Thursday, 2 September 2010

Book lovers' special

The last thing I expected to find in Mestia, a Svan town of about 1,500 people hidden behind the gloomy mountains of the High Caucasus, was a stunning collection of illuminated bibles and manuscripts.
Mestia is more widely known for its defensive towers: in the old days, every family in Georgia's Svaneti region had one, due to a long history of blood feuds. The towers still define the Mestia skyline, giving the overall impression of a tribe of warriors rather than book-lovers:

And this is what the towers looked like one the inside (note the drinking horns and cups in the alcove):

As it turns out, the fighting, drinking, feuding Svans also managed to produce (or import) some the world's most beautiful books. Maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising given that Georgia was one of the first countries to become Christian, and its monasteries were full of monks painstakingly copying the bible by hand. But Svaneti is so remote, and the climate so harsh, that I still don't quite understand how all those ancient bibles got there (any comments welcome).
Below is the Book of Labskali, dating from the ninth century, and another, more recent bible; there were at least half a dozen in the museum:

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