Akhalkalaki Jewish Cemetery/Jewish Section within Municipal Cemetery
The Jewish cemetery of Akhalkalaki is well-preserved even though there are practically no Jews left in the town. It is located on a hill overlooking the ancient Jewish quarter. The cemetery itself is surrounded by a high stone fence and is under protection. There are tombs in Akhaltsikhe cemetery that date back to the 17th century. Chorni has described (in 1863) epitaphs dated by 1810, and a synagogue dating back to 1741. The earliest readable date in the cemetery is 1854; however Nisan Babalikashvili (in 1971) described epitaphs dated 1756 and 1765. The latest gravestone is dated 2018.
The inscriptions in Ladino may confirm that at least some of the Jews of the city had arrived from the Ottoman Empire and originally came from the Iberian Peninsula, which seems consistent with the proximity of Turkey, only a few kilometres away.
Akhaltsikhe (literally “New Fortress”) is a small city in Georgia’s south-western region of Samtskhe–Javakheti. The vicinity of Akhaltsikhe is rich in other archaeological and medieval Georgian monuments. The city is first mentioned in the chronicles of the 12th century. The city suffered numerous invasions by Mongols, Iranians, and Turks. In 1576, the Ottomans took it and made it the residence of pasha. From 1628 the city became the centre of the Akhalzik Eyalet of the Ottoman Empire. In 1828, during the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Russian troops captured the city and, as a consequence of 1829 Treaty of Adrianople (Edirne), it was ceded to the Russian Empire as part of the first Kutaisi and then Tiflis Governorates. Akhaltsikhe is a multinational area in southern Georgia.
In 1745, Georgian historian and geographer King Bakhushti Bagrationi (1695/6-1784) first mentioned Jews of Akhaltsikhe. By that time, Jews settled in a special district to the west of Rabati Fortress. As it is known, in 1740,the first synagogue was built in the Jewish district of Akhaltsikhe, and the second one in 1860. Jews from other parts of Georgia–Abastumani, Akhaldaba and Dviri–settled in Akhaltsikhe during the 19th century, after the Russian-Turkish war. Most Jews were active as merchants and were engaged in international trade with Persia, Turkey, and Russia. According to the newspapers, in 1830 only 117 Jewish families lived in Akhaltsikhe; in 1860 there were 1,364 Jews; in 1897 there were 1,738 Jews by the population inventory; in 1915, the Jewish population was 3,627.
In the end of the 19th century, Akhaltsikhe Jews built a great synagogue in Tbilisi today knows as Akhaltsikhe Synagogue. In Tbilisi, they also owned 17 markets, opened a Jewish collective farm, built a Jewish kindergarten, school, and library, as well as a Jewish Committee for poor peasants. The Jewish population during the 1970s in Akhaltsikhe sharply decreased. Now only one Jewish family can be found in the town – Simon Levishvili, the one who is taking care of the synagogue and Jewish cemetery.
According to the newspaper in 1869 there was two Synagogues in Akhaltsikhe. The active Great Synagogue in Akhaltsikhe was built in 1860, according to archive materials. The Synagogue is located at 96 Guramishvili Street. This Georgian rite synagogue was extensively renovated in 2012 and now features a beautiful interior of painted wood. The building is constructed in a neo-classical style and is made of stone. Today the building is used as a synagogue, which is part of the Jewish quarter and has national importance. The great synagogue is active, though praying is not attended enough for the minyan. At the same street, about twenty meters below, the second synagogue of Akhaltsikhe can be found. Built in 1905, this building is likewise made in neo-classical style and is made of stone. The shrine was closed in 1952. In the past years, film screenings were held there, years ago there was a library, a house of culture, a billiard room, and even was used as a gym from the early 1970s. Now the building is not in use and is abandoned.
Akhaltsikhe had very diverse and interesting Jewish history and culture. The first Jewish painter in Georgia, Shalom Koboshvili (1876-1941) was also from Akhaltsikhe. Owing to his magnificent biography, he deserves special attention. In his childhood, according to the Jewish tradition, his parents forbade him to paint. Only at the age of 61, in 1937, his dream came true and he started to paint when he began working as a guard at the Jewish Historic-ethnographic museum of Georgia. The drawings reflect his memory of the everyday life he used to live in Akhaltsikhe. His creative activity lasted only for three years before he passed away, but even during such a short period of time, he managed to create the documentary-narrative chronicle of the magnificent tradition of Jewish life in Georgia, with its original ethnography, customs and habits, daily life, rituals, traditions, and religious holidays.