Many people know Leselidze Street in downtown Tbilisi as a place where Christian Orthodox, Muslim, Armenian, Catholic and Jewish houses of worship stand side by side, but few people ever cite Rabati, the oldest district of Akhaltsikhe, as an example of similar diversity. Yet, nowhere else in Georgia does ethnic and religious diversity coexist to the extent it does in Rabati. Viewed as a symbol of tolerance, the old city of Akhaltsikhe is likely to become far better known now that extensive restoration works have been completed there.
Not long ago, we set out for Akhaltsikhe to observe the rehabilitation of Rabati, as the old town is called. Arriving in this multi-cultural district of Southern Georgia, we instantly spotted the old city fortress. The vivid golden dome of the Ahmadiyya mosque stands in the center, jutting out from the depth of the medieval wall surrounding the old city.
We followed a circuitous route to the city-fortress. Necessitated by then-ongoing rehabilitation works, the detour enabled us to observe the surrounding environs. The Chronicle of Kartli (Matiane Kartlisai) records old Akhaltsikhe as having been built in the Ninth Century by Guaram Mampali, a Georgian Bagratid prince and the youngest son of Ashot I, the founder of the Bagratid dynasty of Iberia/Kartli. The city is situated on both banks of the Potskhovi River. The right bank of the river is a flatland while the left bank is hilly. It was not until the Nineteenth Century that other districts of the city emerged. Rabati sits on the left bank.
The former residence of the Jaqeli noble family was wrapped in dust when we visited. Inside the fenced wall, we observed many more workers and wider-scale work than we had expected. Everyone was working very hard to meet the 16 August deadline set for completing the rehabilitation work and having the complex ready to start receiving visitors.
The Rabati fortress stretches over seven hectares and features works of Georgian, Turkish and Russian architecture. These monuments recount the history of the complex in a much more relatable way than any history book.
The Rabati fortress can be divided into two parts – historical and modern. The historical part is located on an upper level where the restoration-rehabilitation of monuments of national importance has been carried out. Among them are old bathhouses, the mosque, the Jaqeli castle and the citadel.Historian Davit Khoshtaria hypothesizes that the original archeological layer of the city might remain hidden under the citadel but that hypothesis is impossible to prove. The citadel is the highest point of the complex and is reached by first passing between the mosque and pasha’s refreshment room, and then between the mosque and madrasah.
The lowest point in the fortress is its dungeon. Akhaltsikhe was a hub of trade in captives. Abductees from Guria, Samegrelo, Imereti and other people captured or bought were brought to this city before being taken on to Istanbul.
Near the citadel is the Jaqeli castle, which reached the modern age in ruins and has now been rehabilitated to house a museum. “Our aim is to preserve the cultural heritage, on the one hand, and on the other, to make it accessible. In other words, we do not want it to be just a historical monument which does not function,” says Davit Lortkipanidze, the director of the National Museum. The concept is to have tourists engaged more interactively with the history of the complex than just come to see yet another monument. The museum will fulfill that educational function with simplicity and narration. And there is much to tell.
Exhibits displayed in the museum will enable visitors to trace the history of this area of Georgia. The narration will start with the Bronze Age. Early signs of metallurgy have been found in this territory; most distinguished among them are sun discs. The narration will next recount the Classical Era, showing through exhibits how the ancient Kingdom of Colchis was connected with Anatolia. As Davit Lortkipanidze explains, artifacts of medieval Renaissance will recount “how the development of united Georgia took place; how this area was one of the main cores around which Georgia had been united.” The museum will also show the Ottoman rule. The museum curators intend to display the artifacts throughout the complex. For example, the Ahmadiyya mosque in the middle of the complex will display epigraphic monuments.
The Ahmadiyya mosque was built in 1752 by Ahmad Pasha Jaqeli, a descendant of the atabegs who converted to Islam. As a result of the Peace of Amasya, the truce between Iran and the Ottoman Empire, Samtskhe-Saatabago (the Principality of Samtskhe) was entirelyabsorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the late Sixteenth Century. Some forty years later, the converted Islamic atabegs were appointed as pashas of Akhaltsikhe and Ahmad Pasha Jaqeli commissioned an Italian architect to construct a mosque. Many in Akhaltsikhe prefer to believe instead in a legend which holds that a Georgian architect built the mosque to resemble Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and was killed when the pasha guessed his intention.
That legend might have something to do with architecture. While the Hagia Sophia is a former Orthodox cathedral which was later transformed into a mosque, the Ahmadiyya developed in reverse order – it was a mosque first and was then transformed into a church. An altarpiece was added to the mosque only after a joint Georgian-Russian army led by General Paskevich took the fortress in the late-1820s. The first attempt by Russia to invade strategically important Akhaltsikhe failed in 1810. Eighteen years later, Russia succeeded in occupying the city. In September 1829, under the Peace Treaty of Adrianople, Turkey ceded a section of the Eyelet of Samtskhe (the Eyalet of Childir) to Russia, and Akhaltsikhe became part of Georgia again. During Russian rule, the St. Marine Orthodox Church was also reinstated there.
Our guide points in the direction of the hill where the Paskevich army was once stationed. The troops had shelled a crescent on top of the mosque. The fallen crescent meant the termination of the nearby madrasah – a Muslim educational institution. Today, the Akhaltsikhe madrasah is rehabilitated and, as Davit Khoshtaria points out, is a significant architectural monument “with only one or two similar buildings having preserved in Eastern Anatolia to date.”
Just a year ago, employees of the museum had complained about the catastrophic state of the madrasahs and bathhouses, but felt the mosque did not need any alterations whatsoever except replacement of the roof. The mosque roof has now been replaced with the golden dome that captured our attention when we first arrived. Neither the mosque nor the madrasah will serve the same function it had in the past. Nor will the religious function be reinstated to St. Marina Orthodox Church. The rehabilitated complex, in general, will not have a religious function. It will instead serve as a living history of Georgia – a place where visitors can enjoy multicultural architecture of various periods and will be able also to rest.
As we were learned while visiting the site, every effort has been made to ensure that visitors have everything they may need inside the complex itself. A hotel, night bars, cafes and a trading centre have all been built in the modern part of the complex. An amphitheater has also been installed there to host various performances. Inside the city-fortress, one can also register his/her marriage – a smaller-size wedding house is erected beyond the so-called “alley of love,” located at the farthest point of the fortress.
The wedding house has a writing engraved on its iron door which we found difficult to decipher, even up close. Watching how we suffered to make sense of the inscription, a worker read the engraving to us himself: “Your cheeks are comely with ornaments, draw me after you, let us make haste, your name is perfume poured out. Ah, you are beautiful, my love, tell me where you make it lie down at noon, for your love is better than wine.” Then, “You will never become Champollion,” our guide said and led us to the exit.
We left the fortress through the main gate and walked to a nearby synagogue. At the entrance of the “big” synagogue, an elderly man in a blue kippah holding a book of Hebrew prayers greeted us wholeheartedly. Surprised that Jews of Akhaltsikhe have become an object of journalistic interest, he showed us into the synagogue. Hebrew literature edited in many languages was piled on a window sill with photos of former rabbis on top.
The elderly man introduced himself as “Mr. Simon” and told us that the synagogues would be rehabilitated. He invited us to sit with him on a long bench and began a story: “This synagogue was built in 1863. Another, a small synagogue was constructed in 1902. The history of Jews settled in this area counts four-hundred to five-hundred years. In the 1970s, some three thousand Jews lived here. The houses, which you can see in this district, all belonged to Jews. The Jewish cemetery has existed since the Seventeenth Century. Only eight Jews are left now – all of them pensioners. The rest left for Israel.” That means that a quorum of ten adult Jewish men necessary to complete a formal prayer service cannot assemble and, therefore, the Jews of Akhaltsikhe pray according to a shortened rule.
The “small” synagogue is not operational. We were told at the site that it had been transformed into a sports hall during the Communist rule. Today, it stands empty and idle.
Jews of Akhaltsikhe differ from the rest of Georgian Jews by their Pyrenean origin. They spoke Ladino – the Judeo-Spanish language. One can find gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Akhaltsikhe which refer to the deceased as “Seigniors.” “Have you read the Old Testament?” Mr. Simon asked while showing us frescos on the wall of the old synagogue. “Why do you call it the Old Testament?” we responded in surprised. Normally, Jews do not refer to the Torah, or the five books of Moses, in such a way – one who does not believe in the New Testament does not recognize the Old Testament as old. As Mr. Simon explained, he speaks with Christians in the language of Christians. In Akhaltsikhe, one easily becomes accustomed to that accommodation. A multi-religious environment has taught representatives of Abrahamic religions to speak in the languages of one another. When during quite a long time you live next to Catholics, followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, that is understandable.From the synagogue, we walked to the Catholic Church in Rabati. The church and bell tower of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries had been in ruins for decades. Last year, the Georgian government handed it over to the Caucasus Administration of Latin Catholics. By the time we arrived, the church had already been half rehabilitated and was undergoing additional repair. Upon entering the church yard, we saw a congregation of Georgian Catholics assembled around Father Zurab Kakachashvili and Father Gabriele Bragantini, listening attentively to the Italian missionaries talk about Pope Benedict and the importance of Rosario, rosary based prayers. “Earlier, there was a sign at the turn to Rabati area saying ‘Rabati – symbol of tolerance’ although we, Catholics, did not have our own cathedral back,” Father Gabriele tells us with a smile on his face. He allows us to enter a section of the sanctuary which has yet to be repaired. We learn that the sanctuary will be used for prayers of nuns of the Benedictine Order, who are distinguished for their seclusion and strict ascetic rule. A special iconostasis will be erected between the sanctuary and middle of the church for the nuns’ seclusion and a convent will also be built for them behind the church.
The church was built by Armenian Catholics, which follow the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church but use national rites and habits. Georgian Catholics here have done much to preserve Christian and national values since the 1880s. In the yard of the church is the grave of Father Ivane Gvaramadze, who during his lifetime set up a collection of historical artifacts which laid a foundation for the Akhaltsikhe museum.
Because of the multitude of confessions in Rabati, it is impossible to distinguish one belief from another. For example, we know that Catholics cross themselves with open five fingers from left to right. Orthodox Christians cross themselves with three joint fingers from right to left. Followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholics cross themselves in the same way as Orthodox Christians – with three joint fingers but from left to right.
Distinguishing between followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholics is very confusing. That’s why we asked congregants of the Armenian Apostolic Church we met on our way to a sermon whether they were “Catholicos Garegin…?” “Yes, yes,” replied Ms. Roza Petrosian, who teaches Georgian language at an Armenian school.
Armenians have lived in Akhaltsikhe since medieval ages. Their number increased after the Russia-Turkey war when the southern district was integrated into the rest of Georgia. Armenians resettled by General Paskevich here from Turkey settled in Rabati and it was around that time that two churches were built. According to the 2002 census, the population of the Samtskhe-Javakheti Region was then 208,000 people, of which forty-three percent were Georgians and fifty-four percent were ethnic Armenians. The majority of the population living in the Akhaltsikhe district is now Georgian – sixty-one percent. Ethnic Armenians comprise thirty-seven percent. Also now living in the Akhaltsikhe district are Russians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Ossetians, Abkhaz and Azebaijanis, although their numbers are small. Half of the Akhaltsikhe population are urban settlers whereas the other half live in rural areas.
Elderly people standing next to Roza Petrosian who do not speak Georgian try to avoid questions. Only Roza Petrosian’s daughter, Mariam, is very active in the conversation. Mariam speaks Georgian even better than her Georgian language teacher mother. This reflects the general situation with language here. The older generation in Akhaltsikhe either finds it difficult to speak in Georgian orcannot speak any Georgian at all whereas the younger generation is quite proficient in the Georgian language.
Roza Petrosian, who teaches Armenian and Georgian at the Akhaltsikhe Armenian school, told us that the language barrier used to force many ethnic Armenian youth to continue their studies in Armenia. Today, that trend has reversed in favor of Georgia as young people see more prospects here. Ms. Roza noted that state programs in education have proved successful and singled out the introduction of preferential conditions for the admission of minorities in higher educational institutions.
We also met one of the graduates of the Armenian school who had prepared for the national unified entrance examination. “I have already passed drawing in the Tbilisi Academy of Arts,” he told us in decent Georgian. “I intend to live and work here like my father and his predecessors did. This is my homeland. I have friends here as well.” His friend then told us in slightly accented but comprehensible Georgian, “I will not speak in Georgian; I am not good at it.” The friend failed to pass several disciplines at the graduation exams at school – mathematics, chemistry and physics. He will try again next year. Everyone here apparently managed to pass the Georgian language exam, but many failed exams in mathematics and physics.
They often have to speak in Georgian. “Akhaltsikhe is a small city; we all know one another and are on friendly terms, we do not have problems,” they told us, noting that Turks also have recently settled here and that they have already made Turkish friends as well. Responding to our question about the language in which they communicate, they replied: “in Georgian.” They learn Georgian from the local non-governmental organization Toleranti.
As locals recounted, language in Akhaltsikhe has always been less problematic an issue as compared to other districts of Samtskhe-Javakheti. However, they also noted the positive shifts in other districts. According to Guliko Bekauri of the adult education center of Akhaltsikhe, there is a more positive attitude toward the official state language now in the entire region which she observed during a tour of Samtskhe-Javakheti to conduct focus groups. Problems, however, still remain. A survey conducted in 2010 by the non-governmental Civic Development Agency found that twenty-six percent of non-Georgian respondents in Samtskhe-Javakheti did not know the Georgian language.
Eliminating that language barrier will make education more accessible and thereby contribute to the integration of local population and enhance the prospect of employment for ethnic Armenians of Georgia. Knowledge of several languages could also open up advantageous employment opportunities in local service areas. One illustrative example of the diversity of this region is Christine, the daughter of an Armenian mother and Georgian father. Christine works at a local café, speaks Armenian to tourists from Armenia, and has five friends – two Armenians, one Jew, one Catholic and one Jehovah’s Witness. She does not care which of the Gods of Rabat one trusts. She is interested in her professional advancement and intends to become a bartender – a useful profession in a region destined to become a tourist attraction.
There are four hotels in Akhaltsikhe – Rio, Prestige, Mirage and Bona Dea. Prices for a standard double room start at GEL 60, with suites costing from GEL 80 to GEL 100. Internet is available almost everywhere, at a normal speed. According to the regional development agency, two and even three-star hotels are being built while existing ones will need to upgrade interior accommodations and improve service.
Visitors have their choice of two large restaurants serving Georgian cuisine – Vardzia and Romantika. Prices at both are slightly lower than in Tbilisi – dinner for two people costs about GEL 40. A tourist firm, Riders Dream Ltd, has been established in the city and can organize bicycle tours.
In addition to the historic Rabati complex, the Akhaltsikhe district features other points of historical interest. Most distinguished among the monuments is the Tenth Century Sapara Monastery, the first church built in the district. Just ten kilometers away from the city of Akhaltsikhe, Sapara Monastery can be reached by taxi costing GEL 20.
Among other points of interest are the ruins of a domed church standing on the right bank of a small mountain river in the Tisevi village, five-six kilometers away from Atskuri. Behind that church to the East are high bare cliffs and, on the opposite bank of the river, wooded mountains. Architectural characteristics of the church suggest it was built in the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Century.
Near the village of Uraveli in the Akhaltsikhe district, one can also see ruins of a smaller church of a vivid red color with some ornaments preserved. Buildings of such type were built in Georgia only until the Eleventh Century, although there is no inscription identifying the exact date of construction.
In the Chulevi village is the St. George Church, built in the Fourteenth Century.
Steep cliffs (called bayas by locals) rise to the West of the village Tsqordza. Midway up the cliff are the ruins of a wall and, inside that wall, two churches of similar architectural design (probably built during the Twelfth or Thirteenth Century) standing side by side, almost built into the cliff.
Remnants of the St. Theodore Priest Church of the Ghromi village also are worth visiting. Located near the Andriatsminda village, the stone-roofed church was apparently revered by Muslims as well as Christians during the Ottoman rule, which may explain why it has been preserved in good condition.
The village of Tsqordza has two churches. A very small stone chapel in the middle of the village is a dome-less single-nave building and, of the two Tsqordza churches, the more interesting. Even though the width and length of the chapel is just a few strides, it is richly ornamented. It is believed to have been built in the Thirteenth Century as the church of a feudal lord court.
After visiting the area’s many historical monument, visitors can try Meskhetian braided cheese and other local dishes. According to the Samtskhe-Javakheti regional development agency, agro- and ecotourism (as well as historical monuments) are the focus for the development of small and medium size tourist businesses throughout Samtskhe-Javakheti.
The regional development agency has mobilized residents who want to be retrained in the tourism sphere – guiding, management. In this endeavor, the agency has been receiving assistance from the Polish side, namely, the Krakow institute specializing in ecology and tourism management. The mission of the agency is to prepare the region to accommodate tourists not only with churches and restored historical monuments but also with human resources and services. “Tourist agencies are being set up now and we assist them in drawing up tours. For example, if Vardzia is a very popular destination we include in that tour other points of interest as well. On their way back from Vardzia, tourists may call in at the Chobareti village to see an old Meskhetian wooden house and taste Meskhetian braided cheese, Meskhetian costumes, etcetera,” according to an agency representative. As for the tourism potential of Akhaltsikhe itself, the regional development agency believes that “an advantage of Akhaltsikhe is its location, the fact that it borders with Turkey and Armenia.”
This article has been updated since it first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue #111, published 30 July 2012.