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Spring on Rustaveli Avenue

Window, Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia

One of my favorite walks here in Tbilisi blooms with life this time of year.

Rustaveli Avenue is less than a mile long, but it packs in quite a bit in its short stretch: museums, the ballet and opera house, the country’s parliament building, a historic church and more.

A short while ago, you might have seen Rustaveli Avenue on the world news when crowds of Georgians gathered to protest a foreign agents law that was ultimately withdrawn. In 1989, one of the most significant protests in recent Georgian history unfolded along Rustaveli Avenue, the April 9 tragedy when 21 people were killed in a mass pro-independence, anti-Soviet rally. A small monument to those killed stands in front of the parliament building and was noticeably spared from graffiti liberally sprayed on the government building and surrounding area during the most recent protest.

As winter fades on spring’s horizon, the avenue, named after Georgia’s medieval poet Shota Rustaveli, comes to life with flowers, trees, and people. From the crowds in front of Galleria Tbilisi, a modern shopping mall to the serene quiet inside the Kashueti St. George Church, Rustaveli Avenue is, like its history, a study in contrasts.

My walk this week started at the Kashueti church, where I was hoping to see the man I affectionately refer to as the pigeon priest. I’ve seen him twice in the courtyard in front of the church, pockets filled with sunflower seeds to feed the local pigeon population, who happily perch on his arms and shoulders waiting for treats. Both times I’ve seen him, he placed seeds in my hand and instructed me how to stand to attract the birds to my shoulders.

As I’ve been trying to photograph more people in Georgia, the pigeon priest is high on my list of subjects.

I strayed into the church’s crypt where I found an interesting iconostas, the partition separating the nave from the sanctuary. Two panels bordering the royal doors depicted familiar figures: the icon of the mother of God, and the icon of Jesus Christ. I didn’t recognize the two outer panels depicting two figures draped in flowing gowns with feminine features.

The paintings also had a different quality to them than most of the icons I’ve seen; they’re painted in an Art Nouveau style, more Maxfield Parrish than early church.

One of the church’s cleaning ladies sat on a bench in the back of the room taking a break and, I strongly suspect, was keeping an eye on me to scold me if I attempted to take photos, something that’s not permitted in most of the city’s churches. (The icons in the photo below were outside the church and not the icons in the crypt.)

My Georgian is still nowhere near conversational level, so I had to think of a way to ask the woman whom the two panels depicted.

“Is this Nino?” I asked, pointing to the panel on the right. St. Nino is one of the most revered saints in the Georgian Orthodox Church, having brought Christianity to the region in the early 300s.

It was a guess and, judging from the woman’s facial expression, a very bad guess. In Georgian, she told me they were the archangels, Gabriel on the left, Michael on the right. I was way off.

I left the church and strolled past the turn-of-the-century architecture, taking my time to notice the plasterwork details in many of the buildings.

My walk ended in front of the Shota Rustaveli monument, perched on square base, permanently gazing back at the avenue bearing his name.


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