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Caucasus culture – Vainakh architecture

A detailed description of Nakh architecture which includes both Chechen and Ingush structures

 

Ingushetia

Chechnya watchtower

Hundreds of stone towers, some nearly 1000 years old, are spread across the Caucasus mountains. However, what we see today is only a fraction of the thousands of edifices that had existed well into the XVIII century, which stretched all the way to (today’s) Grozny and beyond. The craftsmanship of the builders reached its peak in the XIII to XVI centuries after the devastating Mongol invasion. The last towers were built in the early XIX century.

A (combat) tower was one of the symbols of the taip (clan). The towers also functioned as dwellings and sanctuaries. Traditional tower settlements in the mountains were located on slopes or in deep gorges.

The first known mention of the towers is in an Arabic manuscript dating from the Xth century AD. Pre-Islamic edifices have pagan markings which make them important sources in the reconstruction of ancient Chechen culture. The most intact collection of towers is located in the Argun Valley or the ‘Tower Gorge’, as it is also known. Two military towers stood at the entrance and many hundreds more stood along its perimeter up to the Georgian border.

 

Dwelling (residential) towers

The dwelling tower was a residential structure where families lived. It consisted of 2 to 3 floors, reached heights of up to 12 meters and usually had rectangular bases of 8–10-m sides. The thickness of the wall at the base was about 1 meter. Their walls are made of rough stone blocks with a small amount of mortar. The flat earthen roof was stacked with stones for reinforcement. A central column of large stone blocks served to anchor the inter-floor ceilings. The central pillar, also of thoroughly dressed stone, supported the ceiling rafters.
Each floor of the residential tower had a separate door. A ladder was used to reach to the second or third floor.

Residential towers

The two lower stories were intended for livestock. The floor was made of boards or stone slabs.
The family lived in the second floor, where they also kept their possessions in tin-plated wooden chests (carpets, dishes, clothes, etc). Dishes and kitchen utensils were arranged on wooden shelves along the walls. There was usually an arrangement of weaponry on the wall above the master’s bed. It was a necessity in wartime, and mere custom in times of peace.
Household utensils and food stock were kept in the top floor, which also had the guestroom and the nuptial chamber. The top was the family citadel when the tower was attacked. The latter residential towers became wider and had more rooms.

There were outside stairs for access to the upper floors, and inner ladders made of tree trunks with jutting branches or notched footholds for use in emergencies. First floor usually had no windows, but only small air holes which served for good ventilation. The vaults always remained cool even during summer. Heating was done by fireplace. Shelves were built to store different things. The center of life was the fireplace which was surrounded by wooden benches covered with carvings, where the family and their guests would sit.

 

Pagan symbols

There were engravings on door-posts and sometimes on the walls. Doors and windows were made of stone and had a semicircular arched form. These arched stones were often decorated with carved petroglyphs, which were decorative or reflected religious beliefs. The swastika was a widely used symbol in the Caucasus and the rest of the world, as it represented eternal life. Other symbols reflected beliefs in the cult of the sun which the Nakh shared for centuries.

 

Combat towers

The first combat towers to be built were usually 4 stories high, had heights of 12–17 meters and had a base of 4 meters sides. They had roofs in the shape of step-pyramids with protruding sharpened white stones. The entrance on the second floor, which had a single stone block (kor-kkheera=window-stone) as a keystone, was accessed by a ladder. The inter floor ceilings were made from stone and wood. Top floors had protected loop-holes and overhanging floorless balconies (mashikul) for shooting and for pouring noxious materials on the attackers. The Golgotha cross found on towers, served as a protection sign.

 

Built on mountain slopes, in inaccessible locations

Classical combat towers of the XIV- XVII centuries had 5 or 6 floors, reached heights of 25–30 meters and had square bases of 6 meter sides. In general, combat towers were built among a number of residence towers. According to B.Plaetschke (1929), combat towers were not inhabited in normal conditions but were only used during an attack. While dwelling towers were private properties, combat towers belonged to the whole community.

An elaborate warning system was set in place in the mountains. As soon as invaders made their appearance in the valleys, fires were lit on top of the towers which were at visible distances from one another, and the danger signal was transmitted from one watchtower to the next. The cry ‘Ortsa daala’ (literally: ‘raise the alarm’) alerted people to the impending danger and exhorted women, children and old men to seek shelter and able-bodied men to take up arms in defense of the land.

 

During Russia’s colonial wars in the Caucasus, tsarist soldiers willfully destroyed hundreds of towers and dismantled many more in order to use the stones to build forts. During and after the 1944 Chechen-Ingush deportation, the secret police blew up towers and carted away many priceless tower artifacts. More damage was brought upon the towers in the last decade. These symbols of Chechen identity and culture remain under real threat of obliteration.

 

Sadly, various Russian sources have tried to discredit the merit of the Natives in their architectural mastership . Alexander Ippolitov wrote in his “Ethnographic Sketches of the Argun District” that the towers of the Argun Gorge were built by a nation much more civilized than the indigenous population. P. Golovinsky makes a similar assumption in his essay “The Mountain Chechens”, where he ascribes tower construction to so-called “forebears”. Proceeding from genealogical legends, he considered them strangers – Georgians, Greeks, Jews or West Europeans.

Upon deeper study it was revealed that the architectural style was unique and couldn’t be found anywhere else, therefore it was undoubtedly a merit of the Caucasus native populations.

 

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