Tblisi is the capital of Georgia. It sits astride the Mtkvari river (yes, that is 4 unfriendly consonants in a row) and is surrounded on three side by mountains. There is evidence of habitation here since 3000 BC, although the city has been sacked many times by Byzantines, Romans, Persians, Mongols, Turks and Russians. In 1795 the city was completely destroyed by the Persians so almost everything has been rebuilt since then. Under Soviet reign a lot of very ugly architecture was created and many of the huge concrete slab apartment blocks still remain. But there are also a lot of really elegant buildings from the pre-soviet era, as well as more modern architecture, and of course a million churches. Although most Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, Tblisi is known for its religious tolerance. This is particularly evident in the "old town" where mosques, synagogues and churches stand in close proximity. Discounting the tourists, Tbilisi is home to Armenian, Azeri, Greek, German, Russian, Ukrainian and various other populations. You can sit at a corner café and hear a dozen languages passing by.
This is why I love traveling. Your fundamental assumptions get a good shake up. All day I have been pondering: Why should I expect a dozen?
So my first road trip was to the village of Gergeti, on the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains. To get there you travel 200 km along a road known as the Georgian Military Highway - truly one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world. It was built in the late 1700's by 800 Russian troops to connect Russia to Georgia. Gergeti itself is only a short distance from the Russian border. Many of the signs here are in both Georgian and Russian.
One of the highest mountains in Europe, Kazbek, is in this region. It takes 4 days to climb, which I did not do. However I did make a hike up to Trinity Church, which was built on top of a smaller mountain in the 1400's. In western Europe you can see lots of huge ornate cathedrals; Georgians seem to prefer simpler structures built in majestic locations.
As it turns out there is a more obvious path around the north side of the mountain, but I "chose" a longer, more strenuous, but beautiful hike along the southern side. What I thought was a trail along a stream turned out to be a cow path that soon petered out. Fortunately I had a good landmark to keep my bearings.
But enough words, see for yourself.
I'm back on the road, this time to the Republic of Georgia. I'll start with a little geography and history lesson. First of all: where is Georgia?
The unique location of this country has had a huge impact on its history. Geographically Georgia is sandwiched between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges to north and south respectively. To the west is the Black Sea, and to the east is Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea.
Politically, Georgia is trapped between three giants: Russia, Turkey and Iran (Persia). To a large extent the history of Georgia has consisted of trying to play one invading giant off against another - with varying degrees of success. Georgia originally became a cohesive state around 400 BC, but subsequently became caught in a centuries long feud between Rome and Persia. The kingdom of Georgia finally achieved independence around 1100- AD under Queen Tamar (coincidentally the first female ruler). In many ways this was the zenith of early Georgian history. Interestingly there is no real word for "queen" in Georgian, it just means "wife of the king," so Tamar is often referred to as a king. (I'll write later about the Georgian language, but one feature is the lack of gender pronouns: he, she, it are all the same).
Tamar only ruled for 29 years and shortly after her death Georgia was invaded by the Mongols, followed by Persians and Ottomans for the next 500 years. Finally in the late 1700's Georgia signed a treaty with Russia basically making Georgia a protectorate. This ended up being a poor choice. When Iran invaded in 1795 Russia offered no assistance and the capital of Tbilisi was sacked. When Russia was finally moved to act it simply annexed all of Georgia and in 1802 Georgia was fully incorporated into the Russian empire. After the Russian revolution in 1917 Georgia declared independence and for about 2 years was an English protectorate, but then the country got steam-rolled by the Soviet Army in 1921 and that was that for awhile.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Georgia declared independence - once again - and has remained mostly independent ever since. However two regions, South Ossetia and Ajaria, while technically part of Georgia, are ethnically distinct and have maintained their autonomy. This has led to simmering tensions and in 2008 things blew up. The Russian army came in once more and pretty much squashed the Georgian army, and then left. Since then Georgia has tried to join NATO (yet another "friendly" giant) but has thus far been denied, although technically Georgia is an "Independent Partner."
The upshot of all this history is that Georgia has an amazingly rich cultural heritage. While the Georgian language and ethnicity are truly unique, there are strong flavorings of Turkish, Persian and Russian culture here, not to mention Armenian and Azeri. The food, architecture, art and music are all influenced by Georgia's big neighbors, and yet Georgians are intensely proud of their own unique heritage and traditions. Georgia is at the crossroads between East and West. When you explore this small country you encounter centuries of diverse cultural history.