The Svans are usually identified with the Soanes mentioned by Greek geographer Strabo, who placed them more or less in the area still occupied by the modern-day Svans. The province had been a dependency of Colchis, and of its successor kingdom of Lazica (Egrisi) until AD 552, when the Svans took advantage of the Lazic War, repudiated this connection and went over to the Persians. The Byzantines wanted the region, for if they secured its passes, they could prevent Persian raids on the border areas of Lazica. With the end of the war (562), Svanetia again became part of Lazica. Then, the province joined the Kingdom of Abkhazia to form a unified monarchy which was incorporated into the Kingdom of Georgia in the early 11th century. Svanetia became a duchy (saeristavo) within it, governed by a duke (eristavi). The province’s Orthodox culture flourished particularly during the Georgian “golden age” under Queen Tamar (r. 1184-1213), who was respected almost as goddess by the Svanetians. The legend has it that the duchy was annually visited by Tamar. The Svans had been known as fierce warriors for centuries. Their inflatable war banner was named Lemi (Lion) because of its shape.
The marauding Mongols never reached Svanetia and, for a time, the region became a cultural safe house. Following the final disintegration of the Kingdom of Georgia in the 1460s, fighting broke out for controlling the province. Part of Upper Svanetia formed an independent principality under the Princes Dadeshkeliani, a branch of the Gelovani family, while Lower Svanetia, originally ruled by the Princes Gelovani, was temporarily usurped and subdued by the Mingrelian princes Dadiani. Facing serious internal conflict, Prince Tsioq’ Dadeshkeliani of Svanetia signed a treaty of protectorate with the Russian Empire on November 26, 1833. Difficult to access, the region retained significant autonomy until 1857, when Russia took advantage of the dynastic feud in Svanetia and effectively abolished the principality’s autonomy. In 1875, the Russians toughened their rule by imposing additional taxes. Protests ensued, and Russia deployed troops against the province. Despite having suffered heavy losses, the Russian army units eventually crushed the rebels burning their stronghold Khalde to the ground in 1876.
Part of the Russian governorate of Kutais, Svanetia was divided into two raions (districts) — Mestia (former Sethi) and Lentekhi — under the Soviet rule. The unsuccessful anti-Soviet Svanetian Uprising took place in the region in 1921.
Mestia, c. 1890s