Armenians in Georgia
Armenians in Georgia


by Julia Hakobyan

The King of Khinkali

If you ask Georgians where you can have the best khinkali in Tbilisi many will advise you to visit Jilik’s restaurant. Though khinkali is a traditional Georgian meal (minced meat boiled in small portions wrapped in dough) it is an Armenian, Martin Manasian, who is well known in the capital as a khinkali expert.

Jilik is a nickname, inherited by Martin from his father along with the restaurant. The father got the nickname (which means streak) for his ability to run a restaurant business successfully.

Manasian, 44, says the secret of the family’s reputation is painstaking work, well-qualified cooks and good meat.

“Each morning at 7 o’clock I go to the market and buy meat. When you run a restaurant you have to follow the first rule—never be cheap about buying meat,” Manasian says.

The restaurant’s interior may look plain, but here you can meet many Georgian officials and tourists. Manasian says that official delegations from Armenia, including Prime Minister Andranik Margarian are also fans of his khinkali.

The restaurant is crowded at any time. Besides the Georgian traditional meal, this is the only place in Tbilisi where one can have traditional Armenian kyufta. Manasian says that hard-up students also often visit the place and his staff is always taking care of them.

“This is a unique restaurant in Tbilisi because officials, families, rich and middle-class people all come here. Everyone feels comfortable here,” he says.

Manasian says that he and his family have never experienced problems related to his Armenian nationality here, although he believes that Georgians’ attitude towards national minorities has become harsher than it was.

“I can not say that I am being oppressed in Tbilisi. I pay my taxes regularly, abide by the law and try to make an honest business,” he says. “I think relations between Georgians and non-Georgians will be more settled soon. Georgia, like Armenia, faced so many problems in the last decade that people became aggressive towards each other.”

Manasian says that the restaurant business in Yerevan is more developed than in Georgia. He says his friends in Armenia have often invited him to open a restaurant in Yerevan.

But he wants to keep the family business in Tbilisi and the only partners he wants are his two sons, who are helping him now. And Manasian says he is cherishing the day when he will be able to come to the restaurant run by his sons, as a guest.

Music of the Streets

The barrel organ has been a valuable member of the Armenian Kitesov family in Tbilisi for more than 100 years.

The story reaches back to 1886 when merchants from the Black Sea port of Odessa, in Ukraine, brought the barrel organ to Georgia. The sounds made by the instrument so touched Hovanes Kitesov that he traveled to Odessa to find the craftsmen who could teach him how to make one.

Kitesov met the owner of the organ factory in Odessa, a Czech man, who shared the secrets of its manufacture on one condition: that Kitesov place a small plate on the first organ he made engraved with the words “Balkovskaya 191, Odessa”, the address of the factory. Kitesov, already a good craftsman in mahogany, returned to Tbilisi and began to make barrel organs, at first for friends and then for sale.

Hovanes’ son Hakob continued the father’s work and then his son Vano joined what had become by now a family tradition.

“In gratitude to the Czech, my grandfather put that sign on all the street organs he ever made,” says Vano Kitesov. “Then my father and I continued that tradition and we too write the sign on each instrument.”

Wandering troubadours first brought the barrel organ to prominence on the streets of Europe in the 18th Century. It later gained a stereotypical image with flat-capped men with small monkeys sitting on the organ to entertain passers-by.

“I know that in Europe many call it the monkey organ. But here in Tbilisi the instrument has the highest status,” says Vano.

The barrel organ gained popularity in Georgia at feasts and weddings, when the toasts are proposed and songs ring out alongside the instrument.

“This instrument has a soul. If you treat it with love it will gift you with charming tunes,” says Vano.

Hakob, 84 and Vano, 47 together have made over 150 barrel organs. Each one can take up to two years to complete and sell for around $2,500.

The organs have brought fame to the Kitesov family, traveling to many countries and winning medals and diplomas at international music festivals. In 1999, the family was awarded a gold medal by Tbilisi City Council in recognition of its contribution to music. The Kitesovs say that they have sold every organ they have made and many have ended up with collectors of musical instruments.

Today the family has the raw materials available only to make a few more instruments.

Hakob explains: “We use several rare kinds of wood in the manufacture, which cannot be found today in Georgia. Besides, we do not have the opportunity now to send organs to international festivals and this has made production very difficult.”

Father and son say that one day they know they will have to stop manufacturing organs. But they are sure too that their name will be remembered in Tbilisi for their work.

“Our name is associated in Tbilisi with the barrel organ, music and toasts. If you ask people in Tbilisi if they know the Kitesov family they will reply ‘the family of barrel-organ makers?’ It is something that makes us very happy,” say Kitesov father and son.

The Puppet Master

When the spectators take their seats and the light is turned off, an African woman appears on the stage and begins to dance to jazz tunes performed on the duduk by three big-bellied Armenians. Then popular characters from Armenian fairy tales emerge onto the scene and all start to dance to the delight and loud applause of the audience.

Welcome to Davtians’ puppet show

The home of this Armenian family in Havlabar, Tbilisi, is a beloved place for many children, especially as they don’t need any tickets. For many years, one of the rooms has been used as a theater and the puppet show performs even if there is only one spectator.

The theater grew from an idea by the head of the family Garik Davtian, after he made a puppet for his daughter Ann. He started performing for her, made more puppets, and then more still.

Whenever Garik, a sculptor, had spare time he put on performances for his friends and neighbors’ children. Then adults started to join the audience and Davtian’s puppet show grew in popularity.

When Garik died two years ago, his wife Zhanna, daughter Ann and son Goga continued the show.

“This theater is not a commercial show,” says Zhanna. “Garik was making puppets just to make children happy. We cannot make more puppets, because Garik made them with a very complicated mechanism, but we can continue to perform.”

Davtian’s puppets can smile, laugh and cry and all parts of their bodies are moveable. The seats in the theater are made from old chests, and the room is decorated with collages and sculptures made by Garik. Ann works for an international office in Tbilisi and Goga is a website designer. But whenever they know they will have visitors they try their best to be home on time for the show.

Originally published in the November 2004 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.