Svaneti is the highest inhabited part of the Greater Caucasus Mountain, situated on its southern slope in the northwestern part of Georgia. The landscape of the Upper Svaneti consists of a few small villages situated on the mountain slopes, decorated with a breathtaking natural beauty of the gorges and the alpine valleys, along with a gorgeous backdrop of the majestic snow-covered mountains. Chazhashi, located at the head of the Enguri gorge in Svaneti, is a small hamlet of Ushguli, a community of four villages. Encircled by peaks of up to 5,000 metres and located at a height of 2,100 metres, right near the foot of Shkhara, one of the highest summits in the Great Caucasus, this is the highest area in the Caucasus mountain system where people have settled since long back. In fact, in this land of remote isolation, dominated by mountains and divided by deep, dangerous gorges, the Svan people settled almost two millennia ago and here they flourished. However, the area was virtually hidden from the outside world till 1889-1896, when Count Vittorio Sella, a reputed climber and photographer, made a number of climbs in the Svaneti region and photographed the remote fortified communities.
Svaneti is widely known for its more than two hundred fortified strange stone towers, which were built during the 9th-12th centuries, as protection against the invaders and the raiders. Actually, at around the end of the ninth century, the Svan found themselves in regular confrontation with the northern Caucasian tribes from the other side of the mountains and with the Ossetians from the east. Though they had more or less peaceful relationship with those surrounding tribes, during the hard days all the peace treaties and trading agreements were violated by people desperate for food and other necessary items. To protect themselves from such sudden attacks, they hit upon a unique plan. Instead of constructing massive walls of fortification around their villages, the Svan opted to build strong towers by each family and a family could often consist of up to a hundred people.
The walls of the three to five storeyed Svanetian towers are thick at the base, which decreases with the increase of the height, giving the towers a slender, tapering profile. The base of the towers was devoid of windows or doors and the entrances were built around twelve feet above the ground level. With the threat of any invasion, the family members used a wooden ladder to reach the entrance and then the ladder was either pulled up or destroyed. Inside the entrance of the towers the Svan used to accumulate loads of large and flat rocks, which could be released, as and when necessary and were used to seal the inhabitants and their worldly goods inside their tower. They also used to shoot arrows at their enemies through the window slits on the towers.
Each tower is attached to a big two-storey house, called ‘Machubi’. The ground floor is a single hall equipped with an open hearth in the centre of the hall to keep the place warm, where food was also cooked. This floor was used to provide accommodation for the people and the domestic animals as well, the latter being separated by a wooden partition, which is often lavishly decorated. To help the thermal insulation of the building, a corridor was added to it. ‘Darbazi’, the upper floor, was used by the family in the summer, and also served as a store for fodder and tools. At this level, a door is provided to access the tower, which is also connected with the corridor that protected the entrance. Large families often constructed more than one tower within the walled courtyards to accommodate the extended family members. Those towers were accessible from inside the second floor of the main house. The towers were well stocked, as a siege could last weeks or months and the invaders would run out of food before the defenders.
However, with the invention of new weapon like gunpowder, no new tower-houses were built after the beginning of the thirteenth century. Over the following centuries, many of the towers were demolished and the bricks were used in new constructions or they simply collapsed. The remaining age-old towers, more than two hundred in number, are protected under Georgian law. These ancient architectural monuments of Upper Svanetia are included in a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.