Visiting South Ossetia

“Æz uarzyn Tskhinval”

The best means by which South Ossetia can hope to establish its viability as a country is, in my view, to make itself more open to foreign visitors. Visas are not currently required, but one must obtain permission to visit from the South Ossetian office in Vladikavkaz and this requires an invitation from someone in South Ossetia. Such a requirement is pointless, unnecessary, and entirely counter-productive to South Ossetia’s interests. Foreign tourists pose no threat to South Ossetia’s security; on the contrary, they are the country’s greatest untapped public relations resource. South Ossetia’s unrelentingly negative portrayal in the Western media—which is largely the result of Georgia’s endless efforts to cultivate good relations with the West—is exacerbated by an almost complete lack of information about the realities of life in South Ossetia: who its people are, what they have experienced, and what they hope for in the future. The best remedy for this pervasive ignorance would be to open up the gates and welcome anyone and everyone to come and see for themselves. South Ossetia has nothing to lose and everything to gain by adopting such an open-door policy.

South Ossetia has much to entice the interested traveler. The main attraction is, of course, its spectacular nature, which offers unsurpassed opportunities for hiking, trekking, camping, horseback riding, etc. Georgia has profited immensely from marketing its natural treasures, and South Ossetia has exactly the same to offer. Georgia has also successfully promoted its excellent wines, which are similar to those produced in South Ossetia, generally at home by individual families. Why not South Ossetian wine tours? South Ossetia also has much in the way of little-known historical monuments. The 18th-century church of the Holy Virgin in the capital, Tskhinval (Oss. Chreba), receives occasional mention, but there are also some interesting buildings in Leningor (Alkhagori to the Georgians) in the southeast including an impressive medieval fortress and a beautiful former mansion which now serves as an art museum. The National Museum in Tskhinval, which features artworks as well as archeological relics and natural history within its collection, is also well worth a visit. There are several decent hotels in Tskhinval, including the recently-opened Uyut (Oktyabrskaya ulitsa 135), and construction on the new four-star Hotel Iryston off the main square is nearly complete.

About 10km short of Leningor off on the south side of the main road there is a path leading up into the mountains to an abandoned monastery complex known as Aramaz, which includes a massive 9th century church completely hidden in the undergrowth. It is unusual in many ways and may have formerly been a Zoroastrian temple (Aramaz < Ahura Mazda? A nearby village is called Morbedan, perhaps related the name for Zoroastrian priests, mobedān). To my knowledge the history of this fascinating complex has never properly been studied. (The Department of Antiquities calls it an “Alan church,” but evidence of Alans in the south prior to the Mongol conquest is thin. In any case the building bears little structural resemblance to the known Alan churches at Nizhny Arkhyz in Karachay-Cherkessia.) I suspect that there are many such undiscovered treasures lying hidden amidst South Ossetia’s rugged landscape, if only scholars and travelers would give them the attention they deserve.

Aramaz church, near Leningor

As described in a previous post, Ossetian popular religion tends to centre on ceremonies performed at mountaintop sanctuaries. In South Ossetia one of the most important is the Usanet shrine near Leningor; another is Dzher in the central part of the country, where the infant Joseph Dzhughashvili was taken by his grateful father who, in middle age, had come to despair of ever having children. (Some may question whether this gratitude was misplaced, but in Ossetia Stalin is considered a national hero.) As one would expect, both of these holy sites are stunningly beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Shrine to Uastyrdzhi (St. George) at Dzher

It is to be hoped that the South Ossetian authorities will become more open and welcoming to foreign tourists (and not just to Russians). The result would be a win-win situation for South Ossetia and world travelers alike.

Published by Richard Foltz

Professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada

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