The article series "Svaneti Series" (distributed via Twitter @doinggeography) provides insights and analyses of the histoircal region of Svaneti in Georgia social life from a geographical viewpoint. This means that all articles examine the social space and the practices taking place within it. This includes both the built space and the non-built space and all communications about places and spaces. The series of articles addresses English speaking tourists who visit Svaneti and are interested in more information about the culture, ecology and economic conditions in the region.
The article series is distributed via Twitter, see @doinggeography.

The region of Svaneti

Svaneti (Georgian სვანეთი/Swanetis) is a historical-geographical region in the north of Georgia in the Greater Caucasus. The area is because of different historical reasons considered as a culturally closed space with a particular history and architecture and other specific social and economic conditions. It is divided into Upper Svaneti or High Svaneti (Georgian: Zemo Svaneti) and Lower Svaneti (Kvemo Svaneti) and is politically divided within Georgia into the regions of Mingrelia and Upper Svaneti and Racha-Lechchumi and Lower Svaneti. The most important city in Svaneti is the village community of Mestia, the administrative capital of Upper Svaneti. Svaneti is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations within Georgia and is primarily known for its mostly untouched mountain landscape and the unique architecture of its mountain villages. In a commons sense, Svaneti is mainly understood as the region on the upper course of the Enguri River with communities as Zhabeshi, Adishi, Iprari, Vichnashi, Kala, Ushguli. According to the UNESCO commission, Upper Svaneti represents a cultural area in which architecture of medieval origin is uniquely combined with an impressive, authentic mountain landscape, which has been preserved until today thanks to traditional forms of land use.

This assessment is linked to other, so-called authentic features of traditional Svan life. According to UNESCO, the interplay of all these characteristics (authentic mountain landscape, the architecture of the villages in it, specific ways of life and economy typical for the region) guarantees the existence of a sustainable human-environmental relationship. Particular emphasis is placed on the traditional practices of mountain farming in relation to agriculture, and in relation to architecture, the restriction to local building materials (slate slabs from slate quarries and limestone quarries) and traditional handicraft techniques.

Traditional agriculture in the villages of Upper Svaneti

Agriculture with arable farming and animal husbandry is until today the most critical form of economy in Svaneti and secures the primary supply for the majority of the population. Livestock farming is generally practised at a low production level. Still, it is of great importance as an additional source of income that goes beyond subsistence farming (meat, milk and dairy products). However, due to the fragmentation and limited amount of available land in the narrow valleys, no significant increases in agricultural productivity would be expected even with the introduction of modern methods. Potatoes have been the dominant crop since the Soviet era, but the small average field size and a lack of mechanization impose limits here too. Nevertheless, the Soviet-era knowledge about increasing production through collective forms of production can be seen as market potential – the population of Upper Svaneti has not yet adopted cooperative forms of organization. The forest is used for the production of firewood and construction timber. The majority of logging is illegal, mainly because the forest areas that were nationalized during the Soviet era remained state-owned in the new Georgia. In Upper Svaneti, however, families in their everyday lives generally take the ownership conditions before collectivization for granted and behave as if the forest belonged to them. Sustainable agriculture is only just emerging.

On the World Heritage status of the mountain villages of Upper Svaneti

Often in tourist publications or on websites, the often spread incorrect statement can be read that the whole mountainous landscape of Svanetia belongs to the UNESCO world cultural heritage. However, it is only one village of the village community of Ushguli, located in Upper Svantyria, on the Enguri headwaters, which has been designated a World Heritage Site. The village of Chazhashi (ჩაჟაში) with an area of 1.09 ha has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. In the Soviet Union, it was already protected as Ushguli-Chashashi-Museum since 1971. Besides, there is 19.16 ha buffer zone (1 km radius around Chazhashi), which includes the other districts with distinctive individual buildings and the agriculturally used landscape. (cf. ICOMOS 1996).

Apart from the typical Svan fortified towers, Ushguli, like the other mountain villages, has various religious buildings, such as churches up from the 12th century. Thus, the Upper Svaneti region in the north of Georgia, with the village of Chazhashi (ჩაჟაში, ), provides Georgia with one of the three entries on the World Heritage List that are attractive to the tourism industry. The other villages of Ushguli, with a total of around 200 buildings of medieval origin, are not directly protected as building ensembles and were not during the Soviet era. Nevertheless, according to the World Heritage Commission, changes should only be made without permission by the state.

For all the mountain villages in Upper Svaneti, however, the building elements dating from the Soviet era are also typical. From the 1940th on they significantly improved the living conditions of the local population. Today they are the only ones that provide accommodation for tourists, which once again raises the question of how cultural heritage is to be handled in connection with the demands of monument protection, taking into account the interests of the parties involved: Protect or utilise?

Current developments: Tourism in the mountain villages

Against the background of a rich cultural and ecological heritage, the potential for development of Svaneti is seen especially in tourism as hiking and cultural tourism. Attracted also by the World Heritage status, this leads to an at least summer revival of decayed villages and thus represents the basic condition for a sustainable preservation of the cultural landscape. According to the Tourism Center in Mestia, the number of visitors increased from under 9000 in 2011 to over 26000 in 2014 (see Cappucci & Zarilli 2015). The largest influx is recorded by the regional administrative centre in Mestia. From there, tourists basically undertake two main tours: either a day trip to Ushguli, at the end of the Enguri valley, in off-road vehicles and from there either explore the village or go on a hike on foot or on horseback towards the Shkhara glacier. Or one can take a five day hike from Mestia to Ushguli via the mountain villages of Zhabeshi, Adishi, Iprari, Vichnashi and Kala. Alternative routes, often starting in Ieli and leading via Tsvirmi, are increasingly used by cyclists.

The challenges associated with tourism are highlighted in numerous recent publications. They see both the need to introduce economically and socially sustainable approaches and they emphasize the particular threat to architectural and other cultural heritage both through human influence and a threat to the structural fabric from natural events such as avalanches, mudflows or landslides (Applis 2018, Voll & Mosedal 2015, Tarragüel 2011).

As a result of competitive pressure from the organisation of accommodation rentals via online platforms, the prices for accommodation in Upper Svaneti are permanently too low, even though hikers and excursionists can enjoy such low prices. Especially providers of private accommodation hardly receive sufficient value for their investments in view of the very high interest rates for small loans in Georgia. The increasing number of Svans, who return from other regions of Georgia in summer to participate in tourism, also increases the competitive pressure. In addition, the amount of rubbish produced by tourists is constantly increasing, which is also exacerbated by the fact that even Mestia, the administrative capital of Upper Svaneti, does not have a sewage treatment system to treat wastewater.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Bilder: © Stefan Applis (2015, 2018)

References & reading recommendations:

Applis, S. (2018). Tourism sustains, and threatens, Georgia’s highland heritage. Tales of an authentic society living at the edge of time fail to account for higher living standards in the Soviet heyday. (25 July 2020)

Cappucci, M. & Zarrilli , L. (2015). New trends in mountain and heritage tourism: The case of upper svaneti in the context of georgian tourist sector. Geojournal of Tourism and Geosites 15 (1), 65-78. (25 July 2020)

ICOMOS (eds.)(1994): World Heritage List: Upper Svaneti. No 709: Advisory body evaluation. (25 July 2020)

Janiashvili, L. (2012). Traditional Law in Sowjet Times. Caucasus Analytical Digest, 42, 5-7. (25 July 2020)

Janiashvili, L. (2016): Traditional legal practise in Sovjet times. In: Stephane Voell (ed.). Traditional Law in the Caucasus: Local Legal Practices in the Georgian Lowlands. Marburg, 83-124. (25 July 2020)

Köhler, J. (1999): Parallele und integrierte Rechtsysteme in einer postsowjetischen Peripherie: Swanetien im Hohen Kaukasus: (25 July 2020)

Tarragüel, A. (2011): Developing an approach for analyzing the possible impact of natural hazards on cultural heritage: a case study in the Upper Svaneti region of Georgia. Thesis-Paper. University of Twente. Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, 87-92. (25 July 2020)

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. (25 July 2020)

Voell, S. (2012). Local Legal Conceptions in Svan Villages in the Lowlands. Caucasus Analytical Digest, 42, 2-4. Abrufbar unter: (25 July 2020)

Voell, S., Jalabadze, N., Janiashvili, L. & Kamm, E. (2014). Identity and tradtitional Law Local Legal Conceptions in Svan Villages, Georgia. Anthropological Journal of European Cultures. 23, 2.

Voell, S., Jalabadze,N., Janiashvili, L. & Kamm, E. (2016). Traditional Law as social Practice and cultural Narrative: Introduction. In: Stephane Voell (Ed.). Traditional Law in the Caucasus: Local Legal Practices in the Georgian Lowlands. Curupira: Marburg. (25 July 2020)

Voll, F. & Mosedale, J. (2015). Political-Economic Transition in Georgia and its implications for tourism in Svaneti. Researchgate. (25 July 2020)