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Tbilisi

Georgia photos

I decided to spend the final month of my 2018 European adventure in the South Caucasus, a strategically important region wedged between the Black and Caspian Seas and Russia, Iran and Turkey. Located south of its namesake mountain range (the largest in Europe), the South Caucasus could very simply be described as consisting of three modern-day countries: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the history, cultural identities and contemporary geopolitics of the South Caucasus are anything but “simply” put. For millennia, the South Caucasus has forever served as a frontier between civilisations (Greek, Persian, Arab, Turkic, Slavic and Western worlds), religions (Orthodox Christians, Oriental Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims), political convictions (religious conservatism, fascism, communism and liberalism) and ethnic groups (the three dominant languages (Georgian, Armenian and North Azerbaijani) are part of separate language families and are mutually unintelligible). Consequently, the South Caucasus is one of the most complex regions in the world, with breakaway territories (South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh), contrasting international relations (Armenia and the “brotherhood” of Azerbaijan and Turkey hate each other, while Georgia serves as the mediator; Armenia boasts the rare distinction of friendly bilateral relations with Russia, Iran and the United States; Georgia loathes Russian influence and aspires to join NATO and the EU; and Azerbaijan distrusts fellow Shi’a Muslim state Iran due to Iranian support for Armenia!) and confused destinies (European or Asian?). Above all else, contemporary life for South Caucasians, from the local bakery to the chambers of government, is intrinsically linked with the legacies from the relatively recent fall of their former occupiers and masters, the Soviets. Aside from a weekend sojourn in the virtually Western city of Riga, visiting the South Caucasus was the first time I had travelled through the republics of the former Soviet Union. Needless to say, it was a very educational month!

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While an independent and unified Georgian state is a relatively recent concept (1991), the republic is the successor of one of the world’s oldest continuous societies. Cultural identity is thus cherished by Georgians, and intrinsically linked with language, religion, history… and viticulture. Georgians speak a language indigenous to the Caucasus, which employs a unique script and is unrelated to any other language. The Georgian Orthodox Church was established as one of the first organised churches of Christendom, when a Georgian kingdom in the 4th century became the second nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Due to the religion’s enduring and fundamental connection to Georgian identity, the country has experienced a religious revival since the fall of the atheist Soviet Union. Georgia is in fact a very rare example of where younger generations (i.e. educated after the Soviet Union’s collapse) are more religious than older generations. The sovereign flag of Georgia is festooned with Byzantine crosses, emblematic of the Church’s psychological and literal power in the contemporary political and social discourse of the country (Georgia is thus very conservative for a European country). Georgians are immensely proud of their historic heroes and the preservation of their culture throughout the millennia despite the countless invasions. But perhaps the constituent tenet of Georgian identity is their obsession with wine, and pride for inventing the liquor (contested by the Armenians). Traces of wine have been identified within Georgian territory that date back to 6,000BC, and wine is still produced (and consumed) abundantly in the country’s lowlands stretching from the Black Sea to the Azerbaijani border (more discussion on Georgian wine in subsequent entries).

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I started my journey through the South Caucasus in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which I pivoted through repeatedly in the next four weeks (“all roads lead to Tbilisi”). Tbilisi has everything an intrepid traveller could want from visiting a capital city in a somewhat obscure country. It has served as the cradle and bastion of a unique culture for millennia. It features a remarkable history of invasions and conquests by innumerable empires, including most recently the Soviets. The city is a strangle confusion of communist legacies, re-emergent traditional values and customs, and Western aspirations. The architecture is intriguing, the food and wine exciting, and the people are, well, let’s say perplexing. Despite its inconspicuous contemporary reputation, Tbilisi also boasts excellent tourism infrastructure and attracts an increasingly large number of backpackers.

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The Old Town of Tbilisi is located adjacent a historically important bend in the Mtkvari River. The layout is a confusing web of narrow streets that wind up steep slopes to the 1,300 year old ruins of the Narikala Fortress, which provides spectacular views of the capital. The structure is a reminder of Tbilisi’s extraordinary past, which extends to at least 6,000 years ago. Nevertheless, contemporary Tbilisi dates to the 5th century when it was established by a fabled ancient Georgian kingdom. In the subsequent millennia, the city served as the capital of independent Georgian states but was mostly conquered and occupied by foreign aggressors including the Arab Caliphates, the Mongols, Timur the Great, various Persian empires and the Russians. The destructiveness of repeated invasions has resulted in a somewhat “young” Old Town of traditional Caucasian terrace houses dating from the 19th century. The buildings are distinguished by their expansive and colourful balconies, which are supposedly a cornerstone facilitator of communal Georgian life. Aside from a handful of glamorised buildings on the main square, most of the houses appear to be neglected and severely dilapidated, which adds to the charm and authenticity of the backstreets. The Old Town abounds with grape vines (emblematic of the nation’s treasured invention) and slender pine trees, which hint at the Mediterranean. The Old Town is scattered with ancient Georgian Orthodox churches, some of which are over 1,400 years old, as well as Armenian Apostolic churches, Russian Orthodox churches, a synagogue, a mosque and Turkish bathhouses, demonstrative of the diverse influences on Tbilisi’s formation.

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Russian influence in Tbilisi commenced earlier in the nineteenth century, when the Tsarist regime implemented a contemporary Western European-style rectilinear centre of wide boulevards and grand, neoclassical buildings adjacent the Old Town. The area remains the principle civic centre of Tbilisi and home to the country’s constituent cultural institutions, though it lacks the traditional atmosphere and intrigue of the Old Town. After a brief period of independence, the Soviet invasion of the early 1920s utterly transformed the demographics of the city. Armenians, renowned for their artisanal work and business acumen, had constituted the largest ethnic group in the city since the 12th century, but were quickly outnumbered. The industrialisation of Tbilisi caused a population boom with rural Georgians immigrating to their capital, thus resulting in sprawl along the river valley.

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One of Tbilisi’s select few positive outcomes of enduring communist hegemony was the implementation of a metro-system (more like a metro-“spine”), which still functions remarkably efficiently with Soviet-era infrastructure and rolling stock. Each time I travelled by metro, I felt like I escaped the slightly sanitised touristy enclaves and was afforded a glimpse into Georgian life. It was an opportunity to study these befuddling and somewhat forgotten people: neither rich nor poor, unfriendly but also unthreatening, appearances somewhere between Slavic, Mediterranean and Persian. Their generally dour demeanour and preference to speak Russian to tourists (rather than English) is suggestive to the visitor that perhaps you are in Georgia’s colossal northern neighbour. But the innumerable NATO and EU flags fluttering in Tbilisi’s sky (Georgia is not formally a member of either organisation) is a reminder of the unreserved detestation Georgians have for Russia, due to historic suppression of Georgian culture and Russia’s contemporary attitude that the Caucasus falls within their rightful “sphere of influence”.

I travelled by metro to Desertirebis Bazari, a conglomeration of hundreds of ramshackle market stalls at the city’s centre, where I was properly isolated from foreigners, travel agencies and scammers. The locals appeared to be either bemused, disinterested or slightly irritated by my presence (and photographing), offering little more than brief, judgemental glances. Their cheerless characters contrasted with the remarkable bounty of produce on display, exhibiting Georgia’s rich agricultural output. The stalls were pilled high with fruits and vegetables synonymous with the Caucasus, including grapes, figs, plums, pomegranates and walnuts. Hanging from many fruit stalls were churchkelas, Georgia’s idiosyncratic naturally flavoured sweets. Sausage shaped, churchkelas consist of either walnuts or hazelnuts coated in grape syrup or honey and come in a multitude of colours (but the flavours are surprisingly underwhelming).

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I visited the ancient capital of Mtskheta as a daytrip from Tbilisi, although it is essentially just an outer suburb of the contemporary capital now. Mtskheta is located adjacent the confluence of two rivers, which allowed it to develop into a wealthy trading centre in ancient times. The city has functioned as the spiritual centre of Georgia since Christianity’s adoption in 327, with the imposing Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (1,000 years old) remaining the most important church in the country. The Jvari Church overlooks the town on a hilltop on the opposite side of the Mtkvari River, providing a spectacular backdrop to the town and unique perspective of the town and the surrounding topography. Mtskheta’s two World Heritage sites are quintessential examples of Georgian Orthodox architecture. Georgian Orthodox churches are consistent with the standard cross-formation of churches throughout Christendom, although the nave is typically smaller and less elongated. The churches are visually defined by their monumental domes, which is customary of Eastern Orthodoxy. The interiors are covered with magnificent Byzantine-style murals and alit by innumerable candles. Since Georgians are incredibly religious (Georgia is one of the few countries where religion is more popular among younger generations), their churches are definitely more atmospheric than their Catholic equivalents – yet once you’ve visited one, you’ve seen them all. Aside from religious structures, the town’s pleasant cobblestone streets of terracotta roofed houses and grape vines radiate from the cathedral’s enormous compound. Numerous touristic stalls, predominately catering to fat-wallet Russians surround the compound selling kitsch merchandise and traditional Georgian snacks. I was obliged to sample wine ice-cream – which was lip-smacking!

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While Georgians are seemingly very pro-Western and detest the Russians, the contemporary country still has a strange relationship with Stalin, which is evident at his namesake museum in Gori. In his capacity as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin instigated more barbarism than almost any other tyrant in history. He was responsible for the deaths of literally tens of millions of people, as he purged his empire of dissidents, possible future dissidents (i.e. intelligentsia, clergy) and undesirable minorities. Although Nikita Khrushchev attempted to de-Stalinise the Soviet Union after his death in 1953, pockets of adulation remained. In the 1950’s, a huge museum venerating the life of Stalin was constructed in the unassuming town of Gori – the birthplace of Josef Jugashvilli. The museum has survived the modernisation and Westernisation of Georgia, and remains essentially a monument that celebrates his rise to power and subsequent rule with innumerable portraits, photographs, gifts and even his personal train carriages on display. Most of the exhibits provide accounts of the Russian Revolution, rapid industrialisation of the USSR and success in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. Only one cabinet exists, perhaps stubbornly, hinting at the murders he authorised against Georgian political, cultural and temporal leaders – while no mention is made of literally tens of millions of people that perished from his direct orders or policies. Visiting the museum was certainly one of the strangest experiences of the trip, and I kind of regret attending.

For those of you who have absolutely no idea of what constitutes Georgian cuisine (presumably everyone), I will succinctly describe it as consisting of: dumplings, cheesy breads, cheese, bread (often as a side to the cheesy bread), stews, red kidney beans, eggplants, walnuts, pomegranates, cucumbers, tomatoes and, above all else (even perhaps Christianity), wine. With such an intriguing mix of dishes and ingredients, I naturally had very high expectations that Georgian, famed throughout the former Soviet countries, could rival Tunisian as my favourite “off the beaten track” cuisine. In retrospect, it was probably my least favourite of the Caucasian cuisines, but I was certainly impressed by its uniqueness, complexity and cultural importance.

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Bread is the cornerstone of the Georgian diet and is served at every meal. Georgian breads are cooked in traditional round ovens (similar to tandoors), are fluffy like Turkish bread and can be either disk or canoe-shaped. Georgian cheeses, especially a brined, salty and sour white variety known as sulgani, are almost just as ubiquitously eaten throughout a typical Georgian day. Combined, bread and cheese form Georgia’s most beloved and idiosyncratic dish: khachapuri. Despite consisting of just two essential ingredients, khachupuri comes in numerous guises. Imerali khachapuri is the most common, a round cheese pie with pizza-like dough and an oozy cheesy filling. Megrali khachapuri is essentially the same, but with sulgani on top of the crust. The absolute king of khachupuri though is Adjaruli khachapuri, which consists of a crust shaped into a boat and filled to the brim with cheese. Once baked, the molten insides are topped with a raw egg and butter, creating one of the most indulgent dishes in the world – which even I couldn’t finish (the sizes are ridiculously big). Khachapuri are so insanely overloaded with cheese that I guarantee that, unlike pizza, no Westerner has ever complained that their khachapuri does not have enough cheese (absolutely NEVER!!!). Fortunately, a delicious non-cheese baked alternative exists to khachapuri. Lobiani consists of the same dough as khachapuri but is stuffed with a spiced red kidney bean mixture; a much less intense meal.

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The other beloved Georgian dish, which also seemed to be the most popular dish among travellers, is khinkali, a form of dumplings. Khinkali are very big dumplings (about the size of a small hand) consisting of a thick dough enclosing most commonly either spiced beef or mushrooms. The khinkali are assembled to create a handle at the top, which is used to hold the khinkali while eating and are then discarded of. Five khinkalis is typically considered adequate for a meal. Personally, I thought khinkali is hugely overrated – they have nothing on Polish pierogi. Unfortunately, the dumplings were also frequently rendered inedible by the unexpected presence of coriander inside – who would have thought a random cuisine like Georgian would be so toxically infected by coriander (an ongoing issue for me in the Caucasus). I can’t speak for God, but coriander is definitive proof that Satan certainly exists. My personal favourite dish though was badridzhani nigvsit, a salad consisting of fried slices of eggplant rolled and stuffed with a rich walnut paste and topped with pomegranate seeds – delectable! Another sensational salad, exemplifying Russian historic influence in the country, is Georgian chicken salad. The salad features shredded chicken with diced vegetables, parsley and a heavy mayonnaise dressing. The most typical salad, present at every meal, is the tomato and cucumber combination, occasionally flavoured with walnuts and herbs.

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Tbilisi was a brilliant introduction to the exoticisms and complexities of the Caucasus. While it is geographically distant, I concluded that the city is indisputably European, with minimal traces of Middle Eastern influence. Tbilisi is definitely a city I would recommend visiting, to learn about an extraordinary yet ignored history, admire the decayed architecture of the Old Town and sample a unique cuisine.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Georgia photos

Posted by Liamps 14:36 Archived in Georgia

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