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City of the Golden Fleece: Batumi, Georgia

by Laurence Mitchell

Picture above: Rustaveli Avenue, Batumi. The road is named after the mediaeval Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli (photo © Laurence Mitchell).


Glitzy casinos and gilded statues tell of Batumi's ambitions to become the Dubai of the Black Sea. But the Georgian city curates an important cultural legacy as the supposed home of the Golden Fleece. Guest contributor Laurence Mitchell slips over the border from Turkey into Georgia to explore Batumi.

It is a strange sort of frontier. A passing between two worlds, but whether it is from east to west, or from west to east, is a little hard to tell. This was once the most hermetically sealed of borders. For long years, local people who shared a common language and ethnicity were unable to visit their cousins who lived on the other side of the divide. What should have been a short dolmuş (minibus) ride through the verdant hill country that spans this border was strictly forbidden. We are in that part of the Black Sea region where the Ottoman Empire once nudged up against the Russian Empire, and where later Mustafa Kemal’s new Turkish Republic bordered on the Soviet Union. This is where modern Turkey shares a common frontier with the region of Georgia known as Adjara.

So much has happened along this fragment of the Black Sea littoral over the last hundred years. For significant periods during the Cold War years, there was no easy way to cross the border between north-east Turkey and Adjara. Difficulties in arranging visas and insurmountable travel costs meant that there was scant contact between communities on either side of the frontier.

The Adjara region of Georgia, along with two other areas — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — enjoyed until the break-up of the Soviet Union a special status as autonomous regions within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was in and around the various so-called autonomous regions of former Soviet republics that some of the most challenging issues have arisen in the post-Soviet era. The authorities in Tbilisi were keen that newly independent Georgia should exert its authority over all regions of the country. Just as the Kyiv government was never entirely happy with the special status that Crimea enjoyed as an autonomous region; the perceived erosion of that autonomy was a key issue underpinning the Russian pretext for annexing Crimea in 2014.

It was a differently divided world in Soviet times. Turkey, then as now, was Muslim and in most Western eyes seen as part of the East despite its membership of NATO. Neighbouring Georgia was then a far-flung part of the USSR, part of the sultry and sometimes volatile deep south which seemed another world from Moscow. The only common denominator between Turkey and Georgia was the Black Sea. For observers from the west, so little was known of this remote corner of the Georgian coast that many commentators referred back to the pre-Soviet era for accounts and images of travels through Adjara — including the remarkable early photography of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky.

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