Samegrelo and Zemo Svaneti is divided into two geographical and historical regions. The first is Samegrelo. Samegrelo is the northern portion of the Kolkheti Lowland. As such, the region is largely flat, with some parts of it lying in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, such as the municipalities of Chkhorts’q’u and Ts’alenjikha.
Zemo Svaneti translates as “Upper Svaneti” and is the second region of Samegrelo and Zemo Svaneti. Zemo Svaneti is the part of the greater Svaneti region which most people region has Svaneti’s, and Georgia’s, most most pristine mountains, Alpine valleys, and medieval tower-towns.
The Greater Caucasus Mountains seen from the Kolkheti National Park. Photo by the Kolkheti National Park
The Samegrelo was the historical heart of the Kolkheti Kingdom, with the cities of Poti and Kutaisi having been the primary cities of this first kingdom of Georgia. During the feudal era, Samegrelo was under the Kingdom of Georgia. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, the region was ruled by the House of Dadiani, who ruled from their palace in Zugdidi.
Post-Soviet Samegrelo was home to two violent conflicts. The fist was the Georgian Civil War following the ousting of Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whos family heritage come from Samegrelo. After Zviad Gamsakhurdia fled Tbilisi, he fled to Samegrelo where he and his supporters attempted to regain control of Georgia. Simultaneously, Abkhazia, which shares the region’s entire northern border, broke away from Georgia, with much of the fighting occurring on the boundary between Abkhazia and Samegrelo.
Zugdidi is located among marshlands in the Kolkheti Lowlands. During the era of the Kolkheti Kingdom, villages were built on artificially eroded hills, which is where Zugdidi gets its name from (the name roughly means ‘big hill”). During the Hellenistic Period, Zugdidi was located on an important trade route from the Black Sea to Abkhazia, Svaneti, and the rest of Georgia. Zugdidi grew largely because of the House of Dadiani’s palace being located there. The city grew as an aristocratic and agricultural center for the region. Throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, Zugdidi became the location of many battles for local autonomy both between the Abkhaz and the Georgians and between Samegrelo and Imereti. In 1803, after Samegrelo was incorporated as a Russian protectorate, Zugdidi was made the capital of the Samegrelo Principality. Zugdidi has since remained the region’s capital city.
Dadiani Palace and Zugdidi Botanical Garden
The Dadiani Palace is one of the largest palaces in the Caucasus and is one of the best examples of 19th Century architecture found in Georgia. The palace was home to the House of Dadiani, which ruled the Principality of Samegrelo until 1857. The palace was designed by Russian architect leonid Vassiliev and was built in the neo-Gothic style of architecture. Included in the palace complex is a secondary residence, a small monastery, and a large garden, which became the Zugdidi Botanical gardens. The palace has the largest ballroom in Georgia. In 2015, the palace underwent a major renovation.
Poti is one of the oldest cities in Georgia. The city is located where the Rioni River meets the Black Sea. During the Hellenic Period, the city was known as the city of Phasis, and was even an Ancient Greek trade colony for a period of time. This is evidenced by the fact that Poti’s streets are laid out in a grid pattern, one of only a small handful of cities in Georgia which have this feature. The city was once also Roman control.
Photo by Shermazana Photography.
Poti grew at a rapid rate during the 19th and 20th Centuries after the opening of the Poti-Tbilisi Railway. Poti Mayor Niko Nikoladze 91894-1912) helped modernize the city by improving the city’s port, constructing a theater, two schools, and the main cathedral which was modeled off of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This had led to Poti becoming one of the major port cities of the Black Sea.
Today, the city is once again seeing its port be expanded and modernized as Georgia attempts to increase its role along major trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Of notable interest in Poti are its central park, which is located in the middle of the city and where most roads in Poti radiate from, and the Poti Mother of God Cathedral, which is located in Poti Central Park.
Nokalakevi was once the capital of the Egrisi Kingdom--the kingdom which lasted between the Kolkheti Kingdom and the Kingdom of Georgia between 131-697 C.E. The city is located where the Tekhuri River enters a narrow gorge--the boundary between a small plateau and the Kolkheti Lowland. It is thought that Nokalakevi was the mythical city of “Aia” from the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Despite the city’s prominence dating to the Common Era, archeological evidence suggests that the location was inhabited since the 8th Century B.C.E.
Photo by RFE/RL
During the 4th Century C.E. Nokalakevi was built as a fortified city, which would later become the Lazika Kingdom and then the Egrisi Kingdom. Since these two early kingdoms were the only political state in Georgia during this time period, this meant that Nokalakevi was the capital of Georgia between the 5th and 6th Centuries C.E. The city is composed of three main parts--the lower city, the middle fortress, and the citadel. The city was ultimately conquered after an invasion from Marwan Ibn Muhammad, an Umayyad caliph.
The lower city takes up the southern portion of the ruins and is situated along the river. The citadel was built on top of the ridge which overlooks the lower city. The entirety of Nokalakevi is surrounded by stone walls, of which many towers and even the main gatehouse are still standing. The ruins of the foundation of the city’s church can still be seen in the center of the lower city. Also identified in the lower cities are bathhouses, reservoirs, and tunnels connecting the river to the city.
Kolkheti National Park
Kolkheti National Park is located immediately south of Poti and includes the entirety of Paliastomi Lake, which is the largest natural lake in Georgia. The national park protects the swamplands and marshes that are endemic to the Kolkheti Lowlands. The park has modern tourist infrastructure for hiking, canoeing and kayaking, and birdwatching.
The national park is famed for its wetlands. Photo by Kolkheti National Park.
Martvili canyon is a deep, narrow, tree-covered canyon in the village of Martvili in extreme eastern Samegrelo. The park features a 700 meter long stone-paved hiking trail which features three viewing platforms. The canyon is also popular for kayakers and swimmers alike.
Mestia is one of the true gems of Georgia. Stepping in Mestia is like stepping back 1,000 years. The ancient towers that the town is renowned for still stand guard over their mountain hamlet, with the Caucasus Mountains rising majestically on all sides of Georgia’s--and Europe’s--most pristine and untouched landscapes.
Mestia is the central part of the larger Svaneti region, which includes Zemo and Kvemo Svaneti. This region, thanks in large part to its extreme isolation from the rest of Georgia, has developed its own independent culture. Most notably is its language, which more closely resembles old Georgian that today’s standard Georgian.
Photo by Shermazana Photography.
The watchtowers of Svaneti are unique to the region. They were brought about for a variety of reasons. The ground floor is typically used for both people and domesticated animals. The upper floors were used by the inhabitants during the summer months while also serving as a storage space for food and other agricultural supplies. By building houses as towers, the Svans were able to combine defensive infrastructure, agricultural life, and domestic living into one structure.
Due to all of these regions, Mestia and the entirety of Zemo Svaneti was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Also located in Kvemo Svaneti are Chaladi Glacier, Mt. Ushba, Tetnuldi and Hatsvali Resorts, and the Koruldi Lakes (which require vehicles capable of offroading to reach).
Mestia is connected to the rest of Georgia via a single road, which follows the Enguri River to Zugdidi along with an airport which was built in 2010.
Photo by Shermazana Photography.
Mestia is served by Queen Tamar Airport, which has flights to Kutaisi and Natakhtari (via Natakhtari Airport, which is located close to Mtskheta, just north of Tbilisi).
There are marshrutkas from Tbilisi and Kutaisi to Zugdidi, and for Poti from Zugdidi, Kutaisi, and Batumi.
Likewise, Poti and Zugdidi have train services from Tbilisi, with two trains daily for Poti and three daily for Zugdidi.
Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti is reached by vehicle via the ს-1/E-60 which comes from Tbilisi, and by the ს-2/E-70 which comes from Turkey via Batumi to Poti.
1: Kolkheti National Park
4: Martvili Canyon