City of the Dead – Preserving One’s Culture

History

Written by Corey Shepherd

May 8, 2021

The Balkar people of southern Russia have lived in the shadow of the highest mountain in Europe for more than a thousand years. Like many minority people groups across the world, their heritage is slowly giving way to the formidable trends of urbanization and globalization. Their children move away in search of work, and parents often fight a losing battle to maintain Balkar as the first language in the home. They may be a culture in transition, but their struggle to preserve who they are continues. One means by which they aim to preserve their traditions and language is by recounting the legends told by their ancestors. On a recent trip into the North Caucasus mountains, a group of friends and I visited the site of one of these Balkar legends—the City of the Dead.

The City of the Dead is nestled in a breathtaking gorge, part of the Caucasus Mountain range.

The City of the Dead is nestled in a breathtaking gorge, part of the Caucasus Mountain range.

A Trip Deep into the Mountains

The City of the Dead is an ancient graveyard located just outside the small Balkar village of Eltewbew. We arrived at our host home in Eltewbew after dark, so we could not anticipate the view that awaited us when we woke. Stepping out of the front door the next morning, we were greeted by a gleaming 600meter-high rock face that rose majestically into the sky. To our left, the rock face sloped sharply and opened up into a luscious green plain full of crop fields.   Behind us was another glistening rock face, just higher than the first. At the very top of this second wall was a steep, grassy plain with a gaping cave entrance, said to be large enough to house a thousand sheep for the shepherd strong enough to make his way to the summit.  

Our group of eight piled into our Russian-made off-road UAZ and headed out toward the City of the Dead, which is situated at the entrance of a canyon on a hill overlooking Eltewbew. We crossed a stone bridge that arched over a rushing river. Just beyond the bridge to our right, a wide canyon opened up, rimmed by two more soaring rock walls. We explored the canyon where the foundation of a millenniaold church can still be found and where mumijo, a traditional medicine, trending in popularity, seeps from cavern walls.

A grouping of 10 mausoleums built around 600 years ago is what attracts tourists to the City of the Dead. The buildings are similar in their construction – 8-by-8foot stone squares with rounded roofs, standing approximately 20-feet high. One larger structure stands 30 feet in height and has a steep gable roof. When we asked our Balkar friend about who was buried in these stone structures, he was eager to tell us the legend.

 

One means by which they aim to preserve their traditions and language is by recounting the legends told by their ancestors.

A Beautiful Young Virgin and her Nine Brothers

According to our friend, long ago an unusually beautiful young Balkar virgin lived in Eltewbew, and word of her beauty spread throughout the Caucasus. One young Kumyk  “khan” – the Mongolian and Turkish word for “ruler” – from Dagestan heard of her and dispatched an envoy from his court to Eltewbew, intending to claim the young bride for himself.  However, the delegates in the envoy behaved badly while there and spoke condescendingly to the Balkar father of the girl. The envoy’s miscalculation in this moment is difficult to comprehend.  For hundreds of years, and into present day, marriage negotiations are a critical part of Caucasus culture. Parents make decisions about whom their children will marry, and two factors rule the process: Do the new in-laws raise the status of the family, and what will the bride price be?  A beautiful virgin known throughout the land for her beauty ought to be sought after with great respect and a sizable fortune. The khan’s envoy approached the negotiations with neither. Not surprisingly, they were refused by the father.

Honor was – and still is – deeply embedded in the psyche of Caucasians. How highly someone is regarded by their clan, their village, and their people is of unspeakable value in the Caucasus. The story of the beautiful woman and the khan could have gone differently. The khan could have raised the status of the girl’s family because a ruler had come calling. The father of the girl could have raised the khan’s status by agreeing to give away such a prized bride. But, as it were, the khan’s men assumed too much of their own station and too little of the Balkar peoples’. As a result, the delegation went home dishonored, having been counted unworthy of the beautiful girl. The father had been shamed because of the apparent lack of respect shown by the guests from Dagestan. The way this legend unfolds illustrates the damage that dishonor is thought to inflict on a man and his tribe.

The Cherek River, not far from Eltewbew runs through the beautiful Caucasus mountains.

The Cherek River, not far from Eltewbew runs through the beautiful Caucasus mountains.

Honor was – and still is – deeply embedded in the psyche of Caucasians.

Preserving Honor

When the envoy returned home and told their story, the khan was infuriated. The slight rendered by the father’s refusal was more than the young ruler could bear. He gathered his army and set out to recover his reputation and his people’s honor.  Gaining a bride was now a secondary consideration.  The village caught wind of what was coming and prepared themselves to defend their own honor. The young woman’s nine brothers and all of the able-bodied men in the village gathered to await the khan’s arrival.

When the khan and his army arrived, a battle ensued. The numbers were overwhelmingly in favor of the khan, and the loosely constructed Balkar citizen-soldier force lost decisively. All nine brothers perished together with their sister. The khan returned home without a bride. The village lost many of their strongest. In the way of the Caucasus, both had restored their honor: the brothers had shown that they were not willing to cave to the more powerful khan; he in turn had demonstrated that he was not to be disrespected by these villagers.

Memorials are infrequently erected to honor those who lose in battle. But in the case of the beautiful virgin and her brothers, the remarkable mausoleums in the City of the Dead were built to memorialize those who fought bravely to defend against invasion and insult from the outside. Nine of equal size and style for each brother; one larger, distinct in construction, for the young maiden.

The brothers’ bravery and defeat are symbolic of the Balkar’s ongoing—and likely futile—resistance against the outside influence of modernity.  Their legend, however, continues to serve the purpose for which it was intended—that the heritage of the Balkar people would stay alive in the stories they tell.

The village caught wind of what was coming and prepared themselves to defend their own honor.

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