Architecture

Architecture in Tusheti is diverse and mainly involves remnants of clan defense towers from the 17th-18th century, rural buildings from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and shrines that can hardly be dated. Archaeological findings from a more distant past only include graves, remains of shrines or petroglyphs. The architecture generally resembles that of the surrounding regions of Khevsureti and Pshavi in today's Georgia or Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan in the Northern Caucasus, where Tusheti geographically belongs. In some villages, we may even find preserved churches, namely from the Orthodox Mission built in the 19th century. 


Clan and defense towers

Clan towers represent one of the fundamental types of Tusheti architecture, as is the case in other parts of the Caucasus. These could serve for dwelling or defense, or both at the same time. The layout was typically square and symmetric and the towers reached the height of minimum three, but mostly four or five floors. Tiny narrow windows were used for ducting smoke from open fires and mainly as loopholes in time of menace. The walls were usually smoothed as not to allow for any climbing and no wooden parts could stick out of the tower to prevent setting the tower on fire. The main entrance was commonly at the height of the first floor while livestock had access at the ground. In case of defense, these openings were blocked by a huge special stone from the inside.

We differentiate two types of towers in Tusheti (see the pictures). In the valleys of Pirikiti and Chaghma there are mostly stand-alone slender tall towers of 5-6 floors topped with a pyramidal roof. Use of simple mortar provided for rigidity and slenderness of the tower (in contrast to other types of towers which were built dry stone). Bracket projections (mashikuli, analogs of machicolation in Western Medieval architecture) were placed on the top floor under the roof for defense. This type of towers, also characteristic for Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Khevsureti, mainly served for defense and may be found, for example, in the villages of Dartlo, Kvavlo, Chontio, or Girevi.

Towers of the second type were built on a larger foundation and were typically smaller (3-4 floors) but more robust. They have a saddle roof, again featuring machicolation on the top floor, although not necessarily on all sides. The towers were built using a dry stone technique with no use of mortar. This architecture you may primarily see in the Gometsari region, while the most significant landmark of the type called Fort Keselo (the word Keselo means "strong") is to be found in Upper Omalo. It is located on a hardly accessible hill protected from one side by a steep drop to the Gometsari Alazani and from the other side by a steep hillside over a small plain with the today's village, where some little remains of the fortification have been preserved. Under the ground, there is a 120m long tunnel that used to serve water supply (ruined and not accessible today). There used to be similar forts in Tsovata Valley and stand-alone towers also in other villages in Chaghma and Gometsari valleys. These towers were practically impregnable and the only way was to let the defenders starve and steal the livestock that the tower could not hold.

The ground floor or underground space (bashte) was determined for storage or livestock (in some cases even for mothers giving birth), while other floors (shua - middle floor with a kitchen, zedashua - upper floor) served for the family. The top floor (cherkho, typically only for men) was meant for defense and observations. Individual floors were built of wooden beams placed on the inner projections of the tower. No wooden part could stick out of the tower to prevent the enemies from setting it on fire. The floors were typically made of clay, except the ground floor, which was composed of stone tiles. Each floor had open fire in the center (kera), which separated the men's area from the zone for women. As men spent most of their time out of home, their section was less in use and thus served for male visits or other purposes.

Two main types of towers in Tusheti. Source: Makalatia: Tusheti. Tbilisi, 1933, pp. 95, 121-122.

Tushs began to move to their new comfortable houses as late as half of the 19th century when the situation in the Caucasus stabilized. The architecture of such houses was influenced by Kakheti lowlands. It respects the local construction materials - stone and timber. The houses usually have two floors with a stone foundation. Despite mortar being used as bonding material today, the traditional technique was dry stone. The flat stones were sometimes decorated with petroglyphs. The ground floor is commonly used for stables and for storage, today even for a kitchen and food supplies. The upper floor is built on wooden beams with wooden flooring. It is mainly a place of living and individual rooms are open to a wooden veranda, traditionally decorated with ornamental carvings. The roof is also made of wooden beams covered with slate. The ridge of the roof is traditionally weighted with white stones. Upper Omalo, Dartlo, and Diklo have become typical villages with prevailing constructions of this kind. The architecture contrasts with the fortified village called Dzveli Galavani ("old walls") and in tourist guides referred to as Dzveli Diklo, which lies on the promontory above the Tusheti Alazani (about 2km on a yellow trail). The tradition of carefully selecting the place for the construction of a new house was still followed in the 19th century. Such a place could not be "stained" with bad events or evil spirits. Last but not least, an important role played the dream the future owner of the house had having spent a night on the spot.

Tusheti mountains are characteristic of local migration in summer and winter. In wintertime, when the people were not jeopardized by raids, they moved to their winter homes (boslebi, literally "cowshed") on plains and hillsides. These houses were built on plains close to fields or pastures and lacked any major fortification. They are mostly abandoned and ruined today (e.g. Lashkaraulta on the hillside opposite Gogrulta). Some of the boslebi were later transformed into villages (e.g. Lower Omalo) and some are still partly used (Shenako). In summer, the Tushs migrated to safer and well-fortified villages.

Shrines and other places

Apart from towers and dwelling houses, shrines khati (in Georgian literally "icon"), salotsavi ("place of prayer"), or jvari (literally "cross"), represented key constructions in the villages. The actual difference between individual terms is not explicit as more names are often used for a single structure. The term salotsavi is generally used for any sacred place in the village and its surroundings. The terms khati and jvari are used for several types of shrines with particular architecture and point at two main attributes (icon and cross respectively), which are not present in many of the traditional shrines, though. Other attributes include a pennon, a bell, or a candle (Mühlfried 2014, p. 71). They are usually used to be several shrines in a village. These were mostly minor stone structures with a niche on one side for an icon or candles. Some shrines are further decorated with horns of the Caucasian Tur or the Wild Goat, with white stones, or images from mythology. They hence represent a mixture of Christian saints (Mariamtsminda in Omalo, Giorgitsminda in Pharsma, etc.) or their names refer to pre-Christian deities (Iakhsari, Karate, Kopala) (Grigolia 1939, p. 21). Besides serving as a place of festive ceremonies, oblations, prayers, and other rites, they also witnessed initiation ceremonies welcoming new members in the community, in some cases also settlements of disputes within the village, or even welcoming foreigners. Most of the shrines are not accessible for women during their period (young girls and elderly women could theoretically visit the place but Tusheti women usually avoid this). The rule also applies to tourists. In other areas, you may find sacred places devoted purely to women, but these are mostly more remote from common tourist trails (e.g. Tursiekhi in Omalo).

From the 19th century, the Orthodox Church built churches in the region making efforts to spread its influence to the mountains. These churches may be found today in the upper part of Omalo, in Shenako, Iliurta, or Natsikhari. The church in Dartlo is ruined but still considered a sacred place (salotsavi). The church in Bochorna has been reconstructed.

On the peripheries of some villages, there used to be places serving for meetings of elders or for settling disputes and accusations (saprindao or sabcheo). One of such places has been reconstructed in Dartlo. Meetings of representatives of all the villages in Tusheti were held in main secular or sacred places in Tusheti. Among secular places we have to mention Ghele in the pass between Omalo and Dartlo, while the key sacred shrine of the region is Lashari above Chigho.


Saprindao in Dartlo, original photo from the 1930s. Source: Makalatia 1933, p. 98.

Tusheti mountains are characteristic of local migration in summer and winter. In wintertime, when the people were not jeopardized by raids, they moved to their winter homes (boslebi, literally "cowshed") on plains and hillsides. These houses were built on plains close to fields or pastures and lacked any major fortification. They are mostly abandoned and ruined today (e.g. Lashkaraulta on the hillside opposite Gogrulta). Some of the boslebi were later transformed into villages (e.g. Lower Omalo) and some are still partly used (Shenako). In summer, the Tushs migrated to safer and well-fortified villages.

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