At the end of November, the Kiva Fellows in the Caucasus reunited, luckily for me, in Tbilisi!
Meet Ivan, the fellow in Azerbaijan…
and Abhishek, the fellow in Armenia…
Ivan and Abhishek arrived on Saturday the 27th and we spent the next 4 days seeing every Tbilisi sight there is to see. Ivan is a huge fan of Georgian culture and cuisine, and it was fun and refreshing to see the city through their eyes.
The first day we headed out to Mtskheta, a town about 20 minutes drive from Tbilisi, which has some of the oldest and most cherished churches in Georgia. Christianity was actually proclaimed the state religion here in 327 AD. Mtskheta was the first capital of Georgia, and is still the headquarters of the church here. Its many churches and sites are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We started out at the Didi Mtskheta Archeological Museum. Luckily Ivan speaks fluent Russian so he was able to translate what the tour guide was saying for Abhishek and I. While we hadn’t planned to visit the museum, we were pleasantly surprised by the impressive collection housed there; the majority of the items were found in and directly around Mtskheta.
After the museum, we ventured over to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, one of the most revered churches in Georgia, and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built in the 4th century – the site was chosen by St Nino herself, one of the most important of Georgia’s spiritual figures. In the centuries between it was destroyed and rebuilt; what you see here was built in the 11th century.
From there we visited another cathedral and an ancient burial ground, also part of the UNESCO site.
Our last stop was the Jvari Monastery, which overlooks the town of Mtskheta, and is easily the most important monastery in Georgia. Jvari Monastery is also part of the World Heritage site. In the 4th century, St Nino came to Mtskheta, converted the King to Christianity, and planted a cross where a pagan temple stood (St Nino’s cross is allegedly housed today in a cathedral in Tbilisi, but they only bring it out one day per year for people to see – on St Nino’s Day). In the 6th century a church was built over the remains of the cross, and by 605 AD looked roughly like what you see here. The architecture served as an important inspiration and model for future Georgian churches, as well as other churches in the Caucasus.
From Mtskheta we headed to Gori, which is famous for being the birthplace of one Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, or as we all know him: Joseph Stalin. It’s a little known fact (or at least I hadn’t known) that Stalin was born here in Gori, and received a scholarship to a Georgian Orthodox seminary. However he was expelled after allegedly participating in revolutionary activities. There is a museum in Gori dedicated to Stalin, which is what we wanted to visit. I’d actually already visited once before, with Lela, but was interested in seeing it again to get the perspective of some fellow Americans. Lela and I had similar reactions – we both thought it was kinda creepy and were disappointed that it pretty much glossed over Stalin’s many crimes. Unfortunately when Ivan, Abhishek, and I arrived, the museum was closing (shorter winter hours) so we wandered the grounds for a little bit before heading back to Tbilisi.
Back in Tbilisi we continued our cathedral tour with Sameba, the Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral. It’s crazy-new comparatively – built between 1995 and 2004 – to commemorate 1,500 years of Christianity in Georgia, and 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus. The cathedral is gigantic, and beautiful, especially when lit up at night. I particularly liked wandering the grounds, and admiring the swans and peacocks.
The final major cathedral we visited is the Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral. Originally built in the 6th century, it was destroyed and reconstructed multiple times thanks to multiple invaders. The church you see here is partially from the 13th century, with some additions from the 17th to 19th centuries. The cathedral is well-known for hosting the remains of St Nino’s famous cross, as I mentioned before.
Outside of the cathedral, Ivan was astute enough to smell the sweet scents of a bakery at the top of a flight of steps. Creepy as the stairs were, we followed our noses down to a bakery, where we tried a few different baked goods, including pączki, which is a donut-like dessert filled with a (dairy-free) icing type filling, and it pretty much rocked my world. I think they’re either Polish or Russian, but popular here as well. Sorry – no photos – I ate it too fast.
One evening we spent hiking up to Mother Georgia. On the way we stopped into the 19th century mosque here in Tbilisi, which is really beautiful, and was an interesting architectural change from the many cathedrals we’d been in. The mosque is unusual in that both Shiite and Sunni Muslims pray together here. I particularly liked the tiles on the interior.
From the mosque, we headed up the hillside to the Narikala Fortress (which I had tried to get to from the Botanical Gardens in my first week – turns out it’s super easy to get to, I blame the jet lag). We weren’t disappointed with the views of the city from here.
Hiking onward, we made it to Mother Georgia, but honestly I think it’s nicer from a distance. I’d been told it was an easy 20 minute walk from Mother Georgia to the TV tower, but after walking for at least twice that, most of which was on a highway, we finally hailed a taxi for the rest. Whoever said it was 20 minutes walk is nuts.
The rest of our time was spent eating as much traditional Georgian food as possible, drinking as much Georgian wine as possible (seriously I should remember to eat food, then drink wine), and wandering the city seeing as many sights as possible.
See more pictures from our adventures here!