Thursday, April 26, 2012

Architecture of Tusheti, Georgia

By Edith McClintock

Tower fortress in Upper Omalo
It’s not hard to guess that Tusheti, like most of Georgia, was subject to constant invasion over most of its history. Or that Christianity and paganism happily coexist. Its architecture paints a clear story, from the ancient fortress towers that blend harmoniously with the mountain landscape, to the mix of Christian churches and pagan stone structures. Add in the biodiversity and unique mountain culture and it’s a truly enchanted place to visit, although not easy to reach.

Located on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, bordered by Chechnya and Dagestan, Tusheti is today a complex of protected areas and villages inhabited by the Tush people. Traditionally, the Tush are sheepherders and nomads, spending the summer months in the highlands and moving to lowland villages in winter.

Dartlo village. During Soviet times many of
the fortresses were ruined, with some rebuilt in 2003,
including the towers pictured here. 
I arrived in Tusheti last summer by way of the Alvano pass from the Kakheti region (which you might remember from my blog on Georgian wines). It’s the highest drivable pass in the Caucasus and although there were a few terrifying moments careening around mountain roads with nothing below us but open air, it was most memorable for its spectacular views of craggy green mountains, pine and beech forests, and plunging, watery ravines.

I stayed for nearly a week, visiting some friends working with the park for the summer in the Lower Omalo village. Nestled in a valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains and a few minefields (which unbeknownst to me were being removed while I wandered the hills, worried only about the vicious sheep dogs), the village is only a short hike to Upper Omalo and its dramatic tower fortresses that form much of the mystery and unique beauty of Tusheti.

Historical Tower Fortresses

A  sheep herding/cheese making hut.
Most of the tower fortresses of Tusheti were constructed between the 1500s up until the 1800s, usually on high, rocky hills with fortress walls. The towers are usually between three and six stories, with an entrance door on the first floor and an opening at the top. During a raid on a Tush village, the people abandoned their villages and used the towers as temporary shelters.

The Tushetians also built fortress houses that could shelter large, extended families. The fortress houses had a ground floor for cattle and women’s activities, a middle area for families, and a top area for men’s bedrooms and a watchtower for shooting guns. In the center of the rooms was a hearth, which divided the room into male and female sections. Most of the towers were built without mortar, using shale, and have a pitched roof made out of float slates.

Balconies in Shenako village.
There are nearly fifty villages in Tusheti, some occupied and many not, but not all of them have fortresses or are accessible by car. The best way, in my view, to experience the full impact of the landscape is to take day or even overnight hikes between the villages. And if you’re lucky, like we were, you may even be invited in for a supra (feast) and some chacha (their grape moonshine) along the way. In which case you might want to hitchhike back, which is safe and easy in Tusheti. A local police chief even gave us a ride one day.

Ancient Tushetian Villages

Villages in Tusheti were usually settled on the southern slope of the mountain, with a suitable vantage point for defense, near drinking water and arable land, and protected from landslides and avalanches. When deciding on a place to live, Tushetians would dig a hole in the selected spot and spend the night waiting for a dream to give them a sign. Late in autumn when the snow began to fall and the danger of enemy attack lessened, the Tush people moved to lower grounds to spend the winter. In spring, the Tush returned to fortified villages to protect their lands from invasion. Each settlement had its own unique fortifications and character and even today, the Tushetians differentiate these two types of settlements.

Farming area near Shenako village
Villages Today

At the end of the 19th century, a cash economy was introduced to Tusheti, ending the traditional tribal and family system, and with it the tower architecture of the region. Instead, lowland style home construction became popular for individual families, dominated by houses with open, wooden balconies. The village of Shenako (see photo) is a great example.

In the early 1930s, Tushetians began migrating even lower, to the Kakheti region of Georgia during the winter months when the roads were impassable, forming two large villages, Zemo Alvani and Kvemo Alvani. Forced migration in the 1950s during Soviet rule also caused many villages in Tusheti to be abandoned completely. Although only a few villages are still populated, most Tushetians return each summer, often to attend religious celebrations. The summer of 2011, when I was there, the park held a celebration in mid-summer, with horse racing, and games, and traditional dance.

Christianity and Paganism

Church in Shenako village
Religious buildings connecting Christianity and paganism are also an inseparable part of Tusheti villages. Each village in Tusheti has an area for rituals called a Khati. The whole complex is often made up of several buildings, including a church, pilgrims’ huts, and even an alehouse. Some Khatis, such as the one in Shenako, are adorned with deer and Caucasian goat horns and white stones.

The religious areas are also separated by sex, with separate spaces for male and female worship and rituals. In Upper Omalo, there is a sign warning women not to enter one area, which I nearly did accidentally when taking an “alternative” path down the hill from the fortress (I think I’ll remind myself of those unknown minefields when tempted to stray off designated paths in the future).

Khati stone shrine
Another day, while hiking through the picturesque village of Shenako on our way to its church, I was asked to take a different path than my friends, who were both male—because I was still of childbearing age (otherwise known as menstruating age and therefore unclean—a near universal taboo, from what little I’ve seen of the world, but that is a discussion for a future blog).

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to visit the beautiful and magical Tusheti. And if so, you can visit the park website here for lodging and transportation information. Just stay clear of the sheep dogs, but no worries about the minefields—they’re gone, thanks to a lovely NGO called the Halo Trust.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. You've convinced me to put this part of Georgia on my list of must-see places, Edith. I love the way Christianity and paganism coexist in the architecture and the culture.

  2. And not so far from Iran, in many ways.