Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechnya: Ancient Towers Under Threat

High in the mountains of Chechnya, Russian troops are destroying unique architectural monuments.
By Lecha Ilyasov

At a fork in the road leading to the mountain villages Tsentoroi, Belgatoi, Tazen-Kala and Kurchalou in eastern Chechnyai, a ten-metre-tall tower stands on a hilltop.

This churt, or tombstone, was erected by Tsentoroi residents in memory of their fellow villagers who were killed in the village of Dadi-Yurt in September 1819. Passers-by used to stop and pray here.

Nowadays, the tombstone is almost destroyed. Russian shells have truncated the top and the inscriptions in Chechen and Arabic are gone.

Since war resumed in Chechnya in 1999, Russian troops have been continuously bombarding the republic's architectural heritage, using ancient stones to build fortifications, or turning the republic's famous towers into command posts or warehouses.

The scale of the damage is hard to estimate, as this reporter, who has spent many years studying Chechnya's towers - tall, ancient, castle-like structures positioned strategically across the region - cannot gain access to many of them in border areas. Russian officers, while acknowledging the problem, say it is beyond their powers to protect the monuments, while little fuss is made about it in Moscow.

There are 150 tower settlements in the mountains of Chechnya, as well as 15 temples, some 150 above-ground crypts and two necropolises, which may be amongst the largest in the world.

Little studied by scholars, these monuments, some of them thousands of years old, potentially have much to tell us about the mysteries of the ancient cultures of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Many of the inscriptions and magic symbols on the tombstones and towers are more ancient than the structures they are inscribed on. In building these monuments, Chechens often used existing stones from bigger, more ancient edifices, some of them dating as far back as the 10th - 5th centuries BC.

"For the Chechens, the stone towers are much more than architectural memorials left by their ancient ancestors," said Chechen ethnographer Said-Magomed Khasiev. "They symbolise their unity, the majesty of their state structures stretching back five thousand years into history."

These treasures are now under threat. In the southern mountains, a unique 12th - 14th century tower complex at Pakoch - archaeologists found evidence dating back to 3000 BC - now houses the federal military commander's office for the Itum-Kale area.

Pakoch is one of a number of historical monuments - turrets, watchtowers, crypts and sanctuaries - in the Argun gorge, running from the highest mountains down the middle of Chechnya, which is also famous for its flora and fauna.

Over the last three years, Russian bombers have wreaked havoc in the gorge. In just one month last December, federal forces burned down over 10,000 hectares of forests here, destroying valuable beech, oak, hornbeam and ash trees.

Artillery shells have badly damaged the 15th century tower at Dere, a priceless 12th century tower near Ushkaloi, and a recently restored 16th century turret near the town of Shatoi. A 16th century tower in Sharoi has fared even worse, being totally levelled by bombing and another one at Satto is badly damaged.

The fate of many other architectural landmarks is unknown because they are located in restricted border areas and specialists and scholars are forbidden from visiting them.

Said Saratov, director of the Argun historical and natural reserve, said he had repeatedly petitioned the Russian assembly, the defence ministry and Chechen parliamentary deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov on the issue, but nothing had changed. "Russian officials just tell me to forget it until fighting around the reserve is over," Saratov told IWPR

Saratov's appeal to deputy military commander for the Itum-Kale area was equally unsuccessful. The Russian officer said he understood his concern about ancient landmarks, but said there was nothing he could do. According to Saratov, the officer was sympathetic but told him "you can't shadow every soldier with an officer to protect the environment" and that he "cannot guarantee the safety of the employees of the reserve and local villagers, let alone landmarks".

In one instance, Russian soldiers were detained for vandalising a monument: a group of them had fired their guns at the tower at Ushkaloi when drunk and were arrested on the spot. But the case did not go to court for "lack of criminal evidence".

Famous Chechen author Abuzar Aidamirov fears that the vandalism is being condoned from above. "They are trying to eradicate Chechens' historical memory, destroy their spiritual and material links with their glorious past, and thus make it easier to subjugate them," he said.

Chechnya's towers have long fallen victim to invaders. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan's chroniclers wrote about the "folk who live in stone towers", and recounted the destruction of their dwellings.

In the early 19th century, there were still more than a hundred in the Argun valley, which was known as "the Gorge of Towers". They were positioned so that a fire in the window of one could clearly be seen in the next, giving warning of the approach of the enemy.

In the Caucasian wars of the 19th century, Russian soldiers pulled down many of them. Another wave of destruction came after Stalin deported the Chechens to Central Asia in 1944 and large numbers were burned and blown up.

At least ten towers, five sepulchres and a number of tombs, some dating back to first century were destroyed in the first Chechen campaign of 1994-6.

But the current campaign, concentrating troops in heavy numbers right up to the Georgian border, has brought destruction on a new scale. And there is no sign that the vandalism is ending.

Lecha Ilyasov, a historian and editor of the news bulletin Latta, has studied the towers of Chechnya for many years.