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The Old Soldier

Updated: Jan 23, 2020

"Fighting Men Are The City's Fortress"

- Alcaeus (Greek Poet, 621-560 BC)

The ancient fortress that hangs over the city of Tbilisi known now as Narikala has been sitting on the top of a rocky hill since the 4th century AD, in one way shape or form. Despite looking a little more rough compared to it's former Kingdom of Katrli or Persian Empire glory, the ruins have a way of shedding a light into a little know corner of Caucasian history.

First, I suppose we need a little background on the location. What even is this place?

The fortress that we see now was originally built in the 5th Century. Some sources cite the Persians with its construction due to the continuous wars and shifting territory lines during this period. However, other sources also mention the Georgian king Vakhtang (Gorgasali as he is sometimes referred to by Persian sources) being the founder, as he was also the founder and promoter of Tbilisi as a capital city due to the hot springs by the river, still used today. Now, the valley that Tbilisi is in used to be heavily wooded, so it's reasonable to think as most were at this time, that the fortress mentioned in the annals was for the most part made from wooden palisades and only some limited use of stone in towers and strong points. It wasn't until the 7th or 8th centuries that the Arab Umayyads built the more permanent walls and battlements. Since then, it has changed hands more times than can really be counted, but finding definitive history is the real trick.

Now back to the present. At first approach, the fortress still has the looming and dominant facade it must have had centuries ago. The outer walls and gatehouse of the fort have clearly been rebuild, destroyed and assaulted, and then rebuilt as there are patches of different stonework in areas. The gatehouse itself, obviously the scene of some heave siege fighting, has it's scars, and as you walk in and up a steep cobblestone ramp to the courtyard it's clear any attempt to make it into the fort in an attack would cost the aggressor dearly. There sits a modern reconstruction of the Church of Saint Nicholas, burned sometime in the 13th century, in the lower part of the citadel and is still a functioning holy site. Following the walls around the church, there remains a section of battlements in fairly good condition, and give a great insight into a small sliver of the life of a garrison soldier (or foreign mercenary in some likelihood) in the fortress. The walkways and staircases are very narrow, most likely not for heavily armored troops to move quickly but rather light archers and other ranged infantrymen. Looking out over the valley, it doesn't take a tactician to see the benefits of your position. Even without modern equipment it would allow your force to see any incoming threat, and when it arrives, rain fire on the target with arrows, rocks, musket balls, or whatever the period armament had to offer the uninvited guests.

Moving farther up the citadel, the lack of preservation becomes even more apparent. So much of the structures are so far from any state of repair, that it brings any history enthusiast to tears. However, seeing the stonework's almost untouched state brings a different feeling out. Much of the fortress is just simply untouched, and this on it's own is touching in a different way. It's also clear that it's been constructed and reconstructed so many times. The difference in stone, strange angles, and turns in the walls and structures give a clear picture of its adjustments made "on-the-fly". Standing at the highest point, Tbilisi still lays underneath it in a protective posture, thought the fort is long retired from service. A gold painted cross sits at it's point, and resting under it and seeing the valley below will, and most likely did in the past for the soldiers there, give a sense of strange relaxation and safety. The fort, retired and a crumbled shell of it's former glory, still provides.

Walking away from the bastion on the hill, the sun's light waning in the late afternoon, it's not dissimilar to that of talking with an old veteran. While not what it used to be, it still has it's stories, it's remaining fortifications, and it's status as the height and center of the community. As much as I wish for the preservation, or increase in it's preserved status, I can also see the value of standing in a nearly untouched citadel, surrounded by pure history. As one soldier to another, I can only promise to make my pilgrimage to visit him on occasion, to share our experiences of the past and stare off into the future together.

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