Tbilisi (Georgian: თბილისი [tʰb̥ilisi] ( listen)), formerly known as Tiflis, is the capital and the largest city of Georgia, lying on the banks of the Mtkvari River with a population of roughly 1.5 million inhabitants. Founded in the 5th century by the monarch of Georgia’s ancient precursor Kingdom of Iberia, Tbilisi has since served, with intermissions, as the Georgian capital. Formerly, the city had also served as the seat of the Imperial administration of the Caucasus during the Russian rule from 1801 to 1917, the capital of the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic in 1918, of the Democratic Republic of Georgia from 1918 to 1921, of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1921 to 1991, and the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic from 1922 to 1936.
Located on the southeastern edge of Europe, Tbilisi’s proximity to lucrative east-west trade routes often made the city a point of contention between various rival empires throughout history and the city’s location to this day ensures its position as an important transit route for global energy and trade projects. Tbilisi’s varied history is reflected in its architecture, which is a mix of medieval, classical, and Soviet structures.
Historically, Tbilisi has been home to people of diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, though it is overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox Christian. Notable tourist destinations include cathedrals like Sameba and Sioni, classical Freedom Square and Rustaveli Avenue, medieval Narikala Fortress, pseudo-Moorish Opera Theater, and the Georgian National Museum.
According to an old legend, the present-day territory of Tbilisi was covered by forests as late as 458. One widely accepted variant of the legend of Tbilisi’s founding states that King Vakhtang I Gorgasali of Georgia went hunting in the heavily wooded region with a falcon (sometimes the falcon is replaced with either a hawk or other small birds of prey in the legend). The King’s falcon allegedly caught or injured a pheasant during the hunt, after which both birds fell into a nearby hot spring and died from burns. King Vakhtang became so impressed with the hot springs that he decided to cut down the forest and build a city on the location. The name Tbilisi derives from the Old Georgian word “Tpili” (თბილი), meaning warm. The name ‘Tbili’ or ‘Tbilisi’ (‘warm location’) was therefore given to the city because of the area’s numerous sulphuric hot springs that came out of the ground. Archaeological studies of the region have indicated human settlement in the territory of Tbilisi as early as the 4th millennium BCE.
King Dachi I Ujarmeli, who was the successor of Vakhtang I Gorgasali, moved the capital from Mtskheta to Tbilisi according to the will left by his father. Tbilisi was not the capital of a unified Georgian state at that time and did not include the territory of Colchis. It was, however, the capital city of Eastern Georgia/Iberia. During his reign, King Dachi I oversaw the construction of the fortress wall that lined the city’s new boundaries. From the 6th century, Tbilisi grew at a steady pace due to the region’s favourable and strategic location which placed the city along important trade and travel routes between Europe and Asia.
Tbilisi’s favourable and strategic location did not necessarily bode well for its existence as Eastern Georgia’s/Iberia’s capital. Located strategically in the heart of the Caucasus between Europe and Asia, Tbilisi became an object of rivalry between the region’s various powers such as the Roman Empire, Persia, Arabs, Byzantine Empire, and the Seljuk Turks. The cultural development of the city was somewhat dependent on who ruled the city at various times, although Tbilisi (and Georgia in general) was able to maintain a considerable autonomy from its conquerors
Detail from the Nautical chart by Angelino Dulcert, depicting Georgian Black Sea coast and Tiflis, 1339.
From 570–580, the Persians took over Tbilisi and ruled it for about a decade. In the year 627, Tbilisi was sacked by the Byzantine/Khazar armies and later, in 736–738, Arab armies entered the town under Marwan II Ibn-Muhammad. After this point, the Arabs established an emirate centered in Tbilisi. The Arab domination brought a certain order to the region and introduced a more formal/modernized judicial system into Georgia. In 764, Tbilisi, still under Arab control was once again sacked by the Khazars. In 853, the armies of Arab leader Bugha Al-Turki (Bugha the Turk) invaded Tbilisi in order to enforce its return to Abbasid allegiance. The Arab domination of Tbilisi continued until about 1050. In 1068, the city was once again sacked, only this time by the Seljuk Turks under Sultan Alp Arslan.
Capital of a unified Georgian state
In 1122, after heavy fighting with the Seljuks that involved at least 60,000 Georgians and up to 300,000 Turks, the troops of the King of Georgia David the Builder entered Tbilisi. After the battles for Tbilisi concluded, David moved his residence from Kutaisi (Western Georgia) to Tbilisi, making it the capital of a unified Georgian State and thus inaugurating the Georgian Golden Age. From 12–13th centuries, Tbilisi became a dominant regional power with a thriving economy (with well-developed trade and skilled labour) and a well-established social system/structure. By the end of the 12th century, the population of Tbilisi had reached 100,000. The city also became an important literary and a cultural center not only for Georgia but for the Eastern Orthodox world of the time. During Queen Tamar’s reign, Shota Rustaveli worked in Tbilisi while writing his legendary epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. This period is often referred to as “Georgia’s Golden Age” or the Georgian Renaissance.
Mongol domination and the following period of instability
Tbilisi’s “Golden Age” did not last for more than a century. In 1226 Tbilisi was captured by the refugee Khwarezmian Empire Khwarezmian Shah Mingburnu and its defences severely devastated and prone to Mongol armies. In 1236, after suffering crushing defeats to the Mongols, Georgia came under Mongol domination. The nation itself maintained a form of semi-independence and did not lose its statehood, but Tbilisi was strongly influenced by the Mongols for the next century both politically and culturally. In the 1320s, the Mongols were forcefully expelled from Georgia and Tbilisi became the capital of an independent Georgian state once again. An outbreak of the plague struck the city in 1366.
From the late 14th until the end of the 18th century, Tbilisi came under the rule of various foreign invaders once again and on several occasions was completely burnt to the ground. In 1386, Tbilisi was invaded by the armies of Tamerlane (Timur). In 1444, the city was invaded and destroyed by Jahan Shah (the Shah of the town of Tabriz in Persia). From 1477 to 1478 the city was held by the Ak Koyunlu tribesmen of Uzun Hassan. In 1522, Tbilisi came under Persian control but was later freed in 1524 by King David X of Georgia. During this period, many parts of Tbilisi were reconstructed and rebuilt. Beginning with the 1555 Treaty of Amasya, and more firmly from 1614 to 1747, with brief intermissions, Tbilisi was garrisoned by the Persian forces and functioned as a seat of the Persian vassal kings of Kartli, whom the shah conferred with the title of wali. Under the later rules of Teimuraz II and Erekle II, Tbilisi became a vibrant political and cultural center free of foreign rule, but the city was devastated in 1795 by the Persian Qajar ruler Agha Mohammad Khan, who sought to reassert Persian suzerainty over Georgia. At this point, sensing that Georgia could not hold up against Persia alone, Erekle sought the help of Russia.