What comes to mind when you hear someone mention the Black Sea? Someplace grim, gloomy, and generally awful? I admit, I thought something similar – it is called the Black Sea after all; the name really doesn’t help. Then I rolled up in fun, cheery, whimsical Batumi, and I realised I had it all wrong.
The origins of Batumi
Batumi began life as a minor settlement on the periphery of ancient Colchis. Although little heard of these days, the Colchis Empire lasted for more than a thousand years (from the 13th Century BCE to 164 BCE) and its legendary wealth and abundance of gold inspired the fable of Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece (Colchis is where the Golden Fleece was found).
The settlement of Batumi – then known as Bathys – was absorbed by the Roman Empire around 100 CE; it later became part of the Byzantine Empire, before, in the 10th Century CE, joining the unified Kingdom of Georgia.
Batumi was annexed by the Ottoman Empire in 1614, at which time the entire population converted to Islam. When the Russian Empire took over in 1878 the conversion process was reversed and people switched back to Christianity (approximately 30% of the population of Batumi remain Muslim, making it the largest Muslim centre in Georgia).
Batumi returned to the Ottomans in 1918, only to be captured by British troops during WWI. In 1921 the city became a part of the Adjar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union.
In modern times Batumi is once again aligned with the nation of Georgia, although it remains within a semi-independent political-administrative region known as the Autonomous Republic of Adjara.
La Belle Époque, Batumi
Batumi experienced a sudden surge in wealth in the late 19th Century when it became the preeminent Russian oil port on the Black Sea coast. The city was situated alongside one of the world’s first oil pipelines, which ran to Baku (on the Caspian Sea), and attracted investors including Baron Alphonse de Rothschild (of the Rothschild baronetcy) and the Nobel brothers of Sweden/Russia (a family of oil barons who also happened to be prodigious inventors; their creations include steam engines, underwater mines, central heating systems, and plywood. Brother Alfred invented dynamite, and went on to found the Nobel Prize).
Modern zany architecture
In modern times Batumi’s architecture tends towards the zany side of the spectrum. There is a building that looks like the Acropolis, another that is an upside-down version of the White House, and the newly-built Sheraton Hotel was modelled on the Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt.
The Batumi Technological Tower (in the centre of the photo above) is an office block that has a golden ferris wheel protruding from one its upper levels (located approximately 100 metres above ground level).
And there’s the Alphabetic Tower, a 130-metre high structure ringed by a double helix decorative element. Attached to the double helix are 33 four-metre high letters taken from the Georgian script. While the exterior of the building is kept its sparkling best, the Alphabetic Tower has barely been used since it was opened, and the interior is purportedly derelict and filled with dead birds.
Batumi: Las Vegas of the Black Sea
And then there are the casinos. Batumi’s success as a tourist destination relies primarily on the abundant opportunities it provides to gamble. The majority of the clientele are Turks, who, casinos being prohibited in their homeland, must nip across the border in order to fulfil their gambling needs.
The Ali and Nino Statue, Batumi
Batumi’s most famous landmark is the Ali and Nino Statue. The statue (originally titled: Man and Woman) was created in 2007 and erected in Batumi in 2010. It was inspired by the story of two star-crossed lovers. Only it isn’t Romeo and Juliet; it’s Ali, a Muslim Azerbaijani boy, and Nino, a Christian Georgian girl. The original story is set in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital.
The two figures rotate around each other on tiny mechanical tracks. Once per circuit the horizontally sliced figures slide through one another’s bodies, as the photos convey. Each circuit takes about 10 minutes to complete.
The statue is often mentioned in lists of the most romantic statues of the world, along with Rodin’s ‘the Kiss’, and the El Beso monument in Lima, Peru.
Practical information and how to reach Batumi:
Batumi has it’s own airport offering international flights to Istanbul, Russia, and Belarus. There are regular flights to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Batumi is a 6-hour bus trip from Tbilisi. There are marshrutkas heading to Zugdidi and Kutaisi and other cities in Georgia throughout the day. It’s also possible to get a bus to Trabzon, Turkey. More info here.