In the Caucasus Mountain, is located the Ushguly community that constitutes the human settlement with the highest location in the European territory. Characterized by their medieval features, the cluster of villages that constitutes the World Heritage Site, represented the ultimate defensive point of the Georgian Kingdoms, taking advantage of the harsh climate and difficult access conditions against foreigner invaders. The traditional constructions still reveal the inhabitants’ rough living conditions, devoted to cattle breeding and subsistence agriculture, and permanently engaged in war conflicts.
The belligerent culture is one of the most idiosyncratic traces of the Svan region, from which the defensive towers, with their schist stone roofs and machicolated parapets, constitute the most iconic architectural element.
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This region is rich in mineral resources, such as alluvial gold, explored since ancient times. This attracted the interest of the big Empires of the Ancient World, but its isolation was a big handicap in terms of its exploitation. Furthermore, the territory is not apt for agriculture, and despite the abundance of pasture, cattle breeding was a complementary activity. The traditional economy depended mainly on forestry resources, such as wood, wild fruits and game, which are more abundant in the lower lands.
So, to answer that question one must look into its history.
The Ushguli's settlements were built in the Georgian Golden Age (Xth - XIIIth century), when Georgian Kings, at the highest of their power, had strong and fruitful connections with their northern neighbours. However, once in a while these connections could go sour and eventually lead to military confrontation. Hence, these settlements where in fact defensive clusters that responded to the strategic interest of the territory in the political ambitions of the Georgian kings regarding the far northern region of the Caucasus. Ushguli was both, their first line of defence, in case of an attack, and their far most advanced military post, in case of an offensive move.
Responding to these military goals, the villages occupied the highland, the steep and difficult to access slopes of the mountain, choosing the rockier and unproductive lands to build their defensive clusters, in order to preserve the scarce fertile soil for agriculture.
Analysing the four settlements according to their strategic position in the Caucasus geomorphological formations, it becomes clear their defensive intentions. The villages are, in fact, strategically placed on the crossings that connected the Upper Svanetian territory with the North of the Caucasus.
Therefore, Ushgulli's settlements implantation can be explained mainly by the necessity of defending the territory from invaders, but also by their need for resources that assured their livelihood. The four of them chose the North Slope in order to benefit from the southern sun, leaving the southern slopes occupied by the forest, their main supplier of resources, and a defensive mechanism against floods and avalanches.
The occupation of the Ushguli territory, located in the Upper Svaneti region, is particularly influenced by the Enguri River course. The river Enguri sources in the Caucasian mountain chain formed from the glaciers areas of the Shkhara peak, the Georgian highest point (5068m).
From a geographical perspective, the high valley conformed by the Engury stream constitutes the fundamental axis for the implantation of the 4 small size settlements, which constitute the Usghuli area listed by UNESCO in 1996 as World Heritage Site. The settlements appear alongside the river, following the valley slope and occupying the in-between natural platforms that are less vulnerable to violent downpours and snow slides. The first village counting from Northeast is Chvibiani, the second is Jibiani, the third is Chazhashi and the fourth is Murkmeli that, unlike the other first three settlements, is located on the North bank of the Enguri River. The middle settlement, Chazhashi, constitutes the World Heritage Site restricted area. Nevertheless, all of them are integrated in the Ushguli buffer zone. Chazhashi also has the territorial particularity of being placed between the affluence of the smaller Qvisiri River with the Enguri. This water line course junction creates an insular platform outlining a natural defensive barrier that involves the settlement’s lower area. The Chazhashi village occupies the adjacent East slope, developing its dwellings according to the land level curves around the insular promontory, and thus resembling a medieval defensive structure surrounded by a water moat. The settlements present very similar configurations and dimensions. The buildings are concentrated into rough elliptic-shape cores, occupying mostly the southwest slope of the hillock, taking advantage of its biggest sun exposure.
The Ushguli area represents the highest point of human occupation before the permanent snowed mountain range, which divides the Georgian from the Russian territory. Therefore, the climatic conditions are harsh and severe, particularly in the winter period, and it conforms one of the most isolated communities of the region. The resulting lack of cultural transferences produced a very particular social structure, based on family ties and clan dispute. The local habitants, the Svan people, are described as an aggressive community with warrior habits. The conflicts with invaders and between themselves were intense and regular. This behavior is clearly reflected by the defensive position of the clusters, their structure and their inherent typologies.
The hard access to this region, together with the fearless character of its people, established the Svaneti region as the ultimate defensive redoubt of the Georgian kingdoms. During the worst conflict periods, it was there that rulers established their refuge, and laid their treasures as well. This fact, and despite their small dimensions, enhances the historical significance of the Usghuli villages and their inherent value within the Georgian culture.
Closing observing the layout of the village of Chazhashi one can state that the aggregation of the built units do not correspond to any classical urban element. The urban layout does not present an articulated network, neither an evident hierarchic structure. The overlapping between public and private space is constant, therefore conditioning the direct access to the ancient buildings. it is very likely that the settlements have their origin in isolate buildings, dwellings and towers, gradually evolving trough an aggregation and densification organic system, towards the occupation of the slope land steps, regarding mostly to the defensive criteria and/or trying to face the best sun exposure.
The buildings are isolated or grouped in smaller clusters, ranging from 2 to 5 units, with surrounding vacant space, exposing most of the buildings facades, expect of course in the case of the inner adjacent walls. Sections of fence walls usually bound most of the clusters into bigger ones, segregating some of the buildings residual periphery areas from the circulation network, reinforcing what can be interpreted as a very primitive urban block, without the concept of urban grid. Therefore, the canonical concept of Street, in its typical medieval channel shape, crossing the tick built density and conditioning the urban layout, does not exist in this case. The concept of Public Square is also not present, as there is no defined redoubt for the gathering of the community articulated with the communication network. The only exceptions are the small temples and its walled enclosures. This also justifies the fact that the buildings do not present a dominating façade or other types of composition hierarchy towards the exterior.
The ‘public space’ is rather the consequence of the interception of all the periphery area of the isolated buildings and built clusters, comprising a network of different sizes and configurations spaces and passages. Another important feature of the circulation paths is its function for water drainage. Subject to heavy rain most of the year; the non-built space usually coincides with the natural ridgelines, tempting to minimize the substantial ground erosion. In some points one can find transversal logs in the ground between buildings, in order to conform a container step. The recent and intensive use of the car is originating evident conflicts with the circulation spaces. The elevated detrition is increasing the soil permeability, compromising the land and building stability and creating areas of water accumulation.
Nevertheless, some distribution itineraries can be clearly identified on the Village structure: The two surrounding itineraries that bound the three land platforms of the mount, the connection passages after the three bridges and the permeable central space that crosses the platforms from the lowest West level to the East part of the settlement, can be identified as the main circulation elements.
These hermitic buildings served as refuge for the owner’s family against foreign bandits as well as against other family clans, whom was common to be in dispute. This kind of use is reflected in the type of openings located at the top of the tower that could allow throwing stones and shot arrows. The tower allowed to stock up projectiles at the lower levels and to launch them to the enemy from the higher levels. In addition to defensive function, towers could also be use as storage areas, on the ground floor, as well as warehouse on the upper levels. The tower typology it´s characterized by a slender shape due to its considerable height and its progresive narrowing. They present several internal levels conformed as chambers or platforms, with removable vertical connections between them. They presented a squared plan configuration that reduces in size along its vertical development. Its appearance could be more or less slender, as well as more or less robust or refined, depending on the particular case. In some cases, the tower is topped by machicolated parapets crowned with arches; a solution that seems to be of renascence influence.
Usually there are only two entrances to the tower, both situated on the lower levels. This typology could have between four or five levels composed of different material partitions, which change the constructive system depending on the level height. In the lower levels, the division between levels is done through a multilayer stone slab laid over a pitched wood formwork. The upper levels are divided through lighter horizontal wood platforms, supported by transversal beams, recessed in the façade's opposite walls. There is no permanent vertical communication inside the tower between levels. The passages between levels resort to small trapdoors and thin retracting ladders. These elements are always positioned in the angles of the rooms. Obviously, the intention was to isolate completely each level, to increase the resistance capacity during the tower assault.
When towers are connected to houses, the communication between buildings could be made thorough the upper floor of the house. Windows presence is almost imperceptible because of its very reduced size, obviously due to the defensive reasons and the building structural capacity. The towers present two kinds of openings, those located along the walls, for air circulation and light, and those integrated in the machicolated parapets. Later, after the trivialization of the firearms use, smaller openings were added, namely in the highest levels, to work as shooting holes.
This architectural type combines the features of the house and the tower in the same building. The Tower-house is apparently similar to the Svan towers with proportions variations. It has a less slender shape due to its lower height and its greater width, therefore presenting less overlapped levels. One has to consider that the surveyed building presents some changes in the original features, mainly because of its adaptation to a museum program during the Soviet occupation.
The Tower-house combines defensive and residential uses. The three existing levels serve the different activities. The machub, combining winter residence and animal shelter, is located on the groundfloor, while the darbazi, for summer resident and storage, is located on the first floor. Additionally, the third level assumes the defensive role, where the machicolated openings could be integrated for stone throwing against enemies.
The entrances are located on the groundfloor, while other openings could be located on each level, but always with a very reduced size, due to defensive reasons. Unlike the machvbi the tower-house could present permanent internal vertical communication between the lower levels. However, the communication between the last levels was solved through trap doors and removable wooden stairs like the high towers. Currently, there are only 4 cases left at the Chazhashi village.
This typology constitutes the traditional building for family and animal shelter. Developed in two levels, without internal communication, it is usually composed by a single volume, of rough quadrangular plan. Partial buried, it solves the soil high significant differences, assuming two different land platforms, according to their double level.
The ground floor (machub) is composed by a single space with a fireplace without chimney. An oak wood pole, which supports the central double beam of the upper level floor, is located in the geometric centre of the space. The habitants and their animals used this level simultaneously, in the winter, in order to optimize the temperature.
The cattle were separated by a wooden vertical partition, creating a peripheral corridor, surrounding the central space. These partitions of carved oak wood, richly decorated, allow the animals to introduce their heads in individual frames facing the central space. The partition, no more than 1,50m high, does not touch the ceiling. Therefore, does not constitute a segregated compartment. In some areas they could present wood covers to serve as platforms to stand or to serve as tool and food storage. Obviously, the family, which could reach up to 10 elements, slept close or above the animal stalls, to take advantage of the warmth emitted by animals.
The window openings were scarce, small and high in order to avoid the snow accumulation.
The upper floor (darbazi) was mostly used as residence during the warm periods. It is also compose by a single open space without any partition, since the animals were not admitted inside. The floor is made of wood, constituted by a platform of parallels logs. The room is open towards the roof structure, exposing the massive log ‘truss’, supported by a central oak (or pine) pole. The upper level pole is positioned over the middle double beam; accordingly aligned with the inferior pole.
All of the typologies resort to the same construction system as well as the same basic structural principles. Despite the structural adjustment to the buildings different high, or to a specific defensive function, the construction procedures and techniques do not present significant changes.
The stability of the buildings takes advantage of the mountain rock surfaces of the ground to raise the structures. The concept of building foundations is not entirely applied, following the medieval approach, only adjusting the ground rocks to raise the biggest layers of stone, therefore avoiding creating underground elements. The external walls constitute a bearing envelope of quadrangular shape. The thick walls, which can reach up to 1m widths, are made of limestone and schist masonry. There is no particular difference of application, even in problematic areas such as the corners or the openings frames. They resort to long blocks of different sizes which became smaller and thinner along the wall height, following the reduction of thickness until the top of the building. The wall pattern is uneven, although they present some horizontal regularity amongst the same layers.
The presence of mortar is significant, namely in the joints of the higher layers. In some cases it is also present in a significant portion of the surfaces as a plaster covering. Apparently, the objective was to consolidate the most fragile parts of the structures or the punctual reinforcement of crack repairing. The mortar presents a yellowish color and a rough texture, indicating a high percentage of dry sand in its composition. The easy desegregation of many plaster sections also implies the lack of a strong binding element. The original composition of the mortar is not consensual; there are some opinions that infer the use of cow manure and others that admit the use of lime. As observed in the Project missions, all the recent construction interventions resort to industrial cement.
The structures that support the rooftops are extremely interesting. A triangle made of horizontal logs is placed on the middle of the roof, perpendicular to the ridgeline, like a traditional truss. On top of it, smaller beams, from smaller logs, are perpendicular displayed from façade to façade, covering all the building area, creating two roughly symmetric eaves.
The rooftop is then covered of thin schist plates. The plates have a quadrangular shape and they are overlapped as shingles from the top to the bottom of the eave. Nowadays, the slates are not fixed by any complementary element, placed directly on top of the wood grid, relying only on their own weight to stand on their position or simply nailed; the observed vulnerability of this system means that the original knowledge is no longer present in the Svaneti building culture. The former presence of a layer of beech branches, before the schist display, acting has small hooks, was one of the solutions to minimize the problem.
The spans of the openings can resort to different elements. Most of the cases present a thick rock block as a horizontal beam, clearly evident form the rest of the surrounding walls. Some buildings, more modest, also resort to wood beams to solve these elements. In other buildings, one may assist to a profusion of arched elements, namely in the machicolated parapets that characterize a great portion of the Svan towers.
Between the different construction features of the Svan architectural types, the most pertinent ones are the tower’s stone chambers and the already stated machicolate parapets.
One of the most distinctive elements of the towers construction is the stone chamber of the lower levels. These massive structures resort to thick stone floors that are assembled above a wood gable ceiling, resembling to a collaborative slab. The resulting space suggests the negative shape of a pitched roof. The simple geometry, small dimension, wall thickness and the lack of natural light impute a rather austere atmosphere to this element. The oldest gable ceilings present a dark color, due to smoke exposition. This element is made of two slated panels, operating as a lost formwork, constituted of long boards with one central beam positioned under the ridgeline. Curiously, despite their pyramidal shape, most of the consulted sources refer to this element as ‘dummy vaults’.
As stated the last level of the towers is very peculiar due to the existence of defensive spans. Therefore, enabling the stone throwing, without excessive exposition, reducing the vulnerability to arrows. This type of elements were usually placed in the base of a sort of defensive balconies, made of support masonry walls that were placed perpendicular to the main facades, supported in big schist slabs recessed in the main façade walls. The hang out slabs were displaced in four or five layers, alternating its position between parallel and perpendicular elements. Between each two of the indicated supports, a small arch was erected until the rooftop level. The uneven arches were made of schist thin masonry with a bigger quantity of mortar.
Any visitor in the Georgian territory is immediately directed to Tamar`s historic importance. This great queen ruled Georgia from 1184 to 1213, when several castles and churches were built throughout Georgia, some of which dedicated to Tamar, others claimed having been built by the Queen herself, or at least having received her visit. This is the case in Ushgulli province, which she apparently visited every single year.
But, who was this woman who inspired such a devotion? In fact, one can state that there is not one Tamar, but several.
The primary Tamar was the first woman to rule Georgia by her own right. Her father, Georgi III, fearing the opposition of the feudal lords to the anointing of a female, appointed her co-regent six years before his death, and coronated her himself in 1178. Following his death, some opposition to Tamar rose among Georgian lords and the church, fearing that a woman on the throne would threaten the rising power of the Georgian monarchy. This first years were not easy for the young Queen and left Georgia to the brink of a civil war. It began with the demand for a second coronation and ended with an arranged marriage to a Russian Prince, Iurii Bogoliubskii. After two years of misery, the marriage was annulled. Iurii was exiled and Tamar was free to marry again in 1189. This time she personally chose an Ossetian Prince, Davit Soslan, with whom she had two children.
With the military support of Davit Soslan, she took upon the expansionist ambition of previous monarchs, stretching the borders of Georgia from the Black Sea to the Caspian; and from the Caucasus Mountains to Lake Van, and thus transforming Georgia in the biggest Christian Kingdom in the East.
The mythological Queen Tamar arises with the circumstances surrounding her death, somewhere between 1210 and 1213. Her burial site is yet unknown. According to one of the many tales, twelve coffins were sent in different directions, so that no one would find her sepulchre. After completing their mission, the coffin bearers committed suicide, in order to keep the secret of her burial place. So, the possibilities are immense, but a credible hypothesis is the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem. Another possibility is the Monastery of Gelaty, Georgia, where a burial place was found at the beginning of the XX century, during an archaeological excavation. Guarding it, there is a plaque menacing with a curse, those who dare to disturb the tomb. Frightened, the worker refused to proceed. Finally, it is also believed that she was brought to Svaneti and rests at one of its many monasteries, next to these mountain people that worship her to the present day.
The last Tamar is the Holy Righteous Queen Tamar, canonized by the Orthodox Church. She is the object of much veneration, particularly among the Svan, who worship her as a goddess even before her sanctitude was officially proclaimed.