By Clément Girardot via religionunplugged.com
27 Aug 2021
PANKISI, Georgia— Off the beaten path and between the thickly forested Caucacus mountains bordering Russia and the fertile wine-producing lowland of Georgia is an emerging trail for backpackers and tourists to the world’s second-oldest Christian country.
This mountainous green landscape of the Pankisi valley on the eastern fringe of Georgia is home to about 6,000 Kists, an ethnic Muslim group that migrated across the mountain range two centuries ago and is now scattered in six villages built along the banks of the river Alazani.
The Pankisi Valley in eastern Georgia.
While Kists share many cultural features with their Georgian Orthodox Christian neighbors, they remain distinct in their religious beliefs. Like the closely related Chechens who live up north in the Russian Federation, they are followers of Sunni Islam and recently attracted media attention for birthing one of the Islamic State’s top commanders.
After more than two decades struggling with a post-Soviet economic recession, destabilization brought on by the Chechen independence movement, the Second Chechen War and several anti-terrorist operations, the region is rebuilding its reputation and attracting tourists — enough to secure a coveted spot in the world’s most popular guidebook, “Lonely Planet,” in 2020.
Nazy Dakishvili, a 34-year-old Kist, called “Lonely Planet’s” inclusion of the Pankisi Valley a landmark moment and the fruit of her and others’ hard work promoting the region.
“The process was constant emailing and trying to convince them to come to Pankisi,” she told ReligionUnplugged.com.
Dakishvili runs a guest house located in the small village of Jokolo, and she knows well that making outsiders travel to her valley is not always an easy task. Like several other Western governments, the website of the U.S. Department of State cautions Americans against traveling there due to the “current security environment and the potential for civil unrest.”
Even when visitors choose to come, they might yet be dissuaded by their Georgian host or taxi driver.
“Once, the car of our guests from Ukraine stopped when entering the valley. We thought it broke down, but when we called the rental company, it appeared that Pankisi was in a red zone and that this was the reason behind the incident,” said Khatuna Margoshvili, 35, who runs another guest house with a lush garden in Duisi, the largest Kist village and the first one on the only road coming from Akhmeta, the district’s administrative center.
How Pankisi became “the other”
Before the ‘90s, the Pankisi valley wasn’t stained with the reputation of being a dangerous no-go zone. But during the first years of the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), Chechen civilians and militants who fled the conflict in Russia took refuge in the Kist villages, aggravating an already-difficult economic and social environment. In post-Soviet Georgia, poverty, corruption and crime were widespread, and rural territories like Pankisi suffered even more from state neglect.
Then Moscow accused Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, of turning a blind eye to the presence of Islamic fighters in the valley and increased pressure on its southern neighbor. After 9/11, the global War on Terror pushed the Pankisi valley even further into the spotlight. Western media reframed the Chechens’ struggle for independence from Russia as terrorism, which had dire local repercussions for the Kists.
Kids splash and cool off in the Alazani River in Pankisi Valley, Georgia.
Women prepare food for the Supra, a traditional Georgian feast, that they will serve and enjoy after the zikr ceremony.