Svaneti: Some Ancient History
The Svans are justifiably proud of having been mentioned by no less than Strabo in his Geography, which he began writing in Greek in c. 20 BC. In this part of the world, a pedigree of more than 2 millennia is important.
Equally significant to Svans is the estimate of their total available fighting force of 200,000. Those icons of warrior angels aren’t just pretty pictures! Neither is the patronage of St George, famous early Christian dragon killer, a minor fact. Below is Strabo’s quote in full, with a bit of context, from Chapter 28 of Book 11:
“Among the tribes which come together at Dioscurias are the Phtheirophagi, who have received their name from their squalor and their filthiness. Near them are the Soanes, who are no less filthy, but superior to them in power,- indeed, one might almost say that they are foremost in courage and power. At any rate, they are masters of the peoples around them, and hold possession of the heights of the Caucasus above Dioscurias.
They have a king and a council of three hundred men; and they assemble, according to report, an army of two hundred thousand; for the whole of the people are a fighting force, though unorganized. It is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins, and that this is the origin of the myth of the golden fleece - unless they call them Iberians, by the same name as the western Iberians, from the gold mines in both countries.
“The Soanes use remarkable poisons for the points of their missiles; and even people who are not wounded by the poisoned missiles suffer from their odor. Now in general the tribes in the neighborhood of the Caucasus occupy barren and cramped territories, but the tribes of the Albanians and the Iberians, which occupy nearly all the isthmus above-mentioned, might also be called Caucasian tribes; and they possess territory that is fertile and capable of affording an exceedingly good livelihood.”
The mystery is increased with hardly a mention of the Svans in any source from Strabo up to and through the Middle Ages. They practically vanish. Given the political chaos of Georgia during those years, this is perhaps not surprising and not a little tantalizing for those who would like to know a lot more. I am little qualified to wade into such a specialist subject with any authority - the best I can do is quote.
The nineteenth century begins to buzz with books, Royal Geographic Society (UK) articles, engravings and the first European photographs of Svaneti, taken on hand-coated glass negatives by Vittorio Sella of Biella, Italy. I was in his home town some years ago and met his grandson, who showed me around the fabulous archive he maintains most carefully. Many of Sella’s beautiful photographs are on display in the main museum in Mestia, a fitting location for them. (I wonder, did he ever cross paths with my four-times great grandmother, Julia Margaret Cameron, Britain’s most famous female photographer in the late 19th century? Their subjects at least were worlds apart, as she concentrated on portraits, he on landscapes.)
In about 2001, my good friend Nodar Aprasidze showed me around a ruined fortress in the Pkhutreri hamlet of his home village, Etseri. The walls were down to the ground, and it felt strangely like walking through a massive architectural plan. Scattered among the bits of broken slate were many other fragments of what I, a sometime potter, clearly recognized as clay vessels. Open to the elements and to damage by careless walkers. I gathered several plastic shopping bags of them and recently, at long last, delivered them to the national Museum in Tbilisi for analysis.
Nodar tells me that the Pkhutreri site is supposed to be 4200 years old. He has also shown me some pieces of a narrow-gauge clay piping system which ran from the mountains down to the village of Dizi two millennia ago... for the transport of milk. And I found a part of a fossilized fish early on my way up to the Koruldi Lakes above Mestia, in August 2007. This I presented to the Mestia museum.
No end of discovery awaits in Svaneti, not only the casual tourist but the specialist in quite a few fields - especially archaeology. She will yield up her secrets, but only if we invest time, energy and money.
Tony Hanmer’s blog is www.geosynchronici-2.blogspot.com He is also at http://www.facebook.com/anthony.tony.hanmer where he runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” group.
By Tony Hanmer