Breathtakingly wild and mysterious, Svaneti is an ancient region set high in the Caucasus, so remote that no ruler was able to tame it. Snow-capped peaks tower over alpine meadows, offering a splendid backdrop to scenic hiking trails. Sprawling hamlets dotted with stunning medieval watchtowers usher travelers into places where time has stood still.
THE HISTORY OF SVANETI
Located on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountain range, Svaneti is the highest inhabited area in the Caucasus. Four of the Caucasus’ ten highest peaks are located in the region, including Mount Shkhara (5,201m), the highest mountain of Georgia.
Svaneti is divided into two parts located in two inhabited valleys. Zemo (Upper) Svaneti is a part of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region, with Mestia as its main town. Kvemo (Lower) Svaneti is a part of the Racha-Lechkhumi & Kvemo Svaneti region, with Lentekhi as its main town.
The indigenous population of Svaneti mainly consists of Svans, an ethnic subgroup of Georgians. Svans are believed to be the Soanes mentioned by the Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – AD 24), who placed them in Svanetia, the area occupied by present-day Svan people.
Also known as Svanetia, the historic province of Svaneti was a dependency of Colchis and its successor kingdom of Lazica. This ended in AD 552 when the Svans, taking advantage of the Lazic War, cut ties and joined the Persians.
But the Byzantines, seeking to secure its passes and stop Persian raids on the border areas of Lazica, wanted control of this ancient region. By the end of the war in 562, Svaneti was once again a part of Lazica.
The province then joined the Abkhazian kingdom, to form a unified monarchy that was later incorporated into the Georgian monarchy during the 11th century. Svaneti then became a duchy of the kingdom of Georgia.
The orthodox culture of the duchy thrived particularly during Georgia’s Golden Age under the reign of Queen Tamar (1184-1213), who the Svans revered almost as a goddess. According to legend, Tamar would visit the duchy each year.
For hundreds of years, the Svans were legendary as fierce warriors, able to fight off any invaders. The marauding Mongols never reached Svaneti, and for a time, the region was a cultural safe house.
In the 1460s, following the final disintegration of the Georgian kingdom, fighting broke out for control of the duchy. It was then split into 2 parts: Zemo Svaneti became an independent principality, while Kvemo Svaneti was temporarily controlled by Mingrelian princes.
In 1833, while faced with serious internal conflict, Upper Svaneti’s prince signed a protectorate treaty with the Russian Empire. By 1848, the principality could only be accessed through a difficult footpath that was closed in winter. Because of this lack of accessibility, the principality retained significant autonomy.
This ended in 1857 when Russia, taking advantage of a dynastic feud, abolished the principality’s autonomy, making Svaneti part of the Russian governorate of Kutais. Soviet authorities divided it into two districts: Mestia in Zemo Svaneti and Lentekhi in Kvemo Svaneti. In 1921, an unsuccessful anti-Soviet uprising took place in Svaneti.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent Georgian Civil War, Svaneti faced socio-economic problems. Add to this the frequent natural disasters such as floods, landslides and avalanches, the mounting economic difficulties caused mass migrations. The region also became a haven for criminals who threatened both locals and tourists.
However, in 2004, the Georgian government significantly improved the situation by launching anti-criminal operations. This was followed by tourism development including renovation of town centers, construction of new roads, ski resorts, hotels and Mestia airport. Their efforts paid off, as Svaneti was transformed into a tourist-friendly region.
THE CULTURAL HERITAGE OF SVANETI
The roads to Svaneti are frequently impassable, making it one of Georgia’s most remote regions. This lack of accessibility has helped preserve the Svans’ cultural heritage, which is evident in their traditions, customs, everyday rituals, language, cuisine and more.
Typically bilingual, Svans use both Georgian language and their own unwritten Svan language, both of which belong to the Kartvelian language family.
Primarily spoken in Georgia, the Kartvelian language family consists of 4 closely related languages indigenous to the South Caucasus. The Kartvelian language family is not known to be related to any other language family, making it one of the world’s primary language families.
Believed to have split off before the 2nd millennium BC, about 1,000 years before Georgian did, Svan is the most unique member of the Kartvelian language family. Svan is particularly interesting because it has retained many archaic features lost in the other South Caucasian languages.
An ancient form of martial art, Chidaoba (Georgian wrestling) has been included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
In chidaoba, wrestlers dress in special costumes of chokha (Georgian dress). They try to defeat their opponents using special wrestling holds and counter-holds. Match dynamics are enhanced by vibrant Georgian music, and chivalry is the norm with wrestlers exiting the arena with a Georgian folk dance.
Georgian polyphonic singing has been included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. The complex polyphony is a type of Georgian polyphonic singing prevalent in Svaneti.
The chakrulo song is a type of complex polyphony sung at festivals and ceremonies. The song is distinguished by its use of metaphor, the krimanchuli (yodeling) and a “cockerel’s crow” performed by a male falsetto singer.
Svaneti boasts a rich diversity of musical instruments, including wind instruments, string instruments and a variety of drums. Svanetian musical instruments traditionally provided accompaniment to the rich vocal traditions of Svaneti.
The national instrument of Svaneti, chuniri is a bowed musical instrument. It is typically played in an ensemble, along with the changi (harp) and salamuri (flute), when performing Georgian polyphonic songs. It is used to accompany solo songs, national heroic poems and dance melodies.
Before using, the instrument is warmed in the sun or near a fireplace to produce a more harmonious sound. This is done because wind and dampness affect the instrument’s resonance. Svans could even predict the weather from the sounds produced by chuniri: weak, unclear sounds signaled rainy weather.
Traditionally, chuniri was played late in the evening on the eve of a funeral, often as an expression of grief. A male relative of the deceased would sit by an open bonfire and play a sad melody. In a low voice, he would sing a song in remembrance of the life of the deceased and the ancestors.
There is an expression in Svaneti that “Chuniri is for sorrow”, as most of the songs accompanied by the instrument are associated with sad occasions. That said, chuniri is also used at parties.
Dating back to the 4th century BC, changi is one of the world’s oldest string instruments. It is the Svanetian version of an ancient harp-like instrument with six to seven strings. Changi is mostly played by women and is generally used for accompanying solo songs of Georgian folk music.
Perkhuli is a traditional Georgian round dance mostly performed by men, particularly in Svaneti. There are about 20 versions of perkhuli, with the “multi-level” perkhuli being one of the most popular forms. The Georgian dance is performed by a group of dancers standing on the shoulders of the other group.
An important element of the Svan cultural identity, the Svan hat is a traditional felted wool hat. The unique hat is made of sheep wool and is typically grey with black seams. Shaped like a cross, the black seams are associated with one of the Svanetian ways of greeting: “May the cross protect you.”
An important part of Svan social culture, the supra is a traditional Georgian feast of food and drink. There are 2 types of Georgian supra: keipi – a festive supra, and kelekhi – a somber supra, that is held after burials. A supra is led by a tamada (toastmaster) who introduces each toast during the feast.
Svanetian food is a hearty delight of carb-heavy dishes, designed to fuel the Svans during cold mountain winters. Potatoes, bread, meat and cheese come together with unique flavorings to create delicious regional staples.
A signature dish of Svaneti, Kubdari is a traditional meat-filled pastry. The filling includes seasoned meat (beef, pork, lamb or goat) and a mix of onions and spices. One of kubdari’s main ingredients is a type of cumin grown in Svaneti.
One of the Svanetian cuisine’s most appetizing dishes, tashmijabi contains potato and brined Georgian cheese. Potatoes are pureed and then mixed with cheese, water and salt to taste. Some milk and cornflour can also be added to the mixture.
P’etvraal is the Svanetian version of khachapuri, a traditional Georgian dish of bread served with egg yolk, butter and melting cheese. The only difference is that in p’etvraal, millet flour is added to the bread’s cheese filling.
Svanuri Marili is a traditional spicy salt mix created in Svaneti. It is a mixture of salt, pepper, dried garlic and various spices. Svaneti is known for its diversity of plants which adds to the unique fragrance of the salt. Svanuri marili can be used in any type of dish, from soups to vegetables and salads.
Wood carving in Svaneti is a highly-developed craft that goes back to the Middle Ages. Elements of the traditional architecture and objects of everyday use such as household items were mostly made out of wood by local craftsmen.
The traditional Svanetian house (machubi) typically has pieces of wood furniture and woodenware such as plates, cups and knives, made by the men of the family. The interior of the house is richly adorned with ornately carved wooden panels in symbolic decorations.
Several medieval churches in the region showcase wooden doors, elaborately decorated with historic and Gospel scenes, geometric and floral shapes. To see an authentic Svanetian wooden interior, visit the Margiani Machubi or the Ushguli-Chazhashi Museum-Reserve, both found in Mestia.
Upper Svaneti has a series of naturally occurring mineral springs that produce waters believed to have therapeutic value. The waters contain dissolved minerals and substances such as salts, sulfur compounds and gases.
For centuries, the Svanetian mineral springs at Mugviri, Kakhrld, Artskheeli, Legab, Kvedilash, Seti and Shdegi have been used for medicinal purposes. Traditionally, Svanetians would visit the mineral springs to enjoy a curative spa day, drinking or bathing in the mineral waters.
Zari (also Zar) is a Svanetian dirge that dates back to pre-Christian times. It is a ritual chant performed at funerals by men from the deceased’s village. The song has only one word: “wai,” which is an exclamation of grief.
Women don’t join in the zari, but instead perform a series of rhythmic screams and wails, usually nearby and at the same time as the men are singing. Once the zari has been sung, the body is taken to the grave in a procession and buried. Thereafter, the deceased’s family will not sing at all for at least a year.
The role of the zari in daily life remains so significant that Svan singers are often reluctant to perform it out of context on a concert stage for fear that it would lead to an actual funeral!
Svans never run out of reasons to celebrate. Before World War II, some 160 festivals were held annually in Svaneti, with about 50 surviving to this day. The most popular Svan Festivals are Kvirikoba, Lamproba and Lipanali.
Lamproba is an ancient Svanetian festival held in early spring (March). After morning mass, family members meet by the graves of their relatives. They light candles, walk in a procession, sing, dance and then enjoy a feast of food and wine. A variety of wrestling and drinking contests are held.
Held at the Kala settlement on 28th July each year, Kvirikoba is the most important Svan festival. Svans gather with relatives to feast and ask for ancestors’ blessings. Although it is a Christian festival, Kvirikoba features pagan elements such as ritual animal sacrifices.
Dedicated to the ancestors, Lipanali festival is celebrated from 18th January. Houses are cleaned and prayers are said to invite the ancestors to come and give their blessings. Villagers slaughter pigs and bake special meat pies for the Georgian supra.
PLACES TO VISIT IN SVANETI
Boasting stunning mountain scenery and medieval architecture, the historic region of Svaneti is a magnet for tourism in Georgia. Visitors can hike up spectacular glaciers, ski in gorgeous resorts and learn about Svan culture at museums, among other Georgia attractions to enjoy.
Ushguli-Chazhashi Museum Reserve
Svaneti is one of Georgia’s most beautiful historic regions. Legendary among travelers, Svaneti’s landscape is dominated by mountains separated by deep gorges and blanketed in dense forests. The lower elevations are covered by alpine meadows and grasslands, while the higher altitudes boast beautiful snow-capped peaks and glaciers.
During winter, the already magical region of Svaneti becomes even more beautiful when covered in snow. At the same time, its capital Mestia is transformed into a fairy-tale winter paradise.
Preserved by its long isolation, the Upper Svaneti province is an outstanding example of exceptional mountain landscape with well-preserved medieval villages and unique defensive tower-houses, religious architecture and medieval arts.
Thanks to its natural scenery and architectural monuments, Upper Svaneti has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list under the title of the “Ushguli-Chazhashi Museum Reserve.”
Ushguli is a historic settlement in Mestia, situated at the base of Mount Shkhara. It comprises of four villages: Chazhashi, Chvibiani, Murkmeli and Zhibiani. The height of the villages ranges from 2,060m to 2,200m above sea level, making Ushguli Europe’s highest settlement.
Throughout Ushguli are Svan Towers – defensive watchtower-houses that date back to prehistoric Georgia, when they had both a residential and defensive function against invaders who plagued the region.
The earliest watchtower-houses date back to the 8th century, while the newest were built in the 18th century. Constructed using stone, the Svan Tower consists of a watchtower attached to a house.
Chazhashi is the center of the Ushguli settlement, which boasts more than 200 well-preserved medieval Svan Towers, castles and churches. “Tamar’s Castle” features the 10th century St. George church. The Savior is another church dating between the 11th to 12th centuries.
Lamaria Church is situated in Zhibiani village against the backdrop of Mount Shkhara. Also known as Ushguli Church of the Mother of God, Lamaria was built between the 9th and 10th centuries. Its interiors boast unique frescoes, and a collection of crosses, icons, manuscripts and utensils.
Mestia has two museums worth visiting. The Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography showcases significant historical Svan and Georgian artifacts. The Mikheil Khergiani House Museum displays the personal belongings of the famous Georgian alpinist.
Churches of Kala
Kala settlement has two notable churches worth visiting. The 11th century Nakipari Church of St. George boasts frescoed facades and unique sculptures. Lagurka, or the Kala Church of Saints Cyricus and Julitta, is famous for its gorgeous 12th century frescos and collection of icons, crosses, manuscripts and utensils.
Transfiguration Cathedral in Laghami
Located in Laghami, the oldest part of Mestia town, the Transfiguration Church of Laghami is a 2-storey basilica. Its first and second floors date back to the 9th century, and the 13th to 14th centuries respectively. The cathedral facades are painted and there is a 13th century engraved icon of Christ.
Adishi village boasts several Svan Towers and four churches with gorgeous frescoes and engraved artwork. The churches include: the Church of the Deliverer (10th to 11th centuries), two 12th century churches of St. George, and the 12th century Church of the Archangel.
Built in the 10th century in Latali village, Ienashi is a medieval Georgian Orthodox Church. The church is constructed with decorated stonework and the interiors adorned with frescoes. It boasts dazzling artistry, including a 12th century Byzantine cross decorated in enamel.
Mestia Ski Resorts
Svaneti is also a center for winter mountain tourism, with the ski season stretching from December to mid-April. Winter sports enthusiasts can enjoy amazing skiing and snowboarding on the pristine slopes of Hatsvali Ski Resort and Tetnuldi Ski Resort.
Trekkers will have a great time in Svaneti with abundant hiking opportunities offering amazing views along the way. The four-day hike from Mestia to Ushguli is one of Georgia’s famous multi-day treks. Other popular hikes lead to Shkhara Glacier, Chalaadi Glacier and Koruldi Lakes.
There are plenty more Georgia tourist activities that visitors to the region can enjoy, including off-road adventures, hiking or biking in Svaneti, as well as horse riding in Mestia.
WHERE TO STAY IN SVANETI
There is a wide range of good Svaneti hotels and guesthouses, particularly in Mestia. However, most options outside Mestia are simple, rustic family-run guesthouses, which can offer wonderful local experiences.
WHERE TO EAT IN SVANETI
Although Svanetian dishes are popular around the country, to get an authentic taste, its best to taste them locally. There are dozens of Svaneti restaurants serving Georgian food specialties from the region, accompanied by Georgian wine. Restaurant Zuruldi is one of the top Svaneti restaurants.
HOW TO GET TO SVANETI
Svaneti is served by the Queen Tamar Airport in Mestia. The Mestia Airport connects the region with Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi and other Georgian destinations. Due to the constant high demand for tickets, it is recommended that you book your flight tickets ahead through our travel agency.
FINAL WORDS AND TRAVEL SUGGESTIONS
Journey through pristine landscapes dominated by the highest peaks of the Greater Caucasus. Follow serpentine roads leading to hidden villages dotted with medieval watchtowers. A visit to Svaneti is one of Europe’s last great adventures and a must on any Georgia itinerary.
It is recommended that you book Svaneti hotels in advance with our travel service. If you would like to drive to Svaneti, we have a modern fleet of 4×4 rental cars available for hire. We also offer Georgia tour packages from Svaneti that include private transfers to and from Mestia airport.
You can even create your own custom vacation package including the places you want to visit and things you want to do in Svaneti. Craving a change from the hectic pace of modern life? Order your custom tour to Svaneti today and escape back in time to a spectacular place of legend!