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Three Churches

Many of the Orthodox churches here in Georgia adhere to a traditional architectural design that can sometimes make many churches appear very similar on the outside. The rectangular shape symbolizes the arc of salvation, a vessel on an ocean sailing towards heaven. It might be tempting to pass up visiting many churches in Georgia with the mistaken belief that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Nothing can be further from the truth. Each church and monastery Corie and I have visited has a unique character that makes even a brief stop worthwhile. That was certainly the case for the three churches we visited a couple weeks ago in Batumi.

Sameba Church

black and white image of an Orthodox Church on a hill
Semba Church, Batumi, Georgia

It’s easy to notice the Sameba Church, or Holy Trinity, from most places in Batumi. The church is perched on a hill outside of town, often cloaked in low strands of clouds. Construction started on the new complex in 2007, replacing a 19th-century church that burned down in the 1970s. A narrow, steep, winding road takes worshipers and visitors to the church complex, and the view of Batumi and the Black Sea from the church and its yard is unparalleled. While the site can easily be toured in a half hour or less, daydreamers like me might take a little longer to stop and enjoy the view. Inside the Sameba Church, the walls are painted a light blue, which seems to mirror the color of the sea below. It was overcast when we visited, and the diffused light from the outside illuminated the nave and made the gold tiles threaded through the many mosaics seem like they were lit from behind. Many churches have a cave-like character, taking the eyes several seconds to adjust. Not so with the Semba Church. It felt airy. Welcoming. Instead of invoking mystery, it resonated with a feeling of life and hope. A stern man, probably in his mid 30s kept watch, ensuring visitors adhered to the rules similar to most other churches in Georgia: women must wear skirts and cover their heads, no shorts or hats for men, and no photography. I also found out crossing one’s legs while taking notes is also on the forbidden list. The church is far removed from anything else, surrounded by lush forest, creating an oasis from sound. Inside, even the slightest noise reverberates around the icon-adorned room. If I were allowed to take a photo, it would have sounded like a firecracker. The man asked why I was taking notes. Through the translation application on my phone, I told him I wanted to remember how beautiful the space was since I couldn’t take a photo. For a brief shining moment, after Corie correctly identified St. Nino in one of the icons, the direction of our conversation seemed to be heading toward him saying “If you’re quick and discreet, go ahead.” But no such luck.

Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral

black and white image of a stone structure on the side of a historic church in Batumi, Georgia
Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral, Batumi, Georgia

Batumi’s Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral seems to have an identity problem. The exterior architecture looks closer to a Roman Catholic church, while the interior is very much Orthodox. Its history explains the visual confusion. The cathedral was constructed as a Roman Catholic church in the early 20th century before it was confiscated by the Soviet government and used as an archive and later as a high voltage lab. After Georgia regained its independence, the building was given to the Georgian Orthodox Church. The cavernous interior is one of my favorites in Batumi, with honey-brown walls filled with icons and biblical murals. There always seems to be a shuffle of people inside the cathedral, the tourists who stand around gawking at the architecture mixed with the cathedral’s regular worshipers, navigating around the room from icon to icon reciting quiet prayers. A middle-aged woman worked at gently removing the remnants of beeswax candle wax from a stand in front of a framed icon. The candles create small islands of warm light around the nave while perfuming the air with a sweet scent. Watching the woman work, I suspected her work was never ending. Her expression had an artist-like quality, concentrating on both the fine details and the broader work. As the clouds parted, a pool of light illuminated the center of the nave, highlighting faint whisps of smoke.

St. Nicholas Church

black and white image of an Orthodox Church viewed through an arch
St. Nicolas Church, Batumi, Georgia

Monotone chant reverberated through the St. Nicholas Church as the priest and deacon celebrated part of the daily cycle. Just outside the church, a wedding party along with a small crowd of friends and family, were preparing for their upcoming ceremony. St. Nicholas Church, to a much lesser degree than the Holy Mother, looks like it doesn’t quite fit in with Georgia’s other orthodox churches. Again, its history explains the difference. It was built as a Greek church in the late 1800s and eventually given to the Georgian Orthodox church. If it weren’t for the icons throughout the nave, one might believe he was in a haunted mansion instead of a church. The dark, turquoise-colored walls showcase faded murals of biblical scenes, nearly hidden by centuries of incense smoke. The contrast between the imposing architecture and the gaiety of the wedding guests milling through the building was stark. The blue stained-glass windows in the dome cast a dreamlike cool light into the nave that amplified the haunted mansion vibe. The lower windows were clear, allowing for framed vignettes of the magnolia trees outside. When the priest concluded the service, he made his rounds, posing for selfies with members of the wedding party. His expression was warm as he greeted people. With brick-red hair pulled back into a short ponytail, a weathered face, and a red-gray beard and genuine laugh, it seemed more likely to find him in an Irish pub, relaying tall tales of the sea to anyone who would listen. As more wedding guests entered, I made my way out but was stopped by a man in his 20s who asked if I was an American. People usually assume Corie and I are Russian, so when someone correctly guesses our nationality, it’s a surprise. He excitedly told me about all the places he would like to see in the United States and asked if I had been to them. I had. My admission made him more excited. He didn’t press me for details. I assumed if he had a list of places, he had already done his research. He was just happy to meet someone who has been to places he’s only dreamed about.

 

Many people will describe Batumi as being a little “less authentic” than the rest of Georgia. In some ways, they have a point. The boardwalk along the Black Sea is lined with modern apartments and hotels that could be in any costal city. But the boardwalk contains some nice surprises that were fun to photograph. Join me next week as I share them!

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