Identification. The Svans are one of the dozen or so traditionally recognized ethnic subgroups within the Georgian (Kartvelian) nation. Their homeland (Svaneti) corresponds to the Mestia and Lentekh districts (Russian: raions ) of the Georgian Republic, one of the former republics of the USSR.
Location. Svaneti is a territory of approximately 4,200 square kilometers extending from 59° 40.5′ to 61° E and 42° to 43° 15.5′ N. It is bounded on the north by Kabardo-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia in the Russian Federation, on the west by Abkhazia, on the south by the Georgian provinces of Mingrelia and Lechkhumi, and on the east by the Georgian province of Rach'a. Until the fifteenth century, northern Rach'a was inhabited by Svans as well. Svaneti is a rugged land of towering snow-capped mountains, thick forests, and narrow gorges cut by swift glacier-fed rivers. The two main areas of Svan settlement are along the upper reaches of the Enguri and Tskhenists'q'ali rivers. These are usually referred to as upper and lower Svaneti, respectively. The upper Svaneti is hemmed in on the north by the main range of the Caucasus Mountains, with some peaks in excess of 5,000 meters. A second ridge of mountains, ranging up to 4,000 meters, separates the upper and lower Svaneti. Further south, two other ridges divide the lower Svaneti from the lowlands of western Georgia. Until this century, travel into and out of Svaneti, especially the upper Svaneti, was difficult and often hazardous because of the mountainous terrain, heavy snowfall, and poor roads. During the long winter season, which lasts from October to April, the Svans were effectively cut off from the rest of Georgia. In recent decades the roads have been greatly improved, allowing nearly year-round access, and small airplanes fly a regular route between Mestia and Kutaisi, the main city of western Georgia.
Demography. The present-day inhabitants of Svaneti are, as they have been for many centuries, almost entirely Svans. Some Georgians from elsewhere in the republic and a handful of Russians live in Mestia, the largest village in the upper Svaneti, and in some parts of lower Svaneti. The Svans identify themselves as being of Georgian nationality and are not separately counted in the Soviet census. If one judges on the basis of language, the Svans presently number about 35,000, representing about 1 percent of the Georgian people. Most Svans still live in Svaneti. There are also Svan villages, established about a century ago, in the neighboring parts of Abkhazia. After the tragic winter of 1986-1987, during which several villages in the upper Svaneti were destroyed by avalanches, many Svans were resettled in the Marneuli region to the south of Tbilisi.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Svan language is the smallest of the three languages composing the Kartvelian or South Caucasian Family, one of the three groups of indigenous languages spoken in the Caucasus region. Four Svan dialects have been described. Svan, like the other members of its family, Georgian and Laz-Mingrelian, has a complex pattern of case marking and rich verbal morphology. In terms of phonology, morphophonemics, and lexicon it differs sharply from the latter languages and is believed to have diverged from the ancestral Kartvelian language some three or four millenia ago. The grammar and lexicon of the Svan language reflect long-standing contact with speakers of North Caucasian tongues. It has never been used as a written language. All Svans now speak and write Georgian, and most, especially in the younger generations, are also able to communicate in Russian. Some may know the languages of neighboring ethnic groups (e.g., Mingrelian, Balkar).