A turquoise background with iconic landmarks of Tbilisi collated in the foreground.

Tbilisi: Lucky Number 27

Even with its vast architecture, complex cuisine, and ancient cultural heritage dating back to at least the 12th Century B.C., the spirit of the Georgian people remains epitomised by one singular icon: the Borjgali. This simple image of a motioning 7-winged sun is displayed on nearly every medium available in Georgia, from the currency to the identification cards to even the logo of the country’s famed national rugby team. Despite also bearing such epochal figures as Saint George, and the Golden Lions, it is the Borjgali that remains Georgia’s seminal national symbol. But why? Of all the nation’s proud icons, why this one in particular? Perhaps it is because the Borjgali, roughly translated from the original Megrelian to “never-ending time flow”, is meant to symbolize the concept of everlasting life. It is this perception of rebirth throughout eternity that so eloquently mirrors the history and perseverance of Georgia and its people, with no better example than the history of its capital city, Tbilisi.

The story of Tbilisi is one of constant adaptation and rebirth. Located strategically central within the Caucasus region and surrounded by an array of major regional and international powers, this cosmopolitan hub had to be rebuilt an astonishing 27 times.

The Borjgali, symbol of Georgia.
The Borjgali, a widespread symbol in Georgia.

The reasons for these continual reconstructions were not limited to a single source, as it was a perpetual mélange of different empires, invaders and even natural disasters which tried to invade it, assimilate it, or even diminish it into oblivion, but to no avail. Regardless of who or what did its damage, Tbilisi lives on through its very own “Borjgali”, a process dating back to its 5th-century foundation as the capital of King Vakhtang’s Kartli region.

After the rule of Vakhtang and his son Dachi, who oversaw the city’s first major rebuild from Persian and Greek invasions, Tbilisi would go on to endure a game of hot potato between ruling empires. It was the city’s vital location at the crossroads of the silk road, bridging the gaps between modern-day Russia, Turkey, and Iran, that was deemed so valuable to any kingdom which would lay claim to it. As such, between the 6th and 9th century alone, the city was besieged over 12 times by Byzantine, Khazar, and especially Arab forces, with Morvan Ibn-Muhammad’s conquest of Tbilisi leading to a 4-century long rule. After every single besiegement, the city had to undergo reconstruction. But no reconstruction meant more to the city’s potential than in 1122 when King David IV reclaimed Tbilisi to the Georgians and redeemed its status as the capital. Under what is commonly referred to as the “Georgian Renaissance” or “Golden Age”, the 12th to 13th centuries saw Tbilisi become the Eastern Orthodox world’s prime haven for commerce, education and culture, with artists such as Damiane and Rustaveli producing unforgettable work in art and literature, respectively.

Unfortunately, the Golden Age did not last even a full century, as advancements in conquest lead to unstoppable takeovers from the Ottomans, Iranians, and the Turco-Mongols, who at the time of the 1395 besiegement were led by the Genghis Khan of his time, Amir Timur (i.e. “Tamerlane). Though not all, some conquests even bore a genocidal air, and as a result, from the 14th to 17th centuries, the city’s population of over 120,000 was cut almost entirely in half. This demographic winter was no doubt aided by a horrific earthquake in 1668, which displaced up to 10,000 people.

Despite undergoing centuries of military annexation and political neglect, a 1762 merger of Georgian city-states into one kingdom was initiated by Erekle II. Under his rule, Tbilisi became the centre of a new Georgian political unit. Erekle started to develop the capital and ordered a new palace, seminary, and publishing house to be built. An actors’ troupe was formed at the royal court, and the gardens of Tbilisi were restored to their original glory before all those invasions. The city’s famed fortress was also reconstructed and, within a short span of time, Tbilisi’s population once again surpassed 100,000 in 1777, just 15 short years after the merger.

Erekle’s 18th-century effort was hence the last full-scale rebuild in Tbilisi’s history. Although the eventual Soviet occupation of the 20th century saw various socioeconomic controversies, Georgians, as is often the historical case, continued to make the most of their situation. In fact, the 20th century was when Tbilisi gained its prominence as the “Paris of the Soviet Union”, known for good food, great wine, and love of life. Such innate optimism among Tbilisi’s people was rewarded following independence from the Soviets in 1991 and the Rose Revolution in 2003 when Georgia underwent an economic renaissance under President Mikheil Saakashvili. From 2004 to 2014, Georgia itself saw one of the world’s highest GDP growth rates, with Tbilisi acting as the centre for the nation’s growth in production, trade, and foreign relations. This prominence eventually leads to Tbilisi, once a derelict and war-torn city, to being named by Freedom House as one of the safest cities in all of Europe at the turn of the 2010s. This is no less impressive considering how quickly the city had recovered from the 2008 bombing at the hands of the Russo-Georgian War, but if there is one thing the Tbilisians have inherited through their history, it is the ability to recover quickly.

It is that very endurance through all possible levels of hardship that make Tbilisi a beacon of hope for cities that currently appear destroyed at the level of no return. Just as Damascus has become at the hands of war, Mosul at the hands of radical insurgence, and Zagreb at the hands of a terrifying natural disaster, Tbilisi has struggled through all of these endeavours and has come back as strong and prosperous as it ever could have. To maintain such resilience through 16 centuries is a prime indicator that a city’s tenure is never defined by a single event. Rather it continues onward in a constant, never-ending “Borjgali”. And just as Tbilisians have continued to rise from various perceived falls, the people of currently struggling cities will surely remain to help, maintain, and advance their cities back to the prosperity they once held.

Read the other articles in the ‘Cities of Hope’ series here (upcoming).