We are in Russia’s North Ossetia, hidden in one of the five mountain ridges that cross the region.
Reaching this interesting and unusual destination requires a three-hour drive, taking you down a dangerous and hidden road, really what could be expected from a trip to the city of the dead! The foggy mountain weather certainly doesn’t help.
The village of Dargavs, friendly know as the City of the Dead, has an ancient cemetery where people that lived in the valley buried their loved ones along with their clothes and belongings. The valley stretches for 17 kilometers, and the cemetery contains almost 100 ancient stone graves.
It is a very mysterious place with, of course, a lot of myths and legends: It was once believed that if anyone tried to get to the city they would never come back alive. This is said to be the reason locals almost never visit Dargavs.
Another legend says that the site is where a group of warriors kidnapped a beautiful girl from a faraway land. Since they could not agree on who owned her, they killed her. The gods punished the warriors for murder and they slowly died from a strange disease in the tombs.
According to local legends, in the 18th century a plague swept through Ossetia. The clans built quarantine houses for sick family members, who were provided with food but not the freedom to move about until death claimed their lives. People who did not have any remaining family members to bury them would just wait in the massive cemetery until their death. It was a very slow and painful way to go, and in the City of Death they stay.
A legend confirmed by most historians, who believe that a plague hit the area of Ossetia sometime between the 16th and 18th century AD, one which claimed tens of thousands of lives and dropped the Ossetian population from 200,000 at the end of the 18th century to 16,000 by the middle of 19th century. In order not to infect their neighbors, the sick, with whole families and children, went into these pre-built crypts and never came out again. They survived on meager rations of food brought in by locals and their corpses were left to rot inside the huts when they died.
This place hardly ever gets any tourists either, although this might be due to the difficulty of just getting there, and the local superstitions probably have little to do with the lack of popularity, although they do still linger.
Russia has a lot of really unique places to offer but these historic sites do not attract much attention. The area is of little interest to anyone, barring a few archaeologists who have made some unusual discoveries here.
Ossetians say that the cemetery helps them understand how people lived 400 years ago and archeologists are very interested in exploring the site more completely, as there have been interesting items found that have attracted some scientific attention.
It was discovered, for example, that the bodies inside the crypts were buried in wooden structures that look like boats (one was even found with an oar next to it) and the mystery remains as to how the boats came to be in a place with no navigable rivers. One explanation is that the departed soul had to cross a river in order to get to heaven, similar to the afterlife stories of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and hence the boat.
Another interesting fact is that of a well in front of each crypt. It is said that once the Ossetians buried their dead, they would drop a coin in the well, and If it happened to hit a stone at the bottom, it was taken to mean that the soul had reached heaven.
What at first appear to be lots of little white houses, are actually stone crypts, the oldest dating back to the 16th century. If one spends some time in North Ossetia, they say it’s possible to feel the ancient vibes around the city and its surrounding area.