Goodbye to Georgia, for now. My half-informed curiosity has been transformed to eyes-wide-open admiration in the short time I have been here. In particular, it is remarkable to the point of heroic that Georgia is a genuine democracy, with change of power between opposing elites and civil society participation that extends beyond periodic elections. This is in contrast to all of Georgia’s neighbours, for each of Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey practice the sham democracy of “strong leader” politics. It sticks in my craw that plucky little Georgia is left almost alone to stand up to bully-boy Russia, and that Russia’s military occupation of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali is allowed to stand. That is a dolorous wound, and a just world would want to see it healed to make Georgia whole.
A statue of Mother Georgia stands over Tbilisi with a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. I hope that the ancient and deep-seated spirit of hospitality to strangers and friends, and vengeance to enemies, will see Georgia flourish in the years ahead.
Striking a pose as a would-be sommelier, here I am sampling some rosé in a small winery in mountainous Adjara, to the east of Batumi in Georgia. Wine expert that I am (!), I judged it to be very good.
While I was here, the Minister of Defence of Georgia happened to be visiting and having lunch. One of his aides noticed me, and brought out a carafe of special Georgian red wine to taste. It was sweet, full-bodied, and a delight. The Minister, Irakli Alasania, made a point of meeting me later, shook my hand, and said something polite and nice about Canada.
The Georgians are the most hospitable people to strangers I have ever met. Later, while wandering around a trout farm near the Makhuntseti waterfall, seen in this photograph, a villager offered some fruit off his tree to eat. He even lifted up his small grandson to pull down some of the fruit — tkemali, a local variety of sour plum used normally to create a savoury sauce — from higher branches. This is typical of the kind gestures that have been spontaneously offered, in my travels in Georgia.
In my travels, I have been fortunate to see and touch the evidence on the ground of the stupendous dominance of the Roman Empire over a vast area, for a long period of time. I have stood on a rainy hilltop in the Lake District of England, in the middle of Hardknott Fort, in what was for the Romans their far north-west province of Britannia. Today I stood in the sub-tropical heat beside the Black Sea in Georgia, in the middle of Apsaros Fortress, in what was for the Romans their easternmost province of Colchis. The evidence of archæology, including coins, shows that it was entirely possible for a Roman legionnaire to be reassigned between these two far-flung corners of empire. He would march entirely on Roman roads, sail on Roman ships, and be subject to the same laws, throughout such a journey. The trans-national unity of his citizenship was existential for a Roman legionnaire. My own status as a citizen-of-the-world today is merely a hopeful and cultural flight of fancy. The hard reality of passports and restrictive borders constrains me to nationalistic ideas of citizenship, alas.
Apsaros Fortress survives because it was taken over as a Byzantine fortress, and later as an Ottoman fortress. Over that time, the name “Gonio” came to be used for this place on the Black Sea at the mouth of the Chorokhi River, a scant 4 km north of the Turkish border in Georgia. The photograph shows the remains of a bath house in the foreground, while in the background an archæological dig is underway where barracks were usually located. Written accounts show that four or five cohorts lived within these walls normally, but it could easily support twice that number (a full legion of as many as 6,000 men).
Apsaros never fell to an enemy, but the Romans quietly withdrew in the 5th century A.D., as they did from all of their remotest empire. There was hot and cold running water for a whole community here — I saw the surprisingly intact clay pipes to the bath house! That is a mark of civilization that would not return for 15 centuries to Georgia, or to Britain, or to anywhere else where the Roman Empire once held sway.
Moving a piano always makes me think of the classic Laurel and Hardy short film,”The Music Box,” of 1932. The potential for comedy is enormous. This scene on a narrow back street of Batumi did not disappoint. While the baby upright piano was poised precariously between the pavement and the first storey window, as you see, two taxi-cabs came from opposite directions and were blocked from further progress. Loud arguments ensued and I didn’t need to understand any Georgian to know what was going on.
The cabbies yelled at the piano movers to stop blocking the road. Then, they started to wave and gesture and offer advice about how to move the piano. Then they pitched in to help, grabbing long boards from an adjacent construction site. With so much expert advice and help, what could possibly go wrong, eh?
No harm came to the piano, and the whole neighbourhood got some free entertainment out this piece of street theatre.
Batumi Botanical Garden sprawls over 111 hectares at Mtsvane Kontskhi (Green Cape), just to the north of Batumi, Georgia. The densely wooded hills against the Black Sea create a sub-tropical micro-climate that is ideal for a phytogeographical botanic garden in the tradition of Kew Gardens in London or the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Batumi Botanical Garden was started by Andrey Krasnov (1862-1914) and was opened a mere two years before his death. His grave and memorial is in the garden he created and loved.
The Garden allows one to take a tour of the world’s flora, especially trees, without leaving Georgia. As fun for me, though, was going to and coming from the Garden. Public transportation has broken down in cities in much of the former Soviet Union, and people get around in privately-run mini-buses called marshrutki. I paid 60 tetri (0.60 lari, about 38 cents Canadian) to ride from a busy city square in Batumi to the entrance to the Garden. It was a small glimpse of real life, beyond the tourist veneer.
Hard by the Black Sea, the Ilia Chavchavadze State Drama Theatre in Batumi, Georgia is presided over by a statue of Poseidon, in the forecourt. The gold gilt of the statue and in the pediment of the theatre glistens in the sunlight. The God of the Sea is an appropriate guardian for a landmark in any ancient seaside settlement, and especially appropriate for this place. Batumi is on the site of an 8th-7th century B.C. Greek colony, probably the one identified as Bathys.
This region of Georgia is known today as Adjara. In antiquity, the Greeks knew it as Colchis, and Colchis was the location of the Golden Fleece and the ultimate destination in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Poseidon was the father of a winged ram with a fleece made out of gold, and after flying over the Euxine (the Black Sea), the ram was sacrificed here on the eastern shore, in what is now Georgia. With the divine wool now guarded by a dragon, the scene was set for the story of an adventurous quest that has been told and re-told for thousands of years.
Installed at the harbour entrance to Batumi is a kinetic sculpture known locally as Ali and Nino. Properly called Statue of Love, and created by the artist Tamar Kvesitadze, it consists of two metal figures, a man and a woman, who move together, merge, and then move apart over a 10 minute cycle.
The moving sculpture tells the story of Ali and Nino, ill-fated lovers in the mold of Romeo and Juliet. The Azerbaijan youth Ali falls in love with the Georgian princess Nino, but dies in defence of his native land. This is a timeless tragedy, which can be easily adapted to the fierce and divisive loyalties of the south Caucasus lands.
I’m strictly tourist
But I couldn’t care less
That’s a line from the song “Bonjour, Paris” from the musical “Funny Face.” I felt and looked that way today in Batumi, on the Black Sea coast of Georgia. I’ve got the complete tourist get-up: shorts, sandals, and souvenir t-shirt. Behind me are some of the shiny new hotels along the sea front. Batumi is where Georgians have always gone to the seaside, and now it is opening up to foreigners. There is no way I could be confused with a local, looking like this!
I am starting to get the lay-of-the-land of Georgia today. Tourists like me are always shown the best when they visit a place, but the reality around and behind the showpieces can’t help but be revealed. For Georgians, there is the will and the money for a broad religious revival leading to restored churches, and for symbolic political affirmation leading to select, grand public edifices. In the photo, you see the recently-restored Church of St. Nicholas, situated on a steep hill overlooking Tbilisi.
Look in the foreground, though. These are some of the crumbled walls of Narikala, the fortress that was here even before Tbilisi became a city in the 5th century. There is no money to restore Narikala. There is no money to repair the very bad roads I was jarred along, driving to Davit Gareja. Most importantly, basic public services for many Georgians are sub-standard, and for an unfortunate few are completely unmet.
There is always hope. History may have taught Georgians not to be pie-eyed optimists, but it has taught them to be resilient. When I was visiting Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, the young couple you see in the photo had just been married. The bride was thrilled to have received the blessing of the patriarch, even though that meant sharing her wedding with thousands of strangers. Her gown is a contemporary, Western-style white, but featured prominently are traditional Georgian elements … a perfect image of what is best in Georgia today.
Mtskheta is the ancient capital of Iveria (eastern Georgia) and it remains the centre of autocephalous Orthodox Christianity in today’s Georgia. It lies less than 20 km north of Tbilisi, at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers. Pictured, you see the spectacularly situated Jvari Church, which was erected in the 6th century over the site where the first Christian king of Georgia, King Mirian, put up a cross after his conversion by St. Nino in the 4th century. Although nothing survives above the ground from that period, St. Nino evangelized to King Mirian and his people in the 320s, which makes Georgia one of the earliest Christian nations.
Today turned out to be a lucky day to visit Mtskheta, as there was a religious festival ongoing. The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, was visiting his seat, the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and I joined the crush of people waiting to see the procession of this elderly and now frail priest. The centrepiece of the cathedral is the burial place of Sidonia, a Jewish woman who is said to be wrapped in the robe of Christ, which was obtained from Golgotha by her brother and brought to Mtskheta. Especially on a festival day like today, such a shrine is a place of pigrimage and of veneration for the faithful.