PAT8CH Mountain view from Datvijvari (Bear Cross) pass with heavy fog rising up from the valley under troubled sky before storm, Khevsureti, Georgia

Land of ghosts and legends

In search of Crusaders in chainmail and a city of the dead in the Caucasus Mountains

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On the eve of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1935, the Jazz-Age globetrotter Richard Halliburton made a pit stop in Tbilisi, the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Georgia and a vibrant meeting place of East and West in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. 

Halliburton had escaped from his state-appointed Intourist guides for long enough to score a massive scoop by interviewing the killer of the Romanov family, Peter Ermakov, in Siberia. The notes from that interview, he claimed, had to be sewn into the coat linings of friends and smuggled across the Soviet border.

While in Tbilisi, Halliburton heard a story whispered in the city’s basement taverns and tea rooms of an event that had taken place during the First World War. In his travelogue Seven League Boots, he writes:

In the spring of 1915, some months after Russia’s declaration of war against Turkey, a band of twelfth-century Crusaders, covered from head to foot in rusty chain armour and carrying shields and broad-swords came riding on horseback down the main avenue [of Tbilisi]. People’s eyes almost popped out of their heads. Obviously this was no cinema company going on location. These were Crusaders — or their ghosts. The incredible troop clanked up to the governor’s palace. ‘Where’s the war?’ They asked. ‘We hear there’s a war’.

They had heard in April 1915 that there was a war. It had been declared in September 1914. The news took seven months to reach the last of the Crusaders. … [Legend] declares that this race came, 800 years ago, from Lorraine, more than 2,000 miles away. The argument is borne out by the fact that their chain armour is in the French style, while their otherwise incomprehensible speech still contains six or eight good German words.

“As yet no historian has found any reason to believe that the legend is not based entirely on fact,” he hedged. Clearly one should take this tale with a hefty lump of salt. But to Halliburton’s credit, he resolved to take a camera and notepad on the days-long trek up the treacherous, icebound road to far Khevsureti, the isolated mountain valley from which these wayward Crusaders supposedly marched.

With crampons strapped to their feet for extra traction, Halliburton and an assistant made it safely to Khevsureti, stumbling upon the surviving holdouts of the tribal culture of the Khevsurs. In villages of crude rock towers clinging to the sides of mountain gorges, these mysterious people waged blood feuds between clans with arson and sword duels, held bardic contests, and honoured the ancient gods and spirits of the mountains. 

Entire villages gathered outside their homes to watch the two strangers pass. The mayor of one Khevsur village put the travellers up for the night, and on a plateau above the locals treated them to a friendly contest between swordsmen bedecked, to Halliburton’s delight, in suits of chainmail. 

No longer did the locals go to battle dressed in this armour, and they had forgotten how to oil and polish the raiment of their ancestors. Yet hanging in the dimly lit corners of shepherds’ cabins and homesteads, Halliburton saw rusty suits of what he took to be old Crusader armour. He fell asleep that night with visions of Godfrey de Bouillon and Richard the Lionheart sallying through his head. 

Awaking in the morning, Halliburton could find no one among the hearty mountain peasantry “alive with the crusader spirit”; none but one, that is: “a bespectacled Soviet commissar,” sent to the mountains “to save the Khevsoorians [sic] from capitalism.” The Bolshevik proudly gave Halliburton a tour of his efforts to Sovietize the local folk, showing off the school and a textbook with pictures of American capitalists brandishing diamond rings and smoking cigars, strangling the proletariat with lengths of stock market ticker tape. The commissar then led a group of Khevsurs in a rendition of The Internationale.

These mountains have long been a litmus test for the great conquerors

Nearly a century later, there is little trace of either commissars or Crusaders in Khevsureti. I began my own journey exploring the region in the summer of 2021 in search of another legend in the mountains of Khevsureti — Anatori, a necropolis lying just three miles from the border with the Russian state of Chechnya. In a country brimming with myth and legend, where every village has its own ruined castle on the hill and a story of a past king or saint to accompany it, remote Khevsureti seemed to be a final, mysterious frontier.

The ancients felt similarly. These mountains have long been a litmus test for the great conquerors. The Caucasus, Marco Polo wrote, is “the country beyond which Alexander could not pass.” For the Greeks and Romans, it was the northeastern limit of their Mediterranean world. 

As our taxi scraped and shuddered its way up towards Khevsureti, I pondered how the memory of the ancient conquerors lives on in the names of the local men. We had commissioned a driver from the streets of Tbilisi named Timur — from Timur the Lame, the fourteenth-century warlord who ravaged the Middle East and brought an end to Georgia’s brief Golden Age, during which Tbilisi held sway over swaths of modern-day Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. 

Our Timur bore a passing resemblance to a swarthier James Mason, salt-and-pepper hair slicked back and a foul-smelling Russian cigarette never far from his hand. On his regular smoke breaks along the way, he walked, just like his namesake, with a pronounced limp — his takeaway, he told me, from a car accident some 20 years ago, just a stone’s throw down the street from Stalin’s birthplace in the town of Gori.

Each year the frosts of October begin a period of total isolation for Khevsureti that lasts until the thaws of April. It being the summer, we could reach Khevsureti’s heart via a six-hour drive from Tbilisi up a road that transitions from bumpy asphalt to gravel to crushed slate and dust. This trail winds its way for miles through the upper reaches of the Caucasus Mountains, a single path alongside staggering cliff faces and precarious drops down to raging, brown rivers below. 

Once we made our final climb to the pass of Datvis Jvari (“Bear’s Cross”), we were almost 9,000 feet above sea level. From this dizzying vantage point on a bare mountaintop, we took in a panoramic view over the grey-and-green, desolate valleys below. We had entered Khevsureti.

Less than 2,000 people call this region home, and they managed to hide themselves quite well in villages at the far end of long gorges and creek beds. For the final hour or so of our drive, we encountered no more than one or two other vehicles on the road, and no structures save for an occasional abandoned shepherd’s hut. Straining my eyes as far as I could see yielded no signs of life — no smokestacks billowing in the distance, no mobile phone towers blinking from distant mountaintops. I could sympathise with Alexander’s stopping here. 

Finally, we pulled into the main settlement of Shatili, home to a few dozen homesteads and guesthouses. Halliburton’s commissar had his way, and today’s Khevsurs have abandoned their cold, stone homes of old in favour of cheaply-built concrete houses. 

We stopped by one of them and a Khevsurian family came to greet us. Soon the family was boiling a pot of khinkali, a delicacy  popular throughout Georgia but with a particular spiritual home here in the mountains. Here is another oddity of history washed up like a starfish in the tidal pool of the Caucasus: these fat, juicy soup dumplings, stuffed with spiced lamb and other meats, gripped by the twisted nub at top and sucked dry for their delicate broth, likely came to Georgia in the saddlebags of Turkish or Mongol invaders in the Middle Ages. The pagans of these mountains, the tradition goes, took the crescent-shaped dumplings and twisted them into the sacred shape of the sun.

Sated, we travelled a mile down a dirt road to view the 20 or so towers of the old village of Shatili, slumbering on a hillside above. The tallest of its grey slate towers, stacked without mortar, jut up 50 or 60 feet from the rock-strewn hillside. We walked through the quiet, overgrown streets which slope steeply up the mountainside. Each time the way was blocked, we trespassed through the deserted living room of a Khevsur tower, climbing up rickety old ladders and ducking beneath the collapsed floors to make our way to the next street level above. 

What would have been a bustling village in Halliburton’s day is desolate now. Above many of the doorways are the shapes of human hands and suns carved crudely into the rock; pagan symbols of gods and spirits that are hundreds of years old. The vestiges of a pantheon still survive here in local folklore and, to some extent, belief, with gods and goddesses of fertility and war intermingled with the memory of saints and historical figures. 

Khevsurs make pilgrimages to the shrines of these gods on hilltops throughout the region, and animal sacrifice still takes place — one local informed me that Khevsur boys kill bulls and dip their hands in the blood as a rite of passage, a kind of second baptism that coexists with the Christian one.

Many of the stranger rituals have died out

Many of the stranger rituals have died out since Halliburton’s time. Young Khevsur paramours were once permitted to meet in ceremonial secrecy and lie together at night, though pregnancy was to be avoided at all costs. In or out of wedlock, the Khevsurs viewed childbirth with great superstition, and women decamped to isolated huts to give birth. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica relates that the husband would then parade around the hut firing off a rifle. After a month of postpartum quarantine, the mother left the hut, which was then set on fire. 

When we turned around at the top of Shatili,  the view stretched back over a few hundred feet of hillside to the road below. Here we gained access to a small plateau with a rock church and an adjacent shrine to the local gods. A nearby graveyard stretched off into the woods, its tombs marked by strange pyramids of slate, stacked like rock cairns. 

We were startled by a bark from an inquisitive dog on a nearby rooftop, followed shortly by his owner, a man in his mid-twenties named Giorgi. Smiling, he invited us to clamber up to his rooftop eyrie for a pot of tea and a view spanning miles into the distance across a valley that has seen countless battles — memorialised in the great Georgian poems which tell how  Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingush and myriad other tribes made their way through Khevsureti, whether to raid for sheep and cattle, bring home slaves, or push further to the Georgian heartland beyond. 

Five miles up the road from Shatili lies a desolate spot that seems ripped from the pages of such a poem, and the object of my search. Here, at an obscure waypoint on the map called Anatori, not a soul could be seen for miles. An overgrown path led to a small group of four or five short, thin houses built from slate, perched on the very edge of a cliff above a swollen river. The mountain poet Vazha Pshavela opens a poem next to these very waters:

The river moans in its dark ravine

Turbid, with grief at its heart.

The mountains too are bowed down,

Laving face and hands in the water

So moans the river at Anatori. As I peered through the small, grated windows of the structures, I saw vaults dug into the ground two or three feet deep, and rows of shelves a few feet off the ground. On some of these were the remains of human skeletons; down below, heaps of bones. Perched on the windowsills of these death-houses were small icons and the remains of melted wax dripped from prayer candles from the locals who still visit.

The tradition, the locals told me, is that a plague swept through Khevsureti at the end of the eighteenth century. What was then the small village of Anatori was home to a few hundred souls; one after another, the villagers began to sicken and die. 

The Anatorians took up a curious practice: when a villager became ill, he would use his last remaining strength to walk to the crossroads outside of town, where he joined his sick neighbours in the building of these crude stone houses — what they likely knew would become their own graves. Then, turning their faces to the sky as Khevsurs have long done before death, the villagers lay down on the rock benches to die. 

Whether they did this in a conscientious attempt to quarantine, as the locals have it, or because of the Khevsurs’ ritualistic anxiety about the body, as the anthropological evidence suggests to me, the real reason behind this strange impulse to build before dying is lost to history.

Back in Shatili, I asked Giorgi about this strange city of the dead. “Those are our ancestors,” Giorgi nodded, and he told me a tale of one young boy who was tending sheep in a neighbouring valley. Returning some time later, he found all of his relatives dead and sealed up in Anatori’s tombs. 

Like that boy from long ago, Giorgi had also returned home to a desolate village and a depopulated Khevsureti. His surname, Chincharauli, points back to a legendary founder of a Khevsurian village. He told me that he was born in Tbilisi to a family that was forcibly removed from Khevsureti during Stalin’s depopulation of the area in the 1950s. Those vibrant communities Halliburton encountered in the 1930s were all but wiped out a few years later by Georgia’s most famous native son, who broke the back of his own homeland.

Giorgi’s uncle first brought him here to see his ancestral lands and his family’s old tower at the age of 15. “I remember that day so well,” Giorgi told me. “The castle-city of Shatili, the soaring mountains: I felt I had stepped into a fairy tale. I liked it so much and felt so good here, I didn’t want to go back.” 

Surrounded by sights and sounds he had only heard of in poetry, folksong, and grandparents’ stories, he became determined to build a new life in the mountains among the abandoned homesteads of his ancestors. He transferred to the tiny high school in New Shatili and began acquainting himself with the traditional lifestyle of the Khevsurs. 

He renovated the crumbling tower that generations of his ancestors grew up in, where he now lives with his wife and runs a small cafe for tourists who pass through. And he remains there to this day, perched atop the roof of the Chincharauli tower, waiting to share stories from Khevsur history and the rich oral tradition.

Saying goodbye to Khevsureti, we followed the little dirt road out, eventually catching sight of the Aragvi river and descending south past the birth-house of Vazha Pshavela in Pshavi into the green valleys of Dusheti; past the holy city of Mtskheta, where the Georgian Kings were crowned beside the shrine of Christ’s Mantle; past where the Aragvi flows into the Mtkvari, Georgia’s greatest river, and sweeps dramatically to the west; past the hill that watches over this union, atop which St. Nino first converted the Georgians in the fifth century; past the low rapids that flow into the capital; past the bridge that Pompey built when his legion marched through Georgia in the first century BC; and finally past the patchwork roofs, the pointed cupolas, the tangled staircases, and the rickety balconies of Old Tbilisi. 

The story of the Khevsurs’ Crusader ancestors is a fable. Yet if a group of Khevsurs did not ride into the capital one day en masse with sabers gleaming in the early days of the First World War, their story is certainly a synthesis of many such experiences throughout Georgian history, of urban Georgians encountering their mountain cousins, of expeditions for honour and for gain. 

The proof is in how the myth repeats itself to this day — its DNA intertwined with Giorgi and Timur and all who call this country home. The national flag, a red-and-white Jerusalem Cross, streamed from the tops of armoured cars that hurtled down desert roads when Georgia fielded the largest contingent of troops per capita in the NATO mission to Afghanistan. Georgian soldiers recalled how Afghani villagers would stop them in the street as they went about their daily patrols and ask, “Are you Crusaders?”

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