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History of Tbilisi

The city's name derives from tbili, meaning warm in Georgian, referring to the 30 hot springs on the north-eastern slopes of Mount Tabori - which produce three million litres a day, at between 24°C and 46.5°C - and in the 12th century supplied 65 bathhouses. Tiflis is the Persian name, also used by Russians and Armenians; the locals (or Tbilisebi) just say kalaki or the town.

The advantages of the Mtkvari River valley as a place of habitation have been appreciated since at least the Neolithic period. Archaeologists have found burial grounds and dwellings from as early as 5000 ВС throughout the city. The first documents relating to Tbilisi date from AD 400. At that time the city was controlled by the Persians, who were responsible for building the Narikala fortress along the crest of the Sololaki ridge. Impressed by the strategic advantages of this fortress and its protection of the city on the slope beneath, King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Iberia (Wolf-Lion; AD446-502) decided to move his capital here from Mtskheta in 458. Georgians regard King Vakhtang as the city's founder, and the equestrian statue in front of the Metekhi Church honors bis legacy. The name of the city, Tbilisi, is also connected to him through a legend; king Vakhtang went hunting one day and happened to shoot a pheasant (or deer in some legends). The pheasant fell wounded into a nearby spring but soon bounded out, apparently healed. Vakhtang deemed the life-giving water a good location for his new city. He founded Tbilisi near these hot sulfur springs and named the city after them.

Vakhtang Gorgasali died in 502 before he could see the completion of his ambitious building program for the new capital. This work was continued by his son and Successor, King Dachi, who built the walls around the town.

The strategic and economic advantages of Tbilisi's location were both a blessing and a curse: the town became a magnet for foreign invaders eager lo reap its benefits. The city was sacked or destroyed more than 29 times in a 1,500-year period, from the Byzantine invasion of 626-627 to the complete destruction of the city in 1795 by the Persians under Agha Mohammed Khan, Tbilisi has suffered at the hands of Arabs, Mongols, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, and numerous tribes from the North Caucasus. Yet it has always been rebuilt, a testament to the tenacity and resilience of the Georgian people.

The longest period of foreign rule began with the Arab invasion of the mid- Seventh century. By the 730s, the Arabs had established the residence of their emir in Tbilisi, who resided in the precincts of the Narikala Fortress. The Arabs ruled Tbilisi for more than 400 years, until David the Builder, the great Georgian king, liberated the city in 1121. Throughout the Arab occupation, Tbilisi bore a far greater resemblance to a Moslem than a Christian city. Indeed, the vast majority of the residents were Arab and Turkish merchants, with Georgians, often refusing to submit to Arab domination, living in the countryside.

In 1122 David the Builder (Davit Aghmashenebeli) built a palace near the Metekhi Church. Under David and his descendant Queen Tamar, Georgia enjoyed its medieval golden age and Tbilisi developed into a multiethnic city of 80,000 people, known for its production of weapons, jewellery, leather and silk clothing.

When King David the Builder (1089-1125) recaptured Tbilisi he went to great lengths to show tolerance to its Moslem population. His enlightened policy engendered great loyalty from the Moslem citizens and led to the development of Tbilisi as a cosmopolitan metropolis at the center of a trade route linking Europe and Asia. As King David's empire expanded, so did the prestige and power of his capital. By the time of his great-granddaughter, Queen Tamara (1184-1207), Tbilisi was one of the most important cities in the Middle East. Marco Polo passed through and wrote, "There is a handsome city named Teflis, around which are settlements and many fortified posts."

But the Golden Age of Georgian history, with Tbilisi at the center of events, was not lo last. Forced to submit to Mongol rule, the citizens of Tbilisi paid large tributes to the Khan in exchange for peace. The city's decline continued into the 15th century with the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Only during the reigns of King Teimuraz 11 and his son Herekle II did the eastern Georgians manage to gain a significant degree of independence from Turkish control and then from the Persians. In 1762 Tbilisi became the capital of eastern Georgia.

Despite the broken promises of the Russians, the Georgian monarchy-specifically King Herekle II's heir, Giorgi XII-continued to press for Georgia to be made a Russian protectorate. Tsar Alexander went one step farther. In 1801 he abolished the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti and incorporated eastern Georgia into the Russian Empire. After the destruction of the city by the Persians in 1795, the way was open for the sort of planned city the Russians had in mind. They concentrated on the Garetubani area (now the site of Freedom Square and Rustaveli Avenue), laying out streets either parallel or perpendicular to the Mtkvari River. Affluent merchants and other members of the rising bourgeoisie built villas south on the hills around Sololaki and Mtatsminda. Laborers found housing in the spreading slums of Vake and Saburtalo, west of Garetubani. With the building of the Transcaucasian Railroad in the second half of the 19th century, the number of the urban proletariat swelled.

From a population of just over 200,000 in 1917, the city has grown to well over one million today with the incorporation of outlying villages like Kukiya, Chugureti, Vera, Didube, and Navtlughi. The city's subway system opened in 1966; there are now 20 stations.