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

House and home.

Even the view of a village shows the desire to close oneself off to the outside. In every house, you can see how the inhabitants were always anxious to have everything in a war-like state. Every possible opponent should be confronted with a unit of buildings that is entirely independent in itself. In short, the houses in Svaneti are castles.

Only the common term „castle“ does not correspond here with the old meaning of the German knight’s castles. The German lord of the castle protected and ruled the villages belonging to him; the Svan communities are a juxtaposition of castles. Not one tower towers above the whole, but tower stands next to the neighbouring tower, and knight lives next to the other.

Ushguli in 1910 (taken from a calendar of the Georgian National Museum)

This can be seen most clearly in the Upper Svaneti because in the lower parts of the Enguri valley the lords were mighty and were recognised as rulers. There are few towers in Lower Svaneti [Note: Rickmer-Rickmers speaks here of the village communities south of Latali, i.e. the lower part of Upper Svaneti] because the Dadeschkeliani did not like to allow their peasants to use the tower as a means of resistance and as a symbol of a free man.

The fortress-like character is most evident in the small village communities. Even a hamlet, whose population would not make up more than a group of ten to twenty houses, stands out as defiant stonework. So when I speak of a village, it is essential to remember the definition given above: a Svan village consists of one or more castles.

I would like to take the reader to one of those small, one-house communities. You can find hundreds of these villages in the Enguri valley. And all are picturesquely situated on the mountainside. Cold, gloomy, grumpy in the frosty heights lies Adischi, surrounded by fog, lonely and secluded Ushguli, surrounded by fir forests hide the village of Khe. The valleys of Lenjeri and Latali are more friendly and open to the visitor, where deciduous forest, cornfields and sunny colours bring more warmth to the picture. There, the repelling of the grey towers is softened by the fullness of shadows of the holy tree. Above, thieving, rough-legged alpine shepherds, below, farmers, also knightly rags, but more likeable.

You enter through a dark passage and come to the farm at the other end. At first, the view sticks to the clean threshing floor. Next to the threshing floor is a platform resting on poles. There the wind separates the wheat from the chaff. All around, there are entrances to the various chambers and sheds of the farmstead. The door to the largest recreation room you usually find on the side in the dark gateways. On this follows a tangle of corridors, niches and cellars.

The life of the families (because there are many of them) takes place mostly in the high hall [Note: Rickmer-Rickmers speaks here to Machubi], which is at the same time kitchen and living room and where the horned cattle also find shelter or warmth. There the fire burns. Above it, the kettles hang on long chains and bread is baked on a vast slate slab. Benches and armchairs, cradles and other household appliances are set up all around it. There are also containers for milk and for making cheese. On the walls hang iron baskets for wood. The hunters of the family, hang the horns of the ibexes in the smoke under the black ceiling. I once counted fifty of them. On notched tree trunks you climb through sooty loopholes into the other sections of the household, which are hidden in the fortress: Granary, pigsty, hayloft, liquor store. Here and there, recessed angles and wall holes are used as sleeping places. The men usually sleep together in the hall. Thus the house forms a self-contained whole, which in winter or during a siege contains everything that people and cattle need to live. When all the inmates are together, up to forty people can be seen in the hall.

Painting of a great Machubi of the noble family Dadiani from Lower Svaneti (unknown painter, museum of local history Lentekhi)

The material life of the princes did not stand out from that of the population by any outstanding brilliance. Above all, they had more space in the house and did not have to put up with the pressing presence of many families and cows in the same room. Then they did not need to work, they had more food and drink than the others, also more clothes and better bedding, large servants etc. For the visitor from Western Europe, who only takes a brief look at the buildings and their inhabitants, the culture of the ruler and the people would appear to be equally distant from his own Western European culture. Only on closer inspection does one discover that there was a great gulf after all. Above all, the feudal lord had more of everything, and in this respect, clear social and material advantages.

Since the last generation, the Dadeschkeliani princes no longer live in the castle, but in a wooden house of Mingrelian construction with Russian furnishings. The main building houses the servants and several other families who serve the Prince. The predominant patriarchal system has developed from serfdom. All these people provide for all the necessities of life for their lord: they till his fields, build his houses, serve him at tables, wash, cook, weave, sew for him and feed themselves on the side.

Tatarchan Dadeschkeliani is concerned about the preservation of old customs and traditions and also about the restoration of old buildings. He is currently having a decaying part of his castle renovated. I had the opportunity to be present when the construction work was carried out.  The thickness of the old walls was 80 – 100 cm and the Prince had them rebuilt with the same depth.

Local craftsmen did everything. A particularly skilled man, Alexander Tscharkwiani, was employed as foreman. They burned Lime in a round, open fireplace. The very durable mortar they made from two parts lime on one part sand. The building was the more substantial part of the granary with the floors above. About half of the construction work had been completed when the building was pre-rented for winter on 30 August due to the approaching cold weather. By then, 700 sledges of mortar had already been used. Ox sledges transported the stones and mortar over an inclined plane of raw beams up to the growing wall.

In the Upper Svaneti, the construction of massive stone buildings is less complicated due to the easily accessible slate. Here the walls are dense, smooth and straight, and the roofs they cover with slate. In the other parts of Svaneti wooden shingles are used. These are 10 to 15 cm wide at one-meter length. On the roof, they are weighted down with stones. […]

In Prince Dadiani’s Lower Svaneti, I saw pentagonal log cabins, neatly assembled from oak beams, as grain huts. On one house in Barshi, there was a small, cage-like lookout for the guard in times of war. All the house windows are tiny [Note: like gunshots]. The courtyards usually form a very picturesque arrangement with many balconies, stairs and bridges. In the walls of the castle, you can see the most massive stones at the bottom. These are used to secure the foundations, the less massive blocks are further up, especially since they are easier to transport. In front of the doors of the upper floors, there are running boards on pegs in the wall; inclined footbridges are leading up there.

Translation: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photography: © Stefan Applis (2019)

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