The province of Samegrelo (Mingrelia or Megrelia in Russian) covers an area of 5,394 sq. km (2,083 sq. miles) and has a population of 451,852. It is the home of the Mingrelians, a tribe of Georgian people who speak Megruli, one of the languages that belong to the southern Caucasian language group known as Kartvelian. Some travelers consider them the most beautiful people of the Caucasus. You will be able to decide for yourself, for they can often be distinguished by their blond hair and blue eves a rarity among Georgians as a whole. Their province occupies the largest part of historical Colchis, the land to which Jason and his Argonauts sailed in search of the Golden Fleece in the late Bronze Age (13th century BC). Colchis is the name by which this land was known to the ancient Greeks and to the indigenous Georgian tribes who lived there. The Kartlians of eastern Georgia called this region Egrisi.
The boundaries as well as the names of this region have changed many times throughout history, reflecting both the fortunes of the foreign conquerors who coveted the territory as an important trade route to India and the aspirations of local peoples and princes for hegemony. In the pre-Christian era, Colchis encompassed present-day Abkhazia, Guria, and Ajara. By the sixth century BC it was a powerful kingdom whose political center was at the Rioni River. The silver coins they minted, called kolkhuri tetri, circulated widely. The kingdom broke up through successive bouts of expansionism by Persians, Greeks, and Romans. In the second century AD the region was dominated by Laz kings and became known to the Byzantine world as the Kingdom of Lazica. (The Laz arc a Georgian people from just north of the mouth of the Chorokhi River, who appeared in western Georgia in the second half of the first century BC). The capital of this kingdom was Tsikhe Goji (also known as Nakalakevi;).
By the sixth century the Kingdom of Lazica had weakened, and Byzantine and Persian jockeying for the region came to a head in 512 with a war that continued for 20 years and turned all of western Georgia into a battlefield. Only at the end of the eighth century was the Abkhazian King Leon II able to liberate western Georgia from Byzantium’s influence. By the 12th century’ a united cast and west Georgia was the strongest state in the Middle East. This united Georgia consisted of many saeristavoebi or duchies. The duchy of Odishi, comprising much of present-day Samegrelo, lay between the Tckhury River to the southeast and the Kodory River to the northwest. The eristavi or duke of this region was Bedian Dadiani, the patriarch of a dynastic family that had ruled in the region since at least 1046 and continued to do so for more than 700 years.
In the 1460s, the Turkish threat began to plague Georgia. For the next 400 years, although ostensibly independent, Odishi had to pay large tributes to the Turks in money and slaves. Sometime in the 1550s the duchy of Odishi became an independent principality and a Dadiani descendant took the title of sovereign. Although Odishi reached the apogee of its power in the 17th century’ under the reign of Levan Dadiani II. it was not until 1774, with the help of the Russians, that the Turks were expelled and all subservience to them ended.
ln 1804. the principality of Mingrelia came under Russia’s protection and the reigning Prince Grigol Dadiani became a vassal of Alexander I. The relationship between the reigning Dadianis and the Tsar continued until 1857, when the Russian government abolished the Mingrelian Principality. That made Princess Katherine Dadiani (neе Chavchavadze, the daughter of the Georgian poet Alexander Chavchavadze; sister of Nina who was married to the Russian writer Alexander Griboyedov), “the last Queen of Samegrelo.” Although she went to St. Petersburg to appeal the decision of Alexander II, it was to no avail and the territory was united with Russia in 1867. In 1921, the region became a part of the Soviet Union along with the rest of Georgia. It is now, of course, part of independent Georgia.
The present boundaries of the Samegrelo province are the Enguri River in the north separating it from Abkhazia, the village of Jvari in the northeast separating it from Svaneli, the village of Abasha in the east separating it from Imereti, the Maltakva River in the south separating it from Guria, and of course the Black Sea in the west. The region excels in the production of tea, paper, citrus, and wine. Largescale cultivation of lea began in 1928 with the allocation of 1,500 hectares (3,075 acres) of land for a tea plantation. Today tea plantations cover over 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres), which represents one third of the acreage of tea plantations in Georgia. The annual harvest of tea in 1989 was 140,943 tons, which fell to an annual harvest of 2,545 tons in 1996. Tea had made many Mingrelians rich, but as you travel through the countryside the once impressive homes and private plots are showing the same wear and tear as the entire country as a result of the war in Abkhazia.