Georgia live by ancient tribal traditions in medieval villages HIGH up in this isolated mountain region lies a fiercely independent people living by ancient tribal traditions in preserved medieval villages. Svaneti in the Caucasus mountain region of Georgia is home to the Svan people, an indigenous group living in the remote northwest of the country who have created their own unwritten language and whose unique cultures and traditions have been preserved thanks to their geographical isolation.
Tribal traditions are still a way of life for the Svans. The wheel only made an appearance in 1935, pagan elements suffuse Christian beliefs, stone watchtowers dominate the valleys of Mestia and Ushguli and provincial cuisine is still preferred. Home to the highest inhabited land in the Caucasus, Svaneti is surrounded by towering mountain peaks and thousand year old defensive towers built to defend against invaders and warring neighbours. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, some villages in Svaneti were completely abandoned and the area was used as a hideaway for bandits and criminal gangs. But over the last decade the Georgian government has brought stability to the area, opening the isolated mountains up for travellers to explore. The young kids of Svaneti growing up with ancient tribal traditions.
“It may be a European country but some of the communities here are pretty isolated,” says Tara Kennaway, from Intrepid, who will begin offering tours to the area from July this year. “Being mountain people, there is a history of warring clans and unique architecture including stone watch towers built as defensive towers. It is surreal. The glaciers, mountains, rivers and forests then all of a sudden you see an austere stone tower rise in the village ahead.” These tall defensive stone towers are dotted throughout the medieval towns, built to protect villagers Elders still live a traditional existence however the challenge is keeping the young from leaving for bigger cities. during times of invasion and violence that plagued the region from the 9th to 13th centuries. Around 175 towers still stand today in the town of Mestia.
The village of Ushguli is located 2200m above sea level, said to be the highest inhabited village in Europe. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to the tower of Queen Tamar — the first woman to rule Georgia from 1184 to 1213 who faced significant opposition to her rule at the time but is now a celebrated Georgian figure. The highest mountain in Georgia, Mt Shkhara, is found in Svaneti. A towering 5068m high, visitors can make the 56 hour walk from the village of Mestia to its base and see the imposing Shkhara glacier. Women, children and the elderly would hide on the first floor of the towers while the men fought from the small windows at the top.
The Svan people live a simple subsistence existence as farmers growing their own produce and making the famous Georgian cheese, one of the most important ingredients in Georgian cuisine. “It’s like a Greek cheese and one of the best things they make are these pies called Khachapuri,” says Tara. “The dough is made with a whole lot of cheese in the middle and when it comes out of the oven they crack an egg into the middle of it. “A woman got really excited that I was Australian and brought me back to her house and force fed me all this cheese pie. It was this unexpected hospitality that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world, “It’s a small country and people are genuinely thrilled to know you’re interested in their culture,” says Tara. The old Georgian Treasury was located high up in the Caucasus mountains.
The ancient civilisation is surrounded by history including Kutaisi, an antique town more than 3000 years old that is said to be connected to the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. And Mtskheta, the ancient capital and religious centre of Georgia where the Robe of Christ is said to be buried in the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. “I think people will be surprised by this amazing country with an ancient history, phenomenal food and strong culture that they’ve never thought about before.” “I was blown away why there weren’t more people travelling there. Politically its stable, its newly independent and just waiting for people to come and visit. Locals make the famous Khachapuri cheese pie.