Wandering among the tombstones and crypts of Tbilisi’s Kukia cemetery, Anna Muradova feels at ease. Many of her ancestors are buried here. She senses a connection between the graves and her Persian-Assyrian ethnic roots.
“I like it here,” says the 45-year-old linguist, as she strolls among marble statues, faded photographs and headless busts.
Muradova recently moved from her native Moscow to the Georgian capital, the hometown of her father’s family. Lingering to study the writing on Kukia’s tombstones, Muradova says that Tbilisi’s mosaic of cultures is helping her settle in.
Few places are better to study that mosaic’s past than in Kukia.
Kukia is reportedly Georgia’s oldest cemetery, with records of its first graves dating back roughly 300 years. It is also one of the few historical graveyards which survived the Soviet demolition-campaign that led to the disappearance of more centrally located cemeteries around town.
From the 1930s, Soviet officials radically redefined cities to reflect the USSR’s collectively minded outlook. Cemeteries, places of individual memories, became a target. At best, certain graveyards were replaced by parks; at worst, they were utterly destroyed.
Nonetheless, the languages and alphabets chiseled onto Kukia’s tombstones still testify to a kaleidoscope of confessions and nationalities – epitaphs in Armenian, Assyrian, French, Georgian, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian. An obelisk with a German inscription tells the story of those who died in the Caucasus during World War I.
Over the centuries, the graveyard has erased the differences between rich and poor, celebrities and common folk. Georgian Orthodox Christians revere the grave of one 20th-century woman, Anastasia Sazonova, for its alleged miracle-performing powers. Also buried here are Joseph Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterine Svanidze, and Dagny Juel, the iconic muse of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Elsewhere, shoemakers and doctors lie next to criminals, priests, teachers, actors and politicians.
Kukia sits on Mount Makhata, in an homonymous village which, today, falls several kilometers outside of Tbilisi’s center. In the 1930s, that distance proved its safeguard against Soviet decision-makers.
Many other cemeteries did not share its good fortune.
A Muslim Cemetery Lost in a Garden
The National Botanical Garden, known as the Royal Garden until the mid-19th century, used to house a Muslim cemetery where Persians, Arabs, Azerbaijanis and others were buried. In the early 1950s, the Soviets first blew up a nearby mosque, which sat outside the cemetery area; then, they proceeded to raze the often elaborately decorated headstones and memorials. Today, to reach what remains of the cemetery, visitors must buy a ticket for the Botanical Garden and walk up the hill toward the greenhouses.
On the cemetery’s former territory, a few east-facing tombstones lie near a pantheon with the graves of 11 figures notable in Azerbaijani culture. Constructed in the 1970s, the pantheon has since been twice renovated; most recently, in 2013.
Jujuna Avalishvili has been working in а rosarium next to the pantheon for over 50 years. She recounts how the gravestones of the parents of a Dagestani friend were among those destroyed when the Muslim cemetery was bulldozed in just a few days in the early 1950s. Avalishvili promised her friend, Manaba Magamedova, to look after two trees near the site.
“I told her not to worry, that I would take care of those two trees [over there] and they would preserve the memory of her parents,” she says.
The destruction of these Muslim gravestones added humiliation to the tragedy experienced by Magamedova’s family and thousands of others in the Caucasus under Soviet rule.
Originally from Kubachi, a village in Dagestan, to the north of Georgia, the Magamedovs were forced to move to Tbilisi in the 1930s during Stalin’s brutal campaign against so-called prosperous peasants. A few decades later, the Soviet authorities flattened such Muslim migrants’ places of memory in the Botanical Garden.
Since the 1970s, Muslims are no longer buried there. Instead, the local Muslim community mainly uses a cemetery in Mskhaldidi, a village on the outskirts of Tbilisi, and, to a lesser extent, one in Ferma, also outside the city limits.
A Church Built on Bones?
Khojivank, known as the Armenian cemetery, was once spread out on a vast plot of land on the left bank of Tbilisi’s Mktvari River, in the district of Avlabari, still home to a sizeable ethnic Armenian community. Over the course of the cemetery’s 300-year existence, it acquired some 90,000 graves, Levon Chidilyan, director of the cultural department of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia, told Aliq.ge.
The graveyard and its church, St. Astvatsatsin, were not destroyed in one go. It took years to erase their existence.
Today, “[it]’s mainly the older generation who remembers” the cemetery, laments anthropologist Alisa Datunashvili. Those memories, though, are steadily fading.
The first hit came in the 1930s when the then-Soviet government destroyed first the 17th-century St. Astvatsatsin Church, then bulldozed a large chunk of the graveyard to develop Friendship Park. By the 1990s, little remained of this esplanade.
The Armenian community managed to look after what remained of the gravestones in a surviving pantheon to Armenian writers and other prominent figures that was erected on the site of Khojivank cemetery in 1961.
Yet still another controversy was to come. In 1989, the Georgian Orthodox Church announced plans to build a cathedral on territory that local ethnic Armenians claimed once made up part of Khojivank. For many in this community, the construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, completed in 2004, was an insult to the memory of the deceased.
The Georgian Orthodox Church could not be reached for comment.
Few traces of the ordinary people once buried in Khojivank still exist. Instead, the pantheon’s monuments to famous intellectuals and artists like the 20th-century painter Gayane Khachatryan or 19th-century writer Raffi (Hakob Melik Hakobian) are all that remain.
From the Center to the Periphery
After the destruction of Khojivank, Tbilisi’s Armenians started burying their loved ones at the poly-confessional cemetery of Saints Peter and Paul in the same district of Avlabari; almost in an attempt to maintain roots in the area even after death.
Tbilisi’s Muslim community, on the other hand, chose to move their cemeteries from the center of the city to the periphery.
An example of how the authorities wanted to push cemeteries away from the city center is Vera Park. Situated in the heart of the capital, the park used to be a Christian cemetery housing both Armenian and Georgian graves. Its destruction in the 1930s was a result of the city’s expansion; a reflection of how the Soviet system valued the collective over the personal. The individual memories represented by this cemetery were simply pushed out of town.
Location and overcrowding helped spare Jewish cemeteries in Tbilisi’s outlying districts of Ortachala and Navtlugi from closure in the 1960s.
Misha, a longtime worker at Navtlugi, located several kilometers to the east of the city center, claims that the graveyard was also spared because the local Jewish community placed a sign at the entrance which described the cemetery as “Russian-Jewish” instead of only “Jewish.” The story could not be independently confirmed. Many in Soviet times believed, though, that greater favor was paid to ethnic Russians.
Today, Tbilisi Jews bury their relatives at the Dampalo Cemetery, quite far from the city center and the city’s two functioning synagogues. The community, though, still honors the memory of those buried at Navtlugi and Ortachala.