This mighty river courses through a troubled history

As the Enguri flows from the mountains to the sea, it follows a trajectory from Georgia’s traditional past into its forward-thinking future

Photograph by Julien Pebrel
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Ushguli, Svaneti, Georgia

The Enguri river begins in Georgia's northern region of Svaneti, where glaciers from Caucasian peaks feed its waters. The river runs through the Svanetian village of Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage site dotted with medieval towers.

Photograph by Julien Pebrel

To most people in the Caucasus, the Enguri River is a border, and a de facto one at that. For a good stretch of its 130-mile route, the river demarcates the boundary between Georgia, a former Soviet republic that declared its independence in 1991, and Abkhazia, a region that declared its own independence from Georgia a year later. Only Russia and four other nations recognize a sovereign Abkhaz state, and armed Russian troops control the river crossings into what most of the rest of the world considers separatist territory.

But photographer Julian Pebrel sees the Enguri less as a dividing line in a frozen geopolitical conflict, and more as a dynamic timeline that maps the trajectory of the region’s history.

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Father Gerasime is the priest of Ushguli. Many villages in Svanetia have become destinations for tourists eager to visit the remote region.

The Enguri’s headwaters emerge from the glaciers of Shkhara, Georgia’s tallest peak, in the mountainous region of Svanetia. This is the land of tradition, where flocks graze the steep slopes of the Caucasus as they have for millennia. Here the river wends through Europe’s highest permanent settlement, the village of Ushguli, dotted with medieval towers that defended family clans from blood feuds that continued well into the 20th century.

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The Enguri river travels 65 miles from Svanetia until it meets the Djvari dam, where a Soviet-era hydroelectric facility delivers electricity to people on both sides of the river.

Just 65 miles from the pristine vales of Ushguli, halfway on its path west to the Black Sea, the Enguri runs up against the concrete massif of the Djvari dam. Built during Soviet times, the structure that holds back the river now lies in Georgia, while the hydroelectric powerhouse sits in Abkhaz territory. The dam still provides electricity to both sides, although the Georgian village built for its workers now houses refugees (mostly ethnic Georgians) who have fled across the river from Abkhazia.

From Caucasus to the Sea

The scenic Enguri river is key to life in western Georgia. It also forms part of the border with the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

GEORGIA

ENLARGED

BELOW

ABKHAZIA

RUSSIA

BLACK

SEA

SOUTH

OSSETIA

50 mi

GEORGIA

Tbilisi

50 km

TURKEY

AZERB.

ARMENIA

20 mi

RUSSIA

20 km

Highest point

in Europe

El’brus

18,510 ft

5,642 m

ABKHAZIA

Ushguli

Upper

Svaneti

Enguri Dam

Potskho Etseri

Shamgona

GEORGIA

Anak’lia

Kutaisi

Separatists defeated Georgian troops to

gain control of the Abkhazia region in 1993.

In spite of years of negotiations and several military clashes, the territory remains under Abkhazian control.

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NG STAFF

Further west, more refugees are caught in limbo on the alluvial plains of Samgrelo. They fled in the early 1990s and waited months and then years to return to their homes in Abkhazia on the other side of the Enguri. But in 2008 Georgia and Russia faced each other down across the river in a brief summer war. The results: More refugees on the Enguri’s southern banks, and more Russian troops patrolling its north.

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Enguri Dam, Georgia

A view of the Enguri river from atop the Djvari dam, one of the highest concrete-arch dams in the world.

The Enguri empties into the Black Sea at Anaklia, a sleepy coastal village on its way to becoming a strategic deep-sea port for goods moving between Europe and Asia. The future of the port, imagined in part as a beacon to woo Abkhazia away from Russian influence with a vision of 21st-century Georgia, remains in question, while physical barriers marshal to separate the two in places where the Enguri river no longer can.

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GANARJIIS MUKHURI, SAMEGRELO, GEORGIA

Beachgoers take a respite near where the Enguri river empties into the Black Sea.

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Anaklia, Samegrelo, Georgia

Young boys fish in an empty harbor in Anaklia, where a large deep-water port is planned.

Julien Pebrel is a photographer based in Paris and is a member of M.Y.O.P. Agency. He collaborated with writer Clément Girardot on this project. See more of his work here and follow him on Instagram.