Visited in October 2016
Set in the small town of Akhaltsikhe in the southwestern region of Georgia called Samtskhe-Javakheti, Rabati Fortress is a recently restored historical castle and museum. The road from Tbilisi to Vardzia goes through Akhaltsikhe, so the castle is very easy to visit and a really worthwhile stop, as it’s a great showcase of centuries of Georgian history and culture conveniently located in one site.
The drive from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe takes roughly two hours and the highway passes by Mtskheta, Stalin’s hometown of Gori, and the famous resort town of Borjomi among others, so you can plan your itinerary to take in all those sights along the way or come here directly. The road is very scenic in places, especially in the fall – (we travelled it in October).
The name “Akhaltsikhe” literally translates as “new castle” from Georgian into English and our guide joked that we can now tell people we’ve been to Newcastle. New is relative in a place like Georgia, as the first castle here was built in the 12th century by the Djakeli princes and became their residence for the next 300 years. the fortress was destroyed by Tamerlane’s troops in the 14th century and later by the Mongols. However, the city’s strategic importance and the proximity of trade routes resulted in fast rebuilding and recovery.
In the 16th century, Akhalstikhe was finally conquered by the Ottoman empire. To preserve their position of power the Djakelis adopted Islam and ruled the area as pashas, until the 1828 when the area was finally seized by joint Georgian and Russian forces during the Russian-Turkish war, and remained a part of the Russian Empire and then the USSR, until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Having lost its strategic importance the castle fell into neglect and disrepair, until 2011, when an ambition restoration project to rebuild it was started by the Saakashvili government and completed in August 2012. The castle’s grand opening ceremony included a concert by Charles Aznavour, whose father was born in the city. Critics of the restoration often refer to the fortress as a theme park, pointing out that the buildings behind the castle walls have very little to do with the fortress’ original architecture. While the guides at the castle’s museum pretty much admit this is true, personally I found the castle very enjoyable and believe the place is absolutely worth a visit.
So what’s there? The fortress is actually divided into two parts – the lower part includes shops, restaurants, hotel, and a tourist information agency/ticket counter, where you can buy tickets for the so-called historical section of the fortress. Do climb at least one of the watchtowers in the lower part of the fortress, as it offers some great photo opportunities of both the town and the fortress.
The historical part of the castle is best visited with a local guide, available for hire at the tourist office, when you buy your ticket. Our guide took us to the only original part of the castle – one of the gates, and then told us some of this history of the place. Without her, this would have just been a walk among some modern buildings that were made to appear medieval.
What makes the castle interesting is its mix of architectural styles, borrowing heavily from the original, Ottoman and Russian epochs. Here you can see an Orthodox Church, a mosque (recently restored with a gleaming gold dome, but not used for services) and medresse, the Djaveli citadel and a modern museum of history, displaying artefacts from all eras of the area’s history, and well worth visiting. Fountains, gazebos, pavilions and ponds also brighten up the castle grounds.
Once the tour ends, it is definitely a good idea to climb the castle’s citadel. There’s not a lot to see inside the keep, but the view from the roof are spectacular.
Even with the guided tour, you can easily see the castle in a couple of hours, so don’t plan to spend too much time here, however depending on your itinerary, this may be a good place to spend the night. Friends of mine had stayed overnight in the castle’s Hotel Rabath, and were very impressed by the rooms and the spa facilities. We didn’t have the time and moved on to Vardzia the same day.