Known in ancient times as Alania, Borth Ossetia 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. Ossetains make up aboy 65 percent of the population, Russians, 20 percent and other groups such Ingush, Armenians, Kumyks and Georgians making up the remainder. Most of the population is comprised 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.
North Ossetia has a population of around 710,000 people according to the 2002 census, many of them Ossetians. 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]
Warning: According to the U.S. State Department: North Caucasus (including Chechnya and Mount Elbrus) – Level 4: Do Not Travel: Terrorist attacks and risk of civil unrest continue throughout the North Caucasus region including in Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Stavropol, Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya. Local gangs have kidnapped U.S. citizens and other foreigners for ransom. There have been credible reports of arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killing of LGBTI persons in Chechnya allegedly conducted by Chechen regional authorities. Do not attempt to climb Mount Elbrus, as travelers must pass close to volatile and insecure areas of the North Caucasus region. The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens traveling in the North Caucasus region, including Mount Elbrus, as U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling to the region.
North Caucasus embraces seven Russian republics: Adygeya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkariya, North Ossetia, Ingustetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The configurations of these republics were primarily the work of Stalin when he was the nationalities commissar in the 1920s. His idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too busy fighting among themselves to threaten the Soviet state and to require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”
The Balkars live with the Kabardins in Kabardino-Balkariya and the Karachays live with the Cherkess in Karachayevo-Cherkessia even though the Cherkess and Kabardins speak similar languages and the Balkars and Karachays speak similar languages. Northeast Caucasian groups also include the speakers of Nakh-Vaynakh languages, namely the Chechens and Ingush.
The Balkars and the Karachay belong to the same overall Turkic group, although the latter live in the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia immediately west of Kabardino-Balkaria on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains. Like the Chechens and the Ingush, the Karachay were exiled to Central Asia during World War II. The Cherkess and the Karachay were reunited when the latter were returned from exile in 1957. Established in 1992, the republic is mainly rural, with an economy based on livestock breeding and grain cultivation. Some mining, chemical, and wood-processing facilities also exist. The population, which was estimated at 422,000 in 1990, was 42 percent Russian, 31 percent Karachay, and 10 percent Cherkess. The capital city is Cherkessk. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Getting There: The cost of a plane ticket from Moscow to Vladikavkaz starts at 2300 rubles. The flight takes about 2 hours, 30 min. Moscow- Vladikavkaz trains run two or three times a week. The cost is from 2200 rubles. The journey can one day and 15 hours. Tickets for buses from Moscow to Vladikavkaz cost 2700 rubles. The travel time is a little more than a day. By car from the central regions of Russia you need to get to the P297 Transkam highway. You get to Vladikavkaz along the famous Georgian Military Highway from Beslan, or along the P295 highway from Nalchik.
Republic of North Ossetia-Alania
The Republic of North Ossetia-Alania covers 8,000 square kilometers (3,000 square miles) and is located on the northern slope of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range. Bordering the country of Georgia to the south, to Kabardino-Balkaria to the west, Stavropol Krai to the north and Chechnya and Ingushetia to the east, this small republic is home to about 712,000 people and has a population density of 69 people per square kilometer. About 64 percent of the population live in urban areas. The city of Vladikavkaz is the capital and largest city, with about 300,000 people, or about 40 percent of the republic’s population.
The main attraction of North Ossetia is the Greater Caucasus mountains. Mountaineers and rock climbers from all over the world come to check out these rocky, snow-capped mountains and climb the highest peak in the republic — Mount Kazbek (5,033 meters) .Vladikavkaz was built at the beginning of the 20th century and you can still see the modern style of architecture popular at that time. The local people are very hospitable and often welcome visitors with tasty Ossetian pies made with recipes handed down by their revered ancestors.
North Ossetia-Alania is largely unexplored by tourists. Among its attractions are the unique, centuries-old culture and customs of the Ossetians, their medieval towers and City of the Dead holy place, endemic mountain flora, a ski resort, a holy place where only men can go, gigantic bronze horseman breaking free from the cliff, and Europe’s highest waterfall, dropping from 750 meters. North Ossetia is rich in mineral waters and has a number of spas and sanatoriums with healing baths, mud therapy, drinking treatment with mineral waters, climatotherapy procedures.
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.
Vladikavkaz (50 kilometers north of the Georgian border, 160 kilometers 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. Sights in the town include a mosque with a blue dome and twin towers, the North Ossetian Art Museum, and the North Ossetian History and Literature Museum.
Spread out at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, Vladikavkaz is regarded as an intellectual and cultural center of the North Caucasus. It was founded in 1784 during the reign of Catherine the Great on the right bank of the Terek River as a Russian outpost near the Ossetian village. The Russian fortress Dzaudzhikau Vladikavkaz was built near the Ossetian settlement Dzaudzhikau (village Dzauga). The village was founded Ossetian Dzaugom Bugulov (whose monument stands in Vladikavkaz).
During the late 18th century, the Vladikavkaz fortress was the main military fortification of Russia’s Caucasus line. In 1860, Tsar Alexander II issued a decree transforming the fortress into Vladikavkaz city. From 1944 to 1954 the city was called Dzaudzhikau; from 1954 to 1990 it was called Ordzhonikidze. In 1990 the city regained it historical names, Vladikavkaz, and Dzaudzhikau, the traditional name of the city in the Ossetian language.
Vladikavkaz has been a multi-cultural as evidenced by its places of worship. It has Russian churches and cathedrals, Ossetian, Armenian and Greek churches, a German Lutheran Church, a Jewish Synagogue, a Roman Catholic Church and Sunni and Shiite mosques. Prospekt Mira (formerly Alexander Avenue) — the central street of Vladikavkaz — boasts more than 50 architectural monuments. Many attractions are concentrated on the banks of the Terek River: the Armenian Gregorian Church, a monument to the Hero of the Soviet Union Issa Pliev, a Sunni mosque. Along the promenade is a park with sports facilities, cafes and benches. The Park of Culture and Rest — KL Khetagurova — occupies two terraces next to the Terek River. There are fine views of the mountains from the park.
Mukhtarov Mosque, or the Sunni Mosque, is one of the symbols of Vladikavkaz. It is located on Kotsoeva street on the left bank of the Terek river. The Mosque is built in an Egyptian architectural style and named after the Azeri philanthropist Murtuzy-Aga Mukhtarov, who donated over 50,000 rubles (an incredibly large sum for that time) for its construction. Sunni mosque is located on the waterfront of the left bank of the Terek River, opposite the central part of KL Khetagurova Park. The two-storey building has gold-painted walls and ceilings and more than 300 different inscriptions from the Koran, the majority in letters of gold.
Near Vladikavkaz you can find old Alan-Ossestian stone towers used to descend to the narrow valleys where people lived. In Dargavs (40 kilometers from Vladikavkaz) you can see old Ossetian cemetery with beehive tombs with skeletons visible through some of the cracks (See Below). Several stone towers can be seen in the valleys and narrow gorges of the Kurtat Valley.
Tsmiti (60 kilometers southwest of Vladikavkaz) is a medieval village, which looks pretty much as did centuries ago. Here you can find a unique necropolis consisting of tombs with terrestrial and semi-underground graves, places of worship and the family towers. Petroglyphs on the wall of one of the towers depicts animals which seem to have played an important role in the welfare of the community.
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.
Midagrabinsky Waterfalls (near the border with Georgia) is the main attraction of the Midagrabin Mountain valley. This eight-level cascade waterfall has been been known for a long time, but only in 1995 was it recognized that one of the waterfalls — Bolshaya Zaigelan — is the highest waterfall in Europe and the fifth highest in world, at 750 meters. Midagrabinskiye waterfalls is feed by glacial water. In the winter is dries up and consists of only ice on rocks. It comes alive when the spring melt begin and is best seen in July. The volume of falling water can increases many times after a pouring rain. Midagrabin Valley is seven kilometers situated in a picturesque natural amphitheater with soaring rock walls with 12 stunning snow-white waterfalls. The journey from Vladikavkaz to the gorge takes about an hour by car, and then another half hour on foot. Tourists should bring their passport bec, as this is a border zone.
Monument to Uastirdzhi, Khetag Grove is a unique monument that honors of Uastirdzhi. the patron saint of Ossetians, male warriors and travelers, whose image resonates with George the Victorious. The monument — a gigantic bronze figure of a rider on a horse breaking out of a cliff at an altitude of 22 meters — was erected in 1995 at the beginning of Alagir Gorge on the side of the TransCaucasus highway. If you leave Vladikavkaz head west towards the village of Gisel. After 30 kilometers, before reaching Alagir, on the right side you will see a grove of trees about a half a kilometer in diameter and almost perfectly round in shape. For Ossetians, this grove — Khetag Grove — is a natural temple of Uastirdzhi, above which there is only God in the world. A prayer house and places for offerings are arranged here, and holidays are held.
Tsei Gorge and Sanctuary of Recom
Tsei Gorge (60 kilometers west of Vladikavkaz) is located at an altitude of 1300 meters and extends from east to west for 23 kilometers. The site of a ski resort, It is famous for its healing mountain air, beautiful snowy peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, mixed forests and thermal springs. Steep slopes attract for climbers, skiers, snowboarders. There are cable cars, hotels, cafes and climbing camps. Popular destinations include Mount Monk, Tseiskoy and Skazsky glaciers and the ancient sanctuary Recom.
The Sanctuary of Recom (also spelled Rekom) is one of the most revered ancient places in North Ossetia. The ancient deity Recom was considered by local people a purely “masculine”. He was asked for a successful hunts, a rich harvest, protection. Therefore, only males could go in his sanctuary. On the way to the sanctuary are sanctuaries for fulfillment and female desires.
Recom Sanctuary is located in Tsei (also spelled Tsey) Gorge in the Alagir district at a height of over 2,000 meters. It is the only log sanctuary in Ossetia built without the use of nails or any other iron items. Iron was only used for the purposes of decoration. Each log was specially cut to fit into the grooves of the previous log so there were no gaps. The structure has a low wooden roof supported on both sides by carved wooden pillars capped with crests decorated with ornaments and figures of birds. The Sanctuary in its present state was recreated in the 1990s after the original temple was burned down after a lightning strike. Locals attributed this event to the anger of the gods. Women are strictly forbidden to set foot on the territory of the holy place. Men hold this place in deep esteem.
Dargavs Necropolis: City of the Dead
City of the Dead (30 kilometers southwest of Vladikavkaz) is located in the Dargavsky Gorge, on a mountainside, in the vicinity of the village of the same name. It is sometimes called the “plague monument”. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, in the mountain gorges of not only North Ossetia, but also other regions of the Caucasus, a plague epidemic raged, killing tens of thousands of people.
The City of Dead (the Necropolis in Dargavs village) contains 99 two- and four-storey above-ground stone vaults and hundreds of smaller tombs. Historians believe the necropolis dates back to the 16th-18th centuries The first builders of the necropolis were said to be the Mongols, the Nogai, and the Kobans. Scientists say, however, that the city of the dead was erected by the Alans, the ancestors of the Ossetians. Height and complexity of the vaults give an idea about the level of affluence of a particular family. Skeletons are visible through some of the cracks between the stones. Some old tombs contain bodies in boat-like coffins made out of solid pieces of barrel. No one is sure why this is.
According to one version of the plague story when the disease struck the mountain gorges of Dargavs in the 18th and 19th centuries, those who contracted the disease, along their entire families and with children in their arms, were banished from villages, in order not to infect their neighbors, and sent to preconstructed crypts, where they died. As a result of the plague, the population of Ossetia was reduced from 200,000 at the end of the 18th century to 16,000 in the middle of the 19th century. If these figures are correct, then the Dargavs necropolis could be the world's biggest monument to plague.
The City of the Dead is set on the steep rocky slopes of Mount Raminyrag in Dargavs Ossetia Prigorodny district and is considered, by the standards of the Highlanders, a good place for living and farming. But the village where it is located is abandoned village. In 1830 Dargavs population seriously affected when Russian tsarist troops killed many people during a large Ossetian uprising. Many old buildings were destroyed and the village nearly became a ghost town. The village suffered another blow in 2002 when Kolka Glacier cut off Dargavs from the surrounding settlements.
Rock Fortress in Dzivgis Village
Dating back to the 13th-16th centuries, one of the largest rock fortresses in the Caucasus stands right on the slopes of a rocky ridge behind Dzivgis village. The fortress complex consists of seven independent defensive facilities that are located at the entrances to the natural cave formations.
The communication between separate fortress towers was carried out through bridges or wooden walkways laid on beams that were hammered into rock crevices. When the walkways were removed, the towers were almost impossible to take over. The central tower was built above the entrance to a rather long cave, about 70 meters long from the entrance.
This powerful fortification is literally built into the rock. It has repeatedly saved the Ossetians during the raids of conquerors. Oriental chroniclers wrote that “it was extremely difficult to get there due to the height, which was so great that our eyes would get blurry and our hats would fall from our heads.”
There is a theory that in the early 17th century, after conquering most of Georgia, Shah Abbas the Great made an expeditionary march through the Caucasus ridge, thereby invading the territory of present-day North Ossetia. A popular legend has it that the troops of Abbas I tried to capture three impregnable Alanian fortresses, but despite all their tricks, they could not do it. According to the legend, the first of these impregnable fortresses in the Shah's path was Dzivgis Rock Fortress. However, there are much earlier sources that mention Dzivgis Rock Fortress. The Book of Victory by Sharaf al-Din Yazdi (1424 — 1425) describes an impregnable rock fortress in a gorge that geographically coincides with the present-day Kurtat gorge during the Tamerlane's campaign in Alania.
Towers in North Ossetia
Kurta and Taga Tower (in Flagdone, 40 kilometers southwest Vladikavkaz) is located at the intersection of three gorges, so its defenders were supposed to repel attacks from different sides, protecting the gorge. There were also customs gates. The walls of the tower have loopholes, used by archers, gunmen and warriors with other weapons. Today, the defensive tower of Kurt and Taga is popular with tourists that make it to North Ossetia. Kurt and Taga are the two founding brothers of East Ossetia. They lived at time of constant raids by hostile neighbors and robbers who roamed the gorges in search of easy prey. The tower is protected from three sides.
Defensive Towers Gabisova (10 kilometers north of Vladikavkaz) are located in Kurtat Gorge in the Tsmyti village, Halgon areas. Dated 14th-15th centuries, the defensive towers are dilapidated but are fairly acessible to Vladikavkaz and have an interesting story behind them. Initially the tower belonged to two families, the Gabisova and Tsagaraev, whose acrimonious quarrels led to a blood feud, that was finally solved by a council of elders ordered the Tsagaraev family to a new village, allowing Gabisova to claim the towers.
Just looking at this tower, you realize that it has erected a powerful and wealthy clan. It really is. The people say that every hewn stone cost the owner of a sheep. But this price is quite satisfied customers. After the tower was built for the noble family Mamsurova.
The tower is located in the village of Mamsurova Dargavs Prigorodny district of North Ossetia. It stands proudly on 15 meters.
The tower was restored representatives Mamsurova name. Four floor structures are interconnected by means of partitions with ladders and trapdoors. Today, this family tower is one of the highest in South Ossetia. Tower - an object of cultural heritage of federal importance. It dates from the 17th-18th centuries.
Tower Hestanovyh (60 kilometers west of Vladikavkaz) lies at the edge of the abandoned settlement of Donisar. It is an excellent example of Ossetian mountain architecture. It was built by the Dzuttagovyh clan in the 19th century. The exterior wall is richly decorated with architectural decorations, solar symbols and other ornamental characters. The tower is located on a large boulder. Its stability is ensured by the fact that the entire first floor, in addition to a small chamber, are laid stones. Tower was built for defensive purposes. This is evident from the loopholes on the walls, and by the fact that to get close to the tower unnoticed is impossible.
Natural Sights in North Ossetia
Karaugomsky Glacier (in Alania National Park, 75 kilometers west of Vladikavkaz) is just over 13 kilometers and covers an area of 27 square kilometers. The glacier descends to an altitude of 1820 meters and has two glacier icefalls. The upper one, the most powerful, breaks through the narrow "gates" of Karaugomskogo ridge and flows from a height of 3500 meters. The glacier tongue extends for 800 meters. The Lower icefall is about 500 meters long. The Karaugomdon River flows from the glacier. "Karaugom" translated from Ossetian means "blind valley" or "gorge, with no outlet." This name is used because in some places it appears the only way you get to the gorge is over a high icefall.
Mount Kazbek is 5033 meters high. A dormant volcano, that lasted erupted in 650 B.C., it attracts hikers and climbers. A number of ancient legends are associated with it. For example, one of them says that Prometheus was chained to the rocks of Kazbek.
Ermolovsky Stone is the largest erratic boulder in Europe. It comprised of gray granite and is 30 meters long, 17 meters wide and 15 meters high. It displaces is about 6,000 cubic meters and weighs approximately 15,000 tonnes. Most of the boulder hidden under the river sediments. According to one hypothesis, the boulder was deposited here by a catastrophic event such as the collapse of the Devdokarskogo glacier, which periodically occurs.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in September 2020