The Svanetian Towers of Georgia

14 September 2014

Encircled by peaks of up to 5,000 meters, Svaneti is the highest area in the Caucasus mountain system which people have settled.  In a land dominated by mountains divided by deep gorges, the Svan people settled this historic Georgian province almost two millennia ago and here they flourished.

Yet towards the end of the European Dark Ages, at around the end of the ninth century, the Svan found themselves in conflict with the northern Caucasian tribes on the other side of the mountains and with the Ossetians to the east.  Their solution to tribal raids has endured the centuries.

The Svan built themselves towers.  Although their relationship with the surrounding tribes was often peaceful, when times were hard all truces and trading agreements were subject to violation by people desperate for food and other materials.  Yet rather than create complete circles of fortifications around their villages, the Svan opted to create almost impregnable towers on a family by family basis – and a family could often consist of up to a hundred people.

Image Credit Spyros P
Why this particular form of protection was chosen was due to the blood feuds which were rife between Svan extended families.  These feuds could often persist for generations until the reasons why they had begun in the first place became shrouded in local folklore. As well as protecting themselves from strangers, the Svan were also ensuring that they were as safe as they possibly could be from their neighbors too.

Image AndreZgora
Image Credit Richard
Image Credit Susan
This architectural form lasted for almost five centuries – and it continued for so long because it worked.  The towers were usually between three and five storeys in height.  The ground floor would have the thickest walls and this depth would gradually decrease as the height of the tower rose. The base of the tower was built without windows or doors – and the entrance was usually around twelve feet off the ground.

Image Credit Orientalizing
Image Credit Orientalizing
Image Credit Marco Fieber
When the family community felt threatened they could retreat up a wooden ladder to the entrance and then either pull it up or destroy it.  Just inside the entrance the Svan placed large, flat rocks.  These could be released when necessary and were used to seal the inhabitants and their worldly goods inside their tower.  They would then be safe, effectively and able to shoot arrows at their enemies through the window slits on the tower.

Image Credit Orientalizing
Image Credit Orientalizing
Image Credit Richard
Large family houses with walled courtyards were built around the tower and often a second or third tower would be built as the family expanded.  They were only accessible from the second floor of the house and, again, the tower could be sealed from it with speed. 

Image Credit SusanAstray
Image Credit Amy Nelson
Image Credit Martin Fieber
It might stagger the modern mind that something so simple in concept could be such an effective defense.  Yet as this is the highest inhabited region in the Causasus, it meant that raiding parties, although on horseback, would be lightly equipped. The intention would be to strike quickly, take what they could and withdraw.  The towers would be well stocked and a siege could last weeks or months – the attackers would run out of food before the defenders.  Moreover, there would certainly be no way to transport large offensive weapons such as catapults through the mountains – they were effectively impregnable.

Image Credit Pavel Karafiat
Image Credit Richard
Image Credit Marco Fieber
However, after the beginning of the thirteenth century, no new tower-houses were built.  The development of offensive technology may have something to do with the cessation of building –  the continent saw gunpowder used for the first time at the Battle of Mohi in 1241 when Mongol forces decimated their Hungarian foes with this lethal new addition to the European theater of war. Although the Mongols never reached Svanetia and it was something of a safe-haven during this period, it was very likely a turning point for the concept of defense in the region.

Image Credit Sarah Murray
Image Credit Sarah Murray
Over the following centuries many of the towers were dismantled, their huge bricks removed for new uses, or they simply collapsed. However, there are still over two hundred which stand around a group of villages collectively known as Ushguli.  They are protected under Georgian law and instead of repelling unwanted visitors, now attract invaders of a different type – known generally as tourists.

Image Credit Hans Spitzer
Image Credit Richard
First Image Credit Richard


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