Dadiani Dynasty: The Zugdidi Residences

Generations of Dadianis built splendid palaces, castles, churches, and residences in Georgia and elsewhere in the region. The majority were destroyed and replaced with other structures. However, the buildings that survive, and the drawings and other records of those that did not, contribute greatly to our understanding of those who inspired, designed, built, and used them.

For hundreds of years, Zugdidi was the seat of the Dadianis’ power, and the Zugdidi residences of the Dadianis offer some of the most breathtaking examples of royal architecture associated with the House of Dadiani.

A detailed record of the residences’ appearance during the reign of Levan II Dadiani (r. 1611-1657) is provided by the sketches and written descriptions of Don Chistoforo de Castelli, a Roman Catholic missionary in Samegrelo from 1628-1654. These depict a massive, three-storey building with double roofing, 17 windows of various sizes and shapes, two balconies, and an annex with a tower. The yard was enclosed by a high wall with towers and gates; a belfry and court church were also part of the scene.

The 19th century was the heyday of construction and landscaping in the residences complex, producing many structures of great beauty and historic interest—David Dadiani’s palace, Queen Ekaterine’s palace, the palace of the Murats, the botanic gardens, and others. Unfortunately, despite their comparative modernity, most of these structures have been lost to war, fire, or the malign neglect of the Soviet regime.

David Dadiani’s Palace

Some ruins still remain of David Dadiani’s palace—the official residence of the last Principal of the House of Dadiani to rule over Samegrelo (r. 1840-1853). These are situated at the main entrance of the botanical gardens in the Zugdidi residences complex. Completed in late 1837 or early 1838, this two-storey palace consisted of 28 rooms. The middle part was constructed of stone, and additional rooms of chestnut wood were later added.

This palace was occupied by the invading forces of the Ottoman general Omar Pasha in 1855, and converted into a war hospital. After the Mingrelians recaptured Zugdidi, the retreating Ottoman forces burned the building down. It was later restored and transferred to the Russian Empire’s governor in the region. But shortly afterwards, it was once again devastated by fire. This time, it was not rebuilt; instead, the remaining stone walls were demolished and the materials used in the construction of Niko Dadiani’s palace.

The Botanic Gardens

The Zugdidi residences complex also included a vast botanic garden designed by the Italian landscape architect Joseph Babini. It included an orangery, a labyrinth, a plant nursery, a hothouse, and a man-made lake, and was stocked with exotic plants imported from all over the world, including one of the world’s finest rose collections. Shortly after its planting in 1840, this remarkable garden won first place in a competition to select the finest examples of park design in the Russian Empire.

A grand guest house was situated in the botanic gardens. An 1848 visitor describes a pair of beautiful staircases leading to two ballrooms on the top floor, both decorated with ornamented black and yellow wooden ceilings, chandeliers, and sculptures. The whole structure was surrounded by illuminated balconies, their columns interspersed with woven wood ornaments.

David Dadiani ordered the construction of the botanical garden for his wife, Ekaterine, who personally supervised all aspects of the planting. After the gardens were vandalized by the retreating Ottoman forces, Ekaterine wrote a sorrowful letter to her advisor Platon Ioseliani that read in part:

Zugdidi is no longer. The garden there—the product of sixteen years of labor, which was commendable not only in this area of the Caucasus but in foreign countries as well—has been erased by the enemy. All fruits, flowers, and plants from foreign countries some were taken away, and some cut down.

However, Ekaterine was determined to restore the park; it was gradually replanted, and much of its old charm eventually was restored. However, after Ekaterine’s death in 1882, her son Niko largely neglected the Zugdidi residences and their gardens. In 1886, the newspaper Iveria wrote:

It is reported from Zugdidi that, although the town is laid out according to plan [and] there is a boulevard with trees lining it on either side, lately it cannot boast of cleanliness and refinement. David Dadiani’s garden was the beauty of the town—a garden without peer not only in Samegrelo, but in the whole of the Caucasus. But where is this large garden now? Even its shadow has disappeared. It has now become a thick forest, in which instead of men, wolves, jackals, and other beasts reign supreme, so that after sunset a human dare not enter it.

Today, although the plants are tangled and overgrown and the walls are crumbling, it is still just possible to imagine the splendor and serenity of the gardens in their day. The area around them remains adorned with trees brought from India, Japan, Italy, and North America.

The Palace of the Murats

The handsome palace where Ekaterine’s daughter Salome lived with her French husband Achille Murat was another part of the Zugdidi residences in the late 19th century. This palace was constructed primarily of wood and had 24 rooms. At least one photographic image remains of this unique building, but the building itself is long gone. Both the palace and its owner met with tragic fates in rapid succession.

In 1895, the palace was destroyed by fire. The writer Sergi Chilaia describes the harrowing scene:

The beautiful palace of the Murats was burning, and there was no one around to help. The domestic servants cried and screamed, but they could do nothing. The wooden part was burnt to ashes—only the charred bricks stood like a skeleton. The servants brought the surviving furniture to one place, mourning over each object as if it was a deceased person.

Shortly after the fire, Achille Murat died in his summer villa in the village of Chkaduashi. Reports in the French press attributed his death to a cerebral hemorrhage, but rumors of a connection between the fire and Murat’s death swirled. A number of press reports had insinuated that Salome herself had set the fire to collect insurance money, and some individuals speculated that Murat had been so pained by these charges that he committed suicide.

The Queen’s Palace

In 1873, construction began on the well-known Queen’s Palace (Ekaterine’s Palace), following a design attributed to Edwig Jacob Rice. This is the best-known surviving structure built under the Dadianis’ royal patronage, and today it houses the Dadiani Palace Museum. By design, it resembles the Alupka Palace in the Crimea. Both buildings are done in neogothic style on a monumental scale; in outline, they resemble English castles with an oriental touch. Great attention was lavished on the palace’s interior design, which melds Georgian, Russian, and Parisian styles. The palace complex also includes a three-story, English-style tower widely known as the Virgin Tower, where a garment said to have belonged to the Virgin Mary is kept.

The inner yard balcony—the so-called Queen’s balcony—is made of timber and surrounds the whole building. It stands on 51 massive wooden pillars and is secured by its own weight, without nails. Its wooden ornamentation contains over 50,000 small pieces of inlaid marquetry. The balcony was restored to something of its original grandeur in the 1980s.

In its day, the Queen’s Palace was not only the chief residence of the Prince and Queen, but also the site of one of the finest libraries in Georgia, a museum, and a military office. It housed valuable artworks and historical, archaeological, and paleographic objects.

Niko Dadiani’s Palace

A palace for David and Ekaterine’s son Niko was built in the 1880s adjacent to the Queen’s Palace, following a design by the Russian architect Leonid Vasiliev. Skillfully blending Georgian interiors and a Russian exterior, Vasiliev produced an architectural specimen that was most unusual for its time.

This palace is also of special historical significance. Salons were often held here that brought together Georgia’s outstanding figures in literature and the arts, and by the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, it had become a major center of Georgian cultural life.

Other Facilities at Zugdidi

Other facilities that dotted the Zugdidi residences complex included a greenhouse, stables, a bathhouse, an ornate iron gate imported from Istanbul, and a three-storey castle from which cannons were fired during major celebrations. Among these, the bathhouse was especially noteworthy—a brick, single-storey, small-arched building standing near the stables behind the Queen’s residence. In conformity with custom, feasts and theatrical performances were frequently held here.

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