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Casualities of the Chechen War Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Kristin M. Romey

[image] This sixteenth-century stone tower was leveled in the last Chechen war. (Diane Roazen) [LARGER IMAGE]

Considered prime symbols of Chechnya's close-knit clan culture and its resistance to outside agression, hundreds of stone "combat towers" that dot the Caucasus mountains in the republic have been destroyed by Russian forces, sources in the region report.

The towers, some of them almost 1,000 years old, have survived successive waves of Mongol and Russian invaders as well as earthquakes and landslides. Originally built as multipurpose structures, they housed families and livestock while also serving as watchtowers and defensive strongholds. The majority of the towers incorporate ancient petroglyphs dating back to at least 4000 B.C.

Chechens call themselves Nokhchi ("Chechen" and "Chechnya" are terms coined by Russians after a sixteenth-century encounter with the Nokhchi in the village of Chechen-aul). While the earliest written accounts of them occur in the seventh century A.D., archaeological evidence suggests at least 6,000 years of continuous Nokhchi occupation of the region.

The few towers that remain clinging to the mountainsides are severely threatened by Russian bombing, according to Diane Roazen, director of the private humanitarian organization SBC International Fund. Roazen estimates that several hundred towers were destroyed during the 1994-1996 war between Chechnya and Russia. Estimates of damage from the current conflict, which flared up last autumn, are currently unavailable, although reports from the region say that the towers are being used primarily as shelters by fleeing refugees. "I don't know how any of the towers can survive such bombing," says Lecha Ilyasov of the LAM Center for Research and Popularization of Chechen Culture, a nongovernmental group based in Moscow. Saving the combat towers from destruction, he adds, would "show our young people what a great and civilized culture our forefathers had."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America