Merely miles from the Turkish border, a Muslim legacy of its own is living on, unaffected by our ignorance of it. The only mosque in town– the Batumi mosque– was situated on an unassuming cobbled street near Piazzia Square. The small, two-story structure seamlessly blended in with the walls; only the minaret gave it away.
I was visiting Batumi for just the day, as an excursion of a Turkish Black Sea tour my mother and I had decided to take together, to see parts of Turkey that we hadn’t really been to before. I especially cherished the opportunity to see my mother’s homeland with my mother. She was especially keen to visit Georgia because when she was my age, she never got to cross the border, which at the time was a part of the USSR and thus closed off. Instead, she had to be placated with just a photo in front of the border sign.
My usual ritual before visiting any new place is to exhaustively research everything; where to go, what to see, the history. However, for this trip I decided to go in without any expectations – I wanted to embrace the experience with no preconceived notions. The city, historically the vacation summer spot for Soviet state employees, was an assertively European city – the colors, architecture, and airs of the space exuded a mixture of Gothic and Parisian essence. Despite this, running into the mosque in the old city did not feel like a juxtaposition. The structure, with its traditional Georgian wood architecture and bold, colorful agricultural wood motifs may make it the most authentically Georgian building on the block.
Stepping inside the narrow courtyard, the marbled pathway, reminiscent of Ottoman design, led up to a grand carved door, decorated in bright colors. The interior was smaller than the door would lead one to expect, but cozy. The pillars barely seemed to uphold the second story balconies, through every creak and groan, and the facets of the inner structures seemed to be falling into each other, ever so dependent on leaning against one another. The bright, candyland-like hues appeared in stark contrast to the serious blue and darker tones of the Turkish masjids, though they were only 30 minutes apart. Yet, despite this being one of the most distinct masjids I had ever entered, certain elements remained the same – the minbar and mihrab clearly marked, the shelves with Qurans and tasbeehs hanging off the hooks.
Like with any cultural legacy, the quaint little mosque on Chkalov St. is finding itself at the center of a political controversy. As young Muslim Georgians leave rural Adjara for greater economic prospects in Batumi, the space at the Batumi Mosque has proven not enough. Calls for a bigger mosque have been approved and then revoked, as Islamophobic fears of Turkish influence have prevented Georgian authorities from delivering on their promise to the Muslim citizens of Batumi. From the 16th century until 1878, Adjara was a part of the Ottoman Empire, but even after the borders changed the Muslim minority continued to consider themselves indigenous to Adjara, and to Georgia as well. During the Soviet era, many religious buildings were seized; however, many mosques in Adjara, as they were built in small houses in the villages, simply had their minarets removed, and thus were able to evade the strict atheist policies.
The Batumi mosque’s official name is “Orta Jame,” or “Middle Mosque,” as it was originally situated between the Azize Mosque, which was built on behalf of the Ottomans, and the Mufti Mosque– both now destroyed. In 2013, an agreement between Turkey and Georgia entailed that Turkey would reconstruct old Georgian heritage sites in Turkey, while Georgia would permit the building of a new mosque in place of where the former Azize mosque once resided. However, fears that Turkey –which holds 70% of investments in the entire province– would be exerting imperialistic ambitions by conflating the building of the new mosque with that of the rebuilding the old Ottoman Azize mosque caused significant political tension, keeping the Muslim community in apprehension as Georgian officials back-pedaled on their promises. This difficulty in reconciling with the Ottoman past didn’t surprise me– I recall seeing an Ottoman-style çeşme, or public water fountain outside the Batumi Botanical Garden in the back of the parking lot, with the Ottoman emblem above defiled as if to say “we want to remove as much evidence as possible of this particular history.” Though the new mosque was finally approved on July 23th of this year, backlash and strong criticism from right-wing groups indicate the long struggle ahead.
Photo courtesy of JAM News
What impacted me the most about the Orta Jame Mosque wasn’t its style or vivid colors, but the fact that it was there at all, existing comfortably within its own context, with negligible recognition. It struck me that in the general imagination of the Muslim world, we rarely think about mosques and Islam in places that don’t have an assertive Muslim identity–let alone recognize that they have their own unique and distinct style. Especially in countries that unfairly occupy little space in our collective imagination, we often pass over the valuable but little-known narratives that are there. The little mosque in Batumi was just another reminder of a Muslim narrative that continues to live on and evolve, with or without the spotlight.