Despite evidence of settlement in the area stretching back to the 4th century BC, Georgians prefer the legend that King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli founded Tbilisi in the 5th century. The story runs that when the king was hunting, a pheasant fell into a hot sulphur spring and was conveniently cooked for dinner. Another version has it that a wounded deer fell into the hot sulphur spring and was miraculously healed. Either way, Tbilisi takes its name from the Georgian tbili (warm), and there seems little doubt that the magnificent hot springs, which still lure visitors today, attracted the king to the spot.
In fact Gorgasali won the town back from the Persians, who had invaded in 368, and moved his capital here from Mtskheta in the late 5th century. His son King Dachi completed its construction after his father’s death. But in 645 the Arabs captured Tbilisi and kept it as an emirate for four centuries.
In 1122 the Georgian King David the Builder (Davit Aghmashenebeli) took Tbilisi and made it capital of a united Georgia, building a palace near the Metekhi Church. Under David and his descendant Queen Tamar, Georgia enjoyed its medieval golden age and Tbilisi developed into a multiethnic city of 80, 000 people, known for its production of weapons, jewellery, leather and silk clothing. The golden age was ended with a vengeance by the arrival of the Mongols in 1235, followed in turn by the Black Death, then conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), who destroyed the city in 1386, and the Persians, who captured Tbilisi twice in the 1540s.
Tbilisi made some cultural progress under the Persians during the 17th and 18th centuries, and in 1762, as Persian control waned, the city became capital of a united eastern Georgia under King Erekle II. Erekle’s protector Russia, however, withdrew its troops to fight the Turks, allowing Agha Mohamed Khan to inflict Persia’s last and most devastating assault on Tbilisi in 1795. His army killed tens of thousands and burnt the city to the ground; few buildings today predate 1795 in any substantial form. Russia annexed Georgia in 1800 and proceeded to recreate Tbilisi in the imperial mould, laying out wide streets and squares such as Rustavelis gamziri and Tavisuplebis moedani, and building libraries, schools and theatres. By the late 19th century, Tbilisi had a population of 159, 000, the majority of them Russian or Armenian.
While the Soviet era saw huge growth and relative prosperity (the city’s population passed one million in the 1970s), Tbilisi became a centre of resistance to the late Soviet regime, culminating in troops killing 20 hunger strikers outside the government building on Rustaveli on 9 April 1989. Georgia’s parliament declared Georgian independence from the USSR in the same building exactly two years later. Rebellion against the government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia then erupted in fierce fighting on the city’s streets in December 1991, destroying several central landmark buildings.
The following years were dark ones. Although gun-toting gangsters ceased to rule the roost, the economy nosedived, and in 1993 Tbilisi had to find room for thousands of Georgian refugees fleeing from Abkhazia. While a few people got very rich in the 1990s, general living standards sank, corruption and crime were endemic, and frequent power cuts blacked out the city.
In the Rose Revolution of November 2003, protesting crowds again filled central Tbilisi and finally poured into the parliament building to drive out President Eduard Shevardnadze. Since then, corruption has been reduced, Tbilisi has enjoyed a new flood of foreign aid and investment, the city centre is being refurbished, and tourism is bouncing back. Though prosperity has yet to trickle down to many of the general populace, Tbilisi has more confidence, energy and optimism than for many a year.