Georgia's second city and the capital of Imereti is one of the most ancient in the world. Capital at various times of several different kingdoms and groups of kingdoms within Georgia, Kutaisi has a rich and fascinating history, and much of this is apparent to visitors. The town is attractive and not without things to see and do, although most people come to Kutaisi to see the surrounding attractions. Modern Kutaisi is still struggling economically, however, and is noticeably less lively than Batumi or Tbilisi.
The archaeological remains in the Gora or Ukimerioni area on the hill overlooking the right bank date from the sixth and fifth centuries ВС. Some scholars are of the belief, however, that in the late Bronze Age (1300 ВС) Kutaisi was the capital of King Aeetes, who possessed the Golden Fleece and whose daughter was Medea. They hold that Jason and his Argonauts came here in search of the Fleece, since the Rioni (known in the ancient world as the Phasis) is navigable down to the Black Sea. It was precisely its enviable position that allowed it to flourish as an important trade center on the caravan route from Greece to India.
Kutaisi is known to have existed as early as the seventh century ВС as a town in the Greek colony of Miletus. In the third century ВС Apollonius of Rhodes mentions Kutaisium/Kutaia as the capital of the Kingdom of Colchis. Byzantine sources of the mid-sixth century AD refer to the town as one of the most important fortresses in the Kingdom of Lazica, which succeeded the Romans in the region (AD 200-400). During the early sixth century when all of Imereti was a battlefield for the Emperor Justinian and his Persian adversaries, the massive fortifications above the right bank of the Rioni were constructed. The town itself spread out beneath the citadel and across the river where markets, caravanserais, and quays for merchant ships sprang up. In the eighth century, after the Arabs had captured Tbilisi, Kutaisi became the capital when King Archil established himself there. King Leon I of Abkhazia was also responsible for the growth and recovery of the city at this time.
Kutaisi became the capital of all Georgia in 978 when Bagrat III united the coun-try and installed here his political and administrative center. It remained the capital until 1122 when David the Builder conquered the Emirate of Tbilisi and transferred his capital there. The period between the reigns of Bagrat III and Queen Tamara was the Golden Age of the city, when the most significant building projects were successfully completed: Bagrat's Cathedral, the Gelati Monastery, and the Monastery of Motsameta.
With the removal of the capital of Georgia to Tbilisi, Kutaisi remained the capital of western Georgia until the 19th century. The town was spared invasion by the Mongols during the 13th and 14th centuries but suffered from Turkish attack in 1510 when it was nearly burned to the ground. The Kutaisi Fortress (the Ukimerioni) was seized again by the Turks in 1666. Russian ambassadors in the middle of the 17th century reported the fortress and the Cathedral of Bagrat still standing, but in 1692 the Cathedral, the palace complex, and the fortress were destroyed by Turkish troops. Only in 1770 were the Turks dislodged from the town, when King Solomon I of Imereti led a combined Russian and Imeretian force to seize the city. In 1804 King Solomon II signed an act of allegiance to Russia and abdicated his throne in 1810. With that, Imereti joined Russia and Kutaisi became the residence of the governor.
Kutaisi is built around the Rioni River. The city centre is on the left bank, focused on Davit Aghmasheneblis moedani and the adjacent central park. The modern city spreads mainly to the south and west (across the river) from the centre. To its north, the right bank rises up to an older area where the landmark Bagrati Cathedral overlooks the city. The main bus station is 3km west of the centre, beside Kutaisi-2 train station. The other train station, Kutaisi-1, is 1km south of the centre.
Every visitor to Kutaisi will want to see Bagrati Cathedral, while those with more time will enjoy visiting the History Museum, wandering the busy market area around Lermontov, and exploring the attractive central streets and the old Jewish district.
Note: When visiting Kutaisi many foreign travelers decide to stay in the spa town of Tskhaltubo, only 12 km (seven miles) to the northwest of Kutaisi, and connected to it by a short extension of the M27. The town is wonderful if you want to "take the waters," but a little sleepy if you don't.
KUTAISI HISTORY MUSEUM
This museum (www.histmuseum.ge), facing Davit Aghmasheneblis moedani, has superb collections from all around western Georgia and is well worth your time.
The collection features armor, weapons and domestic implements, musical instruments, clothing, and money spanning a long period of west Georgian history. Of greatest interest are the icons, jewelry, coins, and illuminated manuscripts that you can see by special request in the Treasury (Okros Fondi). Many of these pieces come from the Gelati Monastery and date from the 12th to 15th centuries. Other works are from Bagrat Cathedral. The collection is strong in metal-chasing from Svaneti and coins and artifacts from Colchis. Some of these date back to the second millennium ВС.
A guided tour is a good idea as labelling is very poor. As mentioned, the highlight is the Treasury section, with a marvellous exhibition of icons and crosses in precious metals and jewels including a large, reputedly miracle-working icon from the Bagrati Cathedral.
The rest of the collection ranges from archaeological finds (including figurines of fertility gods from the 8th to 6th centuries BC, one of them famously androgynous), to medieval weaponry, historical art, manuscripts going back to the 10th century, costumes, musical instruments and even the first telephone used in Kutaisi.
Kutaisi used to have one of Georgia’s largest Jewish communities but since independence most of the 1000 or so families have emigrated to Israel. The main street running through the Jewish quarter used to be called Shaumyan Street; the name has now been changed to Boris Gaponov Street after the man who translated Rustaveli's The Knight in the Panther's Shin into Hebrew. There are three synagogues along this street. The two major ones are at number 49 and number 12, built in 1834-1835 and 1887, respectively. A handsome 1880s synagogue (Gaponov 12) is still in use, but the smaller synagogue (Gaponov 49) further up the street is now disused. The street leads on up the hill to the Mtsvane Kvavila (Green Flower) Monastery, with three churches and the Pantheon where famous Kutaislebi (denizens of Kutaisi) are buried.
Before the massive emigration of Jews from Georgia to Israel over the past years, Jews accounted for two percentage of the population of Kutaisi. Now their number is somewhat less. The houses in this district are arranged close to each other up the hill in a warm and intimate sense of community that speaks of deep neighbourly interest and absolutely no secrets. Ask any Jew here and you will learn that Jews have always lived very happily in Georgia, and that their presence here dates to the time of the first diaspora. Anti-Semitism is virtually unknown in Georgia.
Located above the Jewish quarter but still on the left bank of the Rioni is a 17-th century tower in good condition, and some churches dating from the 17-20th centuries. In 1956 the cemetery, below the Church of the Green Flower, was organized as a pantheon of famous Georgians. Balletomanes will be particularly interested to visit the grave of Meliton Balanchivadze (1862-1937), the father of George Balanchine. His grave can be recognized by the piano keyboard carved into the rock of the headstone.
On the left bank of the Rioni, bounded by Tsulukidze and Chechelashvili Streets, this park served as the garden of King Alexander of Imereti (1639-1660). The buildings of the royal palace stood here, but only one foundation has survived. It now holds the modern building of the Tourist Club. On this spot once stood the famous Okros Chardakhi (Golden Tent). Built in the seventeenth century and reconstructed in the 1830s, it was used for receiving ambassadors and marking great ceremonial occasions. Note the large plane tree in the garden. The Imeretian kings are supposed to have conducted trials and executions beneath it. From this garden a cable car can take you to Besiki Park and its small zoo. Tsulukidze, by the way, was a Georgian revolutionary (1876-1905).
SATAPLIA NATURE RESERVE
Located six km southwest of Kutaisi, this 500-hectarereserve is one of the few remaining pristine areas where you can still see a portion of the ancient Colchian forests. The name Sataplia means "honey-bearing" and refers to the vast number of beehives in the hills nearby. In the same area are numerous karst caves, one of which is over 600 meters long. The first cave in this huge complex was discovered in 1925 and was opened to visitors in 1929. Spelunkers may be put off by the guided tours, but for those who like to be led to their stalactites and stalagmites the descent is most worthwhile. Paleolithic tools have been discovered in one of the caves. The reserve gained particular prominence in 1933 when Petre Chabukiani unearthed traces of dinosaurs. On one exposed rock surface, 252 fossilized prints of seven different kinds of dinosaurs are visible.
Getting There & Around
Both buses (four to five hours, about twice hourly from 8am to 7pm) and marshrutkas (four to 4½ hours, at least hourly, 7am to 8pm) to Kutaisi leave from Tbilisi Didube. Further marshrutkas leave from the rear of Tbilisi train station hourly from 8am to 6pm.
Buses and marshrutkas from Kutaisi’s main bus station (Chavchavadzis gamziri), next to Kutaisi-2 train station, go to Tbilisi (four to five hours, hourly from 7am to 7pm), Zugdidi (two hours, half-hourly, 6am to 5.30pm), Batumi (2½ hours, every 30 or 40 minutes, 6.30am to 5pm), Poti (2½ hours, hourly, 7am to 6pm) and Borjomi (three hours, five daily, 8am to 1.30pm).
Of Kutaisi’s two train stations, Kutaisi-1 (Tamar Mepe) has trains to Tbilisi (five to 5½ hours) at 12.30pm and 12.40am, and to Zugdidi (four hours) at 12.30pm. From Kutaisi-2 (Chavchavadzis gamziri) there’s an elektrichka to Tbilisi at 4.55am and a train to Batumi (four hours) at 5.45pm.
Kutaisi-2 is also the best place to look for long-distance taxis. Bus N1 runs a useful circular route (in both directions) between Kutaisi-2, Kutaisi-1 and the city centre (west end of Paliashvili). At Kutaisi-2 or the bus station, catch it on the far side of the road (Chavchavadze), going to the left, for the quicker route to the centre.