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Akhali Atoni (Novy Afon)

Located 70 km southeast of Gagra and 24 km northwest of Sokhumi, Akhali Atoni is a resort on the Black Sea Coast nestled under the lush Iveriis Hill (350 meters). The Psyrtskha River flows nearby, and the salubrious subtropical climate produces not only a bathing season of six or seven months but an abundance of olives, citrus, almonds, and grapes.

The site has been inhabited from the earliest times and traces of many peoples are evident on the southern slope of the Iveriis Hill. In the late sixth century the hilltop citadel, Anacopia, became the seal of the Byzantine rulers of Abkhazia. Also on the hilltop are the ruins of walls, towers, and a church of the seventh to eighth centuries from what had been the largest fortress on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. The church, restored in the 11th to 12th centuries, contains interesting tombs with Byzantine designs. In 756, when Leon I became king of an independent duchy of Abkhazia, he chose Anacopia as his capital.

The name Akhali Atoni (Novy Afon or New Athos) comes from monastery built on Atonis Hill in 1875. Monks from the former Russian monastery Hagios Panteleimon (Hagios Rossikon) of Mt. Athos, Greece, received land from Tsar Alexander III in 1874 for the project. Their New Athos consisted of a Byzantine- style, five-domed cathedral with a belltower dedicated to the Martyr Pentilemon, built in 1900 on the donated monastery grounds consisting of 14,400 hectares. The donation was part of a Tsarist government program to create monasteries in Abkhazia to strengthen its influence on the Black Sea Coast. Originally inhabited by 720 monks, Akhali Atoni became one of the richest monasteries in Russia. Alter the revolution the monks' lands were nationalized as the Abkhazia Collective Farm. Many of the buildings are used today as sanatoria, and the cathedral was turned into a museum, which you can visit.

Also in the precincts of the monastery is the ninth-tenth century Church of Simon the Canaanite, built on the ruins of a fourth-century church and restored in 1882. This cruciform-domed church is in keeping with western Georgian churches of the period and served as a mausoleum for clerical dignitaries. It is dedicated lo Simon the Canaanite, the apostle who came here in AD 55 with Saint Andrew and is revered as having brought Christianity lo Abkhazia. For those who want to get the full flavor of the minestrone of peoples and interests that have passed through here, go down to the grounds of the Primorski (Seaside) Sanatorium to see a 13th- century Genoese tower.

The Akhali Atoni Caves (also called the Iveriis or Anakopia Karst Caves), 16 Chanba Street, are a major tourist attraction of Akhali Atoni and a must for all those fascinated by stalagmites and stalactites. These caves were discovered in 1961 and opened to the public in 1975. Visitors descend by a miniature electric train to the cave complex, which covers 40,000 sq. meters. Nine large cave halls measure up to 100 meters long and 40-60 meters high. You go in a guided tour from one to the other by means of paths and bridges to the strains of piped-in music. Take a sweater, as the temperature below ground is 12° С. The tour lasts an hour and a half.