Sukhumi: The Capital of Abkhazia
By: Vandana Hettiaratchi
Sukhumi or Sukhum in the Abkhaz language, is the capital of the unrecognized country of Abkhazia - internationally recognized as part of Georgia. The city has endured hardship in its quest for independence which has shaped its local culture and history.
Located 430km from Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, Sukhumi (or Sukhum in the Abkhaz language) is Abkhazia’s Italianate capital set on a bay, facing the Black Sea, with hills and semi-tropical vegetation.
The climate of Sukhumi is humid subtropical, with warm summers (between June and September), and relatively cold winters (October to May).
Abkhazian and Russian are the two primary languages spoken in the country, with Georgian being understood by elderly ethnic Abkhazians, as well as amongst ethnic Georgians.
According to statistics, Sukhumi has a multi-ethnic population, comprising of Abkhaz, Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Greeks, of approximately 60,000 citizens in total (Department of Census, 2018).
Since the end of the war with Georgia in 2008, reconstruction and new construction projects have accelerated, although there are still numerous buildings that stand empty or have not been completed.
As the legal status of Abkhazia is disputed, with most of the international community recognizing the country as part of Georgia, Sukhumi is not an internationally recognized capital of any country.
History of Sukhumi
The history of Sukhumi can be dated back to mid-6th century BC, where it was a settlement for the Colchian tribes, followed by the Milesian Greek colony of Dioscurias.
The city was historically engaged in commerce with Greece, exporting local salt, linen and timber and was a prime location on the Black Sea (Strabo, 2014).
In the late 2nd century, the city was taken over by the Roman emperor Augustus (Wilson, 1986). In 542, the Romans evacuated the city and demolished its citadel to prevent it from being captured by the Sasanian Empire of Iran.
However, it was restored and continued to remain as one of the Byzantine strongholds until 736 (ibid).
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the city became known as ‘Tskhumi’ and flourished during the Georgian Golden Age when it was the center of traffic with European maritime powers, mainly the Republic of Genoa (now part of Italy).
The city of Tskhumi became the summer residence of Georgian Kings and was an important cultural and administrative center of the Georgian state (Papaskiri, 2008).
In the 15th century, it was part of the Ottoman Empire and remained until the Russian invasion in 1810. In 1847, after being declared a seaport, Sukhumi was annexed to the Russian Empire and officially part of it after the Russo-Turkish War.
Post 1917 Russian Revolution and the suppression of a short-lived Bolshevik government, Sukhumi was incorporated into the, then, Democratic Republic of Georgia and then into the Georgian SSR, which was a republic of the Soviet Union.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and rising ethnic tensions between the Georgians and the Abkhaz, Sukhumi was the center of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.
During the war, the city suffered from daily air strikes and artillery shelling, creating tremendous collateral damage (Human Rights Watch, 2010). Although, the city is now peaceful and mostly rebuilt, with open conflict ending at the end of the war in 2008.
Foreign Relations and Economy of Sukhumi
Due to its disputed status and breakaway from Georgia, Sukhumi maintains strong diplomatic relations with Moscow and is officially recognized by only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Syria. In addition, Russia maintains an embassy in Sukhumi.
There is also an Embassy of South Ossetia and a representation from Transnistria, two other unrecognized countries and 'post-Soviet frozen conflicts.'
Tourism is one of the main industries in Sukhumi. According to authorities, due to a visa-free travel agreement, at least one million Russian tourists visited Sukhumi in 2007 (MFA, 2008).
Other passport holders require a Permit Letter to enter, after which a visa will be issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (ibid).
The local cuisine, cultural sites and diverse landscapes make Sukhumi attractive for tourism and an easy base to explore the rest of Abkhazia. The subtropical climate of Sukhumi and the surrounding areas provide fertile land to grow tea, tobacco, wine and fruits - mainly tangerines.
Travelling to Sukhumi
As mentioned before, a travel permit is required to enter Abkhazia which would be issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is necessary to visit the Ministry in Sukhumi with the Permit Letter and exchange it for a visa (MFA, 2008).
There are limited options to enter Sukhumi. Although there is an airport (the Sukhum Babushara Airport) located 20km out of the city, it is not at option to enter the country due to the disputed status of the region.
Nevertheless, the primary option to enter the unrecognized country is through the city of Sochi in Russia.
Although some of the major sights of the city were destroyed by the war, the main attractions remain intact.
One of the most famous attraction is the Sukhumi Promenade or the Makhadzhirov Embankment. Located by the seaside and stretching for 4kms, it is one of the most enjoyable things to do in Sukhumi. Lined with cafes, bars and hotels (especially during summer), there are the options of taking a sea bath or a stroll, while enjoying ice cream or local beer.
There are also, several historical sites within the city limits.
The Alleya Slavy is a park dedicated to the many Abkhaz who died fighting in the war.
The Besleti Bridge, located approximately 6km from the city centre dates back to the late 12th century (Dubinskaia, 1985). It showcases illustrative examples of the medieval bridge design, which was popular during the reign of Tamar of Georgia (ibid).
The neo-Byzantium styled, Cathedral of Annunciation, is a point of interest as well. Further, the Abkhaz State Museum is popular, as it showcases unique exhibits and provides history about Sukhumi and the region of Abkhazia.
In addition, Sukhumi is home to monuments that are now in need of conservation but which can still be visited (Gelenava, 2015).
The ruins of Bagrat’s Castle is visible and worth the visit. The castle dates back to the middle Ages, and archeological digs in the 1950s and revealed remains of fortified structures, wine jars and jugs dating back to this era. Today, only the walls, measuring 10-12 meters in height are standing (ibid).
The tower and the northern wall and gates are the remains of the fortress of Sukhum, which was destroyed in the Soviet years. The fortress is located in the city centre. A few of the, now ruined or destroyed, 300 towers of the Great Abkhazian Wall (Kelasuri Wall), can be seen.
Furthermore, there are abandoned and destroyed old Soviet buildings and remnants of the conflict, including the railway station and the old 'Council of Ministries' government building which can be visited. There a few sites of interest, a few kilometers outside of Sukhumi mainly:
The Kamman Monastery and the Dranda Cathedral.
The Kamman Monastery, is located 12 kilometers from the city and is the resting place of Saint John Chrysostom. It was erected in the 11th century. The Dranda Cathedral was built in 551 and is one of the oldest monasteries in Abhkazia.
Sukhumi features several parks that are worth visiting:
One is the Botanical Gardens. Established in 1840, it is one of the oldest gardens in the Caucasus and has over 5,000 species of plants and trees from around the world. It is popular among tourists due to its odd-shaped trees (Lonely Planet, 2018).
The Monkey Park is also an attraction. It is located right behind the Botanical Gardens. Once a research centre and alleged training place for the monkeys sent out to space by the USSR during the Cold War, it is now a zoo (Walker, 2008).
It is also, possible to take a sea bath during the summer or even watch performances at the Abkhazian Drama Theater.
Traveler's Review of Sukhumi
Sukhumi is a very unique and interesting city. It has a rich history which has given the city a rich culture and good cuisine. Relatively unexplored and unknown, Sukhumi should be on the itinerary if you are visiting the Caucasus region or interested in the Soviet Union. Quite safe, it is a small city which can be explored in a short period of time.
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