On the Way Back from Ushguli, East of Mestia, Upper Svaneti, Georgia
Svaneti is an ancient land locked in the greater Caucasus, so remote that it has never been tamed by any ruler, and even during the Soviet period it largely retained its traditional way of life. Uniquely picturesque villages and snow-covered peaks rise over 4000m above flower-strewn alpine meadows. Svaneti’s emblem is the defensive stone tower, designed to house villagers at times of invasion and strife. Around 175 towers, most originally built between the 9th and 13th centuries, survive in Svaneti today. The region of Upper Svaneti was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.
Until recently Svaneti was rather unsafe, with armed robberies against tourists too common to ignore. It’s become a much safer place since 2004, when security forces shot dead the area’s leading robber baron and his son, and jailed several other thugs.
Svaneti’s isolation has meant that during the many murderous invasions of Georgia over the centuries, icons, art and other religious artifacts from elsewhere were brought here for safekeeping, and many of them remain in private homes. Svaneti also has a rich church-art heritage of its own, with many of the tiny village churches boasting frescoes 1000 years old. This mountain retreat is regarded by many as the most authentically Georgian part of the country, despite the fact that the Svans speak an unwritten language that broke away from Georgian some four millennia ago and is largely unintelligible to other Georgians.