Avlabari & the Left Bank
Avlabari is the dramatically located slice of Tbilisi above the cliffs on the left (east) bank of the Mtkvari, across the Metekhi Bridge from the Old Town. At least twice foreign conquerors (Jalaledin in 1226 and the Persians in 1522) used the bridge for forcible conversion of the Georgian population to Islam (many resisted and were tossed into the river). The bridge was controlled by a fortification on the rocky outcrop above it, where you can now see the Metekhi Church and a 1960s equestrian statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali. This is where Gorgasali built his palace, and the site’s original church, when he made Tbilisi his capital in the 5th century. King David the Builder had his palace here too, and it was here that Queen Tamar married her second husband, David Soslan. That palace and its accompanying church were destroyed by the Mongols in 1235. The palace too passed through several incarnations until its final destruction in the Persian sacking of 1795.
The church we see today was built by King Demetre Tavdadebuli (the Self-Sacrificing) between 1278 and 1289, and has been reconstructed many times since. An old-fashioned design for the 13th century, it is thought to be a deliberate copy of its predecessor. The church was converted into a theatre in 1974, finally being reconsecrated in the 1980s. The tomb of early Christian martyr St Shushanik – tortured by her husband in 544 for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism – is to the left
of the altar.
The Statue of Nikoloz Baratashvili (1817-1845) is at the beginning of the ascent. Sculpted by Boris Tsibadze and unveiled in 1975, the statue honors one of Georgia's most important Romantic poets, best known for poems such as Twilight on Mtatsminda, Meditation on Mtkvari's Banks, and Merani, which combine deep personal longing with patriotic fervor. Behind the statue is an open-air amphitheater that seats 400 for poetry readings and theatrical performances.
Historically the Avlabari area housed Tbilisi’s large Armenian population, one that has traditionally been focused around the Echmiadzin Cathedral (Ketevan Tsamebulis moedani), which is currently closed for restoration.
The Baratashvili Rise leads to Ketevan Tsamebulis (formerly Shaumian) Street, the major artery of the Avlabari. Here is the (Shaumian) Armenian Theatre, founded in 1936, where performances in Armenian can still be seen. Just beyond are the Goglio Sulfur Baths. Take your time wandering through the Armenian Quarter. You'll find a number of Armenian Gregorian churches; small, narrow winding streets leading onto neighborhoods that have the quality of small villages, and surprise views of the right bank of the city across the river.
High on Elia Hill above Avlabari rises the biggest symbol of Georgia’s post-Soviet religious revival, the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral; (an unmissable landmark by night and day), consecrated in 2004 after a decade of building work. A massive expression of traditional Georgian architectural forms in concrete, brick, granite and marble, it rises 84m to the top of the gold-covered cross above its central dome. The main entrance to the cathedral’s extensive grounds is on Uritski, reached via Meskhishvili up the hill from Ketevan Tsamebulis moedani. The cathedral is five-aisles wide but its emphasis is on verticality, with a result like one single, many-bulwarked tower. The huge dome creates a larger and much brighter central space than you’ll find in most Georgian churches. A big new illuminated manuscript of the New Testament, in a jewel-studded silver cover, stands in a glass case to the right of the altar. There’s a whole large second church beneath the main one, down 81 steps from the west end. Designed by Archil Mindiashvili, the building was paid for mostly by donations from anonymous businesspeople and citizens. Some controversy surrounded its construction on the site of an old Armenian cemetery.
Not far below the cathedral, Georgia’s large new presidential palace between Tsutskiridze and Abdushelishvili. It’s an equally unmissable landmark given that it’s topped by a large, egg-shaped glass dome equipped with neon lights of constantly changing colour.
A relatively new housing development on the southeastern outskirts of the Avlabari is home to 60,000 people. The district is called Varketili, which means "I am kind." You will discover in your wanderings throughout the city that the citizens of Tbilisi are just that.