In this post, I’d like to describe one of my favourite areas in Georgia, which is also the place where we’ve spent the most time next to Tbilisi.
Svaneti is a part of northwestern Georgia located high up in the Caucasus mountains. The region is marked by dramatic peaks that include some of the highest in Georgia, deep gorges, powerful rivers fed by melting glaciers, and thick forests.
Its natural beauty and unique culture (plus the new downhill skiing resorts) have made it one of the most celebrated sites for tourism in Georgia, though this only started to develop barely over a decade ago.
Svaneti is home to an ethnic group of people known as “Svans,” who are a kind of sub-group of Georgians—they regard themselves, and are regarded by other Georgians, as fully Georgian, but also possess a definite identity of their own, despite numbering only about 35,000 (with at least 10,000 of them now living outside of the region).
Actually, their oral language is totally distinct from Georgian (sharing a historical root but splitting off from the common ancestor about 4,000 years ago), and the two languages are not mutually intelligible, although all Svans today also speak Georgian since it is the primary language of instruction in schools. As far as scholars know, Svans have lived in this land for well over 2000 years, and there are no records of earlier inhabitants.
Georgians view the Svans as somewhat strange rural people who have held on to the archaic customs of the ancient Georgians better than lowlanders—the area is often described as “medieval” in popular journalism and travel writing.
Svaneti’s mountainous geography kept it relatively isolated over the centuries; while lowland Georgia experienced multiple waves of invaders, the lowlanders sometimes sent their treasure to Svaneti for safeguarding.
Although outsiders were seldom able to bring war to Svaneti, the Svans themselves were infamously vindictive, practicing the custom of vendetta/”blood feud.” As a result, hundreds of stone defense towers exist throughout the highest part of Svaneti, primarily built to guard against nearby enemy clans.
Some of these structures are 800 years old, and many churches in the area are of similar or even older age. Today the towers aren’t really used for anything, though I’ve met at least one family who keeps their cows in the lowest storey!
Svan religious customs are very interesting to the anthropologically-inclined, being a blend of the Orthodox Christianity brought up from lowland Georgia well over a thousand years ago, but imperfectly preserved in the absence of regular contact with the ecclesiastical centre, and the animist beliefs that preceded it.
While pagan traces exist in many Christian festivals, especially in folk customs in Orthodox and Catholic countries, they are even more obvious here.
Svaneti’s relative isolation meant that its folklore has been better preserved up to the present day than that of other parts of the country.
Its folk music has a distinctive character, with strikingly dissonant parallel chords and two instruments that appear only here—the bowed “chuniri” and the “changi” harp.
Svans say that some of their songs are 4,000 years old, and many of these older songs, which are still sung during local religious festivals, include words that nobody today understands.
We’ve been lucky enough to visit Svaneti four or five times now (Matt went once on his own in 2012), including a whole month last summer and then a longer stint from December 2015 to March.
More Svaneti pictures and stories to come!