Tbilisi from an Inkstand

“Tbilisi is the only city in Georgia, where one is given a chance to be bohemian”- those were the words of Ioseb Grishashvili, a last Ashik (Troubadour) of 20th century. Maybe this was the reason that all of the muses of actors, musicians, artists or poets would follow the wind towards Tbilisi – a city, were no single moment would pass by without poetry: a light breeze brought Duduk sounds of the morning, silent murmur of Mtkvari’s turbid waves would fill the hearts of poets with wisdom and love, and the moon over Mtatsminda mountain lightened the rose-colored way of death with its “beams of pearls.”

Such magnetism attracted the muse servants not only from around Georgia, but from the whole of Caucasus, Russian empire, Asia, Europe and even continents of America. Tbilisi was often compared to Ianus, because just as the Roman God, this city too, as many travelers will mark later, had two faces: Asian and European. The first was resulted by Asian urban pattern (Meidani, “Abanotubani” bath district) with its colorful and noisy open markets, Sulfate baths and cliff balconies, piled up terraces and Minaret of Juma mosque. While on the other hand, European city planning of Sololaki and Rustaveli (former “Golovini”) avenue pleased the eye with the elements of Baroque, classicism and pseudo Mauritanian Orientalism. Bellow, by the river Mtkvari, in the Asian part of the town, Sazandari (ensemble of thari, Kamancha and drums) weaved the air, while above – in European part, the tunes of Italian Opera were heard. Apparently, Rudyard Kipling could be wrong when he once wrote: “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Here, in couple of thousand square meters of Old Tiflis, the west and east have met and this particular miracle has made this city so attractive. This is where Asians could discover Europe and Europeans could find Asia. As for the Georgian culture itself, it endlessly splits between the two, just as Berthold Brecht’s character does, between the two mothers: influence of Europe and efforts of Asia. It is not a coincidence that intellectuals of the same era could never agree on the subject of origins and character of Georgia’s cultural space.

“An obsessing thought of becoming an European has almost reached the point of psychosis. Those in Asia would overlook on Asia from Europe, this is why our creativity was blocked, and lifeless imitations have made us ill…Our sun was set in Asia and here again we must wait for our artistic dawn.” Motto: Back to Asia, to go forward, but not the Chinese walls -but Georgian sittings” wrote Vakhtang

Kotetishvili in 1920, at times when Geronti Kikodze stated: “The fall of the Byzantine Empire and conquering Constantinople built our way to western Europe in the fifteenth century, where the centre economic and cultural development has shifted in the era of the Renaissance”

Though, apart from Tbilisi of Asia and Europe, there is another one – Tbilisi, drawn from the inkstands of local and foreign writers and travelers. Tbilisi which now only lives on paper, where the main river of the city is still surrounded by caravanserai and houses with balconies, instead of highways packed with cars, and the mirror surface of the river water still reflects the last century’s dome of ruined Shah Ismail mosque in 50’s. Wheels of water mills and oars of rafts of “Tiflis cruisers”, coming from Frone valley are still splashing the Mtkvari waters. These are the rafts who once (1851) have brought the educators from Gori to Tbilisi: PlatonIoseliani and Giorgi Gagarin, who later inspired the playwright ZurabAntonov for his comedy “The Rafting Journey of Writers.”

In Tbilisi of Inkstand, the saint river of Mtkvari is “the Georgian River Jordan” (Alexander Dumas, “Caucasia”). Today, it is probably unbelievable, but in past, people were baptized in this river and it would water the whole city.

Tbilisi of Inkstand is surrounded not by the ordinary mountain twist, but the shabby humps of camels: Mtatsminda, Shavnabada, Teleti, Tabori, Kodjori, Makhata and Lotkini hill… shortly, the ink wasted in description of Tbilisi could fill the whole river-bed of Mtkvari. An ink poured by Al Hawqal, Evliya Çelebi, Jean Chardin, Alexandre Dumas, Baron de Baye, Arthur Leist, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Ilya Ehrenburg, Knut Hamsun and John Steinbeck. Not to mention all the local writers and researchers, such as: Vakhushti Bagrationi, Ioane Batonishvili, Platon Ioseliani, Grigol Orbeliani, Vasil Barnov, Karapet Grigoryan, Ioseb Grishashvili, Vakhtang Beridze, Archil Sulakauri, Shota Chantladze, Aka Morchiladze, Zurab Karumidze, Malkhaz Kharbedia, Zaal Samadashvili, Dato Turashvili, Lasha Imedashvili and many, many more, whose Tbilisi has become none but mere shadows…

Tbilisi was a city where no helm of darkness was needed to disappear in the Dukhans of deep basements, legendary island of Madatov or Ortachala Gardens. One could dive in mixed colors and noises in the blink of an eye, and successfully hide away from a heavy hand of executioner or censor just as fast. Here reigned freedom and liberty, anonymity, sun and food for body and soul. “A Fantastic City” of Tbilisi was the one who sheltered nearly all of Russian Symbolists, Acmeists and Futurists a century ago (1917-1921), those who ran away from Bolshevist Terror and hell of civil war and were given the new life and energy in this town. But then again, you can disappear in Tbilisi, hide away from enemies and chasers, but find yourself infatuated with this city and it will never let you forget itself.

After traveling to Georgia, a great Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun published the book of impressions in 1903, “In Wonderland” it was called. This is what a future Nobel Prize winner wrote:

“I drank water of the river Mtkvari, it was madness, as one having drank the water of the Mtkvari, even once, is doomed to miss Caucasus and have an eternal desire to come back.”

No one will be offered to drink Mtkvari waters today. As one of the Georgian poets said, gone are the days where troubled waters of Mtkvari was the same as genuine Kakhetian Wine.

Obviously, a red wine – the real ink of a Georgian soul has much more of magic than plain water: The one, who will drink it, will definitely come back once, if not physically, then by texts, which probably means even more and equals to becoming a Tbilissian – “Tbiliseli” –how they say it here.

By Dato Kardava

Translated from Georgian by Elene Pasuri