Tusheti is one of the most charming regions of Georgia. Its medieval fortresses merge with untouched Georgian nature to leave visitors with unforgettable impressions. A journey to the villages of Tusheti feels like a journey into the Middle Ages, to a place where time has stood still.
THE HISTORY OF TUSHETI
Nestled on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, Tusheti is a small, mountainous province and historic region. Tusheti is located in Akhmeta district, within the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia.
The area of Tusheti is believed to have long been inhabited by the Tush people (also Tushetians), an ethnic subgroup of Georgians. The Tush are divided into 2 groups: the Chaghma-Tush (who speak the Old Georgian dialect) and the Tsova-Tush (also Bats, who speak the Nakh dialect).
Archaeological findings suggest that the region of Tusheti was already inhabited in the Bronze Age, circa 2,000 BC. The Tush people were first mentioned by Greek geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century BC, who placed them next to the Didos tribe of Dagestan. At this time, Tusheti may have been a part of King Pharvanaz’s Iberian kingdom.
In 337, many highlanders, including ancestors of the Tush, sought refuge in the uninhabited mountains as they rebelled against Iberian King Mirian III’s Christianization. They fled and for centuries managed to preserve their pagan religions.
In the 9th century, the Tush were subdued by the Georgian kings and forcibly converted to Christianity. However, they maintained their pre-Christian beliefs, merging them with the new faith. During the Middle Ages, the lands of the Tush were controlled by the unified Georgian kingdom.
At the end of the 13th century, Tusheti was severely hit by marauding Mongol armies. Following the collapse of the unified Georgian Kingdom in the 1460s, the Kakhetian kings took control of Tusheti.
In exchange for their military service and promise to pay taxes, King Levan of Kakheti (1520-1574) granted the Tush the right to use winter pastures within the Caucasian foothills, specifically in the Alazani Valley. As a reward for their support of the Bakhtrioni Uprising in 1659, the Tush were granted ownership of the Alazani Valley lands.
In the 18th century, the Tush faced frequent raids by the Dagestani tribes. However, during the mid-19th century Great Caucasian War, the Tush supported the Russian empire which defeated the Persians and effectively ended the raids from Dagestan.
Traditionally, sheepherders, the Tush practiced a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Between April and October, the men would spend the summer with their flocks of sheep high up in the mountains. They would then return to winter their flocks in the low-lying villages of Zemo and Kvemo Alazani.
However, during the first half of the 19th century, many Tush families started moving southwards from the Tusheti highlands to permanently settle in the lowland fields of Alazani.
During Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, between 1942 and 1943, a small anti-Soviet uprising took place in Tusheti. The Tushetian’s gradual movement to the plains was accelerated through forceful evictions by Soviet authorities as punishment for this revolt.
In the 1970s, the Soviet government decided to resettle Tusheti and allowed the people to return. They installed electricity, built roads, a library, a school and health center. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tusheti faced socio-economic hardships that led to further migrations.
Due to the massive migrations, many high-altitude Tush villages remain deserted to this day. Only a few villages have permanent inhabitants who survive on income from sheep and cattle breeding. In fact, Tushetians are regarded as the best sheep breeders in Georgia.
The massive depopulation of Tusheti over the centuries ultimately helped preserve the region’s unique cultural identity. Recent decades have seen government-led initiatives to restore the architectural and cultural heritage of Tusheti and develop it as a tourist destination. Today, Tusheti’s amazing natural landscape and stunning medieval architecture makes the region a tourist haven in modern Georgia.
PLACES TO VISIT IN TUSHETI
Tusheti boasts unique cultural heritage monuments, remains of ancient villages and rich folk crafts. The historic region is exceptional for its picturesque landscapes of alpine meadows and coniferous forests, among other fantastic place to visit in Georgia.
Located 12km northwest of Omalo within the Pirikiti Alazani valley, Dartlo is a picturesque village of ancient wood and slate houses, crowned by an impressive group of stone watchtowers. Dartlo is overlooked by the tall Kvalvo tower that rises 350m above the village. Visitors can climb the ancient tower walls and soak up panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and rivers.
During summer, the village is blanketed with wildflowers that line its narrow pebble streets, making for a breathtaking sight. One of the outstanding treasures of Georgian architecture, Dartlo is also famous for its open air court hall whose main judge was a woman.
Keselo is a small medieval Georgian fortress comprising of 5 towers located on the hilltop above Omalo village. Keselo was constructed during the Mongolian invasion of Georgia in the 1230s and originally had 13 towers.
Keselo Fortress was built as a refuge for the Tush who would use the towers as temporary shelters during raids on their village by invading Mongols, and later Dagestani tribes. Surrounded by windows, the towers are built using slate.
By the 20th century, most of the fortress towers were in ruins. From 2003, restoration began using medieval Tushetian techniques of building fortified towers. During the restorative work, an array of archaeological artifacts such as ancient rock art motifs and Bronze Age jewelry and axes were discovered.
Today, one of the Keselo Fortress towers hosts the fascinating Omalo Ethnographic Museum that showcases Georgian artifacts of Tusheti’s ancient custom and beliefs through the ages, as well as the society’s social structure. Another tower hosts the Shalva Alkhanaidze Photography Museum that displays a collection of local photographs from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Located 2km from Diklo, which is a further 4km northeast of Shenako, Dzveli Diklo fortress is perched on a rock overlooking Dagestan in Russia. Hikers can enjoy a scenic 40 minute hike one-way from Diklo village which overlooks splendid valleys.
Houses in Diklo are built to keep sunlight and warmth inside as long as possible during the daytime, due to the fact that mornings and the evenings are normally chilly.
Situated on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus to the east of Omalo, Shenako is one of Tusheti’s prettiest villages. Clustered under one of the few churches in Tusheti, the village houses are made of stone, slate and carved wooden balconies.
The village is nestled in the shadow of Mount Diklo and features a series of buildings of Georgian folk architecture, as well as the old church of the Holy Trinity. The delicate architecture of the village boasts impressive complexity. One of the few populated villages of the Tushetian highlands, Shenako is only accessible via 4×4.
Perched between the rocky peaks of the Greater Caucasus range and the Pirikita Range of Tusheti, Omalo is the largest and principal village of Tusheti. Built in harmony with the surrounding nature, Omalo boasts an amazing group of old towers known as keseloebi that offer splendid views over some of the most impressive valleys in the South Caucasus.
Due to its high-altitude location and the lack of good roads, Omalo is largely isolated from the rest of the country for most of the year. The only access road is through the Abano Pass.
Abano Pass is a high mountain pass located in the central part of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, which connects Kakheti and Tusheti. At an elevation of 2,850m above sea level, Abano Pass is the highest drivable mountain pass in the Caucasus.
The amazing 72km unpaved serpentine road is also one of the world’s most spectacular drives. During the drive, visitors can enjoy Tusheti’s spectacular scenery of high, snow-capped summits, deep gorges and steep, grassy hillsides with flocks of sheep and wild horses running through fields of iris.
Only 4×4 vehicles can drive through Abano Pass, which is typically closed from mid-October to mid-April due to poor road conditions stemming from thick snow cover.
Tusheti National Park
Covering 796 square kilometers, Tusheti National park is one of the most ecologically unspoiled regions in the Caucasus. Tusheti is remarkable for the extraordinary beauty of its alpine landscapes and is an important habitat for numerous rare and native animal and plant species.
Tusheti National Park is famous for its rich biodiversity of birch forests and meadows, pastures and hayfields. Among the mammals found here are the Front-Asian panther, lynx, wolf and wild cat. There are also wild boar and roe deer, among a diversity of birdlife.
The jewel of Tusheti, the park practically encompasses all the Tushetian villages and was created to preserve their spectacular sights of great historical and cultural significance. These include the unique Georgian monuments of cultural heritage such as the ancient watchtower-houses, indigenous customs, traditional crafts and local cuisine.
Pristine nature, villages living traditionally, local cuisine and century’s old architecture, coupled with the hospitable nature of the highlanders make Akhmeta an incredible tourist attraction. Beyond Tusheti, there is a range of fantastic attractions to enjoy within Akhmeta district.
Alaverdi Monastery is a Georgian Orthodox monastery. While parts of the monastery date back to the 6th century, the present-day church was built by Kakhetian King Kvirike at the start of the 11th century, replacing an older church of St. George.
Located 25km from Akhmeta in the Alazani River valley, the monastery facades feature monumental arcades and decorated niches. Its spacious interiors boast a beautiful harmony with light entering from high windows. An area enclosed by a fortified wall contains houses, the monastery’s refectory, wine cellars and baths among other structures.
The monastery was founded by Yoseb Alaverdeli, an Assyrian monk who came from Antioch and settled in the small village of Alaverdi which was a pagan religious center dedicated to the Moon. Located at the heart of the world’s oldest wine region, the monks of Alaverdi make their own wine. The monastery is also the focus of the annual Alaverdoba festival.
At 50m high, Alaverdi Monastery was Georgia’s tallest church for almost a millennium. This lasted until the construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. Today, the majestic monastery dominates the surrounding fertile river valley landscape against a stunning backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains.
Matani Monastery is part of a complex of buildings situated in the mountains a few kilometers west of Matani town. The monastery complex comprises of several churches and other monastic buildings surrounded by a low enclosure.
The main building of Matani Monastery is a basilica built in the 5th or 6th century in carved stone. Two smaller churches were built in the 8th and 9th centuries. During the 15th century, a bell tower was built in the monastery and the walls of the main church were painted with frescoes. A small late medieval church is located to the west of the main basilica.
Bakhtrioni is a ruined 17th century fortress located on the left bank of the Alazani River. The fortress served as a Persian outpost in the 1650s, until rebelling Georgians captured and demolished it. The uprising inspired Georgian poet Vazha Pshavela to write his epic patriotic poem “Bakhtrioni” (1892).
THINGS TO DO IN TUSHETI
Many fantastic things to do in Tusheti await travelers who love the outdoors. Hidden among the picturesque mountain peaks and valleys of the Caucasus, Tusheti is one of the most inviting destinations for long hikes and trekking, among other fantastic tourist activities in Georgia.
Enjoy horse riding in Tusheti as you race over steep mountains and along lush green valleys and alpine meadows. Ride through tiny mountain villages, past herds of sheep and ruined ancient fortresses. The surrounding Greater Caucasus Mountains offer a picturesque backdrop.
As one of the most remote regions in Georgia, Tusheti is accessible only via 4×4. Visitors can enjoy off-road adventure jeep tours covering the Tushetian valleys with picturesque views. Highlights include the Alaverdi Monastery, Keselo Fortress, Dartlo, Diklo and Shenako.
One of the most ecologically unspoiled regions in the Caucasus, Tusheti is a popular hiking venue. Avid trekkers can enjoy both multi-day and day hikes through the unspoiled historical centers of Tusheti. You will be intrigued by the spectacular nature and ancient villages dominated by medieval watchtowers.
If you want to spend time in a quiet place observing birds in unspoiled Georgian nature, be sure visit Tusheti National Park. Visitors can rent binoculars and enjoy bird watching, as they spot rare species such as the greater spotted eagle, black kite, Caucasian grouse and Caucasian snowcock.
Boasting pristine rivers teeming with diverse trout species, Tusheti offers some of the best fly-fishing spots in the country. Fishing in Tusheti helps you experience Georgian angling off the beaten path. Brace yourself for some memorable reeling action against a backdrop of beautiful landscapes.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT TUSHETI
Due to severe climate, Tusheti remains inaccessible for 7 – 8 months a year. Tourists should wait until the second half of May when the roads to Tusheti open. Time your visit to attend one of Tusheti’s colorful festivals and watch the region come alive with celebration.
Spring in Tusheti (March, April, May)
By spring, the surrounding valleys of Tusheti are already green. However, trekking options are quite limited as there is still a lot of snow higher up in the mountains and many passes are not accessible. It is possible to do many nice day hikes, but tackling mountain passes could be risky.
Tushetian Cheese Festival
In addition to high quality wool, Tusheti is famous for its guda cheese. And the best place to sample this regional specialty is at the Tushetian Cheese Festival. Held during the last week of May, the Tushetian Cheese Festival is a traditional festival held in Akhmeta that attracts cheese producers from nearby districts.
Foodies can sample other Georgian food specialties of the region, watch diverse sporting activities including horse races, shop for local handicrafts and listen to traditional Georgian music.
Summer in Tusheti (June, July, August)
If you want to enjoy some multi-day trekking, wait till late June when Georgian nature is at its most beautiful, with everything green and blooming with colorful wildflowers. However, May and June are the rainiest months of the year so pack a light raincoat. July and August are the peak season for trekking when Tusheti weather becomes more stable and dry.
Held in Omalo every July/August, Tushetoba is a festival that celebrates the region’s cultural heritage. Traditionally, the event begins with a horse race whose winner gets a flag and a sheep. For purposes of speed, horse riders have an age limit of 15 years.
Visitors can also enjoy other Georgian sports such as wrestling and archery. There are folk music and Georgian dance performances, and opportunities to taste traditional Tushetian foods such as guda sheep’s cheese and khinkali, the famous Georgian meat-filled soup dumpling.
Autumn in Tusheti (September, October, November)
Favorable Tusheti weather conditions normally persist for most of September, and then become gradually worse. If you get lucky with the weather, you can enjoy some pleasant hikes or even treks during the first half of October. But this all depends on the date of first heavy snowfall.
Held at the end of summer, about 100 days after the Georgian Easter, Atnigenoba is a festival linked to Tusheti’s ancient animist religion. Rams are slaughtered as sacrifices at ancient shrines known as khatebi. Separate groups of men and women then feast and drink sacred rye beer and watch various Georgian sports.
On the first day of the festivities, there is a large gathering known as Lasharoba (dedicated to the deity Lashara) in Chigho village, which brings together people from all over Tusheti. On the second day, a gathering known as Khitana takes place at Jvarboseli, mainly for people from the Gomtsari Alazani valley. For the next 2 weeks, more events are held in different villages.
Winter in Tusheti (December, January, February)
Tusheti generally receives a lot of snowfall and winter conditions in the mountains persist for most of spring. If visiting at this time of year, bring woolens to protect you from the freezing temperatures. In winter, the road to Tusheti closes due to heavy snowfall.
WHERE TO STAY IN TUSHETI
Although Tusheti has many guesthouses, they only operate when the road is open and some don’t even open until July. The guesthouses are increasingly renovating to provide private facilities. There are also a handful of decent Tusheti hotels offering rooms with beautiful views of the valleys.
WHERE TO EAT IN TUSHETI
A handful of Tusheti restaurants serve simple, hearty mountain fare. Expect lots of cheese, meat and khachapuri, with few vegetables. Most Tusheti guesthouses also offer half-board deals on rooms with the option of a packed lunch.
HOW TO GET TO TUSHETI
For flights landing at Tbilisi airport, you can hire a car and drive to Tusheti. That said, driving in Georgia can be challenging if you don’t speak the Georgian language or understand the Georgian alphabet. A more convenient option would be to get to Tusheti via private transfer.
FINAL WORDS AND TRAVEL SUGGESTIONS
That Tusheti is a fascinating place to visit is a given. It’s a dream come true for travelers who like to rub up against virgin nature, get acquainted with ancient traditions and savor genuine hospitality. One of Georgia’s least explored and most mysterious regions, Tusheti is wild. And this wildness is what makes it magical and truly unforgettable.
If traveling during the summer, it’s best to book Tusheti hotels in advance with our Georgia travel agency. If you would like to drive to Tusheti, we have a modern fleet of 4×4 rental cars available for hire. We also offer Georgia tour packages from Tusheti that include private transfers.
Even better, create your own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you want to visit and things you want to do in Tusheti. Ready for your next great adventure? Order your custom tour to Tusheti today and be transported to one of Georgia’s most beautiful regions!