Leaning forward, holding tightly to the roof beams, we poked our heads out of an 800-year-old stone tower in the country of Georgia. From our vantage point some 25 meters above the ground, we saw scores of other ancient stone towers scattered throughout the village of Mestia, Svaneti’s regional capital.
The gently sloping valley, carpeted with green hay fields, contrasted strikingly with the immensity of the lofty snowy summits that soared up around us. We were captivated by this ancient place, feeling that somehow we had stepped back into the Middle Ages. Visiting the famous stone towers of Svaneti had, in fact, been a goal of our trip.
Our journey to the high mountain area of Svaneti began in Zugdidi, Georgia, near the Black Sea. The morning was clear, and from there we could already see the magnificent white peaks. When we reached the Inguri River George, we slowly wound our way through it. This forest area teems with ferns, azaleas, laurels, and masses of rhododendrons with cream-colored blossoms.
By evening, our group had reached the picturesque village of Becho. It is located at the foot of the breathtakingly beautiful Mount Ushba, with its towering twin granite spires. Like moth to a candle flame, mountain climbers are drawn to the sheer icy peaks of Mount Ushba. At 4,710 meters, it is usually referred to as ” the matterhorn of the Caucasus.
Tired and hungry from our travels, we stopped a local shepherd, bought a sheep from him, and prepared it for supper. Before long, over a camp fire and with the kind hospitality of our Svan friends, we had a wonderful dinner of Mtsvadi, known to many as Shish Kebabs. It was served with freshly baked Georgian-style lavash, a flat bread prepared in a wood-fired clay oven. To top off the meal, we enjoyed glasses of Saperavi, a rich, dry red wine native to Georgia.
The next morning, our journey took us to Mestia where we arrived another stone tower. Here, looking out from the stone tower, we concluded that Svaneti is one of the most beautiful mountain regions of the world. Some 45 kilometers from Mestia, nestled still deeper in the mountains, is the village community of Ushguli. Villagers here live at the altitude of up to 2,200 meters. Ushguli has been called “the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe.”
To reach this mountainous community, we took a lonely, narrow road that clings to the mountain and is bounded by steep precipices that drop off to the river below. On finally reaching Ushguli, we were rewarded with an unforgettable sight; clusters of houses huddled around Medieval stone towers. The backdrop was the immense Mount Shkhara. Its dazzling white snowy mantle contrasted beautifully with the deep blue of the alpine sky.
At 5,201 meters, Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s tallest mountain, is part of what is called Benzegi Wall, a 12-kilometer line of peaks that reach almost the same height. These are part of the some 1,207-kilometer-long Greater Caucasus range. Everywhere we looked we saw lush valleys with outstanding scenery. Yet, these valleys are inaccessible, except to the most adventuresome or to those who call Svaneti their home.
The Svans who live in upper Svaneti, are an ancient people who have their own language. They have long been known as people who refuse to be dominated by any lord. In the 18th century, an explorer observed that the Svans had “realized the new idea of a society where the free-will of the individual overrides all other considerations.”
The unique freedom of Svaneti can be attributed to two factors. First, the barrier of extremely tall mountain ranges isolate the people from the outside world and protects them from invaders. Second, the stone towers serves to safeguard the independence of each family. It protects them against enemies and neighboring villagers, who at times become hostile, as well as from avalanches that inundates smaller structures with snow. One visitor in the 19th century reported that since there was “no local authority of any kind able to enforce decision, arms were constantly resorted to.” So each family was prepared to fight to defend itself.
On our return home with a time well spent without regrets and knowledge of this ancient place, feelings of inspiration and gratitude welled up in our hearts as we reflected on the beauty we had seen in Mount Svaneti. “Those who lived in the stone towers there in bygone ages have the prospect of life in a new world,” we concluded.