Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iconic Georgian Towers Collapsing

Activists say more should be done to preserve historic structures in remote valley.
By Tea Topuria
Many of the historic stone-built towers that symbolise Upper Svaneti, high in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, are on the brink of collapse, according to local activists.



Upper Svaneti, one of Georgia’s three World Heritage Sites, is a valley of dramatic scenery tucked away in the north-west of the country. It attracts increasing numbers of tourists keen to see the towers and its 5,000 metre peaks.



The towers were built from the ninth century onwards, and formed both defensive bastions and homes, but now they are crumbling. Since they are state monuments, local residents are not allowed to repair them themselves, and the culture ministry has said it could take years to do so.



World Heritage status, awarded by the United Nations cultural body UNESCO, commits a country to look after a site and it can be withdrawn if they fail to do so.



On February 18, in the village of Mestia, the CENN network of non-governmental organisations met local residents to discuss the towers.



“One local man started to restore the roof himself, but some people came to him and stopped him. He did not even understand what department they were from,” Londa Khorguani, from the village of Becho, said.



The towers soar out from the villages of Svaneti, which nestle among the steep hills of the area, and their residents are some of the highest-dwelling people in Europe.



The climate is severe at this altitude and villagers say that if they do not repair the roofs, then rain and snow can get into the towers, damaging them from the inside. When the water gets in, it can freeze, expanding as it does so, and thus loosens stones and tiles.



The locals say that 200 towers have completely collapsed in the last century or so, and most of the remaining 200 need repairs of some kind.



The rate of collapse of the towers has significantly altered the profile of some villages.



“I can remember seven towers in our village, and now there is just one. They used to keep icons in them, but then they took them to the church,” Keto Kvitsiani, an elderly woman from Becho, said.



“The tower is in a terrible state, and the roof needs to be repaired. There are many towers like this, and the important thing is that there are no roads in our village, so even if they decide to repair it, cars cannot drive to the tower,” she said.



Derelict towers also pose a threat to the local population. They are between four and 20 metres high and stand in the middle of the villages, often right next to inhabited houses, so falling stones could easily hit people below. Residents say people have not been harmed, but masonry has killed livestock passing under the tower walls.



According to Vakhtang Pilpani, deputy head of the local administration, “One of these towers poses a threat to four families at once, since it stands between four houses.”



The tower owners are debating the creation of an association to represent their interests to the government, fearful that if the towers are not saved now there will be nothing left to save.



“In the village of Lekhta, the complex belonging to the Khergiani family has collapsed to ground level. There is another house there which you can see falling down by the day,” Khvicha Chartolani, of the village of Mestia, said.



The towers in the village of Chazhashi are also increasingly derelict, and local people say that the authorities have only undertaken cosmetic repairs on them.



“They painted the buildings there in some bright colours, which really do not belong in this mountain village,” Sophiko Lobjanidze, the head of Mestia’s Centre for Training and Consultancy resource centre, said.



“When they painted houses in Mestia, there was some paint left over. They decided to use it to paint the buildings in Chazhashi.”



The National Agency for the Protection of Cultural Heritage promised the state would solve the problem of the towers, but it would take time.



“Last year we re-roofed 11 towers. This year we plan to re-roof another 15, and there are 100,000 laris (5,800 US dollars) assigned to this from the budget. The repair of a tower’s roof costs around 12,000 laris,” Diana Bolotashvili, an agency spokeswoman, said.



“Apart from that, we are planning the rehabilitation of one of the historic districts of the village of Mestia, where there are towers and adjoining buildings and they will also be rehabilitated. We will steadily restore everything there. We cannot repair all the towers in two or three years; this will happen gradually.”



The agency also said that local people were free to repair their towers themselves, but it would have to approve the plans first.



Local people, however, do not know how to draft such plans, and do not know the rules that govern what they can and cannot do with their towers. Experts believe special training courses could be set up to help educate them about their rights.



Tea Topuria is a freelance journalist.

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