An architectural feast in Tbilisi

Tbilisi’s babel of building styles is a product of its complicated past

By Kalpana Sunder

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Published: Thu 11 Jan 2024, 6:46 PM

Cupcake-coloured houses, Art Nouveau entrances and lobbies of houses and ancient churches as you walk along the crooked, winding lanes of the old town of Tbilisi, what stands out is its stunning architecture. Tbilisi’s babel of building styles is a product of its complicated past and repeated reconstructions in different eras after invasions and earthquakes.

Persian, Armenian, Byzantine, Ottoman, Moorish, Arab and Soviet influences permeate its buildings. With intricately-carved wooden balconies and verandahs, communal Italian courtyards with mulberry trees that suit its Mediterranean-like climate, spiral iron staircases and coloured glass windows, it is a visual feast. Many buildings lie dormant and unused, while others have been renovated to their past glory. During Soviet times, gargantuan houses were converted into smaller abodes for locals with common courtyards and external staircases.

To an architecture buff like me, the city is a building heaven. Tbilisi feels surprisingly European in spite of its rich Caucasian heritage. We walk through the narrow streets of old town, under the gaze of the fourth century Narikala Fortress on a hill, as our guide takes us aside now and then to peer into a beautiful lobby of a building with limited edition tiles or murals and ornamental motifs like carpets, or points out some visible features on the roof or ceilings. We huff and puff our way up the steep Betlemi Street Stairs, in Tbilsi’s historic Jewish quarter passing a fifth century Zoroastrian fire temple and feasting on panoramic views of the town. Climbing the 120 steps, past cliffside gardens, we reach the Upper Bethlehem Church that dates back to the fifth century with rose bushes and benches to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of this layered city.

Most distinctive of the city’s architecture are the delicately carved, filigreed-over hanging wooden and wrought iron ‘Tbilisi balconies’ that are the hallmarks of the city. These balconies were constructed to offer a respite to the citizens from the summer heat. The balconies were where people gathered and socialised and had their meals. On warm summer nights they even slept in the balconies. Some balconies have been glassed in and are called ‘Shushabandhi’.

I love the simple-but-atmospheric Virgin Mary Assumption Church of Metekhi that hangs on a cliff above the river, with a statue of king Vakhtang Gorgasali , the city’s founder, who commissioned the structure as his court church in the fifth century. Not far from here is Abanotubani, the bath quarter of the town with traditional postcard pretty houses with carved wooden balconies hanging precariously on cliffs and the brick domes of the Persian style baths that the city is famous for. Most of the bathhouses here date back to the 17th century and have mosaics, marble and vaulted ceilings.

At first glance the city looks chaotic, with construction sites and dilapidated buildings. But dig deeper and you see the beautiful facades. The Sololaki District was once called the little Paris of the city with its streets in a grid pattern and the first planned residential district outside the city walls, filled with old Art Nouveau mansions with wrought iron balconies and crumbling facades, once built by wealthy merchants in the 19th century. Here, we have dinner at Café Littera, housed in an old Art Deco mansion from 1903 and owned by the Georgian Writers’ Union. New York-returned chef Tekuna Gachechiladze has started her restaurant that serves modern Georgian fare where she uses fresh produce and creates twists on traditional Georgian dishes.

Rustaveli Avenue is the Champs Elysees of Tbilisi with stately neo-classical palaces and buildings lining the length — from the Moorish-looking Opera House to the Old Georgian Parliament Building, and the Georgian National Museum that houses historical treasures.

The David Agmashenebeli Avenue, restored in 2010, included 70 buildings and today, each Art Nouveau building with its gilded balconies, stucco and motifs on its façade looks stunning. Scattered around old town are old caravanserais, where the traders on the Silk Route camped with their caravans and camels.

My favourite church in town is the Sioni Cathedral, named after Mount Zion in Jerusalem. I am stunned by the beautiful interiors with frescoes and Russian iconography, frescoes and candles illuminating the dark corners. The church holds a grapevine cross, a symbol of Saint Nino, who converted the Georgian king Vakhtang III to Christianity.

Regeneration is the norm in this city. Fabrika, an old Soviet era sewing factory, has been converted into a funky 400-room hostel with graffiti and wall art, craft shops as well as a café. The Rooms is an erstwhile Soviet Publishing house building repurposed as a boutique hotel. Restaurants like Ninia’s Garden, that once housed in old houses, have tables laid out in pretty courtyards with grapevines.

Our most beautiful experience is at the Tbilisi State Academy of Art building, which is a functioning art school that hides in its interiors the stunning Hall of Mirrors, executed by Qajar artists invited from Iran. The main building of the Academy was constructed as a private house belonging to an Armenian merchant who made his fortunes in the fishing industry and served as the city’s mayor for two years. He gifted the house to the public and left part of his fortunes to charity.

The room was used to host balls and parties after his death until finally it was taken over by the Academy of Art in 1922. All the rooms that open out from the main lobby are decorated ornately with mirrors on the walls and ceiling arranged in geometric patterns and glittering in kaleidoscopic colours, as they catch the light from the windows. The corniches and some of the ceilings are covered with stucco, beautiful miniature paintings and honeycomb-like muqarnas plaster, with images of women with Persian features, warriors and mosques. Islamic-style mashrabiya windows decorated with coloured glass let in sunlight.

Tbilisi also has modern, futuristic buildings of glass and steel like the Tbilisi Service Hall-a block of glass with droopy petals on stems, where Georgians get married, pay taxes and buy houses and the bow-shaped pedestrian Peace Bridge, designed by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi in 2001, and lit by more than 1200 LED lights, that spans the historic district with its contemporary counterpart. It was apparently built in Italy and transported here in 200 trucks!

On the last day in the city we take a cable car that climbs to the top of the hill where the Narikala Fortress was first built in the fourth century. From the peak, we get a view of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) monument, erected in 1958 to mark the city’s 1,500th anniversary and a great panoramic sweep of the city from its wooden balconied houses to steeples and spires, its brick-domed bath houses and the mountains in the distance. With the new juxtaposed against the old, Tbilisi continues to redefine itself, with the past segueing into the present and the future.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com

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