Precarious Equilibriums – Tbilisi’s Old Town, between neglect and recovery

It does not happen everyday to see a gigantic statue of a woman, with the features of a robot out of 1950s sci-fi film, clutching a sword and dominating from the natural pedestal of a steep hill.
The statue, Kartlis Deda, symbolises the spirit of Georgia, a small country nestled deep in the Caucasus: a fierce woman immortalised in the act of offering a cup of wine to the friends of the country and, with the other hand, brandishing a sword with which she will welcome the country’s enemies.
Kartlis Deda is definitely an imposing figure, but its immediate surroundings are much more modest.

Kartlis Deda is definitely an imposing figure, but its immediate surroundings are much more modest.

Kartlis Deda towers above the Georgian capital, Tbilisi: from the modest esplanade where the statue stands the cities lies invitingly below, the visitor’s gaze free to roam from its new, glass-and- steel buildings covered in dust to the concrete frame of its first skyscrapers, still under construction; from the golden finishes of its many churches to the shining cupola of the Presidential Palace wanted by the then president Mikheil Saakashvili. Lost amongst all this, huddled between the deep canyons dug by the river Kura, the mountains and the liberty grandeur of Freedom Square, here is the heart of Tbilisi’s Old Town.
A view over the left bank of the river Kura.

A view over the left bank of the river Kura.

This is the epicentre of a town with more than 1500 years of history, from the moment when King Vakhtang, in the VI century AD, established it. And this is the position, near a hot spring by the foothills of Kartlis Deda’s hill, where the city has always stood, stubbornly resisting fires, earthquakes and invasions.
The last, by a Persian army, happened in 1795 and proved momentous, even though its violence was almost fatal; it was in its aftermath, indeed, that the current Old Town was built. A disorderly maze of winding alleys inhabited by a multi-ethnic populace made of Armenians, Georgians, Russians and Iranians, living in elegant buildings constructed incorporating elements belonging to the Turkish-Byzantine, Georgian and Russian styles, a melting pot of wood, stone and wrought iron. Churches of two different confessions, a Sephardi Synagogue and a Shia Mosque all stood within half a kilometre of each other.
Old Tbilisi's Shia mosque

Old Tbilisi’s Shia mosque

Turkish influences in Old Tbilisi

Turkish influences in Old Tbilisi

I had the chance to visit a small part of the old quarter while ascending towards Narikala Fortress up Botanikuri Street, a charming walk along a well-kept road flanked by well-restored buildings made in a sophisticated Turkish style, overlooking the Abanotubani baths. All in all, it was an easy walk, waiting only for a lifestyle magazine to feature it on its front page. But the rest of Old Tbilisi lied in a completely different state, as I was to discover walking down the chipped steps of a path leading to the twin Churches of Bethlehem.
The stairways led me to two elderly ladies begging for spare change, while the muffled notes of a religious function taking place in one of the two church faintly flew through the air. From the parvis of the church a web of alleys departed in all directions, leading to ruins desperately holding on against the slope, or to once-elegant houses, their beauty dusted by decades of exposition to the elements and badly patched up with odd-fitting windows and woodworks. Fragile yet sophisticated spiral staircases led to the higher floors, up shaky steps made of uneven planks laid down when the original ones broke down.
Many a tenement in Old Tbilisi are reduced in this charmy yet dilapidated state.

Many a tenement in Old Tbilisi are reduced in this charmy yet dilapidated state.

Bethlehem Church

Bethlehem Church

Tbilisi’s Old Town is a continuous treasure trove from gentler times, of delicate art nouveau buildings and of grand mansions second to none in Europe, but is a jewel in precarious equilibrium, seemingly just a few steps away from becoming a heap of ruins. Its properties appear not to have received a lick of paint since the ephemeral Democratic Republic of Georgia, crushed by the Bolsheviks in 1921, and perhaps it is the case; many homes lie in total neglect, dangerously tilting to one side, sometimes still inhabited despite the risks.
Much of the blame, according to the owner of a café in Lado Asatiani road where I stopped for a robust brew, can be laid at the Communists’ feet. Seventy years of dictatorship of the proletariat eradicated concepts such as private property, entrepreneurship or even self-regard from three generations of Georgians. Additionally, the new Homo Sovieticus must have frowned upon the beautiful residences built by the Tsarist bourgeoisie, favouring instead the more modern Socialist neighbourhoods, which were being constructed, in pure brutalist style, in the suburbs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beautiful, old Byzantine houses abound in Old Tbilisi.

Beautiful, old Byzantine-styled houses abound in Old Tbilisi.

Then, hot on the heels of the crumbling Communism, a Capitalist frenzy ensued, transforming Old Tbilisi from worthless relic into commercial opportunity to make some fast bucks with enthusiastic, albeit often unscrupulous, redevelopments. Then it all ended again, on the wake of the double shockwave caused, in America, by the fall of Lehman Brothers and, much closer, by the defeat against Russia, whose 58th Army stopped a mere 50 kilometres short of Tbilisi.
Cynics will say that, at least, the unlikely combinations of corporate failures and Russian bombs managed to ward off projects which, like the redevelopment of Gudiashvili square, would have seen a district with a distinct bohemian flair make way to a featureless minimalist aggregation of buildings, bulldozing away a basement-turned-bakery for a preposterous parade of glitzy boutiques, all in an area whose inhabitants earn, in average, $600 a month. Instead, and perhaps mercifully, the foreign developers pulled out from the deal, buying the decaying buildings some more time.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This basement bakery might be safe for now…

...but other lots hadn't been so lucky.

…but other lots hadn’t been so lucky.

 In spite of its undeniable charm, Old Tbilisi deserves to be salvaged. Its citizens, incredibly lively and active despite the odds, deserve to live in safe, dignified buildings that look more solid than the cars they park below; the whole city deserves it, for the touristic potentials are immense. But at certain conditions. It has to be a restoration and not a complete overhaul; new buildings, if needed, have to follow the existing rules and must blend into the pre-existing urban texture, without subverting it as it was scheduled to happen in Gudiashvili square.
Gudiashvili Square: safe, for now.

Gudiashvili Square: safe, for now.

The situation of the Georgian real estate industry does not leave room for optimism, even though a few encouraging signals can be seen: a few properties have been restored and a few more are being recovered, such as an abandoned church not far from Gudiashvili; much of the Old Town has been granted status comparable to those of conservation areas in many European countries; and, finally, the government, in a joint effort with international donors, has pledged to provide funds for the resurfacing of the neighbourhood’s streets.
A Lada might not be built for the trade, but it surely can do its job, shuttling bricks and other material to this church.

A Lada might not be built for the trade, but it surely can do its job, shuttling bricks and other material to this church.

Old versus new: a property has just been refurbished; many other lie awaiting.

Old versus new: a property has just been refurbished; many other lie awaiting.

The road ahead is still long and tortuous, but examples like these and the precedent set by the areas already recovered – such as Botanikuri road – show that there is a way for Tbilisi to infuse a new life into its splendid city centre.
This entry was posted in Europe, Georgia and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Precarious Equilibriums – Tbilisi’s Old Town, between neglect and recovery

  1. Natalie K. says:

    Очень красивые фотки! [Very beautiful pics!]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carlo says:

    I had “lunch” in that basement bakery some years ago (or maybe it was a similar one), drinking Borjomi water of course! Excellent article about one of the most interesting cities I’ve even been to. Grazie! 😉

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.