Every time I travel to the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, I walk around my favourite parts of town. It’s a way to feel close to the place, going to some familiar places and, many times, seeing familiar faces. One of my favourite streets, Leselidze, connects the city’s main square to the charming Old Town. Near the end of the street, there’s a red brick building, the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi.
A few years ago, armed with my rucksack, a camera around my neck and a tripod in hand, I made my way to visit the Great Synagogue, which is also known as The Georgian Synagogue. Sadly, the doorman didn’t let me in and, with the language barrier, I couldn’t explain myself. Back then, the only synagogue I had been to is the one in Fes, Morocco, so I was quite disappointed. A few years later, I decided to make my way there again and I joined a group of tourists who were visiting.
The Great Synagogue of Tbilisi was build between 1895 and 1903 from the Georgian areas of Alkhazikhe and Tskhinval , and is the type of building I’d call “austere”.
THE JEWS OF GEORGIA
The Republic of Georgia is a Christian-Orthodox country where the church has a lot of power over the population and in politics. So I was quite surprised to find such a big synagogue, surrounded by many churches, but in block predominantly Jewish. So much so, that there’s a square nearby known as Jerusalem Square.
There are a few theories as to when the Jewish people arrived in Georgia. Some sources say they probably arrived in the region after the exile in Babylon, caused by Nabuchodonosor over 2600 ago. Another theory is that they are descendants from the Ten Tribes of Israel. A third one is that they arrived in the 6th Century when Georgia was under Byzantine rule.
THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE OF TBILISI
On this occasion, when I joined the group of tourists, I could really see how beautiful the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi is. On the inside, it feels much bigger than I thought. It’s all painted light blue and decorated in floral details and phrases in Hebrew from the Prayer Book.
I was walking around for a while, taking in the whole novelty, trying to understand the symbols and admiring the beauty of the place. The star of David can be seen on doors, dates, on the ceiling and some walls.
There are also two Holy Arks, where the Torah (the sacred book of Judaism) is kept. The Ark on the ground floor is especially grand. In the courtyard, there is a bakery and facilities for a ritual slaughter.
When I left the synagogue, I found out the group of tourists were from Israel and I understood why I wasn’t let in on my first attempt years earlier. As I was carrying full photography equipment, the doorman thought I was going to take professional pictures and use the tripod. For the former you need permission, and the latter is not allowed.
If you happen to be in Tbilisi and walk along Leselidze street – which you will if you follow my two-day itinerary of the city – I recommend you try to visit the Great Synagogue. Since Georgia reconquered its independence after the end of the Soviet Union, most of the Georgian Jews moved to Israel. So visiting the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi is a good idea not only for the beauty of the interiors but also for the historic value.