Merzbacher’s Contribution to European Exploration of the Caucasus

Gottfried Merzbacher (* 9 December 1843 in Baiersdorf near Erlangen; † 14 April 1926 in Munich) was a German geographer, alpinist and explorer of Jewish origin who, after learning the profession of furrier, trained as a merchant in Paris, London and St. Petersburg. In 1888 he sold his business with its main seat in Munich and from then on devoted his life to alpinism. Merzbacher was considerably involved in the exploration of the Alps, the Caucasus and Asian mountains such as the Tian Shan. In the Caucasus, Merzbacher collected physical-geographical data on numerous tours. And he provided ethnographic descriptions, still interesting today, of the architecture, everyday practices and religious practices of various ethnic groups, as well as analyses of the social, economic and political conditions in several regions of the Northern and Southern Caucasus. Merzbacher justified his work, which was published in two volumes, in the preface by saying that no comparable treatise had been presented before and that he wanted to correct a number of misconceptions circulating in German-language literature about the Caucasus.

While the magnificent Caucasian Alps have long been familiar to English readers through the travels of English alpinists and mountain explorers (…), German geographical and alpine literature to this day does not contain a single work of significance on this wonderful mountain range. The few travellers (…) who have so far made their way into the Caucasian Alps have only had a cursory look around (…). It is a fact that up to now, one author has always copied the mistakes and errors of another, and that these, since they saw the light of day at the end of the 18th and in the course of the 19th century, have been accepted and reprinted again and again until our days.

Gottfried Merzbacher (1904), Vf.

In order to do justice to this claim, Merzbacher also provides a detailed index of English-, Russian- and French-language as well as German literature on the respective subject area or region for each chapter. For his explanations on Svaneti, he claims to have broken new ground.

Treatises on Svaneti and the Svan people have already been published in various languages, but to my knowledge, at least in German, nothing comprehensive or summarising.

Gottfried Merzbacher (1904), 349f.

Merzbacher spent a considerable amount of time in Svaneti because of the peaks he found interesting and the special cultural unity and remoteness of the region, and thus provided a number of remarkable descriptions, which will be given an insight into in the following.

Svaneti and the People of Svaneti

Gottfried Merzbacher follows the classical ethnographic model of his time and the approach of regional geography. In other words, he tries to explain the practices of the people as far as possible from the point of view of the geographical space, taking into account the particular historical circumstances of the region. Accordingly, he tends to ascribe a folk character to the people of each ethnic group he encounters, which is closely linked to physical space and in the determination of which ‚racial perspectives‚ are essential. However, Merzbacher’s experience in the European Alps also makes him well acquainted with social and economic life in high mountain regions, with farming on marginal land and livestock, for example, so that his descriptions of agricultural practices are valuable.

And he has a keen sense of the patriarchal social systems and their support through religious ideas that structure life in the European high mountain areas as well as in the Caucasus region.

Background on the organization of the villages as communities of oath: In the village communities, which considered themselves to belong together, a jointly cultivated legal system prevailed, which was carried out by elected representatives of the villages. Confirmation of legal judgements by the councils of elders and mediators who administered the village communities took the form of icon oaths. The decisions were written on church walls or carved into crosses so that they were visible to all. One swore by the saint depicted on the icon that one would abide by the decisions. In the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography, wooden sticks are preserved, which contain legal documents written down on all sides. This led to the consolidation of traditional legal practices in the area of the upper Enguri valley. Thus the valley communities administered themselves as communities of oath in a, according to Brigitta Schrade, "military-democratic system", which was stabilized by the church. The Orthodox Church established with the bishop's see in Seti, the central village of the village community of Mestia, a church centre of power, at which the villages of the free village communities were oriented. To preserve the military power of the Svans, there was probably, according to Brigitta Schrade, at times a kind of competition among the rulers from the Georgian plain, which was expressed in donations of bells, icons and money. Also, the society differentiated itself in the region, which was later called Free Svaneti by the tsarist administration. Wealthier family lines appeared more and more as founders or donors, which contributed to a stabilization of the legal practices secured by the church and thus to a stabilization of the community. It was probably always risky to take action against the strong village communities, since they had a large contingent of men who had been tested in war and also tended to go off on their own in a raid.
Reading-recommendation: Brigitta Schrade (2021): Das christliche Swanetien. Beiträge zur Geschichte und Kunst der byzantinischen „Peripherie“ zwischen Jerusalem und Konstantinopel. Reichert.

Gottfried Merzbacher profited, as did Wilhelm Ricker-Rickmers after him, from the Tsarist subjugation of Georgia and Svaneti, which led to military control of the region through the incorporation of the former feudal lords and regional noble families of the Dadishkiliani and the Dadiani into the Russian system of the military nobility. In addition, he is particularly interested in the so-called Free Svaneti. Here he draws parallels to the valley communities of the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland and notes that „for centuries the inhabitants of this area did not recognise any overlordship and arranged themselves into autonomous village communities that were completely independent of each other.“ (Merzbacher 1904, 353).

Background: The term "Free Svaneti" was used by the tsarist administration for the region, which was officially annexed since 1853. Already in 1847, several villages had submitted themselves to the tsar. Others probably also refused to provide to the Russian legal system, because with the Russian policy, which also understood Russia as a civilizing project, a Christianization in the sense of the Russian Orthodoxy was connected. This led to resistance in many places, because Svan Christianity was strongly connected with traditional customary law. In the case of Svaneti, a massacre by tsarist troops in 1876 is recorded for the village ofKhalde, which today is no longer inhabited and belongs to the village community of Kala. About 60 people are said to have been killed in this massacre. Another 40 were deported as forced labourers, only one of whom returned to Svaneti. The villagers of Khalde had refused to comply with tax demands of the Russian Empire, because they, as Svans of Free Svaneti, did not want to submit to tsarist law. All the family towers were demolished, and the village was razed to the ground. Khalde was not repopulated until 1924 in the Soviet era with the establishment of a collective farm in Kala.

From today’s perspective, however, Merzbacher’s treatises on the origin of the inhabitants of Svaneti seem more than inappropriate, and can only be described as racist. However, the majority of the ideas presented do not come from Merzbacher himself. He rather analyses the interpretations from French, English and Russian literature of the 19th century, which attribute the „brusquely repellent, wild, barbaric and hostile nature of the Svans“ (Merzbacher 1904, 354) to the fact that the Svans were rather the descendants of criminals of various ethnic origins who fled to the safety of the mountains. Their kinship with Imeretians and Grusians is rejected because they have a „coarser bone structure, harder, coarser features, broader noses, narrower lips, narrower eyebrow arches“ (ibid.).

Merzbacher rejects these speculations by referring to the traditions of Greek and Roman authors as members of “ intellectually superior peoples“ (Merzbacher 1904, 354). From the analysis of Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy, he draws the conclusion that the Svans were the descendants of various ancient peoples of Colchis, who had been pushed into the mountains after the death of Alexander the Great and the associated division of empires, and who originally had a „higher culture“ (ibid.) because of Greek influence.

Only later, in the isolation of the mountains, did they sink back into barbarism and become the crude robber people that later Roman authors describe them as. Procopius‘ description of the Tsanes, a people that can only mean the Svanes, agrees almost completely with what is later known of them: he too emphasises that they are a predatory people who always invade the surrounding countries by plundering. The Roman emperors tried to deter them from their raids by paying tribute annually, but this did not always succeed, so that Augustus was finally forced to use force of arms against the unruly people. (…) Above all, we can assume that the Svans are the purest manifestation of the ancient Carthusian type, far more so than the eastern Iberians, who, exposed in hardly interrupted succession to the contact and influence of other peoples, became the constant prey of foreign conquerors, which is why, despite their undeniably powerful peculiarity, they were subject to the laws and customs of the foreign peoples under whose political dependence they found themselves at the time, and through this, as through mingling with the new invaders, underwent changes in their original nature.

Merzbacher 1904, 355

In these and other passages, Merzbacher’s remarks sometimes seem difficult to bear, as he is obviously concerned, in a kind of ‚positive racism‘, to establish the Svans as an independent, united people and to invalidate the accusation that they are descendants of ‚half-breeds‘. Last but not least, the Christian faith established in Svaneti serves him here as a reference for a positive ‚people character‘, which he establishes in the religious practices and the many church buildings that are typical of Svaneti.

Although the legend of the Svans ascribes the origin of the church buildings, as well as all significant human work in the country, to the time of Queen Tamara (1184-1212), even though, according to Bakradse’s research, older manuscripts than those dating back to 1033 have not been found in the churches, it is nevertheless clear from their construction and decoration that they belong to an earlier cultural period and most probably originate from the very first time of the introduction of Christianity in the Caucasus.

Merzbacher 1904, 362

Merzbacher devotes detailed descriptions to the shape of the mountains, the deeply cut valleys and thus the inaccessibility of the region, to which he attributes the fact that the Svans lived for so long in a largely closed cultural space.

The Enguri River, like many other Caucasian rivers, forms a wider valley in its upper reaches than lower down, (…) surrounded by high mountains. In the west, immediately after the confluence of the Nakra River, i.e. just where the Svan region ends, the valley suddenly narrows and the river breaks through enormous masses of igneous rocks between gigantic walls, forces its way between the foothills of the central granite ridge on the Kirar and the porphyry stock of the Rokar and continues to dig deep into the limestones and sandstones of the Jurassic, finally into the layers of the Cretaceous. Through this ca. 65 km long narrow gorge, bordered by sky-scraping steep walls, the enormous quantities of water, which the Enguri has received in the Svan basin from the surrounding, glaciated mountain ring, escape. (…) Through the river valley there is no regular connection between the outside world and the upper Svan region. To the north and east it is enclosed by the ice ridge of the Upper Caucasus, over which only glaciated passes lead; to the south it is separated from the Tskhenistsqali valley and Imereti by the high, partly glaciated rampart of the Laila. Only the ice-free eastern part of this chain – high passes, of which the Latpari Pass (2830 m) is the most frequented – can reach Upper Svaneti; in winter, however, even these cannot be crossed and the country remains completely inaccessible for months. Thus, the isolation of the area provided the basis for a separatist development, and one does not need to resort to the proven assumption of the immigration of refugees from other tribes in order to explain the peculiarity of this people. Such seclusion makes us understand how the remote region became a terra incognita in the last centuries, during stormy times as a result of incessant internal battles and external invasions (Turks, Persians) over Mingrelia and Imeretia, and disappeared from the memory of the rest of the world, so that it was only around the middle of this century that it had to be rediscovered, so to speak.

Merzbacher 1904, 370f.

Errors and Confusions – Interpretations of the ‚Svan Character‘

From today’s perspective, the passages in which Merzbacher talks about how difficult it is for him to approach the people are also interesting. Of course, he can hardly succeed in shedding the colonial perspective – of course he is grateful to the Russian expansionist policy that enables him to travel through the region, and of course he cannot hide the fact that he counts himself as belonging to a ‚people‘, which is „steadily gaining strength and to which he ascribes an increasing expansive drive, which every year leads an ever-growing number of travellers out into distant regions, the entering of which not so long ago was still considered a sensational event“ (Mersbacher 1904, V). And Mersbacher himself has achieved a great deal, left so much behind him, in order to reach so far. Despite everything, the ‚foreign‘ remains a curiosity to him, his fantasies about the character traits of the Svans are amusing in places, but mostly shameful – Merzbacher can never bring himself to realise that Russia has only been an occupying power in the region for a few years, that massacres have been committed against the population in order to maintain Tsarist order. He ought to be able to understand, one thinks as a contemporary reader, that it is no wonder that the Svan people he encounters appear hostile and suspicious to him. In the following, a few passages will be cited for illustrative purposes, which will not be commented on further.

The Svans are not exactly likeable in character, as can be seen from the foregoing, although it is not to be denied that they show bravery and intrepidity, are courageous in defending their interests and in pursuing their feelings of revenge; but they do not at all possess the knightly qualities and the amiable disposition, the free, open character and especially not the hospitality of their Carthusian brothers, the Grusians, Imeretians and Gurians. Trickery and impenitence are the basic traits of the Svans, greed the mainspring of their actions. Mistrust of strangers and therefore unfriendly, inhospitable behaviour is one of his most outstanding characteristics. He does not have the free courage and the chivalrous-warlike sense of the Grusinian; he is ruled only by rapacity and mercenary lust as a result of his excessive temper. The Svan does not know the value of money, as it was not in circulation in the country in the last centuries until recently. And that is why it is still very difficult to come to an agreement with him about the purchase price and wages, all the more so because he does not consider himself bound by his word to strangers. It happened to me that I offered a man in Becho more for an object than he asked for, and he still stubbornly refused to let it go, because he was not able to count so far as to understand his advantage. It was distrust alone that prompted his refusal. The Svans‘ way of counting with their fingers, hands or even stones is very strange and reminiscent of completely savage peoples. In the whole Svan district there is not a single duchan or shop where one can buy even the simplest articles of daily use: only wandering merchants bring some goods into the country. We have already spoken of the quarrelsomeness of the Svans and the liveliness associated with it in the previous chapter, as well as of their chattiness, which is not interrupted for a moment either by hard work or by strenuous marching; their glibness is unbelievable and the most notorious of our old women can be considered Trappists in comparison. Even in ordinary conversation, one person rarely talks alone: But when several are conversing, they shout at each other as if they thought they were deaf, and all speak at the same time, uttering the words hastily and rapidly. The livelier the conversation, the higher the tone; with the abundance of guttural and breathy sounds, one can imagine the melodic effect. A very annoying quality for the stranger is their unrestrained curiosity, which can be explained by the rarity of the appearance of strangers in the country: but also indolence, insubordination and sometimes dishonesty – make themselves felt unpleasantly. For this reason, it has not yet been possible to make useful soldiers out of the Svans, and although most of the mountain peoples are now being drafted into the military and make quite capable warriors, even Lesghier, which until recently was desperately fighting for its independence, according to information I have received from Russian officers who are friends of mine, this has not yet been successful with the Svans. It is true that a small number are drafted into military service every year, but they cannot be taught any discipline and these sons of freedom wither away in the barracks, like plants removed from their natural breeding ground. The Svans eats moderately and can even go hungry on long marches during great exertion, or at least manage with a minimum of food. But where he is given ample opportunity, he is able to make unbelievable quantities disappear into the unfathomable depths of his stomach; I believe that one would be able to eat half a sheep. Rarely, however, does he have the opportunity to eat meat; the usual food is unleavened, small cakes of barley bread, baked in a primitive way on hot stones, a little curd cheese and sour milk and certain wild vegetables, which are eaten raw. A special delicacy is the so-called Khachapuri, the same kind of barley bread as the one just described, but with a layer of curd cheese; I found this pastry very tasty, especially when fresh. The Svan is incomparably more debauched when it comes to drinking, although the fluffy Chacha, which forms the national drink, has a completely abominable taste for Europeans. The most pleasant trait in the Svan’s nature is his tendency to cheerfulness, as can be seen in most primitive peoples. He loves poetry, dancing and singing. The former is not without charm and is permeated with ancient pagan and historical memories; the memory of Queen Tamara is particularly glorified in it. The singing is of a kind that has very little in common with the melodic series of notes that we understand by it. They are long, monotonous, plaintive or wild-sounding melodies, stammered out as loudly as possible in a rough voice. The liveliness of the performance replaces the lack of euphony, and the higher and more cleverly the singer uses the falsetto voice, contorting his throat and eyes con-vulsively, the more certain he is of the applause of his listeners. During communal singing, one of the singers leads the chorus, usually without any inflection, and at the end of a verse he shouts out a few words, which all those present in the chorus shout out repeatedly. The verses are usually short and often the singing is accompanied by the plucking of an inconspicuous, seven-stringed instrument (changi), similar to a small harp. On marches, the extremely sustained singing of the Svan porters can often become quite annoying to the traveller, and they would regard a reminder to stop it not only as an incomprehensible defect in the traveller’s aesthetic sensibilities, but also as an encroachment on their free humanity.

Merzbacher 1904, 367ff.

Text: Stefan Applis (2021)

Pictures: E. T. Compton, E. Platz & M. Z. Diemer aus Gottfried Merzbacher (1904)


Gottfried Merzbacher (1904). Aus den Hochgebirgen des Kaukasus. Dunker und Humblot. Leipzig. Online verfügbar unter