Dispatches from Chechnya No. 12

The Fate of Chechnya’s Architectural and Natural Treasures

GROZNY, May 25, 2001 – The Argun Preserve was established in 1988 around the headwaters of the Chanti-Argun and Sharo-Argun rivers. It covers 240 hectares of land and is the site of numerous cultural, historical, and natural wonders. The preserve serves both as a center for scientific research and an educational establishment. Its mission is to study, preserve, and restore the historical and cultural monuments located in the Khoi-Makazhoi, Itum-Kalin-Khaskalin, Yalkharoye-Galanchozh and Maistin-Malkhistin valleys. These regions share strong historical, ethnic and geographic ties.

The Argun Preserve encompasses 150 tower villages, which include over 300 residential towers and hundreds more military towers, as well as fifteen ancient shrines and around 150 above-ground burial vaults. Researchers date these structures from the 11th through the 17th centuries. Many of these architectural complexes, such as Khoisk, Pakoch, Maistin, Tsekaloi and Kakadoi, are examples of the type of mountain burial grounds typical of the late middle ages. In this sense they have tremendous value as cultural objects with the potential to provide answers to the most difficult questions about the history of a people who left behind few written documents.

In addition, the Chechen towers and burial grounds provide unique architectural and artistic information about an even more ancient time. Such information could help in the unraveling of many mysteries of the civilizations of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean and shed additional light on the relations and influences between the peoples who created them.

Although Chechnya’s medieval architecture has not been sufficiently studied by architectural historians, the limited study that has been done already shows the existence of common elements between the material and artistic culture of Chechnya and the civilizations of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean.

These connections will become better understood with more extensive research of ancient Chechen pagan religions and mythology, which demonstrate numerous parallels with the pagan gods and mythological heroes of the great civilizations of the ancient world. In that aspect, the pictograms and magical signs on the stone towers and tombs are very interesting to scholars, as they often date from an earlier period than the structures themselves. These towers and tombs were often built using stones taken from more ancient buildings, some of which dated from the 7th to the 5th centuries B.C.

The origins of the Nakh (Chechen and Ingush) towers goes back many centuries. The ruins of ancient buildings, built from enormous stone blocks, can to this day be found in Chechnya and Ingushetia. They are called Cyclopes, from an ancient myth that they were built by the Vampals – enormous one-eyed giants that in Greek mythology were called Cyclopes.

In reality, the Cyclops architecture of Chechnya and Ingushetia is just one of the stages in the development of architecture in the Caucasus. Stone towers of the Cyclops type, ruins of which can still be seen today near the villages of Tsecha-akhk and Doshkhalki among other places, were built by Nakh tribes in the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C.

As late as the early 19th century, there were many times more towers in the area that is now the Argun Preserve than there are today.  The archeologist V. I. Markovin wrote about them at the time. “In the gorges of the Argun river valley you can see a large number of towers and burial vaults. Undoubtedly, these architectural monuments are only the sad remnants of the magnificent constructions of the past.”

One hundred years ago the Argun Gorge was called the Gorge of Towers. Two military towers stood at the entrance to the Gorge, and many hundreds more stood along its perimeter, right up to the Georgian border. The towers were built in such a way that someone standing on the parapet of one tower could see a fire burning in the window of the nearest tower. In this way the ancestors of the Chechens passed on signals of danger, and it only took a short period of time for all of Chechnya to know of the approach of an enemy. Towers were built not only in the mountains, but also on the plains. Historical documents refer to a tower near the Khankal Gorge, not far from Grozny, and even a tower on the right bank of the Terek river.

The towers of Chechnya have been subject to systematic destruction for many hundreds of years. Chronicles from the time of Genghis Khan describe a war with the peoples living in these stone towers, and the destruction of the towers themselves.

But above all these architectural monuments suffered during the Caucasus War in the 1800s, when hundreds of military and residential towers were destroyed in the mountainous regions of Chechnya. An especially large number of towers were destroyed in the building of the Russian forts at Shatoevsky, Yevdokimovsky and Vozdvizhensky (at the entrance to the Argun Gorge), when the stones from the towers were used as building material for the new forts. It is said that some of Chechnya’s towers were also destroyed by Imam Shamil [leader of 19th century uprising ed.] in his fight against the Russians. An especially large number of towers were destroyed in Cheberloi, when Chechen villagers fought against Shamil’s introduction of Shariat [Islamic law].

Towers were also destroyed systematically during the deportation of Chechens in 1944. Secret police agents blew off or burned the roofs of many towers and stole artifacts from tombs.

Nor did the 1994-1996 war spare these monuments of ancient architecture.  Russian bombs and shells completely destroyed four residential and military towers in the villages of Sharoi and Kheldakh, two towers in the village of Makazhoi, two ancient shrines in Makazhoi and Etkali, five above ground burial vaults in Maist and Melkhist, and the semi-military tower in the village of Keret. Russian artillery also blew off the top half of the Gatinkalin military tower, and the tower settlement of Korotakh was subject to shelling.

There was also enormous harm done to the natural environment of the Argun Preserve. Unique landscapes and rare geological formations have been destroyed, tens of thousands of hectares of land have gone up in flames, plant life has been harmed, and wild animals, many of which were endangered, have died or left for other regions.

It is the latest war, which has been raging since the fall of 1999, that has proven a truly fatal blow to the preserve. The entire preserve has been subjected to systematic artillery fire and bombing. The consequences of using megaton bombs in the preserve are impossible to predict. Yet again tens of thousands of hectares burned, and fires continue to spring up on a regular basis. The damage that has been done to the natural environment is irreparable.
Russian troops fire on ancient buildings in order to use the rubble as building material for buttresses and other military installations; they use these architectural treasures as warehouses and bunkers.

The military tower in the village of Der and the unique shelter-tower near the village of Ushalkoi have been severely damaged in the present war. The military tower in the city of Shatoi, recently restored, has also suffered serious damage, and the military towers in Sharoi and Satto have been razed to the ground.

During Soviet times there was an ostensible policy of preserving architectural monuments, and so measures were taken to conserve and restore Chechnya’s ancient buildings. However, only four towers were restored in the pre-war period: the Shatoi and Gatin-Kalin towers and two towers in the village of Der.

There is an immediate need for an inventory and description of the remaining towers in order to develop a plan for their preservation and restoration. Preserve employees, however, are not allowed into the preserve without special permits. The preserve’s director has been attempting to obtain such permits for over a year now. He has appealed more than once to the [Russian backed] Chechen administration, but so far without results. The situation in the areas around the preserve is very dangerous and needs immediate intervention. Regular shelling and bombing in the mountains is leading to frequent landslides and soil erosion that is hastening the destruction of stone buildings, many of which are 500 or 600 years old, and some of which are more than 1000 years old.

Even if preserve workers are allowed in, however, it is unlikely that they will be able to change this situation. Even preliminary work in describing and inventorying the towers will cost some $25,000, and the Republic’s budget does not provide any financing at all.

Because of this the Argun Preserve is searching for funding from various foundations which finance cultural projects in Eastern Europe. A proposal for conducting an inventory has already been developed.