Built with its back turned to the Black Sea, the unloved city of Poti is attempting to reinvent itself.

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POTI, Georgia—

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 by: 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.”

A port document from 1896. Photo by: Brendan Jackson

The modern city of 50,000 people was built near to the site of the ancient Greek colony of Phasis. In antiquity, the Kingdom of Colchis was the dominant ethnic and cultural presence in this region, from the sixth to first centuries B.C., best known for the tragic intersection of two cultures, the story of Medea and the Argonauts. Greek legend claims that Jason and his Argonauts made landfall here at the mouth of the Rioni River, where he met Colchian princess Medea, who became famous for her tragic filicide.

In the sixteenth century, Poti was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. They called it Faş, building a fort and used it as a slave market where young Georgian boys and girls were packed on ships and sent to Constantinople. It remained mostly in their possession until the Russians finally drove them out in 1828. Even when it was finally granted port status in 1858, the Tsar and his advisors were thinking primarily in terms of military strategy; it was some decades before anyone saw the potential for it to become a maritime crossroads between Europe and Asia.

The port under construction at the end of the 19th century. Photo by: APM Terminals

That man who transformed the city at the end of the nineteenth century was Niko Nikoladze, a writer and intellectual who was the first Georgian to receive a doctorate from a European university. In Zurich, Karl Marx invited him to become the representative of the International in Transcaucasia. Nikoladze declined; he had other ideas on how to progress the cause of Socialism. He rejected the focus on class struggle and was more interested in cooperatives, mutual credit societies, and the use of technology. He was 51 years old when he became mayor of Poti and over the next 20 years, set about transforming a less than charming morass into a substantial seaport.

He raised taxes on ships entering the docks to subsidize new development, completely reconstructed the port, organized commercial enterprises and licenses, and banned the building of wooden houses. He invited German architect Edmund Frick to help him realize his vision of a modern city, creating a concentric city plan based on the boulevards of Paris. They named the 12 streets that go around the main square after the Apostles and Nikoladze built a cathedral there. In 1896, he adapted the oldest structure in town, the foundations of the Turkish fortress that lay on the side of the square, opposite the lighthouse across the river, removed the wooden construction added by the Russians, and built a Georgian-style balcony around it. As a final flourish, he put a mechanical clock on the top floor, which he had brought from Parisian horologer. He made this tower his home for a time; today it houses officers of the city council and is in a state of disrepair, though the clock still keeps time. The port he masterminded became the main source of employment over the next 100 years.

Niko Nikoladze. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Colchian Culture

With his particular commitment to social and economic projects, Nikoladze would be displeased with the decision of the Georgian government in 2008 to sell their 51 percent stake in the port to create a free industrial zone. The next year they sold the rest, thus ending the long relationship between the city council and the port administrators. The port is the biggest in Georgia and the largest dry cargo handler in the Caucasus. It handles nine million tons of cargo each year, can hold 600,000 twenty-foot containers, and supports more than 1,100 employees.

The area around the port is busy, the hot sea air mingling with the smell of axle grease and freshly baked bread. Kazakh oil comes through here to the European market. Sixty-five per cent of trade is for transit through Georgia, the goods heading into Central Asia by truck and rail. Yet Poti-born writer Davit Gabunia tells me there are not so many jobs as there used to be. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were all these huge ships going to waste. My uncle sailed one to Japan where they sold it for scrap metal. Huge, massive ships.”

The view of the port from the lighthouse, further north towards Anaklia and Abkhazia. Photo by: Brendan Jackson

The port is today owned by APM Terminals, a subsidiary of the Moller-Maersk Group. Their plan is to build a mega-port with two deep water facilities, increasing their annual turnover to 50 million tons and 2 million containers. For the first stage, APM announced an investment of $250 million U.S. dollars.

This investment is hampered in a time of financial crisis, with the Georgian lari losing nearly half its value against the U.S. dollar since 2014. It seems those visionary civic partnerships Nikoladze conceived of as essential to the health and vitality of a community, and to economic development, are little in evidence today, though the City Council soldiers on. They have built a new symbol of local pride, an 800 seat theatre on the central square by the cathedral (which itself functioned as a theatre space under the Soviets). They present award-winning, cutting edge performances and international drama. Work has begun on the dilapidated seafront where, in 1991, the Golden Lake sports complex was used for the European water sports championships. The indoor facilities have been empty for years and its accommodation blocks given over to ‘internally displaced persons’ from the war with Abkhazia in 1992-93. They aim to create a modern resort and recreation zone, with a new boulevard along the beach. While tourism remains a fledgling industry in Georgia, the seaside resorts of Batumi, Kobuleti and Ureki are busy with local holidaymakers, as well as the traditional Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Polish tourists.

Looking down over this stretch of coastline, the wind whistling around the lantern housing, Dolbaia shares this thought: “The city was built with its back turned to the sea. It was never the idea to be a touristic region. It was very much industrial, boats and ships and steel and metal and smoke and it’s changed after the Soviet Union.” Nevertheless, with the development of an International Airport at nearby Kutaisi and budget airlines increasing their flights from Europe, Poti hopes to attract some of these visitors. This city, long considered to be merely a city of sailors and truck drivers, is attempting to reinvent itself. On this warm evening, at the back of the theater, the market is almost empty. Watermelon sellers sit on crates, smoking cigarettes. Most people are crowded around TV screens watching ‘Dancing With The Stars’. They loudly cheer on one of the participants, Jano Izoria, an actor of the Poti theater, his exuberant personality and restless energy representing the hopes and dreams of the new generation. They hold up a placard which reads: Jano, even the mosquitoes of Poti vote for you! Dumas might just offer some applause.