18 July 2019

Shatili – Medieval Fortress Village in Georgia

The village of Shatili squats on the northern slope of the Greater Caucasus mountains in Georgia. Even today the area is considered isolated and remote but in centuries past the villagers could not rely on distant authorities to afford them protection. In early medieval times the villagers hit on a solution which was to shield them from their enemies for hundreds of years. They made their village in to a fortress.

The village is very near the border with Chechnya and its inhabitants were constantly at risk from incursions in to their territory from their neighbors. In the twenty first century the village is usually only accessible between the months of June and the end of September so in more feudal times something had to be done to avert death and disaster. As the village persevered, the architecture evolved. What would normally be small stone dwellings grew taller and developed in to watchtowers.

Instead of a wooden roof these watchtower come domiciles became flat-roofed to avoid assault by fiery arrows. New buildings were built on terraces close to old ones so eventually the village encircled itself in stone, structures staggered from the outside in. It became a single fortification, each house could not withstand much outside pressure but became one component in a long and twisting chain. Like some architectural gestalt, the combination proved a worthy defense system with the whole much stronger that its individual components.

The village effectively became a fortress, standing guard over the north-eastern border of Georgia. There was good need. Even as recently as the eighteenth century the village was attacked by a force of thousands of Chechens and Dagestan warriors.An impression of this assault by Georgian artist Gigo Gabashvili (1862 - 1936) is below, although it was painted a century after the seige. The second picture is by Shalva Kikodze (1895-1921) and is a contemporary (if expressionist) painting of the inhabitants of Shatili.

Its inhabitants, the Khevsureti, endured and become legendary as highland soldiers who epitomised the traditional Georgian qualities of bravery, sincerity and righteousness, community, objectivity and love of autonomy and independence.

When the enemy did attack, the villagers simply disappeared from the streets and the village closed itself down. Each house was connected with others via ladders or windows and movement was possible out of sight of antagonistic fire.  You can still see how it was (probably) done today.

There was plenty to eat even after the village was sealed. The houses extended to four or five storeys. On each level a different kind of livestock would be kept. The top floor was the living area for the family and the only one with anything more than tiny slits for windows.

Even the tombs, large enough to house generations of one family, seemed built to be impregnable. Governance of Shatili was communal. There was a single building called the Sapekhyno which was empty but for stone chairs. Here village elders would discuss the issues at hand but all were expected to join in and have their say – even the children.

However, one thing was kept from the children – as it was from any new daughter-in-laws that had only recently joined the community. The livestock which would be used in any siege was evident to the eye – one only had to set foot in to one of the houses to hear them. But what of water? A secret copper tank contained enough for the village for a week.

Sadly, the village could not withstand the tidal wave of twentieth century political dogma. The very qualities which had sustained the Khevsureti for so long were looked upon with suspicion and considered potentially very dangerous by the soviet authorities. Although the country had been invaded and taken over by the Red Army in 1929, it was only during the Stalinist period that the issue of the Khevsureti would be fully addressed.

In the early 1950s the villagers were persuaded to leave their ancestral home. They and their kin had lived there for an estimated thirteen hundred years but the tower blocks of the Georgian capital Tbilisi were to be their new home, 140 kilometers away. Yet culture and a sense of belonging to a region cannot be easily displaced or destroyed. In the 1980s when the communist stranglehold lessened about twenty families returned back home to Shatili.

Georgia ultimately declared itself independent from the collapsing USSR in 1991. Even though this would lead to civil war and political turmoil in the country for year, returning to Shatili must have something been like a restoration of peace for these families. Georgia and Russia have what might be conservatively called frosty relations. Its proximity to the border of Chechnya (which is a republic of Russia) even today leaves Shatili potentially exposed to invasion.

Despite its remoteness the village has become something of a destination for trekkers and tourists (when the climate allows) and slowly but surely the villagers of Shatili who returned are restoring their homes. Although you can forget mobile phone calls, there is internet access in the few hotels which have been opened there. Yet this, surely, is one place you would go to get away from the net and modern life in general?

First Image Credit Flickr User Seth Tri