2020 June-July Analysis Featured

Tbilisi’s shopping mall boom began further back than you think

The Tamamshev Caravanserai, now buried under Tbilisi’s iconic Freedom Square, was one of the first large scale commercial centers in the South Caucasus

Tbilisi has had quite a few shopping malls pop up in recent years, but the city has been a centre of commerce for centuries, and the city has actually had malls, albeit in a somewhat different form, as far back as the 19th century.

The Tbilisi History Museum is housed in the remodeled Artsruni Caravanserai on Sioni Street in Old Tbilisi, built in 1818.

Tbilisi’s geographic location made it an important point along trade routes in the region, and so not surprisingly, many of Tbilisi’s streets and buildings were once trading places for merchants from as far abroad as the Middle East.

A good example of the city’s strong role in regional trade as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries is that of the number of caravanserais that sprung up at this time, most of which were concentrated in Kala, around Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi’s old town.

The word caravanserai is of Persian-Turkish origin and loosely translates as ‘caravan house’, which has historically been a public institution in the Middle East for both merchants and long-distance travelers.

Most of Tbilisi’s intact caravanserais were built in the 17th-18th centuries and structurally resemble each other: iron or wooden balconies overlooking a rectangular courtyard on all sides. Caravanserais contained merchants’ and craftsmen’s workshops and guest rooms. The buildings stood out for their size, number of floors, lavish facades and interiors.

In old Tbilisi, there was the so-called ‘caravanserai of lords’ located near Sioni Cathedral, which was built in the 18th century and consisted of sixty-two guest rooms and thirty shops. In addition, many workshops were opened in caravanserais. Opposite to the Sioni Cathedral was Tekle Caravanserai, built in the 17th century. Another small caravanserai is located on present-day Erekle II Street. Yet another commercial space – the so-called Artsruni caravanserai – was located at Sioni Street 8. All these buildings were destroyed during the invasion of Persian Shah Agha Mohammad Khan, and only partially restored in the late 18th century.

While the above caravanserais did provide some commercial space, they nevertheless could not accommodate the bustling level of commercial activity visible in Tbilisi by the 19th century. Something bigger and conceptually new was necessary.

The interior of the Tamamshev Theatre, completed in 1851.

The change came with the establishment of the so-called Tamamshev caravanserai, which is arguably the most famous, and which inched closer towards the modern day concept of a shopping mall. Oddly enough, the Tamamshev caravanserai came about thanks to music.

At the time, Tbilisi did not have a cultural space where the Imperial administration and the local Georgian aristocracy could gather for cultural evenings. And so, in the mid-19th century, the Russian Imperial Administration, led by Crown Prince Count Mikhail Voronstov in Tbilisi, offered up the initiative to private individuals.

Gabriel Tamamshev, a merchant from Tbilisi, expressed interest in building the theatre on the condition that the Imperial government gift him a plot of land (about 1,000 square meters) on which to build Tbilisi’s first opera theatre.

The exterior of the Tamamshev complex, built on what is today Freedom Square in downtown Tbilisi

The construction of the fusion theater-commercial space began on April 15, 1847 on what is today Freedom Square. The theatre took four years to build, and its construction was overseen by Italian architect Giovanni Scudieri (1817-1851), who came to Tbilisi at the end of 1845 on the request of Vorontsov.

Once completed, the theatre quickly became the most important center of the country’s cultural life. It was the first opera house in the South Caucasus that could accommodate 700 spectators, and its facade and interior matched the European theaters of the time. The theater, a rectangular building measuring 78 x 48 meters, was four-stories high, while it shrank to two stories high on the south side of the square and hovered at three stories high on the northern side.

In addition to the theater, the imperial authorities allowed Tamamshev to construct residential and commercial spaces in the same building. Altogether, the Tamamshev caravanserai had 266 large and small shops, warehouses and workshops, spread out over four floors and 4,000 square meters of commercial and theatrical space.

The theatre caught the eye not only of locals: famous French writer Alexander Dumas, who came to Tbilisi in 1856, described the stunning elegance of Tbilisi’s first regional theater in his book Caucasus. Indeed, its size alone must have been spectacular to behold: a sprawling 4,000 square meters of theatrical space. Unfortunately, it was cut down in its prime after just 23 years of existence.

On September 11, 1874, a devastating fire broke out at the Caravanserai Theater that completely burned the building down. A statement published in the newspaper Droeba informed Tbilisi residents that the fire at the Tamamshev Caravanserai had not been an accident. An investigation later revealed that the culprit was I. Lazarev, a merchant who conspired to burn the place down due to differences of opinion between the administration of the theatre and merchants who made use of the structure’s commercial offerings. He was exiled to Siberia for nine years.

This photo, taken between the area of Freedom Square and Pushkini Street, displays the foundation of Tamamshev’s Caravanserai.

In 1879, the entire caravanserai, except for the theater, was restored. Modern day Freedom Square housed the so-called Tamashev Caravanserai until 1934, when the building was torn down during the large-scale reconstruction of Tbilisi. To date, only two iron monuments in front of the Tbilisi City Assembly have survived (though many believe they are not original, but mere replicas) from the building.

Moreover, if one were to dig deep under the Saint George monument that stands at the center of Freedom Square, the foundation of Tamamshev’s Caravanserai could still be found, as various photographs indicate.

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