The North Caucasian Republic of North Ossetia-Alania is one of a series of semi-autonomous Russian republics stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Like the other republics and countries in the region, it is steeped in history and has often been at the mercy of successive empires jockeying for power over the mountain range that forms a frontier between Europe and Asia.
It was one of four North Caucasian republics I visited earlier this year. To be honest, before I had been there, this small area of territory had not been at the forefront of my consciousness. But that is one of the great things about travel: discovering and experiencing new places.
In the north, the land is generally flat, but quickly rises in the south into the Caucasus, with the 5000m Mount Kazbek straddling the border with Georgia. In the past, the rugged landscapes made getting around difficult, but also made it easier to defend territory against invaders.
From the 8th to 13th centuries, what is today North Ossetia was part of the Ossetian-speaking Kingdom of Alania. In 1238-39, the Mongols invaded and destroyed the kingdom, leaving its lands to be repeatedly overrun by competing powers in the centuries that followed.
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In the 1700s, Ossetia went into an alliance with Russia, giving its vast northern neighbour a first foothold in the Caucasus, an area hitherto under the sway of the Ottoman Empire and the Khanate of the Crimea. The Russians built a fort and called it Vladikavkaz, meaning ‘Ruler of the Caucasus’. It would later develop into North Ossetia’s capital. By 1806, Ossetia was completely under Russian control.
From 1936 to 1992 North Ossetia was an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, one of 30 such territories in the USSR. In the years before the break-up of the Soviet Union, nationalist movements swept through the Caucasus region and in North Ossetia there were calls to revive the name Alania. In 1994, three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘Alania’ was added to the republic’s official title.
At this point, even though this post is about North Ossetia-Alania, I should add that there is also a South Ossetia. In Soviet times, it was an oblast or province of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, South Ossetia found itself isolated in the newly independent country of Georgia. In the same year, South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia, sparking a series of conflicts. These culminated in the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia and South Ossetia’s de facto independence from Georgia. Only Russia and three other countries recognise its status, however.
Now back to North Ossetia. Today, some two thirds of people living in the republic are ethnic Ossetians, while one in five is Russian. The rest are Ingush, Armenians, Kymuks or from other ethnic groups.
Sixty percent of the population are Christians, while nearly a third is Uatsdin. Uatsdin means ‘True Faith’ and is based on the mythology, rituals and beliefs of the Scythians, an ancient Iranian people who dominated Central Asia from the 9th to 1st centuries BC. Followers of Uatsdin believe in a supreme God, but worship a pantheon of other beings, lesser gods, ancestors and heroes, too. In North Ossetia, Uatsdin also incorporates folk traditions.
North Ossetia has many ancient rituals and practices. The ‘City of the Dead’ at Dargavs is one example. What looks like a hillside village of quaint cottages straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie is in fact a necropolis. Good farmland was scarce in the mountains, so centuries ago the people laid their dead to rest in stone huts on hillsides that could not be farmed.
According to local legend, in the 18th century the plague arrived. In this version, the huts were built to quarantine the infected who would retire there to die. Whichever is true, skeletons can still be seen inside the little windswept buildings.
Typical for North Ossetia – and indeed the region – are defensive stone towers. Not only did people have to protect themselves from invading armies, blood feuds meant they often had to seek refuge from their neighbours. Such towers can be seen across the Caucasus region.
Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia’s capital, has a distinctly Russian feel to it. With neoclassical buildings and a tree-lined walkway in the middle, the main avenue is typical of 19th-century Russian urban planning. What was less usual, though, was a Belgian beer bar – here in the depths of the Caucasus! Inside, it looked pretty authentic and served an impressively wide range of Belgian beers.
In 2004, North Ossetia made international headlines when a group of Chechens seized a school in the town of Beslan. On 1 September, the first day of the new academic year, heavily armed men took the teachers and hundreds of children hostage at the Comintern SNO school. The Chechens demanded Moscow withdraw from Chechnya and recognise its independence. The world held its breath as attempts were made to negotiate the hostages’ release. After three days, Russian security forces stormed the buildings. The school caught fire and the roof collapsed killing nearly 400 of the 1100 people inside.
Today, the remains of the school have been turned into a shrine to those who died. A short drive outside Beslan is a special cemetery, dedicated to the victims. It was an eerie experience visiting the school and cemetery, but interesting and thought provoking to hear local perspectives on the tragic events that took place there.
There were many things in North Osettia-Alania that on the surface of it seemed similar to other places I had been. But beyond the veneer of familiarity, it was clear that, like its neighbours, there are many aspects of this small republic’s history and culture that are markedly different to those of the rest of Europe.
I travelled to North Ossetia-Alania with Untamed Borders and had a great trip.