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Article by Çetin Gürsel / Photographs by Mehmet Gülbiz 

 Neighbor of the Abkhazia Republic in the north of Georgia on the border of the Russian Federation. Permanently frozen peaks, villages resisting nature and the flow of time. And fanatics of independence, the Svans. 

At a height of 2,200m from the sea level, Ushguli is the heighest known continuously inhabited village in Europe. 

 The Shihara Mountain serves as a natural border between Georgia and Kabardin-Balkar Autonomous Russian Republic. The Enguri river is fed by the glaciers on the Shihara Mountain and finally passes through the village. As the clouds cover the sun, the tower-houses of the village darken, and the rain falls. The river flows shining like a stream of mercury. 

The most important characteristic of Svaneti is the stone towers in the mountain villages. 

 The oldest examples of these towers, mostly built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, are in the village of Ushguli. Here some of the towers date to the ninth century. Built for defence, they were frequently used as hideaways for months on end during blood feuds between Svan families. At present the towers are not inhabited, but serve the adjoining stone houses as kitchens or ovens. 

Time comes almost to a full-stop at Ushguli. Geographic isolation shapes the Svan culture into an autonomous life style.  

Thousands of years of traditions shape the daily life as well as material objects. The surrounding conditions make the Svans independent and they react harshly to outside intervensions. Blood feuds has taken its toll on Svans more than wars. The black dresses of these women seems to fit the mourning of the unending feuds. 

Once a year the Svans of the mountain villages organize an interesting ceremony in the village cemetery in memory of their dead.  

A day in advance the women prepare many kinds of food, in particular great quantities of meat, cakes and desserts. In addition fresh fruit and vegetables, which are luxury items in the mountain villages, are carried in baskets to the cemetery where each family sets up an impressive feast on the grave of their ancestors. They raise their glasses filled with home-made vodka or white wine in honor of the dead. The women sing laments and weep over the newly deceased and then set up a table on the ground at a distance of 15-20m from the men. 

Svan men raise their glasses, pour a little wine or vodka on the ground for the souls of their ancestors and then drink. Alcohol was considered sacred in ancient cultures. It seemed as though alcohol created a distance between the self and the world, drawing nearer the dead. 
Nights in the village of Ushguli are rather startling under the mystic shadows of the towers. Apart from power lines there is nothing to break the medieval atmosphere. 
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