By Darra Goldstein. From The Silk Road, vol. 5 no. 1 (Summer 2007).

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A Brief History

For centuries, the tiny nation of Georgia has stood at the confluence of East and West. Geographically part of Asia, yet a Christian nation, Georgia has historically looked more often to the West — so much so, that the capital city of Tiflis (Tbilisi) was once known as the Paris of the Caucasus. Lying athwart the major trade routes between East and West, Tiflis maintained a grand caravanserai where merchants could stable their animals, store their wares, and themselves find shelter.

Thanks to its agricultural riches and long tradition of hospitality, Georgia was an object of desire for many outsiders, not all of whom were good guests. The Georgians date the beginnings of their culture to the sixth century BCE. The ancient Greeks established colonies along the Black Sea coast in a region they called Colchis. In 66 BCE, when the Roman general Pompey invaded and brought the area under Roman rule, Greek control came to an end, but the outposts in Colchis remained important links in the trade route to Persia. From the Black Sea, ships could sail up the Phasis River (today’s Rioni). Goods were then portaged over the Likhi Range to the Kura River Valley and on to Persia. By the early Middle Ages Tiflis had become a major stopover on the medieval trade routes, a midpoint between Moslem East and Christian West.

Tbilisi itself was founded in the fifth century when, according to legend, King Vakhtang Gorgaslani, on a hunt near the Kura River, killed a pheasant, which he retrieved fully cooked from the hot springs where it had fallen. Toasting his good fortune, Gorgaslani vowed to create a city on this auspicious site. He called it “Tbilis-kalaki” or “Warm City” (hence the name “Tbilisi”; outside of Georgia, the city was known as Tiflis into the twentieth century).