Russia’s Hauntingly Mystifying City of the Dead

by M-Gillies

 

Family tombs built on a hillside in Dargavs, Russia

The oldest crypts date back to the 16th century. Each family has its own tomb, the taller the tomb, the larger number of family members resting within.

Making the journey requires a three-hour trek along serpentine roads winding through several hills. It is a place that is shrouded deep in myth and legend, but is also one of social civil strife. Located in one of Russia’s smaller regions of North Caucasus, there lies an isolated village dotted with weatherworn, ancient white-stone houses built on the incline of a small mountain, they overlook the approaching 17-kilometer valley with unearthly omnipotence. In Russia, this hidden village is known as Dargavs, a place more commonly referred to as the City of the Dead and the Ancient Ossetian Cemetery.

It is here, in Dargavs, where nearly 100 ancient stone crypts remain in an area that has drawn little interest from anyone living nearby, with the exception of the few tourists and archaeologists who happen to have heard of it.

For many years, Dargavs was once considered one of the largest settlements in Ossetia. With the past settlements located on the bank of the river Gizeoldon, which is found in the very center of a mountain hollow that appeared thousands of years ago as a result of glaciers melting, the valley was and is known as one of the sunniest places in the republic.

Protected from nebulous fronts and winds by the mountains, the settlement of Dargavs provided the residents unique conditions for stock farming and agriculture. However, now the ruins of the Hussar-Hintsag settlement and two towers that were once parts of a castle litter the valley looked upon by the gloomy crypts that make up the City of the Dead.

Scattered along the hill’s incline, the white bricked crypts, there are 95 of them, were built in a variety of sizes. Some have underground chambers while others have two and even three floors depending on the number of generations of family they hold.

But for many, it’s what lies within and the mysteries surrounding these crypts that have garnered the City of the Dead’s reputation as one wrought in mysticism and lore. When archaeologists first ventured to the City of the Dead, they established the first tombs were built at the beginning of the 16th century, with the last burial taking place in 1830.

Amid the various crypts, archaeologists further discovered items that not only shed light on the Ossetia tradition, but also embroiled it in further mystery. Built in front of each crypt is a well, with the legend saying that once the Ossetians buried their dead, they would drop a coin in the well. If the coin hit a stone at the bottom, it was an indication that the soul had reached heaven.

However, one peculiar discovery remains the mystery of the wooden boat-shaped structures many of the bodies inside the crypt had been buried in. While Dargavs isn’t located near any navigable rivers, many have speculated that the boats where used to help the departed soul cross a river in order to reach heaven.

While the mysteries and lore surrounding Dargavs have given the City of the Dead a hauntingly unnerving presence, it is the tale of the plague that led to the construction of the crypts that have left many locals avoiding any journey to the ancient necropolis. They say, anyone who dares enter the burial grounds risks losing their life.

It was during the turn of the 18th century when the Ossetians were afflicted with plague that resulted in a population drop from 200,000 to 16,000 by the middle of the 19th century. With the plague sweeping through the region, the Ossentians took to building quarantine houses to nurse the sick and their families, until death finally claimed their lives. Some stories tell of people who could not afford burial, and so would crawl into a family crypt as they awaited their deaths.

 

 

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