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Georgia: Soaking Up the Dying Tradition of Massage in the Tbilisi Baths

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The statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali overlooks the bath district (l). Masseur Emzar Gassimov works at the bathhouse Sulfur.

It might not be Tbilisi’s oldest legitimate profession, but, arguably, it is its most idiosyncratic. And there are signs it may be dying out, for few people are interested in becoming masseurs in Abanotubani, Tbilisi’s legendary bathhouse district.

“There is a different mentality today. They seem to be ashamed of the body,” masseur Roma Nazarian, who was taught to massage by his grandfather 25 years ago, said of modern-day bathers. “They just soak and leave.”

It wasn’t always so.

With its dome-shaped bathhouse roofs and the tiled facade of the Orbeliani baths, no neighborhood is more representative of the Georgian capital than Abanotubani, where legend has it that Tbilisi was born. In the 5th century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali found his hunting falcon being poached in the same sulfuric waters that feed today’s bathhouses. Dazzled by the waters, the king ordered his capital moved to the spot, which he named Tbilisi, based on the Georgian word “tbili,” or “warm.”

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Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.

Georgia: Soaking Up the Dying Tradition of Massage in the Tbilisi Baths

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