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.
Davit Gareja is a monastery complex south-east of Tbilisi in Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan. It has an ancient foundation, from the Assyrian Saint David who lived in the 6th century. It’s earliest remnants are a “lavra” or cave monastery, as the monks here were ascetics. Pictured, you see some of the cells in which the monks confined themselves on the right, and the Lavra church on the left. All extant above-ground structures must be from after 1615, when Persian invaders brought such destruction that the golden age of influence of Davit Gareja was ended forever.
I climbed a steep ridge above Lavra to reach Udabno, an isolated chapel at the height of land. Along the way, I saw numerous monks cells carved into the cliff-side, some of which have surviving frescoes, as you see here.
At the chapel of Udabno at the summit I beheld a strange sight. Two soldiers from Georgia and two soldiers from Azerbaijan were resting in the shade about 100 metres apart from each other. Sadly, Georgia and Azerbaijan dispute the border in the Davit Gareja precinct, and the presence of these soldiers was a manifestation of this childish spat. What is a cultural treasure to the world is just another bargaining chip to these wary neighbours.
“Life is better, life has become merrier!” So says the mass-murderer, Josef Stalin. Below this slogan — redolent of “Arbeit macht frei” — is a family of Georgian kulaks who were all shot in the 1920s. The Bolsheviks who occupied Georgia, from their overthrow of the de jure independent state in 1919 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, had a policy of extermination against the kulaks, who were land-holding peasants and deemed to be “class enemies.” The Museum of Georgia has a well-documented and utterly horrifying exhibition hall devoted to remembering the 80,000 Georgians who were shot and the 400,000 Georgians who were deported or internally exiled (most of whom were “retried” and then shot). Stalin may have been born and raised in Georgia, but he had no love for his native country.
Members of my family on my mother’s side were described as agricolam (farmer, in Latin) in documents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That means they were yeomen, in English parlance, or kulaks as defined by the Bolsheviks. They lived in Galicia, in an area that became Poland and which later became Soviet Ukraine. I fear that their fate may have been the same as this Georgian family in the picture. Only my grandfather escaped de-kulakization. Because of this, the exhibition at the Museum of Georgia was particularly affecting for me.
Tbilisi is trying to project a 21st century image, with impressive public works like a new bridge over the Mt’k’vari River and a new presidential palace, but it is the down-at-the-heels Old World charm that draws me. Here are some buildings from the Russian Empire period….
…and here are some buildings from the Soviet Union period.
With temperatures in the mid-30s and above, perhaps July is not the ideal time to visit Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. I am delighted to be in this beautiful south Caucasus country, though, and experience its Eurasian charms. Here I am in a quirky Georgian restaurant, Pur Pur, in the Old City of Tbilisi. The piano man is playing jazz standards — very well, too.
The Dalmatian coast along the Adriatic Sea has been subject to wave after wave of domination by great powers. Rare is the period during which local peoples governed themselves. The Illyrians were overwhelmed on the coast by the Greeks and then the Romans; the Avars and Slavs were dominated by the Ottomans, by the Venetians, and finally by the Austrians. The Croats probably came to Istria and Dalmatia in the 7th century A.D., but true independence for them was not won until the break-up of Yugoslavia and the “Homeland War” of 1991. Today, a proud people are sovereign in their ancient home, while looking to their wider community in Europe.
The photo shows me standing before the most extant part of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, which is the peristyle towards the entrance to Diocletian’s quarters, while to the left is a part of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius founded on the same spot 400 years afterwards. Layer upon layer of history is here to be seen, in stone and in the warp and weft of Croatia.