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South Ossetia - 19th Century Ossetia

Georgia was a former kingdom of Transcaucasia, which existed historically for more than 2000 years. Its earliest name was Karthli or Karthveli; the Persians knew it as Gurjistan, the Romans and Greeks as Iberia, though the latter placed Colchis also in the west of Georgia. Vrastan is the Armenian name and Gruzia the Russian. Georgia proper, which included Karthli and Kakhctia, was bounded on the North by Ossetia and Daghestan, on the South by the principalities of Erivan and Kars, and on the West by Curia and Imeretia; but the kingdom also included at different times Guria, Mingrelia, Abkhasia, Imeretia and Daghestan, and extended from the Caucasus range on the North to the Aras or Araxes on the South. By around 1900 it was divided between the Russian governments of Tiflis and Kutais.

The Ossetes dwelled to the east of the Basians. They were called sometimes Ossi, Ossis, Ossites, or Ossitinians. In this, as in numerous other instances, one adopted the radical part of the name by which a nation is designated either by the people belonging to it or by their neighbors, while the terminating syllables were in some measure arbitrary, until such time as the celebrity or familiarity of the people among those who write about them established some unchanging designation.

On seeing the clothing, the light chesnut hair, and the red beards of these people, European would say that they were peasants from the north of Russia. They gave themselves the name of Irones. Their language had some connection with the German, Sclavonian, and still more with Persian. The country of the Ossetes commanded the communications with Georgia. It extended from the sources of the Terek to the northern branches of the Kur. In these ruggid mountains, all the rivers flow with an astonishing rapidity. The manners of the Ossetes were of a characteristic simplicity ; their method of saluting consisted in touching the chest for men, and the bosom for women. ln their funerals there is a noisy ostentation of grief: the women beat their breasts, and threaten to precipitate themselves from the top of a rock. They afterwards eat and drink in honor of the dead for three days.

The most considerable tribe of the Ossetians was that of the Tribes ot Dagores. They were said to be tributary to the Badilles, a sort of knights or freemen, living in the highest mountains, and separated by a small river from another equally unknown tribe, that of the Nitigures, a name apparently of Hunnic origin. The Tcherkessates had words which they esteemed sacred, and which were divided into sections, according to the number of their families. They celebrated annual Particular festivals, which last eight days, and resembled that of tabernacles among the Jews. Travellers were hospitably invited to partake, and one of the families was charged with the role of entertaining them. The Dimsars, a republican colony, were incessantly at war with the Dugores.

On the very highest ridges, round the Mamisson pass roughly 9,000 feet above sea level, in the Central Caucasus, is the country of the Ossetes, a race (so men say) driven into these inaccessible solitudes by the relentless hostility of stronger tribes on the rich plains of Kabardah. Few things live where the Ossetes found a home. The hungry tireless eagles wheel above them ; the shrill whistle of the great mountain partridge may be heard at dawn, before the birds of prey are on the wing ; and in the stillness of night the rattling of the moraine tells of the descent of shy herds of tur (Capra, caucasica) to their feeding grounds On the highest of the mountain pastures.

By the late 19th Century Tur-hunting was almost the only joy left in life to the Ossete ; the tur's great curving horns were almost the only offering on the deserted shrines of the country, and except for berberries and a few rare herbs, the only wealth which the mountaineers had to barter with the wandering pedlars from Kutais, who had the rough horns polished, mounted in silver and converted into deep drinking vessels for the lazy wine-bibbing princes of Georgia and Mingrelia.

Along both sides of the Ridge, there were hundreds of isolated valleys. Some of them are pristine nature reserves,others shelter old colorful auls (villages). In some auls, each house has its own tower, where the family could defend itself in times of war. Travelers would never see a hamlet without the ruins of its tower of defence, which was an indispensable structure in the midst of or near every cluster of stone hovels before the Russians established their rule. It is probable, however, that these towers were more for refuge than defence, like those on the Turkoman plains of the Transcaspian. They rarely had doors, and were generally entered from underground. There was a time when brigandage and war broke the monotony of the Ossetes' life ; but by the 19th Century the old towers of grey stone were split and shattered, and since the days of Pushkin the weapons of the mountaineers had rusted in enforced idleness.

The villages close to the top of the Mamisson pass were surrounded by rugged cliffs, a cold narrow valley without vegetation and almost without sunlight winding away to the far-off plains of Alaghir and Ardon. Village huts were so piled one above the other that the roofs of one terrace formed the street in front of the next. The saklis (huts) themselves were such as the cave-men of prehistoric times would have despised. Built of unmorticed fragments of grey rock, they had neither doors, windows, nor chimneys. Residents passed through the open doorway into a place of utter darkness, while the smoke from the smouldering sheep-droppings in the center of the floor forced its way out as best it could, through the chinks in the blackened walls.

The religions of the Caucasus were as various as its languages. As a rule, whatever religion existed on the south side of the chain is called Christian, and on the north Mahommedan. The Ossetes, as usual, must be excepted ; they were converted to Christianity in the days of Queen Thamara, but afterwards relapsed into their former paganism, which was in the 19th Century again overlaid by a slight varnish of nominal Christianity. This re-conversion, if it deserved the name, took place about the time of Herr Wagner's visit to the country (1843-4), and he gave an amusing account of the means employed by the Russian missionaries to effect their end:

"The Russians" (said this writer) "have made many efforts to win back the Ossetes to Christianity. This was easily accomplished with a people indifferent about religions matters, especially as a linen shirt and a silver cross were given to every Ossete who underwent baptism. The pious zeal of the new converts was greatly excited by these means, and there was no end to the number of neophytes who aspired to the rite of baptism, till at length it came to pass that one immersion was not reckoned sufficient, and that many Ossetes, in order to become genuine Christians, and at the same time the owners of a respectable amount of linen, received the sacrament five or six times following."

He adds : "If the Russian Government had permitted other Christian confessions to hold intercourse with the mountaineers of the Caucasus, their Christianity might possibly have been something better than "sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal." "

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