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The most Georgian part of Georgia

Mestia, capital of Svaneti, with its famous stone towers 1989. Photo: Peter Nasmyth
Mestia, capital of Svaneti, with its famous stone towers 1989. Photo: © Peter Nasmyth

Upper Svaneti has impressive mountains which rise up to 5,000 meters – and is one of the highest inhabited places in Europe. The remoteness of the villages has preserved the local culture throughout Georgia's numerous occupations and conquests. Many Georgians described it to Nasmyth as 'the most Georgian part of Georgia".

He found himself intrigued by the Svans – "a resiliently religious people" - their vendettas and their 12th century stone towers, some 20 to 25 meter high. These unique towers, some with bases predating Christianity, serve as a defence against avalanches, enemies, and each other.

Modernity had only just arrived in this remote corner of Georgia:

In this land where the wheel and the television arrived in the same lifespan (sledges were, and often still are, used instead of carts), its people had simply grabbed hold of the modern machinery and used it as an extension of their own primitive system. When the diesels broke down the Svans simply abandoned them right there in the field, like another old sledge.

[But] with the arrival of the road and the television, young Svans inevitably gathered a taste for the wider world beyond their valley, beautiful though it may be. Furthermore the severe winter of 1987 brought down a number of terrible avalanches, over 70 died, most of them children at a school high in the mountains. This left a bitter scar on this superstitious people, and helped invoke the largest exodus of young in the region's history.

[pp.154-156]

A problem known well in Georgia as a whole: since independence Georgia lost almost a fifth of its population.

Bordering Abkhazia, one of the break-away regions of Georgia, the conflicts arising after the independence of Georgia also left their mark on Svaneti:

[W]hen over 100.000 Georgian refugees fled from Abkhaz reprisal up the Kodori Valley and over the high passes to safety in Svaneti… After the high passes, they arrived in the Svan valleys, like many thousands of Georgians in the past fleeing prosecution in the lowlands. As before the Svans welcomed them.

[p. 169]

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