Guide-U Presents: The Heart of Old Tbilisi – the Place Where the Building of the City Started
I would like to continue our journey around Georgia in the historic district and one of the earliest settlements of Tbilisi.
According to a very famous legend, centuries ago the area we now know as Tbilisi was nothing but forest. One day, in the 5th Century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the forest and his falcon was chasing a pheasant. The King followed his falcon and eventually found both birds boiled to death in a hot spring. The moment King Vakhtang saw the spring it reminded him of one he had seen in Persia that was considered to be a magical healing spring. He decided that this would be the perfect place to build a new city.
The name ‘Tbilisi’ is actually closely linked to these famous hot springs as ‘Tbili’ in Georgian means warm.
King Vakhtang divided the city in three districts. The first district Kala (Kaloubani) was situated in the north-west. The second was named Tpilisi, the location of the warm sulfur springs and the third was Avlabari, on the opposite side of the Mtkvari River. This district still holds the same name.
The first pearl of our city tour will be Metekhi, a church standing on the rocky heel of Avlabari. According to traditional beliefs Vakhtang Gorgasali built a church and a fortress on this place, the fortress served as the king’s residence.
Shushanik, a Christian Armenian Queen was buried here in the 5th century. She strongly defended her right to practice Christianity. The symbol of a strong woman, Shushanik was murdered by her husband, Varsken who decided to follow a different religion. A few years later Shushanik’s father also died as a martyr for the same reasons as his daughter. There is an ancient book written in around 480 AD, which happens to be the earliest surviving book written in Georgian, called “The Passion of Saint Shushanik”. The book was so popular that it was translated into many languages. The 1,500th-anniversary of the martyrdom of St Shushanik was marked in 1979, by UNESCO. Her grave is still preserved inside Metekhi Church.
According to legend, Metekhi rock must have been a place of Saint Abo’s torture in the 8th Century. Abo is the patron saint of Tbilisi. A small church in his name is now located under Metekhi church, at the bottom of the hill next to the river.
King Demetre built this church on the remains of an earlier building, which led to the unusual architectural features. Over the centuries the church underwent many changes. Metekhi was originally tiled with greenish gray stone and later restored with bricks. In the 16th – 17th Centuries, all four columns of the church, the arches and the dome were restored. A large part of the southern wall was restored during the reign of King Erekle II.
Metekhi church is one of the oldest churches in Tbilisi. The name of the church is linked to the icon of the Virgin Mary. This icon was lost in 1795 during an enemy invasion but there is no doubt that the icon was highly respected, because Metekhi church was known to the people as the home of the icon of the Virgin Mary.
In 1226, during the reign of Queen Rusudan, the Mongols destroyed the church and according to Jean Chardin’s accounts it was also destroyed again at the end of the 17th Century. It was King Vakhtang V who rebuilt the church but in 1661 it stopped being used a church and was used for ammunition storage instead. Later, King Rostom reinforced the church with a strong citadel which was guarded by 3,000 soliders. In the first half of the 18th Century Metekhi church was under the control of the Turkish and Persian armies.
In the 1690’s, King Erekle I handed the church to the Persians who were still using it as weapons storage. However, the church became active once again after King Erekle II defeated Abdullah Beg in 1748. He rebuilt the church and we know this due to the inscription found on the eastern wall of the church.
In 1795 the church was badly damaged again during the invasion of Agha Mohammad Khan. Between 1798 and 1800 the church was rebuilt by King George XII and in 1801 the church became an active place of worship once again. However, in 1819, on the orders of General Ermolov, parts of the fortress were demolished and Metekhi church itself was used as a prison.
After the establishment of the Soviet regime in Georgia, in 1934, Metekhi church ceased being used as a prison and the army barracks that had been built around the church were demolished. During what is now known as the ‘great purge’ Lavrenti Beria decided that the church should be demolished. However, the well-known artist Dimitri Shevardnadze strongly resisted and Beria offered to build a small replica of the church and keep it in a museum that Dimitri would be the curator of. This offer was rejected and Dimitri was arrested and later executed for his resistance to the regime. Nevertheless, the church still survived this period intact.
The church wasn’t used as a church for long periods of its history and in 1979 it started to be used as the State Youth Drama Theater, known then as ‘Metekhi Theater’.
In May 1988, the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II renewed religious services at the church by giving it his blessing. The local parish gave financial support to help renovate the church and the architect, Alexander Antadze, was involved with the restoration works.
The Metekhi complex also includes a statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali – the founder of Tbilisi. The famous sculptor Elguja Amashukeli completed this monument in 1967. The King stands on the top of Metekhi cliff, overlooking the city he founded.
When you come down from Metekhi hill you will stumble upon one of the most popular places for relaxation in Tbilisi – Rike Park. It’s hard to notice from ground level but the park is kind of shaped like a map of Georgia, each region connected to the other with a footpath. The park is quite big and tourists are always curious about the strange pipe-shaped structure in the park that can be seen from a distance. This unusual looking building is actually a recently built music hall and exhibition center designed by the famous Italian architect, Massimiliano Fuksas. However, the building is unfortunately empty at the moment. Some of the other attractions in the park are the cable car station, the amphitheater, a giant chessboard, a singing fountain, a parking area and a kid’s play area. There is also an underground parking lot.