The land of forgotten songs

Horsemen in dreamlike landscapes, men leading a bull to the church gate, with burning candles on its horns, young girls singing ancient songs with inward-looking glance. And towers everywhere, rising in groups or alone, closed, dark towers. Aaron Huey has been coming back for sixteen years to Svaneti, for thirteen years he has been photographing this region. Ten of his photos were published in the October 2014 edition of National Geographic as illustrations to Brook Larmer’s beautiful essay on Svaneti, but in his portfolio he has five times more.

Chanters of St. Panteleimon: Aslanuri Mravaljmier. Greeting song

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“Over the course of history many powerful empires – Arab, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman – sent armies rampaging through Georgia, the frontier between Europe and Asia. But the home of the Svans, a sliver of land hidden among the gorges of the Caucasus, remained unconquered until the Russians exerted control in the mid-19th century. Svaneti’s isolation has shaped its identity – and its historical value. In times of danger, lowland Georgians sent icons, jewels, and manuscripts to the mountain churches and towers for safekeeping, turning Svaneti into a repository of early Georgian culture.

In their mountain fastness the people of Svaneti have managed to preserve an even older culture: their own. By the first century B.C. the Svans, thought by some to be descendants of Sumerian slaves, had a reputation as fierce warriors, documented in the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo. By the time Christianity arrived, around the sixth century, Svan culture ran deep – with its own language, its own densely textured music, and complex codes of chivalry, revenge, and communal justice.

If the only remnants of this ancient society were the couple of hundred stone towers that rise over Svan villages, that would be impressive enough. But these fortresses, built mostly from the 9th century into the 13th, are not emblems of a lost civilization; they’re the most visible signs of a culture that has endured almost miraculously through the ages. The Svans who still live in Upper Svaneti – home to some of the highest and most isolated villages in the Caucasus – hold fast to their traditions of singing, mourning, celebrating, and fiercely defending family honor. «Svaneti is a living ethnographic museum,» says Richard Bærug, a Norwegian academic and lodge owner who’s trying to help save Svan, a largely unwritten language many scholars believe predates Georgian, its more widely spoken cousin. «Nowhere else can you find a place that carries on the customs and rituals of the European Middle Ages.»”

Zedashe Ensemble: Raidio. Song for bull sacrifice

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“Going about his chores in his traditional woolen camp, Kaldani embodies the persistence of Svan culture – and the peril it faces. He is one of the few remaining fully fluent speakers of Svan. He is also one of the last village mediators, who have long been called upon to adjudicate disputes ranging from petty theft to long-running blood feuds. The obligation to defend family honor, though slightly tempered today, led to so many vendettas in early Svan society that scholars believe the stone towers were built to protect families not just from invaders and avalanches but also from one another.

In the chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union, blood feuds returned with a vengeance. «I never rested,» Kaldani says. In some cases, after negotiating a blood price (usually 20 cows for a murder), he brought feuding families to a church and made them swear oaths on icons and baptize one another. The ritual, he says, ensures that the families «will not feud for 12 generations.»”

Mzetamze Ensemble: Iavnana. Healing song

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“The song of love and vengeance begins softly, with a lone voice tracing the line of an ancient melody. Other voices in the unheated room off Mestia’s main square soon join in, building a dense progression of harmonies and counter-melodies that grows in urgency until it resolves in a single note of resounding clarity.

This is some of the world’s oldest polyphonic music, a complex form that features two or more simultaneous lines of melody. It predates the arrival of Christianity in Svaneti by centuries. Yet none of the musicians in the room this autumn afternoon is over 25. When the session ends, the young men and women spill out into the square, chatting and laughing and air kissing – and thumbing their mobile phones. «We’re all on Facebook,» says Mariam Arghvliani, a 14-year-old girl who plays three ancient stringed instruments (including an L-shaped Svan wooden harp) for her youth folk ensemble, Lagusheda. «but that doesn’t mean we forget our heritage.» Still, her talent might have withered, along with Svan musical tradition, were it not for a youth program launched 13 years ago by Svaneti’s charismatic cultural crusader, Father Giorgi Chartolani.

Sitting in his church’s graveyard, Chartolani recalls the post-Soviet tumult that endangered a culture already weakened by nearly seven decades of Communist suppression. «Life was brutal then,» he says, stroking his long beard. The priest nods at the tombstones, some etched with the images of young men killed in feuds. «Villages were emptying out, our culture was disappearing,» he says, noting that 80 out of 120 known Svan songs have disappeared in the past two generations. «Something had to be done.» His program, which has taught traditional music and dance to hundreds of students like Arghvliani, was, he says, «a light in the darkness.»“

The Lagusheda Ensemble in Stary Sącz, Poland, on 1 June 2014

In the video composed by the National Geographic, Aaron Huey talks about how he got to Svaneti as a backpacker student, how he stayed with a family that “adopted” him, and how he fell in love with this land and these people, to be able to make such intimate images of them.

“The first time I went to Svanetia I was not planning in going to Svanetia. I wasn’t a photographer yet, I was a backpacker. But this is the story that made me a photographer. I met a German linguist who told me about a place where people still spoke a language that had never been written, that was surrounded by 17-18 thousand foot peaks, so this German linguist drew a map on a napkin for me, and I transferred it into my journal, and I left the next day. And on the bus ride into the mountains a woman turned around on me after about two hours, and said: «Where are you going?» I told this woman I’d camp when the bus stops at the end of the road. And she just looked at me, and she said «No, kid. Please, don’t do that.» And she took me with her and she took me to a wedding.

These stories are not just about making pretty frames. We tell the stories of entire peoples. So if we do the story right, we preserve those things, you know. That’s what our job is. To preserve that poetry. So many people have never heard of Svanetia, or this region of the Georgian Republic, or this people, the Svans, this may be the only thing they ever read about this people. And I think that’s what I look for now in all of my projects.”

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