In wartimes, when misfortune befell the Georgian highlanders, it was in the fortified buildings or dwelling towers used for defensive purposes where the battle-hardened Khevsurs, who knew no rest from enemies, would find a secure refuge, relative peace and almost the only chance of preventing physical annihilation. Numbers of century-old fortress-towers are still seen standing proudly on the long-suffering soil of Khevsureti and with a haughty gaze witnessing the flow of days, months and centuries into eternity… “Unbeaten” Shatili is the most illustrative, so to say, striking example of a symphony of stone. A cluster of houses put up in stone side by side creates an unforgettable sight. The rusty walls of the fortress-village skillfully designed and embodied by anonymous builders have retained the memory of bygone times when in clashes against enemies the ambitious highlanders used primitive bows and locally forged short swords instead of rifles and gunpowder.
“Rust adorns thee, sword, and mould’ring
Is thy scabbard once so fine.
Where is thy master’s arm of iron,
Where is that flashing gleam of thine?”
(“The Sword’s Complaint” by Vazha Pshavela)
The strongholds were erected on suitable sites, reasonably chosen from a strategic point of view. The solid and rigid bedplate provided a firm guarantee of stability and durability of a structure built for defensive purposes. The North-Caucasian stone masons along with the local builders were actively engaged in the construction of defense towers in the mountainous areas of Eastern Georgia (in Georgian: mtianeti). They were known for their skill in the art of lifting stones by means of winches and erecting stable and straight stone walls; hence their practical knowledge was in much demand in the territories of neighbor tribes as well. The exterior view of the completed building gives a clear idea of its maker’s distinctive character, style, individuality and creative genius. In Khevsureti, as well as in other upland regions of Georgia, the number of fortified towers was decided on the order of pragmatic approaches. The strategic function of such structures was motivated by the defense and fortification of the county’s boundary zones. The more frequent surprise attacks of enemies were expected, the more strongholds were built by the highlanders in certain gorges, settlements, communities. In this respect mention should be made of the locality referred to as Migmakhevi in Khevsureti, which comprised several villages (now former settlements). The dwellings built on the slopes of a steep mountain from afar look like a severe complex of medieval towers. Mutso deserves special mention thanks to its distinguished structural design and architectural style making most evident its impregnability and proofness. This is a striking unity of fortified towers, dwellings, cult monuments and burial vaults, a knot of human made harmony of stone structures enclosed by the enceinte having turned into ruins as a result of bygone misfortunes. One should see its magnificence with one’s own eyes, as there are no words to describe this historical complex of former habitations. A visitor heading for Shatili will without a doubt catch sight of the very impressive fortresses of Lebaiskari, Kistani and Qachu. To each of them popular legends, tales are associated, folk songs replete with heroic pathos and narratives rich in fantastic details… A fortress, according to its symbolic meaning, is a material level connecting the sky with the earth. Judging by its mythical interpretation, a fortress is a cosmic support of the universe. A mythological concept of the mediumistic mission of fortress is evidently expressed in one of the outstanding specimens of folk epic “Shuris Tsikhe” (“The Fortress of Envy”). The poem states that the fortress of Khmala (Khmalas tsikhe in Georgian) was invisibly connected to the sky by means of a nine-fold chain (“shiba)” fastened to the very top of a poplar. Angels would sit on the chain and sing sweetly. And when a traitor revealed a secret of cutting off the anointed poplar to the enemy and the treacherous attempt took effect, the chain broke and the fortress darted up in the sky, hissing like a snake… The poem “Shuris Tsikhe” deals with the apocalyptic process of the gradual weakening and failure of the theocratic rule characteristic to the highland communities. Fortress-towers – the organic attributes of the mountain dwellers’ everyday reality, having little by little lost their actual function, turned into the architectural “ornaments” of the mountainous relief and are taken as remarkable examples of the art of building. But formerly, when watch towers came into being at the entries of the deep, narrow gorges, on the steep, rocky slopes of inaccessible mountains or on the sun-burnt plateaus, those sturdy architectural monuments were used according to their intended, i.e. not in the least aesthetic but practical purpose… Among the strongholds standing firmly as before on the soil of Khevsureti, either those fractured or lying in ruins, markworthy are the Feraulta tsikhe (tsikhe – Georgian for “fortress”) in Khakhmati, Shukiauris tsikhe in Akhiela and Tinibeqais tsikhe in Batsalgo. Many of exciting sacral stories and incredible adventures are related to these citadels. In Khevsur folk poetry and ethnographical sources dealing with the historical themes, a fortress-tower is the same personage of full value in the plot as a man of courage, the master and guardian of the very stronghold, who, at the will of God, is fated to serve his people valiantly and die unhesitatingly in the fight against the enemy if his native land demands it.