The Museum of Georgian ethnography
The Museum of Georgian Folk Architecture and Daily Life (also known as the Ethnographic Museum) (Tbilisi, Vake Park; 10.00-16.00 except Mon; admission GEL3, plus 10GEL for an entirely optional guide)
Founded in 1960 and opened in 1976, this open-air museum consists of more than 70 dwellings from 10 distinct regions in Georgia and has over 7,000 artefacts. The houses are not replicas but have been moved piece by piece from their native villages. From western Georgia come the oda sakhli and the older-style sajalabo. The sajalabo (house for a large family) is a one-room windowless structure with an earthen floor and an open hearth in the middle. The oda sakhli is square, with two or three rooms and an open porch running along the width of the facade. Beautifully carved wooden pillars usually support the roof of the veranda. Other carefully designed smaller buildings in the back bespeak the care and craftsmanship that went into the daily tasks of husbandry.
From the Kartli region come excellent examples of the darbazi dwelling and the baniani sakhli (flat-roofed dwelling). You will recall that an example of the darbazi dwelling can still be seen in the Old Town at 10 Chekhov Street. This rectangular unpartitioned dwelling is distinguished by a hearth in the middle and a smoke and light hole in the top. The beehive cupola (gvirgvini) that ascends to that hole is the most extraordinary feature of the dwelling. Believed to go back to a prototype from the third millennium ВС, darbazi dwellings were described by Vitruvius in his treatise on architecture from the first century ВС. The building and dome that he mentions are close enough to a darbazi dwelling to make us feel that the structure has developed uninterrupted in Georgia right up to its present form. The beehive dome you see here is composed of 452 beams resting on each other in concentric layers. The two main supporting pillars, called dedabodzi (mother pilars), are often ornately carved.
The baniani sakhli from the village of Khandaki is smaller, with only one pillar in the room. The smoke hole in the cupola in the darbazi dwelling here is substituted by a fireplace with chimney and windows. Tusheti, Khevsureti, and Svaneti offer some fine examples of the unusual watchtower dwellings that dot these constantly besieged parts of the Caucasus. Don't miss the wonderful wood carving in the interior of the Jameh mosque that comes from the village of Chikuneti in Ajara.
An 11th section of the museum has been established to house archaeological monuments such as sculpted gravestones, ancient inscriptions, and capitals. Complete basilicas from the Middle Ages are already being assembled.
The lower houses, nearer the entrance, are furnished and open, while those further up can usually be safely viewed from a distance. As mentioned above you'll see three roof types: thatch in western Georgia, red channel tiles, and shingles.
Going around to the left (clockwise), you'll come first to a big open-plan house from Abacha in Mingrelia, with a sleeping platform; then a farmstead, also from Mingrelia, with attractive wooden panelling around a bukhari or chimney. An 18th- century house from Imereti is built of logs on a stone base, also open-plan with a central chimney; above a house from Lanckhuti (in Guria), which has an ingenious babywalker on the verandah, a smithy is still in use. The shorter route back passes another Imeretian house, with the traditional Georgian marani or wine store; the alternative is to climb up the hill to a restaurant by the road, near large and impressive houses from Adjara and a Svan defensive tower on the ridge. Returning down the hill you'll pass a house from Teliani (near Kaspi) just before the ruined 6th-century Church of Sionis Tianeti and a row of tombs (one, with an inscription in Old Georgian, under glass); beyond this a stone building half-set into the hillside is from Kakheti. Finally, hidden away right at the bottom is a 2m phallic stone from Abkhazia.
As you go around you'll also see odds and ends such as old muskets, wooden claws to protect the fingers while scything, and cots with a pipe leading to a gourd for urine below.
There's a good restaurant, Rachis Ubani, open seasonally in a restored house from Racha.
If your visit to Georgia is limited to a stay in Tbilisi, touring this museum is an excellent way to grasp the great architectural distinctions that exist among the various provinces. A visit here should certainly whet your appetite for greater touring throughout the country.