Tbilisi's Places of Memory

Author: Tigran Amiryan
Edition: Spaces

Kukia Alphabet 

Wandering among the tombstones and crypts of Tbilisi’s Kukia cemetery, Anna Muradova feels at ease. Many of her ancestors are buried here. She senses a connection between the graves and her Persian-Assyrian ethnic roots.

“I like it here,” says the 45-year-old linguist, as she strolls among marble statues, faded photographs and headless busts.

Muradova recently moved from her native Moscow to the Georgian capital, the hometown of her father’s family. Lingering to study the writing on Kukia’s tombstones, Muradova says that Tbilisi’s mosaic of cultures is helping her settle in.

Few places are better to study that mosaic’s past than in Kukia.

Kukia is reportedly Georgia’s oldest cemetery, with records of its first graves dating back roughly 300 years. It is also one of the few historical graveyards which survived the Soviet demolition-campaign that led to the disappearance of more centrally located cemeteries around town.

From the 1930s, Soviet officials radically redefined cities to reflect the USSR’s collectively minded outlook. Cemeteries, places of individual memories, became a target. At best, certain graveyards were replaced by parks; at worst, they were utterly destroyed.

Nonetheless, the languages and alphabets chiseled onto Kukia’s tombstones still testify to a kaleidoscope of confessions and nationalities – epitaphs in Armenian, Assyrian, French, Georgian, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian. An obelisk with a German inscription tells the story of those who died in the Caucasus during World War I.

Over the centuries, the graveyard has erased the differences between rich and poor, celebrities and common folk. Georgian Orthodox Christians revere the grave of one 20th-century woman, Anastasia Sazonova, for its alleged miracle-performing powers.  Also buried here are Joseph Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterine Svanidze, and Dagny Juel, the iconic muse of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Elsewhere, shoemakers and doctors lie next to criminals, priests, teachers, actors and politicians.

Kukia sits on Mount Makhata, in an homonymous village which, today, falls several kilometers outside of Tbilisi’s center. In the 1930s, that distance proved its safeguard against Soviet decision-makers.

Many other cemeteries did not share its good fortune.

At the entrance to Kukia cemetery, one of the first group of gravestones belongs to Italians who lived and worked in Tbilisi in the 19th century.
The grave of Baltazat Wojnilovich (1859 - 1908) in the Kukia cemetery is one of the many Tbilisi residents of Polish origins.
A 19th century tombstone in Armenian script, for a man called Martiros Ter-Serobov Tatmanean, in the Kukia graveyard.
A 1900 photograph of the Catholic area of the Kukia cemetery by Russian photographer Dimitri Yermakov (courtesy of the Georgian National Museum). Until the 1920s Kukia had separate areas for different confessions - Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox Christians, Yezidis, Molokans. As the graveyard expanded the division disappeared. The Catholic church in the cemetery was torn down in the 1930s.

A Muslim Cemetery Lost in a Garden

The National Botanical Garden, known as the Royal Garden until the mid-19th century, used to house a Muslim cemetery where Persians, Arabs, Azerbaijanis and others were buried. In the early 1950s, the Soviets first blew up a nearby mosque, which sat outside the cemetery area; then, they proceeded to raze the often elaborately decorated headstones and memorials.  Today, to reach what remains of the cemetery, visitors must  buy a ticket for the Botanical Garden and walk up the hill toward the greenhouses. 

On the cemetery’s former territory, a few east-facing tombstones lie near a pantheon with the graves of 11 figures notable in Azerbaijani culture. Constructed in the 1970s, the pantheon has since been twice renovated; most recently, in 2013.

Jujuna Avalishvili has been working in а rosarium next to the pantheon for over 50 years. She recounts how the gravestones of the parents of a Dagestani friend were among those destroyed when the Muslim cemetery was bulldozed in just a few days in the early 1950s. Avalishvili promised her friend, Manaba Magamedova, to look after two trees near the site. 

“I told her not to worry, that I would take care of those two trees [over there] and they would preserve the memory of her parents,” she says.

The destruction of these Muslim gravestones added humiliation to the tragedy experienced by Magamedova’s family and thousands of others in the Caucasus under Soviet rule.

Originally from Kubachi, a village in Dagestan, to the north of Georgia, the Magamedovs were forced to move to Tbilisi in the 1930s during Stalin’s brutal campaign against so-called prosperous peasants.  A few decades later, the Soviet authorities flattened such Muslim migrants’ places of memory in the Botanical Garden.

Since the 1970s, Muslims are no longer buried there. Instead, the local Muslim community mainly uses a cemetery in Mskhaldidi, a village on the outskirts of Tbilisi, and, to a lesser extent, one in Ferma, also outside the city limits.

A statue dedicated to Mirza Shafi Vazeh, a bilingual Azerbaijani and Persian poet who died in Tbilisi in 1854, was once part of a pantheon to famous Azerbaijanis in a Muslim cemetery that existed near the Tbilisi’s botanical garden. The graveyard, shut down in the 1960s, contained the remains of mostly Azerbaijanis, but also Arabs and Iranians who were part of the city’s sizable Muslim community.
Grave monuments facing Mecca, leftovers from the former Muslim cemetery,, stand in Tbilisi’s National Botanical Garden. The fact that the statues face eastward was not taken into account when the gardens were developed, so visitors arriving in this section of the garden first encounter them from behind.
A sign in Tbilisi’s National Botanical Garden indicates the way to the hilltop pantheon of prominent Azerbaijanis who were buried in a former Muslim cemetery at the edge of the garden.
Arabic letters are engraved on almost every gravestone in Tbilisi’s former Muslim cemetery. The Azerbaijani language used the Arabic alphabet until 1928, switching to Cyrillic in 1939. In between and since the fall of the Soviet Union the language has used the Latin script.
Tbilisi contains no signs for how to reach its former Muslim cemetery’s Azerbaijani pantheon. Here, graffiti on a wall near the Narikala fortress shows the way to the Botanical Garden, which contains the old cemetery.

A Church Built on Bones?

Khojivank, known as the Armenian cemetery, was once spread out on a vast plot of land on the left bank of Tbilisi’s Mktvari River, in the district of Avlabari, still home to a sizeable ethnic Armenian community. Over the course of the cemetery’s 300-year existence, it acquired some 90,000 graves, Levon Chidilyan, director of the cultural department of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia, told Aliq.ge.  

The graveyard and its church, St. Astvatsatsin, were not destroyed in one go. It took years to erase their existence.

Today, “[it]’s mainly the older generation who remembers” the cemetery, laments anthropologist Alisa Datunashvili. Those memories, though, are steadily fading.

The first hit came in the 1930s when the then-Soviet government destroyed first the 17th-century St. Astvatsatsin Church, then bulldozed a large chunk of the graveyard to develop Friendship Park. By the 1990s, little remained of this esplanade. 

The Armenian community managed to look after what remained of the gravestones in a surviving pantheon to Armenian writers and other prominent figures that was erected on the site of Khojivank cemetery in 1961.

Yet still another controversy was to come. In 1989, the Georgian Orthodox Church announced plans to build a cathedral on territory that local ethnic Armenians claimed once made up part of Khojivank. For many in this community, the construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, completed in 2004, was an insult to the memory of the deceased. 

The Georgian Orthodox Church could not be reached for comment.

Few traces of the ordinary people once buried in Khojivank still exist. Instead, the pantheon’s monuments to famous intellectuals and artists like the 20th-century painter Gayane Khachatryan or 19th-century writer Raffi (Hakob Melik Hakobian) are all that remain.

Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, or sameba in Georgian, is one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox churches. Completed in 2004, the complex sits on land that was once part of an Armenian cemetery called Khojivank. Behind it is a pantheon of famous Armenian writers and artists.
A large excavation pit separates Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral from an Armenian pantheon. The Orthodox cathedral is surrounded by a myriad of small buildings for hosting classes and celebrations. Work is underway to add additional structures.
As builders started preparing foundations for new constructions around Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, apparent gravesites were unearthed. Although construction has stalled reportedly due to lack of funding, the holes in the ground can be easily seen.
A memorial to the Armenian novelist Hakob Melik Hakobyan, better known by his pen name of Raffi, stands in what remains of the old Tbilisi cemetery of Khojivank. A revered figure in Armenian literature, Hakobyan, born in Persia, died in 1888 in Tbilisi, where he had been teaching Armenian language and history in the city’s ethnic Armenian schools.
After the destruction of much of Tbilisi’s Armenian cemetery of Khojivank in the 1930s, many gravestones were transferred to the cemetery’s pantheon to Armenian writers, which still exists.
A burial site is visible in the pit excavated to lay the foundation to expand the complex around the Holy Trinity Church. Works have stalled for some years, reportedly due to lack of funding.

From the Center to the Periphery

After the destruction of Khojivank, Tbilisi’s Armenians started burying their loved ones at the poly-confessional cemetery of Saints Peter and Paul in the same district of Avlabari; almost in an attempt to maintain roots in the area even after death.

Tbilisi’s Muslim community, on the other hand, chose to move their cemeteries from the center of the city to the periphery.

An example of how the authorities wanted to push cemeteries away from the city center is Vera Park. Situated in the heart of the capital, the park used to be a Christian cemetery housing both Armenian and Georgian graves. Its destruction in the 1930s was a result of the city’s expansion; a reflection of how the Soviet system valued the collective over the personal. The individual memories represented by this cemetery were simply pushed out of town.

A cemetery for soldiers killed during World War I is located next to the Georgian Orthodox church of Saints Peter and Paul in Tbilisi’s old Avlabari district. The cemetery initially was for the Georgian Orthodox, but, as of the 1930s, members of the Armenian Apostolic Church buried their loved ones here as well.
An unofficial entrance into the Saints Peter and Paul cemetery in Tbilisi’s Avlabari district. The cemetery contains a hodge-podge of small fences and barriers amidst the gravestones.
The Azerbaijani cemetery in Mskhaldidi, a mainly ethnic Azerbaijani settlement located by Lisi Lake on the outskirts of Tbilisi.
In Mskhaldidi’s ethnic Azerbaijani cemetery, children’s graves are separated from the others.
Mskhaldidi’s graveyard serves not only nearby villagers, but ethnic Azerbaijanis from throughout Tbilisi’s metropolitan area. It cannot be reached by public transportation.
A memorial to Georgian historian, archaeologist and philanthropist Ekvtime Takaishvili was erected in the 1990s in downtown Tbilisi’s Vera Park, once part of a cemetery.
Part of the wall of the chess palace in Tbilisi’s Vera Park. Located in the city’s center, the area used to be a cemetery until it was destroyed in the 1930s.
Nineteenth-century gravestones lie loose in Vera Park, once part of a cemetery. They now serve as chairs for the park’s visitors.
The graves of Georgian alpinists Aleksandre (Alesha) Japaridze (1899-1946) and his sister, Aleksandra Djaparidze (1895-1974). Alesha Djaparidze is considered one of the fathers of Georgian mountain-climbing. While Soviet officials destroyed various cemeteries for ordinary Georgians, they allowed such memorials for well-known figures to remain.

Beyond Boundaries

Location and overcrowding helped spare Jewish cemeteries in Tbilisi’s outlying districts of Ortachala and Navtlugi from closure in the 1960s. 

Misha, a longtime worker at Navtlugi, located several kilometers to the east of the city center, claims that the graveyard was also spared because the local Jewish community placed a sign at the entrance which described the cemetery as “Russian-Jewish” instead of only “Jewish.” The story could not be independently confirmed. Many in Soviet times believed, though, that greater favor was paid to ethnic Russians.

Today, Tbilisi Jews bury their relatives at the Dampalo Cemetery, quite far from the city center and the city’s two functioning synagogues. The community, though, still honors the memory of those buried at Navtlugi and Ortachala.

The Jewish cemetery in Navtlugi, a neighborhood in the Tbilisi district of Samgori. Some families of the deceased believe that an entrance sign that described the cemetery as a Russian-Jewish graveyard helped protect it from being bulldozed during the Soviet era.
The Star of David on a graveyard in the Jewish cemetery of Navtlugi. The ancestor of the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are buried here, a fact that probably has saved the site from being destroyed to create room for residential buildings.
A plaque in Samgori’s Jewish cemetery commemorates Abram Torner, a philanthropist, who, in 1897, financed the construction of the cemetery’s administrative building and fence.
The old Jewish cemetery in Ortachala, located 10 kilometers outside of Tbilisi, has no more space available. It is maintained by the city and members of Tbilisi’s Jewish community.
Today Tbilisi’s Jewish community buries its members in the industrial district of Dampalo, far away from the center and the city’s two functioning synagogues.
A 1929 guidebook of Tbilisi, preserved in Georgia’s National Library, provides the addresses for monuments, but none for cemeteries. As the city’s various faith-based cemeteries slowly started being dismantled, guides designated the graveyards as parks and gardens instead.
This 1906 Tbilisi guidebook mentions 15 cemeteries -- among them, Georgian Orthodox, Muslim, Armenian Orthodox and Lutheran graveyards. It also lists 34 Georgian Orthodox churches, 21 Armenian churches, two Catholic cemeteries, one Lutheran church, two mosques and two synagogues. By the end of the 1930s, this data did not appear in guidebooks anymore.
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