Tbilisi City Guide

The Tumultuous History of Tbilisi


 Tbilisi history’s is a story of repeated invasions and wars. During its 1500 years of being a capital, Tbilisi suffered many devastating raids that left most of its inhabitants dead and the city severely damaged. On nearly thirty occasions it was almost completely destroyed.

According to legend, in the 5th century, when forests covered Tbilisi and its surroundings, the King of Kartli, Vakhtang Gorgasali, was hunting with his company when his falcon caught a pheasant in mid air, but then disappeared from the sight. When they found the birds, they discovered that they had fallen into hot spring and died. The King was so impressed that he decided to build a city on the site. The city stands on numerous sulphuric hot springs and was named after the old Georgian word “tbili” which means warm.

Archaeological evidence actually shows the area was first settled in the Neolithic age, during the 3-4th millennium BC. The earliest written accounts of settlement come from the second half of the 4th century AD.

4th century During the reign of King Varaz-Bakur I a fortress was built, but towards the end of the century it felt into Persian hands.

5th century The fortress was retaken and during the reign of Vakhtang I Gorgasali it was improved. The area around it was also developed.

6th century The will of King Vakhtang I Gorgasali, required his son, King Dachi, move the capital of Kartli (Iberia) from Mtskheta to Tbilisi. Tbilisi was enlarged and the reconstruction of the fortress was completed. The city became an important stop on the trade routes between Europe and Asia.

570-580 The Persians took over Tbilisi forcing Prince Stephen II to recognize the suzerainty of the Caliph.

627-628 Tbilisi was under siege from the Khazars and Byzantine Empire armies during the Third Perso-Turkic war. When they stormed the city, the Georgians surrendered without further resistance. Even so, the city was looted and its citizens massacred. The Persian governor and the presiding Georgian prince were both tortured to death.

736–738 The Umayyad Caliphate launched the Arabian invasion of Georgia to reduce Byzantine and Khazars power in the region, establishing The Emirate of Tbilisi (al-Tefelis) in 736. It existed until Georgia’s recapture by King David IV in 1122. A large proportion of the Georgian aristocracy were killed during the invasion for refusing to convert to Islam.

In 809, The Emir of Tbilisi proclaimed independence from the Caliphate. The Caliphate sought the help of Georgian princes against the rebellion.

From 833 The Emirate regained power and the Emir stopped recognizing the higher authority of the Caliphate.

In 853, Caliph Al-Mutawakkil sent an army against the Caucasian rebels. The Abbasid army sacked and burned Tbilisi, and executed the Emir. Many Georgian nobles were captured during the invasion. They were either killed for refusing to embrace Islam, or sent as prisoners to the Abbasid capital at Samarra.

By the 10th century only Tbilisi and its hinterland was still ruled by an Emir and relations with the Caliphate were tenuous.

During the 11th century a council of elders (birebi) gained power, increasing the influence of the wealthier citizens. The kept the Emirate alive, mostly to avoid the taxes of the Georgian kings. King Bagrat IV took the city three times (1046, 1049, 1062), but he could not retain control.

1121 David IV “The Builder” (Agmashenebeli), King of Georgia, won the battle of Didgori.

1122 King David entered Tbilisi, putting an end to almost 500 years of Arab influence. Tbilisi was made the royal capital of Georgia, uniting the two ancient kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis. Tbilisi expanded and its population totalled around 80,000. Although a multi-ethnic community, its inhabitants were predominantly Muslim.

In the 12th and 13th centuries Tbilisi had a thriving economy and a sophisticated social structure under the rule of Queen Tamar. Shota Rustaveli wrote his famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. This period is often called the “Georgia’s Golden Age”.

In 1226 this period of prosperity ended when the Khwarezmian Empire captured Tbilisi and devastated the city.

1236 Georgia came under Mongol domination after suffering crushing defeats. The country retained its statehood, but the Mongols influenced culture and for the next century.
In the 1320s The Mongols were forced out and Georgia became an independent state with Tbilisi as its capital.

1386-1403 Tamerlane’s army invaded eight times, sacking Tbilisi during the first invasion and capturing King Bagrat V.

1440 Alexander I refused to pay tribute to Jahan Shah who then invaded Georgia with 20,000 troops and sacked Tbilisi.

From 1477 to 1478 Tbilisi was Uzun Hassan, the Iranian King of Kings.

1522 Tbilisi came under Persian control.

1524 King David X frees Tbilisi. Many parts of the city were rebuilt.

1762 The Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti was established.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Tbilisi was caught in the middle of rivalry between Persia and the Ottoman Turks. Kings of Georgia tried several times to free Tbilisi from Persian rule. Shah Agha-Mohammad Khan burnt the city to the ground in 1795. King Erekle II turned to Russia for help.

1801 The Georgia governorate was established. Russia annexed the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti. Russia finally left Georgia two hundred years later in July 2001.

1846 Tbilisi was made the centre of the Tbilisi (Tiflis) Governorate. The city grew economically and new buildings were built, many in a European style. New roads and railways were also built, connecting Tbilisi to Russia, Batumi, Poti, Baku, and Yerevan.

By the middle of 19th century Tbilisi was the most important city of the Tsarist Caucasus. These relatively peaceful years allowed the city to grow. Much of the building of the period is still visible in the architecture of the city today.

At the turn of 20th century Tbilisi attracted many European bohemians and gained the nickname “Paris of the East”.

In 1917, Georgia gained its freedom on May 26, 1918 and Tbilisi became the capital of the new country.

In spring 1921, Georgia was again conquered, this time by Soviet Russia and became Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Tbilisi became increasingly industrialised, population grew and it was one of the most important cities of the USSR.

On 9 April 1989, the Red Army crushed a peaceful demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue. At least 19 people were killed. It marked the start of the “second independence”.

1991-1992 Fighting broke out in central Tbilisi around the Parliament to overthrow President Zviad Gamsakhurdii. Bullet holes can still be seen in the buildings nearby. Shevarnadze was appointed Acting Chairman of the Georgian State Council.

1995 Eduard Shevarnadze was elected to the restored Presidency with 70% of the vote.
During the 1990s crime and corruption plagued Tbilisi and Georgia had the reputation of one of the word’s most corrupt countries. While Shevardnadze seemed largely innocent, he was accused of protecting guilty politicians and officials.

On 2 November 2003, Georgia held a parliamentary election. It was denounced as unfair by international election observer and the results provoked anger from the population. Mass demonstrations were held and protesters broke into Parliament, forcing President Shevardnadze to flee. He declared a State of Emergency and later agreed to new elections. The events became known as the “Rose Revolution”.

On 25 January 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili became a president and Georgia was given a new national flag. Saakashvili initiated widespread reforms, with mixed results. However, corruption was drastically reduced. The World Bank named Georgia the world’s top economic reformer and ranks in the top tier of countries for “ease of doing business”. It’s neighbours are no where near Georgia’s ranking.

2007 Mikheil Saakashvili resigned after anti-government demonstrations.

On 5 January 2008 Saakashvili regains the presidency after winning the elections.

On 8 August 2008 War broke out with Russia. The five-day conflict killed hundreds of people and left thousands more as refugees in their own country. The result was the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both recognised by Russia as independent territories.

In October 2012, Saakashvili’s party lost parliamentary elections to the Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In November 2013, Georgian Dream party candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili became won the Presidential election.

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