Who are the Ossetians?

"On the Iberian plane resides population more prone to tilling and peace, dressing in the Armenian and Midian way. The mountain country, conversely, is occupied by simple people and warriors, living by the customs of the Scythians and Sarmatians, whose neighbours and kinsmen they are; however they also engage in tilling. In case of any adverse circumstances, they pit many thousands of warriors both from their midst and the midst of the Scythians and Sarmatians".

Strabon, an ancient Greek historian
and geographer (66 B.C. -24 A.D).

There are, perhaps, hundreds of miscellaneous books, scientific papers and articles written in different countries of the world about the Ossetians, a small people of some 600 000 living mainly in the central part of the Caucasus mountain range. What compelled so much of the world leading historians,' linguists'and archeologists' attention to this small ancient nation, lost in the mountain country of the Caucasus?

To understand who the modern Ossetians are, one should go back in time for thousands of years, to the period when, as it is now believed, some part of those who made up the Indo-European race separated from the rest of their tribesmen and headed for the Middle Asia and Northern Iran. Part of this people, conspicuous for it's belligerence and recalcitrance, in the course of time became known under the common name of the Massagets.

Later on, starting to move back into the Continent of Europe, the ancient Iranian-speaking people of the Massagets apparently split up into several ethnic branches, thus forming most closely related tribes of the Yazygs, the Sarmatians, the Roxolans (or Ruslans), the Aorses, the Alans, the Saks or the so called Sarmatian tribes. In most cases the distinction was purely conventional, and names such as "the Alanorses" appeared. They were preceded into Europe by their affinity tribe of the Scythians, whose language all of the tribes spoke. The famous ancient author Joseph Flavious, for example, described the Alans as part of the Scythians living around the Tanais (Don) River and the Azov Sea. Other ancient historical sources called yet the Pre-Caspian Massagets "a Scythian tribe". Some researchers believe, that the Sarmatian tribes emerged in the 6-4-th centuries B.C. in the Northern Pre-Caspian and Pre-Urals regions.

Nomadating through the vast south-eastern territories of the European continent the Sarmatian tribes became virtually the dominant ethnic element in this part of the world for centuries to come, forming powerful tribal alliances with one another. For instance, the Tzar of the Aorses, in case of need, could muster up to 200 000 warrior riders.

The place of residence of the modern Ossetians was reached by the Scythians approximately in the 7-th century B.C., they settled the Northern Caucasus and almost the whole of Transcaucasia for many centuries. The Scythians' material culture monuments have been found on the territory of South Ossetia and central Georgia. They assimilated the local tribes of the Coban culture, emerged in the central Caucasus about 3500 years ago. The evidence of this culture's having been a highly developed for that time society are a variety of preserved bronze and iron weapons, utensils and tools, jewellery and pottery items. They are kept not only in Caucasian museums in Vladikavlaz, Nalchik, Grozny, but also in the best museums of the Russian Federation- the State Ermitage, the State History Museum, as well as in Berlin, Vienna, Lion, the United States of America.

The mixing of the Scythians with the ancient Cobanians provided an important platform for the formation of the Ossetian people. The Alanian-Sarmatian tribes, which followed the Scythians into the Caucasus about 2500 years ago, found on this territory very closely related to them in a lot of ways Iranian-speaking population (the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, often referred to as "the Father of History", wrote that the Alans were sometimes difficult to tell from the Scythians, Strabon and Procopius Cesaerian indicated that the Alans spoke "spoiled Scythian", i.e. a close dialect of this language).

In the 5-6-th centuries A.D. the Alans penetrated into Transcaucasia, previously only raided by them, and, according to some recognized ancient sources (such as "The Armenian Geography", the 7-th century A.D.) settled almost all of it. The Alanic-Sarmatian population of Transcaucasia was considerably replenished during the time of the Hunn invasion.

In the 10-12-th century the ancient Ossetian feudal state of Alania became one of the most powerful states of the ancient world. It was destroyed as a result of several devastating invasions of the prevailing forces of the Tatar-Mongols, following in succession at very small historically intervals of time. Incidentally, the sturdy Alans were practically the first people the Mongols did not defeat at once in open battle. They had to bribe the Alans' chief allies - the Kipchaks, into betraying them. One of the Alanic fortresses, presumably the city of Magas, was being besieged by the Mongols for 12 years ( the same is maintained by Plano Carpini and the ancient Arabic historian Abul-Fada).

So, what connects the modern Ossetians with their legendary Scythian and Alanian ancestry? The soul of every people is it's language. The present-day Ossetians still speak the Scythian language, which has least changed over the time in the Digorian dialect. The article on this topic in the Big Soviet Encyclopaedia (edition 3) reads: "A descendant of one of the Scythian-Sarmatian dialects is the Ossetic Language in the Caucasus".

Apart from the language, the Ossetians have also preserved a number of the Scythian customs and rites, the main one being the untouchability and sanctity of the hearth chain. The Scythian-Sarmatian legacy was also inherited by the Ossetians in the form of their national character's traits and that one of their appearance. The Ossetians are a clearly Indo-European people, quite a few of them have fair or chestnut hair, grey or blue eyes. The same features, as it is known, were inherent in many Sarmatians.

Talking of the Ossetian national character, one can undoubtedly point out it's two, perhaps most characteristic, features - great hospitality and the ability to take any difficulties in stride.

The present-day Ossetians are a modern nation, quite conspicuous in a lot of ways. About 190 Ossetians were granted the highest military award of pre-revolutionary Russia, - the "St. George Cross", some more than one time. They are known to have had about 70 generals and admirals in the Russian Tzar and Soviet Army. Being a nation numbering less than 600 000 people, the Ossetians have about 30 World Champions in various sports, some 30 Ossetians have won gold medals at European sports championships and tournaments. The North-Ossetian soccer club "Alania" became the Champion of the Russian Federation in 1995, twice they have been the runners-up of the Russian National Championship. The Ossetians are also known to be an educated nation -the Republic of North-Alania is to be found among the top ten regions of the Russian Federation by the level of the population's education. The percentage of students in North Ossetia is several times higher than in such highly developed countries, as Germany and Great Britain. Very many Ossetians residing outside of Ossetia, in the C.I.S. countries, hold management positions in different companies and firms. The names of orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev, called by many the best orchestra conductor of the world, poet Kosta Khetagurov, ballet dancer Svetlana Adyrkhaeva are known far beyond the borders of their small Motherland.


© 2000 Soslan Tabuev

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