We have recently reported on the newbie blogger President General Yunus-bek Yevkurov’s having invited to Ingushetia the cream of Moscow’s bloggers who then published fascinating illustrated reports on what they had seen in the little Caucasian republic.
The strangest sight were the long, white stone buildings towering among the mountains like huge stone mushrooms or bell towers without a church. Most comments inquired about them, and therefore Ilya Varlamov subsequently published a special photo series of them.
Clan towers – родовые башни – or, named after the people building them, Vainakh towers, combined multiple functions. They were living towers, impregnable fortifications, watchtowers dominating the valley controlled by the clan. And last but not least sacred asylums where blood-revenge was forbidden. Ismail Kadare in his Broken April tangibly describes the asylum towers that once stood all over the Albanian mountains and where men sometimes lived for years without ever coming out.
The towers have generally three to four floors. The first level – or, in four-storey towers, the first two levels – are the stall, in the latter case the second level is for the goats and sheep. The next floor is the living room, here’s the stove. The top floor serves for larder, treasure-house and armory as well as for guest accommodation, with projecting balconies for the ease of control. In the middle of the tower there stood a full height stone pillar called erd-boglam – it is not indicated in the design below – which, apart from its structural function, also had an important symbolic role in Nakh religion.
The stove also had a great symbolic significance besides its practical function, like in any archaic culture. The wrought-iron chain, on which the cauldron hung over the fire, connected the heavens with the earth in Nakh mythology. Oaths were taken on it, and the remission of blood-revenge was also vowed on it. This chain could be only made by the blacksmith of the clan in the clan’s own forge which was traditionally the social center of the clan.
Often a larger living tower was surrounded and protected by a large number of slender, even six or seven stories high battle towers.
The oldest surviving towers were built dry, but since the 16th and 17th century, the golden age of tower building – which was a period of turbulent external and internal wars in the Caucasus – they were reinforced with mortar. The internal structures, gates and shutters were made of oak, while the floors of pine wood. Beginning with the 16th century, loopholes became more and more frequent, which helps the researchers to reconstruct the spreading of firearms in the Caucasus.
The builders of the towers constituted a separate caste. Their knowledge passed from father to son, no outsider could take over their craft. The name of the individual masters and of the towers built by them were remembered across the Caucasus: Yanda, Datsi Lyano, Dugo Ahrio, Hazbi Tsuro, the Barkini masters. They often became heroes of ballads like the famous Kőműves Kelemen (Clement the Mason) in Hungary and his colleagues in the Balkans. One such building master is the hero of the epic poem of the Ossetian national poet Kosta Khetagurov (1859-1906) who grew up among the Ossetian-Ingush mountains.
The towers were possibly built on rocks, not only for the sake of a good foundation, but also to spare the fertile land which “is worth as many animals as it can feed”. The foundation was done with huge carved stones which, according to a Chechen song, “were taken by nine oxen and could not be pulled away by twelve horses”. The whole clan had to participate in the works. The amount of stone used is well characterized by the Ossetian saying: “From the stones of a tower a whole aul – a mountain village – can be built, but all the stones of an aul are not enough for a tower.” The tower had to be ready within a year, otherwise it was considered weak and unable to protect its inhabitants.
Around the towers still often there is a stone crypt surviving. Not only the dead were placed here, but at the time of epidemic also sick people who were fed through the window, and in hard times even old people retired here to die like the Transylvanian grandfather in Ferenc Sánta’s famous novel We were too many.
Nowadays, most towers are uninhabited. The clan wars and external threats being over, the Ingushes went down to live in the more fertile river valleys. There are only a few old people sticking to their dwelling place or some shepherds left around to take care of them.