Issue 4, 2017. August-September


TBILISI NEIGHBORHOODS: SABURTALO has teamed up with analyst and historian Emil Avdaliani to explore the history of Tbilisi's great neighborhoods. We begin in the oft-maligned Saburtalo. While it may seem like a mess of traffic and high-rise apartment buildings, it started out as a training ground for Queen Tamar's troops.

Emil Avdaliani

It is clear, with a glance at a map of Tbilisi, that the majority of the city's districts are spread along the River Mtkvari.

But even as Tbilisi was growing from what we now consider the Old City and Freedom Square toward the modern-day Vake in late 19th and early 20th centuries, a similar process was taking place in another direction of the city, along the right embankment of the Mtkvari River, in what is known today as Saburtalo.

The "Ball" District

Saburtalo's unique name- "burt" means "ball" in Georgian and the prefix/suffix pair Sa- and -o mean "for," so it literally translates as "for balls"-is linked to its flat terrain. Because of the flatness of the land, in the medieval period Saburtalo was used as agricultural territory-and as a training area for martial arts practice. For instance, during Queen Tamar's reign, Georgian troops usually went to Saburtalo "to play ball" and exercise.

The district started to adopt its modern role as one of Tbilisi's central residential areas under Soviet rule in the 1920s when apartment blocks were constructed around Pekin and Kazbegi Avenues. Soon, the village of Delisi was linked to Saburtalo (Delisi was initially known as Gdelisi, according to 18th-century documents. Later, the letter "G" was lost and it became known as Delisi).

Vazha-Pshavela Avenue (the longest street in Tbilisi), it was built during the 1950s. Initially called Komintern (a world Communist organization) Street, it was renamed for one of Georgia's famous writers, Vazha-Pshavela (Luka Razikashvili), in 1961. The Saburtalo district grew significantly in the second half of the 20th century, when residential neighborhoods, known as "ubani" were built. Large buildings for universities, libraries and cultural and sporting events-like the Sports Palace and several buildings of the Georgian Technical University-popped up around the district.

Universities and Athletes

Saburtalo was also unique due to the fact the district was free of factories and manufacturing facilities. Instead, Saburtalo became a hub of university and sports life with university buildings, football/basketball fields, and large recreational zones. This made the area attractive for scholars, artists, sportsmen and others, much like Saburtalo's neighboring district, Vake.

But with just one major road connecting central Saburtalo to the rest of Tbilisi (through modern-day Kostava Avenue), there were traffic problems.

In 1958, Saburtalo was linked to Vake via Delisi road, which was originally known as Guramishvili Street (and renamed Tamarashvili Street in 1990), which, together with the metro, helped connect the district with the rest of Tbilisi as the city grew.

Today, Saburtalo, with a population of 160,000, is one of the most heavily populated districts in Tbilisi. What started as farmland and a military training ground for medieval Georgian monarchs has turned now into a virtual hub of the capital.