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  • Folk Housing Expedition in the Caucasus
  • Scott S. Brown, Ph.D.

In summer 2014, I visited the village of Mestia in the Svaneti province, which lies in the Caucasus Mountains in the northwestern portion of the Republic of Georgia. A prominent feature on the cultural landscape of this and other villages in this region are the unique stone towers that accompany the traditional dwellings of the Svan people. These medieval-era housing compounds, of which the defensive towers form a distinctive component, thus are referred to commonly as “tower houses” (UNESCO 1992–2018). The isolation provided by the rugged, mountainous geography has allowed the preservation of these folk architectural structures, which have been included on the United Nations World Heritage List since the 1970s (UNESCO 1992–2018).

Despite the remoteness and ruggedness of the Caucasus region, traditional folk landscapes are becoming ever more a rarity in this era of globalization. For this reason, I embarked on a journey through the Caucasus during the summer of 2014 to assess the extent of preservation of vernacular—or folk—architecture, as I have done in many other regions of the world. Vernacular architecture is one of the symbols of material culture that is often employed in understanding regions and places and the people that live within them. The folk house serves as a clear expression of learned, collective human behavior, what we define as culture. Thus, it is a symbol of cultural expression (Rapoport 1969). It also serves as an expression of cultural adaptation within the environmental context (Brown 1999). To distinguish different dwelling types and to understand their regional variation, it is necessary to focus on the geometric form of the house. This includes the overall layout as well as the three-dimensional form, or shape, of the structure (Kniffen 1965). These factors and how they differ from one place to another, among different peoples, are what help us better understand and appreciate the geographic expression of culture.

Svaneti is but one of many areas within the Caucasus region that reflects the vast ethnic diversity that continues to shape the cultural landscapes throughout this highly fragmented region. It almost seems that each valley has its own ethic group, each with its distinctive language, food, music, architecture, and other customs. Linguistically, the Svan along with most ethnic Georgians, speak a language belonging to the Kartvelian family, a linguistic family distinct from the Eastern Slavic languages common among other ethnic groups in the broader geographic region of eastern Eurasia (Tuite 1992). The Caucasus is a region that is not only significant for its recent tumultuous political history but a region which is long renowned for being perhaps the most [End Page 221] ethnically diverse in the world and thus stands out as a leading example of the “shatter belt” concept. The Caucasus region more than adequately fits the shatter belt definition in that it boasts the greatest amount of diversity in terms of its complex and often violent history, numerous languages, multiple religions, and consequentially its highly conflictive ethnic groups (Ostergren and Le Bossé 2011). The rugged topography and numerous isolated mountain valleys within the Caucasus mountains combined with its strategic location between Russia to the north and Turkey and Iran to the south have worked together to make the this one of the most politically volatile regions in the world, in both past and present.

The region’s current political geography and its overall situation between the larger giants of Russia, Turkey and Iran further reflect its historic position as a cultural crossroads. From ancient Scythia and Persia to the more recent Ottoman Turkish Empire and the Soviet Union and from the early days of Zoroastrianism to the onslaughts of Christendom and Islam, the Caucasus region has always played a pivotal role in the political, religious and cultural rivalries and the conquests of an endless succession of empires and civilizations for many millennia (Ostergren and Le Bossé 2011). This rich cultural diversity and history is most beautifully manifested, still to this day, on the region’s cultural landscapes, from its historic churches, monasteries, mosques and ethnic religious shrines to its great variety of traditional folk buildings that remain visible on the landscape. The...


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