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Looking back at 1919 Tiflis from 2019 Tbilisi

Prepared by Levan Abramishvili
Monday, April 1
Last week, we offered a new section to our readers - From The Messenger Archives. This Monday, we continue showcasing what The Messenger (originally The Georgian Messenger) and Tbilisi (Tiflis) looked like a 100 years ago. The author of this week’s article takes us through the Tiflis streets that are all-too-familiar for anyone who has visited Tbilisi at least once.

Sulfur Baths in Abanotubani, an ancient district in Tbilisi, is a very popular destination amongst tourists and has been for many years. This is always the first place that the locals take their foreign friends to see. As a legend tells us, in the 5th century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali came across the hot springs while hunting and was so impressed that he built a city around them. In fact, the name Tbilisi derives from the word tbili (warm), which the city got for its famous hot springs.

Reading the article, one can sense that even though a 100 years is a long period, the march of time hasn’t affected the true essence of the city. With or without the numerous modern glass constructions, Tbilisi has remained the welcoming, multicultural place that embraces anyone who visits it with open arms and makes sure that everyone feels the need to come back.


We cross the narrow bridge and pay a visit to the bathe. Perhaps the reader knows something of the so-called Turkish bath, and imagines that the baths of Tiflis are of the same sort? There is certainly some similarity between the two, but there are profound differences; the treatment to which the visitor is subjected at a Turkish bath in Constantinople is not to be compared with what the Persian shampooer puts you through in Tiflis. He goes through a whole course of gymnastics with you, during which he jumps on your chest, on the small of your back, doubles you up as if you were a fowl ready for cooking, and, besides removing every particle of your epidermis, performs sundry other experiments at which the novice stares aghast. At the end of it all, you make up your mind that it is not so terrible as it looks, and as you feel wonderfully refreshed you resolve to return again before long. The water is of a heat of about 100 Fahr., and is impregnated with sulfur and other substances which give it healing virtue; it is to these springs that Tiflis owes its existence, and they have always been of much importance in the daily life of the people. Formerly it used to be the fashion for ladies of rank to hire baths and dressing-rooms for a whole day, spending the time in perfuming themselves, staining their fingertips, dressing the hair, and performing a dozen other ceremonies of the toilette, concluding with dinner, but the growth of European habits has rendered this custom less common.

The Cathedral of Sion is, as we said before, as old as the city itself, but, of course, it has suffered considerably at the hands of destroyers and restorers. Its style is the same as that of all the other churches in Georgia, and it doubtless served as a pattern for most of them. The inside has been tastefully decorated in modern times, and produces a pleasing effect, although it seems small to anybody who is familiar with the cathedrals of Europe. In front of the altar is the Cross of St. Nina, formed of two vine branches bound together with the saint's hair; this cross has always been the most sacred relic in Georgia. There is also a modest tomb, which contains the body of Prince Tsitsishvili, a Georgian who was appointed Governor of the Caucasus by Alexander I, and who, after a glorious career, was foully murdered outside the walls of Baku by the treacherous khan of that city. From the cathedral, the way to the European quarter leads through the so-called Armenian Bazar, of the most interesting parts of the city. Old arms, coats of mail, helmets and shields, such as are still used by the Khevsurs up in the mountains, silver ornaments and many other interesting trifles, may be purchased here, but nothing of great value is offered for sale, and the jewelry, with the exception of filigree work from Akhaltsikhe (which is hard to get and very expensive), is not very good.

Mushtaid is the finest promenade in the city. It is situated at the west end and is approached by the Mikhailovskaya, a long street, with fine gardens on either side of it. Some of the best restaurants in the city are in these vine shaded gardens, and one of them is devoted to wrestling matches. It was my good fortune to be present at a famous contest in which the Kakhetian champion, Gldaneli, fought a certain bold Imeretian professor of the fancy art. The performance was highly interesting, and it was gratifying to learn from the bills that the proceeds were to be for the benefit of a young man who wanted to study at Petersburg but had not the necessary means. The inner ring was formed of country gentlemen and officers, all sitting cross-legged on the ground; behind them, tier above tier were at least a thousand spectators, breathless with expectation. A primitive band, consisting of a drum and a zurna (an instrument which sounds like the bagpipes), played a warlike air, to the sound of which the heroes danced around the arena amid the frantic applause of the crowd. Both men were fine fellows, but Gldaneli was a very Hercules, and withal amiable-looking: he was the favorite, and justified his reputation of being invincible by utterly demolishing the Western man in a very short space of time. Every incident of the battle called forth from the bystander's loud yells of praise and encouragement which might have been heard miles off.