With its picturesque setting high up in the Greater Caucasus, Khevsureti is one of the most beautiful regions in Georgia. In this remote highland paradise of gorgeous landscapes and ancient villages with fairytale towers, a Georgian vacation of a lifetime awaits.
THE HISTORY OF KHEVSURETI
Khevsureti is a historic province located in the Dusheti district of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region of eastern Georgia. Comprising the river valleys of Shatili, Arkhoti, Aragvi and Migmakhevi, the province is traversed by the Greater Caucasus range, and its largest villages are Shatili and Barisakho.
The population of Khevsureti mainly comprises of Khevsurs, an ethnic subgroup of the Georgian people who inhabit the northern and southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains.
Along with the neighboring Pshavi area, Khevsureti was known as Pkhovi in medieval times. Following the converting of King Mirian III of Iberia and Queen Nana to Christianity during the early 4th century, St. Nino continued preaching among the highlanders of Georgia, including the residents of Pkhovi.
Medieval Georgia never established a typical feudal system. As such, the Khevsur community’s civil code was based on ancient Georgian values and traditions. These included their ancient history, culture, traditions, as well as knowledge and experiences based on orthodox Christian values.
Communities of the Georgian highlands historically enjoyed some level of autonomy. The Khevsurs never accepted the rule of local lords and instead elected their own leaders into a council known as khevisberi. Ultimately, the Khevsurs were only subservient to the Georgian monarch.
Famous for its fierce warriors with qualities such as bravery, honesty, brotherhood and independence, they were often appointed as royal bodyguards.
Georgian monarchs regarded them as trustworthy guardians of the Caucasus range, and the kingdom’s northern border. In battle, Khevsurs wore flags decorated with crosses and regarded themselves members of the Georgian king’s army.
Although Khevsurs are mentioned in Greek, Roman and Georgian sources before the start of the European crusades, some believe that they are descended from the last European crusaders of the 17th century. This is due to the fact that their folk culture – social, religious and material practices, were similar to those of the crusaders.
The Khevsurs consider a man named Gudaneli to be their first ancestor. Gudaneli was a peasant vassal of a Kakhetian landlord, who fled to the Pshavi village of Apsho to escape punishment for a crime he did not commit. Gudaneli had 2 sons: Arabuli and Chinchara, who gave rise to the families of Arabuli and Chincharauli respectively.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Khevsureti experienced a rural exodus during which Khevsurs abandoned their isolated, higher-altitude settlements, moving down the valleys to live in villages with better climatic conditions, as well as towns further afield.
In 1951, the Soviet government imposed forced migration to the plains to punish the Khevsurs for disobeying Soviet ideology. Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, the Khevsurs experienced economic hardships which further increased a tendency towards migration.
Due to these massive migrations, many high-mountainous villages of Khevsureti remain deserted to this day. Only a few villages have permanent inhabitants who survive on income from agriculture and tourism.
The massive depopulation of Khevsureti over the centuries ultimately helped to preserve the region’s unique cultural identity. Today, Khevsureti’s incredible natural landscape and captivating medieval architecture makes the region a popular tourist destination in modern Georgia.
THE CULTURE OF KHEVSURETI
Like other mountainous regions of Georgia, Khevsureti boasts a rich cultural heritage with a diversity of customs and traditions.
The proud people of Khevsureti speak Khevsurian, a local dialect of the Georgian language which is similar to the literary Georgian of the Middle Ages. The official language of Georgia, Georgian is a Kartvelian language that is written in its own writing system, the Georgian script.
Well into the 20th century, Khevsur men still wore chain mail and were armed with broad swords. The Khevsur chokha, was the traditional costume of Khevsur males. The chokha is a woolen coat with a high neck that is part of the traditional male dress of the peoples of the Caucasus.
Of the 4 types of Georgian chokha, the Khevsur chokha is regarded as the closest version to the medieval chokha. It is shorter, with trapezoidal shapes and a more powerful color balance. The front side features rich decorations of icons and crosses, with slits on the sides that extend to the waist.
Despite converting to Christianity in the Middle Ages, to this day, the Khevsurs strongly believe in pagan deities. Khevsur religion is a unique mix of pre-Christian cults and Georgian Orthodox Christianity. The Khevsurs worship sacred places known as khati (icon), jvari (cross) and salotsavi (sanctuary).
Besides their religious significance, these sites were also the venue at which locals decided communal matters such as peace-making and raids against enemies. Despite the Soviet era repression of Georgian religion, highlanders would still gather annually with elder priests to perform their traditional rituals.
Music & Dance
Khevsureti is famous for medieval Georgian ballads and folk music similar to Georgian music of the Middle Ages. Khevsuruli is a famous warrior dance of the Khevsurs. A very technical Georgian dance, Khevsuruli requires intense practice and great skill to perform it without injuring anyone.
The dance begins with a flirting couple. Another young man then joins in seeking the hand of the woman. Fighting ensues between the two men and their supporters using swords and shields. The woman temporarily stops the fighting by dropping her veil. But once she leaves, the fighting continues.
Khevsureti’s unique defensive architecture is proof of the militant past of the Khevsuri people. The architectural landscape is highly fortified and defensive in nature, with a series of towers jutting out of the mountainsides that signify constant vigilance against enemy attacks.
From a young age, Khevsur boys underwent a strict system of physical training in martial arts such as Khridoli, which is part of the rich Georgian military tradition.
Khevsurs were famous for their warfare with north Caucasia’s mostly Muslim peoples. Due to geographic, religious and ethnic reasons, as well as the lack of industrialization in the Greater Caucasus, the north Caucasian tribes would commonly attack and rob Georgians living in the mountains.
Vazha Pshavela, the famous poet of Georgian literature, described Khevsuri warfare in his poems. Aluda Ketelauri is one of his renowned poems, whose eponymous hero is a Khevsuri youth, famous for his bravery and skills in warfare.
One day, following an invasion of his home village Shatili, Aluda followed the invaders then killed both robbers. However, after killing the one called Musa, he began to weep, mourning the warrior in recognition of his bravery and dedication to his Muslim faith.
Upon his return to Shatili, Aluda confessed to the villagers his admiration for the Muslim hero who had proved to be a worthy adversary. But the people, shocked at his praising of a “pagan”, condemned Aluda and expelled him from their community.
By the early 20th century, the Khevsurs still maintained a range of distinct ancient customs. For instance, during childbirth, the woman was confined in a hut, around which her husband would parade, firing his gun off at intervals. Following delivery, the new mother remained in the hut for a month while receiving food, after which the hut was burnt.
Another striking tradition was the pre-marital relationship called sts’orproba. A young couple could spend the night lying together with a sword placed between them. Sexual relations between the pair were strictly forbidden and anyone who broke this rule would be condemned to death.
There was also the institution of the “blood feud”, a cycle of retaliatory violence. The relatives or friends of someone who has been killed, wronged or dishonored would seek vengeance by killing or physically punishing the culprits or their relatives, in a vendetta-like folk ritual involved.
PLACES TO VISIT IN KHEVSURETI
The diverse ecosystem of rugged mountains, subalpine forests, velvety meadows, river gorges and native species of flora and fauna, is but a part of Khevsureti’s mesmerizing appeal. Add to this the rich history and cultural heritage, and you have a dazzling array of Georgia attractions to enjoy in Khevsureti.
Shatili village is one of the most outstanding examples of medieval Georgian architecture. With its magnificent cluster of koshkebi (defensive towers) and ambient slate houses packed together tightly on a steep hillside to create a single sprawling fortress, Shatili is truly an amazing sight.
With a spectacular setting above a gorge at the meeting of the Argun and Mutso rivers, the Anatori Necropolis is a cemetery located 3km from Shatili. Dating back to medieval Georgia, Anatori’s communal tombs are haunting to this day as they still hold visible human bones.
Nestled at the foot of the Chaukhi Massif near Roshka village, the Abudelauri Lakes comprise three colorful lakes. Each of the stunning lakes has a different hue: green, white and blue. The lake waters are derived from rain, ice and snow, and create a beautiful interplay of colors. The lakes are surrounded by mountains on 3 sides which offer a spectacular backdrop.
Located high on a rocky summit, Mutso was a former regional stronghold during the Middle Ages. Although the village lies in ruins having been abandoned over century ago, it is still a magnificent sight – partly due to its location, and the 30 medieval stone dwellings it holds. The fortified houses are laid out over vertical terraces above the Mutso-Ardoti gorge.
Lebaiskari is a medieval Georgian monument that serves as a good example of the residential house-fortresses that were widespread in Khevsureti. Lebaiskari is a 5-storey tower whose floors are connected with each other by wooden stairs in the interior of the building. The tower has a pyramid-shaped roof and the ground floor was used as a stable.
Arkhoti valley is a hidden gem that few visitors get to see. The landscape offers a nonstop photo op, with alpine tundra, vast meadows, jagged peaks, lush forests, roaring rivers and permanent snowfields. Tanie Lake is a beautiful lake nestled within the Arkhoti Valley near Akhieli village. Trekkers can enjoy a sunrise stroll at Tanie Lake and watch the sun illuminate the peaks of Caucasus Mountains.
WHERE TO STAY IN KHEVSURETI
Most of Khevsureti’s tiny mountain villages today have a few small guesthouses in which you can spend the night and explore the surrounding countryside. The best guesthouses are found in Shatili, some of which occupy ancient watchtowers.
WHERE TO EAT IN KHEVSURETI
Some Khevsur villages including Shatili, Barisakho and Roshka, have guesthouses that serve food. Other than that, there are no Khevsureti restaurants in this wild and mountainous region. Khevsureti cuisine features Georgian food specialties typical of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region.
HOW TO GET TO KHEVSURETI
For flights landing at Tbilisi airport, you can hire a car and drive to Shatili or Barisakho in Khevsureti. 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 Khevsureti via private transfer.
Relics of Georgia’s ancient history dot the canvas of the Greater Caucasus in a region where pagan traditions survive. The rugged and wild scenery dazzles with roaring rivers and mountain trails descending from alpine meadows into shadowy valleys that hide medieval watchtowers. Nowhere else in Georgia will you find a place as mysterious, magical and unique as Khevsureti. It’s the one Georgian destination you simply cannot afford to miss.
If traveling during the Shatiloba Festival, it’s best to book Khevsureti hotels in advance with our tourism agency. If would like to drive around Khevsureti, we have a modern fleet of rental cars available for hire. We also offer Georgia tour packages from Khevsureti 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 Khevsureti. Intrigued by incredible nature and medieval architecture? Order your custom tour package to Khevsureti today and enjoy a fantastic adventure back in time!