The Tsova-Tushians in the Georgian Sociocultural World

The question of the Tsova-Tushians (the Batsbi) has always been the subject of study and polemics in the scientific literature and press. At the end of the 19th century an academician Nickolas Marr wrote about this unique people: «...надо попасть к тушинам, которые являясь билингвами, рядом с усвоенным до степени родного грузинским, говорят на родном тушинском языке. Меня заинтересовало это равнодушие к языку своего племени, правда анекдотично малочисленного, которые помимо известности как прославленных сыроваров, черезвычайно оригинальны по соединению образования с их пастушечьим бытом…, поголовно грамотного, в ряде случаев с высшим образовани..»[Марр, 1916: 13]. This characterization is actual even nowadays. The Tushians are viable, uniquely brave, intellectual, law-abiding and extremely moral people. By means of these characteristic features the Tushians of historical Tsovati left indelible trace in the history of their native country – Georgia.

       Historically, the Tushians inhabited the north-east of the Caucasus Mountains. They lived in four communities: Tsova, Gometsari, Pirikiti and Chaghma. The Tsovians and partially, the Pirikitians led a nomadic life, because a sheep-breeding had always been a leading branch of their economy. Therefore, the Tushians’ villages were built in the mountains (Indurta, Mozarta, Etelta, Nazarta, Tsaro, Shavtskala, Sagirta, Nadirta) and in the valley (Omalo, Khalatsani, Batsara, Birkiani and others – in Pankisi ravine; Bakhtrioni, Tsitsalkure, Mukhrovani, Gurgalchala, Otkhtvala, Aloni, Lapankure and others – in the Alvani Valley). Natural disasters (for example, in 1861 Sagirta (the village of Tsovati) was flooded) stipulated the process of the migration. The population left Tusheti and settled the Alvani Valley, the left bank of the river Alazani. The settled place was sough. Therefore, in the beginning of the 20th century the first “planned” village Alvani was built. Later it was named Zemo-Alvani. Soon afterwards Kvemo-Alvani (a village of the Chaghms) appeared. The Tsova-Tushians have been Orthodox Christians since the day of the adoption of Christianity in Georgia. They are occupied with a sheep-breeding that enables them to acquire enough wealth for living and for “putting” their share in the State Treasury.

The borderlands of Tusheti (and borderlands of all mountainous areas of Georgia) were permanently “filled” with population. Nickolas Marr explained this fact with Georgia’s geopolitical location. The new settlers were hosted and helped by the scanty local population. Throughout the centuries Georgia was attacked by numerous enemies. Georgians had to settle mountainous areas and join the battles from those territories. Mountaineers (especially, the Tushians) fought with exceptional courage. According to the historical data, the Tushians and other mountaineers of the eastern Georgia (Khevsurians, Pshavians, Mtiul-Gudamakrians and Mokhevians) participated in the following battles: King Archil’s (667 – 718) campaigns, King Tamar’s (the 12th -13th centuries) campaigns, the battles against Iranian shahs – Shah Tahmasp (1657) and Shah Abbas (1770), Bakhtrioni battle (1659), Aspindza battle (1770), battles against Agha Mohammad Khan (1795), Caucasian War (1852), Crimean War against the Turks – The Battle of the Choloki (1878) and others [Шавхелишвили, 2001:38].

    Georgians’ participation in Caucasian War (especially, the factor of Imam Shalim’s capture by the Tushians) was very important. A lot of “well-wishers” use this fact as a keystone for opposing Georgians and North-Caucasian neighbors. Moreover, this is a very painful question for both parties. In this case, we have to remember “Lekianiba”, when our northern neighbor permanently “damaged” our country: destroyed Georgian villages, kidnapped population and stole cattle. We have to remember Dagestanian Khans’ secret agreements and their role in Iran’s and Turkey’s attacks against Georgia. A lot of other mistakes stipulated by different reasons and emerged periodically in both parties can be recollected. It’s important, that for one party Georgia was a native country, while for the other is was only a neighbor.    

I believe, that mountaineers and other neighboring tribes have never arisen a question of the identity of the Tsova-Tushians. Everybody knew their origin, their spiritual world and active participation in all Georgia’s issues of the day. In the Tsova-Tushians’ consciousness Georgia was the only native country and the defense of its interests was most valuable for them.

     No historical facts can prove the Tsova-Tushians’ agreement with other parties, even for their personal welfare. They participated in important negotiations and carried out private contacts (The Tushians were at court. The guards of the king were mainly the Tushians.) in the interests of the country. It’s worth mentioning, that the sense of the native country and its love was historically revealed in Tsova and Chaghma Tushians (more pragmatically, than emotionally).

      For the Tushians patriotism meant the defense of the borders of their native country (Georgia), the devotion to the king and state officials, the honorable possession of the title of the strongest mountaineer and the devolution of these characteristic features to the descendants. The Tushians justly assumed, that all of these would stipulate the survival of their traditions and strengthen their spiritual beliefs. Moreover, the destruction of the basement of the country would be prevented. General characteristic features of the Tsova and Chaghma Tushians are: assuredness, morality, justice, hospitability and artless relations with people. Ivane Tsiskarishvili wrote: “… The Tushians are defeated very rarely. Their enemies lose a lot during the fight… The Tushians always demonstrate their superior courage and strength even to the numerous enemies. If you look carefully at this scanty tribe, you will believe in the truth, that it can be nominated as a sample of a private and an unprecedented courage… The Tushians never ask about the number of their opponents – are there many of them or not… They attack the enemy from the first sight… When the village was invaded, even the women encouraged fighters with their songs. Other Caucasian tribes have not got the title of “courageous” like the Tushians. The songs about their brave fellows are created and sung even in Dagestan. The Tushians – famous for their courage, were also well-known for their devotion to Georgian kings. They “formed” the suite of private guards and always accompanied kings during heroic exploits” [Цискаришвили, 1848: 7]. Very interesting notes are made by Besarion Nizharadze: “When the Svans rebelled against Queen Tamar,… She called the Tushians and sent them for calming the rebels. Queen Tamar left one detachment of the Tushians in Svaneti for subordinating the Svans” [Nizharadze, 1962:148-149]. Several toponyms like “the mountain of the Tushians” and “the tower of the Tushians” still exist in the surroundings of the village “Ushguli” in Zemo Svaneti [Шавхелишвили, 2001: 39]. A. Ziserman made an interesting evaluation of the Tushians: «Тушины легендарный народ. Им неизвестен страх; наверно потому, что они защищали свою собственную грузинскую землю; они из покон веков являются храбрецами. Они разумны, деловиты, бесстрашны и предупредительны» [Зиссерманн, 1879: 27].

       The Tushian melodies can be regarded as a very interesting phenomenon. The Tushians (especially, the men) have a characteristic feature, which distinguishes them from other mountaineers, even from the Chaghmians. They are very restrained and tight-lipped when they express emotions. Hence, when they listen to the Tushian melodies they cannot hide them. The manner and techniques of playing these melodies are very simple (they are played on every instrument, even on a pan-pipe). From the first glance, they seem monotonous. Hence, the musicians and the Tushians comprehend every nuance with the greatest exactness and neatly differentiate the melodies. The themes of the songs mainly present a heroic-patriotic genre, which depicts the heroism of the ancestors and their fight against the conquerors of their native country (this material is held in the musical archive of Georgia). The Tushian patriotic ballades usually present an ended subject, which depicts a particular story (for example: the defeat of Lezghians near the village Tsaro, the heroism of Devdris Anta in seizing the Didoels, episodes of Bakhtrioni battle and others). In the given ballades the subject is always transparent. They list the names of Georgian heroes – not only the noblemen (Orbeliani, Cholokashvili, Eristavi, Cherkezishvili and others), but the ordinary people as well (Shvela Shvelaidze, Meti Sagirishvili, Devdris Anta, Shete Gulukhaidze, Zezva Gaprindauli and others). There are a lot of them. They can be regarded as the heroes of Tusheti and the whole Georgia as well.

        The Tushian patriotic ballades are sung during Christian celebrations (Dadaloba, Atengenoba, Lasharoba, Giorgoba, Natlismtsemloba and others), which have been held annually in the following villages: Tsovata, Omalo (in Mtatusheti) and others. Their               leitmotif shows that the Tushians are proud of their heroes, who defended the native land, died in the struggle for it and glorified their ancestors. The ballades also express the belief, that the new generations of the Tushians will similarly glorify Georgia - their native country. It’s worth mentioning, that patriotic songs were sung in the Georgian language, while the songs dedicated to a particular hero were belted out in Tsovian, Chaghmian and Georgian. Here is an extract from the repertoire of a famous narrator and performer of the 20th century Mose Shavkhelishvili:

               “A famous city in Algeti,

                You were surrounded with a chorus of pavilion! (2 times)

                My native country, a holy, holy place,  

                We struggled for you and returned to you!..”[1]

        During a peaceful period of time the Tushians revealed their patriotism and responsibility for the native country with a hard work for its welfare. They were involved in the sheep-breeding. For example, in the 18th -19thcenturies the number of sheep reached 250 thousand. It’s known, that the Tushian breed of sheep was “created” in the 1st century A.D. [Рчеулишвили, 1953: 144]. The last 20 centuries have revealed the greatest work and knowledge, which was put in the development of this branch. Besides reproducing and looking after the sheep, a unique technology of making cheese was created. Moreover, the development of the art of knitting enabled each family and the whole state to earn a good income.

       According to the data of the Georgian historical chronicles, the State Treasury often paid the tribute to the conquerors with sheep. The Tushetian Gouda cheese won a prize in several competitions, which were held in France. There was a great demand of the Tushetian wool in the eastern market. It competed with the wool, which was brought from more developed countries (the blankets and mattresses, which were made from the Tushetian wool were warm, light and durable).

      According to the information given in the chronicles, the Tushians spent their savings on the building of Orthodox temples. The sheep-breeding gave a great opportunity of depositing the savings. The Tushians supported the building of many temples in different towns and villages of Georgia. For example: Alaverdi Cathedral of Saint George, White George (near Telavi), Sameba (in Tbilisi) and a lot of churches, which were built on Alvani valley and in the mountainous area of Tusheti (Beri Sameba, Lashari Djvari, Kopala, Iakhsari, Sameba, Saint George, Tskhrakaris Natlismtsemeli, Kviratskhoveli, the Virgin and others).

         It seems, that the Tushians’ material promotion and courage stipulated the creation of their independent character. They have never been enslaved and divided into social strata, which is depicted in the folk poetry:  

           “The Tushians do not know who is a slave and who is a master;

            They are the sovereigns and the masters of themselves!”[2]

        The significant information about the Tushians’ ritualism is depicted in the poem “The Saints of Tusheti”, which was published in Iv. Bukurauli’s collection in 1895. The poem presents the succession of blessing the saints: firstly, God must be mentioned, than – Nasiskar Giorgi, as a guard of God’s abode and a herald of every new day (Nasiskar> Tsiskar – i (matins)). The third place is occupied by Beri Sameba – this is a holy chapel, which dates back to the 4th century and still exists in Tsovata of Tusheti. Annually, on the first Saturday of August the Tushians visit this place and pray with the hope, that all their requests will reach God and their desired goals will come true. This is one of the first chapels built in the mountains of the eastern Georgia after proclaiming Christianity as a state religion. It is assumed as the holiest and blessed place. In the 17th century during the building of Sameba in the village Alon (nowadays it is called Zemo-Alvani) an alcove of the Tushetian Beri Sameba was put in its basement. Therefore, it is regarded as a blessed church like Sameba. The existence of many ancient Christian monuments in Tsovata responds to  “Kartlis Tskhovreba”, which informs, that when Saint Nino visited Georgia for spreading Christianity, she was met by Kolkhians, Pkhovians, Gudamakrians and the Tsobons (the Tsovs). The poem presents the enumeration of ancient saints according to the strength of their spiritual charity: Lasha-Giorgi – the leader of the army, Kopala – a hero, which repulsed enemies and irreligious persons, Khakhmat-Giorgi – a hero, which avoided an “approaching” danger, Magekh-Giorgi – a defender of mountains, Saint Tevdore -  a hero, which forgave sins and gave charity to the living beings, the sick and the poor, Saint Giorgi – whose strength is so merciful, that at his door everyone can find subsistence and provisions.

       It’s worth mentioning, that there are a lot of Georgian lexical units in the speech (especially, in the special terminology) of the Tsovians and Chaghmians. The study of the Tsova-Tushian reveals, that by means of the conservation of the language, grammatical models and word-forming elements enable us to foresee the ways of cultural-economic development of the Tushian society and to single out the main stages of the formation and development of this branch.

      Therefore, it’s undoubtful, that Tsova-Tusheti, as well as all Tusheti’s regions, played the greatest role in the formation and development of the Georgian sociocultural world.

[1] This song is written on the handmade record. The text is held in the private field recordings of the author of the article. It was recorded by Niko Shavkhelishvili – the son of Mose Shavkhelishvili.

[2] From the field recordings of the author.


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