Having thought for a little while, I decided to talk about Georgia, a country which can be described with only one word: “bizarre”. This country is bizarre for its long, intricate history and culture as well as for its ethnical, regional and religious diversities within such a small area of land. There are also differences in culinary aspirations, in languages, dialects and characters.
I am not sure if there is another such small country (only 64,000 square meters) with a small population (approximately 5 mln) and with such differences, but this one; this Georgia, is united with one common “Georgian” uniqueness.
I am inviting you on this unusual journey with my virtual friend, an adventurer, researcher and a culinary specialist, Grigol Kondriskatsi. Together with him, I will try to show you hidden and “untouristy” Georgia with the help of letters, addressed to Grigol’s wife and written by him during his travels.
Let’s start with Samegrelo, a region of mysteries, like the whole country itself. Samegrelo has a very special charm – everything is a bit different here, even the language.
Megrelian is a Kartvelian language, different from Georgian. Here, nature and cuisine differ from other regions. Megrelians were always close to the sea and regard themselves as grandchildren of Colchis. Yes, indeed, it is a place where the Argonauts arrived in an antic era, it was a place governed by Aieti and Medea!
If a person is smart, he will say that he had a Megrelian grandmother. My grandma was also Megrelian, her last name was Gegechkori. People with this last name were very talented and every generation had one or two prominent representatives. Nothing changes.
Megrelians are evaluated as, smart and flexible people. Many famous people come from this region, bad and good, but fact is that it is a truly distinguished place, with remarkable stories and secrets.
Megrelian love affairs are also very special and renowned, such as that of Dadiani-Murat.
It was a warm day in Paris on May 18, 1868. Bells were ringing in the Russian Orthodox Church. As if the nature and trees were specially prepared for the day, everything was beautiful and aromatic. A royal wedding was taking place here and the daughter of the governor of Samegrelo, the Megrelian Princess Salome Dadiani, and the nephew of the Emperor of France, Achille Murat, had their wedding ceremony in the church. Achille was 21 years old and Salome a year younger.
That old friend of mine, well-off merchant, Maecenas and traveler-anthropologist, Grigol Kondriskatsi attended the ceremony and this is how he recalls the day in his famous memoirs “Letters of a Traveler:”
“The Dadianis have governed Samegrelo, the southern province of Georgia, for a long time. I can prove that the women there are really very beautiful.
I saw the Megrelian Queen and her young son, accompanied by a splendid retinue dressed in traditional Georgian costumes. I saw also the young princess Salome Dadiani for the fi rst time. She looks like her mother in her beauty. Achille Murat, Salome’s sweetheart, was there, too.
The princess was graceful and attractive, just like her mother. The atmosphere was both calm and larky at the same time.
As I was told, before her marriage, the princess stayed in the hotel “Louvre,” where the high society of France would gather.
The wedding ceremony was attended by the French Emperor and his spouse. The Monarch of Russia presented 20,000 Francs to the couple and the Emperor granted one million to his nephew and also purchased a beautiful palace for them. The couple received numerous gifts, and guests were invited from different countries. The awesome wedding feast was really imperial.”
More from Kondriskatsi on Murat can be found in “A Traveler’s letters to his Spouse:”
“Soon after the beginning of the French-Prussian war in 1879, Achille, the adjutant of the French Emperor, was called up for military service.
Napoleon III and his adjutant Achille Murat were captured and the Parliament of France tore down the French monarchy.
After escaping, Murat lost interest in politics and exiled to Samegrelo, his wife’s motherland. He took from France one of the most signifi cant relics of his family, a death mask of Napoleon III which became a museum exponent of the Dadiani Palace.
Murat was fascinated by agriculture, and ordered some grape varieties from France, also cultivating the Ojaleshi grape which was near extinction- he made awesome wine from Ojaleshi. His wines became famous in Georgia as well as in Europe. He was a very modest man, working in his vineyards alongside the villagers, as a consequence of which, Georgians loved and much respected him. Murat also tried to improve the living conditions of underclass society by opening schools, laying roads and taking care of poor families.
Murat had a chancellery in Zugdidi with a special manager. The prince always kept in touch with France. Everything seemed well and good, but as it turns out, he was suffering from nostalgia.
Nobody knows for sure whether nostalgia was the reason for his death or not, but based on the information from press and other sources, the diligent and self-respected Prince committed suicide in 1895 on the same day the Lumiere brothers showed their fi rst film.
The French Prince and representative of the Emperor’s dynasty killed himself far from his homeland, in Chkadua village. Everybody learned about this immediately in Georgia, but the offi cial version claimed the cause of death as a hemorrhage. Prince Achille Murat was buried in a special tomb in the yard of an unfi nished Catholic Church.
“Achille Murat’s grave next to the church had a blue Hortensia with bird nests flowers nearby and an immense landscape beyond. Widow of the Prince, the beautiful and devoted Princess Salome Dadiani- Murat often visited the place to pray.”
Grigol Kondriskatsi spoke more about the Princess in another letter to his spouse:
“After the tragic death of her husband, Salome became disillusioned with her homeland and moved to Paris. The once stunning Princess of Samegrelo passed away after a long illness in 1913. This incident had no resonance, neither an obituary, nor condolences. Unfortunately, even the Georgian press did not express a word of sorrow for her passing.”
The photo is kept in the Georgian State Museum of Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography
NATO VACHNADZE (1904-1953)
A prominent Georgian fi lm actress, usually playing the screen character of an Ingénue, an innocent and passionate young woman. She started her career in the silent fi lm era and continued to work as an actress during the sound era until her death in a plane crash in 1953. She was one of the fi rst fi lm stars of the Soviet Union and received numerous honors, including the title of People’s Artist of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Stalin prize.Vachnadze was born in Warsaw as Natalia Andronikashvili, the daughter of a Georgian father from the Andronikashvili family, and a Polish mother. She adopted her last name from her fi rst marriage to Merab Vachnadze. Her second marriage was with the fi lm director Nikoloz Shengelaia, with whom she had two sons, the famous fi lm directors Giorgi Shengelaia and Eldar Shengelaia. Although several versions of the story of how she was discovered for fi lm exist, the most popular and likely is that fi lm director Shakro Berishvili noticed her photograph in a photo studio in Tbilisi. He managed to fi nd her in Kakheti and convinced her to play her debut role in the 1923 adventure film ‘Arsen the Bandit.’ The role of Nunu in the 1923 film ‘Patricide’ and the role of Esma in the 1924 fi lm ‘Three Lives’ made her famous not only in Georgia, but all over the Soviet Union. In these fi lms she played the role of an innocent and passionate young woman. Later on, theater and fi lm director Kote Marjanishvili gave Vachnadze two challenging roles in the experimental fi lms ‘The Gadfly’ and ‘Amok.’ Already regarded as an international star, Nato Vachnadze played the gypsy woman Masha in the German-Soviet film ‘The Living Corpse.’ Unusual for Soviet cinema, most of her films were steamy melodramas in which she acted with considerable passion and emotion. The writer Viktor Shklovsky described her as “an artiste of the American type because her value lies in the purity of her ethnographic type”.
NIKOLOZ SHENGELAIA (1901 -1943)
A Georgian playwright and fi lm director, futurist poet and an honored artist of Russia. Shengelaia was famous for his creativity, dynamic shots, mastery of montage, and cinematic thinking, refined with temperament and poetry. He was the fi rst to initiate the organizational bureau of the Cinematography Association in Georgia. As a fi lm director, he debuted with ‘Giuli’ in 1927, where the tragic role of a young woman was played by his wife Nato Vachnadze. Shengelaia’s most distinguished film is ‘Eliso,’ based on Alexander Kazbegi’s novel, shot in 1928. In 1937, the fi lm director shot ‘An Orange Field’ which was one of Stalin’s favorite fi lms, and in 1941 Shengelaia received a Stalin Prize. His sons Eldar and Giorgi Shengelaia have followed in their father’s footsteps and are also famous film directors.
The photo is kept in the Georgian State Museum of Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography
PHOTO: The Digital Photo Chronicles "IVERIELI"