Narikala Fortress History: Everything you need to know Updated 2020

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With a population of under four million, Georgia is considered a small country. Nestled at the eastern end of the Black Sea, it separates Russia in the north from Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the south. This unique geographical position has meant that the country has experienced a turbulent past, with many violent episodes. In fact, due to its pro-western sympathies, political friction still exists. Relations with Russia remain strained, at best.

opening times narikala fortress
opening times narikala fortress

Narikala fortress Tbilisi, georgia

Being situated at a crossroads between western Asia and eastern Europe, Georgia has been exposed to many different cultural influences. These are prominently displayed in the capital city of Tbilisi, which sits almost in the centre of the corridor of land that separates the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea. Tbilisi sprawls along the Mtkavari river as it meanders its way across the country. Overlooking this river, and dominating the city skyline, are the impressive remains of Narikala Fortress. You may even want to take the narikala fortress cable car.

Narikala fortress opening times

The fortress is open 24 hours a day and visitors are able to travel and view it at their leisure. 

The Mother Fortress

It isn’t clear why Narikala Fortress has earned the name ‘Mother’, but it could well be a term of endearment that signals a deep connection of the Georgians with their homeland. After all, they have had to fight for it. Another indicator of this – and which supports this theory – is the nearby 20-metre high statue of Kartlis Deda – The Mother of Georgia. Erected in 1958, the year of Tbilisi’s 1500th anniversary, it depicts a woman with a sword in one hand, and grapes in the other. The message is taken to be “We offer hospitality to all who come in friendship but will passionately defend our land.”

Cradle of Wine

This monument captures the essence of Georgia perfectly, reflecting the troubled past, as well as hinting at its reputation as the ‘cradle of wine‘ (archaeological evidence shows that wine was made here as far back as 6,000 BC).

Georgia Wars

As imposing as the fortress may be, it is incomplete as it stands today. An earthquake in 1827 destroyed much of the structure, including most of the citadel within the walls, which was subsequently demolished. Some sources suggest that rather than an earthquake, it was a gunpowder store that was struck by lightning which caused the damage.

narikala fortress frescoe
narikala fortress frescoe

Nevertheless, the towers and walls that remain form an essential part of any visit to Tbilisi. The residents are understandably proud of their fortress, stressing that if you visit Tbilisi and don’t take a tour of the Narikala Fortress, then you simply haven’t seen Tbilisi!

Shaped by warfare and religion

When you look closely at the remains of Narikala Fortress (which look especially breathtaking at night) you will notice clues about its past. Construction of the first walls upon the solid, rugged, holy mountain of Mtatsminda began in the 4th century AD when it was a Persian citadel. Most of the existing walls are the work of 8th century Arabian builders, leftover from when the emirs built their palace.

Narikala fortress history

Following their expulsion by David IV (known as David the Builder) in 1122 the citadel experienced several phases of reconstruction as successive invasions led to different occupiers, including Mongolians, Turks, and Persians.

Shuris Tsikhe

Over the centuries, each invading force or foreign influence has left its mark – and sometimes a name. Aside from the more modern label of ‘Mother Fortress’, it has also been called Shuris Tsikhe which translates variously as ‘rival’. ‘enviable’ or even ‘invidious’ fortress. All seem equally applicable! Many historians say that the fortress held an important place on the legendary Silk Road and that it was the strongest and best defended in the region.

Kartli 

Georgia was one of the earliest places to embrace Christianity. This relatively new faith is believed to have been preached in the 1st century AD and was declared the official religion of Kartli (a region of Georgia) by 319 AD. Through a long and tortuous route, it has returned to its Christian roots, with many different denominations represented, though the official religion today is Orthodox Christianity. Within the walls of the fortress sits one example of this; the church of St Nicholas.

Georgian Frescoes

This is a recent restoration – which is obvious from its appearance, in spite of how well built it may be. The original 12th-century church was lost to a fire and rebuilt in 1996. However, as incongruous as the outside of the building may seem to some (the zinc roofing is especially prominent), the interior is well worth viewing for the colourful frescoes alone. These display historical scenes from Georgia’s past as well as biblical stories.

Where can I get the best view of Tbilisi?

From the heights of the fortress, you can see most of the city laid out below, and the view is simply stunning. Of course, it’s easy for us to appreciate it at our leisure, forgetting that the reason for its siting was purely for military might. Its strategic situation at the narrowest river crossing point affords excellent sighting over great stretches of land as well as the river, which is why it has been fought over so many times throughout its life.

Geography of Georgia

If you look carefully from the viewing platforms, you can see mosques, churches, and synagogues amongst the orange-roofs of the houses in the city below, reinforcing the sense of rich cultural history and the unique geography of Georgia.

Istanbul tower

The different architectural styles used in Narikala Fortress are exemplified by two of the remaining towers. The best preserved of these is the Istanbul Tower, dating from the 16th century. It is a distinctive square shape, different from all the others, and earned its name from when it was used as a jail during the Turkish occupation. The Shakhtakhti Tower, over on the western side, was used as an observatory during the Arabian rule of the 7th to 9th centuries.

Mongolian influence in Georgia

It was the Mongols, however, who seem to have left the biggest mark on this impressive building, for it was they who gave it the name which is still in use today. Narikala is from the Mongolian ‘Narin Qala‘, meaning ‘Little Fort’.

Once you see just how much it dominates the city, you can’t help thinking that they were being ironic.

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