The Georgian Pankisi Gorge to which we’d like to invite you is situated in the Akhmeta region of Kakheti, i.e. in the north-eastern part of Georgia, bordering with Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Azerbaijan.
Kakheti stretches eastwards from Tbilisi, along the Iori and Alazani Rivers. It is composed of Outer Kakheti (Gare Kakheti) located along the Iori river (Iori Plateau) south of the Gombori Mountains, which slide into the Iori Plateaux and the Inner Kakheti (Shida Kakheti) embracing the valley of the Alazani River, 160-kilometers long and 20 to 30 kilometres wide. From the north side the green Alazani Valley lies at the foot of the High Caucasus, whose peaks reach up as high as over 3 thousand metres. The highest mountain in the middle range of the High Caucasus is Mount Kazbek (5046 m a.m.s.l.). The highest peak in the vicinity of Pankisi is Tebulos-mta (4494 m a.m.s.l.), located on the Georgian-Russian border. The mountain slopes are covered with hornbeam and hornbeam-oak forests. Higher up there are beech forests, which transform into mountain meadows, alpine and subalpine, at the end of which there are bare rocks and mounds of stones of the main mountain ridge of the High Caucasus.
Historically, Kakheti is one of Georgia’s most important regions. It has always been an integral part of Georgia. Kakheti is strongly connected with the early days of Christianity in Georgia, adopted as early as in the 4th century. Among the region’s landmarks are 7 monasteries carved in a rock near Sagarejo and rock caves covered with cave paintings in Udano, whose founder was a fugitive from Syria, a 6th-century Monophysite monk named David. The Ninocminidi Cathedral and a monastery in Ikalt, where the Academy of Philosophy was founded in the 11th century and where a Georgian bard named Shota Rustaveli studied in all probability, the author of the most famous Georgian poem entitled “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, date back to that period. In Georgia’s golden age during the reign of Queen Tamara (12th-13th century) many castles, strongholds, cities and Christian temples were built in Kakheti, of which the Alaverdi Cathedral is the most renowned in Georgia.
The Alaverdi Cathedral is a place where not only Georgians but also Georgian highlanders and Pankisi Kists come on pilgrimage. During Queen Tamara’s reign in Pankisi and in the adjacent areas there was a duchy named Torgwa Pankeli (its name was derived from the name of a Georgian aristocrat, Tamara and her son’s courtier). There are still many remnants of the duchy in the shape of fortifications, strongholds, temples, turrets across the gorge and its surroundings.
Kakheti is a place inhabited by a number of fascinating ethnographic groups, of which Georgian highlanders are of particular interest. They are: Khewsur, Tush, Pshav, Mtiul and Mokhev people. During Georgia’s stormy history lasting several centuries in this region some ethnic groups settled down such as: Ossetians, Azeris, Turkmens, Arabs, Armenians, Avars, Laz people, Greeks, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and last but not least the Kists, the descendants of the Ingushetians and Chechens.
The historic and administrative centre of Kakheti is Telavi, founded in the 2nd century.
From the 10th century until the 18th century it was the seat of Kakheti dukes and kings. In the city centre there is a stronghold surrounded by walls and towers, within which there is a king's palace (now: a museum and Institute of Pedagogy). In the vicinity of the walls stands a monument of Erekle II, King of Kakheti and Kartli, who reigned during one of the most difficult periods in Georgia’s history. At that time the Georgian Treaty between Georgia and Russia was signed in 1783, resulting in several destructive Tatar and Persian incursions and leading to the incorporation of eastern Georgia (1801) and later western Georgia (1805) by Russia for over 200 years (in violation of the treaty’s provisions).
Those who take a breather nearby the king’s monument are deeply affected by the panorama stretching down to the Alazani Valley and the Pankisi Gorge, bordering with the High Caucasus summits.
When one reaches the gorge the view is even more spectacular. From all towns situated in the Pankisi Gorge, providing the weather is fine, one can clearly see the distant summits of the High Caucasus, which high up often display snow.
It is also worth mentioning the fact that Kakheti is known across Georgia as the kingdom of Georgian vineyards and wines, fruit orchards, wheat and maize fields, as well as tobacco and nut plantations. In the summer and early autumn two-wheel carts carrying crops, usually drawn by donkeys, can often be seen. Paraphrasing a saying by a 19th-century Georgian poet named Akaki Cereteli: “Those who don’t know Kakheti, don’t know Georgia”, one may say: “Those who haven’t seen the Pankisi Gorge, have not seen the real High Caucasus valleys!
[A general map of Georgia with Pankisi marked on it ]
The Pankisi Gorge
The Pankisi Gorge is located in the Valley of the Alazani River, which runs from the High Caucasus, and near Pankisi becomes a rapid mountain river.
From the south the gorge borders with the Tian Valley and the valley of the upper Aragvi River, where Khevsur people live (Barisakho is the most important village); from the east – with the high-mountain Tusheti Valley.
The entry to the Pankisi Gorge is via a route coming from Tbilisi through the Gambori Pass, leading to Telavi, the administrative and cultural centre of Kakheti, and later through seemingly never-ending rural areas covered in green vineyards and orchards to Akhmeta, the centre of the region located in the valley of the Alazani and Ilto Rivers. On the left bank of the Alazani River sit the ruins of the Bakhtrioni stronghold.
From Akhmeta the road runs northwards (bending slightly eastwards), directly to the gorge.
The first villages in the gorge are inhabited by Georgian highlanders (Pshavs) and small groups of Ossetians. The first village is Matani; there’s a stronghold, old churches and a palace of the national hero named Kakuca Czolokaszwili. There are less vineyards and orchards, and limestone shows white on the steep slopes. The area surrounding Matani is covered in oak forests. Behind Matani there are Bakhloweri and Ossetian Koreti; then Pshav Sakobiano, Dzinubani, and finally Kvareldzchali. A distinctive feature between the Pshav-Ossetian part of the gorge and the one belonging to the Kists is a water dam and a bridge across Alazani. On its level, on the left side of Alazani (with reference to the High Caucasus in the north) begins Duisi, a central Kist village. Here the valley starts narrowing, and the houses get closer to one another.
Duisi is the biggest village, an administrative centre of Pankisi and the seat of the representative of Akhmeta’s local authorities. Spanning along the road and the river, Duisi resembles a street village. All other Kist villages look alike. In Duisi there are two mosques, schools, a hospital, a culture centre, a UNHCR bureau, a roofed bazaar, some groceries and other shops, a hairdresser's etc.
On the hills around Duisi sit ruins of two Georgian Christian temples (Khomi and Khorbalo), as well as remnants of the Baltagori fortifications and stronghold.
Duisi slides into other Kist villages running along the Alazani River. They are: Jokolo, Birkiani and Dzibakhevi. From Duisi, in the direction opposite to the river, behind an amphitheatre located on a hill, runs a road to a village situated alongside Duisi called Dedisperuli (Kakliani). The last village, Dzibakhevi, reaches the mountain gorge called Hadori, from where mountain tracks begin: Sakisto (Batana), Lamazur (Kochadala) and one going to the source of Alazani-Borbalo.
On the right side of Alazani (with reference to the High Caucasus range in the north) one has to cross the above mentioned dam to the other side. There are villages mostly inhabited by the Kists. A few Ossetian families still live in the first four villages (Kvemo Chalacani, Shua Chalacani, Zemo Chalacani and Dumasturi), even though the places are dominated by the Kists. Kvemo Chalacani leads northwards to Dumasturi, and Dumasturi leads to a Kist village called Omalo, exclusively inhabited by the Kists. It is in Omalo where mountain tracks such as Khorajo-Chkhatana-Nakerali begin.
The climate in most parts of the mountainous Alazani Valley is mild, similar to that of the southern foot of the Italian Alps. In the parts of the valley higher up, including the Pankisi Gorge, the climate is slightly more severe, and the temperature is a few degrees lower.
The best time for visiting Pankisi begins in late spring (starting at the end of May). We highly recommend summer, however! At that time one can enjoy mountain trips in the High Caucasus and therapeutic baths in Alazani, organised by Makvawa Margochvili. Early spring in Pankisi is quite enchanting too. It’s warm and grape harvest begins. It’s possible to go on outings in search of chestnuts on the hills covered in oaks and chestnuts.