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The Old Town

The area known today as the Old Town is also called Kala. It is the original settlement on the right bank of the Mtkvari (Kura) River that developed below the walls of the Narikala Fortress when Vakhtang Gorgasali established his capital here in the fifth century. The original settlement of Tbilisi, like other fortress towns throughout Georgia such as Kutaisi and Ujarma, developed below the walls of an elevated citadel and continued down to the river. The town and citadel were protected by fortifications.

Today the Old Town is delineated by Pushkin and Baratashvili Streets in the north and northwest, and by the Mtkvari, the Monument to the 300 Men of Aragvi, and Mt. Tabori in the east and southeast. When David the Builder drove the Arabs out of Tbilisi in 1122, he established his residence on the high left bank of the Mtkvari in a district known as Isani or Isni, which means "fortified place." This district grew under the Arabs in the eighth and ninth centuries, and was connected across the Mtkvari to the district of Kala by a fortified bridge with watchtowers at either end. The contemporary Metekhi Bridge spans the spot where the earlier bridge stood. In Queen Tamara's time the residential district of Isani developed along the entire length of the plateau above the Mtkvari. Today this district is known as the Avlabari (Place around the Palace), home to Tbilisi's large Armenian population. The view of these typical Tbilisi houses rising precariously above the plateau of the left bank will leave an indelible impression.

Walking from east to west along the right bank of the river, the Church of Metekhi is the climax-after having seen these buildings on the plateau of the opposite bank. The church appears at the bend in the river, and one glimpse gives you an understanding as to why it is the symbol of the Isani Palace district. There were two bridges across the Mtkvari here, and a mosque, until the 1930s, when Beria replaced them with the present Metekhi Bridge; but when the river is low the foundations are still visible to the west.

Unlike the planned streets of 19th-century Tbilisi (to be toured later), the Old City is a wonderful maze of twisting, crooked alleys that lead to dead ends, unexpected squares, and little courtyards. It is, without doubt, the most distinctive area of Tbilisi. Explore it on foot, at your leisure, and allow chance to govern a good portion of your stroll. It is here that you will feel most strongly that extraordinary amalgam of Asia and Europe that is peculiar to Georgia.

The houses in this district are characterized by deep, elaborately carved, wooden balconies painted white, ochre, pale blue, and cinnamon. Sometimes the balconies are cantilevered from the front of the facade; sometimes they wrap around three sides. Balconies, usually taking the form of glassed-in verandas, are also found facing the inner courtyard. Exterior spiral staircases-often of metal, with the treads worn paper thin-join one story to another. Both balcony and courtyard reflect the Georgian love of company, of sharing one's life with friends and neighbors. They also bespeak a deep attachment to the outdoors and a repugnance at being shut in. Many courtyards boast large mulberry trees or a pergola of tightly woven grape vines beneath which sits a picnic table or two. Many a citizen's sense of well-being is directly linked to these spaces.

The Old Town has been razed and rebuilt many times during its long history. The last time was in 1795 as a result of the invasion of Agha Mohammed Khan. Most of the houses at that time were of wood, built in a step-like manner, with the roof of one house serving as the front yard for the one above: thus Agha Mohammed Khan burned the entire city. Only the stone sulfur baths and the Anchiskhati Church survived. Although the present edifices date mainly from the 19th century, they were erected upon the foundations of the older buildings and along existing streets. The basic layout therefore conforms to the pattern of streets and squares that existed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The 19th-century homes, the prototypical "Tbilisi houses," blend centuries of Georgian traditional styles with elements of Russian classicism. Two types of houses were predominant in the city before the development of this amalgamated style: the baniani sakhli and the darbazi. The first is a low, single-story dwelling with a flat earthen roof. The second is a rectangular house with a hearth in the middle of a room, covered by a beehive type of wooden cupola, with the beams set in a dodecahedron that ends in an open smoke hole. Only one of these darbazi buildings remains in Tbilisi, the famous Darbazi of Porakishvili at 10 Chekhov Street. Examples of both types of dwellings can be found in the Museum of Georgian Folk Architecture and Local Lore in the Vake district. The best zone of the Old Town in which to see the elaborate balconies and staircases of the 19th-century Tbilisi house is in the incline between Puris Moedani and Azizbekov Street. Just beyond Azizbekov Street is Gomi Street, where in addition to a number of interesting traditional houses are steps cut into rock that lead up to the Ateshga (Zoroastrian temple). This square stone structure, distinguished by the lancet arch marking its entrance, is said to stand on the site of a mosque built by the Turks and destroyed by Agha Mohammed Khan in 1795. Another legend has it that long before there was a mosque this was the site of a Zoroastrian temple, hence the name. Where else but in Tbilisi could you find within one neighborhood two synagogues, a mosque, an Armenian church, a Georgian cathedral, and a Zoroastrian temple?

In 1975, over 90 hectares (200 acres) of the Old Town were declared a historic one and put under a government-sponsored archaeological and restoration program. Work done since 1982 in the northern part of the Old Town, between Leselidze and Pushkin streets, already shows the success of these efforts.

The best place to begin your tour of the Old Town is at the Metekhi Church. Although the church itself is located outside the precincts of Kala, it is an appropriately central point that provides an excellent vantage from which to survey the district across the river on the right bank.