Dampalo (Varketili, New Jewish Cemetery)
The “Dampalo” – Varketili (district) Jewish Cemetery in Tbilisi is located on the outskirts of the city. There are three Jewish cemeteries on the outskirts of Tbilisi. The first is a traditional cemetery reserved for the Ashkenazi community and is in the district of Navtlughi. Another Jewish cemetery is in the Ortachala district. These two cemeteries are no longer active. Today Tbilisi’s Jewish community buries its members in the industrial district of Varketili, in Dampalo, far from the city centre and its two functioning synagogues. The Dampalo cemetery is also called the “New” Jewish cemetery and was built in 1950. However, the oldest tombstone visible in the cemetery only dates to 1963. The gravestones in this cemetery are non-traditional, eclectic, and in different styles, with a lot of sculptures and less engraved text. As it is the sole functioning Jewish cemetery in Tbilisi, Jews buried there are from a mix of backgrounds including Georgian, Ashkenazi, and Mountain Jews. The cemetery was built in the neighbourhood of the Christian (Armenian) cemetery. The Dampalo Cemetery is now under construction and new places for burial plots have been cleared. The cemetery is maintained by the city and members of Tbilisi’s Jewish community. The cemetery is a not-for-profit, fraternal order Jewish cemetery.
Brief History of Georgian Jews
Jews are one of the oldest citizens of Tbilisi. The first Jews (likely) moved to the city from Mtskheta in the 5th-6th centuries, right after Tbilisi became the capital. Some other, older names of Tbilisi include “Uriatubani” and “Petkhaini,” which has the same meaning as the Hebrew term “Beth Haim” meaning the house of life—a Jewish term for a cemetery. This is confirmed by the historical sources and plans for Tbilisi up in 1782 by Chuykov and in 1785 by Pishkevich, in which the synagogue is mentioned.
In 1795, the army of the Persian Shah Agha Mohammad Khan completely raided Tbilisi and massacred a large number of the population. At that time, the synagogue in Tbilisi was burnt down as well the Abanotubani synagogue. It is unclear when exactly Jewish settlement developed in Tbilisi. The first reference to Jews living in Tbilisi is in “the History of Mayyafariqin and Amid” (1153) by Ibn al-Azraq al-Fariqi. Further information appears in “The Travels of Marco Polo” (1300) by Rustichello da Pisa and Marco Polo. In the late 9th century, Abu-Imran Musa al-Za’farani (later known as Abu-Imran al-Tiflisi) founded a Jewish Karaite sect called the Tiflis Sect (“Tiflisites”), which lasted for more than 300 years. Later, the names of Tbilisi Jews appear in written sources in the period of King David the Builder and disappear after the 13th century, later reappearing from the 19th century onward. By that same time, Ashkenazi Jews from the Russian Empire, and Iranian Jews (Lakhlukhs) migrated to Tbilisi.
According to historical documents, the Jewish population considerably increased in the 19th century – in 1843 only 105 Jews lived in Tbilisi, but, by 1903, 4,000 Jews lived in the city. By early in 1850, a Soldier synagogue was already in operation Tbilisi. At the beginning of the 20th century, five synagogues and a few prayer houses were also active in the city. In 1970, the Jewish community in Tbilisi numbered about 20,000 people. Currently however, there are only 2,500 in the city and there are only two active synagogues – The Great Synagogue (Akhaltsikhe) and Beit Rachel Synagogue (Ashkenazi). The domed synagogue now houses the David Baazov Museum of History of Jews of Georgia, while the Royal District Theater is in the former Soldier synagogue (Ashkenazi).