BATUMI -- If it weren't for the slightly subdued light, you could be in Dubai. Giant monoliths of glass and concrete rise up into the sky, eclipsing the sprawl of Georgia's second-largest city and thriving seaport.
The capital of the Georgian republic of Ajara and dubbed "the Las Vegas of the Black Sea," Batumi has been transformed by a building boom spanning over a decade and one that shows no signs of ending. But in the shadow of the towering luxury hotels and casinos, an old suburb, Ardagani, has survived the monumental changes, preserving the city's rich history.
Once a quiet suburb of Georgia's primary seaside destination, Batumi, Ardagani's name most likely comes from the former Georgian town of Artaani, about 200 kilometers from Batumi and now in Turkish territory. In the 19th century, the suburb held a strategic position along the coastline.
Previously part of the Ottoman Empire, Batumi was ceded to the Russian Empire in 1878. Towards the end of the century, it was occupied by the Russian imperial Black Sea battalion, with troops based in the Chernomorskaya fort, one of several built in Batumi between 1895 and 1901. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the Armistice of Mudros, Britain held a brief mandate over the South Caucasus and moved its forces here in late 1918, some of whom stayed at the Chernomorskaya barracks. The Soviet Union sealed the deal in 1921, establishing the Ajara Soviet republic, with Batumi as its centerpiece and a crucial hub for oil transit.
History is never far away in Ardagani. Most of the houses bear the style of the 1920s but haven't ever been studied by architectural historians. One theory is that many of them were built by the British. One of the residents, while dismantling a fireplace, discovered the bricks of her house were stamped with the name Forth, which possibly originated from a Scottish brickworks.
"British soldiers lived here…. Britain always had a great interest in Batumi. It was a strategic spot and Azerbaijani oil was transferred from here. Batumi was [ruled by] Britain till 1920, July 7, so Batumi residents were British citizens. But after the [Russian] revolution it became clear to the British that Georgia would be next, and they left," says Shota Gujabidze, a Batumi researcher from the Georgian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
During the Soviet era, Batumi was an important seaport, especially for the processing and transit of oil. It was also a very convenient location to escape the Soviet Union, which meant a large presence of border police.
In the early 2000s, Ardagani began to shrink. One by one, the old houses gave way to high-rise seaside hotels and New Batumi was born. "We were a village before, now it's like London or Paris," jokes 72-year-old Neli Kamarova-Shubitidze, as she pours Batumi's traditional foamy coffee.
Born and raised here, she spent her childhood in what she calls a "hacienda," with a small vineyard, a fruit orchard, and a well. In the long summer evenings, neighbors would gather around a communal table to have dinner. In the 1960s, the company that ran the Batumi seaport began building accommodation for its workers and demolished Kamarova-Shubitidze's parents' house. They were given an apartment in a new building and, since then, the family has lived there. Kamarova-Shubitidze, a descendent of Armenians who fled ethnic unrest in Turkey, worked in a shop that sold sailors' uniforms, and ended up marrying one later.
"I am an authentic Batumi dweller," Kamarova-Shubitidze says, "there's only a handful of us left here. This was a border region and very few families lived here. The whole territory quartered border guards who would go on shifts to Sarpi [Georgia's Turkish border]. So this was the working class district, with straightforward, sometimes cocky young people. If you were a young woman from Ardagani, no one in the city would dare to hit on you. There were rumbles in the streets, fights between districts."
Once a distant suburb, over the years Ardagani has gradually been swallowed up by the city. Adelina Meskhi, Kamarova-Shubitidze's neighbor, has lived in Ardagani for 40 years.
"Back in the day, there was no road toward the seaside and if you wanted to go over there on a rainy day, you'd leave a pair of rubber boots in the dirt. Public transport came here twice a day," she recalls. "But then the main road was extended and the district grew and got [better]. Behind the houses were the cornfields and children stole corn there sometimes." Patches of those fields are still growing today underneath the 30-floor skyscrapers.
During the Soviet times, in Kamarova-Shubitidze and Meskhi's youth, the tallest buildings were only five floors high. Meskhi says that, according to the Soviet building plan, anything above that would require an elevator, so the government tried to save money.
Another highpoint before the skyscrapers dominated the skyline was the observation tower that lit up the sea at night, keeping a look-out for intruders or those trying to escape the Soviet Union. The tower survived till the late 2000s before being demolished to make way for a new municipal building.
Leila Khmelidze, 83, used to see the observation tower from her window. Now she looks out on the balconies from the Best Western and Courtyard by Marriott hotels.
She lives in a house built for the workers of the shoe factory, where her husband was once a chief engineer. "When we moved here, there were some woods nearby, a military settlement, paths in between. There were underground tunnels where children played sometimes. Ardagani used to be much bigger…and I watched it grow smaller and smaller," she says. "What's the need for these 20-30-story buildings? Batumi has lost its face. Those hotels will never get full, there's never that many tourists here. It breaks my heart that Batumi is doomed to such a fate.
Over the years, the Ardagani community has changed, with some selling their houses, others moving away when their dwellings were demolished, and many passing away. Those who stayed opened cafes and shops in the high street, while others tried to rent rooms to holidaymakers, struggling to compete with all the fancy hotels.
"Nothing is better than building and progress, but it depends on the project too. These tall buildings definitely don't suit Batumi. Twelve- or 14-story houses with parks around them -- that would be enough. I, for one, wouldn't be able to live on such high floors, I'd get vertigo," says Meskhi.
The construction boom in Ajara, which started in 2012, slowed down when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. At the peak of the boom, the government was giving out at least 700 construction permits per year. Over the last decade, 8,317 building permits have been issued in Ajara. New Batumi, in particular, became a construction site for hotels, including the Courtyard by Marriott standing at 40 floors tall. Orbi Group, a Georgian-based real-estate developer, built three 34-35 floor "aparthotels" there and is now building Orbi City, a 55-floor project. Even during peak season, none of the buildings ever seem to have many guests.
Just when it seemed like there was no space left to build in Batumi, the Georgian parliament passed a new law on June 23 that will allow developers in Batumi to pull down derelict houses with few restrictions and build new properties up to virtually any height. In addition, developers are allowed to build on already-existing construction sites and "sites of municipal significance." New projects have to be reviewed by city hall first, but past experience shows that to be just a formality, says architect Gia Ramishvili, who has served as adviser to the Batumi mayor. Only once, she says, was she asked for advice in four years.
Construction is not expected to let up anytime soon. Even if the General Building Plan of Batumi, which is currently in development, gets approved soon, the law would still allow companies to build until 2027.
Sometimes the new buildings are not well received. Not far from the former imperial barracks, the 24-floor MJM Panorama hotel, which is set to be completed in December 2023, is already eclipsing local properties. Residents have complained to municipal authorities about the dust and rocks in their yards from the construction. When asked about the issue by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, MJM said that the city hall inspection hasn't found any standards violations.
Despite the mess and the dust, Ardagani residents all feel differently about the construction boom and the effect it has had on the suburb. Some say they wouldn't want to move, while others are sick of living under leaky roofs in old buildings. Because so much water leaks, one of the houses even has a fig tree that has grown in the damp attic.
In the house with the fig tree, an elderly woman lives, who upon asking if she has any old photos of the neighborhood says, "No, but I can show you a picture of my pig." The 81-year-old woman, who is named Armenia, was once the proud owner of Ardagani's smartest piglet, Ghutia. A Dutch tourist once offered her $500 for the pig but she refused. Her daughter, Anaida, points out where Ghutia is buried. "Right there, where now there's a McDonalds," Anaida says. "Sometimes I think the soul of our Ghutia is in their bacon."
The site of Batumi's famous McDonald's, which was once included in the chain's list of most beautiful restaurants, used to be a vast field with a fountain-adorned lake, a swamp, and the former stables where Armenia and Anaida lived. Armenia's father had two horses and worked for the military, stationed in the barracks. His family, Armenia's mother and four of her siblings, lived in the same building. Now it's only Armenia and her daughter in the tumbledown house. They were among those who signed an agreement with the MJM hotel group to live in the new building after theirs was demolished.
"Sometimes I wonder how those skyscrapers stand on the swampy land. And sometimes I think, maybe it's better to live here in this shabby house than to move somewhere you're not sure of. I don't know for sure if they will demolish our house or not -- otherwise I'd start a refurbishment here," Anaida says. "Now we're stuck in between. This is the only spot left near the sea, and there's a big demand for it. Personally, I want to move soon. I'm tired of living here."
As for Armenia, she can't get used to the busy streets and the traffic around. She says she has been hit by a car three times already. "I'm asking God for death but he won't give it to me," she jokes.
Although Kamarova-Shubitidze, who grew up surrounded by vineyards and orchards, never wanted to live in a tall building, she says the novelties of the neighborhood have brought convenience to her life: "I love living here. To be honest, I forgot what the city used to look like. I have everything close to my house and I don't have to go far."
In the past, long before the skyscrapers dominated the skyline, walnuts from the mountainous areas of Ajara and Ardagani would drift down the river and residents would go to collect them. "The water was clear and the walnuts exquisite, our special Ajar flavor," says Leila Khmelidze. "This was a good, very warm neighborhood where everyone lived, Georgians, Russians, Armenians, us, Ajarans. We knew it couldn't go on forever -- it was the 21st century after all -- but we didn't expect this," she says, waving her hand toward the window.
"You probably used to have a view of the sea?" RFE/RL asked.
"You can still see it," she answers. "Look!" She draws back the curtain and, sure enough, in a small space between a skyscraper and a residential house, there is a clear blue spot of water merging with the horizon.