Svans in the collection of villages that make up Ushguli—a World Heritage site—hold on to deep traditions. Horses still provide reliable transport throughout the largely roadless Svaneti.<br>
Svans in the collection of villages that make up Ushguli—a World Heritage site—hold on to deep traditions. Horses still provide reliable transport throughout the largely roadless Svaneti.

Medieval Mountain Hideaway

In Svaneti, high in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, centuries-old defensive towers loom over remote villages.

The men gather at dawn near the stone tower, cradling knives in callused hands. After a night of snowfall—the first of the season in Svaneti, a region high in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains—the day has broken with icy clarity. Suddenly visible above the village of Cholashi, beyond the 70-foot-high towers that form its ancient skyline, is the ring of 15,000-foot peaks that for centuries has kept one of the last living medieval cultures barricaded from the outside world.

Silence falls as Zviad Jachvliani, a burly former boxer with a salt-and-pepper beard, leads the men—and one recalcitrant bull—into a yard overlooking the snow-dusted valley. No words are needed. Today is a Svan feast day, ormotsi, marking the 40th day after the death of a loved one, in this case Jachvliani’s grandmother. The men know what to do, for Svan traditions—animal sacrifices, ritual beard cutting, blood feuds—have been carried out in this wild corner of Georgia for more than a thousand years. “Things are changing in Svaneti,” Jachvliani, a 31-year-old father of three, says. “But our traditions will continue. They’re part of our DNA.”

In the yard he maneuvers the bull to face east, where the sun has crept above the jagged crown of Mount Tetnuldi, near the Russian border. Long before the arrival of Christianity in the first millennium, Svans worshipped the sun, and this spiritual force—along with its derivative, fire—still figures in local rituals. As the men with knives gather in front of him, Jachvliani pours a shot of moonshine on the ground, an offering to his grandmother. His elderly uncle chants a blessing. And then his cousin, cupping a candle against the wind, lights the hair on the bull’s forehead, lower back, and shoulders. It is the sign of the cross, rendered in fire.

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