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JUSTICE AND TRADITIONS OF SVANS

The poverty and lack of arable land prevented mountain population from having stratification of classes. Therefore, feudal relationships were hardly visible in Georgian highlands. In Pshavi, Khevsureti, Mtiuleti, Khevi, Tusheti and Svaneti the population had never got used to the Serfdom and maintained their communal life-style until the twentieth century.

In early ages, Svaneti Saeristavo (a territorial administrative unit) was an important political-economic component of the Georgian state. The Royal Court appointed the Chief of Svaneti. After Georgia split into smaller kingdoms and principalities, the Svaneti Saeristavo was abolished and became influenced by neighbouring principalities. At the beginning of XIX century, Kvemo (the lower) Svaneti (currently Lentekhi district) fell under the patronage of the Samegrelo Principality of Dadiani. Whereas the West part of Zemo (the upper) Svaneti (currently Mestia district), so called Svaneti beneath Bali, was subordinated to Dadeshkeliani's principality at the end of XVIII century. As for the East Svaneti, (the area above Bali starting from Latali community up to the source of the river Inguri) it maintained its independence and the status of free Svaneti after long and hard struggles.

Communal lifestyle was characteristic to Georgian highlands from ancient times. A Chief - Khevisberi, called Khutsi in Khevsureti, Dekanozi - in Tusheti and Makhvshi - in Svaneti led the community. A Svanetian type of community governance was very democratic: the general meeting of a community elected Makhvshi - the community leader. The community members of both genders after twenty years of age had the right to attend the meeting. The Makhvshi should be a distinguished individuality known for his intelligence, reliability, fairness and honesty. It was a person obedient to the religious rules and preacher of Christianity, a judge in peaceful times and a leader of army in wars.

In most important cases there was held a united congress of rural communities - Convention of Khevi, where the majority of those present attendees made the decisions. The Convention discussed relevant domestic and international problems, complicated issues of the neighbourhood, proposals on preparation for the forthcoming wars and defensive strategies, issues related to the construction of big churches, fortifications, roads, bridges and other facilities and the contribution of each community to the mentioned public undertakings. The Convention also discussed legal aspects and imposed punishments.

The Convention was the supreme institution in the legal hierarchy, it was not accountable to anybody and its decisions were final and irrevocable.

The last Convention of Khevi was called in 1875; the reason for its convocation was a mass protest against the decision of the Russian Tsarist government concerning introduction of increased taxes. With this regard, the Russian governor was planning to start registration of lands and livestock. Free Svans publicly swore to disobey that decision of the government. Two thousand armed farmers blocked all roads and paths. The government was scared and compromised until people calmed down. Later, in 1876, they secretly brought a huge army to Svaneti and on August 20 laid a siege of towers where about fifty rebels were hiding.

The punishment operation was executed by four companies of the N161 Alexandropol infantry regiment, two teams of Kutaisi infantry militia, a guncrew of N39 mountaineers artillery brigade, a sappers' company, troops of Guria militia and a Becho military unit. Five Cossack posts were arranged to ensure communication with Kutaisi. The operation was led by the General Tsitovich.

After six days of continual gunfire, the troops destroyed all eleven towers, all stone houses, and wooden buildings, burned up cornfields and ruined down the village of Khalde.

The government troops had only two injured and 12 dead soldiers, whilst two settlers of Khalde died under the ruins of the towers, eight of them were arrested, others managed to escape. The Russian troops left the ruined village of Khalde on August 28.

The Khalde revolt was the third and the last armed protest of Georgian mountaineers against the Russian Tsarist rule. The first one is known as the Mtiuleti revolt, which was repressed in 1804, the second is known as Kakheti revolt repressed in 1812. The Caucasus Vice-Roy Ratishev severely punished the Khevsurs who took active part in Kakheti revolt in 1813. The Russian military troops under the command of Generals Simonovich, Tikhonovski and Stal burned up Khevsureti and repressed Khevsurs in the village of Guro.

Agricultural land in Svaneti was privately owned, as for the pastures and meadows they were under the community ownership. Besides, there were lands and woods owned by churches and used for their needs and religious holidays. A community leader - Makhvshi controlled the usage of pastures, meadows and woods by the population, he also regulated issues of land redistribution and surveying. He settled all disputes arising in the community in presence of four or five witnesses.

Makhvshi was very rigorous but fair in his judgments. Wrongdoers, thieves and those, who disgraced the community were condemned and banished. "All doors were closed for the exile. He and his family would be refused to mill their grist in the community's mill, to enter the church and to send their live-stock with the community's herd" (Vazha Pshavela). In case of committing a grave crime Makhvshi used to call the Khevi (community) Convention that would make a decision on banishing the offender from the community and burning up his house. Sometimes, the Convention even sentenced the offenders to death.

All criminal and civil cases were discussed in a local court consisting of judges-mediators - called "Morvals" in Svaneti.

The both litigant parties elected Morvals among their relatives or outsiders. Morvals carefully listened to the both parties. The negotiation process was long and often took years. When everything was clarified, the parties would go to swear on icon. After swearing, nobody would doubt about the fairness of the decision that was final and irrevocable. When the sentence was announced, the judges used to dig a stone into the ground that would mean the end of the case and conciliation of the parties.

Svans were rather dependant upon crops they harvested, because it was very hard and sometimes even impossible to transport grain from lowland to the mountains.

Farming is not an easy thing in mountains, because heavy showers and torrents often wash down the green fields, or the plants are broken by hail. That is why Svans always wish to have good weather.

Preparations for harvesting season started immediately with the New Year. At the beginning of February Svans used to celebrate a holiday "Lamproba" (Candlemas). A torch was made of birch sticks. All families would have three clusters of birch sticks - one for the Holy Virgin, another for St. George and the third for the Heavenly mercy. The Holy Virgin was believed to be the patron saint of harvest. At the celebration eve Svans took the clusters to the cemetery near the church and burned them there. They also baked special cookies "Lemzirs" and had a merry time.

In winter, Svans used to build up a snow tower. They used to put a wooden post in the centre of the tower and hung a cross on the top of it. The youth used to divide into groups by their neighbourhoods and each group tried to fall down the snow tower towards their own neighbourhood, which would bring them better harvest for the new season. Getting hold of the cross was also believed to be a good sign. Sometimes young people even fisticuffed to grasp the cross from the top of the post. This was indeed a joyful celebration.

On the last week of the Lent the so-called "Horieshmao" started, when the family leader would beat two iron bars onto each other, pray and scare the goblins. Afterwards he would go out and shoot his flint-gun. The housewife would tie black threads on the right hands of the family members, on the horns of the live-stock and even on farming and household tools. The same day, they would dig a thorny stick into the ground of their cornfield, and spread there sand and white pebbles brought from the river. This was believed to be a good protection from evil spirit and evil-wishers and could guarantee good harvest.

In drought periods, Svan women used to drop a bone into the nearest lake and prayed for a rain. In some communities men used to bring icons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin from the churches to the river bank and sing religious chants praying for the rain. There still exists a holiday of St. Elias when people pray for rain to the St. Elias's icon.

During the field works women worked side-by-side with men. Maybe for this reason a young bride would always bring a reaping hook to her husband's family together with her dowry.

When the weather went bad, the mountaineers had to hasten harvesting, mowing or other works. For this, they used to call their neighbours and relatives for help. This method of cooperation - when people helped each other without any payment - was called Nadi.

Construction of massive stone houses and towers exceeded the ability of one family. This was another reason for cooperation between the community members, - a so-called Mamitadi known in Svaneti as Lindi.

In order to get extra income Svans used to work in lowland villages in winter. Due to their severe living environment, Svans were very diligent, strong and skillful. That is why Svans were rather highly valued at the labour market.




Elders of the village. Vittorio Sella 1890


Lagurka's (Saint Kvirike's Church)
Vigil. Historical Institute Archive.
End of XIX century.


Partkuld Shampriani, a participant of rebellion of 1875


Shepherds in Tviberi gorge.
Vittorio Sella, 1889.


Young ladies. Vittorio Sella 1890.


The Ibex Hunter with a flint-gun


A family of Svans in Machubi hall


Log chute


Mowers. Mazeri (A. Jabava's photo)


Ploughmen. Kala


A woman with a churn. (G.Tikanadze's photo)


In a farm . (G.Tikanadze's photo)


A Svan woman


Grandfather and his grandson


A Svan man by a watermill


A Svan man


Making Svan felt hats is still in favour


Svanetian folk music and singing ensemble Riho

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