The Historical and Cultural Monuments of North Ossetia, Heirs of the Alans

The study of culture and identity, as well as architecture and household items of Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans, has always attracted the attention of scientists and archaeologists from all over the world. Currently, the direct descendants of Alans - Ossetians are living in the south of Russia. In this article, it will be highlighted the problems of preserving and restoring their rich cultural heritage - family towers of various types and why they are so unique and important for the world's cultural heritage.

In this article we are going to review the historical and architectural monuments of the republic of North Ossetia-Alania, its importance to the cultural heritage of the nation and the whole country, as well as to clarify who are the Ossetians and where do they come from in order to understand the specifics of the discussed topic.

Many historians and scientists have been interested in Ossetians and Alans, their origin, culture and peculiarities of their identity during different historical epochs. The most significant contribution to the study and disclosure of this subject was made by such outstanding domestic and foreign historians and scientists as Miller, Potocki, Klaprot, Abaev, Alemany, and others. In this article, we are analyzing the conclusions of their research as well as the archaeological excavations and expeditions conducted on the territory of the entire North Caucasus from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day.

Despite that many historians, archaeologists and scientists from all over the world conducted research and excavations in North Ossetia-Alania and in all Caucasus as well, interest in ancient crypt constructions (towers) is still relevant and a lot of questions about the origin of these monuments and the objects found in them still remain open.

Who are the Ossetians? An approach to a geopolitical and cultural framework 

North Ossetia – Alania – is a republic in the Caucasus, in the southern part of the Russian Federation. Most of its population nowadays are Ossetians, however there are a lot of other nationalities1 living there, including Russians, Armenians, Ingushs, Kabardinians, Balkarians and others. Currently, the total number of Ossetians in the world is estimated to be around 700,000 people. Most of them – almost 460 thousand people – live in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. On the other hand, South Ossetia2 is home to almost 50 thousand Ossetians. The largest Ossetian diasporas are in Turkey, Syria, France, USA and Canada. We are going to highlight some general historical and academical information to understand who are Ossetians and where they come from.

The most common academic version of the ethnogenesis of Ossetians is considered to be their origin from the Alano-Scythian-Sarmatian tribes. Thus, the famous German scientist-orientalist of the 19th century Julius Claproth3 expressed in 1812-1814 for the first time the idea about the genetic connection of Ossetians with the Alans – one of the largest Iranian-speaking tribes, from the 1st century A.D., located mainly in the North Caucasus. Although some of the scientists based on the anthropological data do not share this hypothesis4.  Later, the assumption about the identity of the Alans and Ossetians, first expressed by Klaproth, was substantiated by professor Miller: “It can now be considered proven and generally accepted” he wrote, “that the small Ossetian people are the last descendants of a large Iranian tribe, which in the Middle Ages was known as Alans, in ancient times as Sarmatians and Pontic Scythians”.

Further studies of the ethnogenesis (origin) of the nation based on the information about its language, culture and belonging to one or another anthropological type, led most scientists to the conclusion that Ossetians are direct descendants of the Alans. At the same time, as we know, the most important ethnic attribute is language, since it is that distinguishes one or another ethnic group, preserves its individuality and uniqueness and, at the same time, allows to protect yourself from any kind of conquest and assimilation. We should note that already the first researchers who visited Ossetia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries noted that Ossetians, having much in common with other Caucasian nations like appearance, clothing, lifestyle, customs, are at the same time very different from them in their language. In the process of studying Ossetian language, it turned out that Ossetians are not related to the Ibero-Caucasian or Turkic-speaking nations, but to the nations of the Indo-European language family, namely the northeast subgroup of Iranian languages, which was subsequently highlighted in the works of such scholars as Miller, Potocki and Hubshman. In particular Miller studied Ossetian language from the “Ossetian Grammar” written by Andreas Shegren and the texts of A. Shifner, which he later wrote in his book “Ossetian etuds” (“Osetinskie etudi”)5.

Some European scientists are also interested in the origins of Ossetians and Alans. For example, the Spanish researcher Agusti Alemany wrote in the year 2000 a book titled “Sources of Alans. A Critical Compilation” where he collected the information from all the worldwide sources including Latin, Arabic, Greek, Byzantine, Russian and others. According to him, “the Alans were a large warrior group of nomadic tribes, which were first mentioned in the 2 century B.C. in the Chinese Annals of the Han dynasty, as well as in the writings of classical authors of the 1 century A.D.  as belonging to the barbarian tribes at the north-eastern borders of the Roman Empire. However, in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., hordes of Alans expanded their raids farther and farther to the west and, invaded Gaul, Northern Italy and even the Iberian Peninsula. In part they went over to the Romans and thus they settled in many areas of these countries as is evidenced by the numerous toponyms that have been survived to the present day, containing the name of the Alans or Sarmatians6.

The outstanding French mythologist and scientist of the 19-20 centuries Georges Dumézil7 , was the first who substantiated connection of the division of the Narts8 into three clans (Alagata, Akhsartaggata and Borata) with the Indo-Iranian concept, according to which an ideal society should combine three classes, correlated with three main social functions: magical-religious, military and economic. All three clans were carriers of certain functions, each had a special role. The Alagata’s were distinguished by their intelligence, Akhsartaggata by their strength and courage, Borata by their wealth and cattle. This theory had a huge impact on further research in the field of Indo-European studies, especially in France, and on the formation of structuralism. George Dumezil made a huge contribution to the research and study of the Ossetian Nartiada and therefore paid attention to this mythology of another scientists.

If we are talking about the language of Ossetians, nowadays there are two main dialects of the Ossetian language – Digor, or West Ossetian (from Ossetian – Digoron Aevzag) and Iron or East Ossetian (from Ossetian – Iron Aevzag). Most Ossetians speak Iron, but  we should note here that the Digor dialect is most archaic, so its used to reconstruct ancient Alanian language.

However, despite of the large amount of information about the ethnogenesis of Ossetians, archaeological, anthropological and historical data confirming the connection between Ossetians and Alans, such questions as the time and conditions of the appearance of the Alans in the North Caucasus, their place among the Scythian-Sarmatian tribes, the ratio between the Alans and wasps-jasas-ases (Ossetians) still remain opened.

It’s quite interesting that Ossetians demonstrate a rather rare case of peaceful coexistence of followers of two different world religions, whose relationship in other places of the world have led in the past and still leading to acute and often bloody conflicts. The predominant part of the Ossetians profess Orthodox Christianity, but there are also many Sunni Muslims. Such a significant ideological difference is mainly affected only in some areas of everyday culture – in worship, the rites of a life cycle.

The rest and prevailing Ossetian culture appears as a kind of integrity, and at the heart of this integrity is pre-Christian traditional religion, language, identity and historical and cultural memory.

The noted phenomenon is more or less characteristic of almost all  nations of the North Caucasus. In this place ancient traditions still form the basis of social norms, human behavior, national mindset. The Religious factor – Islam (the religion of most of the North Caucasian nations) usually becomes very significant in difficult periods of history, for instance the «Caucasian War» in the XIX century or the armed conflict in Chechnya in modern times.

However, Ossetian relationships between Christianity and Islam have never been the cause of serious internal or external problems. The exodus of the Ossetians, together with hundreds of thousands of representatives of other North Caucasian nations to Turkey and Syria as a result of the Caucasian war (Muhajirism) was not for religious but due to socio-political reasons.

Therefore we can tell without doubts, that Ossetians is one of the vivid examples of peaceful and friendly coexistence of different religious confessions and nationalities in a small geographic territory.

In Soviet times, Ossetians as a nation were divided into North Ossetia (North Ossetian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) which became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialistic Republic (RSFSR), and South Ossetia, which became part of the Georgian Soviet Socialistic Republic. After the collapse of the USSR, South Ossetia remained part of the Republic of Georgia, and North Ossetia became part of Russia. However, South Ossetia wanted to be an independent state, which ultimately led to the armed conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia. In 1992, Russia and Georgia signed  the Dagomys Agreements in order to resolve the armed conflict and to avoid further deaths of civilians, according to which the parties ceased hostilities and Russian peacekeeping units remained in South Ossetia to maintain peace. In 2008, the tension between South Ossetia and Georgia escalated again leading to new clashes at the borders. As a result, in the night of August 7-8, 2008, Georgian troops launched shelling of South Ossetia. On August 8, Russia officially joined the conflict on the side of South Ossetia in order to force the Georgian side to peaceful regulation of conflict, and on August 12, Russia officially announced the successful completion of the operation. From August 14 to August 16, the leaders of the states involved in the hostilities signed a plan for the peaceful settlement of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict (Medvedev-Sarkozy plan), after which Russia recognized South Ossetia’s independence.

Nowadays the Republic of South Ossetia (the State of Alania) is de facto a sovereign state officially recognized by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria. However most of the members of the United Nations consider its territory as the part of the Republic of Georgia. In fact after the conflict there were a lot of discussions about incorporation of South Ossetia to Russia but at this stage the countries do not conduct negotiations on this issue.

The architectural monuments of North Ossetia-Alania

The North Caucasus, and in particular, North Ossetia, is one of the few regions of Russia where you still can find not only the identity and traditional culture of the nation, but also monuments of high-mountain housing construction mainly crypt structures (towers). In accordance with the data from the Committee for the Protection and Use of Cultural Heritage of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania it is known that more than 365 monuments of the historical and cultural heritage of Alania have been preserved in the territories of Northern and Southern Alania. There is also a large number of stone foundations not included in the state register.

The towers can be typically divided into – single towers, tower ensembles, family (patrimonial) residential, military, guard, sacred and funerary. However, these towers are by no means a medieval construction familiar to Europe. They have a lot of differences from European towers, both in architecture and in importance, due to their historical and cultural features and the location of all tower structures in the mountains.

Residential family towers are the most archaic type of tower structures. Normally all kinds of activities were carried out (or could be carried out) there – economic, residential, defense, sacred, religious and pagan. This type of towers is common in all the territory of the North Caucasus and they don’t have significant differences in architecture. Ossetian residential towers have a height of 6-7. 5 meters and a width of the base-6.5-9 meters, they are usually quadrangular and have 2 entrances. The external frame of the tower was made of stone, but inside everything was made of wood.

It is important that on the territory of North Ossetia as a rule residential family towers were built in complex or together with defense family towers. The latter consisted of 3-5 levels (floors), rarely – 6-7 (the ones from wealthier families), and were aimed for firefighting and they were built at the entrance to the gorge on the hills. Family defense towers is a unique type of architectural structure that has no analogues in the world, a symbol of the family, served as a specific defense structure. The lower floor of the defensive towers was used for prisoners, the middle floor was used for temporary accommodation during the siege, as well as for storing food and fuel, and other floors were intended exclusively for defensive purposes. The only way to get into the tower was by a ladder, which was removed in the event of an attack. The researchers and scientists still can’t name the certain construction date of these towers, but the common opinion is that they were being built approximately during X-XVII centuries, the defense family towers in XVI-XVII centuries.

One of the most interesting and vivid examples of the residential and defense tower complex is Tsallagti family tower situated in Nizhnii Unal, Alagir area, North Ossetia-Alania. The Tsallagov’s families members were reconstructing it since 2008 and now this complex is a unique and folk tactile Ethno-museum where the original ancient household items of medieval Alania from the XV-XVI centuries are presented9.

Guard family tower (watchtower) is an architectural symbol of a tribal village, a fortification that allows notifying residents of a village of an approaching enemy, as it was build in places of maximum visual visibility in order to repel attacks on the outer approaches to the village. These towers were not adapted for permanent living that is why and all male members of the family community took turns on duty there.

It’s quite important that in Ossetia, not every family could build a family tower. It was a symbol of honor and nobility. If some family wanted to build it, in accordance with the customs they first needed to obtain the permission from the Council of Elders (Ossetian name “Styr Nykhas”), which consisted of the elders from several families. To get this permission, the family (or clan) had to be noble, wealthy, respected and have an impeccable reputation. Then if the Council of Elders gave that permission, the family had to build that tower in one year. If for some reason family didn’t meet the deadline, the tower had to be demolished. Mainly it was because the building materials that were used were very expensive. 

It is not surprising that many Caucasian scholars show interest to the architecture of the towers of the North Caucasus. Among them were such famous Caucasus scholars as V.F. Miller, P.S. Uvarova, A.M. Dyrr, A.A. Miller, L.P. Semenov and others. These authors developed a typological classification of crypt constructions, determined their common date of origin and created an evolutionary development scheme, according to which the types of crypts in chronological terms form a kind of genetic line. The most ancient underground crypts are related to the Alanian times (V-IX centuries AD), the later ones – semi-underground – to the IX-XIV centuries, and the ground tombs are approximately from the XIV-XIX centuries10.

The architecture of the mountainous regions of North Ossetia has a unique appearance, but at the same time, it has many similar features with the architecture of neighbor Caucasus regions. The Alan culture, as well as mythology, in particular, the Nart sagas of Ossetians, had a great influence on the existing type of tower construction.

The expansion of Christianity during the X century gave rise to stone temples in North Ossetia in the XI-XII centuries in the villages of Tli and Zruga. As of the 14th century, brick structures were erected that alternated with rows of boulders (Elkhotovo village), as well as from wood (Sanctuary Rekom)11 . Defensive structures were erected from stone in the Middle Ages, and residential, watch-towers and battle towers made of stone were built in the XVI-XVIII centuries.

Foto 1. Rekom Sanctuary. Author: Mickail Gassiev

The Necropolis “The city of the dead”12 which is located in the territory of North Ossetia in Dargavs is completely unique in its historical, archaeological and cultural significance. It is the most significant in size (it has over 95 crypts) and number of burial structures throughout the North Caucasus. Moreover in 2015, this necropolis was registered as an object of cultural heritage of federal significance «The Architectural Complex» in the unified state register of objects of cultural heritage including historical and cultural monuments of the nations of the Russian Federation in accordance with the federal law of the Russian Federation «On objects of cultural heritage (historical and cultural monuments) of the nations of the Russian Federation». In addition, it and many other crypts and clan towers are protected by the law of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania «On the conservation, use and state protection of cultural heritage (historical and cultural monuments) of the people of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania».13

Foto 2. “City of the Dead”, Dargavs. Author: Kristina Gussalova

In our opinion the necropolis of Dargavs, as well as another aforementioned  architectural historical and cultural monuments can claim the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its uniqueness and history, but unfortunately, the necessary documents to include it in this list have not yet been collected and submitted for consideration to special expert organizations.

According to archaeological excavations and studies conducted by archeologist P.S. Uvarova in Dargavs, the burial ground she found in this place carries the presence of three chronological stages, namely, the Bronze Age, the beginning of a new era and the early medieval period  14. Uvarova, who visited Dargavs at the end of the 19 century, was the first who digged out the necropolis of the Alanian time (stone boxes),  gave a scientifical description of it, and published a photo of the city of the dead15. Later on other archeologists have found in Dargavs a large number of ancient objects, such as bronze daggers, maces, beads, the remains of skulls and others of different time periods.

Apart from Dargavs, there are also other significant towers in Ossetia. For example, in Dzivgis, an Ossetian village, a cult monument of Ossetian architecture has been preserved: the sanctuary of Dzivgis Dzuar, dedicated to the patron saint Uastirdzhi (St. George). This building is a Christian church, transformed into a pagan temple, which was build approximately in 13-14 centuries 16.

Foto 3. Dzivgisi Dzuar Sanctuary, Alagir area, Dzivgis. North Ossetia-Alania. Author: Kristina Gussalova
Foto 4. Dzivgis Cave Fortress, Alagir area, Dzivgis. North Ossetia-Alania Author: Kristina Gussalova

In Dzivgis, in addition to the sanctuary, there are also impressive rock fortresses at the junction of roads. Unfortunately, only their remains have survived to present days. Perhaps only one of several previously existing fortresses can be clearly seen. The Dzivgis cave fortress, erected presumably in the XIII-XIV centuries, is one of the most powerful fortifications not only in Ossetia, but throughout the all North Caucasus. It is attached to the entrances to natural caves located at different heights. The main fortification is located on the lower tier. You can climb into it through a gap in the wall – on a staircase laid out of stone. However, the traveler may simply not notice the Dzivgis cave fortress: it’s almost merges with the rock. This fortress is a unique defensive structure, which served as a defense against enemies.

Not far from the sanctuary, ancient family tombs have also been preserved – small stone structures. In Dzivgis you can see all the possible types of crypt burials that have ever existed among Ossetians: underground, semi-underground and above-ground; In large multi-tiered tombs they buried whole genera. In each crypt there is a small square hole – a “window” through which everything inside is clearly visible.

In 2018 Zaurbek Tsallagov created a fund for the preservation of the culture “Family Towers” in order to preserve and restore the medieval towers in North Ossetia. He was the winner of different contests, including the all-Russian contest “Volunteers of Russia 2018”, North Caucasus contests “Mashuk 2017”, “Mashuk 2019” and presidential grant fund contest 2019. According to Zaurbek Tsallagov, the most important task of the project is to work with the population, aimed at helping families in the preservation and restoration of historical cultural monuments and at the same time to support and save the traditions which are left from our ancestors. The President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin expressed a high assessment of the project’s significance in terms of involving youth all over the country in the preservation of material cultural objects of the nation.

Zaurbek together with his team also created the aforementioned folk tactile Ethno-museum in which a number of cultural events related to the traditions and history of the Ossetian nation including different national holidays are currently being held.

We believe that in order to maintain and preserve the national cultural heritage, it is also necessary to attract more funds of state financing, because nowadays most of the family towers in North Ossetia are partly destroyed and need reconstruction. But some of the families want to reconstruct their towers. In that case if the tower is included in the list of the cultural heritage objects under state protection, the family must obtain permission from the Committee for the protection of these objects for its reconstruction and it’s not that easy.

Based on the analysis we made we should keep in mind that cultural and historical heritage of every nation is very important. Here we can see that Ossetians are the direct descendants of the great Skipho-Sarmatian-Alan tribes and are still keeping and bearing its traditions, language and sacred rites.


Kristina Gussalova
Lawyer. Head of Legal Services at White Bear Trading Group


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: We would like to express our gratitude to Sidamon Batraz, who provded the access to the literature and archival sources, Tsallagov Zaurbek Viktorovich, the author and Chairman of the NORTH-Ossetian Regional Social Cultral-Educational Organization «FAMILY TOWERS» for the interview and participation in the project.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Agusti Alemany. Sources of Alans. A Critical Compilation. Moscow, 2003. 602 p.
  2. Constitution of the Russian Federation. Available at http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-01.htm;
  3. Dumezil G. Osetinskii epos y mifologia/ pod redakciei y poslesloviem V. I. Abaeva. M.: Nauka, Glavnaya redakciya vostochnoy literature. 1976. 276 p.
  4. Dzattiatti R. Alanskie drevnosti Dargavsa. [Alan antiquities of Dargavs]/Vladikavkaz: IR, 2014 – 239 p.
  5. Gerasimova М. М. 1994. “Paleoantopologia Severnoi Ossetii v svyazi s problemoi proishozdenia Osetin” [Paleontology of the republic of North Ossetia in relation to the problem of the genesis of the Ossetians]// Etnograficheskoe obozrenie. (3), pp. 51—62.
  6. Julius von Klaproth “Travels in the Caucasus and Georgia: performed in the years 1806 and 1808”. Available at https://books.google.ru/books?id=3PggAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=Journey+to+the+Caucasus+and+Georgia,+made+in+1807-1808&source=bl&ots=CezR5R8T__&sig=ACfU3U2M4BHs0Du_6TzzdXyziKtHjtQcHg&hl=ru&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjE0dDT-vbmAhVtwosKHUs7DrsQ6AEwAXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
  7. Miller V.F.. Osetinskie etudy. 1-3. М., 1881, 1882, 18871.    
  8. Tmenov V. Kh. Gorod Mertvykh. [City of the Dead]/ Ordzonikidze: IR. 1979. 153 p.
  9. Uvarova P.S. Mogilniki Severnogo Kavkaza. [Burial grounds of the North Caucasus]. MAK, VIII, M., 1900.
  1. Russia is a multinational country which is directly written in its Constitution. In accordance with the art.3 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people…”. Based on the data of the national census, representatives of more than 180 nationalities (ethnic groups) live nowadays in Russia. Almost every nationality has its own language, culture and traditions which are part of their heritage.
  2. The Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania,  is a  sovereign state and disputed region in the South Caucasus, in the northern part of the internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Georgia. Georgia does not recognize the existence of South Ossetia as a political entity. South and North Ossetians are one nation who were divided in Soviet times. We shall have the opportunity to review this statement later in the article.
  3. Julius von Klaproth “Travels in the Caucasus and Georgia: performed in the years 1806 and 1808”. https://books.google.ru/books?id=3PggAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=Journey+to+the+Caucasus+and+Georgia,+made+in+1807-1808&source=bl&ots=CezR5R8T__&sig=ACfU3U2M4BHs0Du_6TzzdXyziKtHjtQcHg&hl=ru&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjE0dDT-vbmAhVtwosKHUs7DrsQ6AEwAXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. GerasimovaМ. М. 1994. “Paleoantopologia Severnoi Ossetii v svyazi s problemoi proishozdenia Osetin”// Etnograficheskoe obozrenie. (3), 51—62.
  5. Miller V.F.. Osetinskie etudy. 1-3. М., 1881, 1882, 1887
  6. Agusti Alemany. Sources of Alans. A Critical Compilation. Moscow, 2003. 602 p.
  7. Dumezil G. Osetinskii epos y mifologia/ pod redakciei y poslesloviem V. I. Abaeva. M.: Nauka, Glavnaya redakciya vostochnoy literature. 1976. 276 s.
  8. The Nart sagas is a  series of are a series of tales originating from the North Caucasus. They form much of the basic mythology of the tribes in the area, including Abazin, Abkhaz, Ossetian, Karachay-Balkar and in some aspects, Chechen-Ingush folklore. According to Abaev V.I. the term “Nart” comes from the  Ossetian “Nartæ”, which is  plural tantum of nar. (Abaev, V.I., ed. (1973), ИСТОРИКО-ЭТИМОЛОГИЧЕСКИЙ СЛОВАРЬ ОСЕТИНСКОГО ЯЗЫКА [Historical-Etymological Dictionary of Ossetian language] (in Russian), II (L-R), p.158-9 «Nartae, Nart»
  9. Official site of the museum https://tsallagti.com/
  10. Tmenov V. Kh. Gorod Mertvykh. / Ordzonikidze: IR. 1979. 153 s.
  11. See photo of Mikhail Gassiev (Rekom Sanctuary). Source https://www.instagram.com/mikhoshka/?hl=ru
  12. Foto 2 of the author. “City of the Dead”, Dargavs
  13. The normative document is available for review at the following address http://docs.cntd.ru/document/550137153
  14. Ruslan Dzattiatti. Alanskie drevnosti Dargavsa./Vladikavkaz: IR, 2014 – 239 s.
  15. Uvarova P.S. Mogilniki Severnogo Kavkaza. MAK, VIII, M., 1900.
  16. Fotos of the author (3,4), Dzivgis Dzuar, Dzivgis cave fortress, Alagir area, Dzivgis, North Ossetia-Alania.