There’s a sleepy little village in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, a Russian federal subject, called Dargavs. Truth be told, not a lot goes on there. Probably the best you can say is that the settlement, which sits in a valley on the banks of the River Gizeldon, is surrounded by some spectacular mountain scenery. And, of course, something lurks there that’s guaranteed to spook pretty much anyone once they discover its story…
Dargavs falls within the area of the Greater Caucasus mountains, a magnificent range that stretches from the Black Sea in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. It acts as a barrier between Russia and the nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan to the south.
And the settlement has one intriguingly mysterious feature – a collection of several dozen buildings sitting on a hillside just a few minutes’ walk from the edge of town. Many of the structures, moreover, date back to the early 17th century.
Indeed, if you walk out of Dargavs you’ll come across these pretty and unusual buildings, which appear at first glance like little houses perched on the hillside, in just a few steps. They’re certainly distinctive, alright, but what’s their true purpose?
What’s more, this strange little hamlet has an almost Disney-like quality to it. The houses vary from quite tall stone-built structures with sloping slate roofs to bunker-like buildings half buried in the turf of a steep hill.
Walk in among the buildings, though, and it’s still difficult to work out what they’re for. No one lives there, although everything appears to be well preserved. Only when you look through one of the open doorways or windows will this site’s macabre purpose become apparent.
That’s because Dargavs is also known as the “City of the Dead,” and the little cluster of buildings at the town border is its necropolis. Indeed, through the windows of the tiny houses, which are actually mausoleums, you can see human remains, items of clothing and strange boat-like timber boxes.
And this is where, in past times, the people of Dargavs laid their dead to rest. Today it’s home to a swirl of myths and legends, but there’s no doubt that the skeletal remains are all too real.
Some say that the buildings were erected at a time of a terrible plague; families with diseased relatives apparently retreated there, quarantined from the rest of their community. Once in their final homes, then, there was nothing to do but wait for death.
And, certainly, there is some plausibility to this story. After all, since the North Ossetia region was on the fabled Silk Road, it’s quite possible that travelers and traders brought disease with them from far-flung places.
Indeed, historians have asserted that North Ossetia was in fact ravaged by a virulent plague from the end of the 18th century. Many thousands are believed to have perished, with the population there plummeting from 200,000 to only 16,000 by the mid 19th century. The bodies of the afflicted, meanwhile, were left in the crypts to molder and decay.
Locals, apparently, used to avoid the City of the Dead. Legend had it that if you did go there, you’d never return. And the fact that a watchtower overlooks the site adds to the eerie feeling of this unusual village necropolis.
Furthermore, there are thought to be many coins in the ground surrounding the burial chambers. Why? Because mourners used to throw coins from the slopes: if one hit rock rather than turf, the departed, it was said, had successfully journeyed to heaven.
And yet another strange custom observed at the City of the Dead is the wooden coffins that the bodies lie in. These resemble boats, yet none of the local rivers are navigable. One theory is that people may have believed the dead had to cross a river to get to heaven.
The compelling but horrifying photos of the crypts’ interiors, meanwhile, are evidence of another local burial custom. As well as the bones of the deceased, you can see fragments of clothing. It seems, then, that the Ossetians buried their dead with clothing as well as other possessions such as glassware, ceramics and snuff boxes.
Another unsettling local legend, moreover, tells a tale of kidnap and murder. Local warriors seized a girl from a foreign land but argued over which of them owned her, with the disagreement ending in her death. The wrath of the gods, though, meant that the warriors faced lingering deaths in the necropolis crypts.
And because it’s been troubled by neighboring conflicts in Georgia and Chechnya, and indeed by the breakup of the Soviet Union, North Ossetia remains a seldom-visited place. The U.S. government, in fact, advises against traveling there at all.
Dargavs itself also happens to be extremely remote; the closest city of any size is North Ossetia’s capital, Vladikavkaz, an hour’s drive away. But people, drawn by the natural beauty of the region and the gruesome spectacle of the City of the Dead, do still trickle there.
Dargavs was once, in fact, a popular destination – at least for Russians. Indeed, during the Soviet era the necropolis even had a ticket booth. It seems that most modern-day Russians, however, don’t regard a trip to a boneyard as a fitting recreational activity.
Most visitors today, though, are Russians, with foreigners generally deterred by the turbulent political situation. Another reason not many visit is that it’s a tough journey on treacherous roads, especially in winter when there’s heavy snow. But if you like being creeped out, the effort will surely be worth it.