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1 November 2021

Towerhouses of the Caucasus

These are some of the most under-publicized and unforgettable sights in Europe. Join us as we explore the Towerhouses of the Caucasus.


Image: Kotenko Oleksandr/Shutterstock 

Perhaps the most archetypal “Caucasian” building is the stone tower house or ‘Vainakh Tower.’ While best known in Georgia, such towers can also be found in various guises in the remote mountain villages of several republics in the North Caucasus. There, they are seen increasingly as a symbol of national consciousness. So much so that there are now several striking modern takes on the idea.    


Image: Ana Flasker/Shutterstock 

Svaneti (Georgia) 

One of the most under-publicized yet unforgettable tourist sights in Europe is the knock-out vista that assaults the senses as one arrives at Ushguli. By some definitions, the continent’s highest permanently populated settlement, Ushguli, is slowly being discovered by the growing trickle of visitors that find their way to the Svaneti mountain region of northern Georgia, where hardy locals speak a language all of their own.   


The tough residents of Ushguli live in their village year-round but outside access is often impossible in winter due to heavy snows. Image: OnurUygun/Shutterstock 

The steeply sculpted shepherd meadows and backdrop of soaring peaks are spectacular enough as a setting, but what adds the special touch is Ushguli’s array of medieval stone towers. Known here as ‘koshki’ or ‘koshkebi,’ at least one such tower stands within almost every farmstead that makes up the village. Tapering slightly from a square base to an overhang of machicolations (slots from which to drop projectiles onto the heads of any attacker), most are around four stories high. They traditionally offered villagers protection from passing marauders: in so remote a spot, few attackers would be likely to hang around long enough to besiege such places for long. Tower houses were also useful places of refuge during blood feuds[1] – once an infamous aspect of Caucasian mountain culture.   

Less than 20 years ago, Svaneti still retained an aura of danger with reports of kidnappings and lawlessness that discouraged outsiders from visiting. Around 2004, that was reversed, and since then, the area has been rapidly growing in tourist popularity. Those unprepared to walk (or drive the bone-shaking track) to Ushguli can now cruise painlessly by public transport to the larger town of Mestia, where there’s a growing array of hotels and eateries dotted between its selection of highly impressive tower houses.