Here, They Lay Themselves to Die (Tales of the Black Death)
Carrying the Black Death, men and women of the Khevsureti province of Georgia climbed into crypts situated high into the Caucasus Mountains, near what is now the Georgia-Chechnya border. This was the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when to venture into this wild part of the world was to risk your life already. The crypts were arranged into small villages lodged into mountain crags. This way, the infected could be kept separate from the living, the threat of contamination being so fearsome.
When they climbed inside the crypts, the ill pushed aside the already dead from ledges, laid down, and waited to die. These crypt ledges were made of the local mountain-side shale. So were the crypt roofs. Visually, it is all one seamless whole: the jagged land, the jagged roof, the jagged bed on which to die. The jagged mass of bones.
This has never been a land of ease. Even in the twenty-first century, the mountain fortresses and houses are accessible only in summer; the military border guards give up watching the Chechnya border come the cold. When the Soviets finally infiltrated the mountains post-Stalin, they forcible emptied the villages in an annihilation campaign of a Khevsureti cultural identity. It was time this millennium-old warrior culture was brought to heel. Fathers, in the quiet of their new city homes, still taught the traditional martial knife skills to their sons.
For many years, these vaults have been sites of local pilgrimage. Called heroes, the dead are brought coins and prayers; tiny candles are burned. Sometimes bones are emotively arranged, such as the skulls positioned carefully at the opening of one crypt. Up until the nineteen-seventies, textile fragments and jewelry of precious metal clung to the remains, but plundering eventually came, as it will. Russians, it is believed, and with the Russian aggression or influence at the Ossetia and Chechnya borders not so far away, this particular spook is easy to conjure. After this heresy, many crypt windows were installed with iron bars.
The gestures to give homage to the dead are delicate. It is possible to imagine the crypts as always-already this way, down to the coins and chalices and bibles. These, however, are not abandoned places. Small lories filled to capacity with tourists make pitstops on the way to the Soviet-emptied fortress towns. The crypts and the paths are kept scrupulously clean, aside from the cartilage of a bird, pristine itself, erupting from the earth around it like a flower bud. Why does this matter? Perhaps to help us understand them as more than evidence of past calamity, but as active memorialization of a warrior culture still present at the nation's edges, but guarded and secreted and largely unseen.