In an essay on Ushguli’s constituent villages, the Italian architect Vinzenzo Pavan (2011) points to the similarities, which at first glance might appear confusing, between these ensembles and the architectural structure of thirteenth-century Italian city states, each with their groups of towers and neighbouring stone buildings whose arrangement in the space does not, at first glance, appear to follow an evident logic; they seem to have been cast into compact units of settlement, each sharply boundaried from their surroundings, appearing like fortresses with their solid slate slabs and limestone bricks.
The UNESCO World Heritage status is limited to the village of Chazhashi
The core site in Ushguli with UNESCO World Heritage status is limited to the village of Chazhashi, or, more properly, specific monuments and groups of buildings within it, amounting to an area of 1.09 ha which was subject in the Soviet period to protection as the Ushguli-Chazhashi Museum Reserve. A further 19.16 ha around it serve as a protected ‘buffer zone’ (Chazhashi’s 1-kilometre radius), including Ushguli’s other villages with individual buildings of particular architectural value and the agricultural landscape.
The UNESCO Commission deems Ushguli to represent a unique cultural space which fuses the defensive towers and their particular manner of construction (cf. the detailed discussion see Pavan 2011), along with other medieval-era buildings, including sacred structures, with an impressive and authentic mountainous landscape, thus meeting the fourth of the UNESCO World Heritage criteria, and which has survived to this day due to traditional methods of land use closely linked to further authentic characteristics of traditional Svan life (meeting criterion V). It is this set of circumstances, UNESCO considers, which ensures that the existing relationship between the local people and their environment will persist (cf. ICOMOS 1996; UNESCO 1997, p. 65). UNESCO additionally highlights the exclusive use of local building materials (in this case, slate slabs) and traditional techniques, a point valid for a total of 200 medieval-era buildings across the villages of Ushguli.
The other constituent villages, unlike Chazhashi, did not directly hold protected status as architectural ensembles in the Soviet era and do not today; this circumstance is due to changes to their architectural substance imposed by human action – particularly in Chwibiani and Zhibiani – or the destruction of the heritage by natural events such as land- and mudslides and avalanches (cf., inter alia, Tarragüel, Krol and van Westen 2012; National Atlas of Georgia 2019, p. 38- 42; for an overview on natural risks see Stadelbauer 2015). The World Heritage Committee, however, has stipulated that changes here be likewise subject to approval by state authorities, making the prevention of significant alterations to the architectural heritage of the whole of Ushguli a precondition for the retention of UNESCO World Heritage status. Despite this, the Georgian state has yet to present a sustainable plan for the management of the site (cf. Stadelbauer 2018), which would secure the long-term preservation of the ‘buffer zone’, protecting its buildings, managing the landscape and ensuring sustainable farming practices, taking a participatory approach to the involvement of the local administration and, above all, the population on the ground. UNESCO provides no financial support for building or maintenance work. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) recommended restricting the conferment of World Heritage status to Chazhashi – which was counter to the Georgian state’s original application – but endowing the entire mountainous region in which it is set with a mention, evidently in the intent of encouraging further desirable practices in the area.
The ICOMOS recommendation on the village of Chazhashi
The following passage from the ICOMOS recommendation is indicative of the robustness with which the Council advocates the principles underlying its decisions and can well be read as a warning in regard to the site’s future development: ‘In the opinion of ICOMOS it would be premature for the entire Reserve to be inscribed, since it is a new creation and its policies are still being formulated. The technical condition of Zhibiani village is, according to the “passport”, “in a grave condition”, which would seem to disqualify it for inscription until action has been taken to remedy that situation. The Ushguli-Chazhashi Museum-Reserve, on the other hand, is clearly defined and has been in operation for several years.’ (ICOMOS 1996, p. 101). The village of Zhibiani saw the greatest impact from substantial architectural change in the Soviet period, receiving elements reminiscent of typical Soviet dacha architecture, elegant and generously proportioned, with protruding, closed balconies in the Georgian style providing access to the series of rooms within. The dictum issued by ICOMOS (1996) excludes this style of building – the only type to provide enough space to accommodate reasonable numbers of tourists – from any and all protected status; indeed, it deems it deleterious to the site’s medieval architecture and its overall impression as per criterion V.
Photo: Reproduction of an undated Photo of the 1960s showing Chwibiani and Zhibiani and taken from a room of the Solomon guest house in Chwibiani, which captures the principal phase of reconstruction during the Soviet period, during which following the elder interlocutors over half of the uninhabited towers were demolished for building materials.
Photo: The same view, taken today; a check at the site confirms that since the previous Photo was taken, only one further tower has been lost, to collapse.
Methods of construction, though, are changing profoundly, with the introduction of building materials such as concrete, limestone composites, plastics and sheet metals and of styles of building modelled on hotels and other types of tourist-oriented structures typical of the European Alps. Further, seasonal returners to Ushguli, who cannot do the work of mountain farmers, do not meet UNESCO stipulations as regards contributing to the preservation of the local cultural landscape (cf. criterion V, ICOMOS 1996).
The ICOMOS assessors took the view in 1996 that no management plan was necessary, possibly because they assumed that the region would remain isolated for the foreseeable future.
Tourism sustains and threatens in Ushguli
The ‘Caucasus Barometer’ for 2017 reported that 22% of the population in Georgia found themselves with insufficient funds to feed themselves and their families daily in the course of a month, while 30 %, although they had enough money for food, could not afford clothing. 24 % were dependent on the proceeds from selling the produce of small-scale subsistence farming and only 40 % received a regular wage. A total of 33 % reported needing a minimum of 250 to 400 US dollars per month to cover necessary household expenses for themselves and their families to live normal lives; however, a total of 58 % reported having less than 250 US dollars per month to cover necessary household expenses; a level of 101 to 250 US dollars do only 14 % of the population reach and the average old-age pension amounts to only 50 US dollars per month (cf. Caucasus Barometer 2017).
This is a context in which tourism attains great potential significance as a way of defusing conflict by advancing economic development. The three- to six-month tourist season in the summer, and the region’s admittedly limited access to skiing-based tourism in the winter, enable many families to return at least temporarily to Mestia, the regional administrative centre (1500m altitude, population: 2600), or to higher-altitude villages such as Ushguli.
Summarising, we can identify the need for a long-term management plan for Ushguli with active local participation in its implementation and monitoring and having regard to both architectural preservation and ‘gentle tourism’, to enable the community to maintain its authenticity in line with UNESCO criteria. A further issue consists in the ever-increasing volume of refuse generated by tourists, exacerbated by the continued lack of a sewage treatment system in Ushguli.
Text: © Stefan Applis (2019)
Photography: © Stefan Applis (2018, 2017)
Bolashvili, N.; Dittmann, A.; King, L. and Neidze, V. (2018). National Atlas of Georgia. Stuttgart.
Caucasus Research Resource Centers (2017): Caucasus Barometer Georgia 2017. Carnegie Cooperation of New York. Georgia. http://www.crrccenters.org/caucasusbarometer (Date: 31 July 2019)
ICOMOS (eds.) (1994): World Heritage List: Upper Svaneti. No 709: Advisory body evaluation. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/709/documents/ (Date: 31 July 2019)
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Stadelbauer, J. (2015): Naturraum Kaukasien: Vielfalt, Kontraste, Risiken. Osteuropa 65 (7-10), 7-44.
Stadelbauer, J. (2018): Schützen oder nutzen? Konflikte über das Bauerbe in Georgien. Osteuropa 68 (7), 47-77.
Tarragüel, A; Krol., B. and van Westen, C. J. (2012): Analyzing the possible impact of landslides and avalanches on cultural heritage in Upper Svaneti, Georgia. Journal of Cultural Heritage 13, 453-461. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.culher.2012.01.012 (Date: 31 July 2019)
UNESCO (ed.) (1996): Convention concerning the protection of the World Cultural and Natural. Heritage. World Heritage Committee. Twentieth Session Merida, Mexico, 2.-7. December 1996. https://whc.unesco.org/archive/1996/whc-96-conf201-21e.pdf (Date: 31 July 2019)