You can still find your way in Tbilisi with the old maps of the city published by the Baedeker on Russia in 1914 or of the guide of Moskvich from 1913. But as to the details, everything has changed, as the city hugely expanded, especially to the west and north. So in this city there is a “Europe” in the west – with absolutely no originality –, while to the south or to the east it seems that you have arrived to the Orient.
“Europe” is of course where the city expanded in the twentieth century. The windows have preserved all their glasses, there is hot water on all floors, the apartments perhaps were not divided in 1937, after the disappearance of their occupants, the stairs have no missing steps, no metal or concrete block clutters up the yard, the facade was not riddled with bullets in 1991, you do not have to illuminate the corridors with your mobile phone, you do not share the entrance hall of your apartment with a cantankerous neighbor, nobody hangs the clothes in the yard.
What you find in the east and south, is not necessarily the Orient, but it is neither quite Europe any more, and it is this in-between where the city we love and its people thrive: a world in turn asleep or full of vitality; some spaces crumbling slowly and with indifference, and others being vigorously rebuilt; a city stepping forward from a very distant time with its churches dating to the sixth century, several cities in the city inherited from hostile empires – some of which disappeared by now and some others faded, but still alive – that seem to have born spontaneously from the dynamism of their inhabitants; a world where memory and oblivion meet face to face.
In these obviously dilapidated quarters, at any time you walk the dusty streets, you see children playing and others carrying their schoolbag on the back, cats spinning between your legs, women with their bags going to buy things, men lost in the engine of a car getting ever older. On New Year’s Eve everybody shot their fireworks here, rockets and flares fly out of every window. And in the night, to celebrate the new year, men dressed in black dance together in a circle in front of their cars with open doors, and with the radio turned on to the maximum.
There is also the “Armenian” neighborhood – small houses, or even shacks, clinging to the slope of a ravine plowed by the rains just behind the glass roof of the presidential palace. I take a photo of a house, a man comes out and thanks to me. He knows France, his brother lives in Blois. When he went to see him, he visited New Orléans – new pronounced in English, but Orléans in French. I assure him that in France, we have only Orléans, and that New Orleans is in America. He doubtfully shakes his head, after all, he went there… while I, when did I go for the last time to Orléans?
Here the houses are not spectacular in themselves, this is not the old city embraced by its ramparts and focusing on its churches, neither the Tatar district around the baths, nor the beautiful quarters of the past century – but a space which everyone transforms according to his own caprice or fortune. One day perhaps someone will rebuild everything also here, as they do now on the other side, and who says it will not benefit the inhabitants? In the meantime in the places where everything collapsed, they open a small construction site, and they tinker between the persimmons and grapes.
Streets full of life, voice, sounds, construction sites.
Once there were bazaars and caravanserais in Tiflis, the old photos abound in carpets and furs, hammered brass and gleaming steels, dervishes and wrestlers, their wrists adorned with bracelets. Today the Persians are called Iranians, and their vans are parked in the maze of the alleys behind the Dynamo stadium.
The bazaar has changed, but the products keep coming from the east, other products from another east, to other buildings, where other men with hunched shoulders, dressed in black, sit on their heels waiting, or roam the streets. From shop to shop, the loudspeakers play a different music – I already recognize without hesitation the Georgian variation of the Armenian, the Russian pop always, the Azeri songs sometimes, the Turkish ones… I don’t know. Everyone rushes, the men in compact groups in the streets, stopping cars to talk to each other, the women following other paths, rather in the covered galleries.
Between the sellers of mobile phones with Arabic, Cyrillic or Georgian keyboards and the merchants of clothes, between the shops of hardware and electricity, between the dealers of car spares and the lingerie stores, women sit on the ground with their fruits and vegetables. Some come from the countryside once a week with their products, others have been scraping along for years together with their families, having taken refuge from Abkhazia in Hotel Colchis – and try to organize their lives.
Beyond the baths, on the southern bank, in the teeming streets stretching to the rocky ridge, the spring floods have washed away entire houses and some of their inhabitants. At the top of the gorge overlooking the city lived Esenin for a couple of months. Somewhat lower, there lived Gumilev – certainly not in the same months. The rounded cobblestones feel hard under your feet, the slope is very steep, many houses are abandoned, and life is a little off here.
Above the old town, at the foot of the fortress there are still many churches and synagogues, as well as a small mosque behind the baths, and even a Zoroastrian temple in the courtyard of a house. But on the other side, above the cliff, behind the church and the walls of Metekhi, the old Armenian cathedral continues to decompose under the gaze of passers-by. Its dome collapsed in the 1980s, and since then it has remained like that. One quickly forgets about the old churches when one has to reconstruct a whole country. They build other ones, like this vast cathedral, worthy of the capital of a new state and its glory, built on a large abandoned plot. On the 1914 map there was an Armenian monastery and a cemetery here: they were destroyed in 1937. A khackar standing in front of the new church recalls their memory.
Another church, in the heart of the old town, is slowly sinking, and since the collapse of its arch due to the heavy rains of the last spring there has been a serious concern for its tumbling down. In 1924 a group of Greeks in Tbilisi sent a petition to the authorities to keep the church of the community. The petition did not stop the Greek church to be effaced, as were wiped out or abandoned for several decades many churches and the mosques of the Tatar neighborhood.
We love to wrap the cities in a fog, to conceal what is too banal and soulless to us. So many things become invisible by the force of our will, while we see in eternity the disappeared bazaars and serais, minarets and domes. We love the things which bear the trace of the hands that patiently forged, modeled, carved them – the traces of the footsteps which deepened the ground in the middle of the road, just as we love the worlds that our mind constructs from the memories preserved by a few photos.
But we understand that the cities have a life of their own, they grow and expand into suburbs which seem soulless to us, buildings are pulled down to build higher ones in their place, they open avenues, they demolish even the oldest neighborhoods, because they are unhealthy, or because they obstruct traffic, or because they nourish popular dissatisfaction and the construction of barricades…
Raising the docks in the 1930s was certainly necessary to reduce the extent of flooding. This is how the Madakovsky Island disappeared, to become an extension of the right bank of the Kura, and the Nikolayevsky bridge over the southern branch became a “dry bridge”, where they hold the flea market. But was it necessary to destroy the bazaar and the caravanserais along the river above the Maidan?
Was it necessary to make the left bank this ugly? Where the old photos show the mills, a brand new garden extends today, with trees still fragile and without shadow, cluttered with giant amphorae. They have also installed here the basis of the cable cars flying up to the fortress on the other bank above the river and the quarter of the baths. In this new Maidan, so nice, so clean, it is impossible to distinguish the old from the new, the true from the false, the original from the copy. The buildings are empty, and only the facades, as so many mirages of a vanished world that we would like to resurrect, watch the tourists and the school children passing in their small suspended cabins.
But above the Maidan, behind the Turkish baths and the small Shiite mosque, towards the botanical garden, they are renovating, rebuilding, restoring – even if the places are still only sparsely populated. They have already recreated the canals that criss-crossed the neighborhood of the baths, they opened a beautiful esplanade in a gorge until recently closed, at the foot of strange houses clinging to the rock as wicker nests, so that one can again reach a cascade of fresh water a few steps from the old town.
Ermakov: The ascent to the botanical garden and the mosque (ca. 1900)
Elsewhere in the city, in the European quarters more to the west, there are those facades which play on the memory and copy other decorations: church decorations, Persian decorations, Italian decorations. This is an old tradition in Tbilisi. Even the Stalinist buildings of the city reached back to the local Italianate architecture of an oversized classicism, fashionable in Moscow or Petersburg a century earlier. In the former German neighborhood, in Alexanderdorf, with straight and sleepy streets, they built in the early 1950s the buildings of prestige in the Marjanishvili Square, on the place of a Lutheran church – the Germans having all been deported or shot fifteen years earlier. A bit north of the square, however, they preserved the “Jesuit style” Georgian Catholic church, as well as the Russian Orthodox church with its blue bulbs and miraculous tomb, to which the faithful flock.
And the modern architects, in turn, repeat the same principle, and reproduce the same decorations which mimic the earlier decorations, those early 1900s facades which imitate the Renaissance palaces. They add stucco, swell up the facades, stack up turrets, extend triumphal gates. It is sometimes difficult to tell the old – not that old – buildings from these new ones with fake but gorgeous facades, dark windows and still empty apartments.
The whole is a disturbing blend of beauty, insolence and emptiness. But at night, in the yellow light of the street lamps, after the streets become deserted and the public of the theaters has gone, the facades take on the golden appearance of an huge stage decoration, stretching to the dark mountains at the horizon, and then the city can be proud of its refound elegance.