and Iran are the ones that matter.

But what is attractive about this country is how they are determined to enjoy the good life and carry on regardless. You go into a restaurant for a quick meal and by the end there is a band bashing out U2 and Beatles hits or a fiddler is playing Jewish music with couples dancing.

It has a more European feel that Baku, with good coffee bars that have free wifi such as Entree on Rustavelis gamzini and the nearby Prospero's Books which as you might guess is also a bookshop.

Its hard not to like these people and wish them well.

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