The Cultural Spotter Banner

The Dmanisi Archaeological Site

June 30, 2015
Country/Region:  Georgia
Category:  Culture

This place is not very popular among travelers, but it occupies an essential place in my own must-see list. Before I visited it for the first time I heard mostly about the paleontological museum here, but I never expected that all that Bronze Age entombments had been found in a couple meters under the fundaments of Medieval city (such a surprise it could be for its inhabitants), and had seen no photos of all the of lovely details like the surrealistic air bridge between church and a belfry, cute sheep-shaped tombstones in high grass. And no photos ever could depict the smell of thyme. This place has a lot of surprises and could be interesting not only for people whose passion is history and paleontology.

The Ruins of the Dmanisi Castle
The Ruins of the Dmanisi Castle

Most of 90 kilometers of the road from Tbilisi to Dmanisi are surrounded by pretty boring landscapes, but the last kilometers of our way gifted us picturesque rocky mountains, river in canyon, giant mossy stones and flowered lawns. A driver we hitchhiked was telling stories about nearby caves, where some mythological characters lived, and proposed to pick us up there; mountains on the both sides of the road were growing up, and reality, mythology and history were as close to each other as never before.

The medieval town of Dmanisi is situated on the basaltic plateau of triangular shape between the rivers Mashavera and Pinezauri surrounded by canyonlike gorges in basaltic lava. In the Middle Ages there was a confluence of the major trading routes. The oldest structure on the territory of the town is the orthodox Sioni church built in 6th century, and the first time the city was mentioned at 9th century as an Arab possession. Then for about a half-century it was possessed by Seljuk Turks, and finally liberated by the Georgian kings David the Builder and Demetrios I in 1025. Each of these periods have left its architecture here.

The site includes an inner castle, secular buildings, shrines and a secret tunnel. Also on this site you can see ruins and fundaments of dwellings, mosque with minaret, madrasa, bathhouses, oil house, pottery, and other workshops, wine cellars, paved roads, etc. It was a big fun for us to explore numerous semi-underground structures with holes in vaults and reservoirs for collecting rainwater with well-preserved elements of pipes and bathes.

The walls and vaults of Dmanisi Sioni three-aisled basilica, constructed from rough stones, remember a lot of rebuilds. Time has made its 13th century frescoes pale, and faces on them are almost indiscernible. In 13th century the church also was updated by narthex, which looks completely atypically for Georgian architecture, but is very similar to Armenian gavits – there is less the 15 km to the border of Armenia. And the khachkar (carved, memorial stele bearing a cross) on its frontone completes the picture. The narthex with its ornaments and manuscripts and with tombstones on the floor looks really gorgeous.

Richly inscribed tombstones, ram-shaped tombstones of late Middle Ages, domed Muslim burial structures, entombments of Bronze Age and Paleolithic; giant jar-shape Bronze Age entombments and Georgian kvevri – jars for storing wine – the concentration of artifacts of different ages is breathtaking. This feeling of the crossroad of cultures – that’s what inspires me the most in my traveling around Georgia, and that’s why I like this place so much.

The excavations of the sediments exposed by cellars of the medieval city are going on from 1936, and for today archaeologists have found 6 hominin fossils dated to ca. 1.7 million years, also numerous stone tools, and fossils of extinct animals of the same geological age. This set of remains is completely remarkable for the same time and place and that’s the earliest known hominin remains outside of Africa.

Dmanisi on the Map
Dmanisi on the Map

The museum exhibits ceramics, glasswork, metalwork, coins discovered during the excavations, copies of the fossil skulls and natural-height figures of humans ancestors which are especially loved by children. The stuff of the museum speaks English quite well and very friendly tells everything they know to visitors.

The area around the medieval town seems to continue being the crossroad of cultures – there are numerous Azerbaijanian and Armenian settlements here and plenty of houses with typical Russian shutters and wood carvings (molocans from all the Russian empire were used to be deported to this area). Before the WWII many Germans also lived here and provided their architecture (fachwerk houses and Lutheran church for example), urban planning and beer.

...On the way home I ask a policeman we hitchhiked if it is possible to buy homemade wine anywhere in this area. In five minutes he leaves the car, brings a bottle, and refuses our tries to pay for it. Well, it could be a good depiction of traveling around Georgia in general.

About the Author

Alyona Kustovska

Alyona Kustovska

Alyona is an architect from Ukraine who is currently exploring Georgia. Her main interests are the history of architecture, ethnography, backpaking travelling, hiking and climbing. She often hitchhikes alone or with friends. Strongly interested in discovering interconnections between architecture - especially folk architecture- and people's mind and way of life.

The Mysterious Tbilisi Courtyards