Land of the Watchtowers
LEANING forward, holding tightly to the roof beams, we poked our heads out the top of an 800-year-old stone tower in the country of Georgia. From our vantage point some 80 feet (25 m) above the ground, we saw scores of other ancient watchtowers scattered throughout the village of Mestia, Svaneti’s regional capital.
The gently sloping valley, carpeted with green hay fields, contrasted strikingly with the immensity of the lofty snowy summits that soared up around us. We were captivated by this ancient place, feeling that somehow we had stepped back into the Middle Ages. Visiting the famous watchtowers of Svaneti had, in fact, been a goal of our trip.
Touring the Area
Our journey to the high mountain area of Svaneti began in Zugdidi, Georgia, near the Black Sea. The morning was clear, and from there we could already see the magnificent white peaks. When we reached the Inguri River gorge, we slowly wound our way through it. This forest area teems with ferns, azaleas, laurels, and masses of rhododendrons with cream-colored blossoms.
By evening, our group had reached the picturesque village of Becho. It is located at the foot of the breathtakingly beautiful Mount Ushba, with its towering twin granite spires. Like moths to a candle flame, mountain climbers are drawn to the sheer icy peaks of Mount Ushba. At 15,453 feet (4,710 m), it is frequently referred to as “the Matterhorn of the Caucasus.”
Tired and hungry from our travels, we stopped a local shepherd, bought a sheep from him, and prepared it for our supper. Before long, over a campfire and with the kind hospitality of our Svan friends, we had a wonderful dinner of mtsvadi, known to many as shish kebabs. It was served with freshly baked Georgian-style lavash, a flatbread prepared in a wood-fired clay oven. To top off the meal, we enjoyed a glass of Saperavi, a rich, dry red wine native to Georgia.
The next morning our journey took us into Mestia. Here, looking out from the watchtower mentioned at the beginning of this article, we concluded that Svaneti is one of the most beautiful mountain regions of the world. Some 28 miles (45 km) from Mestia, nestled still deeper in the mountains, is the village community of Ushguli. Villagers here live at altitudes of up to 7,220 feet (2,200 m). Ushguli has been called “the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe.”
To reach this mountainous community, we took a lonely, narrow road that clings to the mountain and is bounded by steep precipices that drop off to the river below. On finally reaching Ushguli, we were rewarded with an unforgettable sight
At 17,064 feet (5,201 m), Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s tallest mountain, is part of what is called the Bezengi Wall, a seven-and-a-half-mile (12 km) line of peaks that reach almost the same height. These are part of the some 750-mile-long (1,207 km) Greater Caucasus range. Everywhere we looked we saw lush valleys with astounding scenery. Yet, these valleys are inaccessible, except to the most adventuresome or to those who call Svaneti their home.
The People Who Live Here
The Svans, who live in Upper Svaneti, are an ancient people who have their own language. They have long been known as a people who refused to be dominated by any lord. In the 18th century, an explorer observed that the Svans had “realised the new ideal of a society where the free-will of the individual overrides all other considerations.”
The unique freedom of Svaneti can be attributed to two factors. First, the barrier of extremely tall mountain ranges isolated the people from the outside world and protected them from invaders. Second, the watchtower served to safeguard the independence of each family. It protected them against enemies and neighboring villagers, who at times became hostile, as well as from avalanches that inundated smaller structures with snow.
Life in a Watchtower
We were invited to visit one Svan family’s tower, which dates back to the 12th century. The fortress compound had two major parts
The huge tower was made of stones and was covered in a coarse whitish plaster. It had four floors. These rose above the two-story house to which it was connected. When we entered the tower from the house, it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the subdued lighting. The watchtower’s lower floors were used for the storage of water, flour, fruit, cheese, wine, and meat.
In times of emergency, the family would sleep in the tower’s lower and middle floors. The top floor, covered by a slate roof, was essentially a fighting platform that had small openings in the parapet. One visitor in the 19th century reported that since there was “no local authority of any kind able to enforce a decision, arms were constantly resorted to.” So each family was prepared to fight to defend itself.
On our return home, feelings of gratitude to Jehovah welled up in our hearts as we reflected on the beauty we had seen in his awesome creation in Svaneti. Those who lived in the watchtowers there in bygone ages have the prospect of life in God’s new world. At that time, none will feel the need to build a watchtower or any other fortress for protection. Why not? Because, as the Bible promises, then people “will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble.”
[Picture Credit Line on page 16]
Top: Paata Vardanashvili