Svanetian Hymn to the Sun

Text by Tinatin Mosiashvili, Journalist and tour guide

BRIEFLY

If you haven’t seen Mount Ushba or Tetnuldi with their peaks growing above the clouds, or have not caught a glimpse of Shkhara behind Ushguli’s towers, or have never witnessed the birth of the Enguri River running down Mount Mkinvari, or have not contemplated the murals of the Lamarie Church of the Virgin Mary or the Transfiguration Cathedral, or have yet to visit the Mestia Museum to see the ancient illustrated Gospels, or have never listened to male Svans perform the glorious Lileo chant honoring the sun deity—a lamentation, by the way, sung only at funerals, God forbid!—or have never tasted Svanetian kubdari double-crust pie stuffed with minced meat, then you are up for a great joy, the joy of meeting Svaneti face-to-face for the first time .Arguably, there are few places in the world combining nature and cultural heritage as harmoniously and organically as Svaneti does. Make sure you allocate 3 or, ideally, 4-5 days to spend in Svaneti. The tallest peaks in Georgia and exceptional alpinist routes are waiting for you, and the Svans themselves are excellent mountaineers.

Some History

“The Svans are foremost in courage and in power. At any rate, they are masters of the peoples around them and hold possession of the heights of the Caucasus above Dioscurias. They have a king and a council of three hundred men; and they assemble, according to report, an army of two hundred thousand; for the whole of the people are a fighting force, though unorganized. It is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain-torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins, and that this is the origin of the myth of the Golden Fleece,” Strabo wrote in his Geography as early as the turn of the 1st century AD.

According to Strabo, the Svans, back in those days, occupied much larger territories, and if they could assemble a 200,000-strong army, their entire population must have been 3-4 times as large.

Presently, there aren’t nearly as many people living in Svaneti, only 15,000 left. According to the 2014 census, only 9,300 people live in Zemo (Upper) Svaneti which incorporates the Mestia Settlement and the villages of the Mestia Municipality, with fewer than 2,000 living in Mestia proper. In Kvemo (Lower) Svaneti, including the Lentekhi Settlement and Municipality, there are 4.3 people, with only 947 populating Lentekhi itself.

It’s not really surprising, because scarcity of land, natural disasters, and general hardship have contributed to a great deal of emigration, while the Soviet authorities encouraged depopulation in the insubordinate region for decades.

Tourism is one industry that has inspired many Svans to return to the mountains, mainly to Zemo (Upper) Svaneti. Mestia-Ushguli has emerged as one of the most popular tourist routes in Georgia.

Most Svans are engaged in cattle-breeding. They used to grow cereal crops, but presently stick to potatoes. Those formally employed are for the most part involved in education and municipal services.

Geography

The Svaneti Ridge, a branch of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, splits Svaneti into two parts: Zemo (Upper) and Kvemo (Lower). North of the Svaneti Ridge lies the upper section of the Enguri Valley, which is made up of Zemo Svaneti and the Mestia Municipality.

South of the ridge one finds the upper section of the Tskhenistskali River Valley, Kvemo Svaneti, and the Lentekhi Municipality.

Zemo and Kvemo Svaneti are linked by the Latpari Pass which, similar to many other passes in the Caucasus, is closed from fall to spring, severing travel between the two parts of Svaneti during the winter season.

According to Georgia’s current administrative division, Zemo Svaneti and Kvemo Svaneti are parts of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti and Racha-Lechkhumi-Kvemo Svaneti Regions, respectively.

Traditionally, the Kodori Gorge was also considered part of Svaneti. Unfortunately, the gorge, just like Abkhazia, has been under Russian occupation since the war of 2008.

In the past, the only way to Svaneti led through the Egrisi Range by footpath, a route taken by our rulers, including Queen Tamar, who is especially venerated in Svaneti. Tobavarchkhili, the same as Silver Lake, one of Samegrelo’s key attractions, is found along this path.

The current routes to both Zemo and Kvemo Svaneti stretches along the Enguri and Tskhenistskali Valleys.

Tourists headed to Zemo Svaneti pass through Samegrelo, including Zugdidi, the Tsalnejikhm Municipality villages, and the city of Jvari, while those headed to Lentekhi must leave behind Tskaltubo and the Tsageri Municipality (Lechkhumi).

Road and Travel

Traveling through Svaneti is an exciting experience.

I first visited the region in 1997, when I joined my friends and traveled to the Zeskho Mountaineering Camp. To get there, we took a bus from Tbilisi to Lentekhi, then hopped on an enormous truck and finally reached Seskho, a village very close to the Latpari Pass, late at night. It was back then that I conquered my first peak, Machkhapara.

2001 marked the first time I traveled to Mestia on my own. At the time, the region was not nearly as tourist-infested. So there I was, a young girl traveling all alone, not a person of Svanetian descent or Svans’ granddaughter (“badishi” in Svanetian), with all the other passengers on the minibus inviting me over. The road was horrible. I remember leaving Tbilisi at 6 AM and arriving in Mestia at 9 PM at best.

The current road to Mestia is excellent, with previously dangerous passes over the Enguri River enclosed today in safe tunnels. To put it short, any type of car can deliver you safely to both Mestia and Lentekhi.

The distance between Tbilisi and Mestia is about 480 kilometers. Traveling from the capital, you actually end up riding through half of Georgia.

Traveling is doubly exciting if you start off in Kvemo Svaneti and ascend the road to Mestia via the Zagaro Pass and Ushguli. The beauty of this route is that, besides Mtskheta and Shida (Inner) Kartli, you end up seeing Imereti and Lechkhumi, and even Samegrelo on your way back.

If you’re taking the more traditional route to Mestia, turn onto the Dadiani Palace exit in Zugdidi, Samegrelo, and then head north. From here, it’s only 130 and 172 kilometers to Mestia and Ushguli, respectively.

A trip to Svaneti can be tiring—it takes about 8 hours from Tbilisi. So if you hate wasting so much time, you can always catch a flight. Renovated in 2010, Queen Tamar Airport is listed as one of the best airports in terms of its unusual, funky design. In summer, tickets are sort of hard to get. Flights depart from the Natakhtari Aerodrome near Tbilisi every day except for Saturday at 9 AM, and at 11 AM back from Mestia.

Many tourists take a train to Zugdidi, the regional center of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti. Depending on the route, it takes 5-8 hours.

Mestia-bound buses and minibuses also depart from Zugdidi, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi (Didube and Samgori Bus Stations).

You can also rent a car. But, however good the road may be, I still recommend putting your trust in an experienced driver.

If traveling solo, keep in mind that there are no roadhouses for quite a distance before and after Khaishi. Restrooms are available at food establishments and gas stations.

Almost every travel agency offers tours to Svaneti. Just Google to find both low-cost 95 GEL tours and far more expensive ones. It all depends on the transport, accommodation, and services, of course.

My advice, go with an experienced travel agency and guides knowledgeable about Svaneti—first impressions are the most lasting, they say. There’s so much to see and hear in Svaneti, so many people to meet, that paying extra for a good guide is certainly worth it, trust me.

If you catch regular public transport to Mestia, you can always hire a cab in different directions from there.

Unlike Pshav-Khevsureti, where the road takes you over several Caucasus Mountain passes, the Svaneti (Mestia) road runs along the Enguri Valley, so it is almost always open, even in winter. Mestia is a year-round destination with lots to see and enjoy. The roads here are cleared on a regular basis. But a mountain road is a mountain road no matter what, so necessary machinery is permanently stationed at difficult sections, near Shavghele, for one.

In summer, myriad mountaineering and tracking routes are offered besides cultural and educational tours. In winter, Mestia, thanks to Mounts Hatsvali and Tetnuldi, becomes a skiing magnet.

Unlike in Pshav-Khevsureti, where only a handful of people winter over, Svaneti’s villages and settlements remain pretty vibrant in winter, which means that you will not have accommodation problems.

For flight information, please visit: vanillasky.omedialab.com

Prices: Flights The ride to Natakhtari is provided by the airline itself. Adults pay 90 GEL for airfare, children aged 3-12 are charged 30% less, that is, 63 GEL, and kids under 3 fly for free. You can also fly to Mestia from Kutaisi, on Tuesdays and Fridays, for 40 GEL. Children enjoy discounts.Train As of August 20, tickets were priced at 8.5 GEL (open coach), 16 GEL (class 2), and 21 GEL (sleeper car).

Prices: Bus & Minibus Ticket prices fluctuate between 15 and 30 GEL. Hiring a jeep or sedan one way from Zugdidi and Tbilisi will cost you 25 and 50-60 GEL, respectively. For road conditions, please call the Road Department hotline at (995 32) 2 313 076).

Where to spend a night?

There are many family-run hotels in Svaneti, especially in Mestia. Pretty much every household can host a guest. Relevant information is available online.

If you’re a student and cannot afford a hotel room, there are many campgrounds for you to set up a tent, but make sure in advance you’re not on private property which may cost you money.

Prices vary dramatically: just an overnight stay can cost from 15-30 GEL, but a longer stay with 2-3 meals a day is priced at 40-120 GEL. There are pricier options: a twin room at Tetnuldi Hotel for instance will cost you in excess of 330 GEL in August, for example.

Dining

Besides family-owned hotels in Svaneti, and n Mestia in particular, there are numerous roadhouses, restaurants, and diners, where you will be treated to delicious traditional dishes.

There is also a farmer’s market in Mestia. Because the goods are delivered mostly from Zugdidi, the prices here are higher compared to lower regions.

In Svaneti, you absolutely must try kubdari pie stuffed with minced meat, and Svanetian sulguni cheese.

The locals are not big on beverage production, but you can always find a wide variety of domestic and imported alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Individual households may also serve local single-distilled rakhi vodka.

Communication and payment

Most of Svaneti’s tourist destinations have cellular network and internet connections, so communication is no problem here.

Mestia, as a regional center, does have a clinic, an emergency room, and a police station.

Fortunately, the crime rates have been dropping drastically lately.

Gas stations and branches of large banks also operate in Mestia. Almost all major banks run ATMs.

Plastic cards are accepted in most cases, though you may want to have some cash on you in case you’re headed into rural areas where they may not accept your credit card.

Some history

Before checking what to see in Mestia, let’s embark on a brief historical tour.

“Throughout Georgia’s long stormy history, Svaneti has always been the country’s gateway. Many associate this region with a treasury, though Svaneti is the protector of more than one treasure. The cultural heritage preserved here testifies that Svaneti is an integral part of the unified network of Georgian culture, a region actively engaged in global processes, despite its complex geographic location.

“The modern-day Svans are the descendants of one of the most ancient ethnic Georgian tribes. The Svanetian language has best kept the archaic linguistic elements of the proto-Kartvelian (Georgian) language which, along with its carrier ethnicity, split into the Svanetian and Georgian-Zan language families, probably in the early 3rd millennium BC.

“The earliest remains of human settlements in the territory of Svaneti date to the New Stone Age, some 7-8 millennia ago. Later in the Bronze Age, it emerged as an important center of ancient metallurgy. The artifacts discovered here prove that ores were actively extracted in Svaneti,” General Director of the Georgian National Museum Davit Lortkipanidze wrote in the Mestia Museum publication.

We will only add that bookstores in both Tbilisi and Svaneti carry numerous exciting books on Svaneti, which we highly recommend.

The Myth of the Argonauts bears witness to Colchis as a country rich in gold. “Even today, in mountainous Colchis, the same as Svaneti, we find evidence of the gold extraction method described in the Myth of the Golden Fleece” (Lortkipanidze).

Photo source: museum.ge

Svaneti was part of the Kingdom of Colchis at first, and then part of the Kingdom of Egrisi. In the 11th-15th centuries AD, it emerged as an independent principality which split into smaller duchies starting in the 15th century: Kvemo Svaneti (from the source of the Tskhenistskali Valley to Muri Castle, near Tsageri), Baliskvemo Svaneti, also known as Sadadeshkeliano (the western section of Zemo Svaneti, the Enguri Valley in the lower section of the Bali Ridge, below the Becho Community), and Balszemo Svaneti (the eastern section of Zemo Svaneti, also known as Free Svaneti, from Latali to Ushguli).

The pustoba tradition, which involved transporting treasures from the lowland and storing them in Svaneti for safety purposes, had turned this region into Georgia’s treasury.

Unlike in the mountainous areas of Eastern Georgia where local pagan jvar-khati shrines have survived in abundance, Christian churches are found in pretty much every Svanetian village. Their number is rumored to exceed 200.

Historically, the Svans have always showed exceptional care in protecting Christian relics and church treasuries.

These treasures were first documented and studied in the late 19th century. Under Soviet rule, they were transported into museums.

“Without exaggeration, the surviving churched and unique examples of Christian culture in Svaneti form a significant part of global cultural heritage, though the international scientific community is not duly informed about it, which is unfortunate. I am confident that Svaneti will be recognized as a unique surviving island of early European culture,” Davit Lortkipanidze wrote.

What to see?

The intro above should explain why there is so much to see in Svaneti.

Before visiting, you can plan a route to suit your preferences. Alternatively, the operators of the Tourist Information Center in Seti (Mestia’s center, near the City Hall) are standing by to assist you.

The Mestia Museum of Local History is a must-see in Svaneti.

Generally, it is advisable to set aside some money for museums. Better still, retain the services of one of the multilingual guides right at the museum.

The Mestia Museum, which opened in 1936, preserves almost 4,000 exhibits, including archeological materials, unique examples of Georgian repoussé/chasing and iconography (for example, the 10th century Icon of the Savior, 9th-10th century oil-painting Icon of the Virgin Mary, early 11th century Icons of Christ on the Throne, St. George’s Icon by goldsmith Asani, Icons of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste and of the Crucifixion, and numerous liturgical items). You also should visit the museum’s section of ancient manuscripts displaying the 9th-13th centuries Adishi, Labskadi, Ienashi, and Mestia Gospels with repoussé book covers. The Adishi Gospel, copied in Shatberdi in 897, and later transported and preserved in the Svanetian village of Adishi, is the earliest surviving illustrated manuscript in Georgia. The museum also showcases early and late medieval armament and ethnographic materials.

The Mestia Museum also runs a branch in Ushguli, another must-see for sure.

The Margiani Museum, also in Mestia, consists of a traditional tower and an ethnographic exposition.

One of the main components of a traditional Svanetian dwelling is the tower, a square stone pyramid 5×5 meters at the base, 25 meters in height, usually consisting of 4-5 floors. For defensive purposes the top floor has small windows—wider from the inside than the outside. The tower’s angle is directed towards the slope. Its massive hemi-spherical basement and spatial orientation ensure the sustainability of the building and resistance to natural disasters, like avalanches and landslides.

One can still find a whole system of watchtowers in the mountains. In case of an oncoming threat, the guards would burn straw on a top of the first tower, after seeing the

smoke; the guards of every next tower would do the same—thus giving an alarm signal to the population of the canyon. In the case of poor vision in foggy weather, the guards would signal by shooting their guns.

Besides the watchtowers there were several fortification posts that kept control over the Caucasus ranges. There still exist ruins of such constructions, like for example, two gates in the gorge of the river Tviberi.

A typical residential house of a Svan is a big two-story building called a “machubi”. The ground floor was used for living and keeping livestock, the first floor was used for storing hay. The house was heated by a hearth in the center of a big room, where they also cooked their food. As a rule, the house was attached to a tower. Sometimes Svan families consisted of up to thirty or even a hundred members. We can still find such huge residential compounds in the Mulakhi community. For example, a three-meter tall fence surrounds the residential area of the Kaldani clan. There are two towers (one still in good condition), a small church with unique crosses, icons and sanctuaries inside the fence. Judging by the ruins we can assume that there were three houses; one with three floors and the other two with two floors. There also was a threshing-floor, and a dungeon and secret tunnels connecting the residential area with the outside world. A very similar living infrastructure can be found in the town of Mestia and in the village of Latali.

Svaneti is also famous for its legends, views on the creation of the world, and special rituals involving administration of justice, labor distribution, and governance (one part of Svaneti is known as the Land of No Master).

The poverty and lack of arable land prevented the mountain population from having a stratification of classes. Therefore, feudal relationships were hardly visible in the Georgian highlands. In Pshavi, Khevsureti, Mtiuleti, Khevi, Tusheti, and Svaneti the population never got used to serfdom and maintained their communal lifestyle until the twentieth century.

In the early ages, the Svaneti Saeristavo (a territorial administrative unit) was an important political-economic component of the Georgian state. The Royal Court appointed the Duke, or Eristavi, of Svaneti. After Georgia split into smaller kingdoms and principalities, the Svaneti Saeristavo was abolished and became influenced by neighboring principalities. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kvemo Svaneti (currently Lentekhi district) fell under the patronage of the Samegrelo Principality of

Dadiani. Whereas the western part of Zemo Svaneti (currently Mestia district), so called Svaneti Beneath Bali, was subordinated to Dadeshkeliani’s principality at the end of the 18th century. As for eastern Svaneti (the area above Bali starting from the Latali community up to the source of the River Inguri) it maintained its independence and the status of free Svaneti after long and hard struggles.

A communal lifestyle was characteristic to the Georgian highlands from ancient times. A chief, or makhvshi in Svanetian, led the community. A Svanetian type of community governance was very democratic: the general meeting of a community elected the makhvshi. The community members of both genders after twenty years of age had the right to attend the meeting. The makhvshi should be a distinguished individual known for his intelligence, reliability, fairness, and honesty. He was a person obedient to the religious rules and a preacher of Christianity, a judge in peaceful times and a leader of the army in wars.

The Convention was the supreme institution in the legal hierarchy; it was not accountable to anybody and its decisions were final and irrevocable.

Agricultural land in Svaneti was privately owned; the pastures and meadows though were under community ownership. There were also lands and forests owned by churches and used for their needs and religious holidays. A makhvshi controlled the usage of pastures, meadows, and woods by the population; he also regulated issues of land redistribution and surveying. He settled all disputes arising in the community in the presence of four or five witnesses.

The makhvshi was very rigorous but fair in his judgments. Wrongdoers, thieves, and those who disgraced the community were condemned and banished. “All doors were closed for the exile. He and his family would be refused to mill their grist in the community’s mill, to enter the church and to send their livestock with the community’s herd” (Vazha Pshavela). In case of committing a grave crime, the makhvshi would call the Khevi (community) Convention that would make a decision on banishing the offender from the community and burning down his house. Sometimes, the Convention even sentenced offenders to death.

All criminal and civil cases were discussed in a local court consisting of judge-mediators.

On Mikheil Khergiani Street in Mestia, you can visit the Memorial Museum of Mikheil Khergiani, a famous mountaineer. Besides the traditional Svanetian machubi dwelling, you can also visit the museum’s Georgian alpinism section to find out how Svans explored the high mountains in the past, what gear they used, and which foreign mountaineers have ascended some of the most gripping peaks of Svaneti.

Although tourists are more interested in Zemo Svaneti, there is a very interesting museum of local history in Lentekhi, at 20 Queen Tamar Avenue, displaying Bronze Age exhibits, procession crosses, and ethnographic artifacts characteristic of Kvemo Svaneti.

Houses of Prayer

Mestia and Svaneti as a whole are an earthly paradise for pilgrims.

Orthodox Christians can choose from almost 200 churches found here.

In the heart of the Mestia Settlement, you can also visit the Seti Cathedral of St. George and the New Cathedral. I also recommend dropping by the two-story Laghami Cathedral of the Transfiguration with the Church of Saint Barbara occupying the 1st floor.

Churches in smaller villages boast amazing murals.

Svaneti’s religious must-sees include the Church of Saints Kyriacos and Julitta in Kala, the nearby Church of Saint Barbara in the village of Khe, and the Lamarie Monastery in Ushguli.

The Lashtkhvei Church in the Lenjeri Community and the Chazhashi Church of the Ushguli Community feature the surviving illustrations of the Amiran-Darejaniani medieval romance. There are 7 churches in the 4 villages of the Ushguli Community alone.

I also recommend visiting the village of Ienashi in Latali to see the Church of the Prophet Jonah, and the Churches of the Savior and the Archangel in the village of Matskhavrishi.

In the same vein, you may want to visit the villages and churches of the Adishi Community.

If you happen to be visiting Kvemo Svaneti, make sure you visit the Skalda Church of the Archangels, but keep in mind that women are not allowed.

In Kvemo Svaneti, I also recommend the Zhakhundri Church of Saint George, along with the Church of the Archangel in Tvibi and the Church of the Virgin Mary in Paki.

The amazing mural iconography of Svaneti is a different story featuring exceptionally human and character-specific images, something very rare in canonical iconography.

Mestia

You can allocate 1 day for Mestia and enjoy mineral waters while walking through the woods.

The now famous ski resort of Hatsvali is found 8 kilometers from Mestia. Even if you’re not really into skiing, make sure to ascend Hatsvali Mountain nonetheless, as the place, year-round, offers an enchanting view, especially in autumn when Svaneti’s landscape puts on a whole palette of colors.

With any luck, you may be able to take exciting selfies with Ushba in the backdrop.

From Mestia, you can ascend (by car or on foot) the Chalaadi Glacier with the Mestiachala River originating in its bosom.

From Mestia, you can also travel the Koruldi Lakes, on foot, on horseback, or by jeep.

Ushguli Community

Even if your tour is tight, like only 3 days long, make sure you visit the Ushguli Community, one of the highest settlements not only in Georgia but also in Europe.

The village of Ushguli is located at 2060-2200 meters above sea level, by the foot of Mount Shkhara.

The Ushguli Community consists of 4 villages: Murkmeli, Chazhashi (community center), Chvibiani, and Zhibiani.

Chazhashi, the 709th monument on the UNESCO List of Cultural Heritage, includes 13 towers, 4 castles, 21 machubis, 11 traditional dwellings, and 10 supplementary facilities.

The village also has the Ushguli Museum, a school, and the 11th-12th century Church of the Savior.

Near the village there are Queen Tamar’s summer and winter tower-residences.

According to the 2014 census, 230 and 28 people live in Ushguli and Chazhashi, respectively, and most are engaged in hospitality activities. If you’re not planning to stay, you can at least order a meal.

From Ushguli, you can head toward the Shkhara Glacier on foot, on horseback, or by car. It is here that the Enguri, Svaneti’s main river, has its source.

Other villages

Every community in Mestia, and in Svaneti as a whole, deserves special mention. Khaishi, Chuberi, Nakra, Lakhamura, Becho, Latali, Lenjeri, Ipari (especially the village of Adishi),

Tsvirmi, Kala, and other communities of Mestia consist of 130 villages, all unique and special, abounding in historical and cultural monuments.

Special road signs provide general information about particular monuments.

Mountaineering and mountain routes

Svaneti is a genuine earthly paradise for mountaineers.

This region boasts some of the highest peaks in Georgia and the Caucasus: Shkhara, Ushba, Tetnuldi, Rustaveli, and others.

Most routes are well defined, and information about them is available at tourist centers. Mountaineering solo is not recommended. It’s better to climb in the company of experienced locals. Recklessness has caused many accidents here.

Mountains have this special captivating ability.

Makrine Kurdiani, a woman nicknamed the Knower of Ushba’s Secrets, lived in the Becho Community. I never met her while she was alive, but I have heard from alpinists that they have received many pieces of useful advice and fair warnings from her.

Although Mestia has well-functioning rescue services, it is still better to take precautionary measures. Still, no matter how much I may write, and how much you may ask, you need to experience it all on your own, like gasping at the sight of Ushba and Shkhara towering over the clouds, or looking into the eyes of Saint George and the Savior at the museum, or listening to guides and hearing firsthand the love stories of Ushba and Tetnuldi, and Dali and Betkil, or personally enjoying the sounds of the glorious Lileo hymn of the sun and other Svanetian tunes, or watching Svanetian dances, or embracing their tough character, or learning how, throughout the centuries, they have introduced a totally unique way of life in this remote land—unless you do all that, it will be just my personal emotions and nothing else.

 More about Exhibitions at Mestia Museum of Local History: svanetitrekking.ge

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