This weekend I was invited on a trip to the village of Shatili (in the Khevsur region, near the border with Chechnya), which served the dual purpose of seeing the highlands in their beautiful fall colors, and avoiding Tbilisi’s massive pre-election rallies.
Shatili is now primarily a tourist attraction, as its residents were forcibly evacuated in the early 1950s as part of the Soviet Union’s broader plans for the perceived efficiencies of “population concentration” (read: depopulating isolated towns and villages to concentrate the residents in one area, often for more easily-monitored collective agricultural or industrial work). The village did not remain deserted for long, however. Once emptied of the real Khevsurs, the village became a popular movie set for the growing Soviet film industry, and was made famous in a series of films extolling the virtues of a fantastically sanitized Khevsur existence.
Cultural anthropologist Paul Manning has pointed out the irony in that the “Khevsur mountain romance” truly began only once its most iconic village had been cleared of true mountaineers. Today, Shatili is still presented in the media as an icon of Georgian traditional culture (see the dance troupe Erisioni’s Khevsur-themed promotional video, “Shatilis Asulo”), but visitors will note that it only has a year-round population of about twenty.
I find Georgia’s relationship to its “traditional side” (and how these views evolved from the ones formed under tsarist rule) absolutely fascinating. The emphasis on exotic ethnographic features is part of a general inheritance from the Romantic movement introduced via imperial Russia. And like the Russian Slavophile movement, the practice of ethnography in Georgia differs from that of America and Britain: instead of being predicated on an assumption of essential alterity (difference), it assumes an essential identity, an identity that is negotiated in both Georgian academia and pop culture.
Both Georgian and Western researchers historically shared the assumption that their object of study was to be found in villages rather than in cities, and that in certain important aspects, the people they study are necessarily unlike themselves: distantiated in time, not modern, “traditional,” “backwards,” “primitive,” “savage.” This assumption continues today–although anthropology continues to break new ground in terms of scope, the public perception is still that of a Western-educated researcher documenting the rituals of “primitive” peoples in faraway lands. Tamas Hofer pointed out that one result of such an approach is apparent in the way that findings are presented to the public: “indigenous artifacts” are displayed alongside taxidermy at museums of natural history (the natural world), while artifacts from Western cultures are placed in museums of history and technology (the “civilized” world).
As a country on the uncomfortably shifting border of an imagined geographic opposition between Europe and Asia, Georgia does not entirely conform to Western approaches. At once somehow part of Europe (at least aspirationally) and yet rarely recognized by others as such, Georgian government dating back to the imperial era attempted to forge a European style public with a claim to European identity. These attempts resulted in an [ongoing] crisis of self-definition, as “European Georgia” (often urbanites or members of the Russian-educated nobility) sent researchers and correspondents into “Oriental Georgia,” only to discover that the people of these lands seemed like complete strangers.
So who were the true Georgians? Inspired by the Russian Slavophile movement, which looked to the peasantry as the true “heart” of the nation and embodiment of its values, late 19th century Georgian artists and intellectuals turned to the “folk” as the source of nascent national character. Perhaps the most famous of these is Vazha Pshavela, a Georgian poet and proto-hipster who idealized highlander rituals, thirst for freedom, purity, hospitality, and non-degeneracy with the “false civilization” introduced by the imperial bureaucracy.
Scholars and social commentators have noted that from this early national movement onward, Georgians sought to negotiate a “dual lineage” of indigenous tradition and European modernity to in an attempt to resolve their longstanding identity conflict. So for Georgia, icons of tradition like Shatili don’t quite represent a radical opposition to Europeanized “civilization,” but embody a kind of parallel identity: an ethnographically stereotyped version of the national self as traditional other, a process known as “autoalterity” or “auto-Orientalism.” In this ethnographic vision of the nation, the historic population of Shatili, the fierce and free, hospitable and brave mountaineers, spouting poetry and avenging blood for blood, embody all that is best about Georgians in general–even if most Georgians today hardly live that lifestyle.
With this in mind, it is striking to visitors that a place as deserted as Shatili can be filled with so many cultural associations and meanings. But it seems that the public prefers the village to remain empty (the small local population is almost totally ignored) for the specific purpose of allowing visitors and film directors to fill it with their own notions of what the authentic Georgian lifestyle should be.
All that commentary aside, here is the tourism checklist for Shatili:
-Stay at a guesthouse (or camp) in the historic village, a late-medieval/early-modern fortress comprised of several houses and defensive towers. There are two or three guesthouses located in the village itself, as well as a campsite on the riverbank. Most offer B&B meals, as there is no shop in town.
-Visit Mutso (მუცო), an abandoned stronghold located high over the Ardoti gorge, considered one of Georgia’s most endangered historic sites (its extreme isolation and clifftop location have made preservation efforts all but impossible). It takes about 45min-1 hour to drive there from Shatili, and almost as long to climb all the way up the rocky slopes to the fortress itself.
-See the “Houses of the Dead.” About a 20min walk from Shatili (and directly across from the border guard station–wave hello!), you will find a cluster of small stone houses on the riverbank. Historically, this location was where villagers infected with contagious diseases would be quarantined–and most often, would die. The houses have been sealed up, but you can see the grim interiors through small windows.
-Although our group didn’t have time (it’s almost a 2 hour drive from Shatili), a local attraction was created a few years ago when a military helicopter crashed on a farm in nearby Ardoti. The farmer took this “gift from heaven” and converted it into a convenient livestock barn.
-Go hiking and/or horseback riding. There are plenty of trails in the area, and even the main roads are generally deserted. Some residents own horses and are willing to rent them, but I’m not sure if there are guided tours.
-Buy honey. Shatili is known for the quality of its honey, and you will see several houses with multi-colored wooden boxes (hives) in their yards. It is a good idea to bring your own jars though, as there is a chronic shortage of them in such an isolated location. Vendors are fine filling up whatever container you bring and will weigh it for you (if you don’t know the container’s volume) to determine the price.
-Get a flat tire! According to our marshutka driver, roughly 80% of round trips to Shatili result in one.
Bruce Grant, Lale Yalçin-Heckmann, eds. Caucasus Paradigms: Anthropologies, Histories, and the Making of the World Area. Münster: Lit, 2008.
Hofer, Tamás. “Anthropologists and Native Ethnographers in Central European Villages: comparative notes on the professional personality of two disciplines”, in: Current Anthropology (9:4), 1968.
Manning, Paul. Strangers in a Strange Land: Occidentalist Publics and Orientalist Geographies in Nineteenth-Century Georgian Imaginaries. 2012.
Shorena Kurtsikidze, Vakhtang Chikovani. Ethnography and Folklore of the Georgia-Chechnya Border: Images, Customs, Myths & Folk Tales of the Peripheries, Munich: Lincom Europa, 2008.