Part I: Introduction | Rickmer-Rickmers as guest in Svaneti with Prince Dadeschkeliani

Svaneti has been a destination for European hikers and mountaineers since the end of the 19th century. The early travellers had ethnological-geographical, but often also political-military interests. Knowledge of strategically essential areas was always interesting for their countries of origin. For the German Empire, it was quite significant that in 1903 German alpinists were the first to conquer the southern peak of the Ushba. The Ushba was in this time considered the most challenging mountain in the world. The explorer Wilhelm Rickmer-Rickmers led the expedition to the Caucasus, which was carried out jointly by the German and Austrian Alpine Club. The expedition team lived in Upper Svaneti with Prince Tatarstan Dadeschkeliani in Barshi. Rickmer-Rickmers reported on his experiences and observations in the "Fragments from Svaneti". 
Rickmer-Rickmer's records of 1903 are presented here for the first time in English translation. Although the descriptions of life in the mountains are more than a hundred years old, there are astonishingly many similarities with the present life of many Svans in the mountains. Above all, the region still has a precious treasure of everyday objects. The families preserve them in the villages alongside the architectural heritage. This article would like to send the reader on a short journey through a Svaneti that has preserved much of its past. This will be done by illustrating Rickmer-Rickmer's text from 1903 with recent photographs.
For the sake of clarity, I have divided Rickmer-Rickmer's text into four sections that you can access individually:

Part II: Architecture: Rickmer-Rickmer's observations on house building and the fortified character of the villages

Part III: Handicrafts and everyday objects: Rickmer-Rickmers explanations about things of daily use

Part IV: Rickmer-Rickmers observations on agriculture and animal husbandry

During a short stay in Svaneti, which served other purposes, I started this collection of impressions and reports. It could only become smaller, and it remained even smaller than intended because I had to shorten my vacation unexpectedly. A large part of my knowledge I got from Prince Tatarchan Dadeschkeliani who kindly cooperated with me. The Prince is very knowledgeable about the traditions of his people. He is very interested in the history of the Caucasus as well.

Tower of Dadeschkeliani’s castle in Barshi

I give these fragments as they fell, without criticism. I report what I observed, what I think I saw and what I people told me. In particular, I refrain from trying to draw a line between legend and historical fact in traditional or genealogical matters. Whoever works in depth on Svaneti will be able to form his own opinion.

My collection of cultivated plants and grasses got lost during a river crossing.

I would like to warmly recommend Svaneti to our young ethnologists as a worthwhile field of work. The country is easily accessible. For a four-month stay, including the outward and return journey, 1500 should be enough, if you are undemanding. A good phonograph to record traditional songs is necessary, and musical knowledge would be valuable.

Topography and literature.

Two books contain everything that is known so far about the geography of the Caucasian chain. These books also provide abundant bibliographical references, making them the best starting points for your studies. These are D. W. Freshfield, The Exploration of the Caucasus, London 1896. G. Merzbacher, From the High Regions of the Caucasus, Leipzig 1901.

Genealogy of the Dadeschkeliani

Between the years 738 and 784 Muslim, a nephew of the Prophet Mohammed, came to Daghestan. Four family-lines derived from him: 1) Shamchal Kumuchskii, 2) Kadi Tabassaranskii, 3) the princes Utzmievi, 4) Dadeschkeliani. The Dadeschkeliani are closely related to the Daghestanian family Shamchal. A man from this family was appointed in 1394 by the Georgian King Bagrat V from Daghestan. He was to pacify Svaneti, whose inhabitants had risen. Afterwards, he stayed in the country with his family. The family derives its name from the Tatar nickname „Daghdashdangölan“ according to an inscription in the church of Pchotreri in the village community of Ezeri. The name means „came from the inhospitable rocky mountains“, gradually people shortened it to Daghdashgalan etc.

Members of the family, end of the 19th century (Photography taken by Dimitri Ermakov)

The first representative of the direct line is that Dagkelon, as mentioned above, which appeared around the 14th century. The pedigree is often incomplete, but from Otar the Strong it has been established.

Muslemin – Dagkelon – Gerplan – Islam the Strong (ca. 1540) – Dshansoch – Puta – Islam Berar – Otar the strong – Tatarchan (1833 confirmed) – Grandfather – Tengiz – Tatarchan (1903).  The branch from Otar the Strong is the ruling branch and is officially called Dadeschkeliani-Otarscher. In this way, the origin of the family is confirmed in the letters of nobility that Emperor Nicholas wrote to the great-grandfather of the present head of the family. The Dadeshkelianis voluntarily submitted to the tsar. For this, they received their securitised position in the Russian nobility.

Prince Puta was shot in Ushguli. Nobody wanted to take the murder on himself. So they placed a rifle in the church window so that it pointed to the usual seat of the Prince. Each inhabitant delivered a specimen of powder to the load and a little lead to the bullet. And each family provided a boy who pulled the string that triggered the cock. Thus, no single person bore responsibility. Puta’s son, Islam Berar, avenged his father with high military power and, according to the Prince’s statement, killed about two thousand people in Upper Svaneti. Since then, nobody ever dared shooting at a Prince; at most, they shoot among themselves.

Under the holy ash tree in Barshi (residence of the Dadeschkeliani in the Ezeri valley), there is a gravestone. It not only depicts the outline of a human being but also corresponds to the „natural size“ of Otar the Strong. A granite slab lies at his feet. A fine line can still be seen on it today. It comes from the sabre with which Otar executed two criminals lying on top of each other by cutting them with one stroke. Otar’s empty hands could hold whole mutton.

Besides the head of the family with four brothers, we find a large number of parallel lines, such as the Bekerbi in Zchomari, doe Mosostr in Ezeri, the Moslem Bekerbi in Mazeri, the line of the Musarchan punished by the government in Pari, etc. However, they all occupy a subordinate position. The mainline has rich landholdings in Ezeri, Zchomari and Betsho and some valleys beyond the Leila chain.

Former place of jurisdiction in Barshi.

Guilt and punishment. Law.

In the past, the Prince had power over life and death. Criminal law has been withdrawn from him, but his civil court power is quite significant. Above all, he acts as a justice of the peace, i.e. he executes legal decisions to balance mutual claims. Thus he mediates in property matters, marriage matters and also imposes penalties. There is still a long, heavy chain with neck irons preserved, which has weighed on many a murderer. The place of the court was under the big ash tree of Barshi. Theft is rare, and „great thief“ is a grave insult. A deadly insult that demands blood revenge is the breaking of an engagement.

Drinking goblet (made by Meulut Tscharkseliani, Ethnographic Museum, Ushguli)

Every visitor to Svaneti must feel transported to the magnificent and splendid dinner parties at princely courts in the European Middle Ages when he is a guest in Svaneti. One must think of such celebrations in pictures and texts when the host cheers the guest with songs, and everyone in the group answers with singing and shouting.  When you experience this, you understand where all the scenes from the poet Bodenstedt’s texts about great feasts come from. Of course, the Svan guest culture here does not differ from the one generally spread in the Caucasus.  And everywhere in Georgia, celebrations in honour of the guest are held in the same way. At the table, people sing after a short time, and the whole atmosphere is very sublime when the host invites his men to choral singing and round dance. There are undoubtedly many folklore treasures to be discovered. In the Lower Svaneti, the people have already forgotten much of their heroic songs, so it is high time to put them down on paper.

Translation: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photography: © Stefan Applis (2019)

Text: German geographical sheets. Bremen 1903, XXVI volume. 12