For over 150 years, the Poti lighthouse has shone out over the waters of the Black Sea, providing safe navigation for sailors. A massive, cast-iron key opens the door. As we climb the 152 steps to the lantern room, Rusa Dzadzua tells me that this key is the only one, as old as the lighthouse itself.
At roughly 130 feet, the lighthouse is one of the tallest structures in this Georgian port city. It sits close to the beach, beside one of the branches of the Rioni River delta. “All the people that come to see it are surprised by its design, to see that it is constructed by hundreds of nuts and bolts,” says Dzadzua, who works for the Georgian State Hydrographic Service, which manages the lighthouse. “It’s very beautiful. It’s a symbol of our city.”
From the top, on a clear day, you can see the snow on the Lesser Caucasus mountains, the northward curve of the coast towards the disputed border with Abkhazia, and, past the oil pipelines at Supsa, the popular tourist city of Batumi. And all around us spread the streets of Poti.
Much of western Georgia is a humid subtropical zone, and the city is built on swamplands. Even today, the inhabitants of Tbilisi will warn you of the size of the mosquitoes in Poti. The coast here is subject to erosion, the river to flooding. When Alexandre Dumas passed through he wrote dismissively: “Poti is an earthly paradise for pigs.” Indeed, nineteenth-century European travelers commented unfavorably on the laziness of the people and the complete lack of roads, though they applauded the Transcaucasian railway (which arrived in 1872), whose investors recognized Georgia as a commercial link between the markets of the Middle East and Europe. Poti was a necessary, if unloved, point of transit for the oil from Azerbaijan.
The Poti lighthouse. Photo: Brendan Jackson
As the oldest navigational facility on the Black Sea, the Poti lighthouse still operates to international standards, the light visible for about 17 miles. It was designed and fabricated in the Southwark section of London as a special order for Tsar Alexander II. Made of immense cast-iron plates, the tower was transported in parts by steamship to Georgia in 1864 to be bolted together on site.
More than 80 people work here for the Hydrographic Service, part of the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia. Revaz Babilua, the Director of the Service, explains that their job is to survey the changing conditions of the seabed, updating navigational maps and maintaining beacons at sea. They also provide meteorological data and safe navigation for mariners along the 142 miles of their jurisdiction.
“A lot of data disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union and much information got lost or was just burned,” says Aleksandre Dolbaia, one of the specialists. “We continually look for it, paper by paper, book by book, try and recollect the data. We have a very unique thing here in our garden, the lighthouse, and we love it very much and take care of it with all our heart.”