Recent Focused Series »

Indo-European Origins
Siberia
Northern California
The Caucasus
Imaginary Geography
Home » Europe, Historical Geography, Religion, Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus, The Caucasus

From Sarmatia to Alania to Ossetia: The Land of the Iron People

Submitted by on January 16, 2012 – 6:24 pm 28 Comments |  
Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late AntiquityThe Caucasus is often noted as a place of cultural refuge, its steep slopes and hidden valleys preserving traditions and languages that were swept away in the less rugged landscapes to the north and south. Such a depiction generally seems fitting for the Ossetians, the apparent descendents of a nomadic group called the Sarmatians that dominated the grasslands of western Eurasia from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE.

The Sarmatians were probably not a single ethnic group, let alone a unified nation, but rather a collection of related tribes that spoke closely related Iranian languages and followed similar pastoral ways of life. Discussed at length by ancient Greek and Roman geographers, the Sarmatians were depicted as a proud and warlike people, noted by some for sending young women into battle. (Recent archeological investigations seem to bear this out, as many Sarmatian graves contain skeletons of women dressed for war.)

Long after they seemingly disappeared from history, the Sarmatians retained significance in the European imagination. In the seventeenth century, most members of the Polish nobility convinced themselves that they had descended not from the Slavic tribes that had given rise to their nation’s peasantry, but rather from the Sarmatians; as a result, they widely adopted modes of dress and manners that they associated with this ancient group. The resulting style, called “Sarmatism,” remained influential until the 1800s and has not completely disappeared. In its modern guise, however, the movement has been widened, with various central and eastern European nationalists claiming Sarmatian ancestry for their entire societies. Neo-Nazis also look back to the group; a “Sarmatians” image-search on the internet yields numerous links to the infamous Stormfront website.

Wikipedia map of the Alan Migrations The Sarmatian hold on their grassland home was apparently lost to others in the fourth century. It was around this time that certain Sarmatian groups became known to history as the Alans. From the west, the Germanic Ostrogoths moved into the steppes and took up a largely equestrian way of life, while the Huns invaded from the east, threatening Sarmatians and Ostrogoths alike. Pastoral polities of the time, however, were often quite fluid, allowing peoples of different language groups to join together, whether in semi-institutionalized confederacies or mere armed aggregations of coercion or convenience. A few Alan groups evidently joined the Huns, but most fled west into Europe to avoid domination. They moved not as a single people, however, but in numerous contingents, many of which attached themselves to the Germanic tribes that were also fleeing the Huns into the dying Western Roman Empire. Some Alans allied with the (Germanic) Burgundians to establish a strong presence in Gaul. Others moved into the Iberian Peninsula, ruling over a short-lived Alanic kingdom in the early 400s. Many more joined forces with the Vandals, accompanying them in their invasion of Roman North Africa in 429 CE.

Wikipedia map of Kingdoms in Iberia, Early 400s  The various Alan groups that moved into the Roman world in the late 300s and early 400s did not maintain their language or identity for long. In most cases, they merged with the more tightly unified Germanic peoples and were eventually subsumed into the general populations of the areas in which they settled. They did leave marks, however, as suggested by numerous place names along the lines of “Alainville.” They also seem to have figured prominently in the development of the medieval ideals of chivalry.

If C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor are to be believed, the cultural legacy of the Alans in Europe was profound. In a fascinating and controversial book entitled From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes), Littleton and Malcor argue that most of the Arthurian corpus derives from the stories and myths of the Alans. Although criticized for downplaying the Celtic aspects of the legends, Littleton and Malcor present abundant evidence leading back to the Alans. Guinevere, they allow, was a Celtic figure, but Lancelot and many others seem to have a Sarmatian origin. As they show, the north Caucasus’s own epic writings, the Nart Sagas, bear a curious resemblance to the Arthurian stories, abounding in magical swords and supernatural chalices.

Map of Medieval AlaniaAlthough most of the Alans swept into Western Europe and North Africa in late antiquity, others evidently sought refuge in the deep valleys of the Greater Caucasus range, where they intermarried with the indigenous peoples of the region. In time their descendants were able to establish a state of their own. By the 700s, the Kingdom of Alania linked the central Caucasus Mountains with a broad swath of the steppe zone of the north. Alania was soon embroiled in a complex geopolitical contest for the larger region, involving the Arab Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, and the Khazar Khanate (an empire based in the northern Caspian Sea region whose ruling elite adopted Judaism). Alliance with the Khazars evidently resulted in numerous conversions to Judaism among the Alans, but Christianity triumphed in the higher circles of Alania, based on strong connections with both the Greeks and the Georgians, although pre-Christian beliefs and practices did not vanish entirely. Medieval Alania was already well integrated into the diplomatic circles of the Orthodox Christian realm. Several Alan princesses married into royal houses in Russia, Georgia, and the Byzantine Empire.

German map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus, Circa 1000 CEAlania was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the early 1200s and essentially destroyed by the incursions of Tamerlane in the late 1300s. As had happened in the fourth century, some Alans fled the invading armies; others sought refuge in the remote Caucasian valleys; still others became incorporated into the conquering society. Joining forces with the Mongols, more than a few ended up in China, where “30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuan court in Dadu (Beijing).” Another sizable group received refuge in Hungary; their descendants, the Jassic people or Jász, are still viewed as a distinct ethnic group, numbering some 85,000.

The Alans who retreated into the Caucasus after the Mongol assaults were unable to reconstitute their kingdom. Instead they split into petty polities and came under the partial domination of their Kabardian neighbors. They eventually divided into two distinct ethnic groups, the Iron and the Digor, marked by differences in dialect and territory. Ossetian religion came to be marked by a strongly syncretic bent, with the names of Christian saints commonly identified with pre-Christian gods. After the Russian conquest in the late 1700s, Orthodox Christianity experienced a revival, especially among the Iron. Islam also spread into Ossetia, passing from the Kabardians to the Digor especially. Syncretic beliefs and practices, however, persist among both groups, alongside mainstream Islam and Christianity. Such syncretism has historically been common through much of the North Caucasus, although more orthodox forms of faith have been spreading rapidly over the past few decades.

In the late Soviet period, Ossetian intellectuals began to reclaim their Alanian heritage, and in 1994 North Ossetia was officially renamed “North Ossetia-Alania.” This move may have been meant to help fuse the Digor and Iron into a single nationality, as the two groups remain divided by dialect and to a certain extent by religion as well. Loyalty to the Iron people rather than to the Ossetians as a whole is evident in a disarming hip-hop video found here. Although labeled “Ossetian Rap” in the English-language YouTube service, its actual title, in Cyrillic script, is “Iron Rap” (ИРОН РЭП).

The next two GeoCurrents posts, by Asya Pereltsvaig, will further explore the Ossetian people. The first will look at the Ossetian language and its place in the Indo-European family; the second will examine the genetic make-up of the group. As is often the case, linguistic and genetic evidence indicate that the historical background of the Ossetians is more complicated than it might seem.

(Many thanks to David Erschler for his corrections to the original post.)

Previous Post
«
Next Post
»

Subscribe For Updates

It would be a pleasure to have you back on GeoCurrents in the future. You can sign up for email updates or follow our RSS Feed, Facebook, or Twitter for notifications of each new post:
        

Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

  • David Erschler

    ” Under the influence of their Kabardian neighbors, the Digor largely
    converted to Islam. The much more numerous Iron people, by contrast,
    remained in the Orthodox fold”

    I’m afraid this is incorrect. Kabardian controlled the plains, and both groups were basically their vassals. It does not seem very likely that Kabardian influence on the Digor was significantly stronger. Anyway, both Iron and Digor adhered to a syncretic religion that apparently was common  to the Central Caucasian highlands. Some of its deities are indeed indentified with, or borrowed their names from, Christian saints.

    Relatively late, some of Iron and Digor Ossetians converted to Islam. (And nowadays there are quite a few Iron Moslems out there.) When Russians annexed Ossetia, they started baptising Ossetians, however, the traditional religion persists: Christians (and probably Moslems as well) tend to practice it along with (or even instead of) the ‘formal’ religion.

    A majoity of Digor are Christian in this peculiar sense.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for the corrections — it is great to have such informed readers!  I will edit the post accordingly later on today. If you have any insight on how the Iron/Digor division is reflected in the current sense of Ossetian identity, I hope that you will let us know.  

      • David Erschler

        I’ve been doing field work in North Ossetia for the last 5 years, on and off, so I tend to overreact when people write about Ossetia.

        As far as I understand, Ossetians do perceive themselves as one people, although speaking different language varieties. (They tend to consider Kudar, the most common of South Ossetian Iron dialects, as the third basic variety, along with Iron and Digor.) Curiously, Ossetic lacks a word meaning “Ossetic” or “Ossetian”: iron, by default, means “Iron Ossetic”. There are some artificial formations, like “iron-digoron”, or a neologism “alon”, but it seems to me that in actual colloquial speech they are likely to use “asetin”, a Russian loanword.

        The root as-, which probably served as an autonym for Alans, survives in the Georgian os- “Ossetic” and oseti “Ossetia” (-et is a suffix forming place-names in Georgian). In all likelihood, the same root served as the basis for the word Yass. In Ossetic, the root came to mean the Karachay-Balkars, Turkic-speaking highlanders, neighbors of Ossetians to the West.  Some of the neighboring peoples use one term for Ossetians and Karachay-Balkars, and it is not unlikely that the latter are descendants of Ossetians who switched to a Turkic language. (Or, at least, that many Ossetians were assimilated by ancestors of the Karachay-Balkar.)

        • David Erschler

          Oops, I don’t know why the thing got posted twice. Sorry for that.

      • David Erschler

        I’ve been doing field work in North Ossetia for the last 5 years, on and
        off, so I tend to overreact when people write about Ossetia.

        As far as I understand, Ossetians do perceive themselves as one people,
        although speaking different language varieties. (They tend to consider
        Kudar, the most common of South Ossetian Iron dialects, as the third
        basic variety, along with Iron and Digor.) Curiously, Ossetic lacks a
        word meaning “Ossetic” or “Ossetian”: iron, by default, means “Iron
        Ossetic”. There are some artificial formations, like “iron-digoron”, or a
        neologism “alon”, but it seems to me that in actual colloquial speech
        they are likely to use “asetin”, a Russian loanword.

        The root as-, which probably served as an autonym for Alans, survives in
        the Georgian os- “Ossetic” and oseti “Ossetia” (-et is a suffix forming
        place-names in Georgian). In all likelihood, the same root served as
        the basis for the word Yass. In Ossetic, the root came to mean the
        Karachay-Balkars, Turkic-speaking highlanders, neighbors of Ossetians to
        the West.  Some of the neighboring peoples use one term for Ossetians
        and Karachay-Balkars, and it is not unlikely that the latter are
        descendants of Ossetians who switched to a Turkic language. (Or, at
        least, that many Ossetians were assimilated by ancestors of the
        Karachay-Balkar.)

        • Martin W. Lewis

          Fascinating — many thanks again. 

  • David Erschler

    Besides that, Iran and Iron, in all likelihood, are not cognate. “Iran” has to do with Old Ir. arya- (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/eran-eransah), whereas ir- in “Iron” probably goes back to *vir ‘male’ (according to Cheung, J. (2002), Studies in the historical development of the Ossetic vocalism. Wiesbaden: Reihert)

  • Kakhaber

     I am affraid that mediaval maps are in relation to the boundary between Georgia and Alania completely wrong. It is absolutely known that the southern boundary of the Alans wahth same with the northern border of Dwals – notalanian ethnic group northern of Caucasus. The area of ​​origin of Dwalen is in deep gorges of Nar-Mamison with northern boarder in Kassar. This is far north of present-day officil border between Georgia and Russia, between South Ossetia and North Ossetia. On your maps Alans are even south of the Caucasus which is actually an absolute failure. How Alans could live there in the 10th century when it was deep Georgia? The area, which at times belonged even to Joan Marushisdze the high officials of the royal court of Abkhazian Kingdom?

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for the corrections. I borrowed these maps from other sources, and I did not have the time to examine them carefully. Unfortunately, historical maps of this sort often have these kinds of problems.  

    • Sandro

       How was this area even considered “Georgia” when the Kartveli and such people were ruled by Armenians, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and others for the great majority of their history and were Muslims?

      • Kdzebisashvili

         Sandro,
        in one sentence you mix a truth with absolute nonsense. That some parts of Gerogiens had been dominated temporarily by some neighbors and great powers it is without doubt. Just like that some parts of our neighboring countries were ruled some times by Georgians. Your generalization, however, does all your statement worthless and absurd. First You could read at least in Wikipedia about the history of Georgia. It would be helpfull for your. The second part of your comment – “(Georgians) were Muslims – I’ll do without comment. Just a little part of georgian nation (adjarians) becam muslims under turks, because of pressure and violence, but also because of practical benefits under islamic rule a part of adjarians converted since 16 century from orthodox christianity to sunni islam,  But they are less then 7% of georgian ethnos. You can at least try to read something about the topic before you make a claim.

        • Sandro

           “temporarily”?!? try HUNDREDS of years. your own historians document this. i am alarmed at your insistence that the truth is otherwise. even a quick look at wikipedia shows the clearly armenian, persian, arab, etc. descent of the majority of your rulers. i met a georgian scholar in the 80s who also let me in a little secret: that your academia consistently europeanize the names of your leaders and key events in history so as to not offend the lily white conscious of europeans they encounter. that’s why one of your first rulers, a persian named dawood khan, was called “david the sixth”. after this i started to notice a clear trend among your books which do the same. i am afraid i lost a great deal of respect for anything coming out of tbilisi at that point. i am worried that you trash my opinion because it is the truth and offends you because you know deep down inside that i am right. otherwise, prove to me i am wrong. and not only were your people muslims, but shi’a muslims as azeris are. i also know that the fourth crusade was a key point in your history: a turncoat point which has me puzzled. and please, do you not know that the great bulk of your people living in iran, the middle east, and turkey are muslims too?! or do you wish to deny this as well? (i’ve met a lot of georgian muslims while trekking through turkey, so please don’t insult my intelligence!)

          you should try to pass off these lies about your nation on youtube or wikipedia, where it seems your people assume they can get away with this crap and not have to argue for them.

          try again, gurji man ;)

          • Commodore64

            This is interesting. I am not a Georgian, but I have witnessed a Russian historians twisting the truth by far. By the word of hate towards this small nation I believe you must be a Russian or something similar. That is quite enough for a one sided point of view. That is probably why you seem to be interested in a very malicious fashion, to become the, so called, “expert” on your foes history.

            If the story of some historians of theirs did some name changing, it is laughable and you are right they should correct it in the future.This is what all little nations do to a point, if this is true in the first place. Now it only hurts them and their history a bit. On the other hand it is much more dangerous if so called great nations fabricate truth, which they do regularly. This implies greatly on the lives of many.

            Dawood, from my perspective, is clearly a persianized David, and suggests that, most likely, it was the other way around. BTW, all nations and nationalities in Turkey had to convert to Muslim faith at some point of time. Christianity was surely close enough, at least geographically to make its entrance to Georgia prior some other later adopters.

            And what is this “gurji man” mean, if not to show us a washed up face of the hate you feel for his people. What are you if he is gurji, something special perhaps? Don’t bother to answer, I am sure they have some nice word for you.

  • Kdzebisashvili

    I suspected that these maps have been made ​​because of political Konjuktur and in correlation to the current military-political situation in South Caucasus. In this case it is not sciense more but just speculation

  • Pingback: Keystone of the Caucasus: Ignored Ossetia and Its Snow Revolution « Autonomous Zones « Geopolitics « GeoCurrents

  • Ebergreen

    The word “Iran” or “ Iron” most likely comes from the ‘Ephraimite clan named after “Eran” – Eranites. As we know, millions of ancient Israelis were moved to Assyria and to the cities of Media by Salmanasar. They just didn´t disappear from the history and vanish to nowhere. They were there, and at the end, took the control of the country. Eran- Eranites gave their name also to Teheran- >Teh- Eran. In today´s Iran there still are many ancient Hebrews. Not all the Scythian and sarmatian left the country. There are 30 % R1b- haplo group of all Iranian people, meaning, that nearly third part of the iranian are decendants of ancient Israelis- Scythian, Sarmatian and Parthian.

    Scythian tribe Alanis called themselves “Iron”, so most likely they decended from Efraim´s clan, Eranites. There are many sacas or scythian (the name derives from Isak- isakas) who moved to Enland, and Nothern Ireland, and they have a word “iron” in their language as well, thought it has a different meaning. Many alanians moved also to Iberian peninsula, and they even established an alanian kingdom there. In the province of Segovia, there is a village and a river called Piron, and it goes back to iron-alanies, who lived in that area.
    Steven Collins has written a tantalizing serie “Lost Israeli Tribes- Found”. I highly recommend it to all europeans and slavic russians, because we are those “lost tribes !”

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      There are 30 % R1b- haplo group of all Iranian people, meaning, that
      nearly third part of the iranian are decendants of ancient Israelis-
      Scythian, Sarmatian and Parthian.

      I am not sure how that follows at all: R1b is most common among Western Europeans. Iranians have a high frequency of this haplogroup too. But there is no connection to ancient Israelites or Scythians, Sarmatians etc. When it comes to ancient Israelites, we don’t know what their genetic make-up was like, but R1b is not common among Jews, with about 30% of Sephardic Jews having it and less than 12% of Ashkenazi Jews. It looks like R1b is a later admixture from neighboring non-Jewish peoples. As for Scythians etc., we simply don’t know what their genetic makeup was…

      • Davidski

        We don’t know what the Scythian genetic makeup was like? Seriously?

        How about this for starters…

        “The additional analysis performed on Xiongnu specimens revealed that whereas none of the specimens from the Egyin Gol valley bore this haplogroup, the Scytho-Siberian skeleton from the Sebÿstei site exhibited R1a1 haplogroup.”

        Ancient DNA provides new insights into the history of south Siberian Kurgan people

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19449030

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks for the link. Let’s just say, we don’t know much about the Scythian genetic make-up. Working with ancient DNA is difficult enough, so there’s even more room for error. And as far as I can tell, we’ve had only a small number of specimens to work with…

          • Davidski

            I’ve never seen any indications that the samples from Keyser et al. were contaminated.

            So far, 99% of all ancient kurgan culture remains from Germany to the Tarim Basin have come back R1a. So there’s definitely a pattern there.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            That’s definitely a start.

      • Ebergreen

        Today´s jews are not the descendants of the ancient israelis, you didn´t know that? The ashkenazis are of the mixed race-edomite/turkish/mongolian, and the sephardies come from the converted edomites who lived in the Judean land . They don´t have anything to do with israelis, really.

        The haply group R1a is common in Russia, and most likely it has the same origen than R1b. The suffix -ov/-off in Russian is similar to english- of ( susanov- of susa, just to say one example, and the word “lukja”- look-luka-luk etc.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Re: the Russian suffix -ov and the English of, they are not etymologically related…

          As for the idea that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of Khazars or of some other Tukric/Mongolic etc. people, it’s a theory that keeps coming up (and some admixture is quite possible), but this theory is mostly supported by really bad science, whether genetics or linguistics. As a matter of fact, I am working on a post on this issue, so stay tuned!

      • Ebergreen

        There were the kingdom of the Alans next to the Khazarian kingdom (ashkenazis are converted khazarian- they took the talmudic judaism from the “converted”edomites). Some alans joined with them, and the R1b can come from there.

  • salamandra

    By the way, a rap on kudar, not on iron

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for the correction.

  • NeTiesa.lt
    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is an interesting question, thank you! Indeed, one of the names that the Romans used for the Baltic Sea is Mare Sarmaticum. It is probably because Sarmatians lived in what is today southern Russia and the Romans imagined their territory to extend further north. That’s my educated guess anyway!

  • Pingback: (2) Balkan :Balkanda : Bhalka – parrellel history of Ilavanshi : Ailas / Illyrians : Alans | Chandrakant Marwadi

  • Pingback: Genetic clues to the Ossetian past | Adyga.com

  • Pingback: North Ossetia-Alania | Life in Russia