Photos (and travels) by Robert Cooper; text by Paddy Gidney
For almost all of human history, the Caucasus mountains have been basically inaccessible to Europeans. The ancient Greeks believed the range was the literal end of the earth – the place where Zeus chained Prometheus to have his liver pecked out until the end of time – and it was one of the only pockets of land that the Mongols left untouched when they washed over into Europe in the 13th century.
On the southern slopes of these peaks, perched on the remote plain of Alvan in the far northeast of the peculiar Republic of Georgia, lie two secluded villages (Zemo and Kvemo Alvano) whose existence you were, up until now, almost certainly unaware of. Every year, the residents of these two tiny communities – a people known as the Tush, who have inhabited the region, mostly herding sheep, for as long as we have historical records – gather together for a festival called Zezvaoba, where the central attraction is a notoriously fierce 4km horse race that is open to any man, woman or child brave enough to risk themselves and their steed.
This year, Flâneur was delighted that our one and only foreign correspondent, the intrepid Robert Cooper (whose base of operations is ordinarily Tblisi), managed to secure front seat tickets to this extraordinary spectacle, which he has documented in rich – and, at times, gory – detail below.
The Zezvaoba is actually a funerary festival, held in honor of Zezva Gaprindauli, a warrior who supposedly led the Tush in battle alongside Georgian armies to defeat the Persians at the battle of Bakhtrioni in 1659.
Before the race can begin, each rider must make a brief toast to the fallen hero, fill their drinking horn with wine or beer, and then drain it completely, pouring the last few dregs over the mane of their horse for good luck.
Children of any age are permitted to enter the race, and often do. Most Tush boys are skilled horse riders, and is not unheard of for such a youth to win the tournament (you’ll have to wait until the end of this piece to see what happened this year).
Delegations of riders arrive from all over north-eastern region of Kakheti to compete in the Zezvaoba. In past years, there have even been representatives from the Muslim Kist community of the infamous Pankisi Gorge (a region to the south of Alvan which was, for a time, notorious for sustaining bands of Chechen terrorists, and which eventually had to be combed through – ridge by ridge – in a large joint operation involving Georgian and U.S special forces)
The prize for first place changes from year to year – this time it included a sheep and a pair of woolen socks, among other objects of desire – but the main reward is always the right to parade around smugly with the sacred Tush banner of victory, called the bairaghi, extracting praise and respect from your thwarted competition.
The race is only a few kilometers long, but the riders push their horses to the absolute limits of their strength, and it can sometimes prove to be too much for the animals. This particular horse was, thankfully, restored to health following its exhausted collapse just moments from the finishing line.
The winner of the tournament this year was indeed a Tush boy, pictured here looking as though he’s just ascended to full manhood.
A special thanks also to Alex Bainbridge, whose extensive local knowledge was invaluable in putting this piece together.