Akhaltsikhe Jewish Cemetery
Akhaltsikhe (literally “New Fortress”) is a small city in Georgia’s south-western region of Samtskhe–Javakheti. The region surrounding Akhaltsikhe is rich in archaeological and medieval Georgian monuments. The city was first mentioned in the chronicles of the 12th century. The city suffered numerous invasions by the Mongols, Iranians, and Turks. In 1576, the Ottomans conquered the city and made it the residence of a pasha. From 1628 the city was 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, following the 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 multiethnic area in southern Georgia.
The Jews of Akhaltsikhe were first mentioned in 1745 by Georgian historian and geographer King Bakhushti Bagrationi (1695/6-1784). By that time, Jews had settled in a special district to the west of the Rabati Fortress. In 1740, the first synagogue was built in the Jewish district of Akhaltsikhe, and the second in 1863. Jews from other parts of Georgia such as Abastumani, Akhaldaba, and Dviri, settled in Akhaltsikhe during the 19th century, after the Russo-Turkish War. Most Jews were active merchants and were engaged in international trade with Persia, Turkey, and Russia. In 1830, only 117 Jewish families lived in the city. However, by the end of the 19th century, Akhaltsikhe Jews built a great synagogue in Tbilisi known today as the Akhaltsikhe Synagogue. In 1897 there were 1,738 Jews in the city, and by 1915, there were 3,627 according to population records. In Tbilisi, Akhaltsikhe’s Jews also owned 17 markets, opened Jewish collective farms, built Jewish kindergarten, school, and library as well as founded a Jewish Committee for poor peasants. In the 1970’s, the Jewish community in Akhaltsikhe sharply decreased. Today, only one Jewish family can be found in the town – Simon Levishvili, who still takes care of the synagogue and Jewish cemetery.
The still active Great Synagogue in Akhaltsikhe was built in 1863. The Synagogue is located at 96 Guramishvili Street. This Georgian synagogue was extensively renovated in 2012 and now features a beautiful interior of painted wood. The building is in the neo-classical style and is made of stone. The building, which is in the Jewish quarter, is still used today as a synagogue and is of national heritage. While it is still active, the synagogue lacks regular attendance to form a minyan. The second synagogue of Akhaltsikhe is located about twenty metres down the street from the first synagogue. Built in 1905, this synagogue is also in the neo-classical style and is made of stone. The sanctuary was closed in 1952. Since then, the building has been used for various purposes including film screenings, a library, a House of Culture, a billiard room, and even as a gym in the early 1970’s. The building is currently not in use and is abandoned.
Akhaltsikhe has very rich Jewish history and culture. The first Jewish painter in Georgia, Shalom Koboshvili (1876-1941) was from Akhaltsikhe. As a child, his parents forbade him from painting. In 1937, at only the age of 61 did he pursue his dream and began to paint while working as a guard at the Jewish Historic-ethnographic Museum of Georgia. His drawings reflect his memory of his every-day life in Akhaltsikhe. He only produced works for three years until he passed away, but even during such a short period of time, he managed to create a documentary-narrative chronicle of Georgian Jewish life and culture, including original ethnography, customs and habits, daily life, rituals, traditions, and religious holidays.
The Akhaltsikhe Jewish Cemetery is well-preserved even though there are practically no Jews left in the town and is located on a hill overlooking the ancient Jewish quarter. The cemetery itself is surrounded by a high stone fence and is under protection. Some graves in the Akhaltsikhe cemetery date back to the 17th century. In 1863, Chorni described that the epitaphs date back to 1810 and the synagogue to 1741. The earliest legible tombstone in the cemetery is dated 1854, however Nisan Babalikashvili (in 1971) stated that the tombstones date even earlier to either 1756 or 1765. The most recent gravestone is dated 2018. Some inscriptions are in Ladino which may confirm that at least some of the Jews of the city came from the Ottoman Empire and originally from the Iberian Peninsula (consistent with the proximity of Turkey, only a few kilometres away).