Svaneti or Svanetia (Suania in ancient sources) (Georgian: სვანეთი Svaneti) is a historic province in Georgia, in the northwestern part of the country. It is inhabited by the Svans, an ethnic subgroup of Georgians.
Situated on the southern slopes of the central Caucasus Mountains and surrounded by 3,000–5,000 meter peaks, Svaneti is the highest inhabited area in the Caucasus. Four of the 10 highest peaks of the Caucasus are located in the region. The highest mountain in Georgia, Mount Shkhara at 5,201 meters (17,059 feet), is located in the province. Prominent peaks include Tetnuldi (4,974 m / 16,319 ft), Shota Rustaveli (4,960 m / 16,273 ft), Mount Ushba (4,710 m / 15,453 ft), Ailama (4,525 m / 14,842 ft), as well as Lalveri, Latsga and others.
Svaneti has two parts corresponding to two inhabited valleys:
- Upper Svaneti (Zemo Svaneti) on the upper Inguri River; administratively part of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti; main town Mestia
- Lower Svaneti (Kvemo Svaneti) on the upper Tskhenistsqali River; administratively part of Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti; main town Lentekhi
They are separated by the Svaneti Range which is almost as high as the main Caucasus range. Historical Svaneti also included the Kodori Gorge in the adjoining rebel province of Abkhazia, and part of the adjacent river valleys of Kuban and Baksan north of the crest of the Caucasus. Writing in 1848, Bodenstedt said that Upper Svaneti could only be reached by a difficult footpath which was closed in winter.
The landscape of Svaneti is dominated by mountains that are separated by deep gorges. Most of the region which lies below 1,800 meters (5,904 ft) above sea level is covered by mixed and coniferous forests. The forest zone is made up of tree species such as spruce, fir, beech, oak, and hornbeam. Other species that are less common but may still be found in some areas include chestnut, birch, maple, pine and box. The zone which extends from 1,800 meters to roughly about 3,000 meters (5,904–9,840 ft) above sea level consists of alpine meadows and grasslands. Eternal snows and glaciers take over in areas that are over 3,000 meters above sea level. The region is notable for its glaciers and picturesque summits. Svaneti’s signature peak is probably Mount Ushba which towers over the Inguri Gorge and can be seen from many parts of the region.
The climate of Svaneti is humid and is influenced by the air masses coming in from the Black Sea throughout the year. Average temperatures and precipitation vary considerably with elevation. Annual precipitation ranges between 1000 and 3200 mm (39 and 126 inches). The highest amount of precipitation falls on the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The region is characterized by very heavy snowfall in the winter and avalanches are a frequent occurrence. Snow cover may reach 5 meters (16.4 feet) in some areas. In general, the lowest regions of Svaneti (800–1200 meters / 2624–3936 feet above sea level) are characterized by long, warm summers and relatively cold and snowy winters. Middle altitudes (1200–1800 meters above sea level) experience relatively warm summers and cold winters. Areas above 2000 meters above sea level lie within a zone that experiences short, cool summers (less than 3 months) and long and cold winters. Large parts of Svaneti lie above 3000 meters (9840 feet) above sea level, a zone which does not have a real summer. Due to Svaneti’s close proximity to the Black Sea, the region is spared from the extremely cold winter temperatures that are characteristic of high mountains.