Author Topic: Stories and histories: A Trip to Tbilisi  (Read 2151 times)


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Stories and histories: A Trip to Tbilisi
« on: August 04, 2019, 05:10:55 PM »
Stories and Histories: A Visit to Tbilisi

It is said, in the folklore of Georgia, that when the lands of the earth were divided out to the different peoples, each came and received their appropriate allotment of land from God. Just one group were missing, and God found them resting under a tree, forgotten, some time after he had apportioned all the remaining lands. Naturally, he asked them who they were and why they had failed to come. They told him that they were the Kartvelians, and that they had set out, but first seen a river, and stopped by it drank a toast to it for giving water and life; then, they had passed a mountain, and stopped, and drank a toast to it for its strength and beauty. Finally, they had kept walking, but it was hot, and they found a walnut tree, and drank a toast to it for giving them shade and food. For their appreciation of the natural world, God found a mountainous area, small but beautiful, that he had been saving as a garden for himself, and gave it to them to care for – and so Sakartvelo, the land of the Kartvelians (known as Georgia to outsiders), came into being. At its centre, Tbilisi – the city’s name is rooted in the Georgian word for warmth, a reference probably to hot springs nearby – has been one of the cultural hearts of the Caucasus for centuries. Like in many cultures, the springs of Tbilisi were said to have had healing properties, and there are still bath-houses near the old town. The myth of the city’s founding is that Vakhtang Gorgasali was out hunting and either shot a deer which jumped into the spring or saw a falcon drop a pheasant into the spring, depending on the version. Either way, the animal is said to have emerged unharmed, and the impressed king marked the site out for a new city – a city and a country and a bundle of stories and subsequent histories in which, some millennium and a half later, an aeroplane landed. It was carrying, among other things, me.

Part of the manuscript centre's collections.
This trip to Tbilisi was my first and rather belated visit to Georgia, the country whose history I had been studying for two years and whose language I had recently gained a basic grasp of, and I was undeniably nervous as our plane rattled in the late evening through turbulence and down into Tbilisi airport. It was not perhaps the most auspicious of arrivals – exhausted, late at night, with a taxi driver I was fully aware was overcharging me and then the discovery that I would in fact be sharing a hotel room and had not been told this in advance by the organisers of the event I was at. That said, being overcharged in Tbilisi still feels reasonably priced for a resident of Vienna like myself; the exchange rate is very good for European tourists. Exhausted, I settled down for the night, with the Georgian stories I had been reading on the plane still rattling around in my head.

Once the morning arrived, it was time to turn my thoughts to more concrete histories and begin the summer school programme I had come here for, which lasted eight days with a two day conference at the end. To transcribe all of the details would be to write a textbook on Georgian manuscripts rather than a travelogue, but suffice to say that the range and detail were both impressive and useful. It was hard work – I have noticeable difficulties coping with having too many simultaneous streams of sound input, so listening to lectures in simultaneous translation through long days was tiring – but it was undoubtedly worthwhile. With me were an impressively diverse cast of characters, from an American former nun who’d at one point undergone an exorcism and later single-handedly canonised nearly a hundred women, to a larger-than-life Circassian independence activist who’d spent time being brutally treated in a Russian jail for his politics. The Caucasus is a land of contradictions, divisions, and eclectic diversity – perhaps most of all, a land of mixed and complex stories – and this seems to be reflected in those who are drawn towards it.

The Georgian alphabet’s earliest attestation is from the fifth century AD, with the earliest records of the old Asomtavruli script being found in Palestine rather than Georgia itself, likely thanks to its origination in already widespread Georgian monastic communities. Two further script variants were developed over subsequent centuries, the Nushkuri manuscript hand largely used for religious texts and the secular chancery script of Mkhedruli which is still used as the main secular Georgian alphabet today. The long history of manuscript books is dominated in its earlier parts by religious texts of various kinds, with translations of Greek philosophy and eventually Persian-influenced courtly romances becoming more prominent by the twelfth century period which I study, culminating in Vepkhist’q’aosani, the Knight in Panther Skin, which the Georgians to this day regard as one of the greatest literary works in their language. We had closer encounters with the Georgian script than expected during the course thanks to the tutelage of calligrapher Davit Maisuradze, who gave us a number of classes on ink-pen style Georgian calligraphy, which I have to say was unexpectedly useful especially in its explanations of Georgian mkhedruli ligatures – classical Georgian handwriting is a rather different beast to the modern script.

Georgian khinkali, salad, and wine at Cafe 38, Betlemi Street.
During the course itself there were only scraps of evening time with which to explore Tbilisi – often the evenings really only afforded much chance to explore the Old Town’s selection of restaurants, though I did manage to wander the streets a bit and at one point got up to the Nariq’ala fortress to take some panoramas of the city. Georgian cuisine is definitely very distinctive from others I’ve tried, and even before I arrived (since Vienna does at least have Georgian restaurants, and since I’d made my own varyingly successful attempts at making everything from khachapuri to pelamushi myself) it was one of my favourites. Wine is the pre-eminent drink – amusingly, the word for it is even an irregularly declined noun in Georgian – and both reds and whites are available, including many made with the traditional kvevri process in which the juice, pulp, and stems are all left in large earthenware jars to undergo natural fermentation. This gives a very distinctive flavour, and in some cases colour, to the resulting wine. For soft drinks, lemonades are common, especially herbal lemonades with for example basil added, or even more commonly tarragon. Processed commercial tarragon lemonades are a popular soft drink in Georgia (one I have to say I actually quite like the taste of), and these are usually coloured with distinctive emerald green food colouring.

As for food, the broad category of khachapuri covers a wide range of breads with cheese baked into them, usually sulguni – a cow cheese prepared in brine, with a distinctive slightly salty flavour. The most common of these, from the respective regions of Imereti, Samegrelo, and Adjara are the imeruli, a flatbread with cheese in the middle, the megruli, similar but with a second layer of cheese baked over the top, and the acharuli, a distinctive boat shape with cheese in the middle, usually served with an egg fried on top. The other dish to specifically note are khinkali, the Georgian filled dumplings: these are traditionally eaten by holding the knob on the top, without cutlery, something I have just about trained myself to do though the often juicy fillings of meat khinkali do present something of a challenge to the newcomer in this particular art. Other common dishes include aubergine with walnut paste, which is lovely, Georgian salads (typically tomato, cucumber, and onion with a walnut oil dressing), some cornbreads, and a number of meat dishes including kebab style skewers and shkmeruli garlic chicken.

Tsughrughasheni, prettier than it is pronounceable.
If Tbilisi outside its restaurant doors was left partly unexplored, this was counterbalanced by us going on several excursions outside the city. The first of these was to Bolnisi, in lower (kvemo) Kartli, the province that runs to the south of Tbilisi. Kvemo Kartli is nearly forty percent Muslim due to the large ethnic Azeri population in the south of the region. It is also, among other things, the only region of Georgia to have records of porcupines (which have one of my favourite names in Georgian, mach’vzgharba, roughly translatable as “badger hedgehog”). Of course none were obvious on our visit there, but the fifth century basilica church at Bolnisi, which mostly fell down and was substantially reconstructed in the twentieth century, was well worth going to see, with numerous extremely old inscriptions (the oldest asomtavruli inscriptions can be noted because many of the loops in the letters are more closed in the oldest variants of that script). The church additionally played host to a very large population of tree sparrows appearing and disappearing from the walls, and one large raptor overhead which unfortunately disappeared before I could identify it. We stopped for lunch at an as yet unopened fish restaurant where the proprietor was happy to let us use the tables, and then continued uphill to the monastery church of Tsughrughasheni, not the kindest of names for non-Georgians to pronounce but nonetheless a beautiful example of thirteenth century decorated Georgian architecture.

Our second trip took us west, first to the basilica church at Urbnisi, equal or perhaps older in age than Bolnisi though itself the subject of many renovations. The roads here are modern highways with roadside stops that sell Wendy’s burgers alongside tarragon lemonade – but they also stubbornly display signage to places in the separatist occupied regions, and government-constructed settlements for the largely ethnic Georgian groups expelled from South Ossetia can be seen from the roadside. The Russian-dominated separatist regions are a raw wound from Georgia’s perspective; South Ossetia in particular forms what is in effect a permanent hostile beach-head for the Russian army in the country, a constant geopolitical source of instability that in practice is disturbingly close to Tbilisi. A bitter legacy and cycle of violent flare-ups since the 1990s, when Georgia’s first wave of post-Soviet nationalism clashed forcibly with the regional autonomy demanded by some of its minority groups, has led to widespread displacement of people pushed out on both sides of the conflict over time, and Tbilisi as a result now plays host to a wide range of “in exile” institutions from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian influence tended to progressively expand over the separatist regions over time, especially after the 1990s once the Putin regime was established, and Georgia’s official position after the 2008 conflict is now that they count as being militarily occupied by Russia. It must suffice here to say that whatever the nuances of the past they have emerged from, the human tragedies and political instabilities of these frozen conflict zones exist very prominently in the present, and their impacts on residents on either side of the dividing borders show no sign of abating.

A valley near Ateni, in central Georgia.
After Urbnisi we headed up southwards into the mountains, passing south through Stalin’s birthplace in Gori, which retains a somewhat uncritical Soviet era museum where something little short of a temple was built over the house he grew up in. We did not stop, however, because further south we were headed for Ateni, a beautiful monastery with spectacular mountain views. Excitingly for me, these included several wall paintings of medieval monarchs, notably David the Builder, great-grandfather of Queen Tamar whose court has formed the main focus of my research so far. On the outside of the church, more curiously, there was a very wide range of graffiti including a large number of depictions of horses and deer (with many being so rudimentary that it was hard to tell which was which). There were some quadrupeds in the outer decoration as well, but the story behind these scratched depictions was far from clear; we were seeing the memory of a story, without the story itself.

Leaving Ateni was somewhat slower a process than anticipated for, when we went to go and look at some very cute dogs, we stumbled upon an ongoing supra, a traditional Georgian feast, and were obliged to make at least two toasts by our very friendly accidental hosts before we got back to our bus. The supra is a strong Georgian tradition, and indeed earlier the same day our translator, Lado, had given us an introduction to Georgian toasting culture, in which we were further instructed at the supra feast at the end of the conference. Toasting culture – the fact that in Georgia the tradition is to drink only when toasting, with a tamada (toastmaster) selected or elected to propose the toasts and thereby set the drinking pace – was something I’d been aware of well before my trip, but it was definitely a different and very worthwhile experience to be in the middle of it. As for myself, I proposed two toasts – one in the valley near Ateni to departed colleagues, remembering my own former supervisor Ruth who died suddenly earlier this year, and one at the banquet to four difficult friends that many of us were trying to get along better with – Mkhedruli, Asomtavruli, Nushkuri, and the Georgian language!

Svetitskhoveli, the Cathedral of the Living Pillar, seen from the Holy Cross monastery.
The final day of the summer school programme before our two day conference began included a trip to Mtskheta, once a Georgian capital city and today one of the country’s most important religious centres. The holy cross monastery overlooking the city was our first stop, with a cluster of shacks selling food and goods outside the ancient structure following in what one imagines must be a long tradition of hangers-on seeking to make their living outside places of wonder and pilgrimage. The views that the wind-blown (indeed, on one side, heavily wind damaged) monastery affords of the valley are striking, especially the view down to Mtskheta itself. After – to my eternal surprise – being given a prize certificate for good Mkhedruli calligraphy, we then piled back into the bus (after having to send our resident priest out to find a lost lamb from the flock), and headed down to Mtskheta.

If the holy cross monastery had a ramshackle collection of hanger-on shops, Mtskheta had an industry. Well kept, neatly built streets were rammed with sellers of food, wine, and souvenirs. I managed to resist the temptation of a drinking horn, this time at least – I do already own one after all – and we passed the offer of horse & cart trips to get to Mtskheta’s real centre, the cathedral. According to legend, the tunic of Jesus Christ is buried under it – brought back from the crucifixion by a Georgian Jew called Elias, and given to his sister Sidonia who died holding it: it was impossible to remove from her grasp, and so she was buried with it. The tree that grew over her grave was the foundation for Georgia’s convertor St. Nino to much later build a church there, and one of the seven pillars she cut from it had magical life-giving properties – hence the cathedral’s name of Svetitskhoveli, the Living Pillar. The present church is eleventh century though with many layers of reconstruction, and it’s an immensely impressive sight. Huge numbers of house martens live around the spire and were floating around it like an amorphous, moving crown as we arrived: its outer walls are mostly fairly recent but contain some surviving twelfth century buttresses and other elements in places. Inside, what can best be described as a giant stone reliquary stands over the supposed spot of Sidonia’s burial, with grave markers for a number of the later Georgian monarchs (and for several older ones such as the much-mythologised Vakhtang Gorgasali, though these may in some cases be more memorials than marking actual grave sites).

Once the conference was over, I was feeling unwell for most of the latter part of the trip, but resolved to do my best to explore Tbilisi anyway. I moved from the Kalasi hotel to an Airbnb on Betlemi Street, which provided a reasonably inexpensive and central base from which to look round. The upper parts of the Old Town include some steep slopes and steps, better navigated on foot than with a vehicle, but are very pretty and provide nice views over the city and up to the fortress and the dominant Soviet era “Mother of Kartli” statue that stands watch, wine bowl and sword at the ready, over the city. The fortress area consists essentially of two levels, with the upper level lacking a particularly good path up to it: in the lower section, the wall walks are reconstructed in a lot of places and can be walked along without too much difficulty, and the fortress’ church, its one fully restored building, forms a nice centrepiece. The whole setup is probably most of interest for the spectacular panoramic views it offers, especially as there is little by way of historical signage and explanation offered, though the walls are in and of themselves impressive to look at as well as look out from.

A laughing dove - Tbilisi is at the northwest edge of their range.
Observing the city’s inhabitants and its other tourists and why they seemed to be there was an interesting pastime. The streets of the old town are packed with cars, doves, feral dogs and cats, and tourists. In general, it is hard not to conclude that Tbilisi has a car problem, with most streets heavily lined with vehicles for hire and the roads often slow and belching exhaust fumes, and a decrease in vehicles in the old town would make the streets feel rather more pleasant and less crowded. In the long term, the more difficult issue is that Georgia’s major east-west highway routes pass directly through the centre of the city, but thanks to the valley-bottom nature of the place any idea of re-routing them would be difficult. The feral and wild animals meanwhile are generally delightful, with the dogs usually carrying bright yellow ear tags to show that they have received some basic level of veterinary attention. The city has some rock doves of the sort familiar as city pigeons in any European city, but there is also a large population of laughing doves, a species that was new to me (and, surprisingly, confusing to some Georgians I talked to, none of whom appeared to linguistically distinguish between it and the turtle dove – whilst I’ve not found detailed information on the history of the species, it’s possible that this lack of a native Georgian word implies it’s a comparative newcomer in the Caucasus, and indeed the core of its native range is much further south).

The tourists, probably now the lifeblood of the city’s economy, are a mix of western European, American, Russian and middle-Eastern, and often there for quite different reasons. The potentially inexpensive nature of Georgian holidays and the apparently famed quality of its nightlife (shockingly enough, dear reader, I did not attempt to investigate) are perhaps more of a likely draw for Russians who can drive there than it is for those who come at greater expense from further afield attracted by Georgian wine, culture, or wildlife, though this is clearly by no means universal on either side. The middle-Eastern, mostly Arab, tourists meanwhile are a very different set. One of Georgia’s largest selling points for them is that it’s the only country that permits legal gambling in the entire region, and apparently many of them come to do just that, drink alcohol, eat pork, and generally take a “what happens in Georgia stays in Georgia” attitude to life for a while. One couldn’t help note that this attitude seemed to be largely taken by men and not extended to their families: a gaggle of veiled women following a sunglasses-toting middle aged Arab man dressed not unlike any of the western European tourists himself was a jarring but not uncommon sight whilst I was there.

Underground shops selling fruit and churchkhela.
Down in the city itself, I was finally able to get beyond the old town a bit, though my explorations did not take me much further than Rustaveli Avenue and the area between it and the river. Numerous markets are bundled into the streets, often second hand, or specialist such as the flower market I found at one point or the clusters of book-sellers, usually hawking mid twentieth century volumes in Russian or different editions of the Knight in Panther Skin alongside a small eclectic assemblage of other titles. The subways to walk under the city’s major roads are stuffed with tiny shops as well, selling fruit, shoes, sunglasses, and just about anything else one could think of. I was able to enjoy a number more eateries as well, especially Café Leila in the Old Town which had a good vegetarian selection and which I particularly liked for its herbal lemonades and its wall decoration, mostly comprising figures from one of the early modern Knight In Panther skin manuscripts, and Seidabadi on Gorgasali Square where I was generously hosted by a friend’s father one evening and was able to watch some Georgian music and dancing alongside some very good food and wine.

Rustaveli Avenue itself includes a number of attractions, including the very good book/coffee shop of Prospero’s Books, the rather beautiful opera house, and the parliament building, outside which a sleepy protest camp could still be seen – protests have been ongoing in Tbilisi for some time, largely calling for the resignation of the interior minister who presided over an excessive police response to an earlier protest that left some people with lost eyes; the symbol of an eyepatch, or covering one eye with a hand, has become a rallying icon for the protest movement, which tends to be backed by younger and more pro-European Georgians in particular. Georgian pro-European sentiment is loudly on display, and I don’t think I’ve seen a city in the EU that flies the EU flag quite so much as Georgia aspirationally chooses to. The need for stronger European trade integration to help diversify the Georgian economy, and western support as a counterweight to the ever-felt fear of Russia, are both clear psychological drivers behind this process, but its heavy public manifestation, backed up by a public perception of history that very heavily stresses and investigates Georgia’s western connections, is interesting nonetheless and highlights one of the difficulties in Georgia’s ongoing debates about its identity as a country.

Inside a traditional east Georgian house, buried into a hillside.
Of course, being myself, I also found time for some more museums, including a kind invitation to the Ethnographic and National Museums (the latter being another of the features of Rustaveli Avenue). The former, which one of the staff kindly gave me a tour of, is essentially a village of transplanted houses from different areas of Georgia, among pleasant hilltop scrub terrain where butterflies and reptiles can be found. The houses are in an impressive range of styles and display a range of environmental and situational adaptations – reflecting practices such as the fact that west Georgian kvevri are typically buried outdoors whereas east Georgian ones are buried in a building, thanks to the far harsher winter climate in the east which can crack the jars. The east Georgian houses with earth-covered roofs and high octagonal cones leading up to a skylight window beneath them were a particularly interesting sight, especially with their tiny (stooping height) doors which may have been a past adaptation to the threat of raids. These houses often had escape tunnels at the back, too, to allow family members to get out in the event of trouble. Georgian adaptation at times needed to take into account not just the physical landscape but the human geography around them.

The National Museum meanwhile is also well worth a look, with galleries on everything from ancient metalworking to natural history. The prehistoric Trialeti culture goldwork on display, especially one particularly famous goblet, is particularly beautiful and the glimpse into Georgia’s long prehistory of artefacts and metallurgy is worth going for. The museum also contains the Soviet occupation gallery, which felt to me less like a historical exhibit and more like the Georgian intelligentsia’s memorial to their own losses, covering the Russian destruction of the nascent westward-facing social democratic Georgian republic in 1921 and picking up the subsequent thread of pro-democracy underground organising and undermining of the Soviet state. Georgia’s numerous Soviet communists are notable for their absence – Stalin, the most famous of them, is mentioned just once in the exhibition, and that for having died. It is half a story, told truly with passion and grief – another thread in a tapestry of overlapping, occasionally contradictory, but nonetheless powerfully real stories that, together, make Georgia.

Chuniri and Changi, traditional Georgian stringed instruments.
The last museum I reached in Tbilisi was the folk music museum, for which I was fortunate enough to have company in the form of Nutsa, friend I had managed to make rather randomly via Facebook. As a rather amateurish folk musician in my own right I was duly fascinated. Like in numerous places in Tbilisi, the ticket was low cost but a tour was really required to understand the exhibits. These included traditional Georgian bagpipes, drums, harps (changi), and other stringed instruments including the strummed panduri and the bowed banjo-like chuniri. This last is said to have been attributed various mystical properties in the mountain regions of Georgia, being used in healing ceremonies among other things. The museum also has an impressive collection of nineteenth and twentieth century crank-organs and other clockwork musical boxes, which the guide will happily demonstrate for you.

Tbilisi’s status as a centre of specifically Georgian culture is an interesting one – it has long been the Georgian capital, but it has far less often been a majority Georgian city in cultural terms. The modern city in which ninety percent of the population consider themselves ethnically Georgian is the result of rapid urbanisation and in historical terms may be almost an aberration: in 1801, Tbilisi was probably majority Armenian by a significant margin, with Georgians only becoming the largest of the city's ethnic groups in the 1920s and forming over half of Tbilisi's total residents only from the 1960s or 1970s onwards. It seems likely that similar shifts and diversity have long been part of the city’s history; in the period that I study, it had only ceased to be an independent emirate a few decades earlier, and it seems very likely that there would still have been a sizeable percentage of Muslims in the city in the later twelfth century. Jewish communities among others (Yazidi, Ukrainian, German, Russian) have had long histories in the city too; the aforementioned Seidabad restaurant is named for an historic name of the district, which was at one point the Persian part of the city. The Jewish museum of Tbilisi is one of the highest ones on my list that I didn’t get to on this visit – another time, perhaps.

The lush valley of Tbilisi's botanical garden.
Beyond the museums, and beyond the main valley of Tbilisi, there was one other jewel of those last days in the city: the botanical gardens, whose tree-covered slopes I had looked down on from the fortress a while previously. Entrance to the gardens is cheap, and they are large enough that even a casual walker can happily spend half a day in them, filling more or less an entire valley south of Tbilisi proper. A road from the entrance leads to a beautifully picturesque waterfall which is something of a tourist trap and seemed to consistently be surrounded by a gaggle of observers, but climbing the steps round above it led to hillsides full of trees and no small amount of wildlife. As well as sections for the flora of different parts of Georgia there are flower areas, a small Japanese garden, a large Mediterranean section, and other areas including a section on rare crops of Georgia which I didn’t manage to reach. Much of the garden takes quite some walking to reach, though there did seem to be vehicle rides available to many parts of it as well. If from stone-bound Tbilisi you want an easy example of the extent to which Georgia could be considered God’s garden in their myths, the botanical gardens are not a bad starting point at all.

The amount of wildlife I saw was probably decreased by the time of year – it was desperately hot, and Tbilisi itself gets extremely humid thanks to its location in the middle of a tight valley, such that probably even for reptiles it was getting rather too warm. Invertebrates, an array of spectacular dragonflies in particular, were nonetheless out in force, and the fast-flowing stream that fed the waterfall was the home of grey wagtails and dippers – both species that I had last seen not so long before darting down a similar looking stream on a far, far cooler day in the UK, but no less welcome a sight for that. At other times of year I imagine the gardens are far busier with avian life: a large flock of jays and a couple of Tbilisi’s omnipresent feral cats were the main wildlife I encountered on the hot, dry hillsides, though in places where there were ponds, frogs and butterflies were also very much present. Lizards were also not too hard to find; not perhaps desperately abundant but keeping a careful eye on cracks in the walls I found two or three and managed to get some photographs.

One of the spectacular dragonflies in the botanical garden.
About my last morning I can say little other than it arrived too soon - all I had left to do was get some souvenirs and head for the airport (where my suitcase ended up just a kilo under the weight limit, largely thanks to my book collecting habits). I headed to Khurjini, a spice shop close to the Kalasi hotel, which I can absolutely recommend for souvenir purchases – the wide and impressive range of spices and teas on offer make lightweight and inexpensive souvenirs, and sweet foods are on offer too. Whilst Georgians do not have much of a sweet tooth in their cuisine compared to, for example, Turkish or Greek cooking, there is nonetheless a very specific traditional set of Georgian sweet foods, mostly based on boiling down fruit in various ways. Notable among these are muraba, essentially the application of a jam-making process to large chunks of fruit or whole charries, tklapi, large sheets of fruit leather traditionally made from grape juice/pulp, pelamushi, a thickened grape juice and cornflour dessert with a slightly-thicker-than-jelly-like consistency which I tried making once, and above all churchkhela. This last is the mother of Georgian desserts, a string of walnuts or hazelnuts dipped-and-dried several times in a thickened grape juice mix to form what can best be described as a sort of grape and walnut sausage. Churchkhela are available absolutely everywhere in Tbilisi, but most are somewhat looked down on by Georgians I talked to – mass-produced with sugar syrup and artificial colourings for the tourist market – but khurjini at least offers them both unsweetened and sweetened with honey, and in the brownish colour that the grape juice naturally provides.

The end of my stay, in my head at least, was not really the plane home, bumping once again against the turbulence blown up from the mountains below. It was the night before, with a last plate (for now) of khinkali and a wide view over Tbilisi. It had been a voyage of observation of things I knew from my own reading as much as it had been a pure journey of discovery for me, but I had appreciated it no less for that. It was strangely like walking into my own readings, amending them and reshaping them to the real landscape upon which they were based. This was Tbilisi, a city full of stories in a land wrapped so tightly in myth that every street carries the threads of another tale. Even the harsher facts of this city’s raw present – protests, casinos, European flags lining car-filled streets – are rooted deeply in the stories its people choose to tell themselves from the vast bundle of myth and history they live around, stories about who they are, where they come from, what differentiates them and what they share.

Both as a historian and as a storyteller, in two (at least) very different ways, I felt that after my fortnight in Tbilisi I knew more and understood less and was glad of both things. The curse of an academic perspective on any subject is that one strives to know more, and in doing so uncovers gaps in understanding that one could never previously have known existed, but every time that stage is reached it provides a deep satisfaction, for therein lies the spark to go and discover more. My storytelling eyes meanwhile are drawn ever on and in to the web of ideas and tales that I find as I do so, and if on the way I cannot help but weave them a little differently, I would hardly be the first traveller in Tbilisi’s past to add my own voice to the centuries of bright cacophony. I end, then, on the knowledge of how little perhaps any of us will ever know about the depths of Tbilisi’s stories. What I do know, at least, is that I have no intention of this being my only trip to the city or the country – and that when I go back, far more of the treasures of Georgia’s stories and histories await, along with some khachapuri, a good glass of wine, and, most importantly of all, the friends I made in this beautiful, complex city. გმადლობთ, თბილისო - მე ისევ მოვალ!

« Last Edit: August 05, 2019, 02:51:29 PM by Jubal »
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...