Life was never easy in the high Caucasus. Nomads from northern steppes eager to get their hands on the riches of Mesopotamia, and Empires battling for supremacy—Assyrians, Macedonians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols—all clashed with fearless locals. The list of invading armies is nearly endless.
Svans, a subgroup of Georgians, who speak their own unwritten Svan language, practice blood revenge, and sing complicated polyphonic vocal songs, were the traditional gatekeepers of mountain passes, and since the time immemorial have been hardy survivors, the archetypal highland warriors. Every household in Svaneti is a true fortress. Villages in these rugged landscapes are often too scattered to be encircled with a protective wall. Each individual house thus had to be separately fortified.
The tower homes of Svaneti were at the same time familial living quarters, fortified fortresses of defense, and personal treasures. They offered protection to their owners and to their livestock, and also served as shelters for the most valuable possessions of every family, as well as copies of holy scriptures and religious icons and relics. Most of the towers date back to the period between the ninth and 12th centuries.
The turbulent history of the region ensured that these fortifications remained in use long after similar defenses become redundant elsewhere in Europe. In recent times families have slowly begun moving out into more comfortable living spaces. However, many of Svan towers still remain in use, and the village of Chazhashi boasts as many as 200.
The similar dwellings can be found in a much wider area all over the Caucasus. However, the typical Svaneti towers are concentrated in Mestia district, 128 kilometers northeast of the regional capital of Zugdidi. Anyone wishing to see the towers should head to the remote village of Ushgulan i.
With elevation of 2, 086 meters Ushguli is one of the highest inhabited places in Europe. According to local lore, in the Middle Ages, it served as a summer retreat for fabled Queen Tamar. Since 1996, the traditional towers of upper Svaneti have been protected as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Know Before You Go
One can get to Mestia from Tbilisi and Zugdidi by a mini van. They all go via Zugdidi. The other road is from Lentechi Kutaisi but there is not regular transport going on there.