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South Ossetia - Early History

Ossetic is classified as Northeastern Iranian, the only other surviving member of the subgroup being Yaghnobi, spoken more than 2,000 km to the east in Tajikistan. Both are remnants of the Scytho-Sarmatian dialect group which was once spoken across Central Asia. The Ossetic language is divided into two main dialect groups, Kudarian of South Ossetia; Ironian and Digorian of North Ossetia. There are also some other dialects, like Tualian, Alagirian, Ksanian, etc. Ironian dialect is the most widely spoken. Today the majority of Ossetians, from both North and South Ossetia, follow Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Ossetians descend from Iranian tribes of Eurasia, namely Alans, Sarmatians and Scythians. They became Christians during the early Middle Ages under Georgian and Byzantine influence. But they worship a strange assembly of Christian and Pagan deities. In the 8th century a consolidated Alan kingdom, referred to in sources of the period as Alania, emerged in the northern Caucasus Mountains, roughly in the location of modern Circassia and North Ossetia-Alania. In the thirteenth century, Ossetians arrived on the south side of the Caucasus Mountains, in Georgian territory, when the Mongols drove them from what is now the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic of Russia.

The Ossetes of the Caucasus are the descendants of the Sauromatae or Sarmati of classical writers. Sarmatian blood is more nearly extinct than can be asserted of any other race. It was a race powerful only from its reckless savageness, and maintained so long chiefly by its promiscuous alliances. But far from being extinct, they have left a vigorous branch behind in the Caucasus, namely, the Ossetes. In regard to their physique, customs, &c., the Ossetes are remarkedly different from the other tribes of the Caucasus, they are more like Europeans. Blue eyes and light and red hair are frequent among them, and there are few who have really black hair.

The name Ossete, which has become naturalised in Europe, is taken from Ossethi, the Georgian name for the country inhabited by the Ose, and is formed of the ethnic name Ose and Ethi, which means country or land. Ossete, therefore, is a corrupt form, and in speaking of the race we ought to speak of the Oso, Ousi, or Ossi, which is the Georgian form of the name, or As, which is the form it takes in the Russian narratives. The As call themselves Ir or Iron, and their country Ironistan.

Az is a notable name in this region, from the time when Eschylus describes the tortures of Prometheus bound on the rock in the midst of the people who inhabited the sacred land of Asia, at the foot of the rocks of the Caucasus, and as far as the Maeotis, until recent times, when the As or Ossetes still frequent it ; and it was from this sacred land of the Asi that the great continent of Asia eventually took its name.

Not long after Herodotus, namely in 390 BC, or according to Niehbuhr, in 360 BC, Scylax mentions Syrmati, on the west of the Tanais, and Sauromate, on the east of it. The two are clearly merely forms of the same name. Eudoxus (379 B.C.), as reported by Stephen of Byzantium, also names Syrmatai, west of the Don. The next author who names them is Ephorus, who lived about 355 B.C. He is quoted by Strabo as saying " that there is a great difference of life both among the SauromataD and the other Scythians, for while some of them are exceedingly morose, and are indeed cannibals, others abstain even from the flesh of animals. Other historians, he observes, descant upon their ferocity, knowing that the terrible and the wonderful always excite attention, but they ought also to relate the better features of these people, and point to them as a pattern ; for his part, he says, he wfll speak of those who excelinthejustness of their actions."

The poetical "Periplus of the Euxine," which was written by Scymnus, of Chios, and whose date is not very certain, quotes Demetrius, of Kallatis (a Greek city of the Northern Pontus), as his authority for the Euxine, &c. His narrative is as follows : - " . . The Tanais [the ancient name of the Don par excellence] forms the boundary of Asia, and divides the continent into two parts. The first inhabitants of its banks are the Sarmatae, whose land extends for a distance of 2,000 stadia. After the Sarmatae come the Jaxamatae, according to Demetrius a Maetic people, but according to Ephorus they were Sauromatae. It was with these Sauromatae that the Amazons united when expelled from the banks of the Thermodon. The power of the Sauromatae constantly increased, and when one of the later Scythic kings made an incursion into the land of the Bosporani and the peninsula of Tauris, the Bosporani sought help from the Sauromatic queen, Amala."

Sarmatia continued to be the name for the southern steppe land of Russia, with its borders, until a much later period. By the great invasion of the Huns, which constitutes the Flood, or Chaos, in ethnographical inquiries, the Sarmatae were finally scattered and separated. But as in the case of nearly all the nomades who inhabited the steppes, and who were driven westwards by fresh invaders from beyond the Volga, the Sarmatae deposited a section of their body in the cul de sac, formed by the Caspian, the Maeotis and Euxine, and the Caucasus. There are the Sarmatic gates, while a portion of the Caucasus was called the Sarmatic mountain.

Funerary remains in Ossetia are notable for the predominance of golden ornaments dating from the sixth to the eighth century AD. The antiquity of the exploitation of the gold regions which found an outlet at the mouth of the Phasis seems attested by the legend of the golden fleece. Its long continuance as a gold-producing region seems witnessed by Strabo's report that in Swanetia the torrents sweep along with them gold, gathered by the natives by means of hardies or fleeces, whence the fable of the Golden Fleece may have arisen. Researches in the years 1850-52 led to the discovery, in the beds of some affluents of the Kura, of ancient works for exploiting the once auriferous banks.

The arrival of Batu Khan with the Golden Horde on the Volga and Don made a notable revolution, and disturbed the distribution of tribes very considerably. We are told that, inter alia, they ravaged many nourishing towns belonging to the Ossetes, whose settlements then probably reached as far as the Terek. And we are again told that, at a later date, having embroiled themselves with the Khans of the Crimea, they were driven out of the plains and lower mountains chiefly by the aid of the Circassians (who were vassals of the Krim Tartars). They were driven out of the two Kabardas, where the Circassians established themselves in their place, and were obliged to become tributary to the latter, and remained so until the Russian aggressions had weakened their authority.

Those who lived south of the mountains became dependent on the Georgians. This account is confirmed by Baron von Haxthausen, who says in Transcaucasia. Sketches of the Nations and Races between the Black Sea and the Caspian [1854]: " Those Ossetes with whom I conversed had very obscure traditions of the origin, migration, and history of their race. They said that their ancestors came originally over the mountains from the north; that they at first dwelt in the country now occupied by the Circassians, and had been driven onward as far as their present territory by other races pressing behind."

One of these races, who, no doubt, pushed upon them, has itself been terribly scattered, namely, the Turkish race, whose various fragments are found in the mountains west of the Os. They are descended from the ancient Comans, and were also thrust out of a portion of the Kabarda by the Circassians. The combined effect of the invasion of the Turkish Kiptchaks and of the Golden Horde into Europe was to drive the redoubtable race of the Khazars into the recesses of Daghestan ; but it also drove other tribes further south. I believe it had a very considerable effect on the Alans. Now it seems certain that the As were among the nations who lived about the Lower Don before the arrival of these invaders, not only from their own traditions, which make them to have lived on the Don in former days, but also from the early Russian chroniclers.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:43 ZULU