Ossetians are an ethnic group that live in live in South Ossetia on the southern side of the Caucasus mountains in central Georgia and North Ossetia in southern Russia. Descendants of Scythian horsemen from north of the Black Sea, they speak an Iranian Indo-European language and are primarily Christians but some are Muslims. They look like Turks and have high cheekbones and blade-like noses like their Scythian ancestors. Ossetians are also called Ossetes.
The Ossetians are of Iranian and Caucasian origin. In the first centuries A.D., Ossetia was occupied by the Alani tribe, ancestors of the modern Ossetians. In the thirteenth century, the Tatars drove the Alani into the mountains; Russian settlers began arriving in the eighteenth century. Russia annexed Ossetia in 1861. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The Ossetians have two autonomous regions: the South Ossetia Autonomous Region in Georgia and the Republic of North Ossetian in Russia. The regions are divided by the Caucasus mountains. Like Abkhazians, Ossetians and are non-Georgians, and many of them wish to secede from Georgia.
There are about a half million Ossetians. Most live in and form the majority in North Ossetia. They also form the majority in South Ossetia. Ossetians are also found in significant numbers in Kabardino-Balkaria and around Stravropol in the Caucasus region of southern Russia and in Tbilisi and numerous places in eastern Georgia. Ossetians can be found in other parts of the former Soviet Union too. Some Muslim Ossetians live in Turkey. Most Muslim Ossetians live in North Ossetia.
The Ossetian language is classified as member of the Northeast Iranian Branch of Iranian and has been heavily influenced by the languages of peoples that live around Ossetia and is distantly related the Pashto language spoken in Afghanistan and Yaghnobi spoken in the Pamir region of Central Asia. Ossetian has two major dialects: 1) the Digoron or West Ossetian dialect spoken in the western part of North Ossetia; and 2) the Iron or East Ossetian dialect spoken in the rest of Ossetia. Ossetian in North Ossetia has traditionally been written in Cyrillic. In South Ossetia it is written in Georgian. In the 1920s it was written with a Latin script.
Early History of the Ossetians
Ossetians are different from other people of the Caucasus in that are not an indigenous group and are not descendants of Turkic tribes that passed through the region. The is little direct information on the origins of the Ossetians, There is no written information about them. Most of what has been surmised is based on linguistic studies, archeological evidence and examination of folklore.
Ossetians are believed to be descendants of the Alans, a group of horseman that arrived in the Caucasus and mixed with the Scythians and Sarmatians. The Sarmatian horsemen from north of the Black Sea who arrived in the Caucasus around A.D.400.
The Alans were a loose tribal confederacy in the Ponto-Caspian steppe region. The are mentioned for the first time in classical sources in the A.D. 1st century. The Alans were driven into the mountains by the Huns. Over time they created their own state that reached its peak around the 10th century and ruled much of the northern Caucasus. The late Alans (early Ossetians) were Christians, probably introduced to the religion by Georgians. They were driven further into the mountains by raids from the Mongols in 1233 and Tamerlane’s conquest in 1395.
Ossetians and Scythians
There is linguistic and archeological evidence that shows links between the Scythians and Ossetians. The Ossetian language according to one Russian historian has words that are similar to "the ancient eastern branch of the Iranian language, the language of the Scythians and Sarmatians."
According to archaeologists who sculpted faces from casts of 2,600-year-old Scythian skulls, the Scythians had high cheekbones and large noses like a "northern Iranian face." Herodotus described the Scythian Budini tribes as having bright eyes and ruddy complexions. Some scholars have speculated that the Budini were Finno-Ugarians, the ancestors of the Finns and fair-haired Siberian people.
Scythian culture is still very much alive among the Ossetian. Like the Scythians, Ossetians revere horses and old timers can recall funerals in the old days when horses were sacrificed "if the man was a good rider." One 81-year-old man told Mike Edwards of National Geographic in 1996. "But usually we'd take the horse to the grave and say, 'We want you to have this horse in heaven.' Then we'd walk it three times around the grave and set it free to roam...I do remember when we killed a horse at a burial. It was about 15 years ago."
Ossetians Under the Russians and Soviets
In the Middle Ages, Ossetians were forced off the fertile North Ossetic plain by rival groups and weakened by blood feuds that caused entire clans to migrate. The population of Ossetians south of the Caucasus was more stable. Their land was equally fertile and easier to defend. In the 16th century, Georgian landowners brought Ossetians to the south to work as serfs in what s now South Ossetia.
The Ossetians joined the Russian Empire in 1774. After that Ossetians from the south began repopulating areas north of the Caucasus. Most of the settlements in North Ossetia date to this period while those in South Ossetia predates it: to the 16th century and even as early as the 9th century.
During the Russian Revolution Ossetians sided with the Bolsheviks against the Georgian Mensheviks. The Georgians brutally suppressed them. The Ossetians didn’t forget and called what happened to them a genocide.
In their long history, the Ossetians were never able to create a state of their own. This was because Ossetian communities were often independent of one another, often serving different feudal lords. This changed under the Soviets. North and South Ossetia were separated in the 1920s. South Ossetian Autonomous Region was founded in 1922 and North Ossetian Autonomous Region was established in 1924 and upgraded to an autonomous republic, implying greater independence, in 1936. The Ossetian states were created as part of the Soviet campaign to fragment the Caucasus so it wouldn’t unite against the Soviet Union regime.
The South Ossetians were given great freedom to develop their own cultural institutions and hold government positions than their kin in North Ossetia. There was lot of intermarriage between Ossetians and Georgians and the two groups lived in relative harmony until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when nationalist forces were unleashed.
Most of the dead from the Beslan massacre were Ossetians. Belsan is located in North Ossetia.
North Ossetia, called Alania in the republic's 1994 constitution, is located along the northern border of Georgia, between the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. In 1924 North Ossetia became an autonomous region of the Soviet Union; in 1936 it was declared an autonomous republic. In 1992 the campaign for separation waged by Georgia's South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast directly to the south drew significant support from compatriots to the north. North Ossetia is the only Caucasus republic of the Russian Federation to give official support to Russia's occupation of nearby Chechnya. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
North Ossetia has a population of around 710,000 people according to the 2002 census, many of them Ossetians. Known in ancient times as Alania, it was an important area on the Silk Road routes to the Black Sea and unlike other regions in the Caucasus has been relatively happy under Russian rule. Most of the population is made up of Orthodox Christians, with a small number of Muslims and practitioners of traditional pagan religions. Kartsa is a small Ingush enclave within North Ossetia.
North Ossetia is bordered by Kabardino-Balkaria to the west, Russia to the north, Ingushetia to the east and South Ossetia in Georgia to the south, The main ridge of the Caucasus mountains divides North and South Ossetia. North Ossetia covers about 8,000 square kilometers and includes the basin of the Terek River and its tributaries, the northern side of the main Caucasus chain and it promontories and the plains of northern Ossetia. The climate varies with elevation from mild in the lowlands to harsh and cold in the high reaches of the mountains.
The Soviets divided the region inhabited by the Ossetians into two regions—South Ossestia, which lies in present-day Georgia, and North Ossetia in present-day Caucasus region of southern Russia—in part to keep the Ossetians from unifying against them. A part of Ingushetia called the Prigoroodny district was added to North Ossetia. It remains primarily Ingush, a Muslim people, and was the site of a short, brutal conflict in 1992. In the 1990s, South Ossetia demanded independence from Georgia and sought to unify with North Ossetia in single republic within Russia. The Breslan school tragedy in 2004 took place in North Ossetia.
Vladikavkaz (100 miles southeast of Pyatigorsk) is city of 300,000 and the capital of North Ossetia. Located at elevation of 740 meters, it doesn't have all that much to see but provides access to old Ossetian settlements and Caucasus peaks. Near Vladikavkaz you can find old Alan-Ossestian stone towers used to descend to the narrow valleys where people lived. In Dargaves (25 miles Vladikavkaz) you can se old Ossetian cemetery with beehive tombs with skeletons visible through some of the cracks. Several stone towers can be seen in the valleys and narrow gorges of the Kurtai Valley.
Daryl Gorge (near Vladikavkaz) is a spectacular gorge carved out of the Caucasus Mountains by the Terek River. Hemmed in by cliffs over a mile high and sometimes called the "Gates of the Caucasus," the gorge is for all intents and purposes the only north-south route between this nearly impenetrable mountain range. Ardon Valley and Ossetian Military Highway (between Russia and Georgia) follows the Daryl Gorge and a route once used by Silk Road traders. The highway passes among villages, 12th-century cemeteries, and wooden churches. The Georgian and Russian border is defined by 2,819-meter-high Mamisonsky Pass.
In 1995 the republic's population was estimated at 660,000, of which 53 percent were Ossetian, 29 percent Russian, 5 percent Ingush, 2 percent Armenian, and 2 percent Ukrainian. The outputs of industry and agriculture were of approximately equal value in 1993. The main industries, concentrated in the capital city of Vladikavkaz, are metalworking, wood processing, textiles, food processing, and distilling of alcoholic beverages. The main crops are corn, wheat, potatoes, hemp, and fruit. Lead, zinc, and boron are mined. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]
South Ossetia is bordered by North Ossetia in Russia to the north, and Georgia proper to the east, south and west. The main ridge of the Caucasus mountains divides North and South Ossetia. South Ossetia covers about 3,800 square kilometers and is situated mainly on the southern side of the main Caucasus chain and it promontories. There are spectacular mountains and beautiful forests. The climate varies with elevation from mild in the lowlands to harsh and cold in high reaches of the mountains. In 1990, 66 percent of the population was made up of Ossetian and 29 percent Georgians, Tskhinvali is the capital of South Ossetia.
The autonomous areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia added to the problems of Georgia's post-Soviet governments. By 1993 separatist movements in those regions threatened to tear the republic into several sections. Intimations of Russian interference in the ethnic crises also complicated Georgia's relations with its giant neighbor. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
The first major crisis faced by the Gamsakhurdia regime—the first Georgian government after the break up of the Soviet Union—was in the South Ossetian Autonomous Region, which was largely populated by Ossetians. In December 1990, Gamsakhurdia summarily abolished the region's autonomous status within Georgia in response to its longtime efforts to gain independence. When the South Ossetian regional legislature took its first steps toward secession and union with the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic of Russia, Georgian forces invaded. The resulting conflict lasted throughout 1991, causing thousands of casualties and creating tens of thousands of refugees on both sides of the Georgian-Russian border. Yeltsin mediated a cease-fire in July 1992. A year later, the cease-fire was still in place, enforced by Ossetian and Georgian troops together with six Russian battalions. Representatives of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ( CSCE) attempted mediation, but the two sides remained intractable. In July 1993, the South Ossetian government declared negotiations over and threatened to renew large-scale combat, but the cease-fire held through early 1994. *
Disputes Between the Ingush and Ossetians
Ossetians have clashed with Muslim Ingush, who claim part of North Ossetia. The Ingush were exiled to Central Asia and Siberia in 1943-44 after being unfairly accused of collaborating with the Germans in World War II. When the Ingush returned to their homeland in 1957 they found many of their farms and homes occupied by Ossetians.
In the 1980s, Ingush in Prigorodny in North Ossetia began demanding more autonomy from the Christian Ossetians and reincorporation into the Ingush republic. Ingush in Ossetia attempted to reclaim in Prigorodny—an area on the right bank of the upper Terek River in far eastern North Ossetia—taken by the Ossetians when the Ingush were exiled to Central Asia in the 1940s and 50s.
Moscow enacted legislation that promised to return the Ingush their land in North Ossetia in 1991 but never implemented it. The Ingush also attempted to unify with their Ingush brothers in Ingushetia republic, which created in 1992.
Ingush and Ossetian Violence
In October 1992 there was a 10 day war between Ossetians and Ingush when the Ingush tried to return to land taken from them in the 1940s and occupied by the Ossetians. Bloody clashes that lasted for about a week left hundreds dead (the human rights group Memorial estimated 583 were killed and 939 were injured). Russia imposed a state of emergency to stop the violence. Russian troops were brought in, According to some reports they sided with the Ossetians and committed atrocities against the Ingush. The Ingush were brutally repressed.
Almost the entire population of 60,000 Ingush in North Ossetia was forced to move to Ingushetia, already burdened by an influx of 60,00 refugees from the conflict in Chechnya. The Ingush in Ossetia where forced to live as refugees themselves in Ingushetia. Around 20,000 remained there as of 2004. Most of their property in North Ossetia was destroyed or confiscated. A few Ingush remained in an area called Kartsa
In 1992 the Presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia signed a friendship agreement but tensions remained. In 2004, Aleksei Malashenko, a Caucasus specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center told the New York Times, “A lot of armed men are walking around in Ossetia and Ingushetia. Both nations are prepared for conflict. There is a huge feeling for revenge—which is important in the political culture for local ethnicities.” There are fears that if serious fighting broke out between the Ingush and Ossetians violence could ignite a wider conflict in the Caucasus.
Tensions Between Ossetians and Georgians
Ossetians in South Ossetia wish to unite South Ossetia and North Ossetia into a single entity. In 1990, the region of South Ossetia proclaimed independence and attempted to join North Ossetia in Russia. Ossetians speak an Iranian language and Georgians speak a Caucasus one but both are predominately Orthodox Christians. Some of the animosity between the two groups dates back to the Russian Revolution when the Ossetians sided with the Bolsheviks against the Georgian Mensheviks.
Georgian President’s Gamsakhurdia declaration “Georgia for Georgians” after he came to power in May 1991 didn’t help the situation. Gamsakhurdia abolished South Ossetia’s status as an autonomous state and restored the region’s Georgian name Shida Kartli and sent in Georgian troops. The Russians responded by sending in troops of their own. Tensions escalated in August 1991, when South Ossetia was vocal in its support the coup attempt against Gorbachev.
One Ossetian woman told National Geographic, “The Georgians are liars. Their hospitality masks their cruelty, their hatred, their hypocrisy. Their tragedy is that they followed that murderer and scum Gamsashurdia. It was he who went around saying, ‘Georgia for Georgians,’ We had to look to Moscow for protection.”
Fighting Between Ossetians and Georgians
In 1991, fighting broke out between groups of Ossetians and Georgians, with Russia reportedly supporting the separatist in South Ossetia. South Ossetia fragmented into Georgian and Ossetian communities with members of each afraid to venture into the territory of the other. Tskhinvalu, the region’s capital, was barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire and guarded by Soviet soldiers and armored vehicles.
The conflict produced 1,000 to 2,000 dead, 100,000 refugees, mostly South Ossetians who fled to North Ossetia, and left 112 Ossetian villages destroyed. Both sides accused the other of pulling out fingernails and gouging out the eyes and burning alive of their enemies. The fighting stopped but no resolution was reached and the war never officially needed. In the early 2000s, the region was patrolled by 500 Russian, Georgian and Ossetian peacekeepers.
All of the Georgians, which made up about a third of the population were forced to flee. About 70,000 people remained in South Ossetia. The boundary lines between Ossetian and Georgian communities are blurred. Many families are mixed.
Ossetians are mostly Christians but there are a significant number of Ossetian Muslims. The Ossetians are believed to have been Christianized in two waves: by the Georgians not long after they were Christianized in the 4th and 5th century, and intensifing in 8th to 13th century, when many church were built in the region. The second wave began in the 18th century under Russian influence. After the Mongol invasion in the 13th century paganism made a come back and many churches were turned into places of cult worship. Islam was introduced primarily by the Kabardians towards the end of the 17th century.
Ossetians have retained some animist practices such as ram sacrifice, which takes place during the traditional festival of Jurgala in the middle of November. The Ossetian pagan high god was partly assimilated into Saint George. Fire remains sacred to the Ossetians as it was to the Scythians. No fires are ever snuffed out; they must be allowed to die out naturally.
Most villages have a patron saints, many of which have been merged with deities that date back to pre-Christian times. Villagers also conduct special ceremonies for healing, rain and protection in the mountains.
Deaths have traditionally been announced by a courier that goes from house to house. The entire community participates in rather than just attended the funeral. During funerals a fire is lit beside the grave and mourners wail, tear out their hair, scratch their faces and pound their fists on the graves of the deceased. In the old days this was a job performed by professionals and some were known for their exceptional mourning skills.
The graves are marked with bricks or wooden marking posts. Water and beer are used on the graves as offerings to the dead. After death the Ossetians believe the deceased go to "the real world," where there is happiness, good harvests and ample pastureland for animals.
Ossetian banquets held after a funeral have similarities to Scythian feasts described by Herodotus. The post funeral banquets can be quite expensive and one of the main reasons community support is sought is to help defer the costs. In some places a special ceremony called the “dedication of the hourse” is still held in the rural areas. The ear tip of the horse, representing the entire horse, is cut off and buried with the dead. The custom dates back to Alan and Scythian times when a person’s horse was often buried with him.
The traditional mourning period is 40 days. Men have traditionally not shaved during this period and grew long beards. Women wear a black head scarf. At the end of the 40 days women replace their black head scarves with a dark colored scarf. In cases of violent deaths, after the end of the 40 day period was when clan members began plotting revenge.
Ossetian Villages, Homes and Food
Ossetian settlements have traditionally been divided into quarters, with each quarter occupied by a single family or closely related groups. This tradition has been maintained more in the south than in the north. In the mountain areas houses often have multiple stories to save space while those in the flat areas have the luxury of being more spread out.
In the mountain, villages were ideally located near a good water source in an area that was easy to defend. Houses were clustered close together. The center of social life was a village square. In the old days each village had a watchtower situated in the center of the village so that all the village residents could quickly gain access and find safety there. Each village also had a shrine or temple that could be a simple pile of bricks, a small hut or an altar.
The traditional Ossetian home was built from stone, wood or brick, depending on what materials were easily available. In the old days the house was divided into a man’s section and woman’s section. The most important part of the house was the fire, which was left continually burning. The chain that hung over the fire was regarded as sacred. The theft of this chain was grounds for a brutal blood feud.
Ossetians have traditionally been farmers and herders of cattle and sheep. In the mountains they grew mostly barley. In the lower elevations they produced a number of crops. Ossetic butter, kefir and cheese was famous throughout the Caucasus. Staples of the Ossetian diet include fyiyn ( a cake made with meat), waeelibezk (a cake made with cheese) and home-brewed beer. In the old days, Ossetians were known as skilled makers of swords, knives and special scimitars. Mining, hydro-electric power and timber have been important industries in modern times.
Ossetian Society and Marriage
Ossetian families have traditionally been organized along strict age and gender lines, with men being in charge of the heavy work and women being in charge of raising children and domestic work such milking the cows and making cheese and butter. The senior male divided the work duties and told the young males what to do. The senior woman did the same with the younger women, with older daughter-in-laws in charge of making cheese and other dairy products and the younger daughter-in-laws responsible for milking the cows and fetching water.
There was also a hierarchy among relatives with close blood relatives having higher status within a clan and family grouping and work duties. There were also strict rules regarding who could marry whom based on religion, social class and blood relations. Many of these traditions have broken down as Ossetians live more in nuclear rather than extended family units and become more urbanized.
Ossetian marriages traditionally were arranged with the paying of bride price and social and political concerns carrying more weight than the wishes of the bride and groom. Typically the bride moved in with the groom’s parents and had very low status. Her positioned improved after she gave birth to a child, especially if it was a son. In the old day it was customary for an unmarred brother to marry the widow of an older brother. These days families tend to be much smaller than they were in the past.
The engagement and marriage process enfold in five stages: 1) meetings between the families to work out the bride price and other matters; 2) a party with the bride’s relative to celebrate the engagement; 3) a second meeting between families to discuss “gifts”; 4) a “small wedding” at the bride’s home in which animals are slaughtered and calf is given by the groom’s family to the bride: and 5) a “big wedding” at the groom’s home. A survey in the 1970s, found 30 percent to 70 percent of these stages were still practiced.
Ossetian Arts and Sports
Ossetians have traditionally enjoyed folk music, dancing and poetry. In the old days each village had its own storyteller who recited or sang heroic epics like The Tale of the Narts, sometimes accompanied by a traditional lyre. The custom is dying out as younger generations are failing to learn the stories.
There are many similarities between the folklore of the Ossetians and the Arthurian legend: there is a search for a magical cup, for example, paralleling the search for the Holy Grail. Ossetian folklore contains many stories about the Narts and the their chief Batraz. When Batraz is on his deathbed he asks for his sword to be thrown in the sea. When this occurs the sea turns to blood. When Arthur is on his deathbed he asks for his sword to be thrown in the sea. When this occurs a new land rises up in the sea. The descendants of the Ossetians, the Sarmatians , lived in Britain ( 5,500 Sarmatians were sent to Britain by the emperor Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 175).
Ossetians like shooting an horseback riding sports. In one contest competitors shoot at a stick at 250 meters away and whittle it down and break it with a final shot. There also precision shooting contests in which competitors fire at full gallop. Horse races were held at funerals with contestants competing for the dead man's possessions. The races were often held on mountain and cliff top trail and were more than 50 kilometers long. Deaths weren't unusual.
In alum (flag contest) races a man was given a pouch of valuables and riders took off after him. The rider who was able to snatch the valuables got to keep them. This event was often held at weddings. The race often lasted for hours and the pouches changed hands many times before a winner was declared.
Other events included weightlifting, pole throwing, rock throwing, stone lifting, jumping, wrestling, climbing a slippery pole, tug of wars, and running events as well as a form of orienteering in which men would scramble over mountains and through gorges. In strongman competitions, contestants tried to lift a huge stone over their heads. If the stone was particularly big leather straps were attached to it to provide a grip. In another contest, strongmen lifted a man over their head with one hand and is the source of the Ossetian expression, “he’s so strong he can lift a man with one hand.”
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016