Agricultural prosperity, Christian churches, and the City of the Dead attract tourists from all over Russia. In North Ossetia, there is a village called Dargavs, which has a peculiar history behind it. The City of the Dead, as the village is known, is the location where people who lived in surrounding valleys buried the ones they loved. Nearly 100 ancient stone crypts can be found in this cemetery – turned town. This open air museum for Ossetians stretches for seventeen kilometers and gives an understanding of how their ancestors lived more than 400 years ago. Belongings and clothes are also contained in the stone crypts.
Crypts for Fall Warriors
The bodies of fallen warriors are believed to have been the first occupants of the burial site. After finding several weapons in many of the graves, this continues to be the leading theory about how the City of the Dead began. With lots of little white houses, the cemetery looks like a hillside village. However, these are not little houses: they are crypts with some of them dating back to the sixteenth century, though some sources put the dates of the oldest crypts as far back as the twelfth century. 1830 was when the last burial took place on the grounds, which are now protected as historically important.
There was a crypt for each family in the area. Depending on the number of generations of a family held in the crypt, there are two or three floors to some of the structures that reach up to four stories high. Others even have underground chambers that are built deep into the mountainside.
Architecture of the Crypts
The architecture suggests that the people that lived in the area might have been a Nakh people, though another explanation might be that the Ossetians in the area might have taken up the architectural style of the Nakh people as this region is not the only place with Nakh architecture in Ossetia.
With a pointed peak top, the crypts have ridged curved roofs that go inwards in steps. This is typical of most Nakh architecture. The smallest crypts have not roofs at all, while those that are slightly larger have flat sides on the back and front with the sides curving inwards. The walls are likely mortared with clay-lime or just lime and are made up of stone blocks.
To hold the roofs up, the insides of the crypts have a pointed Groin vault complex. Groin vaults are produced by two barrel vaults intersecting at right angles. There are pointed barrel vaults on the smaller ones. Barrel vaults are formed by the extrusion of a single curve over a given distance. The corpses are put in through square slits in the walls.
Tombs Climbing the Mountainside
Though some crypts are located sparsely, the City of the Dead has a plan and placement that is very similar to other necropolises of the Nakh people, including the Itum-Kali necropolis. In this scheme, crypts and tombs are placed closely together on mountain or hill sides. There must always be a tower to watch over the dead on the highest point compared to the location of the rest of the structures. With some crypts built into the mountain side.
According to legend, each crypt has a well in front of it for telling if the deceased person has made it to heaven. Visitors dropped a coin into the well to find out if their loved one had made the journey to heaven. The deceased has made it if the coin hits the stone at the bottom. Nowadays, the few tourists to the City of the Dead will drop coins into the well, and it is considered good luck if the coin hits the stone at the bottom.
Shrouded in Legend
Surrounding the site, there are a number of legends and myths. One of those beliefs is that no one will emerge alive from the City of the Dead if they try to get in, from the time when plague spread through the valleys. Due to the spreading disease, the population in the area dropped to 16,000 inhabitants by the middle of the nineteenth century from a previous high of 200,000. That is a 92 percent loss of life in the decimated village.
Sick family members were confined to quarantine houses by inhabitants of the area. The sick family members were not given the freedom to move about for fear that the disease would spread. They were just provided with food until the disease killed them. There were some inhabitants that were struck with plague but did not have any family members still alive to bury them once they passed. These denizens would simply go to their family crypt and wait for death in the cemetery.
A Boat to Heaven
In wooden boat-like structures, the bodies were buried inside of the crypts. Anthropologists are not sure why this is done, but some think that it is because the ancestors of the Ossetians believed that a river must be crossed to enter heaven, and the boat structures would make the journey easier. This is an interesting idea, since there are no navigable rivers near the village.
If a person were not from the village or if there was no one to bury them, people could be buried in the common crypts. These crypts are the ones that are more sparsely placed. Aside from a few archaeologists, who have made some unusual discoveries, and Christians who make the trip for the Epiphany celebration, the area is of little interest to just about anyone else.
Dargavs in Modern Times
In search of a different lifestyle, many people are now deserting this once prosperous area. This is a devastating fact for Ahshar Varziev, a local Ossetian. He does not know who will carry on his legacy. To provide his family with electricity, he built his own hydroelectric plant. He used everything he could possibly find to help build it from scratch after several years of toil. He first got the idea ten years ago but in those ten years, half of the village has left.
The creation of new opportunities and jobs as well as the necessary infrastructure is what is needed to stop people from leaving. As youngsters head to the bright lights of the big cities, they are leaving behind a part of Russia that is truly unique.
The highest situated monastery in Russia, The Alansky Monastery of the Assumption, is regularly visited by tourists. It stands close to the tower that dates back to the sixteenth century. Over 10,000 people visit during the celebration of the Epiphany, since it is considered a truly unique place by many local Christians.
The graves of the local criminals are the only crypts that visitors are not allowed to explore for fear they will be defaced. You have to take a three hour drive down a hidden and dangerous road if you want to visit the cemetery. The area does not get many tourists because of the danger involved in getting there and because of the foggy mountain weather. Not even the locals will go there for fear that they will not make it out alive. This makes it an ideal destination for those who are looking for trips that are untainted by tourist traps.
Through the veins of endless rivers and valleys, you can almost feel the vibe of ancient history coursing after you spend several hours in North Ossetia’s mountainous area. Singing their songs by the fire, you can almost hear the forefathers of Ossetia if you listen hard enough.