Armenians of Tbilisi: The rich past and what is remained of it
Cover photo: Levan Kipiani
Armenians in Tbilisi have a long and eventful history. Armenians started to settle down in the future capital from 6th century, but the largest influx of people happened after the fall of kingdom Ani: in Georgia that has the same faith, Armenians found salvation from the Seljuk Turks. It is rather symbolic, as Georgia is the only neighbor of the Armenian nation, with which there were no bloody wars and massacres. The Georgian kings were pleased with the Armenian population and contributed to their settlement in their cities, especially in Tiflis, (the old name of Tbilisi, used by Armenians): Armenians were jack-of-all-trades, experienced tradesmen and contributed to the active development of the city in different spheres.
The expression “Armenians built Tiflis” can hardly be considered as an exaggeration, as without them the city would have a completely different look. Over the centuries Armenians and their native city have become one, and Tiflis had turned into a huge commercial and administrative center and for many years Armenians exceeded in quantity over the rest of the population.
The main spheres of life-sustaining activities of the city related to Armenians. One will have to write a whole book, totellhowmanyhouses, businesses, educationalinstitutions, hospitalswerebuiltbywealthy Armenians and philanthropists in Tbilisi. CharitywasactivelyexercisedwithintheprominentfiguresofTbilisi: everything was built and donated to the city. Todaythesebuildingsarethepropertyofthecapital, theirmagnificentfacadesadornthecentralstreetsand the old city, some buildings are used by Georgian government facilities. Only the presence of these buildings andseveralinscriptions of the name of architects remind us of their Armenian past.
It is no wonder that back then Tbilisi was the center of the Armenian intellectuals. Here the Armenian cultural, educational, social and political life was bustling. The names of colossal Armenia nwriters, artists, architects, actors, musicians, publicists, philanthropists and public figures are forever inscribed in the history of the city.
There was a memorial complex called Khojivank in the picturesque and ancient neighborhood of the city, Havlabar, densely populated by Armenians. There was a church and cemetery on its territory: place of disposition of all Armenians of Tbilisi. Among the ninety thousand gravestones were the remains of people that are the property of the Armenian nation: Raffi and Hovhannes Toumanyan, Muratsan and Nar-Dos, Gabriel Sundukyan, ashugh Djivani and others. It’s no coincidence that people named the complex “The Main Sanctuary of Armenians”. Now on this territory is located the main sanctuary of Georgians, the majestic Orthodox church Tsminda Sameba, surrounded by a well-kept park. All that miraculously was managed to be saved from the former big complex is a couple of gravestones. Later a small pantheon of Armenian writers was made from these remaining gravestones and it was allotted in the back side of the new church.
Shall we say that while residing in Tbilisi the Armenian community has built here about thirty Armenian churches. Even the highest church in Georgia for a long time was Saint Avetaran (Shamkoretsi) with the height of forty meters. Currently there are two functioning Armenian Apostolic churches in Tbilisi: cathedral church Saint Gevorg of 13th century and Nor Echmiadzin of 19th century. The fate of other churches was less iridescent: they were either demolished during Soviet Union or were left half-ruined. Some buildings of the Armenians churches have been preserved: they were handed over under the jurisdiction of Orthodox church and currently function as Georgian churches.
The rapid development of Tiflis begins with the Armenian city mayors. For nearly 800-year period (from the 12th century till 1917) 42 mayors out of 47 were Armenians. It was during this period that Tiflis obtains its unique European image. The city is provided with water pipeline and sewerage, gas street lighting, electricity, flamboyant horse carriages, bridges, slaughterhouses and even the first telephone. The widespread transformations of Tiflis were undertaken owing to the huge sponsorship of Armenian philanthropists: the names Mantashev, Aramyants, Melik-Kazaryants, Pitoev, Tamashev today are well known among the population of Tbilisi.
Of the Armenian educational institutions in Tiflis, it is worthwhile noting the merits of Nersisian School. It was the main Armenian school in Tiflis. Owing to it, the Armenian community not only escaped the assimilation, but formed a strong group of intellectuals that subsequently had an impact on the entire Armenian nation. The graduates of Nersisian school were people of completely different views and professions: communists, dashnaks, architects and scientists. The famous graduates of the school are for example the founder of the new Armenian literary language Khachatur Abovyan, Soviet politician Anastas Mikoyan, sculptor and artist Yervand Kochar. The latter were classmates, and Mikoyan even managed to save his friend Kochar from the new wave of Soviet repressions against the artists.
It is worthy of note that the rise and birth of the Armenian theatre took place in the walls of Nersisian school. The first Armenian drama theatre founded in Tbilisi continues to function today as well. And one of the picturesque yards of Tbilisi was the gathering point for the members of the first Armenian literary society “Vernatoon”. The society was found by famous Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanian. The members of the society were remarkable intellectuals.
Today the famous street with a fashionable French name Chardin was once called “Mantashev Lines”, by the name of petroleum producer Mantashev who, in fact, funded the construction and tasked its construction to architect Kazar Sarkisyants. For the record, Sarkisyants was one of the founders of “modern” style in the city. Once it was the biggest trading center of the city, today it is a favorite holiday destination for the population of Tbilisi and guests of the city.
Back then life was pulsing in the Old city and one of the busiest streets bore the name Armenian Bazaar. This street took to the Meydan square. So many things were happening there at that time.... Large commercial transactions, trading of various goods, that one could imagine. All the best goods produced by the East was compiled by the Armenian traders at their central market. And at the end of the work day this special atmosphere was framed with melodies and they sang so beautiful that all the passers-by stopped and listened enthusiastically. These were the songs of immortal folk singers, among which the name Sayat Nova stands distinctive. He is a medieval ashugh of Armenian origin. He wrote his songs in Armenian, Georgian, Tartar (Azerbaijani).
Against the background of such “loud” past the current community of Tbilisi looks very “quiet”. There is no longer a strong Armenian educational center, there is no breeding ground for Armenian intellectuals: Nersisian school, nevertheless there was a time when the school saved many generations from assimilation, by becoming the center of Armenian enlightenment. Now this building is occupied by the Caucasian University.
There are no more key literary figures and people of art who would found a new “Vernatoon”. Although there are many non-governmental Armenian organizations in the city – none of them can cope with contemporary challenges that impede the preservation of national identity. Unfortunately, the current community shares the same destiny of pantheon Khodjivank: only a small part is remained from its one-time mightiness. Who is to blame for this? Assimilation, authorities, people or all at once: it makes no odds. That is just the point: There are fewer and fewer Armenians in Tbilisi and more “people of Armenian descent”.