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Svaneti

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Framed to the north by the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains and set among sweeping, flower-filled alpine meadows, there are few places more picturesque than the ancient villages of Svaneti, in north-west Georgia. The beauty of this region belies its turbulent history, which has seen invading armies from East and West including the Persians, the Mongols, the Turks and most recently the Russians.

The fiercely independent people who live here with their livestock are the Svans, whose language, customs and ethnicity are different from the rest of Georgia. Through history the Svans have been wary of outsiders and even now only a few visitors make it to this remote and unspoilt region each year. The most visible sign of Svaneti’s violent past are its characteristic stone towers, sprinkled through the villages of the region, bearing witness to the defensive mindset of its people in centuries past.

Svaneti’s tower houses are part of a much wider ‘family’ of defensive towers built throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, most famously at San Gimignano in Tuscany but also in Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Spain and the Basque region. Historians suggest the tower houses are a feature of regions where the state was weak and families felt the need to defend themselves and their possessions against attackers.

Of all Europe’s tower houses Svaneti’s are among the most impressive. Each tower is around 20 to 25 metres high and includes five or six floors. Built for defence, they have few windows and the walls are more than a metre thick on the ground floor level. Most were built between the 8th and 12th centuries and the newest as recently as the 18th century. With their impressive defensive architecture and stunning setting among the Caucasus Mountains it isn’t hard to see why Svaneti’s towers were awarded UNESCO World Heritage protection in 1996.

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