With all the paranoia seeping into American society over Russia, thanks to the Trump administration, the gringa would like to take a moment to share some good and interesting stuff about Russia. You see, it’s so easy to generalize and say, “Russia bad” and forget all about the human element. Just because Trump and Putin and their respective governing bodies may be ruthless, greedy megalomaniacs, the Russian people are generally just like people everywhere. Some good. Some bad. And the nation of Russia is filled with rich history just like every other place on earth.
The gringa feels a bit guilty of all the complaining and criticizing I’ve been doing lately. It’s about time to focus on some good stuff. And the Russian good stuff I plan to focus on is all dead. In fact, an entire city of the dead.
Believe it or not, a city of dead Russians gets 4 out of 5 stars from travel experts as a must-see place to visit for guests to Russia. So, if you are planning your own tour, put the city of Dargavs on your bucket list. Also, pack your best Sherlock Holmes gear because this little gem is filled with mystery. Maybe you can crack the case and take your place in history as well.
When you arrive you will not be greeted with an eerie sight of Russian zombies and fog-filled ancient cobbled streets. You will discover a hillside burial ground set against the rugged backdrop of the Greater Caucasus mountain range.
Dargavs is found in North Ossetia. Stone structures, most with steep tiled roofs, house the resting places of ancient citizens called the great Alans who were a sub-set of the Sarmatian tribes. Although they are well-known as a nomadic, pastoral people speaking an ancient Eastern Iranian dialect, who lived around the first millennium of our current era.
The surviving ancestors of the great Alans buried belongings with their loved ones when they were entombed. Among the relics concealed in the crypts of this mysterious necropolis are:
- Open, boat-like vessels to hold the corpse rather than a traditional coffin (curious since there are no rivers nearby)
Despite some UFOlogists convinced the great Alans were really extra-terrestrials, the gringa thinks they were just regular humans. It seems they had beliefs and lifestyle practices that link them to every other group of humans trying to eke out an existence with primitive means in a harsh climate. Consider the stuff that researchers and archaeologists can all agree on that is very “humanizing”:
- The crypts house the remains of entire families throughout multiple chambers and sometimes multiple levels.
- Criminals were entombed in “exile”, their tombs constructed outside the collection of crypts for the Alan clan in general.
- Each tomb features a well at the entrance to the crypt that contains coins. So, the great Alans were sophisticated and human enough to understand economics, earnings and wealth.
- They practiced some sort of religion or superstitions that had a belief in the afterlife hence the construction of a symbolic watchtower to guard the tombs and is, perhaps, the explanation for entombment with boats despite not being a river-faring people.
There are many theories to explain some of the mysterious features that are, indeed curious, as well as to try to understand what the story was for the great Alans.
Religion: It is presumed that the boats and wells with coins are possibly related to the great Alans’ religious beliefs. The ancient Ossetians are believes to be pagans. However, a pagan is not an atheist. They do have religious beliefs, or superstitions, if you will.
Many religions feature boats and rivers as the means of travel to the world of the afterlife. The river Styx of Greek mythology is, perhaps, the most well-known. However, Acheron was also a river the dead navigated to the underworld on a ferry with Charon at the helm who served the king of Hades. It was known as the river of pain and at times, in legends and myth, is interchangeable with the River Styx.
An interesting note is that ferryman Charon also required a fee of a single coin. Non-payment meant a soul was left to wander aimlessly the banks of the River Acheron, presumably in great pain and anguish. However, if you are entombed with your own boat, why would you expect to need the services of another boatman? Perhaps the rivers Styx/Acheron were not the ultimate destination for the great Alans.
Ancient rivers of the underworld are also:
- Lethe, also known as the river of forgetfulness and oblivion of sleep (no fee required).
- Phlegethon was written about by Plato who believed it led to the deepest parts of Tartarus. Dante also penned a bit about this river in his legendary “Inferno”, it existing in the Seventh Circle of Hell, a boiling river where souls were tormented in cages by Centaurs tasked with dipping them in to the river’s scalding depths. Probably not the intended afterlife river for a people who hoped to arrive with their own boats.
- Cocytus, the River of Wailing, joins with Acheron, ultimately leading to a frozen lake. It is the destination of traitors and all who commit sins against humanity. This may have been the destination of the criminals entombed in the outer circle, the Cocytus being a river that encircles the underworld.
- Oceanus, another afterlife river that encircles the entire underworld, this freshwater stream was where the edge of the world met the cosmos. Although some think this would have been a gloomy, lonely afterlife existence, the gringa thinks this may have actually been the most coveted locale of the dead because they would be the ones nearest the realm of the gods. This may have been where the great Alans hoped their souls would be headed after death and they would need their own boats to navigate the waters of Oceanus. So, then, what was the coin for?
History of the Wishing Well: Wishing wells are common all over the world. Toss in a coin for good luck. We all do it. Anthropologists date the practice as far back as ancient Egypt and the Mesoamerican cultures. It was common practice to placate the gods with gifts. Want your natural water resources to remain sweet and pure? Toss in a valuable coin as a gift and hope for the best. This lends credence to the local legend that loved ones of dead great Alans would toss a coin in the well for good luck with regard to the afterlife situation of a family member who had passed.
Of interesting note is the local legend that the entire clan was wiped out by a plague. This is to explain the small, rectangular open entries into the tombs rather than be sealed crypts. It is said that once a person’s entire family died, having no one left to bury them, once becoming sick, the remaining survivor would climb into the tomb and await death. The gringa wonders if they tossed a coin into the well for themselves since they knew no one else was left alive to wish them well on the other side?
If you plan to visit, expect quite a trek to get there and plan to be your own guide. The place is remote and rarely visited. Even the locals avoid it on pain of death. It’s about a 3 hour drive from the nearest thing that can be called civilization. And the road has a reputation for danger. But, from the looks of things, if you like adventure, history and mystery, this will be a very satisfying jaunt!
Encylclopedia of Sacred Places, Volume 1 by Norbert Brookman
Image Credits: Atlas Obscura
Video Credit: Sam Conney