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A dazzling cluster of watchtowers and ambient slate houses packed together tightly on a steep hillside to create a single sprawling fortress, Shatili is truly an incredible sight. With its picturesque setting among beautiful Georgian nature, the ancient village offers the perfect getaway from hectic city life.
Shatili is a medieval village fortress located in the Dusheti district of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region in eastern Georgia. The oldest and largest village in the historical Khevsureti province, Shatili is nestled on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains.
Built between the 7th and 13th centuries, the fortified highland village was formerly a part of the Kingdom of Kakheti. Its population comprises of Khevsurs, an ethnic subgroup of the Georgian people who inhabit the northern and southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.
For centuries, Shatili and its inhabitants faced perpetual risk of incursions into their territory by their neighbors. During the early medieval times the villagers found a solution that would protect them from their enemies for hundreds of years: they transformed their village into a fortress.
As the village persevered, its architecture continued to evolve. The typical small stone dwellings grew taller, developing into koshkebi (watchtowers). Built of stone and mortar, the watchtower-houses served both as defense posts and dwellings.
The original wooden roofs of the watchtower-houses were replaced by flat roofs resistant to arrow assaults. New buildings would be constructed on terraces near older ones such that the village eventually encircled itself in stone, with a staggering of structures from the outside in. Thus Shatili became a single fortification.
Each dwelling – unable to withstand outside pressure on its own – become one component in a long, winding chain. With the whole being much stronger than its individual components, the fortification proved a worthy defense system. Shatili effectively became an impregnable fortress, standing guard over Georgia’s north-eastern border.
When the enemy attacked, villagers would simply disappear from the streets and the village would shut down. Because every house was connected to the others via a labyrinth of narrow walkways, archways, bridges, windows and ladders, movement was possible outside the scope of enemy fire.
Even when the village was sealed, its inhabitants had plenty to eat. The houses rose 4 or 5 storeys, with each level housing a different type of livestock. The top floor was the family’s living area, and the only one with anything more than small slits for windows. A secret copper tank contained enough water to last the village a week.
Even the tombs – big enough to hold generations of a single family – were constructed to be impenetrable. Shatili’s governance was communal, centered inside a building known as Sapekhyno that was empty except for stone chairs. Village elders would meet here to discuss communal matters, but all villagers were expected to attend and have their say – even children.
For centuries, Shatili’s inhabitants endured and become legendary as highland warriors who epitomized the traditional Georgian values of bravery, honesty, brotherhood and a love of freedom.
From the late 19th to early 20th centuries, Shatili experienced a rural exodus during which villagers abandoned their isolated, high-altitude settlement, moving down the valley to live in villages with better climatic conditions, as well as to towns further afield.
In 1951, Soviet authorities forced the Khevsurs to migrate to the plains as punishment for disobeying Soviet ideology. Following these massive migrations, Shatili became deserted. In the 1960s, the exotic landscape of the emptied village served as the setting for a series of Georgian cinema works on the past lifestyle of the highlanders.
In the 1980s, the communists lessened their stranglehold and about 20 families returned to Shatili. But Georgia’s independence from Soviet rule in 1991 would lead to economic hardships that further increased the Khevsurs’ tendency towards migration.
The massive depopulation of Shatili coupled with the lack of road access in the wintertime ultimately helped preserve the village’s unique cultural identity. Today, there are about 60 watchtower-houses, two of which have been restored into guesthouses. But for the most part, Shatili is an atmospheric ruin that’s perfect for exploring on foot.
Shatili is comparable to Upper Svaneti, a Georgian monument listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The isolation of both properties make them unique in the region, and a magnet for explorers and tourists alike.
Khevsureti is one of Georgia’s most beautiful regions, boasting rugged mountains, subalpine forests, velvety meadows, river gorges and native species of flora and fauna. Beyond Shatili, the other villages of Khevsureti offer their own array of fantastic Georgia attractions to explore.
Anatori Necropolis is a cemetery located 3km from Shatili. Dating back to medieval Georgia, the cemetery boasts a spectacular setting above a gorge at the meeting of the Argun and Mutso rivers. The communal tombs are quite haunting with the remains of human bones still visible inside.
Anatori was depopulated in the 18th century after all its inhabitants died of plague within a very short period of time. Because everybody was so sick, no one was able to take the dead to the cemeteries. As such, when the sick felt that death was near, they went to the burial vaults by themselves to await their passing.
Georgian poet Giorgi Arabuli wrote a verse called “The Notes of Anatoreli”, which captures the deep pain and sorrow of the people as they awaited their death:
“I left outside my horse.
You gave birth to me, mother –
You gave birth to your own pain.
My children are here too.
I do not breathe anymore,
so the air is enough for them.”
Located high on a rocky summit above the Mutso-Ardoti gorge, 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 due to its 30 medieval stone fortified houses laid out over vertical terraces.
While it’s nice to admire the houses from below, they look even better when you climb up the steep ascent. Only while walking along the narrow pathways of the fortress can you truly grasp how atmospheric and magical it is.
You will pass by several viewpoints before reaching the top where you will find an ancient shrine built of slate with some offerings. From here you can enjoy breathtaking views of the lush green surroundings.
According to legend, Mutso is the home of the centuries-old Broliskalo Icon of the Archangel, which draws pilgrims and adventure-seekers alike. The icon is believed to be hidden high in the surrounding mountains awaiting the “chosen one” to come and reveal its location.
Located near Roshka village at the foot of the Chaukhi Mountain, the Abudelauri Lakes consist of 3 colorful lakes. Each of the stunning lakes has a different hue: white, green and blue. Derived from rain, ice and snow, the lake waters create an attractive interplay of colors.
The small lakes are surrounded by mountains on three sides which provides a gorgeous backdrop. For six months a year, the beautiful lakes are covered in ice which generally melts by late spring. The lake waters hold no fish and are very cold, but you can still have a swim if you dare.
Lebaiskari is a medieval Georgian monument that offers a great example of the house-fortresses that were once widespread throughout Khevsureti. Lebaiskari is a five-storey watchtower-house with a pyramid-shaped roof. Its floors are connected by wooden stairs located in the interior of the building. The ground floor was used as a shelter for domestic animals.
Arkhoti Valley is a hidden gem that few visitors to Khevsureti get to see. The landscape offers plenty of photo opportunities, with lush forests, vast meadows, alpine tundra, jagged peaks, roaring rivers and icy snowfields.
Located near Akhieli Village, Tanie Lake is a gorgeous lake situated in the Arkhoti Valley. Visitors to Tanie Lake can enjoy a sunrise stroll by the lakeshore and watch the sun illuminating the Caucasus Mountains peaks.
The best way to experience the cultural heritage of Shatili is by attending Shatiloba, its annual summer festival. Rooted in local traditions, Shatiloba is one of the most authentic Georgian festivals. It is held in August and offers travelers the perfect opportunity to immerse oneself in Khevsur culture and get to know the locals.
People come from all over Khevsureti to attend Shatiloba. Events include Georgian music and dance performances, thrilling horse races and chidaoba (Georgian wrestling) contests. Traditional handicrafts are displayed inside Shatili’s famous watchtower-houses, and a Georgian supra (feast of food and drink) is served with local cuisine and Khevsur beer.
An ancient form of martial art, Chidaoba (Georgian wrestling) combines elements of wrestling, music, dance and special costumes of Georgian dress (chokha). Until the Middle Ages, Chidaoba had a combat function before gradually becoming a spectacular Georgian sport.
Tournaments are held inside an open-air arena, surrounded by numerous spectators. The match kicks off accompanied by music from the zurna (Georgian wind instrument) and doli (Georgian drum).
Wrestlers then try to defeat their opponents using special holds. Chidaoba has about 200 special wrestling holds and counter-holds, whose combinations depend on the creativity of the wrestler.
Vibrant Georgian music enhances the contest’s dynamics. Chivalry is the code of conduct, and wrestlers sometimes exit the arena with a Georgian folk dance.
Chidaoba is practiced by a large portion of the Georgian male population all over the country’s regions, villages and communities. It is practiced by Georgian youth in cities, sports clubs, educational institutions and amateur organizations.
The practice of chidaoba encourages a healthy lifestyle and also connects diverse Georgian cultures. Almost every village and city in Georgia has a wrestling section. From early spring to autumn, youth practice wrestling outdoors, mastering skills acquired from watching matches.
The Shatiloba Festival is a great place for visitors in Shatili to watch chidaoba wrestling contests. Chidaoba has been included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
Immerse yourself in Shatili’s inspiring atmosphere by spending a night inside one of its fortresses. Two of the ancient watchtowers of Shatili have been converted into guesthouses. Some of the houses situated along the village’s single street and down close to the river below also accept guests.
All guesthouses in Shatili will normally provide meals for visitors, although these tend to be fairly simple dishes of the local cuisine. Other than that, there are no Shatili restaurants at which you can enjoy Georgian food.
For flights landing at Tbilisi airport, you can hire a car and drive 4 hours to Shatili (148km). 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 travel to Shatili via private transfer.
A source of inspiration for travelers, writers and painters alike, Shatili is a unique monument of Georgia’s architectural heritage. Boasting ancient traditions and medieval watchtowers set amid incredible nature, the beautiful village offers the perfect getaway from the hectic pace of modern life.
If traveling during the Shatiloba Festival, it’s recommended that you book Shatili hotels in advance with our travel agency. If you would like to drive to Shatili, we have a modern fleet of 4×4 rental cars available for hire. We also offer Georgia tour packages from Shatili 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 and around Shatili. Tired of the hustle and bustle of city life? Order your custom tour to Shatili today and enjoy a relaxing escape into medieval Georgia!