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Narikala Fortress & Around

Running along the crest of the Sololaki ridge, prominent above the Old Town, are the mighty ruins of the Narikala Fortress, also known as Shuris Tsikhe (the Rival Fortress) or the Sololaki Citadel. Dominating the city skyline (until the TV tower came along, anyway), Narikala Fortress (admission free; 9am-9pm) is an ancient symbol of Tbilisi's defensive brilliance. The fortress walls date from various periods, the earliest from the 4th century, when it was a Persian citadel. The foundations of the towers and most of the present walls were built in the 8th century by the Arab emirs, whose palace was inside the fortress.

The first fortress on this location was built at the end of the fourth century by the Persians. Vakhtang Gorgasali moved his capital here from Mtskheta in the fifth century and erected additional fortifications to protect his new city. The foundations of the towers and the walls of both the upper and lower fortresses that we see today, however, stem from the work of the Arab lords of Tbilisi in the eighth century. The Arab Emirate of Tbilisi lasted until David the Builder reconquered the city in 1122, and the emir's palace was within the fortifications of the Narikala. Though King David moved his palace to Isani on the opposite bank of the Mtkvari River, he recognized the Narikala's strategic position over the narrowest portion of the river valley and as his primary defense against attack from the south. He, like the Mongolians, Turks, and Persians who came after him, continued to rebuild destroyed sections of the walls. Each conqueror built according to his own ideas on military fortifications. This process continued until 1827 when gunpowder stored in a section of the fortress was struck by lightning. The subsequent explosion was of such magnitude that it is now difficult to get a clear picture of the layout of Narikala.

From Samgebro Street in the Old Town, climb up to the Fortress along Orpiri Sireet. Prior to 1996 the site had lacked a satisfying cohesiveness. Now, as a result of the newly constructed Church of St. Nicholas, many feel that the complex has gained in character. The church, a classic cruciform, cone and drum structure, was built upon the foundations of a 12th-century church that had been destroyed. Painstaking research went into the building of this new structure, which was completed in December 1996. Georgian experts mainly agree that it is a successful reconstruction. Westerners tend to feel that the site would have been more evocative, if not as comprehensible, had it been left alone and cite Sir Arthur Evans efforts at Knossos as the kind of aesthetic decision-making that happened here.

The money for the construction of the church was given by two private Georgian citizens, Temuri Kvaratskhelia and Roman Gventsadze. They responded to Catholicos Ilya II's call for greater devotion on the part of the people and the building of churches as the force which will save Georgia during these challenging times. The Church of St. Nicholas is just one example of new ecclesiastical construction occurring throughout the country, often in memory of a loved one killed in the war in Abkhazia.

You can walk a portion of the circuit of the fortress walls. The best preserved tower stands alone just southwest of the lower fortress. This square, roofless turret is the 16th-century Istanbul Tower, so called because during the Turkish occupation of that period it was used as a jail. The imposing Shakhlakhti Tower in the west dales from the seventh to ninth centuries. In Arab times it served as an observatory and stood next to the emirs palace.

From outside the fortress entrance, you can follow a path west in front of the walls along to the statue of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia). As attractive as a 20m aluminium woman can be, this symbol of the city holds a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other – a perfect metaphor for the Georgian character, warmly welcoming guests and passionately fighting off enemies.

Beyond Mother Georgia you pass the ruins of the Shahtakhti (Shah’s Throne) fortress, which housed an Arab observatory, and then a modernistic complex that looks like a space station but is actually a new business centre built by the Georgian-Russian multi-billionaire Boris Ivanishvili. Beyond here the road loops down to the Sololaki neighbourhood.