How Svaneti was connected to the Georgian Kingdom

The history of Svaneti is closely connected with the history of Georgia. Because of its border location, Svaneti has benefited from the rise of the Georgian Kingdom since the Middle Ages: Svans were suitable as reliable border guards. With the decline of medieval Georgia, Svaneti became the treasury of Georgia. For the nobility withdrew into the mountains before the armies of the Mongols, Persians and Ottomans. Despite all attempts to exert influence, Svans retained the traits of a traditional culture even beyond the Soviet era. Their traces can be discovered as a visitor in the geographical space until today.
The following text is taken from the first Svaneti travel guide "Swanetien entdecken – Ein Kultur- und Naturreiseführer für Georgien", which has been published only in German so far. Felle welcome to follow my invitation to take a look inside the book:

Bagrat III reigned from 1008 onwards as King of Georgia (Sakartvelo). He had the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi built and consecrated in 1003. Following his claim as „King of Kings“, he reorganized the country by increasing the number of ecclesiastical dioceses as administrative seats.

The political integration of Svaneti into the united Christian kingdom can be reconstructed through the endowments of church buildings, paintings and sacral objects (e.g. pre-altar crosses). These contain references to the founders, making a temporal and political classification possible. The churches, icons and pre-altar crosses preserved in Upper and Lower Svaneti, dating from the 9th to 11th centuries, show that Svaneti was treated as a unified space in political, ecclesiastical and cultural terms, at least since Bagrat III. It was probably assigned to the bishopric of Tsageri, founded in Racha-Lechchumi in the 9th to 10th century.

On the one hand, the founding of the churches had a strong influence on architecture and iconography. In addition, the painting and the church services, which referred to the pictorial representations, also influenced the regional customs, e.g. burial rites. These depictions were always in people’s minds, and they altered their social relationships, generally the ideas of the relationship between man and the world here and there.

Scene from the life of Jesus in the Archangel Church of Lashtkveri (Stefan Applis 2020)

During a visit to the village community of Mulakhi, one can see the Church of the Redeemer in the village of Tschwabiani. Mulakhi can be visited, for example, during the hike from Mestia to Uschguli. A fresco inscription has been preserved in this church, which shows the King of the Abkhazians, meaning Bagrat III, as the founder. Unfortunately, only the foundation walls of an older small church above the village of Nesguni, whose foundation falls under the reign of Bagrat III’s predecessors, have survived. This church was dated by a document that was found there.

After the death of Bagrat III in 1014, politically troubled times began. The territorial integrity of Georgia was repeatedly threatened; from the outside by the Seljuk invasion, from the inside by a conspiracy of members of the Georgian high nobility against the rule of George II, the son of Bagrat IV.

After his abdication, his son David, who was King of Georgia from 1089, succeeded in restoring the country’s unity. The people called him David the Renewer or the Builder (1073-1125). He subdued the high nobility by allying himself with the middle and lower nobility. David IV subordinated the church to the state and elevated church leaders to the highest political offices. In 1121 he drove the Seljuks out for good by forming new military alliances. The Emirate of Tbilisi (736-1080) was freed from Islamic rule and made the capital of Georgia.

David IV. achieved border security in the north by integrating the Svans into the Georgian military system. In this context, he had a system of fortifications built. He built one of these fortifications in Upper Svaneti above the village community of Ushguli and a smaller fort above the village of Chazhashi – of which two towers each still exist today.

Drawing of defensive towers and machubi in Chazhashi (Ushguli): floor plans, elevations, cross-sections. ICOMOS Georgia Study funded by Getty Grants Foundation
The smaller fortress above the village of Chazhashi (Dimitri Ermakow 1900)

For the art historian Brigitta Schrade, whose research results are referred to here, the decisive integration of the Svans into the Georgian state system took place under David IV. The Georgian military was stationed in the mountains. The Svans were integrated into the defence of a united Georgia. David tried to access the religious world views of the Swans by founding new churches and repainting the existing ones according to the Byzantine model. These measures can be traced via written testimonies in frescos or engraving in stones. In this way, the cultural history determined by the official church can be traced very precisely. Furthermore, conclusions can be drawn about the everyday culture associated with church rites.

Significance of the painting of the churches: In the church in Chvabiani from the village community Mulakhi two layers of paint could be found. Here, with the second painting layer, the whole church interior was painted in zones, corresponding to the most important Byzantine church festivals. Based on this church, a new arrangement of everyday life in the course of the year can be derived as an example. For the church festivals had a direct effect on the holiday and work culture. Other inscriptions found indicate that the paintings were commissioned by the inhabitants of the village communities, which were mostly members of the dependent lower nobility in Svaneti.
In three churches located between Mestia and Ushguli no older layers of painting could be found so scientists assume that these churches were first painted during the reign of David IV. They are, coming from Mestia, first the church of St. George in Nakipari (1130), then the church of the Archangel in Iprali (1096), which belongs to the valley of Kala, and the church of St. Quiricus (svan Lagurka) above the valley of Kala (1111), which was connected with the foundation of a monastery. These buildings are associated with Tewdore, who identified himself in the frescoes as "painter of the king".
What is astonishing about these is the high level of professionalism with which they were painted. They deviate in places from the Byzantine rite in the choice of motif. Besides, only colours from local raw materials were used, which is why Tewdore is said to have a strong connection to the Swan cultural area. The decisive factor, however, according to Brigitta Schrade, is the intervals between the works. These indicate that the king or the highest church authority as the client wanted new, exemplary designs to be brought to Svaneti. Above all, because Tewdore must have carried out the last painting at an advanced age and under Demetre I (1093-ca. 1160), the son and successor of David IV. He probably did not execute it in all parts himself. Consequently, he must have already had assistants or pupils, which points to the development of his own Svan school of painting. 
Church of the Redeemer with annexe for women in the village community Latali in the village Matskhvarishi (Stefan Applis 2021)

Under Demetre I, the promotion of church and art was continued. This can be seen in the village community Latali in the local Church of the Redeemer: Mikael Maghlakeli created a painting there in 1140, which shows how Demetre I is crowned by the archangel Gabriel as a sign of his ecclesiastical and secular power. This bears witness to the close connection between Svaneti and Central Georgia and the involvement of the Svan nobility in Georgian politics. The architecture of the Church of the Redeemer is an ideal example of the religious separation of women and men.

Two generations of rulers in the same family line later, Queen Tamar, honoured in Svan popular traditions, ensured further integration of Svaneti into the United Kingdom of Georgia during her reign (1184-1213). People say she had a summer palace in Ushguli and was buried there. However, no sources can prove this. What is certain, however, Brigitta Schrade explains, is that Svans, under the leadership of local princes, were an integral part of the Georgian army in the time of Tamar.

Traditional social structure and Christianity:  The system of churches and monasteries took the patriarchally structured social world of the Svans into account. At the same time, the church tried to control the religiously shaped everyday world. Because of the patriarchal structure, the introduction of Christianity did not mean that traditional legal elements such as councils of elders and traditional mythical concepts had to be abandoned. Main churches of a village or valley community were larger and richer equipped; they could also be connected to monasteries.
The public space was strictly divided into male and female spaces. Until well into the 1960s, women were not allowed to enter churches that were intended for men. However, women played an essential role in all religious practices. They baked the holy bread, which is important for the performance of many rites. And they produced the flour for them, which came from particular fields assigned to the churches.
Male and female spaces (Stefan Applis 2021)

The richness of the monasteries and the integration of religion into everyday life is evident in many preserved handicrafts of the highest quality. Examples of this are icons chased in silver plate or gilded silver plate with striking tools and artistically decorated crosses made of local materials (wood, silver and gold).

Soviet Volga between a church and a former meeting place of the Council of Elders under the remains of an oak tree in Barshi (Ezeri) (Stefan Applis 2021)

Under Tamara, the habit of having legal acts confirmed by priests became firmly established. They witnessed contracts in documents or by carving them into church walls, on icons and crosses. These documents also give insight into the self-image of the village communities. They are strong evidence that the communities were politically ordered to a large extent using of religious oaths.

Silver icon of the Mother of God Mary from the Church of the Redeemer in Lakushdi (Stefan Applis 2021)

Svaneti profited from the rise of the Kingdom of Georgia because its kings sought to integrate the mountain regions into its ecclesiastical-political order for border security reasons. This kingdom found its most significant expansion at the beginning of the 13th century, which – including its protectorate and vassal states – stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

During the rise of the Mongols and the conquest campaigns under Genghis Khan, the last Chroesm Shah (Turkish dynasty 1077-1231) advanced against Georgia from 1225 on, after eventful battles with the Mongols. Until then, he had ruled over Khorezmia south of the Aral Sea and its surroundings, all of Iran, Transoxania and Afghanistan, and was finally able to conquer all of eastern Georgia. From 1240 onwards, the Mongols replaced him as occupying power, leading to several Georgia divisions. Georgian princes voluntarily submitted to the Mongols and committed to taxes and military success. Inner-Georgian conflicts led to a further weakening of the country, but in a temporary period of weakness of the Mongols then to a resurgence of Georgia under King George V, called „The Magnificent“ (reigned 1314-1346). However, under Timur Lenk (1336-1405), the Mongols regained their former strength and devastated East and West Georgia in several campaigns between 1386 and 1403.

Lamaria monastery above Ushguli (Stefan Applis 2021)

Once again, Svaneti benefited, though not from the rise but the decline of the formerly united Georgia. The art historian Brigitta Schrade sees the appreciation of Svaneti as a place of retreat and refuge for members of the nobility, the clergy and outstanding artisans not only documented in the historical chronicles. It is particularly evident in the preserved treasures of the churches in Svaneti. The villages could only be reached over high passes, which were also shielded by a system of watchtowers and defence towers. Ushguli, in particular, was considered impregnable because of its location and its protection by a fort and fortress and the Svan family towers, which themselves had fortress character. Likewise, the village community of Kala was secured by a fortress, as was revealed by the excavations carried out as part of the restoration programme of Stichting Horizont. The furnishings of the monasteries of Lamaria in Ushguli and Lagurka in Kala indicate the stay of socially higher ranking groups of people such as the higher nobility.

It is possible that smaller communities of women also used the monasteries. This is indicated by the high-quality manufactured objects found there, such as small bags, jewellery and other ornaments used by women of the nobility. In the lower parts of Upper Svaneti, such as the village communities of Mestia, Latali, Ezeri and Zchumari, valuable church treasures were kept, such as manuscripts, processional crosses, triptychs and icons, which came from other parts of Georgia.

Selected art treasures of Svaneti can be visited at the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography in Mestia (Avtantil Lozeliani 7, 384750 Mestia, Tues-Sun, 10.00-18.00). Here you can best understand how Svanetia became the treasury of Georgia and how priests, artists and craftsmen who had fled to the mountains enriched the economic and social life. In a fortified tower located in Ushguli, the museum building in the village of Tchashashi, and also art objects are freely accessible - even in the monastery Lamaria located above Ushguli and in the monastery Lagurka in Kala. In principle, there is a chance to find the church guard at each church to visit the above-mentioned prominent churches.  However, this will usually only be possible through the mediation of a local family - it is always worth asking where you are staying.

Text: Stefan Applis (2021)

Photography: Stefan Applis (2021)

Stefan Applis (2021). Swanetien entdecken – Ein Kultur- und Naturreiseführer für Georgien. Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle.