Images from the Georgia-Chechnya Border, 1970–1980
The nation of Georgia is located between the Black and Caspian Seas. Georgia is a remote periphery for Europe as well as for Asia since its territory spans both of these continents. One of the historical and most remote provinces of Georgia, Khevsureti (405.3 square miles, winter population approximately 3200 people) is located in the central part of the Caucasus mountain range, neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia.
The Russian serviceman and ethnographer Arnold Zisserman who spent 25 years (1842-67) in the Caucasus, believed the exotic group of Georgian highlanders, dwellers of these steep mountains, were descendants of the last Crusaders. The publicity attracted by his opinion renewed the interest in the ethnography of this super-periphery of Europe.
In Zisserman's time, most of the Khevsurs, who were under constant threat of attacks from the North Caucasus, were still forced to live in isolated medieval fortress-villages. The hypothesis that the Khevsurs had a Frankish ethnic background was based on the fact that their folk culture: the material, social and religious practices, greatly resembled the style of the Crusaders. Khevsur men, covered and dressed in chain mail and armed with broadswords, wore garments decorated with crosses. They worshiped flags-crosses and considered themselves permanent members of the army of the sacred flags and guards of Georgian kings. For the Khevsurs a major task was defending the northern borders of their country, as well as protecting and strengthening the folk version of Christianity, the religion of their ancestors.
Up until today the truly peaceful successors of the Caucasian Crusaders carry out some very old folk traditions of their ancestors, viewed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church as "pagan." Through performing these ceremonies, the highlanders are remembering the past on which their sub-ethnic identity has been based. Even in a Soviet period of harsh restrictions against any religious activities, the Georgian highlanders together with the group of local Crusaders—self-made priests, would organize and perform the annual peaceful crusade-pilgrimages. During these pilgrimages they still use the real and symbolic routes of their ancestors' military campaigns. In those places where the important battles of the past have taken place and the small prayer-towers have been built as the signs of victory of flags-crosses, the highlanders replicate fights and liberation of these towers from an enemy. They perform ritual combat-tournaments and horse races on the steep rocky hills.
The curators collected materials for this exhibit during their ethnographic fieldwork. The photo exhibit shows many examples of the folk architecture and artifacts from 1970-1980 that no longer exist today.
The ethnographic film for this exhibit presents one of the highlander festivals in the Gudamaqari gorge. The film shows preparations for the festivity and a 3-day pilgrimage. During this ritual journey, the participants travel from Gudamaqari to their neighboring province Khevsureti to pray and make offerings to the sacred shrines of their ancestors.
The photos for this exhibit were taken by Vakhtang Chikovani, who is also a scriptwriter for the ethnographic film.
For more information about the region see: Georgia's Pankisi Gorge: An Ethnographic Survey by Shorena Kurtsikidze and Vakhtang Chikovani, available at the following web site: http://escholarship.org