Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/The Suanetians and their Home


A NEW recreation-ground is wanted for those of our countrymen who, without being travelers by profession, find pleasure and refreshment in rough travel among primitive people, in mountain scenery and glacier air, in that sense of adventure and discovery which is afforded only by unknown countries or virgin heights, and on unmapped snowy chains. To such travelers—or vacation tourists—I offer the Caucasus. Here, if they make a hobby of map construction and correction, or of any branch of natural science, or of linguistic and ethnological studies, they will find a field for much useful work. At any rate, they may enjoy themselves, and while they do so they can hardly fail to increase knowledge. The country has been brought well within the reach of vacation tourists, of every one with a two months' holiday.

Nineteen years ago I described the first journey of exploration made by mountaineers, in the technical sense of that word, in the Caucasus, the ascents of its two most famous peaks, Elbruz and Kazbeck, and the general character of the snowy-chain that connects them. In July, 1887, in the company of M. de Déchy, and with Alpine guides, I revisited this noble chain, twice crossed some of its greatest glaciers, climbed several of its peaks, and penetrated many hitherto unknown recesses. In the course of these wanderings the mazes of the central group were unraveled, and several orographical problems which had puzzled intermediate travelers received their final solution.

For the moment I propose to limit myself to some notes on the scenery and people of a single district of the Caucasus, the mountain-girt basin of Suanetia, and one or two sketches of travel among its glaciers and snow-fields. Suanetia is the upper basin of the Ingur, a river which flows into the Black Sea a few miles east of Sukkum Kaleh. It is about the size of the valley of Aosta, forty miles long by fifteen broad. It lies between three thousand and seven thousand feet above the sea. On its north run the snowy ramparts of the Caucasian crest, inclosing in their complicated ridges four great glacier basins, and sending down more directly toward the Ingur or its tributaries many ice-streams, such as the Adish, which would be ranked in the Alps as glaciers of the first class. These ridges are composed of crystalline rocks, which show the tendency, observable in the Alps (e. g., in the Mont Blanc and Pelvoux groups), to arrange their summits in double lines, in the troughs between which lie vast névés. On either flank of the rigid granites lie beds of friable schists, whose green, rounded outlines afford a striking contrast to the snowy precipices of the great chain on which they abut. On the south Suanetia is fenced in by the lofty slate ridge of the Leila, which, running parallel to the main chain, attains a height of over twelve thousand feet, and bears very considerable glaciers toward its western end. In this direction the river escapes, between high spurs of the two chains, through a narrow porphyritic gorge, which is not at present passable for horses. On the east a low, grassy down (eight thousand six hundred feet), only sixteen hundred feet above the highest villages, leads into a pathless maze of forests and flowers—the wilderness in which the Skenes Skali, a tributary of the Rion, has its sources. Within these ridges and gorges the inhabitants have lived for centuries, isolated from the outer world, forgetting and forgotten.

They are first mentioned by Strabo, under the name of Soani, as a powerful nation; but Suaneti, as far as I could learn, is what they now call themselves. At the last census they numbered about twelve thousand. Over one third of the race, known from the native prince who ruled over them as the Dadian's Suanetians, live on the upper Skenes Skali. They have been more or less merged in the surrounding Mingrelian populations. The Suanetians are mentioned by Pliny and Procopius. Their country was reserved by Chosroes for Persia in his treaty with Justinian. It was converted to Christianity before the tenth century, and covered with small chapels or churches. Seven hundred years ago it formed part of the kingdom of Queen Thamara, the heroine who occupies the place of Alexander or Charlemagne in Georgian legend. The Suanetians still chant ballads in her honor. Suanetia soon fell off from the Georgian kingdom. It became, at some time in the last century, wholly unattached. Since that time the district has enjoyed a complete form of communal rule. Each community is made up of several villages, originally consisting each of members of the same family or gens, but now including several families. Members of the same family can not intermarry. Women and pasturage rights have been occasions of many feuds and vendettas. When a woman changed hands or husbands, the parties concerned could not always agree on the value in cattle—the Suanetians had no money—of the lady exchanged. Hence arose assaults of persons and batteries of towers. The affairs of the hamlet, so far as they were not settled by appeals to arms, were regulated by an assembly of adult males, in which unanimity was required for a valid decision. The foreign relations of the Suanetians consisted, for the most part, in predatory excursions into their neighbors' pastures. They were arrant sheep-stealers and cattle-lifters. Strangers met with no hospitality. On the contrary, it was the custom to exact a payment from them for passage, and the custom still survives in petty demands made for halting in a remote village. The Suanetians may fairly be described as reverted pagans. Some Christian rites—fasting in Lent, and the use of the sign of the cross—they have doubtless preserved. But these survivals seem to me no more to entitle them to the name of Christians than our own midsummer-night fires constitute us sun-worshipers. The country is covered with small churches and chapels, dating probably from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, built, unlike the houses and towers, of regularly squared blocks of limestone; the apse is sometimes ornamented externally with carving or an arcade of columns in low relief. The bells, as in Corsica, are suspended from a wooden frame outside the church. The altar-screens are arranged as in Greek churches. Long before Suanetia had obtained home-rule, it had advanced to church disestablishment. The priests disappeared, and their place was taken by a hereditary caste of local elders, who superintended the village feasts and sacrifices. The ecclesiastical property was secularized; a village vestry assumed its control, and kept the key of the church, which, no longer reserved for pious uses, served principally as a treasure house. Inside, in heavy chests, were stored the sacred books and images—some of them beautiful works of art—Persian silks, strange three-sided pieces of wood, carved with old Georgian inscriptions, flint-headed spears and arrows, and dozens of horns of the Caucasian tur. These things are still kept locked up, and it is almost impossible for any stranger to see them. The priests having been disposed of, services and sacraments naturally went too. Marriage consisted in sewing together the garments of the bride and bridegroom; baptism was travestied; the ancient funeral ceremonies were revived or continued. Many graves surround the churches, but others are found under particular trees. It is obvious that tree-worship survives in Suanetia. In the center of many hamlets there is a venerable tree or trunk—walnut, birch, or cherry—under which stand two or three rude chairs. Doubtless these are old places of assembly. The people are said (on the authority of a Mingrelian priest) to venerate the heavenly bodies. The Suanetians who carried our goods over the chain, appeared to pray to and praise the sun directly. They do no work on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, thus partially making up for their shortcomings by keeping the Sabbaths of three religions.

The Suanetians had home-rule and church disestablishment and disendowment. They had solved another pressing problem: they had, without emigration, overcome the natural tendency of the population to increase beyond the limits that their territory would support. They had even caused it to diminish. Their system was simple and effectual. They put a pinch of ashes, at birth, into the mouths of all superfluous female babies. They took a masculine view of superfluity. At the last census there were four males to three females in the Ingur Valley.

Poetry, where it exists—above all, primitive poetry and local ballads—often gives a nearer insight into the condition of life and manners of a race than religious rites and beliefs. Dr. Radde has fortunately preserved a number of very curious Suanetian ballads, such as are still sung under some ancient tree, or on the march along the mountain-path. They celebrate the golden time of Thamara, past forays across the great chain into the lands of the Baksan Tartars, or among the Abkasians to the west.

Under Russian rule a change is slowly coming over the people; schools, perhaps the only effectual civilizers, are doing their work. Everywhere I noticed in the rising generation an absence of the wild-animal expression which was the characteristic of the free Suanetians twenty years ago, and which all travelers have observed.

The Suanetians are not mainly a pastoral people. They keep a few flocks of sheep and herds of horses. Bullocks are used to draw sledges, and are eaten in winter. But flocks and herds are seldom found, as among the Tartars beyond the chain, on the high pastures, and consequently there are no paths to them. To reach the upper glacier basins you must find and follow almost untraceable hunters' tracks. Pigs, the smallest breed I ever saw, and geese wander round the homesteads, which are guarded by dogs. The villages are surrounded by barley-fields fenced in with neat wattling. The paths between them are pleasant, and less stony than most Alpine mule-roads. The inhabitants have learned to cultivate potatoes and other vegetables. They cut a certain amount of hay on the high pastures. Sometimes they cross the chain in summer, and let themselves out as laborers to the indolent Tartars; but there is no love lost between them. The Mussulmans look on the Suanetians with contempt as pig-eaters. I heard the Suanetians hiss "Cherkess!" at our Kabardan Cossack; and the Cossack—a mild and amiable creature, the reverse of the popular idea of a Cossack—despised and distrusted every Suanetian from the bottom of his soul. A race-hatred of centuries was recognizable in its ashes.

Variety is the marked type characteristic of the Suanetians. One village head-man, huge and bull-like, was like a figure from an Assyrian monument. Of the three men who led our baggage-horses from Ushkul, one wore the clothes and had something of the air and manners of a Persian gentleman. Another was a splendid, good-tempered, fair giant. Fair men with tawny heads are common. The third was a tattered, dark, stumpy, noisy barbarian. The costumes and manners of the women are various.

After its natural beauties, its peaks and forests, what strikes the traveler in Suanetia is the local architecture. The castellated villages which lawlessness has produced are as prominent in his eyes as the castles of the robber barons are to the Rhine tourist, or the towers of San Gemignano to those who wander in Italian by-ways. Nothing more strangely fantastic can be imagined than these towered hamlets. Mestia alone has seventy towers, from forty to eighty feet high, Ushkul about fifty, and two castles besides. Let me try to describe, from a sketch, a street scene in Chubiani, one of the hamlets of Ushkul, seven thousand feet above the sea. The house is a square block, built of irregular pieces of slate and slate-roofed. The only windows are small holes, high up, and unclosed. The smoke escapes through the roof. Birch-bark torches are used at night. A wooden passage, capable of being cut down in case of emergency, leads to the tower of refuge. Let us enter the house: it consists of one large ill-lighted room; two or three rude stones form the hearth; there are a few rough wooden benches and stools on the earthen floor; in the corner is a raised wooden platform with skins and cushions, the family couch. Groping up a dark passage, we reach the tower. Ladders, easily removable, reach from story to story. The ladders are short, and to gain each story one is compelled to scramble up projecting stones left in the wall. Skulls of wild goats, and other odds and ends, lie about on the landings. On the top story are loop-holes for firing. These towers, unlike the churches, are built of untrimmed black slates, generally whitewashed. At Ushkul, however, there are two castles, one fifty the other five hundred feet above the village (attributed, of course, to Queen Thamara), in which the black slate has been left in its native color. In the lower castle I found a ruined chapel. The higher castle commands a view of the pass to the Upper Skenes Skali, and must have been the defense of this entrance to the valley. M. Bussanio Nichoradse, a native of Ushkul, and a schoolmaster, told me that in ancient times all the families in a village were bound to assist their neighbor who was building a tower, but that no new towers had been raised, though many had been repaired, within his memory. A somewhat similar custom existed in the present generation at Chamounix.

"Savage Suanetia," the title chosen by an enthusiastic sportsman for the most recent description of this district, although in one sense appropriate, seems to me, so far as nature is concerned, singularly unhappy. Smiling, sylvan—such are the epithets that come naturally to the traveler's lips as he suddenly emerges from the icy regions of the Caucasus into the wooded hills, gentle slopes, sunny meadows, and neatly fenced barley-fields. Compared with the warrens or stone-heaps which serve the Tartars of the northern valleys for dwellings, even the towered villages have at a distance a false air of civilization. Suanetia in June, in the flower-time of the rhododendrons and azaleas, and again in October, when the azalea-leaves are red, and the birches golden against fresh autumn snows, must be one of the wonders of the world. Spaciousness, sunniness, variety, are the constant qualities of Suanetian landscapes. The great basin of the Ingur, forty miles long by ten to fifteen broad, is broken by no ridges that approach the snow-line, and the long, undulating, grassy spurs that divide the glens, in place of narrowing the horizon, furnish in their soft lines the most effective contrast possible to the icy peaks and rigid precipices of Shkara and Tetnuld, of Ushbe and the Leila. From the varied beauty of forests and flowers the eyes are carried at once to the pure glaciers, which hang like silver stairs on the green lower slopes of the snowy chain. The atmosphere has none of the harshness of that of Switzerland in summer. The breezes from the Black Sea bring up showers and moisture to soften the outlines and color the distances; the wind from the steppe suffuses the air with an impalpable haze, through which the great peaks glimmer like golden pillars of the dawn.


  1. From a paper read before the Royal Geographical Society, March 12, 1888.