A long stroll through the Georgian capital of Tbilisi lays bare the tumultuous history of this tiny country, nestled between Turkey and Russia on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, in the sooty, crumbling buildings that hug its winding streets and rise high on the hills over the Mtkvari River. Among them are an ancient Persian fortress, seized by a Georgian king who founded the capital in the fifth century a.d., the Byzantine Sioni (Zion) Cathedral, destroyed by Muslim invaders and rebuilt by Christian faithful over the centuries, magnificent medieval monuments from the country’s “Golden Period,” low-slung Turkish baths constructed by Ottoman rulers, neo-baroque and Moorish nineteenth-century shops and theaters lining fashionable Rustaveli Avenue, the Stalinesque Parliament, built at the end of World War II by forced German labor, and the endless lines of Soviet apartment blocks that march up and down the hills around the city.
The biggest monument to Georgia’s post-Soviet progress is the towering Iveria Hotel, a once-showy tourist spot given over to destitute refugees from the Abkhaz Civil War. All of Georgia’s monuments from its 1,600-year formal history share the cold reality of the country’s current state, broken by corruption, civil strife, and extreme poverty. Most are in some state of disrepair and require protection. Yet no category of historical monument is as endangered as that which, ironically, embodies modern Georgia’s most shining moment of optimism and creativity—its last full embrace of a European stylistic movement before the Soviet Union shut its doors to the West. Art Nouveau arrived in Tbilisi in 1901 in the form of a pavilion commissioned by the oil rich Nobel brothers for the Jubilee Exhibition of Agricultural and Industrial Products, and it immediately captured the imagination of the country eager for something fresh and innovative. Georgia had already been a colony of the Russian Empire for a century at the time, and Russian Classicism was being established as the standard for state architecture, while any remaining feudal elements in residential construction were being displaced by an eclectic amalgamation of various European styles.