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ETHNONYMS: Svan: Mushwæn (person), Shwæn (territory); in Georgian these are "Svani" and "Svaneti," respectively.


Identification. The Svans are one of the dozen or so traditionally recognized ethnic subgroups within the Georgian (Kartvelian) nation. Their homeland (Svaneti) corresponds to the Mestia and Lentekh districts (Russian: raions ) of the Georgian Republic, one of the former republics of the USSR.

Location. Svaneti is a territory of approximately 4,200 square kilometers extending from 59° 40.5 to 61° E and 42° to 43° 15.5 N. It is bounded on the north by Kabardo-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia in the Russian Federation, on the west by Abkhazia, on the south by the Georgian provinces of Mingrelia and Lechkhumi, and on the east by the Georgian province of Rach'a. Until the fifteenth century, northern Rach'a was inhabited by Svans as well. Svaneti is a rugged land of towering snow-capped mountains, thick forests, and narrow gorges cut by swift glacier-fed rivers. The two main areas of Svan settlement are along the upper reaches of the Enguri and Tskhenists'q'ali rivers. These are usually referred to as upper and lower Svaneti, respectively. The upper Svaneti is hemmed in on the north by the main range of the Caucasus Mountains, with some peaks in excess of 5,000 meters. A second ridge of mountains, ranging up to 4,000 meters, separates the upper and lower Svaneti. Further south, two other ridges divide the lower Svaneti from the lowlands of western Georgia. Until this century, travel into and out of Svaneti, especially the upper Svaneti, was difficult and often hazardous because of the mountainous terrain, heavy snowfall, and poor roads. During the long winter season, which lasts from October to April, the Svans were effectively cut off from the rest of Georgia. In recent decades the roads have been greatly improved, allowing nearly year-round access, and small airplanes fly a regular route between Mestia and Kutaisi, the main city of western Georgia.

Demography. The present-day inhabitants of Svaneti are, as they have been for many centuries, almost entirely Svans. Some Georgians from elsewhere in the republic and a handful of Russians live in Mestia, the largest village in the upper Svaneti, and in some parts of lower Svaneti. The Svans identify themselves as being of Georgian nationality and are not separately counted in the Soviet census. If one judges on the basis of language, the Svans presently number about 35,000, representing about 1 percent of the Georgian people. Most Svans still live in Svaneti. There are also Svan villages, established about a century ago, in the neighboring parts of Abkhazia. After the tragic winter of 1986-1987, during which several villages in the upper Svaneti were destroyed by avalanches, many Svans were resettled in the Marneuli region to the south of Tbilisi.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Svan language is the smallest of the three languages composing the Kartvelian or South Caucasian Family, one of the three groups of indigenous languages spoken in the Caucasus region. Four Svan dialects have been described. Svan, like the other members of its family, Georgian and Laz-Mingrelian, has a complex pattern of case marking and rich verbal morphology. In terms of phonology, morphophonemics, and lexicon it differs sharply from the latter languages and is believed to have diverged from the ancestral Kartvelian language some three or four millenia ago. The grammar and lexicon of the Svan language reflect long-standing contact with speakers of North Caucasian tongues. It has never been used as a written language. All Svans now speak and write Georgian, and most, especially in the younger generations, are also able to communicate in Russian. Some may know the languages of neighboring ethnic groups (e.g., Mingrelian, Balkar).

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological, toponymic, and linguistic evidence indicate that the ancestors of the Georgian people have inhabited the west-central part of the southern Caucasus region for at least 5,000 years and probably much longer. In the third millenium b.c. one group of Kartvelians migrated to the northwest, reaching the east coast of the Black Sea. Place-names believed to be of Svanetian origin are found in this area. Somewhat later, these ancestors of the Svans moved upland into what is now Svaneti. Axes and other artifactsas well as the ruins of foundries for the production of bronze and irondating to the early Bronze Era have been discovered in Svaneti. This indicates that the local population was engaged in metalworking in the second and first millenia b.c. The Greek geographer Strabo (end of the first century b.c.) describes the Svans as a fierce, warlike mountain people, ruled by a king and a council of 300 elders and capable of fielding an army of 200,000. (This figure may be an exaggeration, or perhaps Strabo was including other Kartvelians under the designation "Svan.") By the time of the consolidation of a united Georgian kingdom in the eleventh century, a feudal system similar to that found elsewhere in Georgia was established in Svaneti. Most of the land belonged to the Svan nobility (wærg, pusd ) or to the local Georgian Orthodox churches and monasteries. The peasants (glekh ) worked the land and provided crops and other services for the landowners. Several Svan noblemen rose to powerful positions in the medieval Georgian government and were rewarded with important titles and large holdings of land in lowland Georgia.

Beginning in the mid-thirteenth century, wave upon wave of Mongol, Persian, and Turkish armies devastated the lowland parts of Georgia. Because of its remote location, much of Svaneti was never invaded. For this reason, many of the finest works of Georgian artistryicons, illuminated manuscripts, and gold and silver itemswere preserved in Svanetian churches during this period. The Svan villagers protected these treasures zealously (the theft of an icon was punishable by death, usually by stoning, even in recent times). A sizable number of objets d'art of foreign origin (Persian, Syrian, Italian, German) have also found their way into Svaneti, a testament to the wide-ranging cultural and trade contacts of medieval Georgia. After the dissolution of the Georgian empire, the land was segmented into several smaller kingdoms and principalities. Svaneti came under the nominal authority of the kingdom of Imeretia. From the sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, a handful of powerful Svan families came to exert dominance over all of the province except for the upland (eastern) half of the upper Svaneti, which came to be known as "Free Svaneti" (Tævisupæl Shwæn). There were also several peasant uprisings during this period, resulting in the decline of the feudal system in some localities.

The Treaty of Georgievsk, signed in 1783, placed the kingdoms of eastern Georgia under the protection of the Russian Empire. Most of western Georgia, including the lower Svaneti, was incorporated into the empire in 1803-1804. The people of the upper Svaneti, however, resisted the imposition of Russian rule for some time. The princely house of western upper Svaneti finally capitulated in 1833, and the rest of the province in 1853-1857. During the period of Russian rule the peasantry was freed from serfdom and given small parcels of land. After the Communist Revolution of 1917 Georgia declared its independence from Russia. In 1921 the Red Army invaded Georgia and incorporated it into the Soviet Union. In recent years notable infrastructural improvements have been made in Svaneti: schools and health centers have been opened, roads upgraded, and electricity introduced.

For many centuries the Svans have been in contact with the northern Caucasian tribes on the other side of the mountains and with the Ossetians to the east. These relations have often been hostile, with raiding parties from one or the other group attempting to seize the other's property. On the other hand, the Svans have engaged in trade with these tribes, and in earlier times many Svans worked for them as migrant laborers.


The traditional Svan settlement, especially well preserved in the upper Svaneti, is the qew or commune, comprising a group of hamlets, each inhabited by one or more clans. Within the hamlet are a few dozen homesteads, closely packed together, surrounded by farmland. In recent times the organizational structure of the Svan commune (see "Political Organization") has given way to that of the modern Georgian village. There are several types of Svan homesteads. In the type believed to be most ancient, the family and livestock live under one roof in a fortresslike three-story stone structure. More often, there is a separate, adjoining defense tower (murq'wam ) to which the family and cattle repair in time of attack. (Defense towers are now found primarily in eastern upper Svaneti, with a few remnants in lower Svaneti and northern Rach'a.) In many respects the traditional Svan homestead is more similar to those of other Caucasian mountain provinces (northeastern Georgia, Ossetia, Ingushia, Daghestan) than to those of lowland Georgia.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Because of the harsh climate, the primary crops have been hardy grains such as summer and winter wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Seeds have traditionally been sown twice a year: in March and April, after the snow has melted, and again in September to October, before the onset of the long Svanetian winter. The Svans also keep domestic farm animals (cows, pigs, goats, and sheep), which are exploited for meat, cheese, and wool. Beekeeping has been practiced since ancient times, and Svanetian honey has an exceptionally fine taste. Although the Svans have long employed sophisticated farming techniques to utilize the land to its full potential, the Svanetian farm has not been sufficient to feed the family. In earlier days, the Svans hunted ibex, stags, and bears to supplement their diet. (Hunting is still a popular avocation of Svans today.) In the nineteenth century, large numbers of Svan men earned additional income as migrant farm workers in the lowland regions of Georgia and the northern Caucasus during the months in which Svaneti is blanketed with snow.

Industrial Arts. The Svans have traditionally produced their own agricultural implements, utensils, furniture, and weaponry. Wooden artifacts are usually adorned with elaborate geometrical designs, using symbols related to Svanetian religion (solar disks, representations of people, animals, and ritual dances).

Trade. The Svans are not noted as a trading people. In traditional times they did serve as a commercial link between western Georgia and the northwest Caucasian provinces and have also provided wolf, fox, and bear pelts for the bazaars of lowland Georgia.

Division of Labor. Food preparation (baking, etc.), caring for children, needlework, and the like were considered to be women's work. Tasks delegated to men included hunting, wood- and metalworking, heavy farm labor, and fighting.

Land Tenure. Regular farm land belonged to individual households, with each possessing up to ten ktseva (a ktseva is equivalent to the amount of land one can plow in one day). Pastures, hay fields, and some forests were common property of the clan, village, or commune. If an individual desired to sell land, he had to first offer it to the members of his own clan. Only if they declined to buy it could it be sold to another party.


Kin Groups and Descent. Most Svans were identified as belonging to a "root clan" (dzirish samkhub ) composed of a number of families, often of remote relationship. The members of a clan usually, though not always, live in the same commune. They are further identified by their ts'æem samkhub (particular clan), a subdivision of the dzirish samkhub, created when brothers split up and divide the family property. The particular clan may include one or more homesteads. Descent is traced patrilineally. One is considered to be more closely bound to one's kin within the samkhub than one is to anyone outside of it, even close relatives (e.g., mother's brother, in-laws). If there would otherwise be no male heir, however, a son-in-law could be adopted (gezald legne ) into the household and take the clan affiliation of his in-laws. Each clan has its own shrine, burial ground, and special feast days. Marriage within the samkhub, or with other relatives within ten degrees of kinship, was forbidden.

Kinship Terminology. The categories distinguished by Svan kinship terminology are not much different from those of Georgian. For example, one term (chîzhe ) denotes both son-and brother-in-law, and another (telghra ) both daughter-and sister-in-law; at the same time, there are words specifically denoting the wife's sister's husband (mekwshel, cognate with Georgian kvisli ) and husband's brother's wife. The most striking deviation from the pattern of Kartvelian kin terms is in the words denoting siblings, which index the gender of both parties to the relationship: a female Ego calls her sister udil whereas a male Ego calls his sister dachwir; similarly, a male Ego calls his brother mukhwbe whereas a female Ego calls her brother jemil.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage partners for Svan children were traditionally selected very early. On occasion two pregnant women would make a pact that, if one gives birth to a girl and the other to a boy, the children will be engaged to each other. In such cases the wedding feast, signifying the transfer of the female from her parents' household to that of her in-laws, may take place while the bride and groom are still very young. The actual matrimonial rite, a simple ceremony involving a priest, would then be held one to three years later, when the couple is of appropriate age. In practice, instances in which a young man and woman would marry against their parents' wishes have always occurred, and in modern Svaneti arranged marriages are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Though her position was not of equal status to that of her husband, the traditional Svan wife had certain rights. She could own livestock and other possessions. In the event of abuse or abandonment by her husband she had recourse to the protection of her parents' family and to the local justice system (see "Social Control"). Divorce was rare in earlier times, and usually occurred for reasons of impotence or failure to produce male offspring. As though to compensate for the irrelevance of emotional bonding in the contracting of marriages, young Svans could enter into special friendships with members of the opposite sex, even if married. This custom, linturæl, which was practiced up to the early twentieth century, bears certain resemblances to the sts'orproba relationship of the northeast Georgian mountain tribes (see the article on the Khevsur) and also to a form of adoption practiced in some northern Caucasian communities. It was marked by a ritual in which the man sprinkled salt on the woman's breast, then touched his teeth to its nipple three times, saying "You are the mother, I the son." The couple bonded by linturæl could be as affectionate as siblings with each other, no more, though in some cases the relationship did take on a romantic aspect.

Domestic Unit. Until the early twentieth century the Svan mezge (household) could include as many as fifty people: a senior male (koræ makhwshi, "chief of the house") with his wife, younger brothers, sons, their wives and children, and sisters and daughters not yet married. The koræ makhwshi functioned as administrative head and as chief celebrant of domestic religious rites. In Svaneti, as in the northeast Georgian mountain provinces, the genders were spatially separated within the home. The main floor of the Svanetian house was divided into four quadrants, centered around the hearth (q'welp ). The koræ makhwshi and special guests had their seats in the eastern quadrant, which was also where the most important domestic rituals took place, and the other men sat in the quadrant to their right, closest to the entrance. The other two quadrants were reserved for the women and children. Menstruating women and women who had just given birth were considered to be impure and a potential source of ill luck. At such times they were not allowed in the home and were confined in special huts (laushdwr ).

Inheritance . Even after the death of their parents, brothers would usually remain together: the separation of the household was considered a great tragedy. Should they decide to split up, the brothers divided the land and property equally, save for a parcel of land (one day's plowing) that was given to the eldest. Clan subdivisions (ts'æm samkhub) originate in this way. Should a man die without sons, his property was inherited by his brother's or father's brother's family. Female relatives were not given any property, and the heirs were obliged to provide for them. Should there be no males of the above degree of relationship, the estate became the property of the clan as a whole.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The division of society into landowning and serf classes ended in the nineteenth century. In recent times most Svans continued to work as farmers, though a number of Svans have participated in Georgian academic and artistic circles.

Political Organization. The affairs of the commune were decided by a council (luzwrob, lukhor ) presided over by an elected headman (makhwshi ); both men and women participated in the deliberations. The council decided cases of infraction of traditional law and assessed punishment by fine, exile, or, very rarely, death. Other important questions, concerning agricultural affairs, relations with other communes and with northern Caucasian tribes, and so forth, were discussed in council meetings. From time to time there would be meetings of the commune makhwshis from all Svaneti to decide critical questions affecting the whole province. Czarist authorities abolished the institution of makhwshi in 1869. With the imposition of Soviet rule, the luzwrob has been supplanted by the village council (Russian: sel'<skij>sovet ). The jurisdiction of these councils usually corresponds to the traditional commune.

Social Control. In case of a dispute, the parties could select a committee of judge-mediators (môrew ) to decide the issue. The decisions of the committee could not be appealed. Before giving testimony, the disputants were required to take an oath of honesty upon an icon. As icons were regarded by the Svans as having the power to bring misfortune to a family for many generations to come, these oaths were not taken lightly.

Conflict. All too often Svans bypassed the justice system (see "Social Control") and took matters into their own hands. Should a member of a clan be killed or seriously woundedeven if accidentallyor in some way humiliated by a member of another clan, the first clan was dishonored as a whole. Any male member of the clan felt entitled to exact revenge (lits'wri ) upon any adult male in the offending clan. In this way blood feuds were started, which at times extended over several generations and claimed the lives of dozens of people. In addition to killing, one could exact revenge by capturing and imprisoning a member of the enemy clan and holding him for ransom. This was considered to be an extremely serious humiliation. Feuds could be halted or avoided if the offending clan paid an indemnity or blood-price (ts'or ) to the other party. The ts'or for killing a man was very costly (six parcels of prime farmland or thirty-six bulls); lesser compensation was exacted for cases of wounding, insult, thievery, and breach of engagement to marry.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Svanetian religion is based on an indigenous system, similar in many respects to those of other Caucasian tribes, which has been influenced by long and intensive contact with Mazdaism (presumably through the Ossetians) and Orthodox Christianity. The chief Svan deities are Khosha Ghêrbet ("Great God"); Jgeræg (Saint George), the chief protector of humanity; and Tëringzel (archangel). Important female figures include Barbai (Saint Barbara), a fertility deity and healer of illnesses; Dæl, goddess of the hunt and protector of wildlife in the high mountains; and Lamæria (Saint Mary), protector of women. Christ (Krisde or Matskhwær, "savior") presides over the world of the dead. The Svanetian year is marked by a large number of major and minor feast days connected with the changing seasons, the harvest, etc. In addition, there are certain days within the week and month when people are expected to abstain from work and undergo periodic fasts. Among the principal feast days are those for the New Year (sheshkhwæm and zomkha ); the festival of torches (limp'ari ), at which protection from diseases is sought; and the Lord's feast (uplisher ) in late spring. The gods are invoked and presented with sacrifices: slaughtered animals, various types of bread, and alcoholic beverages. It is important to note that because grapes cannot be cultivated in the upper Svaneti, vodka (haræq' ) is the ritual drink, not wine as in lowland Georgia. Most ceremonies took place inside of churches or other holy places (laqwæm ), or in the home. Domestic rituals centered around the hearth, the cattle stalls, and, at least in certain localities, a large stone (lamzer bæch ), placed in the grain storage area. Women were not allowed to enter the churches or participate in certain rituals. On the other hand, there are feast days and observances specifically for women, which men are forbidden to attend. In particular, certain prayers directed to the hearth and to a type of domestic deity (mezir, represented as a small gold or silver animal) are reserved for women.

Arts. The Georgian Classical Period (tenth to thirteenth centuries) was also a period of intense artistic activity in Svaneti. A large number of churches were constructed (over 100 in the upper Svaneti alone) and adorned with frescoes, icons, carved wooden doors, and items made of precious metals. Svan artisans were especially renowned for their skill at producing finely detailed gold and silver icons, crosses, and drinking vessels. It has been estimated that as much as one-fifth of the medieval Georgian metalwork that has been preserved to the present day is of Svan origin. There was also a distinctive local school of icon and fresco painting.

Svan folk literature comprises a variety of genres: epics, ritual and lyric poetry, tales, myths, and fables. Most of the themes represented in Svan literature are shared with other parts of Georgia, though elements of Ossetian and northern Caucasian origin (e.g., portions of the Nart sagas) also appear.

Among the folk arts, special mention should be made of Svanetian music. A tradition of polyphonic a-cappella singing has evolved in Svaneti, as in other parts of Georgia. One distinctive feature of the music of this province is its greater use of dissonant intervals and striking harmonic progressions. These choral songs accompany certain religious rites and festivals. Songs accompanied by the chæng (harp) or the ch 'unir (a three-string violin) are also frequently heard in Svaneti.

Medicine. Medical knowledge was a jealously guarded trade secret, handed down within certain families. The traditional Svan akim treated wounds and certain illnesses with preparations made from herbs and other natural ingredients. Many ailments, especially contagious diseases, were regarded as divinely sent, as punishment for some infraction of customary law. Sacrifices of livestock or, in serious cases, donations of land to the local shrine, were required of the party deemed to be responsible for offending a deity.

Death and Afterlife. The Svans believed that dying people could see several years into the future and would gather at the bedside of a dying relative to ask questions. When death occurred, the family and neighbors would break out into loud wailing and keening. After the burial the close relatives of the deceased would be in mourning for as much as three years. They would fast (abstain from animal products), wear mourning colors (traditionally red), and the men would shave their heads and faces and let their hair grow out until the end of the mourning period. If a person should die away from home, his or her soul was thought to remain at the spot where death occurred. A "soul-returner" (kunem met'khe ) would be summoned to locate the soul (with the aid of a rooster, which was believed to see the soul) and escort it back home. Only then could the funeral observances begin. The souls of the deceased led a somewhat shadowy existence in a world similar to the one they left behind. Their well-being in the spirit world was related to their sinfulness before death and the zeal of their surviving kin in making prayers and sacrifices on their behalf. Once a year, at the festival of lipanæl (mid-January), the souls of the deceased were believed to return to their families. They remained in their former home for several days and were entertained with feasts and the recitation of folktales. Also during this time, the souls met and determined the fortune of their kin for the upcoming year. Because the Svans believe that the deceased retain the physical characteristics they had before death, a second lipanæl is held several days after the main one to accommodate the souls of handicapped people, who need more time to make the journey from the spirit world to the land of the living.


Bardavelidze, Vera (1939). Svanur khalkhur dgheobata Walendari, 1: Akhalts'lis tsil'li (Calendar of Svan folk holidays, 1: New Year's cycle). Tbilisi: Metsniereba.

Chartolani, Mikhail (1961). Kartveli khalkhis mat'erialuri k'ult'uris ist'oriidan: K'era svanur sakhlshi (From the material culture of the Georgian people: The hearth in the Svanetian home.) Tbilisi: Metsniereba.

Gabliani, Egnate (1925). Dzveli da akhali Svaneti (Old and new Svaneti). Tbilisi: Georgian State Publishing House.

Gasviani, G. A. (1980). Sotsial'no-ekonomicheskaia struktura Svaneti v XI-XVIII vv (The social and economic structure of Svaneti in the 11th-18th centuries). Tbilisi: Metsniereba.

Nizharadze, Bessarion (1962-1964). Ist'oriul-etnograpiuli ts'erilebi (Historical and ethnographic essays). 2 vols. Tbilisi: Tbilisi State University Press.

Robakidze, A. I. (1990). Osnovnye cherty khoziaistvennogo byta v Svaneti (The principal features of domestic life in Svaneti). Tbilisi: Metsniereba.


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Svans call themselves Mushwän (plural Shwanär). Nominally Georgian Orthodox, they preserve many pagan beliefs and practices. They inhabit a high mountainous area in northwestern Georgia beneath the main Caucasus chain, in the upper reaches of the rivers Ingur (Upper Svanetia) and Tskhenis-Tsqali (Lower Svanetia). Svan was first to split from the Common Kartvelian that also produced Georgian, Mingrelian, and Laz. The four main (and divergent) dialects are: Upper and Lower Bal (Upper Svanetia); and Lent'ekh and Lashkh (Lower Svanetia), although linguistic particularities characterize virtually each hamlet. The language is not taught, and all Svans educated in Svanetia since the introduction of universal schooling by the early Soviets have received instruction in Georgian. The largely mono-ethnic population of Svanetia is usually estimated at 50,000, although the disastrous winter of 19861987 caused many to abandon the region, especially Upper Svanetia. In the 1926 Soviet census, 13,218 declared Svan nationality, although thereafter all Kartvelian speakers became classified as Georgians. Annual heavy snowfalls meant that Svans were historically excluded from the outside world for months, penned up with their livestock inside appropriately compartmentalized stone dwellings, alongside which stood the unique, twelfth-century, square towers for which Svanetia, especially Upper Svanetia, is famous. While rich in forests and minerals, the limited arable areas produce little apart from grass and hay, potatoes, and barley, the source of the local hard liquor (haräq' ). Goiters were frequent through iodine deficiency; the difficulties associated with providing another staple were depicted in the silent film Salt for Svanetia. Ibex, chamois, and bears have long been hunted. Svan men often served as migrant laborers in Mingrelia during the winter months.

During the early nineteenth century, Lower Svanetia became part of Dadiani's Mingrelia. In 1833 the Dadishkelian princes of western Upper Svanetia accepted Russian protection, governing their own affairs until the princedom was abolished in 1857. The eastern part of Upper Svanetia acknowledged no overlord, thus becoming known as "Free Svanetia." Later in the century, Russia took control of the area through military action, completely destroying the village of Khalde, as described in a moving short story by Sergo Kldiashvili.

See also: caucasus; georgia and georgians; mingrelians


Freshfield, Douglas. (1896). The Exploration of the Caucasus. 2 vols. London: E. Arnold.

Hewitt, George. (1996). A Georgian Reader: with Texts, Translation, and Vocabulary. London: SOAS.

Palmaitis, Letas, and Gudjedjiani, Chato. (1985). Svan-English Dictionary. New York: Caravan Books.

Phillipps-Wolley, Sir Clive. (1883). Savage Svanetia. 2 vols. London: R. Bentley and Son.

B. George Hewitt

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