Mediaeval Chechen Architecture

Система сторожевых поселений, замков и башен  

  1. 1.     The Origins of Chechen Architecture

Architecture is a specific field of artefactual culture: its development does not know revolutionary breakthroughs, with token exceptions. It progresses at a rather slow pace. It takes centuries and, occasionally, millennia for a style or construction technique to take final shape. Man has not invented anything new since palaces were built of stone and fired brick several thousand years ago. 

All fortifications, templar buildings and tombs ascend to the primitive dwelling. At a certain stage, each embarks on its own road of development, almost to reach mutual independence. Fortifications and templar buildings are more open to external influences than dwellings, which always have their ethnic specifics and are usually more conservative. The character of the dwelling is determined by the landscape, the mode of life, the economy and the ethnic mentality.

Almost all architectural forms in present-day use have their antecedents in the dwellings of several dozen thousand years ago. Thus, the gable roof repeats the shape of the primitive branch shelter, and the wattle and daub house was known even in the New Stone Age.

The harsh climatic change in the Great Ice Age, and the transition from foraging to production made primitive man build permanent dwellings. They appeared the earliest in locations with no caves. Wherever habitable caves are available, they have been in use until quite recently. Ever since the Old Stone Age, man not merely settled in a cave or under a rock projection but adapted it for habitation. The floor was paved in stone, the entrance broadened or narrowed, and approaches to the dwelling fenced. The cave construction technique has not changed considerably for dozens of millennia. This knowhow reached the greatest perfection in the Caucasus and the Crimea due to their relief and climate.

Since times immemorial, caves were used as sanctuaries, especially connected with the underworld cults. Priests and wizards hearkened to the voice of earth as they performed cave rites. The magic power of the earth’s entrails was believed to penetrate and invigorate them. Indicatively, caves and grottos were ordinary seats of the oracles. As he struggled into the earth’s depths, man was overawed—hence the cults of caves and subterranean demons. Thus, the rock and cave structures of Urartu had their protector deity, Airiani[1].

Caves also served as burial grounds—antecedents of the later catacombs and vaults. This burial culture developed for several thousand years in the oldest areas of Nakh tribal settlement in Chechnya and throughout the Caucasus. For instance, cave burial grounds have been found in many places of the Chechen highlands—in particular, in the vicinity of the Guchan-Kale, Tuskharoi and Bamut villages, while vaults built into rock niches are frequently met in the principal necropolises.

Man of the plains had to build dwellings. Branch shelters and dugouts were the earliest of them. We might argue today which was the first—the interment of the dead or digging dwellings for warmth and safety. The latter assumption appears more probable because primitive men left their dead to be devoured by predators. Unlike Nakh women of the pagan times, men were interred not immediately after they died but after an appointed period of time elapsed because the male was associated with heaven, and the female with earth—so soil was considered hostile to man and enfeebling him. Perhaps, that was why Nakh combat towers rose so high, striving heavenward.

Stone vaults are undersize replicas of dwellings. Dolmens, which preceded them in the Caucasus and were of almost the same shape, were made of cyclopean stone slabs at the time when man began to build dwellings of huge stones.

These parallels between the abodes of the living and the dead are observed in many nations and millennia. Certain nations, as Egyptians and Etruscans, regarded earthly life as only a short prelude to the eternal afterlife, and so were much more serious about the tomb than the home. That is why their tombs have come down to our day while we can assume where they lived only from models and drawings of dwellings found in those tombs. Similar home-tomb parallels are observed in Nakh culture. Instead of raising the veil over their mysteries, they all too often bring researchers into consternation.

Thus, there is interlink between combat towers and vaults with a step pyramid roof, though we do not know which appeared the earlier. We certainly have sufficient grounds to assume that towers preceded vaults—but then, no similar towers are extant in North Ossetia, which abounds in pyramidal vaults.

Certain tribes of the areas that never knew cold weather have stayed at an extremely primitive stage for a number of reasons, and procure food mainly by foraging. Those tribes have not learned to build stationary dwellings to this day, and make do with tents protecting them from the wind, as man did 40-50 thousand years ago.

Construction progress of the primitive time was linked directly to the improvement of implements—first stone and later flint. Reciprocally, the need for dwellings demanded tools to process construction materials—mainly timber. Tree trunks and large hewn stones could not be used for construction before the axe was invented. That was why no home was a lasting structure.

The world was sparsely populated at that time, with several hundred humans for several hundred square kilometres, which almost entirely ruled out military clashes between tribal communities. That was why there was no need for fortified stone buildings.

That need appeared far later, in the Eneolithic and Bronze ages, and especially at the start of the Iron Age. Man did not know the sophisticated art of fortification, and compensated for his ignorance of it with the size of the buildings and their structural components. Cyclopean structures appeared with the advent of the Bronze Age or, possibly, even earlier. In fact, they were the first fortified dwellings, forbidding in their hugeness. Such structures were rather widespread in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus. However, many were dismantled in the first centuries A.D. and in the Middle Ages for combat and dwelling towers. For instance, giant stones, weighing several tonnes each, lay in the foundation of many combat and dwelling towers in the Chechen mountains[2].

Construction techniques and the choice of construction materials largely depended on implements. That was why dwellings were built for a long time of locally improvised materials—usually tree branches and thin trunks to be hewn with a crude stone axe, and large animals’ bones. Builders knew how to daub these structures with clay even in times immemorial. Certain North American tribes used the technique as late as the 19th century.

Even in the primitive times, man used a tree as the central pillar to be built into a round tent. Almost all Caucasian peoples knew such dwellings, as proved by relic architectural forms and traces left in the vocabulary of certain Caucasian languages. Thus, the central pillar is named “root pillar” in the Dagestani languages. The pillar made its appearance in Nakh dwelling towers as the horizontal layout gave way to the vertical, and so is secondary.

The oldest dwellings, of stone or clay, were of an oval or rotund shape because primitive man did not know the right angle. The tradition of round homes preserved in many parts of the world for millennia.

Rotund dwellings have left their traces in all languages and construction cultures except the Nakh. Round vaults and mausoleums occur only in the western parts of Chechnya. They bear evident traces of Muslim nomads’ influence.

Rotund dwellings have not appeared in the Nakh habitat practically since the Bronze Age. Neither did they appear later, when tower construction reached its peak. Round towers were widespread in Transcaucasia and Dagestan. For some reason, they had no effect at all on Nakh tower architecture despite strong mutual influences of the architectural forms used in the various parts of the Caucasus. That is hard to explain because round towers have better fortification characteristics—it is hard to ram them.

Even after they reached perfection in combat tower construction, Vainakh builders stayed true to rectangular and square towers. Perhaps, such conservatism was rooted in an ancient cult. The rectangle symbolised stability and the four elements—earth, air, fire and water. Possibly, that was why the walls or at least corners of Chechen towers were precisely oriented on the four cardinal points.

The rectangular dwelling resulted in the development of land-tilling civilisation with season worship accompanying it, and adoration of the four cardinal points connected with the solar cult. Indicatively, the Chechen for “corner”, sa, is consonant with sa as “soul” or “light”. The link between the two categories has a sacral message.

Nomads did not use rectangular dwellings, even if they were tents. On the contrary, all Chechen buildings were rectangular, be it dwellings, templar structures, towers or tombs. This might be one of the arguments bearing out that Chechens inherited to the Maikop culture—an ancient archaeological culture based in the North Caucasus, whose buildings were rectangular with rare exceptions—because architectural traditions survive through millennia as they gradually shed their original sacral meaning.

Alanian dwellings and fortifications were also rectangular[3].

The primitive and ancient times, when man entirely depended on Nature and its elements for his life, endowed everything in that life, especially its material aspects, with meaning and function. Many ancient buildings of no practical function from our contemporaries’ viewpoint amaze us to this day with sophisticated construction techniques and the huge amount of work done.

 Сторожевая и сигнальная системы горной Чечни 

Of the greatest interest in this respect are megaliths—menhirs, dolmens and cromlechs. They were all connected with ancient religions—menhirs and dolmens with ancestor worship, and cromlechs with the solar cult. Caucasian dolmens repeat in many respects the shapes and construction techniques of the ancient dwelling not only of the Northwest Caucasus but also the Northeast, hundreds of kilometres away from those places. Several millennia later, mediaeval vaults grew to resemble ancient dolmens and, possibly, gable-roof dwellings. Likewise, giant menhirs transformed into the sieling pillar sanctuaries and later churt gravestones. According to popular belief that survived millennia, a dead man’s soul abides not where he is buried but near his churt memorial.

Menhirs are amorphous and have a greater bearing on Nature than culture. Unlike them, cromlechs are primitive temples. The dolmen is the late ancestors’ home, and the menhir the abode of spirits, while the cromlech is a phenomenon from the intellectual and spiritual realm.

As civilisation developed, it was making purely technical progress, and the human race was gradually losing its deep-reaching contacts with Nature. The innermost knowledge of Nature and Man receded into oblivion. Perhaps, that is why we see amazing ancient structures, e.g., Stonehenge, as mere symmetrical megalithic clusters, while in times immemorial, they were keys to the mysteries of celestial bodies and their movement.

A sundial in the Chechen village of Khimoi—a vast stone circle with a high stone pillar in the centre—is the mediaeval echo of Stonehenge. The construction of both was probably due to a ban on the observation of the solar disk. Many sun worshipper nations knew that ban at a certain developmental stage of their religion. That was why they turned to shadow, which they regarded as a hypostasis of the sun.

Contemporary man is hard put interpreting the meaning and function of ancient builders’ endeavours. What moved ancient man to make buildings whose breathtaking beauty we admire to this day? Was it magic or the drive for artistic self-expression? That is an eternal question for discussions.

The scholarly opinion that permanent struggle for survival blinded primitive man to beauty as he was thoroughly practical in everything he did, was predominant until quite recently. However, archaeological and scientific discoveries of the closing decades of the 20th century tell us that man always had aesthetic feelings and thirsted to express them.

What was the vehicle of artistic personalities of 15,000 years ago as they made rock paintings in French and Spanish caves? This will most probably stay an eternal enigma. Be that as it may, their sophisticated painting technique is amazing in Palaeolithic men who toiled for their daily bread with crude stone implements. Artists of the Old Stone Age not merely displayed rare power of expression and observation in portraying animal movement and postures but also subtly used the cave wall relief as an artistic device.

The perfection of primitive art made later generations doubt its authenticity—especially where the Old Stone Age was concerned. The first cave paintings discovered in France and Spain in the 19th century were considered modern fakes.

This sceptical attitude to the masterpieces of ancient civilisations has come down to this day. Certain contemporary scholars ascribe Egyptian pyramids, the statuary of Easter Island and many other wonders of the ancient world to extraterrestrials.

However, as studies of archaeological cultures in the Caucasus and elsewhere show, even the most amazing cultural phenomena have local roots and bear traces of long evolution, as can be discerned from extant artefacts and structures. Even spectacular breakthroughs are explained by the appearance of better developed migrant tribes or borrowing the more sophisticated knowhow from neighbours.

Architecture rules out such breakthroughs. Even when certain countries started borrowing the techniques of Church architecture from others with the advent of Christianity, such borrowings were not used in dwelling construction for many centuries.

Architects might borrow particular forms and devices but the dominant architectural forms are born locally, and correspond to general material cultural development.




  1. 2.     The Dating of Chechen Towers


Historical succession of architectural traditions is among the essential problems of history of architecture. The following factors make it solvable:


1) The population of the area under study is autochthonic.


2) Architectural monuments from diverse eras have come down to our day to reflect the gradual development of particular architectural forms.


3) Local architectural culture possesses traditions characteristic of highly developed ancient civilisations thoroughly studied by contemporary researchers.


The autochthonism of the Nakh (Chechen) population of the North Caucasus has been the subject of academic debates for a long time.

Some scholars consider Chechens aborigines who have lived for 5,000 years or even longer in their present-day territory. One of the versions of this theory revolves round the assumption that Nakh tribes had been settled in the area from the Argun right bank in the east to the mouth of the Don in the west till the first centuries A.D. This hypothesis is borne out by place names, historical sources—e.g., Anania Shirakatsi’s Geography Guide (7th Century)[4], and archaeological finds because the original area of Nakh settlement knew gradual evolution not sudden succession of archaeological cultures[5].

Another hypothesis bases on the close genetic link of the Hurrite-Urartian and Nakh languages, and says that the Chechen population migrated from West Asia and Asia Minor. Its supporters also refer to the legends of certain Chechen teip clans about their patriarchs coming from West Asian countries.

Another well-grounded hypothesis assumes the migration of Nakh tribes from Europe to West Asia via the North Caucasus in the 5th-4th millennia B.C., and is borne out by archaeological, toponymic and anthropologic data.

We cannot rule out also that all those hypotheses are correct—but only in their total. The vast original territory where separate Nakh ethnic massifs were settled stretched from the West Asian plateaus in the south to the Volga steppe in the north, and included the Crimean Peninsula in the west. Indicatively, Chechen historical traditions name the Idal (Volga) as the northern boundary of Nakh settlement.

More than that, historical sources and Chechen traditions refer to the migration of a large group of Urartian tribes after the fall of Urartu to the North Caucasus, where Nakh tribes, genetically related to them, lived.

Nakh-speaking tribes inhabited a part of Europe and the Mediterranean basin as late as the 3rd and 2nd millennia B.C. Nakh was the pre-Greek linguistic substratum in Crete and Cyprus, and the pre-Italic in Sicily and Sardinia. The hypothesis of the North Caucasian (Nakh) origin of Etruscans, whose great civilisation had an impact on Roman and so entire European culture, has recently become predominant in historical science.

Indicatively, tower construction was developed, to varying extents, in almost all those regions.

Dwelling towers were widespread in the Mediterranean and West Asia since times immemorial.

They were the most popular kind of dwelling in Sardinia. The earliest towers date to the 2nd millennium B.C., and the latest to the 3rd century A.D.

The same can be said about the Greek mountains, where rotund or square-shaped towers were built even as late as the Middle Ages.

Towering tombs extant in certain parts of West Asia show that similar dwellings were built there in the olden times.

Hurrites and Urartians, closely related to the Nakh ethnically and linguistically, lived in towers even in the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. Ancient traditions and archaeological finds testify to constant migrations of Nakh-speaking Hurrite tribes from south to north and vice versa—at least from the 5th to the second half of the 1st millennium B.C.

Hurrites lived in large communities of relatives known as dimtu, tower. They possibly owed the name to every such community living in a separate tower[6].

Urartians, related to Hurrites, also lived in similar towers. Urartian cities had high-rise houses, where large families lived, most probably. Large family settlements reminiscent of Hurrite dimtus were widespread in rural localities. Urartians excelled in fortification—in particular, fortress construction.

According to authors of the Antiquity, tower construction was developed also in the southeast of the Euxine country, i.e., ancient Colchis, whose population was also ethnically and linguistically related to proto-Nakhs. The Colcho-Koban archaeological culture, which they shared, also revealed genetic links in its many aspects.

Xenophon left an account of the wooden towers of Mossynoecians:

“Their king, who sat in his wooden tower or mossyn, built on the citadel, <…> refused to come forth, as did also those in the fortress first taken, and so were burnt to a cinder where they were, their mossyns, themselves, and all <…>

“The following description will apply to the majority of them [strongholds]: the cities were on an average ten miles apart, some more, some less; but so elevated in the country and intersected by such deep clefts that if they chose to shout across to one another, their cries would be heard from one city to another.”[7]

(Anabasis, Book V, iv. Translation by H.G. Dakyns)

Early mediaeval Chechen calendar cults reveal a peculiar parallel to the events described by Xenophon. According to Said-Magomed Khasiev’s information, the ritual of “sending an envoy to heaven” was connected with the 33 year land-tilling calendar cycle. Bearing the Chechen name of TIurnene Vakhiita, “missioning into space”, it was scheduled for the start of the year (nab in Chechen). A tower of oak trunks had been erected by that day, when a naIa, a man who had his 32nd birthday on the day, settled there. The tower was to be tall enough for mortals not to be blinded by the sight of angels descending on its top in a cloud. The man spent a year merrymaking in the tower to be “missioned into space” on his 33rd birthday to ask the Lord to bless his people. The tower was put on fire. Its cinders were supposed to have magic power, and were used as amulets protecting from all evil[8]. The sources never say what fate awaited the naIa. Presumably, he was either set at large or stayed in the tower to perish with it—which was hardly probable.

Colchian tribes knew their timber towers as mossyns. The name of one of them, Mossynoeci, derives thence. Greek scholar and poet Apollonius of Rhodes wrote:

“Next they reached the sacred mount and the land where the Mossynoeci dwell amid high mountains in wooden huts, from which that people take their name <…> Their king sits in the loftiest hut and dispenses upright judgments to the multitude[9].”

(Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica, II, 1015-1029. Translation by R.C. Seaton)

Vitruvius Pollio, known Roman architect of the 1st century B.C., left a detailed description of Colchian towers, with their square foundation, tapering walls and pyramidal roofs:

“The woods of the Colchi, in Pontus, furnish such abundance of timber, that they build in the following manner. Two trees are laid level on the earth, right and left, at such distance from each other as will suit the length of the trees which are to cross and connect them. On the extreme ends of these trees are laid two other trees transversely: the space which the house will inclose is thus marked out. The four sides being thus set out, towers are raised, whose walls consist of trees laid horizontally but kept perpendicularly over each other, the alternate layers yoking the angles. The level interstices which the thickness of the trees alternately leave, is filled in with chips and mud. On a similar principle they form their roofs, except that gradually reducing the length of the trees which traverse from angle to angle, they assume a pyramidal form.”[10]

(Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in ten books. Book 2. Translation by Joseph Gwilt)

There is doubtless a close likeness between the pyramidal shape of the roofs of Colchian towers and Nakh towers and vaults, though construction materials differed.

Due to scarcity of stone, wooden towers were built in Ichkeria, the easternmost part of Chechnya, in the 14th-16th centuries. Most probably, construction techniques repeated the ancient Colchian.

Man appeared in the North Caucasus and the adjacent areas in the Old Stone Age. Traces of human activities of the Acheulean era (Lower Palaeolithic, 150,000-80,000 years ago) have come down to our day. The North Caucasus was sparsely populated at that time, and its people lived in natural caves, while archaeological finds of the Le Moustier era include traces of diverse man-made dwellings—huts and shelters of tree branches and thin logs, and large animals’ bones and skins. Caves, grottos and rock projections began to be walled in with heaped stones. Archaeological finds made in the Chechen mountain villages of Khoi, Makazhoi and Kezenoi date to that era.

The North Caucasus was sparsely populated, just as entire Europe, in the New Stone Age, as borne out by the small density of archaeological materials, and the geography and character of settlements, whose majority were on lake and river banks and were unfortified. Wattle and daub structures, occurring in the Caucasus even now, appeared at that time.

Stone structures appeared in the Caucasian highlands in the New Stone Age, while caves were widely used as dwellings up to the Bronze Age and even as late as the 1st century B.C., according to Strabo[11]. Neolithic settlements were unearthed near Kezenoi-Am Lake, on the Terek Mountain Range and outside Nalchik.

Traces of many occupational layers from the Old and New Stone and the Bronze Ages have come down to this day in the Caucasus. However scanty the number of studied settlements might be, they are a gauge of the architectural and material traditions of the oldest aboriginal population of the North Caucasus.

Cyclopean structures might be dated to the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. Made of huge rough monoliths, they combined the functions of fortifications and dwellings. These cellular structures of a horizontal layout were built in a primitive technique without mortar.

1st-7th century buildings, unlike the older ones, can be divided in combat and dwelling. Only the lower stories of combat towers are extant, so it is difficult to make assumptions of the outlook of the entire structure.

Dwelling towers, of two or three stories, are of an oblong layout. Their walls are made of rough stone blocks with a small amount of mortar. Though their construction technique stays very primitive, constructive parts characteristic of mediaeval Chechen towers are present already—mainly storey posts, and door and window arches broadened on the inside.

11th-13th century towers have a vertical layout and are marked by more sophisticated construction techniques. They resemble classical Vainakh buildings in shape. Similar structures occur throughout the ancient area of Nakh settlement from the Argun to the Kuban.

Buildings of that time are marked by more or less fully developed architectural forms close to classical, pronounced difference between dwellings and fortifications (e.g., the combat tower in the Khaskali Gorge and the combat towers on Mount Bekhaila) and stone dressed to an extent.

The Khaskali combat tower is on a steep rock on the west slope of the mountain above a small tributary of the Dere-Akhk. It is approximately 20 metres high, and has five stories. Its foundation is 5×5 metres. The tower is precisely oriented on the cardinal points. It has a lancet entrance arch in the west wall. The roof is gone, as well as the tsIurku stone spire on its top. There are corbel arches for every window. The numerous wall apertures can hardly be regarded as portholes. To all appearances, they were observation slits.

The machicolations of the Khaskali tower differ from those of a majority of Vanakh towers. Very primitive, they protect not broad embrasures but small circular windows convenient for observers not archers, let along gunmen. This allows assume that the tower is older than analogous Vainakh towers and dates to the 11th or 12th century, and that it was built as a beacon. Even if it had any functions of fortification, they were only auxiliary. The huge size of its foundation stones, each weighing several tonnes, testifies to its oldness.

The primitive roof is made of slates resting on timber beams with a small amount of clay-lime mortar in a technique frequently occurring in stone vaults dated tentatively by the 11th-14th centuries.

Stone setting and dressing, and the use of clay-lime mortar in vaults testify to considerable development of early mediaeval construction techniques.

Experts on Nakh architectural monuments probably underestimate their age drastically, proceeding mainly from their later use. The authors of the monograph Georgian Architecture from Its Inception to the Present Day noticed this trend: “It cannot be disregarded that cyclopean fortresses are observable only at the end of their existence, so a static approach to them, without consideration of their long and complicated past, is futile. The scholarly approach to such monuments demands regarding them in the context of the various aspects of community life—the choice of site for a fortress or a settlement, <…> tombs, construction techniques, and archaeological data”[12].

Almost all scholars date mediaeval Chechen-Ingush architectural monuments to the 15th-17th centuries despite common knowledge of the fact that Chechens started active return to the plains in the second half of the 16th century. The decline of large-scale tower construction in the Chechen mountains can be dated to that time, while it went on through the 19th century in the neighbouring areas. Even the names of master builders of certain towers are occasionally remembered in the western parts of Chechnya. In the Argun Gorge, on the contrary, even greybeards did not know the names of tower proprietors, let alone builders, in the middle of the 19th century.

Chechen towers are greatly diversified in shape and details—which testifies to diverse age. The oldest have similarities with the towers of Karachai, Balkaria and North Ossetia, indicating that, at a certain time, those territories belonged to one material cultural area.

Chechen tower architecture reached its peak in the 15th-17th centuries, marked for sophisticated construction techniques. Combat and dwelling towers acquired classical finished forms. Such towers are never met outside Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Prominent Chechen ethnographer Said-Magomed Khasiev recorded a parable of great interest, concerning, in particular, the presumable age of the towers, in one of the parts of Chechnya:

A combat tower stood on the top of a cliff. It protected the entrance to a gorge and transmitted danger signals to other parts of the highland. A tsIurku, pointed stone slab, topped its roof. One day, a falcon perched on the slab and looked at the vistas around, very pleased with himself.

“What makes you so contented?” the tsIurku asked.

“Can I be otherwise? The Almighty grants us falcons three years of life on earth. I am two years old but I feel as a one-year-old, and I have come here after a meal of fresh, warm liver. Strong are my wings, and I am the lord of the sky!”

“I have been standing on the top of this tower for nine centuries to prevent it from crushing. I have seen so much that, even if I recount it starting from the lifetime of your ancestor of a hundred generations ago, your life would be too short to hear my story out. Know the difference between us? You have been made to enjoy your food, strength, agility and courage, while I have been placed here to protect this tower which guards the peace of people around,” the tsIurku replied.

Apart from a philosophical message, the parable contains an indication of the length of the life of a tower, though towers could last longer or shorter in reality.

Cyclopean structures could last and stay in use even longer, considering their construction techniques and the size of their stones. The structures of Tsecha-Akhk, for instance, could have been dismantled later to use their blocks for new dwellings.

Despite the scanty number of dwelling and combat towers extant in the area populated by the Nakh since times immemorial (2nd-1st millennia B.C.), structures that have come down to the present day in varying states of preservation allow, to an extent, re-create the evolution of Nakh dwellings and fortifications.


1) The first fortified settlements appeared in the Nakh tribal settlement area in the 3rd millennium B.C. Sites protected by the terrain—such as rocky promontories or steep riverbanks—were chosen for them. Vulnerable spots were fortified by stone walls, which were the only man-made fortifications of the Maikop culture. Dwellings were small, and their separate defence was not envisaged.


2) Dwellings and fortifications acquired greater diversity in the 2nd millennium B.C., when the so-called North Caucasian archaeological culture emerged on the basis of the Maikop culture in the Nakh settlement area. Stone houses were built in the mountains, and wattle and daub ones, with stone used partly, in the foothills and plains, as shown by a dwelling unearthed in the vicinity of the Gatyn Kale village in the Chechen foothills. Sepulchral architecture made spectacular progress at that time to achieve great diversity—e.g., stone sarcophagi and vaults.

Stone became one of the most widespread construction materials of dwellings and tombs. We can even assume that North Caucasian Nakh tribes knew stone worship, which has left emphatic traces in the contemporary Chechen language. Even at that time, the Nakh were rationally using natural fortifications: they placed their settlements on high cliffs, promontories and steep riverbanks. Archaeological finds also testify to the comparatively well developed art of fortification—stone walls encircling settlements, and the arrangement of dwellings.


3) Construction of so-called cyclopean structures—dwelling and others—of giant stone blocks started with the advent of the Koban culture to the Nakh-population area. Their ruins are extant in various parts of Chechnya, e.g., the villages of Nikaroi, Bavloi, Tsecha-Akhk, Khaskali and Orsoi. Wattle and daub dwellings were built side by side with them. Possibly, huge boulders were also used previously to build walls and fortifications, as Transcaucasian archaeological data testify. Koban settlements were also built on naturally fortified elevations (Serzhen-Yurt, Zmeiskoye and Tsecha-Akhk). 


4) Various historical sources refer to the Nakh of the plains as Alanians as early as the turn of the Christian Era. Alania was mentioned as a well-knit entity with an impact on the neighbouring countries and nations since the 2nd century A.D.

Alania had spread its borders from Dagestan to the Kuban by the 7th-9th centuries, when its art of fortification reached its peak. 9th-10th century Arabic sources refer to numerous Alanian cities and fortresses.

Dwelling and combat towers were built in the North Caucasus on a grand scale at that time and later, in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Most probably, construction owed its scope to the emergence of the Great Signal System to bring together all Nakh-Alanian towns and villages.


5) Chechen dwelling and combat towers achieved their classical form in the 14th-16th centuries. Mass Chechen resettlement in the plains put a stop to the construction of mountain towers, with rare exceptions, at the end of the 16th century into the mid-17th. Tower construction stopped in the plains at about the same time.



  1. 1.     The Tower Builders

When Russian scholars saw Chechen towers for the first time, they gasped with admiration at the harmonious beauty of the stone structures and the sophistication of their architecture. Some of them ascribed tower construction to other nations, allegedly more civilised than the Vainakh. A majority of towers had been abandoned by that time, and the local population did not know anything about their builders except legends and traditions, which were mostly very much in error.

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 civilised than the indigenous population[13].

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[14].

However, in his description of the Akki Gorge, M.A. Ivanov cites the Chechen tradition of Diskhi, the renowned tower builder in whose honour the combat tower in the vicinity of the Vougi village was named[15].

Various authors ascribed tower construction to nations that have long gone into oblivion—Tinds, Medes and Jelts. The latter was assumed to be the Chechen name for Greeks. As was really the case, the name “Jelts” belonged to the urban community of Julat. The population of that Alanian city excelled in construction and handicrafts. As is known, the Mongol-Tartar invasion and, even more so, the campaigns of Tamerlane made many people of the plains flee into the mountains, where builders and artisans were greatly respected and generously paid. Possibly, mediaeval Nakh architecture owed its sudden rapid progress to the arrival of refugee builder guilds, with their ample knowhow and developed traditions, in the 14th-15th centuries.

Many Chechen teips based on the occupational principle in their inception, i.e., they developed out of artisan guilds, many of whose members had fled from the towns of the plains. Perhaps, that was how the village of Bavloi appeared, whose people specialised in tower construction, and whose name derives from bouv, the Chechen for “combat tower”, and thus means “combat tower builders”.

When the problem was studied more profoundly later, many scholars acknowledged that Chechen towers were built by local people, and admitted unilateral influence of Georgian architecture on Vainakh one. However, ancient and mediaeval Georgian architecture thoroughly differs from the Nakh with the exception of tombs and fortifications erected by Chechen master builders in Khevsureti. No less indicatively, Christian churches built by Georgian missionaries in Chechen and Ingush mountain gorges in the Early Middle Ages resemble Nakh pagan sanctuaries in shape. If Georgian architecture really had an impact on Chechen, what architectural forms reflect it? The academic community has made no reply to this day.

Arkady Goldstein, whose research concerned North Caucasian architecture, made an attempt to ascribe the appearance of tower construction to West Asian influence[16]. However, North Caucasian towers differ from West Asian not only in the exterior form as, for instance, Georgian and Chechen, but also in essential construction techniques. More than that, no transitional architectural forms are extant either in West Asia or in the Caucasus to testify to such influence.

Experts have recognised the uniqueness of Nakh architecture and its autochthonism   now that numerous architectural monuments in the Chechen and Ingush mountains have been studied. Architectural forms that never occur in other parts of the Caucasus emerged and developed in Chechnya and Ingushetia, e.g., the Vainakh combat tower with a pyramidal top, and semi-combat and dwelling towers of a unique outlook. Tower shapes are also genetically linked with locally typical burial vaults and sanctuaries.

Nakh combat and dwelling towers did not appear all of a sudden. Classic tower architecture was the fruit of evolution of dwellings and fortifications that lasted three or four millennia, if not longer.

As for the innermost characteristics of Nakh architecture, the specifics of towers in the west and east of the Vainakh-populated areas depend mainly on the time of their construction. The older, of approximately the same era, bear close mutual likeness, while the later differ from each other only in the details and thoroughness of finishing. Austrian researcher Bruno Plaetschke, who studied the material culture of that part of the Caucasus, with the greatest emphasis on architecture, described Chechen and Ingush tower culture as “insular unity”, thus stressing their complete mutual identity.

Unlike the western part of the Vainakh-populated area, where towers were built till the end of the 19th century, their construction began to decline in its central and eastern parts at the end of the 17th century due to massive Chechen migration to the plains. That is why only scanty reliable materials on the construction of particular towers are extant, though there are legends about almost all Chechen mountain towers. A majority of such legends were made far later than the period they describe, and are extremely far-fetched.

Despite all that, place name and folklore retain, in diverse forms, information about the earlier Chechen construction traditions.

First, there was the Chechen mountain village of Bavloi in the Terloi-Mokhk Gorge, whose population specialised in combat tower construction. There were no buildings but combat and dwelling towers in the village itself. Their ruins give the Bavloi-Erk Gorge an inimitable air even today. The villagers of the neighbouring Nikaroi were also expert tower builders.

Средневековая чеченская архитектура  

Second, Akki was known for master builders no less than Terloi. A legend of one of such builders, renowned Diskhi, has come down to this day. There is a lone tower, known locally as Diskhi-Bou (Diskhi’s Combat Tower), on the road to the village of Vougi. A dramatic legend pertains to it.

Master Diskhi was engaged to a girl from one of the Akki villages. Once in spring, when sheepskin and fleece prices were at the lowest, he asked his betrothed to make him a fur coat. The job took the lazy girl unforgivably long. Driven to the end of his tether, Diskhi said one day: “I build quicker than you sew! You’ll see, I will make a tower before you finish my coat!”

When the walls were ready and Diskhi started making the roof, the timber scaffolding he had made in a hurry collapsed under the weight of slabs piled on it, and the master died. When the tidings reached the girl’s village, she came running to the site, saw the mutilated body of her beloved and, beside herself with grief and repentance, darted up the stairs and flung herself down from the tower top. The tower was left unfinished in their memory, and received the builder’s name.

Third, the people of Maista were also expert builders, employed not only in the Chechen highlands but also in Georgia’s Khevsureti, Tusheti and Kakheti. Chechen master builders were hired to erect a formidable fortress in Tusheti, according to a legend Yunus Desheriev recorded in a village of the Batsbi, ethnic Chechens resident in Georgia.

Beki of Kharachoi and Taram Tarkhanov of Nikaroi were tower builders known all over Chechnya.

Centuries have elapsed since tower construction was abandoned, yet the Chechen language retains the names of all tower parts down to the smallest detail as another proof that Vainakh tower architecture emerged and developed purely locally.



  1. 2.     Mediaeval Architecture in the Chechen Mountains


Ancient architecture of the Chechen mountains (combat and dwelling towers, necropolises and sanctuaries) is a unique phenomenon of world culture.

In times immemorial, the Caucasus was straddling the shortest routes linking land-tilling civilisations with the nomadic Eastern Europe, so it became the crossroads of civilisations and a crucible of their cultural influences. Chechen material culture, mythology and pagan cults—all bear traces of the earliest European, West Asian and Mediterranean civilisations.

In-depth studies of mediaeval Chechen pagan cults and myths make these links all the clearer, with no end of parallels to the deities and heroes of the great ancient civilisations. Of tremendous interests are petroglyphs and magical symbols on stone towers and necropolises in the Chechen mountains. Many of those symbols are much older than the towers that bear them because dressed stone from structures of the 10th-5th centuries B.C. was amply used in tower construction. The utmost care was made to preserve petroglyphs on such stones, and they were later imitated on other towers with only the slightest changes.

None other than the Nakh, i.e., Chechen and Ingush, brought Caucasian tower architecture to perfection, especially where combat towers were concerned. Combat towers, in which mediaeval architecture reached its peak, were proportionate down to the smallest detail and possessed mirror symmetry. They blended into the landscape with perfect harmony.

Mediaeval tower architecture, the way it has come down to this day, emerged in the original Nakh-populated territory stretching from the Argun in the east to the Kuban in the west, and reached its acme in the later Nakh area in the Terek-Argun interfluve.

Towers were originally not only in the Chechen highlands but also in the foothills (the Khankala Gorge) and the plains along the northern and eastern borders of Chechnya. However, they had been mercilessly destroyed ever since the Tartar-Mongol invasion in the 14th century. The Caucasian War of the 19th century and the Chechen deportation of 1944 were especially hard on them. Hundreds of towers were knocked down then.

The two recent wars in Chechnya were also hard on its mediaeval structures. Dozens of towers were demolished or bombarded, and air raids sped up disastrously the decay of buildings that had survived millennia in the mountain gorges.

Approximately 150 tower clusters, several hundred dwelling towers, more than 200 combat towers, dozens of sanctuaries and more than a hundred above-ground burial vaults—mainly from the 11th-17th centuries—survive, in varying degrees of preservation, in the upper reaches of the Fortanga, Gekhi, Argun and Sharo-Argun rivers, and in the vicinity of the Kezenoi and Galanchozh lakes in the mountains.

Remnants of stone structures of many eras in the Chechen mountains allow trace down the evolution of Nakh tower architecture for three millennia or even longer. As we see in the buildings of Tsecha-Akhk village, Nakh dwellings and fortifications evolved from horizontally oriented multi-chamber ones to vertically arranged single-compartment. The evolution of Chechen dwellings took many centuries, as borne out by transition forms extant in Tsecha-Akhk—two- and three-storied bicameral structures, each of whose chambers closely resembles an independent tower, with door and window arches and a storey post.

Of the many influences on the evolution of Vainakh dwellings, the principal were impending dangers from without, that demanded ever more sophisticated fortification; scarcity of land as people of the plains and Alanians loath to bow to Tartar khans and Tamerlane fled into the mountains en masse; and, presumably, religious beliefs.


2.1.    Dwelling Towers


The gIala, “fortress-home”, i.e., the classic dwelling tower, began to emerge most probably in the late Alanian era—the 10th-13th centuries. Dwelling towers of that time differ from their earlier counterparts by vertically arranged layout, which horizontally approached the square shape, a greater number of stories and door and window apertures, and more careful stone dressing and laying.

The classic dwelling tower is a massive rectangular tapering structure, often of a layout approaching the square (usually of 8-10 x 8-12 m), of three or four stories, with a flat earthen roof.

The tower tapered due to the walls getting thinner to the top, and due to their inward inclination. The thickness of the walls varies in different structures from 1.2-0.9 m at the bottom to 0.7-0.5 m at the top.

The walls were made of stones of varying sizes (blocks or slabs, depending on the local stone), carefully dressed on the outside, with lime or clay-lime mortar and chip stone. Dry masonry also occurs, though seldom. Monoliths were laid in the foundation and the ground floor—some of them weighing several tonnes each.

The central pillar, also of thoroughly dressed stone, supported the ceiling rafters. Purlines rested on pilasters or cornerstones, and common rafters, in their turn, rested on purlines. Chat wood was piled on top, and coated in punned clay. The sacral meaning of the erd-bogIam pillar came down from the olden times. Indicatively, Chechens retained it alongside with its religious message for centuries.

Chechen dwelling towers do not differ from Ingush and Osset ones in basic parameters, though surpassing them spectacularly for sizes and the number of stories[17].

The two lower stories were intended for livestock. Cattle and horses were usually kept in the ground floor, whose part was fenced off for grain storage. Pits with stone-faced walls and bottom were made for the purpose in some towers. The floor was made of boards or stone slabs. Separate stables were made for horses. The first floor, intended for sheep and goats, had a separate entrance with a log ramp.

The family lived in the second floor—or the first in three-storey towers. The family kept its possessions there—carpets, dishes, clothes, etc. The things were kept in tin-plated wooden chests. The older towers had no wardrobes, with things hung on metal hooks. Wall niches were made for the purpose in some towers. 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 dire necessity in wartime, and mere custom in peace.

The kkherch, stone-faced hearth, was in the centre of the dwelling chamber, with a chain above it. Of primitive structure, the hearth was a mere round slab surrounded by stones of various sizes. The cauldron was put on a metal tripod known as ochkakh. Smoke left the dwelling through the windows. The kkherch was the heart of the home, where the family cooked, and round which it had meals and relaxed. Even later, when the tovkha fireplace in the wall replaced the hearth, it stayed sacred to Chechens as the other Caucasians. The oath on the hearth was inviolable. A man of the enemy clan was spared in a blood feud once he touched the chain above the hearth. A theft made near the hearth was a deadly insult. Rubbish was never cast into the flame. When the mistress of the house was sweeping the floor, she did it in the direction opposite to the hearth. Bread crumbs, on the contrary, were cast into the fire after a meal. Possibly, it was a trace of past sacrifices as the hearth was the ritual place even in the New Stone Age, and burning the fat and bones of sacrificial animals was practised in the Antiquity. The hearth cult might have given rise to the first altars and sanctuaries. Initially, primitive man made special ritual hearths inside the dwelling later to take them out and wall in with stone. With time, such fire sanctuaries were built into temples.

The mother of the family was considered the keeper of the hearth, and entitled to the utmost respect by the household and guests. Many religious festivals, New Year among them, were connected with the hearth.

Chechens saw New Year in on December 25. At the start of the celebration, the fire in the hearth was fed not with usual firewood and sticks but with a gula, uncut tree trunk, mostly oak. The gula tree was cut down two days after the New Year village bonfire. The tree was carried into the house, branches first, while the butt stayed outside. The time before fire consumed a greater part of the tree, so that the door could be shut, was sacral. All neighbours came together in the gula house to sing and dance, and wish each other happy New Year. The festival led many researchers to the wrong assumption that hearths were always fed like that in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus. Contemporary ethnologists borrowed the allegation from pre-revolutionary studies, and so it survives. As things really are, the custom concerns only the opening days of a year.

The family usually had meals together at a low three-legged table near the fireplace. Newlyweds had their meals away from the household. When the family had a guest, he was served the first, and the master of the house alone shared his meal. If the guest was a woman, she had her meal with the lady of the house.

The family slept on broad wooden or stone couches covered with embroidered felt rugs. A part of the family slept on woollen mattresses spread on the floor, with sheepskin coats or felt cloaks for blankets. The richer families possessed gorgeous featherbeds with embroidered silk sheets. All this luxury was neatly folded in the distant corner of the room for daytime. Bed folding was something of a rite, whose rules and progression the lady of the house followed meticulously.

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 besieged or attacked. A cauldron of pitch and piles of stones were prepared on the flat roof on such occasions. The roof was made of thick logs pressed close to each other. Chat wood was piled on top, and coated in punned clay. The walls of the top floor raised above the roof in some towers as a parapet protecting the defenders.

Unlike the other parts of Chechnya, the dwelling towers of Maista had gable roofs of large stone slabs.

Flat roofs were used as drying-barn and threshing-floor in the warm season. The family had meals and recreation there in summer.

Apertures were made in the floor of every storey with timber ladders or notched logs leaning on the edge. There was a door in every floor but the top. The door and window apertures were most often made of large monoliths as rounded arches. The arches were primitive and roughly hewn in the earlier towers but received a sophisticated decorative air in the 15th-17th century structures, though it is occasionally the other way round. For instance, the monolith stone door arch in the first floor of the dwelling tower of Khimoi is thoroughly dressed and decorated with the petroglyphs of the Aryan swastika—in contrast to the crude entrance arch of the ground floor, made as late as the 19th century. Deep notches for the locking bar were made to either side of the door, which was made of thick oak boards. The door apertures broadened on the inside to make lancet arches. The windows were very small. Those in the upper stories served as embrasures, if need be. The windows were sealed with wooden shutters or stone slabs for the night and the cold season. In summer, transparent film made of animal intestines was pulled over them.

Livestock was kept only in the ground floor of three-storey towers.

Russian explorer K. Hahn, who travelled in the Chechen highland at the turn of the 20th century, left a detailed description of a Chechen three-storey tower:

Tsotesh’s house, situated above a deep gulley, is a giant quadrangular tower of three stories, with a few household outbuildings. The tower is made by dry masonry of huge slate blocks. After we crossed a vast paved courtyard surrounded by a high wall, we entered the ground floor—an unlit cattleshed—by a tiny door. We climbed narrow stone stairs to the first floor, where the women of the household lived. Though the rooms appeared tidier than what I had seen in Khevsur homes, they were also poorly lit, with sooty ceilings. Large copper and tin bowls were arranged on the walls, and lavishly carved chests along them on the mud floor. Scanty wall apertures left the room barely lit. A rickety ladder led to the top floor, with the master’s room, where the nuptial bed was. The walls were hung with weapons and the whole family’s festive garments. The flat roof made something of a balcony framed in a low wall in front of the room. An exquisite panorama opened from it—the valley, the mountain village and the proud castle of Tsotesh’s ancestors. Two mountain streams precipitated down from its foot—the Vegi-Chu and the Turkal, the snowy peaks of the Vegi-Lam towering far away, at the source of the Vegi-Chu[18].

A tower of six stories survives in the village of Nikaroi, though a majority of Chechen dwelling towers had four or three stories.

The tower was in the possession of one family. As it was segmented, the parents occasionally remained in the tower with only the youngest son to keep them company. Newlyweds could not share premises with the parents but moved to the top floor, or a corner with a separate hearth was walled off for them in the parental chamber. The allegations of pre-revolutionary and other scholars that several families could share a tower are groundless. After sons and daughters came of age, they could not share a bedroom with their parents. It was even more improper when they married.

A magic rite preceded tower construction. At first, a household animal checked the purity of the chosen site. For that, an ox or another animal was driven to the place, which was considered pure if it lay down there at night. The master of the future tower also could spend the night on the site, and it was considered auspicious if he had a good dream.

An animal was sacrificed next. It was usually a sheep, though the more substantial families could afford an ox. The foundation was sprinkled with sacrificial blood, after which a prayer was said, and a locally respected man (a priest in the pagan times, and a mullah or elder later), if the fellow villagers considered him lucky, touched the cornerstone and blessed the start of construction.

Dwelling towers were usually built on rock, and had no foundation. In spots where rock was not exposed, the upper layer of soil was removed, so the tower bottom appeared dug-in. Clayey soil was poured with milk or water and removed again and again till the soil stopped absorbing the liquid. According to field data collected by Veniamin Kobychev in Ichkeria, i.e., East Chechnya, local people “filled a small jug with water, sealed it with wax, and dug it into the soil for several days. If they saw upon unearthing it that some water had oozed out, the spot was considered unfit for construction”[19].

Huge boulders up to two metres long and above human height were put in the foundation. They were hauled by a capstan, and moved over considerable distance on special sledges by ox teams.

The walls, and occasionally corners, were oriented on the cardinal points. Petroglyphs, to which magic power was ascribed, were often carved on the outer surface of the building stone to protect the tower from evil spirits and all danger. Family symbols were also carved on the walls to testify to the nobility and long lineage of the owners. Petroglyph-studded stones out of the walls of an old tower were used in building a new one. That is why such inscribed stones often differ from the rest in dressing and colour. This is especially notable in the dwelling tower on the west edge of the Vaserkel village, on a high cliff above the Mainstoin-Erk stream. A pictogram on the south wall of the tower is made on carefully dressed—even polished—stones of a much lighter shade than the rest. They are, doubtless, much older than the tower itself.

The ritual use of parts of an old dwelling in a new one survives to this day. Whenever a Chechen dismantles his old home, he puts at least one of its stones or bricks in the foundation of the new house. It is a sacral action as the new house thus inherits the blessing that rested on the old one.

Dwelling towers were usually built on an elevation close to a water source—a river, stream, brook or spring. A hidden water duct was often laid, which was vitally necessary when the tower was besieged—suffice to recall the old legend of the siege of a tower complex on Mount Bekkhaila in the Argun Gorge. The complex—in fact, a small fortress—consisted of three combat towers and one dwelling tower with a high stone wall around. It stood on a high cliff and so was practically impregnable. It was never short of drinking water with a network of underground stone ditches. The siege had lasted many months before a local man who was in a blood feud with the defenders of the fortress advised the besiegers to feed their horses with salt and let them loose near the wall. Tormented by thirst and led by instinct, the animals dug the soil with their hooves above the water duct, thus revealing it. The besiegers destroyed it, and the besieged had to leave the fortress through an underpass the same night[20].

Unlike combat towers and other fortifications, the fortified home was primarily a dwelling. Defence was its secondary function. However, the Middle Ages were a dangerous time, and the defence potential of dwelling towers was used to the full. First, wood was never used in the tower exterior lest the tower be set on fire from without. Second, the top floor was always used for defence. The height of the stories above the auxiliary ground floor gave defenders’ arrows and stones a great kill power, and made them tremendously hard of access for besiegers. Machicolations were always made above the front door to rule out arsonists’ secret approach. The door, always low and narrow, was usually made in the wall that was the hardest of access to impede ramming. The door aperture was much narrower on the outer side, broadening on the inside to protect the door edges.

A majority of towers had underpasses leading to a comparatively safe spot.

As military danger was subsiding, and with the appearance of a new custom to extend the dwelling tower with a combat one, the fortification functions of dwelling towers receded into the background to simplify their architecture—the towers lost the defence storey and machicolations. The number of stories reduced to two or three, while the number of doors, windows and rooms in every floor increased. Household outbuildings appeared, and towers began to tend to a horizontal layout.

The type is represented by a dwelling tower northwest of Itum-Kale on a low promontory on the left bank of the Kokadoi-Akhk, a tributary of the Argun.

The rectangular tapering tower, 7.6 x 6.8 m, has walls oriented on the cardinal points. It is made of carefully dressed stone blocks of various sizes, mostly large. Presumably, it had three stories originally. Only two are extant, and the present-day height of the tower approaches 7 metres

The west, façade, wall has two door apertures—on the ground and first floors. Shaped as rounded arches, they are made of large monoliths. Such ornately shaped arches are frequent in Chechen dwelling and combat towers. The ground floor aperture, 1.3 x 1 m, is made of larger monoliths than that of the first floor. Deep notches for the locking bar are made to either side of the door. The first floor aperture is not precisely above it but offset to the right. The door apertures broaden on the inside to make lancet arches. A double spiral petroglyph is in the right bottom corner. There is a small rounded arch window made of a monolith left to the first floor entrance.

There is only one window in the south wall—in the first floor. The east wall is blank. The north wall has one small arched window, which broadens on the inside in a lancet arch. The inside walls have numerous niches where household utensils are kept.

The central pillar, carefully made of neatly hewn stones, is half-extant. The inside wall ruins indicate several rooms in every floor.

Similar towers were widespread in the southeast and the centre of the Chechen highland.

They transformed gradually into conventional two-storey stone houses of which Hahn made a detailed description in 1901:

A well-to-do Chechen’s house is usually built of limestone, and has two stories and a flat roof. The cattleshed and the kitchen are in the ground floor. Outdoor stone steps lead to the upper storey, which retracts a sazhen [2 metres]. There are four rooms in each floor. The front room is the largest—12 steps wide and 20 steps long. There are several wooden beds there, and tall grain tubs dug of tree trunks, 2-3 feet in diameter, where wheat and maize are stored. Side by side with them are giant woolsacks. The drawing-room, or guestroom, left to the front room, is furnished with two beds, several chests, and shelves arranged on one wall. The opposite wall is decorated with a display of weaponry. Carpets are spread on the floor, which is mud as in the whole house. A small closet for household utensils opens into the guestroom. At the back of the house is a vast storeroom, no smaller than the front room. There is a bed in it, huge chests of crude carpentry, made by captive Russian soldiers long ago, several large tubs of cheese, and two or three tall tubs of maize. Hanging on the walls are bowls, plates and other dishes. Smoked broadtails, loin and rack of fattened rams dangle down the ceiling on large wooden hooks.

Later on, many dwelling towers were rebuilt into conventional gable-roof houses. One of such structures can be seen in the village of Ushkaloi on the right bank of the Argun.

Dwelling towers were widespread in the Chechen, Ingush and North Ossetian highlands. They were scantier in Kabarda-Balkaria and Karachai-Circassia. They were also characteristic of the northern parts of Georgia, bordering on Chechnya—Khevsureti, Tusheti and, to the west—Mtiuleti, Khevi and Svaneti[21].

Dwelling towers were typical of the entire Chechen highlands with the exception of Ichkeria, the easternmost part of Chechnya bordering on Dagestan—probably, due to the scarcity of stone there. Chechen settlement of Ichkeria and Cheberloi started fairly late—no earlier than Tamerlane’s army left the area—as Chechens were migrating from west to east. According to folklore, the territory was previously populated by the Orstkhoi (a Chechen ethnic group), of whose construction traditions nothing is known today, though traditions refer to their dwelling towers and ascribe the construction of the legendary Navruz-Gala tower to them.

Dwelling and combat towers were frequent in almost all parts of Cheberloi. The combat towers and fortifications on the border of Dagestan (in Khoi, Kezenoi and Kharkaroi) were built by a vice-gerent sent there from Nashkh. Many dwelling and combat towers of Cheberloi were pulled down during the Caucasian War. The area went through several mighty risings against Imam Shamil and Russia within a fairly short period. All those risings were cruelly suppressed, and the settlements involved in them razed to the ground. Shamil’s warriors and Russian troops were especially hard on towers. Their ruins are seen to this day in the abandoned villages of Cheberloi and the adjacent areas.

Almost all settlements in the Chechen mountains west of the Sharo-Argun—in Sharoi, Maista, Melkhista,  Terloi-Mokhk, Nashkh, Akki, and the Tazbichi, Argun and Fortanga gorges—had no conventional houses, and consisted entirely of combat and dwelling towers.


2.2.    Semi-Combat Towers


Dwelling towers were reinforced in certain parts of the Chechen mountains as the danger of aggression was increasing in the 13th-14th centuries. The towers grew taller, with more stories, and their layout became closer to the square. Machicolations appeared on the top floor above the door. Such towers were marked by careful stone dressing and setting. Unlike dwelling towers, the towers of that type had no central pillar. Architect S. Umarov made a detailed description of such a tower in the village of Bavloi. It had five stories, each except the top with a door aperture in the east wall. Machicolations protected the east and west walls. The ground and first floors were for livestock, the second and third for dwelling, and the top for defence. Every tower of that type had a battlement to enhance the defence of the roof. Such towers are extant in the villages of Nikaroi, Bavloi, Khaibakh, Tsa-Kale and Tsecha-Akhk.

The Nikaroi is a classic semi-combat tower. It stands on a cliff in the centre of a promontory made by two arms of the Nikaroi-Akhk mountain stream. Massive rock projecting from the soil is used as the tower foundation. The walls are oriented on the cardinal points. The south wall is the façade. The tower is built of well-hewn stones of varying sizes, kept together with lime mortar. It has five stories. There are three doors in the façade—on the ground, first and second floors. Platforms for archers are on the top storey, at the floor level. The tower is 8.0 х 9.0 m, and 11 metres high. The ground floor wall is 75 centimetres thick.

The term “semi-combat” for that type of Vainakh towers belongs to prominent archaeologist Vladimir Markovin[22]. He regarded them as a transition stage in the evolution of the fortified dwelling into the combat tower—a highly dubitable assumption as combat towers appeared in the oldest citadels much earlier than dwelling towers and fortified houses, while watchtowers and beacons are even older.

Semi-combat towers were a syncretic type combining the characteristics of dwelling and combat towers. That was rational in the trying economic conditions of the mountains because families did not need to build special combat towers that cost tremendous sums. However, despite all their merits, semi-combat towers were rare in the Chechen highland—probably because tower complexes and castles had become widespread by the time semi-combat towers appeared. Possessing all the merits of such towers, a castle also gave shelter to the entire livestock in wartime.



2.3.    Towers Built into Rock Niches


Towers built into rock niches belong typologically to the oldest kind of combined dwellings/fortifications. Such structures were built even in the Old Stone Age as caves and grottos were reinforced with stone obstructions.

Sites for towers of that type in the Chechen highland were chosen in massive rock or on rocky riverbanks, sometimes very high in the mountains. Rock clefts or caves were filled with stone on the outside. Door and window apertures, portholes and observation slits were made as in conventional towers. Such structures usually had only one wall, as the Nikhaloi and Motsaroi towers, or three walls, as the Ushkaloi and Bashen-Kala.

Russian archaeologist Vsevolod Miller described one such tower, at the mouth of the Gekhi River:

A narrow path leads to the castle. Partly, it is a cornice hewn in the rock, and partly wooden bridges over crevices. The path reaches a low slit gate, more like a window, in the dilapidating wall, opening on a small courtyard on the brow of the cliff the castle stands on. The wall encircling the yard is partly ruined. The right wall of the dwelling, of which the cliff makes the left wall, is inside the yard, parallel to the cliff. The ruins of two towers leaning on a cliff projection are above. A major part of the cliff is sooty, testifying that this formidable stronghold was a shelter and a home. The most striking impression is made by a small balcony miraculously preserved at a breathtaking height. Centuries ago, when the castle was towering high in its appalling grandeur, there were stairs leading to the balcony. Now, they have crushed down as the tower walls. Today, the balcony hangs on its massive timber beams projecting a sazhen from the rock—a lonely and inaccessible silent witness to the past[23].

Another tower built into rock is in the vicinity of Motsaroi in Nashkh. It has one outer wall 12 metres long and 10 metres high, with door and window apertures and embrasures. According to tradition, it gave refuge to people hiding from a blood feud. No one remembers who built the tower, when and with what purpose, though its location allows presume that it was originally a beacon. Possibly, it turned into a hideaway later.

There is another tower built into a rock niche in the vicinity of Ushkaloi on the right Argun bank. It has three man-made walls of carefully hewn stones with lime mortar. The cliff makes its fourth wall, and a cliff projection serves as the roof.

The north and south walls repeat the geometry of the cliff. The door aperture is a rounded arch of stone, with an embrasure slightly above. A small window tops the tower. The west wall, tapering slightly, is blank, with five embrasures. There are another five embrasures at different heights in the south wall. Stone consoles—remnants of machicolations—are in its upper part. A window aperture tops the wall.

The many legends pertaining to the construction of this tower appear extremely far-fetched.

Researchers know such towers as shelters because, presumably, they gave refuge to local people, shepherds and wayfarers in case of sudden military danger. In reality, many of them were not shelters but watchtowers and beacons. The towers of Ushkaloi were watchtowers protecting a stone bridge across the Argun and the road along the riverbank. The Nikhaloi and Bashen-Kala towers were beacons, as borne out by their geography, folklore references, and visual connection between the Bashen-Kala, Guchan-Kale and Nikhaloi towers.

Cliff towers are fairly numerous in Chechnya (at Ushkaloi, Nikhaloi, Bashen-Kala, Itirkale, Devnechu, Khaikha and Doka-Bukh), unlike the other parts of the Caucasus, with the exception of Ossetia, where several similar structures are known. The traditions of cliff tower construction were strong in the Crimea, with its traces of the Nakh substratum. Local cliff vaults are tracked down to Alanians migrating to the Crimea.


2.4. Combat Towers


Chechen architecture reached its peak with fortifications known as combat towers. More than 200 have come down to this day in varying state of preservation despite their systematic destruction ever since the Caucasian War.

An opinion of combat towers appearing in the evolution of dwelling towers, and of so-called semi-combat towers as an intermediate in such evolution, has taken shape in academic literature (Markovin and Umarov)[24].

There are, however, no grounds to consider dwelling towers more archaic than combat ones. Both take root in cyclopean structures, the earliest of which date to the Bronze Age. We should bear in mind, besides, that combat towers appeared as citadel wall fortifications in the 2nd millennium B.C., at the latest. Similar fortresses, though of a later time—of a rectangular or triangular layout, with formidable walls and corner towers—are extant in many parts of Chechnya—in particular, the upper reaches of the Argun, on Mount Bekkhaila, in Melkhista, in the Koratakh village, in the Terloi-Akhk Gorge and elsewhere. Their presence can be regarded as confirming that combat towers first appeared in the Caucasus as in the other parts of the world first as parts of citadels, i.e., as auxiliary buildings.

Beacons and watchtowers appeared even earlier. To all appearances, natural elevations and tree tops were used originally to pass information—especially warnings of war danger. Timber towers appeared next, and the evolution brought the stone tower as its final result.

Academic literature does not indicate the difference between beacons and watchtowers.

Probably, watchtowers combined the functions of a beacon and of watching proper. Single-function watchtowers were built near bridges, on the roadside and in narrow gorges to protect them, and were used as customs offices in peacetime. They never passed signals and messages. Beacons, on the contrary, were built with the purpose of passing war alarm signals and needed unbroken visual connection with each other. They were parts of a network spreading over vast areas. A majority of beacons also had the functions of combat towers, though towers built into cliffs and caves (such as the Bashen-Kala and the Nikhaloi) also could have those functions, though researchers erroneously consider them shelters. Watchtowers always had the functions of combat towers. They were solitary structures on rare occasions only. As a rule, they made complexes of two or more combat towers.

It would be logical to wonder whether it was worthwhile to build stone beacons that cost tremendous labour and money. Most probably, after the men on beacon duty passed necessary signals, they could not most often leave the tower immediately and join the troops, so they needed defence fortifications. More than that, beacons were built in strategic sites and their defence diverted a part of enemy troops. Tamerlane’s chronicles refer to sieges of towers in Chechen mountain gorges. A special combat tower was not erected whenever there was an opportunity to use the locality (as the Bashen-Kala and Nikhaloi towers), such as rock niches and cliffs on whose top or at whose foot the tower was built.

The evolution of Caucasian combat towers can be formulated as follows: combat tower/beacon – combat tower as part of a citadel – combat tower as an isolated watchtower – combat tower as part of a tower complex. The latest type of defence tower in a dwelling complex appeared in the Late Middle Ages—most probably, in the 15th century, and was connected with increasing social differentiation in Chechnya.

The Chechen for “defence tower” is bIouv. Doubtless, it was connected with the interjection bIouv, which was a challenge or a threat. The connection is even closer with the word bIo, “watch”, “surveillance”, which later acquired the meaning of “army”.  The word bIo ascends to an even older Chechen word, bIan, “look”, “see”—hence bIaьrg, “eye”, so the etymology is linked to the primary function of the combat tower as watchtower and beacon.

So we can say that combat towers appeared later than dwelling ones only when we regard the combat tower as a fortification element of a complex. The combat tower had acquired its finished, classical forms by the time when tower complexes (combinations of a combat tower and a dwelling one) appeared in the mountains of Chechnya and Ingushetia. A majority of structures of that time have a step pyramidal roof, are built with lime mortar, and reveal sophisticated construction techniques.

A combat tower has a square layout (its classical size is 5 x 5 metres), is 20-25 metres high, and is made of dressed stone with lime or lime-sand mortar. It is tapering at a 4-6 angle. The Guchan-Kale tower, a typical structure of that type, is on the right bank of the Argun, on a high rocky promontory at the confluence of the Argun and its tributary, the small Guchan-Ark mountain stream.

The strongly tapering tower has a rectangular layout, 5 x 5 metres. Its corners are oriented on the cardinal points. It is 18 metres high, and the walls at the bottom are about a metre thick. The tower is made of carefully adjusted stones of varying sizes, some of them dressed. Lime mortar was used in its construction. The foundation is made of large stones. The five-storey tower has machicolations at the top. The machicolations of the façade and the back wall are narrower than the others. They rest on two stone consoles each, while the broader ones of the side walls need three consoles. The floor decks are gone, though the cornerstones on which their beams rested are extant. The roof is almost entirely gone, so it is hard to say what shape it was of. The ground floor is packed with clay and stones.

The southwest, façade wall has a door aperture on the first floor, and two windows, on the second and third floors. The door aperture is 1.35 x 1 m from without, and 2.25 x 1.3 m on the inside. The conic stones of its arch are corbelled. The aperture broadens on the inside to make a lancet-arch niche in the wall. The only window of the second floor, on the façade, is 3 metres above the door. The window arch is made of monolith stone. There are two cruciform patterns above the window, with a carved T sign topping them. The third floor window also has a monolith arch, with three cruciform signs above.

The northwest wall has four embrasures and an arch window on the third floor, with a stone slab to its left. The wall is decorated, as the others, with cruciform patterns and a T sign.

The southeast wall has a window in the second floor. A broad stone slab protects it on the slope side—which is unusual of Chechen-Ingush towers. The wall has three embrasures—two slit ones in the first floor, and a broader one in the second. Cruciform patterns and a T sign decorate the wall.

Культовые и погребальные сооружения в горах Чечни      

The northeast wall has no windows but there are embrasures in it, and a T sign.

Field data allow assume that the tower existed during the Mongol-Tartar invasion or even earlier.

The construction of a combat tower was accompanied by the same rituals as of a dwelling tower. The shape, size and site of a beacon guaranteed visual connection with the nearest beacons. Other factors were also taken into consideration to ensure its defence merits. Strategic points were chosen for watchtowers. They dominated the locality to control key bridges, roads and mountain passes. The presence of a river, brook or spring was an essential condition as the tower was supposed to have a secret water duct.

Combat towers were built on hard rock, just as dwelling ones. Beacons were erected on the top of cliffs to make them hard of access. When material- and labour-consuming construction of combat towers began, in the 10th and 11th centuries, their watch and signal functions were combined, so a majority of watch-combat towers in the Chechen mountains were also beacons.

Apart from signalling, defence was the key function of combat towers. Naturally, its fortifying merits demanded especial attention.

They had blank walls, cut only by embrasures and observation slits, on the most vulnerable side. Doors and windows were on the side hardest of access. It was so hard to get to the door that it baffles one to think how the defenders entered the tower. There were no wooden parts on the tower exterior lest besiegers put them on fire.

Songs and other folklore materials emphasise the master builder’s role. As tradition has it, the master did not take part in the construction—he only told his assistants what to do as an architect should. Legends ascribe to him the honourable and extremely dangerous task of erecting the tsIurku stone that topped the step pyramidal roof. A ladder was tied to a machicolation on the outside for the master to reach the roof. It cost many masters their life. In case of success, the client gave the master a bull. The construction of a family tower cost the household 50 to 60 cows. Many researchers assume, with references to Ivan Shcheblykin[25], that tower builders did not need scaffolding. To all appearances, Shcheblykin meant that there was no scaffolding on the outside.

Interior scaffolds used in erecting the walls rested on cornerstones, in which corbels were made for the purpose. Stones and beams were lifted with a windlass known as chIagIarg or zerazak. Large stones—some weighing several tonnes—were brought to the site by ox-driven sleds. There were many stone-dressing tools—the berg pick, the varzap (large hammer), the jau (small hammer), the daam chisel, etc. Mortar was made on the site. Sand or clay was admixed to it in localities where lime was expensive. To guess the necessary amount of mortar and so enhance the seismic resistance of the tower was considered the best test of construction expertise. Joints between stones were filled in with limewash for rain not to damage mortar.

Cornerstones served to join the walls together and as beam bases.

The ground floor ceiling of the later, 15th-17th century towers was a false vault, known as nartol tkhov, with two intercrossing rows of reinforcing ribs.

Special attention was paid to the dressing and finishing of the arcual stones of the doors and windows. They bore the name of kurtulg, “proud stone”, and were frequently decorated with petroglyphs.

A majority of combat towers had five stories. Researchers differ in the interpretation of their functions. Some assume that the ground floor was used for livestock, while others say it was a prison for captives. As it really was, the ground floor was filled in with stone and earth to reinforce the tower bottom against ramming.

The use of the term “dwelling floor” in the combat tower context is also highly dubitable. The classical combat tower was not intended to withstand long sieges, unless it belonged to a complex of towers with a stone wall in between them—which was, in fact, a small fortress, as the one on Mount Bekhaila. Tower defenders had only a small stock of food and extremely limited arsenals, be it arrows, stone missiles or powder and shot in the later time. The function of the tower stories can be discerned from their smallness. A watchtower or a beacon could house four to six on outsentry duty. A combat tower as part of a complex could shelter a family that lived in the one or two dwelling towers it adjoined. Not a single storey of a combat tower was meant for a long sojourn, so they can hardly be considered dwellings. In this sense, legends connected with particular Chechen combat towers are thoroughly wrong when they say that their heroes lived in the towers.

All combat tower stories were equipped for observation and fighting.

Chechen and Ingush combat towers belong to one type, and differ only in size and the construction time. Depending on their age, they differ also in the sophistication of construction techniques and stone dressing, and in the grace of form.

Chechen and Ingush combat towers divide in three basic groups according to the type of roof:


1) Flat roof towers;

2) Flat roof towers crenellated on the corners;

3) Step pyramidal roof towers.

Flat roof towers are the oldest. Some of them date to the 11th-13th centuries. They are slightly tapering, not very tall, and made of roughly hewn stone. Most of them had no more than four stories. A majority were beacons and watchtowers, or parts of citadels, e.g., the Bekkhaila. Some combat towers with flat roofs were, however, tall and graceful, revealing rather a high level of construction techniques, as, for instance, the Khaskali.

Flat roof towers were usually built in places hard of access—in cliff tops and river promontories.

Towers of the second group, which can be dated to the 14th-16th centuries, are taller and more graceful, taper at a greater angle, and are made of better dressed stone. They were either beacons or watchtowers, or again, belonged to a complex. Few such towers have survived to this day in the mountains of Chechnya—in particular, the combat tower on the left Meshi-Khi bank in Melkhista or the Sandukhoi Gorge tower in the vicinity of Kkhi-Chu.

The tower of the Sandukhoi Gorge stands on a high cliff on the left bank of the Sharo-Argun, close to its source and near the ruins of the mediaeval Kkhi-Chu village. The tower protected the mountain pass from Tusheti to Sharoi, the land of Cheberloi and the Argun Gorge.

The four-storey tower, of a square layout (4.4 x 4.4 m), is 18 metres high and slightly tapering. Its roof and ceilings are gone. The walls orient on the cardinal points. The east, façade wall has three window apertures at the first, second and third floors, each topped by a classic arch with a keystone. The machicolations in the top part of the wall are ruined completely—even their stone bases are gone. The tower is on a steep slope, so its east and west corners are at different levels. The west wall has five embrasures. The first and second floors have two each, and the third one. Stone bases are all that is left of the machicolations. The north wall, with well preserved machicolations, has six embrasures in the lower part of the wall—by two in the first, second and third floors. The south wall has a door aperture leading to the first floor, topped by a classic arch with a keystone, which is partly gone. The window apertures are at the second and third floors. The machicolations are ruined completely.

Step pyramidal roof towers are the latest of all Chechen and Ingush combat towers. Many such towers are dated presumably to the 15th-17th centuries in Chechnya, and 17th-19th centuries in Ingushetia. Such towers were extremely seldom used as watchtowers or beacons. Their majority belong to castle complexes that became widespread in the Chechen highlands in the Late Middle Ages. The academic world knows such towers as the Vainakh because they appeared on the local soil and were widely used in Chechnya and Ingushetia. The few towers of that type to be found in Georgia were built by Vainakh masters.

The so-called classic Vainakh combat tower is the most perfect of Caucasian towers in the architectural and technical respects.

It is usually a structure of a square layout, made of well dressed stone with lime mortar. Usually of five stories, its first and top floor ceilings are stone vaults with decorative intercrossing ribs. The other stories have timber ceilings with beams whose ends rest on keystones.

Pyramidal roof towers are the most graceful of all due to their comparatively great height (up to 25 metres), small foundation (5 x 5 metres) and rather large taper angle.

The top floor has machicolations, usually of one type—small balconies of stone slabs resting on two, three or more consoles with no bottom. Large lancet apertures on the side of the machicolations were for shooting at besiegers.

There were embrasures and observation slits in every floor.

Many step pyramid roof towers had door apertures in every floor, each smaller than the one below proportionately to the tower taper.

Step pyramid roof combat towers were the peak achievement of Vainakh folk architecture. They were in full harmony with the landscape, always fitted well into the terrain, and merged with the locality. The combination of the small foundation with great height, the breathtaking grace, exquisite proportions, the step pyramid roof, which emphasised the upward orientation of the tower, its symmetrical machicolations, the austere harmony of geometrical decorative patterns—all that produces the impression of absolute completeness of form.

The Khacharoi combat tower, in the vicinity of the Gamkhi village, is one of the earlier step pyramid roof towers.

According to tradition, it was built at times when firearms were unknown (i.e., in the 13th or 14th century) and belonged to the entire village community. Local people say there were also several tower complexes in the mouth of the Khacharoi-Akhk River.

The tower of Gamkhi, of five stories with a step pyramid roof, was built with lime mortar. The ground floor door aperture is a lancet arch, with a timber beam at the level of the arch curve. The west wall has lancet arch windows in the ground and first floors. Machicolations protect fourth floor windows in all the four walls. All the walls are decorated with rhombic low reliefs at the third floor level. All ceilings were timber, resting on timber beams put on cornerstones. The tower was put on fire from within in 1944, and all ceilings were gone except one second floor beam.

The step pyramid roof is ruined with the exception of bottom-level stones. Observation slits in the walls were hardly used as embrasures. Every wall has two-section machicolations at the top floor level. The tower was especially impregnable on the steep slope south and east. It was surrounded by a stone wall of which only ruins have come down to this day.

According to an oral account by a man living in the gorge, there was a dwelling tower southwest of the combat tower. Its owner insulted the story teller’s distant ancestor, who shot him dead with an arrow. A blood feud started, forcing the insulted archer and his kith and kin to flee to Cheberloi, from where their offspring returned several generations after. Once a kinsman of the man murdered long ago wounded the teller’s great-great-grandfather in the knee with an arrow—at which the feud finished, and the families reconciled. As for the age of the tower, the informant told that his father, who died at the age of 103, said that even his grandfather, who served under the banner of Imam Shamil and died at the age of 107, did not remember when it was built. According to him, the tower belonged to a signal system, and the combat towers of Dishni-Mokhk were visible from it. Anyway, it was built at the time when firearms were unknown, i.e., in the 13th or the 14th century.

The Sharoi combat tower belongs to later towers of that type. It is marked by superior construction technique and lavish décor. The tower is in the present-day village of Sharoi, the administrative centre of a district of the same name. It stands on the southeast edge of the promontory on which the ancient village of Sharoi was. The Zhogaldoi-Akhk rivulet skirts the promontory to the northeast. The south bank slopes in terraces down to the Sharo-Argun. Huge basalt plates in the upper part of the promontory make an oblong plateau, on which a majority of local mediaeval structures were built. The tower stands on a crag. Its walls are made of well dressed stones with lime mortar. It tapers slightly, at an angle of about 5 degrees.

The tower is of a square layout, 5.0 x 5.0 metres. Its extant part is 20 metres high. Four stories and a corner of the upper story are in a good state of preservation. The five storey tower, with a step pyramidal roof, was originally no less than 25 metres high. The roof and ceilings are ruined completely. The walls are oriented on the cardinal points. The south, façade wall has two window apertures, in the second and third floors, two embrasures in the first floor and another two in the second. It is decorated with rhombic low relief patterns forming squares. The door aperture—a classic arch with a keystone—is in the west wall at the first floor level. It is partly destroyed, as is the second floor window above it. The blank north wall has two slit embrasures in the lower part of the first floor, and another two similar in the second floor. The small window aperture of the east wall is in the third floor, decorated above with three rhombic figures. There is an embrasure in the second floor, and two in the first. The tower stands on a slope, so its walls are of different heights.

As architectural forms were improving for millennia, the combat tower was best suited for defence. Its height, of 20 to 25 metres, enhanced its defensive merits as, first, arrows shot from the ground lost their killing power. Second, the height facilitated defenders’ all-angle fire and enhanced its distance. That was why the top floor was for archers, who were positioned at the apertures to cover the approaches to the tower, shooting from protective balconies.

When the enemy came close to the tower, boiling water and pitch were poured down from machicolations and, possibly, from the upper doors.

The tapering form allowed throw stones at the enemy, the missiles ricocheting to make their homing unpredictable.

Every storey of the tower had many embrasures and observation slits—which are hard to tell from each other. They could hardly be used by archers, though a majority of them appear also unlikely to be used for gunfire.

Gun slots, toьpan Iuьrgash in Chechen, appeared in combat towers no earlier than the 16th century. They are much larger than observation slits, and slope down. Clearly, embrasures cannot provide the sole ground for tower dating because certain observation slits were later broadened to make gun slots without rebuilding the towers.

Village defence did not reduce to tower warfare. In fact, towers were strongholds and observation points[26]. Dwelling tower roofs, protective walls and the terrain were also used for defence. When a village possessed several combat towers, they were arranged in such a way as to surround the entire settlement without dead areas.



2.5. Castles and Citadels


The complexes of a combat tower and a dwelling one evolved into castles surrounded with stone walls as the social and class stratification of the Chechen mountain community went on.

Many authors assume that the various fortifications of the Chechen highland were owned by families and teips, and so were fruit of the clan system. Folk tradition and historical sources link castles and fortresses with the names of local feudal lords. Thus, folklore ascribes the construction of the fortress in the Kezenoi village to Aldam-Gezi, the vice-gerent of Cheberloi, sent there by the Mekh Kkhel (Nakh Supreme Council) from Nashkh. The Kezenoi fortress towers on a cliff with a wall almost 100 metres long around it. The fortress consists of a citadel, a cluster of dilapidated buildings, and a dwelling tower known as Daud’s Tower. Its rectangular layout is close to a square. Its extant walls are seven metres high. Remnants of its central pillar and one of the cornerstones have come down to this day.

South of Daud’s Tower is a mosque with a gravestone under its threshold. Local people say the man buried there was Surkho son of Ada, a Chechen hero who, according to tradition, routed Kabardian Prince Musost in battle and divided his lands between the poor. The village of Surkhokhi, in Ingushetia, was named after him. Surkho is also the protagonist of an illi song. Every religious festival and rite of Kezenoi was accompanied by brewing, in which the entire village community took part. Barley for festive beer was pestled in a ritual stone bowl in a mosque lean-to. A similar stone bowl can be seen close to a dwelling tower in the village of Tuga, in Maista.

The mosque was most probably built later than the other structures in the fortress, as borne out by their architecture. The dwelling tower samples the Vainakh style with a central pillar, cornerstones and the use of mortar, whereas the mosque is typical of Dagestani architecture. It was most probably built later than the 17th century, i.e., after Cheberloi was finally Islamised.

The Aldam-Gezi Fortress was probably built in the 15th-16th centuries, when Chechens were migrating en masse to the east from the overpopulated eastern lands. As tradition has it, such migration was not spontaneous but arranged by the Mekh Kkhel.

The castle of the Motsaroi village also belonged to an individual, not a clan. Built on a promontory made by the confluence of the Terloi-Akhk and the Nikaroi-Akhk, it consists of three dwelling towers and one combat tower, all adjoining each other. A high stone wall surrounds it. A similar castle of a dwelling tower and a combat one, with a walled-in courtyard, was in the village of Barkha not far from Motsaroi. It also belonged to a family, according to folklore. The Chechen word for castles of that type, with a defence wall, was gIap or galan, while the word for “citadel” was gIala. Practically every Chechen mountain village had such a castle or citadel.

Ruins of a mediaeval castle—two stories of a combat tower and parts of a stone wall—are in the village of Etkali on a steep slope.

The tower layout approaches a square with walls oriented on the cardinal points. The extant tower walls are up to 12 metres high. Judging by the two extant stories, the tower height must have exceeded 25 metres. Its roof was most probably step pyramidal, as can be assumed from the minaret roof of a nearby mosque.

The walls are made of carefully dressed stone with clay-lime mortar. Large stone blocks were used for the foundation. The extant upper part is made of smaller stones, also carefully fitted.

The Etkali tower differs from typical combat towers by door apertures being lower than theirs—in the ground floor. To all appearances, that was due to its fortification merits, with a high stone wall to its west. There are petroglyphs on the tower walls. Hewn in a stone block at the east wall corner are a rosette inscribed in a double circle (the solar symbol), a horizontal human figure with arms outstretched, and an unusual sign resembling a conventionalised rider. The north wall bears a petroglyph of a hand, palm pointing down, and a spiral solar sign.

The Etkali castle belonged to the system of beacons and watchtowers, and was connected visually with the combat towers of Dere, Khaskali and Kheldy and, via them, with the Bekkhaila complex and the Dishni-Baskhoi castle.

The construction of watch and dwelling towers and citadels started back in the Alanian era[27], and flourished especially in the 9th-11th centuries, while the construction of castles and tower complexes fell on the 15th-16th centuries, i.e., after Mongol-Tartar hordes and later Tamerlane’s hosts left Chechnya—a time of its social and economic renaissance after nomad raids, disastrous for all Nakhs.

Alania was a state whose basic ethnos was the Nakh, ancestors of contemporary Chechens. The Mongol invasion robbed it of its might in the 13th century. The people of plains and foothills fled to the mountains though some stayed in the valleys of the Caucasian foothills. Tamerlane’s campaigns not only destroyed the remains of their statehood but also undermined the ancient Nakh civilisation, and changed the map of the North Caucasus beyond recognition. The Nakh tribes of the West and Central Caucasus were ousted from localities they had inhabited for millennia or totally assimilated by the Iranian- and Turkic-speaking tribes. It is worth mentioning that the Alanians, or West Nakhs, began to be Turkified back in the 10th and 11th centuries, and a certain Turkic element was present among the Alanians of the Northwest Caucasus when Mongol-Tartars appeared in the North Caucasus.

Iranisation of the Central Caucasian Nakhs finished as late as the 15th century. A special role in that process belonged to Tamerlane’s Iranian-speaking garrisons deployed at the key mountain passes of the Central Caucasus. The ancient Nakh substratum of the Central Caucasus preserved its material culture and anthropological type but lost its language. Such processes are not sporadic or endemic. Thus, the local population lost its language in the Roman provinces, not only those nearest to Italy but also in such remote ones as Dacia, and spoke Latin under the impact of Roman garrisons. However, local languages and dialects superimposed on the borrowed languages of the colonisers eventually to give rise to new, so-called Romance languages.

All that allows assume a certain unity of the Nakh and Osset material cultures existing through the 14th and 15th centuries, when the Nakh substratum was entirely assimilated by Iranian language elements. This unity was materialised in the ancient architectural forms.

The so-called Vainakh tower culture took final shape in the 14th-15th centuries to create specific architectural forms that are never met in the other parts of the Caucasus.

The unconquerable Nakh survivors fled to the mountains with Tamerlane’s invasion. Their habitat was limited by the Andi Mountain Range in the east, the Terek in the west, the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range in the south, and the Black Mountains in the north. That was where a new ethnic cultural and linguistic community appeared, which received the name of Vainakh in our days. A common material culture took final shape on its basis. Tower and vault architecture was one of its branches.

Certain Nakh tribes began to migrate within that area even during Mongol-Tartar and Tamerlane’s invasions. Some moved east toward Ichkeria and Cheberloi, while others west to the Armkhi Gorge, and still others south to Georgia[28].

Active migration stopped toward the turn of the 16th century, when new territorial communities emerged in the Chechen and Ingush mountains. To all appearances, economic renascence started at that time to usher in drastic social stratification of the Chechen community. According to teptar family chronicles, certain Alanian feudal lords fled from Tamerlane to mountain gorges with their warriors and treasures to meet with the indigenous population, akin to them genetically and linguistically. Such meetings ended with fraternisation or clashes, as the case might be. Doubtless, that time brought a renovation to the feudal society of the Chechen highland, and formidable castles and citadels came as the materialisation of that renovation.


   2.6. The Network of Watch Settlements, Castles and Towers in the Chechen Mountains

Watch settlements, castles and towers were built to control all key mountain passes, roads and small paths. According to archaeologist Umarov, these fortifications were parts of a system.

The Bazante tower settlement, topping a mountain range, straddled the road to the Chechen mountains from the north, along the Assa River, which turns to the Fortanga River valley at the village of Alkun. The entrance to the Fortanga valley was guarded by the tower settlements of Bamut and Gandal-Basa. The crossing of the two roads was protected by the formidable fortified settlement of Tsecha-Akhk. The mountain passes in the Assa-Fortanga interfluve between Bamut and Tsecha-Akhk were guarded by the tower settlements of Lower and Upper Dattykh and the Egichozh fortress.

The roads and mountain passes of the Akki-Mokhk Gorge were straddled by the tower complexes of Mizir-Gala, Gazha-Gala, Devnechu, and Itir-Kale, while the settlements of Vougi and Khage guarded the approaches to Akki from south and west.

The mountain gorges of the Nashkh area, east of Akki, are crossed by two streams—the Gekhi and the Roshnya. A ruined fortification has been found in the Roshnya Gorge, on Mount Mushi-Duk, on the northern outskirts of Nashkh, whose gorges are protected by the impregnable tower complexes of Motsaroi, Khaibakh, Charmakh and Tiist.

The Kei-Mokhk Gorge, southwest of Nashkh, is crossed by a road from Galanchozh Lake to Melkhista via Akki. The gorge is fortified by the settlements of Upper and Lower Kei, Meshtara and Geshi. The road goes on from Mesha, the westernmost settlement of Melkhista, to Tsoi-Pede, its heart. The castles and fortifications of the Mesha, Ikalchu, Sakhana and Korotakh settlements stretch along the road in the Meshi-Khi River valley.

Two combat towers have survived in Tsoi-Pede. A defence wall adjoins one of them, while the other is part of a castle-type complex. That is where the road forks to mutually opposite directions—to Khevsureti in the northeast, and to the Argun Gorge along the Chanti-Argun.

Terloi-Mokhk, north of Melkhista, is criss-crossed by the gorges of the Bavloi-Akhk, Terloi-Akhk and Nikaroi-Akhk rivers. The routes from Nashkh, Akki-Mokhk and Yalkharoi to the central and eastern parts of the Chechen highland were in those gorges, straddled by the castle complexes of Motsaroi, Nikaroi and Bavloi. The Kird-Bavnash castle—owned by Prince Berg-Bich, according to tradition—protected the exit from the Terloi Gorge and the road to Georgia along the left Argun bank.

The Argun Gorge, one of the longest in the North Caucasus, was the best fortified in the area because a route that acquired even greater importance than the Daryal on many occasions stretched along the Argun to connect Georgia with the mountain parts of Chechnya.

The entrance to the gorge was barred by a tower complex near the village of Chishki, which survived up to the middle of the 19th century. According to Adolph Berger, the road from the Vozdvizhensky Fort to Shatoi “starts in a plain sloping slightly to the Argun bank. Three versts after its start, it enters extremely dense brush of small shrubs that stretches up to the path leading to the tower, built to shoot at the rise. Once you negotiate it, the road goes sloping mildly into the gorge. It goes down next to another tower, which protects a wooden bridge across the Chanty-Argun, from which opens the panorama of the village of Bashen-Kala, which spreads on a mountain slope. From the village up to the Chanty-Argun, there is a tower in every verst of the way.”

Combat towers, beacons and watchtowers stood as far as the border with Georgia, marked by the tower settlement of Shatili. Chechens knew it as Shedala, and its population as Shedaloi. Chechens regarded those people as more of Vainakh than Georgians.

The Sharo-Argun, an east tributary of the Argun, crosses the network of mountain ranges south to north to form the Sharo-Argun Gorge, which was densely populated until the deportation of 1944. The north entrance to the gorge was protected by tower fortifications at the Dai village. The Sharoi village fortifications—three combat towers and several dwelling towers—were the principal in the gorge, straddling the roads from the Argun Gorge to Sharoi, Cheberloi, Kakheti and Dagestan.

Cheberloi, in the southeast of Chechnya, was fortified no less formidably.

It possessed a system of fortifications and tower complexes at the villages of Kezenoi, Makazhoi, Kharkaroi and Khoi to control the roads to Sharoi, Ichkeria and Dagestan.

Kezenoi was the strongest of all local fortifications—an impregnable mediaeval stronghold on a cliff. According to tradition, it belonged to Aldam-Gezi, the legendary vice-gerent of Cheberloi, sent from Nashkh[29].

The village of Khoi was on the Chechen-Dagestani border. Indicatively, its name means “guards”. A combat tower on its outskirts—formerly part of a fort—has alone survived to this day of the entire village.

Maista, the hardest of access and the best fortified part of Chechnya, was protected by towers from all sides. It was the capital of the country and the venue of the Mekhk Kkhel in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the war on nomads was at its peak. The tower settlement of Tsa-Kale, with its impregnable castle complex and a mighty wall, protected the gorges of Maista from east. The road to Georgia was straddled by the Puoga and Tuga tower complexes, and the lowland path along the Maistoin-Erk bank by the formidable castle complex Lower Tuga. The Vaserkel fortress towered on a cliff in the heart of Maista. It was destroyed during a war with Persia in the Early Middle Ages to leave the ruins and foundations of more than twenty combat and dwelling towers. Vaserkel controlled all roads across Maista from east to west and from north to south. It was also the principal religious centre of the Chechen mountains.

Towers and tower fortifications also protected the side gorges of streams flowing into the Argun from left and right. More than thirty combat and dwelling towers and castles have come down to this day in the Tazbichi Gorge.

The roads of Ichkeria, the easternmost part of Chechnya, were also protected by towers. The best-known of the local towers were near the villages of Kharachoi, Tsa-Vedeno, Serzhen-Yurt and Kurchaloi.

Thus, the entire mountain part of Chechnya was controlled by a network of watch settlements, castles and towers in the Late Middle Ages to refute historians’ widespread opinion of it as a number of mutually disconnected mountain areas and communities. As things really were, this sophisticated defence system could be created only by a nation possessing full-fledged statehood.



 2.7. The Great Signal System

The oldest signal systems might be dated to the New Stone Age, when man was leading struggle for survival not only with Nature but also with his neighbours.

Natural elevations—mountain, cliff and tree tops—were used as beacons for a long time before special structures began to be built. Messages were transmitted by sign systems, of which the bonfire was the most widespread.

Construction of timber beacons began in the era of the nascent statehood.

No traces of ancient signal systems, with token exceptions, are left in the original Nakh-populated area from the Dagestani borders to the Kuban River.

In present-day Chechnya, on the contrary, not only occasional parts but also complexes of the signal system are extant. That system began to emerge, most probably, in the Alanian era (9th-13th centuries). To all appearances, the system was rebuilt and rearranged in the 12th-15th centuries, when Alanians, or Nakhs of the plains, fled into the mountains from the invasions of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. The fugitives established a new state formation—an association of territorial communities, free societies and small fiefdoms.

Though the formation did not possess all the attributes of the classic state (a regular army and ruling and punitive institutions maintained on fiscal revenues), it was nevertheless a state.

First, it possessed a supreme ruling body, the Mekhk Kkhel, in which all the association members were represented. Second, the Mekhk Kkhel was convened regularly, no rarer than twice a year, and more often whenever necessary, to declare war and peace, regulate the adats (customary law), muster the armed forces, and collect taxes for road construction and fortification.

That was when the building of the Great Signal System finished. It brought together the territorial communities and fiefs of Chechnya, scattered about mountain gorges.

The system fully deserves its name of Great because it wholly incorporated Chechnya, including almost all gorges and villages starting with the left Terek bank and finishing with the beacon of Jarie, the southernmost Chechen village on the Georgian border.

Almost all beacon/combat towers had a flat roof. Many of such roofs were crenellated in the corners. M.A. Ivanov refers to beacons with a stone terrace in front of the top floor window for bonfires.

It was villagers’ duty to build and maintain a beacon near their settlement, and recruit several men for regular watch duty. In case of war danger, signals were passed by fire at night and by smoke in the daytime. The Chechen phrase kIur ba has come down to this day. With the literal meaning of “give out smoke”, it means “flee from danger” nowadays.

The Great Signal System survived into the beginning of the 19th century. Many of its beacons were pulled down during the Caucasian War. A part of its elements are extant even now, and references to many others are found in historical documents and 19th century publications.

There is reliable information about a watchtower and a beacon on a mountain range in the vicinity of Khankala, whose name (KhangIala in Chechen) means “watchtower”. A beacon stood south of it on a mountain slope at the entrance to the Argun Gorge, and another slightly below. Russian troops dismantled both as the Vozdvizhenskaya Fortress was being built in the second half of the 19th century. Farther on, there was a tower to every verst, according to Adolph Berger’s testimony[30]. Many of those towers were destroyed during the Caucasian War, and some dismantled by local people to build new houses.

A major part of the signal system has survived to this day in the upper reaches of the Argun. That part starts with the Shatoi tower, restored in the late 1980s. It has visual connection with the Nikhaloi tower, which, in its turn, connects with the Bashen-Kala tower, built into the rock close to the top of a cliff. The Bashen-Kala tower has visual connection with the Guchan-Kale tower, which connected with the Chinnakhoi tower. The latter connected with the beacon at the entrance of the village of Itumkale, connected with the Pakoch castle complex and the Bekkhaila citadel. The two latter connected with the signal systems of the side gorges. The combat towers of the Dere village had visual connection with the Khaskali and Etkali towers, the Baskhoi castle and the Dishni-Mokhk combat towers, which connected with the Khacharoi combat tower and the beacons of the side gorges—in particular, the beacons in the upper reaches of the Argun Gorge.

The interior of the Chechen highland possessed its own signal systems connected with the beacons of other gorges. Thus, all tower settlements of Maista—Tsa-Kale, Vaserkel, Puoga and Tuga—were interconnected, while the beacon on the top of the Maista Mountain Range connected with the Korotakh castle on Mount Kore-Lam in Melkhista and, through it, with the entire signal system of the Argun Gorge.

The topography of villages in the Terloi-Mokhk Gorge was structured similarly. Those villages connected with the other beacons on the Argun banks through the Kird-Bavnash fort.

The signal systems of Nashkh, Peshkh and the other western areas of the Chechen highlands were brought together by the beacon on Mount Vargi-Lam, which towered above the nearby mountains, and visually connected with the Kei, Akki and Yalkharoi combat towers.

The villages of Melkhista connected through the Korotakh castle on Mount Kore-Lam, from which a panorama opens of the entire Meshi-Ikh river valley with the villages of Sakhana, Ikalchu and Tertie, and the village of Meshi on the Ingush border, where a formidable complex of one combat and two dwelling towers survives to this day. Also visible from Mount Kore-Lam are the towers of the village of Tsoi-Pede, destroyed in the Middle Ages, the Jarie beacon on its high cliff, and the ruined tower of the Doza village on a mountain top on the right Argun bank.

The villages of Sharoi and Cheberloi belonged to one system. Intermediate towers connected them with the beacons of the Argun Gorge and side gorges adjoining it.

A system of beacons also connected Ichkeria with the other parts of Chechnya. Ruins of a beacon are extant in the vicinity of Kurchaloi. It had visual connection with the beacons on the top of the Kachkalyk Mountain Range and on a crest by the side of an old road from Kurchaloi to Isti-Su.

The existence of elements of the system in the Terek basin is borne out by the extant foundations of beacons in Tashkala and on the Terek Mountain Range.

Thus, the watch and signal systems of the Chechen mountains acquired classic perfection in the 14th and 15th centuries. Dispersed territorial communities and free societies certainly could not create such a defence system, with its precise plan and layout that took every relevant factor into account—the terrain, and the strategic and tactical importance of particular roads and mountain passes. A strong state alone could cope with the task. We remember the existence and power that state possessed for a certain period of time thanks to the surviving parts of the Great Signal System, the man-made miracle of the Chechen mediaevality.




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