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.
A contribution by Nino Tserediani, Director of the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography. Stefan Applis has been working with Dr Nino Tserdiani for several years on a photographic archive of traditional everyday objects in Upper Svaneti.
Compare Nino Tserediani's explanations with the descriptions of the Svan house given by the German explorer Wilhelm Rickmer-Ricmers in 1902 in his "Fragments from Svaneti"; for the sake of clarity, I have divided Rickmer-Rickmer's text into four sections that you can access individually:

Part I: An overview on “Fragments from Svaneti” (1903) by Wilhelm Rickmer-Rickmers

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

If one wants to understand the traditional understanding of the gender roles, it is useful to first look at some central sacral aspects of the Swain house. An understanding of the structure of the house is fundamental for an understanding of the roles assigned to men.

The life of Georgians living in Svaneti, who call themselves Svans, begins with birth in their home, which is called „qor“ in Svan language. Its inhabitants are called „mesge“. The living space where the family comes together is called „lasga“. The root of „lasga“ forms the term „sgei“, which means „son, boy“ in Svan.This selection of derivations already shows what meaning is linguistically assigned to the man in the Svan high mountain culture. He forms the “ fundament“ of the Swanian house – Sgei.

Nino Tserediani talks about traditional weaving techniques

Concerning the interpretation of the structure of the Svan house, different interpretations have been introduced in ethnological treatises. As late as 1938 T. I. Leshava and M. N. Jandieri stated that the Svans had taken over the form of their house and the tower from neighbouring peoples. According to this interpretation, the upper floor with a hall-like area and the tower were built in a development process from the „Machubi“.  Contrary to this position, S. Makalatia, V. Bardavelidse and M. Tschartolani (M. Tschartolani, „Wirtschaftsbauten in Swanetien“, Studien zu der Swanischen Ethnographie, 1970, cf. therein the contribution of N. Tserediani, pp. 78-123), argued that the residential complexes built within Svaneti would occur in this form only there.

Apart from certain differences, the latter authors agree on the basic structural aspects.

„The Svan House is a kind of fortress construction, which consists of several building parts. In the shape typical for Svaneti, it occurs only there and in places inhabited by Svans.“

Typical Svan residences can be found in village communities and places like Ushguli, Zaleri, Lachamula, Sasa or in Ghebi.  Variants of the principal structure can be found throughout Upper and Lower Svaneti, in the Mountains of Racha and in some places in the Northern Caucasus.

left: Machubi of a Svani fortress in Murkmeli; top right: Machubi of the ethnographic family museum in Ushguli; bottom right: Storage cupboard in a Machubi in Latali (Applis 2019)

In these housing complexes the main building on the ground floor is divided on one level – especially in winter – between people and animals. In the front part is the living room, in the rear part is the livestock stable.

Tower-like houses are generally characteristic of the West Georgian kolkish culture. In the valley of Colchis, wooden beams were mainly used as building material. Due to the humid climate prevailing there, no examples of these houses have survived. In the Svan high mountains, however, the tower architecture built in stone has been preserved.Some excellent examples of this architecture can still be found today. In recent years, however, their preservation has been increasingly threatened.

However, with a decay of the architectural witnesses of Svanetian culture, the entire cultural landscape typical for Svaneti is threatened. The traditional architecture blends into the mountain landscape in such an amazing way that some visitors have the impression that it has grown out of the mountains themselves.

on the left: Outer wall of a Svan fortress in Murkmeli (Applis 2019), right: Ushguli around 1910 (reproduction of a photograph on a calendar of the Georgian National Museum)

Until today there are still open questions regarding the construction of the Swanian towers and the tower houses. For example, it is unclear how the stones, some of which are very large, were transported to the construction site and what technique was used to stack them on top of each other.  It is also unclear whether and how the necessary static calculations were made. For the inhabitants of Svaneti, whose family lines are closely connected with the buildings they inhabit, these open questions are cause for wonder about the achievements of their ancestors. This amazement is expressed in a number of phrases like „Created by God, made by God. And yet built by human hands!“ The oldest Svanian houses date back to the 6th to 7th century. In Upper Svaneti the Heschkili territory is an example of this, in Lower Svaneio it is Lasga near Rzchmeluri.

„Created by God, made by God. And yet built by human hands!“ (Svan phrase)

Apart from working the rock for construction purposes, Svans were also involved in the extraction and processing of iron ore. Areas where iron, copper, and bronze were mined in Georgia since the beginning of settlement are found on both sides of the Greater Caucasus. Already in the third century B.C. metallurgy was practised in Svanetia, raw stone and processed products were delivered to the capital of ancient Colchis. Gold was washed in the rivers, which was considered typical of the Colchian culture, within which the Svanians were also the guardians of the northern border.

In the Svanian Machubi, the living space („qor“) is divided according to its function and the meaning assigned to it (cf. inter alia M. Chartolani, on the location of the fireplace „Kera“ in a typical Machubi, using examples from the municipalities of Ifari, Mestia, Zchumari, Ushguli in sheet XX – B 1959 of the State Museum of Georgia, pp. 17-20). The division of the space is characterized by two basic structures:

  • The central room is separated from other rooms by a door.
  • The central room is organized around a fireplace.

on the left: Photograph by Vittorio Sella (Archive of the Georgian National Museum), top right: Loom from a Machubi in Ushguli (Applis 2018), bottom right: Cheese strainer from a Machibi in Ushguli (Applis 2018)

The most important areas of the Machubi are distinguished according to their function:

  • „Lakulpha“ is the fireplace where fire always burns;
  • „Ka-Kerai“ is the fireplace where fire is lit only for baking bread.
  • „Sgaa Kvelf//Kaveshgim//Lesuraal//Lamaara“ are the sections in the room for the women. From here you go through a door to the „Gvem“ – this is what the marriage bed is called. Among other things, household items have their place there. The whole area is connected to the practices that are assigned to the women.
  • „Qaa Kvelf//Leghujmaar//Kazchash“ is the name of the male-side of the room. There is the prayer place „Lamsr Lachvra//Trbes“, furthermore the seat for the head of the family („Machvshi“) or a long men’s bench. In the area assigned to the men there are also wine vessels, weapons and working tools.

The division of the living space of a Machubi can be understood from the idea of a rectangle. In its centre is the fireplace „Lakulpha“ or „Kera“. At any edge of the rectangle there can be an entrance door near the corner. In most cases, however, the entrance is on the east side of the building. To the right of the door are always the stable places of bulls and oxen in Machubi. After that, at the second edge of the rectangle is the cow barn. The women’s side and the men’s side are located at the fourth edge of the rectangle.  This order is almost never violated.According to this order the areas of men, bulls or oxen are close together. Females find their place in the rear part of the living space close to the stalls of the other livestock.

„If the rectangle of the floor plan is divided into four parts by diagonals, the Machubi is subdivided according to the areas of responsibility of women and men.“  (Nino Tserediani)

Floor plan of a Machubi with circle and cross geometry according to the considerations of Nino Tserediani

Ground plan of a Machubi (Applis 2019)

Seen from the fireplace, the individual elements of the space follow a certain order. To the right of the fireplace are the door and the male side, to the left the female side. The arrangement follows a „cross“ accordingly. If you also take into account the vertical principle of division into Machubi on the ground floor and Darbazi on the first floor and the corresponding support systems of beams, you get a lying and an upright cross within a rectangle. The two crosses thus form the symbol of eternity.

If you place a circle in the centre of the rectangle, you get the shape of the „Lemsiri“, the Svan bread. This is also called „Lamaria shilgne“ (German „blessed by Mary“). The latter functions as „women’s bread“ or also „sacrificial bread“ (donation bread) within various religious practices or rituals. Other breads, which are called „dagi“, have a similar shape and are specially marked on their surface. These are placed on the table after a funeral. Thus on the first night of the „Liphanaal“, the rite in memory of the deceased, their souls are invited to the table as guests. Within this ritual they are considered as „Uphal Dalar“ and not as deceased. According to the Svan concept, the deceased are considered godlike during this ritual. Blessed are they and the persons and families who perform the rite. The Lemsiri breads are first regarded as a sacrifice belonging to God in the course of this ritual, and then sacrificed to the deceased.This is also called „Lamaria shilgne“ (German „blessed by Mary“). The latter functions as „women’s bread“ or also „sacrificial bread“ (donation bread) within various religious practices or rituals.  Other breads, which are called „dagi“, have a similar shape and are specially marked on their surface. These are placed on the funeral table after a funeral.Thus on the first night of the „Liphanaal“, the rite in memory of the deceased, their souls are invited to the table as guests.

„The construction of the Svan house and the practices that take place in it are a good example of how, according to traditional Swan ideas, the divine and human worlds, as well as the world of the dead, are united in a common world within everyday and religious practices.  (Nino Tserediani)

In the Museum of History and Ethnography of Svaneti many dagi patterns (ornaments) are kept and preserved.  All these ornaments contain sacral, sometimes secret signs or symbols whose meaning is not fully known to us today. They can be found in many places of the interior decoration of Svan houses, either carved in stone or as wood carvings.

left: Wedge ornaments and symbolic representations on a letschundir in Latali; top right: Men’s bench in Barshi; bottom right: stylized representation of an ibex on a larder of a Machubi in Latali (Applis 2019)

One of the most common ornaments is called „wedge ornament“.  In the register of the Historical-Ethnographic Museum it is listed under the name „Hebrew or Semitic ornament“. This entry was made by Egnate Gabliani in 1936. The sign is found as an ornament on the dagi breads and can be found throughout Georgia as a woodcarving pattern.

„Thus the interaction of people, natural space and built space, all the practices in it and all the things used in this practices represent the traditional world view of the inhabitants of Svaneti“. (Nino Tserediani)

Text: © Nino Tserdiani (2019)

Translation into English: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Pictures: © Stefan Applis (2019)