Towers and Tombs: Remnants of Medieval Ossetian architecture

Galiat village, Digoria, North Ossetia

For centuries and possibly millennia the peoples of the high Caucasus have built stone towers to serve as refuges when under attack from invaders. Called ganakh in Ossetian, these towers are typically four stories tall, and have window openings which were used as lookouts and to fire upon encroaching enemies. Each family would have a tower of its own; they would keep their livestock on the ground floor, and live on the upper levels which were accessed by ladders through trap doors in the floors which were made of wood. These structures were highly effective for defence and ensured the survival of the mountain peoples for many hundreds of years, until the 19th century when Russian troops introduced cannons capable of blowing the towers to pieces. One can see this destruction today all throughout the region, the hillsides dotted with the crumbling remains of hundreds of once magnificent edifices. A few have been restored by families able to afford such an undertaking, allowing the visitor to see them intact. 

Dargavs necropolis, North Ossetia

North Ossetia is also particularly rich in a distinctive form of funerary architecture, consisting of above-ground stone tombs constructed in the form of a beehive. The greatest concentration of these structures is the necropolis at Dargavs, an upland village about halfway between the Fiagdon and Alagir canyons southwest of Vladikavkaz, but they can be found all across the region. They are generally built facing the houses of the living, with the bones of the deceased exposed through an open window so that they may be able to continue to observe and “participate” in the life of the village. In other words, a strong connection with the ancestors is characteristic of the culture. 

Medieval beehive tomb, Fasnal, Digoria, North Ossetia

Iranian nomadic societies from the Scythians onwards are well-known for their burial traditions, which typically entailed placing the deceased’s most valuable items—weapons, jewelry, but also often his horse—into the grave with him. Such burial sites have thus provided much in the way of material culture which can help us to understand how these peoples lived and what they valued. An excavation at Galiat in the Digor Gorge in 1935 uncovered a wealth of objects, mainly elaborately decorated riding gear, dating to the late 7th-early 8th centuries. 

Published by Richard Foltz

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

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