Castle Hunting: The Svaneti Towers

During the last decade of the 12th century and the first decade of the 13th, under the rule of the beloved Queen Tamar, Georgia prospered, grew and was peaceful. During her reign, Tamar often made the long voyage into the upper reaches of the Svaneti valleys, spending summers there and helping to found metalworking and painting schools – she supposedly loved the green pastures and imposing glaciers, the simple people and the restful quiet. It was a golden age for Georgia and, for a moment, it seemed that the isolated Svan people were on the brink of becoming more integrated with their neighbors.
Tamar died in 1213. In 1220, the Mongols made their first contact with Georgia. A few years later the country was conquered, the military massacred, the aristocracy killed or in hiding, the entire region overrun by Genghis Khan’s horsemen. It would take hundreds of years before Georgia could claim true independence again – after the Mongols left the Persians and Ottomans fought over the scraps, then ceded the area to the Russians.
Only the Svans were able to repel the Mongols, and were never overtaken by Turkey or Persia. They sealed themselves in their mountain hideaway, secure in their towers, never quite trusting the outside world.
These towers are among the most unique and fascinating fortifications in the world. Instead of entrusting the defense of a town to a large fortress or castle, each family built their own tower. Most of them were erected between the 9th and 13th centuries, though the foundations of some have been shown to be much older - perhaps even dating from the 6th century.
In total, there are some 175 towers surviving, with large concentrations in Chazhashi and in Mestia, where there are 47. At one time, however, there were as many as 500 of these buildings in Svaneti, with nearly 100 in Mestia alone.
From a distance, they prickle the hillsides and look - somewhat pessimistically - like smokestacks.
Many of Mestia's towers have been preserved and are - if not lived in - at least still attached to domestic quarters built around their base. Completely integrated into the town, the defenses rise everywhere. As recently as the 1970's, there were still many occupied towers, and during civil conflicts with the Russians, they were supposedly even employed as gunning positions.
There are also some Svaneti strongholds that have been miraculously preserved. This is the main room of a large, intact tower-house. Once belonging to the Margianis, an important family in the town - the woman who showed us the house used the Russian word for "king" - the building is part of a complex that included three towers and this residency.
The woodwork is all, amazingly, original. It dates mostly from the 12th century, and is intricately carved and worked. The holes that you can see in the far wall are actually cattle stanchions. The animals stood on a lower floor, feeding from a trough along the ground. The human inhabitants slept in long, communal beds in the space just above their cows - the animal's body heat helping to keep the family warm in the winter.
The towers were used for food storage as well as defense, and their interiors - though narrow - are many layered. It's unusual to find such slender holds with five or six stories, but this was the pattern that nearly every family followed. The interior dimensions remain constant; the slight slope of the walls is created by thinner stones at the top and a wider foundation.
The Margiani tower that's open to the public is a narrow, difficult-to-climb structure with extremely shoddy ladders. Like many keeps and strongholds, the door is some twelve feet above the ground, with a ladder or staircase below that can be destroyed to increase defensibility. Inside, large, flat rocks lay beside the ladder holes, ready to be employed as seals. Unlike a few other, similar towers in these mountains, the Svan versions have crenelated tops and roofs.
The medieval Svan families were just as worried about being attacked by neighbors as by invading armies. After all, the high Caucasus form an imposing natural barrier between the towns and the rest of the region, meaning that contact with foreigners was very rare. The Svan people are notorious for their blood feuds and for their internal, familial standards of law. The Margiani family, after all, had three prisons in their compound.
Another interesting facet of this particular family defense is that the three towers were never connected by a wall. There were tunnels, though, that linked the buildings. Recently, it was discovered that there was also an escape tunnel, that led up the hill into the woods above.
In all our travels, I've never seen anything quite like these citadels. They accent this wild, independent place beautifully. Seven hundred years after the Svaneti valleys were sealed off from the rest of Georgia, the immediacy of the isolation is still gripping.
We had a feeling of discovery in these mountains, as though we had stumbled upon a place that was only just waking up from a long hibernation.
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