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GEORGIA - RESEARCH IN THE CAUCASUS BY DAMON DE LASZLO

HOW DID THE KESELO FOUNDATION COME ABOUT

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For an answer we quote from a brochure called "Towers of the Caucasus" written a few years ago by Hendrik Hooft:
 
"Travelling through the country in an old Soviet army jeep, we met many people and some opportunities came our way".
 
"When we got stuck in the mountains of Tusheti, a captain of the Georgian borderguards gave us shelter and help. We discovered that he had studied anthropology and had led a museum in Tibilisi. He had gone back to his native village in Tusheti, Omalo, where his ancestors had been chieftains. After independence, the government had asked him to organize the local administration and set up the department of border guards. Over the years he had collected antiquities and objects of ethnographical interest. The top floor of his simple village house had been turned into a museum with a substantial library. He showed us bronze axes from the time of the Homeric heroes, altar stones with pagan symbols, traditional farming implements, local costumes and carpets. Listening to him, we saw the history of Tusheti and of Georgia unfold before us. The thesis, which he passionately defended, was that peaceful co-existence had prevailed, for most of the time, between the different tribes in the many valleys of the High Caucasus. How did they manage to live together, what were the rites and traditions which helped to keep the peace before the era of borderguards?"
 
"He took us to the old village of Omalo, and its fortress called Keselo: forty picturesque houses, for the most part abandoned, at the foot of an acropolis consisting of many towers, some still high and slender, all roofless, most of them in ruins".
 
"Why towers" I asked our officer-anthropologist "if people here lived peacefully together?"
 
He replied that these defence towers had been a temporary anomaly. They had become a necessity only after the invasions of the Mongols, when the tribes to the north, in Chechnya and Dagestan, had been converted to Islam and for a century or so had forgotten the traditions of peaceful neighbourly relations. These were resumed in the eighteenth century. Since then the towers had been used for domestic purposes. To this day, he told us, master-builders and stone masons from across the border with Russian Dagestan would come to build the traditional Tusheti houses, from dry-stone without mortar, roofed with stone slabs".
 
My real estate past got the better of me and I asked him what the reconstruction of a tower would cost. After all, the stones of the collapsed walls were still lying around, Dagestan was only a few hours away on foot, his borderguards would, I assumed, let the masters and workmen slip through, the area was surrounded by dense forests and Omalo boasts the presence of a sawmill. Before we realized what we were in for, we had committed ourselves to the reconstruction of three of the thirteen towers".
 
"Back in Canada I sent the money to the account of a brother of the officer- anthropologist, who turned out to be an engineer of skilifts and cable cars. The two brothers, and a fellow officer of the borderguards, mobilized all resources necessary for the reconstructive attack on the fortress of Keselo".
 
"In the summer of 2001, thirty young men, and the legendary master-builders from Dagestan, camped in the empty houses of Keselo where the Idoidze brothers have their ancestral homes".
 
The skilift brother had a railway built from tree trunks. On the wooden rails a car was moved by a cable attached to a windlass, driven by a diesel generator. This car had been put together from bits and pieces of abandoned kolkhoz machinery lying around in the fields of Omalo. With this Zorba-like contraption, stone, beams and boards were hoisted from a spot at the foot of the fortress which could still be reached by trucks.
 
"When we arrived in September, the first thing we saw when we entered the plateau of Omalo, was the fortress of Keselo with three new towers, sharply outlined against the sky. The village had changed aspect; hope for the future, cast in stone, could be seen whenever people raised their eyes".
 
"That fall, we incorporated a charitable foundation, called Keselo. The Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for the fortress, agreed that our foundation has the perpetual right to use and manage all towers which the foundation restores. We had, in fact, discussed our intentions with the head of the Department of Ancient Monuments before we went ahead. The department gave us architectural drawings of all the towers and a plan of renovation that had been prepared in the last years of Soviet times but had remained in the drawers of the department for lack of funds".
 
"Last year the Foundation bought a piece of land at the bottom station of the "Keselo express", where we want to build a small museum, to which Nugzar Idoidze will transfer his collection".
 
"We have bought two other houses close by and want to use them as guesthouses for visitors".
 
"The largest of the renovated towers has been made habitable. Local craftsmen have made simple, traditional furniture and women from the village have knotted some Tusheti rugs for the floors and walls of this tower. It even has running water, a toilet and a shower, a model of what can be done with these primitive towers".
 

AIMS FOR THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE OF THE KESELO FOUNDATION

 
The Foundation wants to commission the writing of a guidebook of Tusheti, as no such thing exists at present. The cost for 1000 copies, in English, is estimated at US $ 6000.
 
A further two towers of Keselo are to be restored. The funds necessary for one tower have been assured and the work is planned for the summer of 2004. The Foundation is looking for a grant of US $ 7000 to renovate the other tower.
 
Land at the foot of the fortress has been acquired for a small museum, to house the collection of over one thousand objects of Nugzar Idoidze. An architect has made drawings for the construction of a building in the local style. US $ 25,000 has now to be raised for this project.
 
Negotiations have been started to acquire some ruined houses in old Omalo. The Foundation is looking for sponsors, interested in taking a long lease, or buying full ownership, of these houses which will be restored back to their original form of dom-bashnjas, three-storeyed tower-houses. Two tower-houses, already bought privately, will be restored in the summer of 2004.
 
The costs of buying the land varies between US $ 1000 and $ 2000, the cost of rebuilding will be $ 10,000, including basic amenities. Such dom-bashnjas will make a romantic home for those who want to be close for a while to the natural beauties of the Caucasus and the living traditions of the Tush shepherds and villagers, the last semi-nomads of Europe.
 
 
 
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