Georgia's capital strikes the newcomer as improbably beautiful, a postcard-perfect lost kingdom set inside high hills surmounted by ancient forts and rock-steady 1,500-year-old Byzantine churches. Downtown Tbilisi unfurls along Rustaveli Avenue, lined with Neoclassical theaters and palaces that house state offices, and dips down to the ancient quarter, the maidan, a Turco-Farsi word meaning "central square." There the scene turns sepia: a synagogue looks out on the striated brown-brick cupolas of the hammam. Its entrance is a peaked portal glittering with turquoise tiles, like something out of Isfahan. (The word tbilisi means "warm place.") In the small maidan, low two-story wooden houses nestle together, with flower-strewn balconies one can almost stretch up to touch. All is human-scale, harmonious, and seasoned by age. The river flows just behind, then Tbilisi rises up again, on bluffs fronted by more wooden villas.
This was always the most far-flung Christian capital on the map, the last outpost of the West as it merged into the exotic. But it gives off an unsettling familiarity. One has seen its like before somewhere; the world knew this aesthetic well at some point. It took me a while to realize that there's an arc of such cities with precisely such a fusion of layers...early Christian, then Ottoman, then Czarist-Hapsburg, with a last glimmering of Art Nouveau (elegant curved steel balconies and gates snaked by flower-stem patterns). They run from Belgrade through Sofia and Bucharest and on to Tbilisi in the Caucasus. One remembers them from antique postcards, yellowing magazines, even from Tintin stories—always framed in rugged mountains and threaded by a robust river, and always graced by a sleepy Islamic street with a donkey cart. They flowered before and after World War I, jewels of the ancien régime for a brief moment before Nazism and Communism buried them from sight—along with their old bewhiskered royals in chesty poses, ornamental military uniforms, faux-Parisian streetlights, and sleek cavalry horses.
I stumbled onto a bit of the hidden residue of Tbilisi's prewar heyday through Gogla, whom I met at a café atop the bluffs across the river. A fluent English speaker in his early thirties, Gogla attended school in the United States and now works for a multinational construction company, building hotels in the capital. Hearing English chatter, he table-hopped over to me. Everyone knows everyone here, and pretty soon he offered to show me around town.
I said I wanted to see some of Tbilisi's lovely, mysterious houses. "You should just go and introduce yourself. Georgians love Americans," he said. "Come, let's try it." We drove across the river to an elegant half-lit street with two towering houses, one with a château-like roof hidden by trees. We walked up its grand staircase, and from the third-floor landing we glimpsed an exquisitely gilded ceiling behind the leaded windows. We knocked on several doors until one opened. Gogla chatted away, and soon we found ourselves in a teak-paneled, high-ceilinged room of great dignity, once a library.
The building dated from 1914, the year the Great War started. The Soviets took Tbilisi a decade later in a notoriously bloody campaign of repression. Like so many large houses that belonged to the bourgeoisie, this one was soon seized by the state. It was shared out between 22 families, which is how it remains today. We asked about the room with the gilt ceiling—it had been the ballroom. An old woman lived there alone, her bed in the middle of the parquet floor. The house exhaled a thwarted affluence everywhere we turned, a hidden narrative that perhaps stood for the wider experience of Tbilisi and Georgia as a whole—or perhaps the flowing Georgian wine had over-enhanced our senses, as our hosts, a seven-member family, came in and out, gently offering to top up our glasses, delighted at the impromptu visit.
Most people would acknowledge that the Soviet years added very little of aesthetic value in buildings or monuments to any country. But Tbilisi developed a unique mini-style of its own—well, maybe not so mini. One might call it the Bond-villain aesthetic of retro-futurism, first conceived in the 1960's and periodically refreshed only in Tbilisi. Here and there defiant, freestanding architectural follies soar up mysteriously from the encircling hills. The cloud-topped TV Tower, on the highest hill, looks like an abandoned Soyuz rocket and lights up in sparks at night.