World Abaza Congress

22 February 2024
Sukhum at the turn of the XIX-XX centuries
A town of extraordinary sunsets and roasted chestnuts
Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia, is an ancient town with a history of 2500 years. At the same time, its modern architectural appearance, so beloved by the townspeople, was formed relatively recently - at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The history of Sukhum began more than two and a half thousand years ago, when the first colonists from the ancient Greek city of Miletus landed on the shore of Sukhum Bay. They founded the port city of Dioscuria on this site. The Romans, Byzantines, Genoese, and later Turks ruled it in different historical periods.
In the first centuries of our era, due to a series of earthquakes, the ancient Dioscuria almost completely went under water. However, the northern outskirts of the city remained uncrowded. It was here that the Romans rebuilt the Sebastopolis fortress, where they located their legions.
The historian Anzor Agumaa in his book "Old Sukhum" writes:
"Sukhum is a historical town. On its territory, long before the emergence of the early antique settlement, there was an ancient Abkhaz settlement of the urban type Akua (this name is still preserved in the Abkhaz language), the history of which dates back to ancient times."
Already in the Middle Ages, the Sebastopolis fortress was renamed by the Turks to Sukhum-Kale. The ancient Abkhaz name of the place, Akua, has been preserved to this day. In ancient Georgian chronicles, the fortified city was also referred to as Tskhum. In the VIII century, it became one of the centers of the Abkhaz Kingdom. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus was included in the zones of interest of two empires - the Ottoman and Russian ones, which periodically waged war on this territory.
Since the last quarter of the XVIII century, the fortress of Sukhum-Kale has been the residence of the sovereign prince of Abkhazia Keleshbey Chachba-Shervashidze. He dreamed of the independence of his country and even managed to achieve it by getting rid of the protectorate of Turkey. However, in 1810, after the death of Keleshbey, Abkhazia became part of Russia, and Russian garrisons were located in the Sukhum fortress.
In the 1830s, a small settlement appeared along the seashore east of the Sukhum fortress. First, it received the status of a trading port, and then the port city, which bore the same name as the fortress.

Sukhum at that time was a small town dominated by wooden buildings. Even then, it impressed travelers with lush vegetation, in particular, plantings of roses and poplars.
In 1866, Sukhum became the administrative center of the Sukhum military department, which was created instead of the abolished Principality of Abkhazia. The town gradually developed and grew, but during the XIX century it was repeatedly ruined and destroyed.
In particular, Sukhum suffered in the last Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. Then the Turkish troops, leaving the city, burned it to the ground. For participating in the war on the side of Turkey, the Abkhaz population was forced to leave the coastal zone of the country, including Sukhum. About fifty thousand people fled to Turkey. Many villages throughout Abkhazia were empty; Sukhum and its environs were depopulated.
A little later than these events, the writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote in a letter to a friend about the Abkhaz capital:
A little later than these events, the writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote in a letter to a friend about the Abkhaz capital: "This morning I sit in Sukhum. Nature is amazing to rage and despair. Everything is new, fabulous and poetic. Eucalyptus trees, tea bushes, cypress trees, cedars, palm trees, donkeys, swans, buffaloes, gray cranes, and most importantly endless mountains and mountains ... I am sitting on the balcony now, and Abkhaz in costumes of fancy dress capuchins walk past, across the road - a boulevard with olives, cedars and cypresses, a dark blue sea beyond the boulevard ... If I had lived in Abkhazia for at least a month, I think I would have written about fifty seductive tales. From every bush, from all the shadows and penumbra on the mountains, from the sea and from the sky, thousands of plots are watching. I'm a scoundrel because I don't know how to draw."

"Letters of 1875-1890," Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Since the 1880s, colonists surged into the deserted Abkhaz lands. According to the first All-Russian census of 1897, 7998 people lived in Sukhum, of which there were 1685 Russians, 1522 Megrels, 1083 Greeks, 144 Abkhaz. In addition, Turks, Armenians, Tatars, Persians, Poles, Germans, Estonians - more than 20 nationalities lived here. Ethnic societies that dealt with the problems of their groups were widespread: they built churches and schools, participated in elections to the city Duma.
The poet Osip Mandelstam called Sukhum a city of "mourning, tobacco and aromatic vegetable oils." "From here one should begin the study of the alphabet of the Caucasus - here each word begins with "a"

Osip Mandelstam, "Memories. The Noise of the Time"

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, plantations of citrus and first-class tobacco appeared in Abkhazia, which became a serious impetus for the development of trade and the economy as a whole. In 1893, about 130 trading enterprises were already operating in Sukhum. This led to a construction boom. Wealthy entrepreneurs built shops, hotels and villas at the end of the 19th century, decorating their facades with suspended balconies and galleries, and built wells in the courtyards of the mansions. It was during this period that Sukhum received the architectural appearance that it is still proud of.
And here is a verbal portrait of Abkhazia by Konstantin Paustovsky:
"In the garden, near the room, huge cacti, bananas and tangerines grow. Beyond the windows is the sea (there are extraordinary sunsets) and the blue mountains"

«A Rush to the South»

The towns of Abkhazia were planned in the spirit of European urban planning. In the architectural sense, the Art Nouveau style prevailed here, which had already conquered Europe by that time. The main building materials were brick, stone, cement, iron. The roofs were covered with the famous Marseille tiles.
"The smell of oranges mixed with the smell of roasted chestnuts, red flags rustled from the south wind in the tropical thickets of gardens, wild horsemen screaming gutturally, galloping wildly along stone roads. Warm rain fell on the walls, and the fragrant smoke of local tobacco oozed lazily from the windows of dukhans."

Konstantin Paustovsky "A Rush to the South"

The writer Konstantin Paustovsky first visited Sukhum in February 1922. The town appeared before him "motley and multilingual." The stoves were heated with nutshells, food in bazaars was cooked in peanut butter, the writer noted. Paustovsky later outlined his impressions of the town in the novel "A Rush to the South" and the essay "Where the Golden Fleece Was Found".
From the end of the 19th century, Sukhum began to develop not only as a trading city and port, but also as a climatic resort. In 1898, the All-Russian Congress of Doctors in Moscow recognized it as one of the best health resorts for pulmonary patients. In 1902, on the initiative of Professor Ostroumov, a hospital with 35 beds was opened in Sukhum, and sanatoria were built in the town and its environs. The sanatorium of the famous Russian philanthropist Prince Nikolai Smetsky in Gulrypsh was especially striking in its splendor: there were even elevators in the four-story buildings - a curiosity and rarity at the time. Smetsky's sanatorium contemporaries recognized as one of the best in Europe at that time.
In 1905-1907, about four hundred enterprises were already operating in Abkhazia. This is, first of all, sawmills, as well as a number of brick, flour mills, locksmiths, oil mills in Sukhum. An important place was occupied by factories for the manufacture of essential oils, a number of gardening enterprises, wineries and vodka factories, the plant for the production of lemonade and mineral water "Ankara".

The average salary of artisans and workers was then 2 rubles 20 kopecks. At the same time, a pound of prime grade bread cost 4.5 kopecks, and a pound of prime grade beef cost 17 kopecks.
Cultural life in the town was gaining momentum. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were three theaters in Sukhum: Aloisi, Samuridi theater and the summer theater in Alexander Park. Newspapers "Colchis", "Sukhum leaf", "Sukhum bulletin" were published. In 1912, there were thirteen schools in the town, including Russian, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Gorsky, where mostly Abkhaz children studied, and the school of the Society for the Promotion of Georgian Literacy.
We find the description of Sukhum at the beginning of the 20th century with the writer Adile Abass-ogly in the autobiographical book "I Can't Forget". The trading and resort city was native to representatives of various nationalities. On the mountain of Chernyavsky (Sukhum mountain, the Abkhaz name is Samaata-rkhu) stood the mansions of wealthy Muscovites and Petersburgers who came to Sukhum for a vacation. On the main street of the town, Georgievskaya (current Ayaayra Avenue), mainly Greeks lived - the most numerous and successful entrepreneurs of Sukhum. Favorite vacation spot of citizens, as today, was the promenade.
Adile Abass-ogly
"Here, at the pier, many boats swayed on the waves, on which lovers of boat trips sailed away into the sea. Elderly couples loved to rest on benches along the embankment, breathing the healing sea air and watching the flaming public."
There were tea houses, coffee houses, billiard rooms everywhere in the town. Men played backgammon. Iranians worked in teahouses, and Greeks, Turks or Armenians worked in coffee houses. There were tables on the sidewalks under a tent; sellers offered ice cream, oriental sweets, fruits, soft drinks. Barbecue, chestnuts and hazelnuts were grilled immediately.
"The town shoes were necessarily patent and leather. Men wore felt hats, women wore hats with narrow brim, and some did not give up the veil. On cold winter evenings, the townspeople gathered. Men played backgammon, chess, dominoes and cards. They talked a lot, remembered the old days, shared their impressions of performances, books. We, the children, listened sack-jawed. There were always coffee, sweets, fruits, nuts on the table."

Adile Abass-ogly "I Can't Forget"
Along the Basla River, which divided the town into right and left parts, weeping willows grew and boat stations were located. The river was rich in fish, and at any time of the year one could see fishermen here. Shops and a small market worked on the shores of Basla. This area, as today, was called the Red Bridge - the color of the bridge connecting both parts of the town. There were also bakeries, teahouses, coffee houses, and taverns.
The town grew and developed, and the result of its development was a comfortable, organic and whole environment. Until the 30s of the last century, Sukhum remained a multinational trading and resort town, which was associated with expensive tobacco, boulevards and roasted chestnuts.
Text by – Astanda Ardzinba, photo editor – Naala Avidzba, editor Olga Soldatenkova, editor-in-chief – Amina Lazba