Trinity Cathedral Temple in Tblisi via Raddison blog

Churches, City Making, and the Sacking of Tbilisi by Global Architecture

One of the great delights of exploring Old Town Tbilisi, the 1700-year-old capital of the Republic of Georgia, is the occasional unexpected encounter with an Eastern Orthodox church. One moment you’re admiring ramshackle balconies and contemplating a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. The next moment, you’re nearly tripping into someone’s baptism.


Georgia is known as one of the world’s first two Christian kingdoms, along with neighboring Armenia. King Mirian, ruler of the Iverians, built the country’s earliest churches in the original capital, Mtskheta, in the 4th century. Christianity dovetailed nicely with the King Vaktang Gorgasali’s political ambitions: He moved the capital from Mtskheta to Tbilisi and immediately claimed his territory by building the first of the city’s churches around the year 500. It stood on the site of the current Metekhi Church, completed in 1289.


Today, new and old mingle nicely in Tbilisi, especially Old Town, where the merely old is 500 years and the really old is 1500 years—that’s how long a version of Anchiskhati Basilica has stood. The town developed around its churches, which are today often surrounded by no more than alleyways and hugged close by two- or three-story courtyard apartments. These are are the sightlines that lead to so much delight.


Then, as now, Georgian Orthodox churches take after Roman basilicas, which were largely secular meeting halls. They have square or rectangular bases and, frequently, cylindrical copulas with conical roofs. Georgian churches are solid, blocky affairs, more cubical than cruciform and hewn out of brick or pure sandstone. Their walls are impossibly thick, as are interior columns.


Tbilisi’s churches bring me back to an era about which I know nothing: the early days of Christianity, the era of Marco Polo and the heyday of the Silk Road, and all the other centuries when Tbilisi was a west Asian crossroads of 100,000 and not a Soviet-era stronghold of resistance topping 1.5 million.


In Tbilisi’s early days, its churches would have stood on their own, not as quaint punctuation marks in the urban landscape but as lonely citadels. Today, Tbilisi’s churches have mountaintop counterparts that offer a sense of what those early churches would have looked like, naked against the rough landscape of the Caucuses, surrounded by shacks and sheep, if anything. The Jvari Church, for example, still cuts an inspiring profile on a hilltop above Mtskheta. Imagine how it looked to 6th century eyes, possibly as the only permanent structures they’d ever seen. Back then, in unpolluted Caucasian air, you could probably have seen longer distances than most people would ever travel in their lives.


For Christians’ sake, it’s a good thing Georgia developed its church architecture early and quickly. A mere four centuries after King Vakthang’s triumph, Muslims moved in. They stayed, on and off, until 1120.


Kurban Said describes Tblisi’s tragic centrality – using its Gerogian name – in his World War I romance Ali and Nino: “Seven times Timur the Lane destroyed Tiflis. Turks, Persians, Arabs and Mongols have overrun the country….They laid waste in Georgia, raped it, murdered it, but never really possessed it.” He goes on: “We are no Asiatics. We are the furthest eastern country of Europe.” And they follow the religion of Europe.


I find myself speculating not just on the purpose of Tbilisi’s churches but indeed about the purpose of religion itself. Particularly the triumphalist version of religion that seeks not merely to venerate a deity and instill virtues but that also sees fit to impose itself on God’s creation.


I find myself speculating not just on the purpose of Tbilisi’s churches but indeed about the purpose of religion itself. Particularly the triumphalist version of religion that seeks not merely to venerate a deity and instill virtues but that also sees fit to impose itself on God’s creation.


I won’t belabor the psychological and anthropological origins of religion. I’m willing to stipulate region’s power to explain the natural world, organize society, and fulfill all sorts of human longings. When religion is reified by structures, though, I think it does something else. That something else has nothing really to do with God.


Why indeed would a religion with a single quasi-human God and no particular connection to a place or a people supplant venerable animistic and pagan religions that had served tribes and civilizations perfectly well for millennia?


Because of and concurrent with the spread of Christianity, much of the world was opening up. It had been open before, of course, with Phoenician traders and Macedonian invaders. But as the Roman empire weakened in the first century CE, places that had been united by the empire and made aware of each other would have found newfound freedom to dictate relationships with neighbors on their own terms, not on Rome’s terms. Paganism would have become less appealing as people’s territories expanded and their intimacy with micro environments diminished.


That was, for many groups, surely an unsettling prospect. Imagine living in relatively splendid relative isolation for all of history and then having the knowledge and means to interact with others on an previously unknown scale. They needed markers in the landscape, for their own sake and for the sake of outsiders.


As a resident of Southern California, I’ve never believed that humans fared well in barren, wide-open places. Humans like geographic and arboreal features to provide shelter and, consequently, give them comfort. In places like Georgia, rugged and barren, the invention of the Christian church surely was a revelation.


Regardless of the theology and practices that came with them, the concept of the church, as a physical, permanent manifestation of God’s holiness and literal manifestation of a congregation, would have offered Georgians—like early Christians anywhere else—the opportunity to define, and, indeed, create a landscape for perhaps the first time.


In that regard, the church may have offered a reason for the adoption of Christianity—not the other way around.


Joel Kotkin, among others, has written about the ceremonial, i.e. religious, reasons for the founding of cities, how cities draw some of their potency from religious functions. That much is fair. But what about the function of religion itself? The question is not why religions wanted to make places but why people needed religion to make places.


The desire to create and control landscape surely ranks just below language as a crucial human advancement. Churches serve the collective unconscious as much as they serve the institution of religion.


If we assume that the instinct to make places is a natural step in the evolution of civilization, it stands to reason that the rise of prominent buildings would have been a natural step in the evolution of places. If we assume that humans intrinsically wanted to build up—surely for reasons beyond their articulation (and beyond their comfort zone, if you believed the story of Babel)—then they would have had to discover a reason to build them. Or create a reason.


To the extent that religion is a human invention, the desire to build is one of the reasons for its invention.


Indeed, the metaphysical, in all its irrationality, provides a convenient pretense for early societies to build the types of landscapes that people would have wanted to build. No one needed apartment buildings until the 1800s. Bronze-age peoples had grain bins, but they would not have needed grain towers (or, contrary to Ben Carson’s speculation, grain pyramids). There was no such thing as an office building or an observation tower. Fortresses, maybe. Otherwise, churches it is.


Peacemaking is not just an element of religion – it is one of the reasons for religion. Churches serve a higher purpose: they were the skylines of their days.


For all their usefulness as places of worship and clubhouses where the Holy Spirit can hang out, churches aren’t just for the aggrandizement of the bishop or king or whomever. Peacemaking is not just an element of religion—it is one of the reasons for religion. Churches serve a higher purpose: they were the skylines of their day.


I submit that mythology and theology are beside the point. Even nonbelievers love churches. Imagine Paris without Notre Dame. Even the most ardent atheist would weep.


As it happens, Tbilisi is now building a whole new generation of prominent, inventive buildings. Whether they are inspirational and durable is another matter.


With just enough spending cash, in part because of its former president and leading plutocrat Bidzina Ivanishvili (net worth: $4.5 billion; Georgia’s annual GPD: $39 billion), Tbilisi is going on a building boom. A raft of shiny, swoopy new structures have arisen, some not a censer’s swing from Old Town. They include the Peace Bridge, the Hall of Justice, an unfinished concert hall, and Ivanishvili’s own residence, a $50 million blue glass monstrosity that peers down at the city as if it’s auditioning for the next Bond film. Or like an airport terminal looking for its runway.


Meanwhile, the city’s outskirts consist of banal apartment towers as far as the eye can see. It sees a lot less far these days, thanks to pollution.


In other words, the old Tbilisi is being destroyed—not by invading hoards or Soviet tanks but by conventional monumentality and third-rate starchitecture, minus the starchitects. It doesn’t need the Babel treatment yet. Plenty of other cities are ahead of it in line. But, for the sake of keeping a wonderful old city from being further adulterated, a minor miracle or two wouldn’t hurt.


Featured image: Trinity Cathedral Temple, in Tbilisi, Georgia, via Raddison Blu Blog. Old Tbilisi via Wikipedia Commons.


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