Svaneti is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations within Georgia and is best known for the village community of Ushguli, one of the highest situated permanently populated places in Europe. It is the architecture that fascinates visitors from all over the world to the most photographed spot in Georgia. Due to the Georgian state’s lack of commitment to the preservation of cultural heritage in Svaneti, the World Heritage status, indispensable for attracting tourists, could now be withdrawn.

Read my current article for the news magazine Eurasianet: „Perspectives | The threats to Georgia’s world heritage sites“

The article series "Georgian Perspectives" provides insights and analyses of contemporary Georgian 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. It is important to underline that the insights given here must always include views from the outside, as the author is neither a native speaker nor permanently living in Georgia.

Georgia has three World Heritage Sites, which are of great importance for the worldwide recognition of Georgian history and culture: Historical Monuments of Mtskheta, Gelati Monastery and the village Chazhashi in Svaneti. However, all three sites have been the subject of intense conflicts between state, religious and economic actors and UNESCO. As a result of these conflicts, another 15 sites and regions in Georgia have been on the proposal list since 2007, without any further developments (cf. Stadelbauer 2018).

Read about the problems surrounding the Bagrati-Gelati complex, which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994: "Georgian Perspectives | Controversial World Culture – Conflicts over Georgia’s Architectural Heritage Using the Example of the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi".
And see the article on the Gelati Monastery complex on the website "Controversial World Culture - Conflicts over Georgia's Architectural Heritage using the example of the Gelati Monastery complex in Kutaisi."

The general question is how the architectural and landscape heritage can be integrated into everyday life. To this end, according to many on the ground, it must be adapted to the expectations of the people. In the end, they must live in it and benefit from it. UNESCO, on the other hand, focuses above all on preserving the authenticity of the respective building and demands severe restrictions on the use of the World Heritage site.

Upper Svaneti is a world cultural heritage because of its outstanding mountain landscape with its preserved medieval-style villages and the characteristic fortified towers. These towers, churches and shrines, houses and agricultural areas are the materialized heritage of Svaneti. Social and religious social practices are profoundly intermingled with space; they are structuring space and spatial use.

On July 28, 2019, an old family tower of the Charkseliani family in the village of Murqmeli from the Ushguli village community had collapsed (cf. Kvaratskheliya 2019). The residents held a rally and blocked the road on August 12, so that no tourists could reach Ushguli for several hours. They demanded that the authorities should finally start restoring the family towers in Murqmeli, the village most affected by avalanches during the winter disaster of 1986/87. According to the National Agency for the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of Georgia, this should have been done by the end of the year.

Luftbild des Ortsteils Murqmeli in Ushguli | Svaneti | Stefan Applis
The village of Murkmeli was hit hardest by avalanches in the winter of 1986/87 and now profits least from tourism.

A year later, none of this has happened. On August 1, 2020, the Georgian news agency ‚Formula News‘ reported in a nearly ten-minute long television feature, in which some of the affected inhabitants of Ushguli spoke, that UNESCO might consider withdrawing the World Heritage status from the village of Chazhashi in the Ushguli community. Only this village belongs to World Heritage, and Svaneti is only marginally honoured in the ICOMOS report (cf. Stadelbauer 2018). This would mean that Georgia would lose the mention of the entire region on the World Heritage List.

Murqmeli lies beneath the village of Chazhashi, which has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 and was protected in the Soviet Union as the Ushguli Chazhashi Museum since 1971.

There the medieval fortified towers still show themselves in a mostly closed ensemble with the traditional residential houses of Svaneti. A further 19.16 ha around it serve as a protected ‘buffer zone’, including Ushguli’s other villages with individual buildings of particular architectural value and the agricultural landscape (cf. UNESCO 1997).

The architectural heritage of Svaneti is in great danger in many places: Pictures from Murqmeli, the lowest situated village of the village community Ushguli

Boris Kakriashvili’s buildings are located in the buffer zone. However, the Georgian state has so far only invested in the renovation and protection of the buildings in Chazhashi.

Boris Kakriashvili

Outside the core, a neoliberal marketing principle for tourism is ruthlessly pursued, according to which people should help themselves. In essence, tourism in Georgia is thus a part of the subsistence economy in many areas of the country. However, for the Kakriashvili family, not even this is possible, because Murqmeli is not very attractive to visitors. Too many houses are dilapidated, and it looks a bit like the derelict suburbs of Ushguli – visitors prefer to stay overnight higher up from Chazhashi towards the mountain Shkhara.

Read the articles "Ushguli's World Heritage in danger (Ushguli, village of Chazhashi, Georgia)" and "Towers, mountains, sickles and hammers - different perspectives on the question of what is part of the cultural heritage of a community."

This is all the more tragic as Boris Kakriashvili’s family is one of the very oldest in Ushguli. The family’s former prosperity and influence are evidenced by the impressive fortress construction, the like of which there are not too many in Svaneti. Several buildings are connected to the massive tower by a system of corridors, stairs and ladders so that the entire 10th-century complex could be defended like a castle. Inside, unbelievable treasures are stored that elsewhere would have long since been in a museum – memories of a family line many centuries old.

Boris has often tried to draw attention to the decline of his property. He himself receives only a small pension, his sister earns little in the kindergarten of Ushguli, and his children are, like most of the inhabitants of Svaneti, despite university degrees without a steady job (cf. Gugushvili 2011). All of them live mainly from small self-sufficient agriculture. They cannot even afford to build a new stable, which would make it possible to clean and maintain the old machubi.

UNESCO is a very abstract institution for the inhabitants of Ushgulis, and hardly anyone knows that it does not finance the preservation of cultural world heritage. Doing this is the task of the respective state once it has received the prestigious title. In Svaneti, the Georgian state has undoubtedly taken this too easy and believed that in the long run, it is mainly the positive aspects of improvised tourism that feeds the inhabitants that can be taken away (cf. Applis 2018, Engel et al. 2006).

As a result of unorganized construction work due to an increasing flow of tourists to Ushguli, both the architectural heritage and the surrounding cultural landscape have been affected by such drastic changes within a few years that there are clear differences between the situation on site and the reasons given by UNESCO for the World Heritage status.

In the case of Bagrati Cathedral, conflicts over structural changes to the church building led to the cathedral being placed on the list of endangered world culture in 2010, together with the Gelati Monastery. Both had been part of the Bagrati-Gelati World Heritage complex since 1994. After long negotiations, it was agreed that the Gelati Monastery could remain on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites from 2017 on, while Bagrati Cathedral was removed from the list. Using the example of Bagrati Cathedral, UNESCO has intervened strongly and removed the building from the World Heritage List. In doing so, the World Heritage Commission has drawn a clear line to the Georgian state and the Georgian church, a line that continues to have an impact today. No other claim by Georgia has been pursued with a positive outcome to date. And in Ushguli in Svaneti the next comparable drama might be in the offing (cf. Stadelbauer 2018).

Read about the problems surrounding the Bagrati-Gelati complex, which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994: "Georgian Perspectives | Controversial World Culture – Conflicts over Georgia’s Architectural Heritage Using the Example of the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi".
And see the article on the Gelati Monastery complex on the website "Controversial World Culture - Conflicts over Georgia's Architectural Heritage using the example of the Gelati Monastery complex in Kutaisi."

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis (2018, 2019)


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. Verfügbar unter: (15 August 2020)

Engel, E., von der Behrens, H., Frieden, D.; Möhring, K., Schaaff, C., Tepper, P., Müller, U. and Prakash, S. (2006): Strategic options towards sustainable develop-ment in mountainous regions. A case study on Zemo Svaneti, Georgia. SLE Publication Series, Faculty of Agriculture and Horticulture. Mestia, Berlin. (15 August 2020)

Gozua, G. (2019). Svaneti activists protest to draw authorities‘ attention to erosion of family towers. Caucasian Knot.

Gugushvili, A. (2011). Understanding Poverty in Georgia. Caucasus Analytical Digest, 34, 16-18. (15 August 2020)

Kvaratskheliya, K. (2018): Collapse of Ancient Towers Causes Mass Protests in Ushguli. Georgia Today.

Stadelbauer, J. (2018): Schützen oder nutzen? Konflikte über das Bauerbe in Georgien. [Protect or use? Conflicts over the architectural heritage in Georgia] In: Osteuropa 68 (7), 47–77.

UNESCO (ed.) (1997): Convention concerning the pro-tection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. World Heritage Committee. Twentieth Session Merida, Mexico, 2.-7. December 1996. (15 August 2020)