Works that have been stepped up to rehabilitate the Central Square in Ozurgeti (Ozurgeti is the capital of Guria - the western Georgian province) led to the discovery
of an ancient bathhouse. If it proves to trace its birth to the period after the Ancient Era, then we may claim that Ozurgeti, could have originated much earlier than the late feudal period. Thus, Ozurgeti, like a lady hiding her real age, may appear quite advanced in years and the "birth certificate" saying the city was born in the 16th century - a fake.
In the 1950s, the famous archaeologist Germane Gobejishvili made unveiled references to the secret of Ozurgeti buried under soil. The ancient bathhouses and underground tunnels were also a favorite hobby-horse for the history teacher Givi Khokhlenko. He believed archaeological digs could provide solid proof that Ozurgeti's history goes back much more than sixteen centuries. The leader of Guria's permanent archaeological expedition, Professor Vazha Sadradze, presumes that the ancient bathhouses may have come into existence sometime between the first and fourth centuries. But it seems scientists need some time to have their final word on the subject.
Historical sources identify Ozurgeti as a key player on the commercial scene. The discovery of 270 silver coins (known as the Ozurgeti treasure within the scientific community) on the school grounds by the biology teacher Nioradze and his pupils adds substance to this opinion. Numismatic collections, ceramic utensils, jewelry and other valuable items found in burial grounds contain evidence to support assertions that many centuries ago the economy was booming in this city.
Sadly, present-day Ozurgeti area has no surface traces of historical remains, not to mention the Gurieli palace built in 1873 now providing housing for the Shemokmedian bishop. Historical-literary sources, however, help us define what buildings formerly stood in Ozurgeti: the Grand Palace of Gurieli (which used to grace the Seri district until the 1 the Druzhini building (Theatre Square is designated as an area where this building might have been situated); remains of the city walls and two churches located in the city centre; the old building of public school N1 (which fell into ruins in 2008)...there is no longer any trace of the Prince Garden offering a wide range of exotic and endemic trees; a two-kilometer-long park built by Nicholas father Jacob, who was instructed to do so by Prince Guriel. Legend has it that plane trees in the park were arranged so as to form the name MAMIA (in honor of Mamia Guriel). Branches of the plane trees provided a kind of rostrum for Gurian poets, from which they declaimed their verses... During the Russo-Ottoman war, this uniquely beautiful park was razed to the ground by Turks. Only a small section survived set amid a variety of trees.
The Museum of History is a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the history of Ozurgeti. Of particular interest among six thousand exhibits, are surviving artifacts of the Paleolithic era, a selection of architectural fragments, segmented tools discovered in the territory of the city and adjacent villages, bronze and iron bars, silver and gold items of the Ancient Era, ceramic utensils; also a collection of ancient arms and ammunitions, one of the highlights of which is a sword bearing a French inscription, which Napoleon is said to have presented to Prince Achille Murat; Guriels' personal effects, rich ethnographic resources, unique photographs, paintings, books, manuscripts...
Ozurgeti has strong memories of "Gurian Robin Hoods" - legendary outlaws caught up with Marxist ideas, who were sheltering in Zelkova woods and are still remembered for both good and evil deeds. The Robin Hood epos still continue to echo down to us, with outstanding Gurian vocalists singing the words of woeful ballads: "Sisonai Darchiai rightly praised for his courage did not shy away from mourning his brother in front of the huge army"... "I'm Simona Dolidze, mocked and belittled by my peers, I turned six without ever having slept in a bed"... Memories of the revolutionary events that swept through Guria in 1905 are also vivid and will never ebb away. It was when Gurians revolted against Russian rule and declared Ozurgeti to be the center of the Gurian Peasant Republic. The freedom-thirsty Gurian rebels who sparked off the turmoil in November 1905 were brutally shot down by Russians on 10 January 1906.
The destructive power of time, which destroyed Ozurgeti's historical buildings in its path - has been largely unable to consume the rich cultural heritage and versatile cultural traditions. Unique Gurian hymns and songs continue to travel through time from past to future generations. Different versions of these melodies, as well as new polyphonic songs that have appeared, capture the spirit embodied in the picturesque villages of Ekadia, Saparaskevo, Moidanakhe, Centrisubani, Basra, Zvani, Anaseuli, Lashe, Gakiruli and Seri, as well as in every nook and cranny of Ozurgeti.
Gurians still remember the festive spirit that permeated these villages with the approach of Alegroba - a grandiose charity event. Manana Lomadze, the Ozurgeti- born researcher and chief curator of the Museum of History, presumes that the origin of Alegroba can be traced back to the last Prince of Guria, Mamia V Gurieli (1789-1826), whose palace resembled a European cultural salon, the first of its kind in West Georgia. Ozurgeti in those days had already grown accustomed to being frequented by foreigners, be they Italian missionaries or a German troupe of traveling comedians persuaded by Gurieli to settle down in his palace and put on entertaining performances. Hence, the fact that the inspiring and versatile festival Alegroba derives from the Italian word "Allegro" should come as no surprise to anyone.
The purpose of Alegroba as a public festival has always been charitable. Each family would gladly donate food to the organizers of this event. The proceeds from the lottery went towards charity and public goods. Alegroba soon extended its range beyond the borders of Ozurgeti and became a widely celebrated holiday in villages such as Bakhva, Likhauri, Shemokmedi and Kviriketi. Starting in the 1880s, this tradition continued until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1941. Alegroba stories can now be gleaned from old newspaper cuttings and from those who have happy memories of this festive event.
Mustached young men clad in chokha, bashlyk and tussah or satin robes; graceful women with long plaits of hair; girls dancing foxtrot and waltz to the accompaniment of harmonicas - they all captured the spirit of Alegroba from year to year. Alegroba was a time of feasting, evening strolls and match-making. Services such as "Love Mail" and "Barrel of Fortune" were in full swing. Dance contests were an occasion for everyone to celebrate. The elderly still recall that the most glittering prize awaiting the prettiest girl participating in Alegroba included Kadeishvili's home-made tart and a trip around the city in a flower-garlanded phaeton. Alegroba allowed many single people to find their match. It was there that the outstanding actor Gigola Talakvadze paired off with his would-be wife Eter Svanidze (Lado Asatiani's muse).
The Ozurgeti Museum of History has made an attempt to revive this long-for- gotten tradition, the highlight of which is the folklore festival dedicated to the bandmaster and choreographer Giorgi Salukvadze. This tradition is to be adhered to in the future, under a new name though - Ozurgeteloba. Ozurgetians like to bring the good old days back. Indeed, there can be no forgetting the Wild West Show and skillful Gurian riders under the command of their daredevil Hetman Ivane Makharadze, who treated American audiences to superhuman feats of equestrian prowess. The Gurian horsemen were even invited to Windsor to earn Queen Victoria's gasps of rapture.
Ozurgeti is undergoing a remarkable process of transformation. Having disassociated itself from the revolutionary leader Makharadze, after whom it was named in 1934 up until 1991, the city seems to be regaining its identity as per its original toponym. New colors and contours have already taken over the city, which continues to spring up building by building. Foreigners are no longer a rare sight in the streets. However, the administrative center of Guria standing with one foot in the era of globalization nevertheless retains its richly old-fashioned image and setting. Two-store houses are traditionally buzzing with Kalanda activities (New Year's Day in Guria), white-bearded Chichilakis with crosses on top are still seen on the ivy-carpeted ground and Ozurgetian women are as usual busy baking egg-filled cheese-pies with deft hand movements, as their mothers and mothers-in-law did.
Gurian men traditionally offer their first toast in honor of peace. One particular Ozurgetian, Mikhako Oragvelidze (from the village of Shroma), went as far as sending a Gurian horn to Ronald Reagan in the White House, asking him to drink a toast to peace.