City of the Dead: The Mysterious Village of Dargavs, Russia
Often referred to as the City of the Dead , the village of Dargavs is considered to be one of the more mysterious sites in Russia. Hidden away in one of the five mountain ridges somewhere in the Caucasus mountains, the “city” is actually an ancient necropolis full of tombs or crypts. The people who lived here, buried their loved ones in this site for reasons that have been lost in the passage of time.
Many myths and legends surround the site and in the past local people refused to go here out of fear that they would not come out alive. Some sources say the oldest crypts dates back to the 16th century and were made due to a plague that swept through the area decimating the population.
The Remote Location of the City of the Dead
Dargavs is located in the republic of North Ossetia in southern Russia. A three hour drive through dangerous and winding roads, the site sits on the slope of a hill overlooking the Fiagdon River. It lies in the middle of a mountain valley which stretches over 17 kilometers (10. 6 miles) with 4,000 meter (13,000 feet) peaks looming above the village.
Mountain looming over Dargavs: The City of the Dead ( Wikimedia Commons )
The first mention of the site dates back to the beginning of the 14th Century AD, when the ancestors of the modern day Ossetians settled down on the mountain ridge. Since the land was so expensive, it is said they were forced to choose the windiest and most unserviceable place imaginable. However, at one time this area was also the center of the largest population in Eastern Ossetia.
The necropolis looks like the remains of a medieval village, with small dwellings grouped together on a grassy hill. But go closer, and you won’t find a living soul inside any of these houses. That’s because residents have been burying their dead here for hundreds of years and in each crypt human skulls and bones have been found.
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Skeletons inside Dargavs Crypt, Russia ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Architecture of the Dargavs Crypts
The grassy hill that Dargavs is located on is dotted with little white buildings. These white, house-like structures, are stone crypts and the necropolis has almost 100 of them that rise up the hillside in a very organized manner. At the back of the entire complex is a watch tower whose top part has been destroyed. It is said that the tower was placed there to watch over the resting souls. The tombs themselves are shaped like huts with curved roofs going inwards in steps and pointed peaks at the top, typical of Nakh architecture.
Some of the bigger crypts are 2 to 4 stories high and the smaller crypts have flat sides on the front; several crypts have no roofs at all. On the inside of the larger crypts there is a pyramidal groin vault complex that holds up the roof. The smaller crypts have pointed barrel vaults. These pyramidal and conical roof vaults are built of slate in the form of stepped ledges. The walls are made up of stone blocks and mortared (most likely with lime or clay-lime) and have square, window-like openings which were designed to put corpses inside.
The people who lived in the valley buried their loved ones along with clothes and other belongings. Each family had a crypt, and the taller the tomb, the greater the number of people who were buried inside. Some have underground chambers while others have two and even three floors depending on the number of generations of family they hold. There are also common crypts, which were used for those who had no family or were from outside the village.
Close-up image of building, ruins of settlement, Dargavs, Russia (Bigstockphoto)
Legends and the Mysterious Dead Boatmen and Women
Interestingly, it was discovered that the bodies inside the crypts were buried in wooden structures resembling boats (one was even found with an oar next to it). The mystery remains as to how and why the boats came to be there when there are no navigable rivers nearby. One explanation is that it was believed 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. Another interesting fact is that there are wells in front of each crypt. Many coins have been found in the ground near the complex and it is said that when the Ossetians buried their dead, they dropped a coin in the well. If it happened to hit a stone at the bottom, that meant that the soul of the dead had reached heaven.
One legend that surrounds the cemetery says that any man who dared walk in would never come out alive again. 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 highlanders for murder and they slowly died from a strange disease in the tombs.
These legends and the scary background of the necropolis may have provided some of the inspiration for a Moscow-based film company to choose the location for their horror film in 2018. Although shooting was cut short when a regional administrator got spooked by the content of the script, the company apparently has enough footage of Dargavs to continue with their movie.
Most historians 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.
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Dargavs Today - a Ghost town
There are several similar “Cities of the Dead” scattered across Ossetia, but Dargavs is considered to be the most impressive probably due to the large number of mausoleums here and the stunning natural beauty of the area.
During Soviet times, tourists came to visit by the busload, and there was even a ticket booth manned by an Ossetian babushka (Russian grandmother). The environment of Dargavs is rich in monuments from the Bronze Age to the late Middle Ages and has provided archaeologists with a wealth of information about how Ossetians in the area lived hundreds of years ago.
Despite the archaeological richness, the mystery, and the beauty of the site, these days it has all but been deserted. Rarely do tourists visit this place - which is like to be due more to the difficulty in getting to Dargavs than any death curse associated with it.
Featured Image: Ruins of Ancient Settlement Dargavs (Bigstock)
By Bryan Hill
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"North Ossetia City of the Dead." Atlas Obscura. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/north-ossetia-city-dead-cemetery
"Mysterious and Magnificent Ancient Cemetery of North Ossetia." - RT News. June 11, 2011. http://rt.com/news/features/north-ossetia-dead-city/
"Dargavs, The City of The Dead." Dargavs, The City of The Dead. July 30, 2014. http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/07/dargavs-city-of-dead.html
"A City of Dead People in North Ossetia - Russian Times." Russian Times. April 3, 2015. http://russiantimes.net/the-city-of-dead-people-in-north-ossetia/
"Dargavs - Russia's City of the Dead | Oddity Central - Collecting Oddities." Oddity Central Collecting Oddities. December 19, 2011. http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/dargavs-russias-city-of-the-dead.html
"Russia’s Hauntingly Mystifying City of the Dead Russia’s Hauntingly Mystifying City of the Dead." https://mysendoff.com/2013/08/russias-hauntingly-mystifying-city-of-the-dead/
Very interesting article, sorry to be somewhat scatterbrained but I have chemo brain currently, but I seem to remember a similar 'village of the dead' with small houselike structures on an island in the med, Sicily or Sardinia?
Thankyou for a fascinating article. Ocko, thankyou for a wonderful and informative discussion after-most informative, thorough and helpful.
also lime has an interesting feature.
In parts of Germany a few weeks before wintersolstice, farmers put lime around certain trees (appletrees as that were a sacred meal at wintersolstice ((as well as nuts and bakery goods in certain shapes))) and these trees would blossom at wintersolstice.
the Christmas tree is the old heathen tree of life (even in the old Testament Eva gave an apple to Adam from the tree of knowledge ((a little twist, as apples has a lot of healthy ingredients)))
The tree of life as a custom was lit with candles (or with its own blossoms when it ws standing). ((though the heathen tree of life is a pine, for its evergreen needles))
So lime might have had a certain meaning here and was not only functional. If trees really blossom when lime is put around them, then the lime could have the meaning to bring back to life what is dead.
The boat is a prehistoric symbol, representing the year. ancient boat engravings in Scandinavia reveal a boat typ like the viking boats, with a svan neck looking forward and backward, representing the ascending and descending sun in the year cycle. One finds the same shape in the lyra. The svan was the holy sign for the prehistoric people until the heathen time was ended by Christianity. We still have svans in our legends, like in Tristan. They seem to have been the carriers of light,
these type of boats are also found in native canoes. The word canoe contains the consonants c-n like in the german word Kahn (one of several names to indicate a certain type of boat) which suggests that this type of boats had c-n or k-n name, which than also connects to 'snake', another n-k word, the reversal of n-k, both indicating the rising sun (the s-n consonants like in snake). The snake is also used in viking boats looking forward and backward. often the snake is shown as a ring, a snake eating its tail, like the sun going through the year cycle. (as a side, the celtic cross shows the year cycle and within the two equinoxes and two solstices).
The old aryan language had word for nouns, and also verbs, indicatin relationship to the ascending sun and descending sun, like canoe and snake (the viking word for their ships is Schnake). The Caucasus is part of the original homeland of the aryan people, reaching from the baltic sea to the Caspian sea, that is what linguistic studies found out.
in the eddiic lore, Loki's father, is a ferrymen and his mother is a leafy islands. Loki is the endiger, or with a more modern buzzword, the terminator. making thus the connection to death (of the light at the year end, the endiger of the Aesir at the Ragnaroek and so on) thus his father (creator) is bringing the dead in his ferry to the island of the falling leafs, the area of death.
In old greek myths, Lethe, the river of death has to be crossed by a ferrymen.
modern shamans like Ingerman, report to go into the underworld, through a ferry to the world of the dead to rescue a soul, a different but nevertheless reality.
A world, described in the Edda as Utgard. In german lore it is the male capital deer/elk who leads the people into the dark forest into a strange world.
well, I disgress.
The paddle is probably not so much as a paddle but a stearing device, indicating a ferryman, bringing the dead, to the place where they belong, to Hel/Frau Holle or in the christian terminology Hell, the world of the dead. to get there one has to cross a river as well (as Baldr and his wife is visited by his brother on Odins horse ((the horse is another light carrier, Odins horse Sleipnir is one of them, as well as Baldrs horse,,(((therefore the horse shoe had been nailed to houses, as a sign of goodwishes to the houses)))). The horseshoe forms the runa Ur, meaning the beginning of everything, the clan, the soil the beginners of the clan started, the customs and traditions (wisdom frozen into form to be given to the descandends). It is also in the form of the Uterus, the symbol of the feminine in which the mystery of life starts and spirits becomes one with the physical, which is dissolved at death.
The houses in egg form are symbols for the rebirth of the soul.
As a side, the Koran has a Sura, saying that graveyards and hospitals are void of Allah/ El, one of the free semitic Gods El, Baal (Baldur, A-poll-o, Bel-enos etc.pp) and Jahve. The old trinity of Gods which is plenty in heathen lore.
It seems that there was a lake or something close to the slope of the houses of death, it might be, that they chose the place therefore, to have the symbol of crossing the river/waters of death. (water is in general the symbol for life, see heathen baptizing ((copied by christians) and name giving, thus recognizing the baby as an individual with a past. ((also the three nornes (((represented by three wise women with followers consisting of 15 virgins and 15 young boys, the number 30 one also often finds in lore, entering even christianity with the 30 years when Jesus started his teaching (((second , also in Gudruns second lay, or in caves at prehistoric times, where bears ((another sun animal)) where shot with 30 arrows etc pp))) ...came to talk about the past of the baby, the present strength and weaknesses and his skuld, that what it has to accomplish in the new life time, the thirty arrows or attitudes which will make the new human perfect and whole,holy or healed. the h-l value))))))))
So as the bear goes into the cave to sleep through the winter, the dark time, the snake goes under the surface of the Earth, the sun disappears in a daily rythm and yearly rhythm beneath the horizon, so the dead are buried into the soil, to reappear with the new light of life.
It would be interesting to study holy numbers and forms more deeply.