National Geographic : 2014 Oct
86 national geographic • october 2014 0mi 5 0km 5 QUEEN TAMAR AIRPORT Mt. Tetnuldi 16,319 ft 4,974 m Mt. Shkhara 17,060 ft 5,200 m Mt. Ushba 15,453 ft 4,710 m UPPER SVANETI GEORGIA RUSSIA ABKHAZIA SH-7 Ushguli Chazhashi Kala Ieli Adishi Mulakhi Ipari Towered settlement Cholashi Khaishi Nakra Kvemo Marghi Mestia In times of danger, lowland Georgians sent icons, jewels, truss the bellowing beast over the branch of an apple tree. Jachvliani grabs its horns, while an- other villager, unsheathing a sharpened dagger, kneels down next to the bull and, almost ten- derly, feels for the artery in its neck. Over the course of history many powerful empires—Arab, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman—sent armies rampaging through Georgia, the frontier between Europe and Asia. But the home of the Svans, a sliver of land hidden among the gorges of the Caucasus, remained unconquered until the Russians exerted control in the mid-19th century. Svaneti’s isolation has shaped its identity—and its historical value. In times of danger, lowland Georgians sent icons, jewels, and manuscripts to the mountain churches and towers for safe- keeping, turning Svaneti into a repository of early Georgian culture. The Svans took their protective role seriously; an icon thief could be banished from a village or, worse, cursed by a deity. In their mountain fastness the people of Svaneti have managed to preserve an even older culture: their own. By the first century B.C. the Svans, thought by some to be descendants of Sumerian slaves, had a reputation as fierce war- riors, documented in the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo. (Noting that the Svans used sheepskins to sift for gold in the rivers, Strabo also fueled speculation that Svaneti might have been the source of the golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts.) By the time Christian- ity arrived, around the sixth century, Svan culture ran deep—with its own language, its own densely textured music, and complex codes of chivalry, revenge, and communal justice. If the only remnants of this ancient society were the couple of hundred stone towers that rise over Svan villages, that would be impres- sive enough. But these fortresses, built mostly from the 9th century into the 13th, are not emblems of a lost civilization; they’re the most visible signs of a culture that has endured almost miraculously through the ages. The Svans who still live in Upper Svaneti—home to some of the highest and most isolated villages in the Caucasus—hold fast to their traditions of singing, mourning, celebrating, and fiercely defending family honor. “Svaneti is a living ethnographic museum,” says Richard Bærug, a Norwegian academic and lodge owner who’s trying to help save Svan, a largely unwritten lan- guage many scholars believe predates Georgian, its more widely spoken cousin. “Nowhere else can you find a place that carries on the customs and rituals of the European Middle Ages.” What happens, though, when the Middle Ages meet the modern world? Since the last years of Soviet rule a quarter century ago, thousands of Svans have migrated to lowland Georgia, fleeing poverty, conflict, natural disasters—and criminal gangs. In 1996, when UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on the highest cluster of Svan villages, Ushguli, the lone road that snakes into Svaneti was so terrorized by bandits that few dared to visit. Security forces busted the gangs in 2004. And now the government is implementing a plan to turn this medieval mountain zone into a tourist magnet. Svaneti arguably has seen more change in the past few years than in the past thousand. It’s not just the vans full of foreign backpackers discover- ing the region’s pristine trekking routes. In 2012 the government installed power lines to light up even the remotest villages. The road that links most villages of Upper Svaneti will soon be paved all the way to Ushguli. Frenzied construction has transformed the sleepy regional hub of Mestia into a faux Swiss resort town lined with clap- board chalets and bookended by hypermodern government buildings and an airport terminal out of The Jetsons. Meanwhile on the flanks of Mount Tetnuldi, directly across the river from Jachvliani’s home in Cholashi, one of Georgia’s largest ski resorts is beginning to take shape. Perhaps it makes some kind of karmic sense that the mountains and stone towers that kept outsiders at bay for all these centuries should now be enlisted to lure them in. But will all this change save the isolated region—or doom it? Beijing-based Brook Larmer is a frequent contributor. Aaron Huey began making photographs in Svaneti in 1999, while he was still in college.