Navtlugi (Ashkenazi) Jewish Cemetery
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 These two cemeteries are no longer active but are still maintained by the community, who now bury their loved ones at the Dampalo cemetery, in the district of Varketili.
The Ashkenazi Jewish Cemetery in Navtlughi is still in use: the most recent burial is dated 2020. The cemetery was likely established in the first half of the 19th century, when Ashkenazi Jews first settled in Tbilisi. However, the oldest tombstone visible in the cemetery is dated 1892. Many notable individuals from the Jewish Diaspora are buried in the Ashkenazi cemetery, including Slava Shneerova (d. 1945) – the grandmother of the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Moreover, an inscription dedicated to the Philanthropist Abram Torner (in Russian) is written on the memorial plaque of the administrative building of the Navtlughi cemetery – “This building and the fence of the cemetery was constructed in 1897 with the money bequeathed by Abram Torner. May you rest in peace kind donor.”
In the 1930’s, many memorial sites in Tbilisi disappeared as a result of Soviet urban planning. Cemeteries were built over with parks or were totally destroyed, which led to the erasure of Tbilisi’s multiethnic past. In the 1960’s, the Navtlughi and Ortachala Jewish cemeteries survived because of their location and, according to one explanation, because Soviet authorities spared the cemeteries as the local Jews labelled the cemetery as “Jewish-Russian” at the entrance. The Navtlugi Cemetery is a unique memorial – “Jewish Garden.” The extraordinary gravestones in the modernist style from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are exceptionally distinctive. Moreover, the influence of European culture is noted in the architecture of Tbilisi, including the cemetery. The “Art Nouveau” movement, for instance, is reflected in the Navtlughi cemetery’s architecture.
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).