The Ingush towers: Gems of medieval architecture in the North Caucasus

Fantastic early and late medieval towers in Ingushetia, North Caucasus are a great and not-so-well-studied architectural phenomenon in the West.
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On the one hand, they remind us of medieval towers of Northern Italy when each rich and noble family tried to compete with each other – whose is taller. On the other hand, they are something completely unique and authentic that brings back pagan times in the Caucasus mountains right when Europe and Russia had long worshiped Christ.

These intriguing structures have long attracted my imagination and curiosity. Who built them? For which purpose? And why such scenic medieval compounds were left once and for all?
Niy Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Timur Agirov
Most of the towers were built throughout X to XVII centuries. At present researchers counted some 120 towers scattered across mountainous areas of Russia's Ingush republic in the North Caucasus. Building a tower required a mason who had perfect building skills. At first one had to choose the right place to start construction works. A legend says that a mason poured some milk on the ground to identify the right spot.
It was done to make sure that milk won't be absorbed by the ground – so Ingush builders made sure that there is a solid rock base underneath that would make a perfect stable foundation for a tower. By the way fertile land was so scarce in the mountains that it was as precious as gold and no one in sane mind would dare build on a piece of land you could use for agriculture.
Egikal Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Timur Agirov
According to Ingush tradition, a tower should have been completed within 365 days. If the deadline was missed or the masonry caved in all construction works stopped. It was a heavy blow both for the mason and for the family (or teip) - automatically it was considered weak. No one would hire a mason whose tower collapsed or was not completed on time.
Pyaling Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Timur Agirov
The towers were usually built in strategically important places like the entrance to a valley, the crossroads or a river ford. Also the venue should have been well-protected from natural disasters like avalanches or mudslides.

High towers were built at a distance from each other but were visible. In case of emergency - and that was the advance of enemy forces – one tower could send a signal to another and so on.
Pyaling Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Сергей Алтушкин
All towers fall into three types. There exist proper battle towers, semi-battle towers and residential towers. There were other structures as well built nearby like temples to worship gods and mausoleums. All of the structures were located within a wall to represent a well-protected medieval village led by an elder.
Targim Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Targim Totkhiev
Normally there were several such villages built in a valley and they used to unite in a kind of a federation of villages led by the most respected elder – just like towns did in medieval Europe. They plead allegiance to each other and arranged for defending their settlements against a common enemy.

Targim Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Timur Agirov
According to some estimates, there are 89 battle towers in Ingushetia. These towers with either flat or pyramid-shaped roofs were the tallest reaching some 30 meters high and having up to 6 floors. Good for watching the surrounding, sending out signals, aiming at the enemy on the ground below but very bad if an earthquake strikes. Such high structures were not stable at first but mother nature taught the masons how to build proper earthquake-resistant towers. They reinforced the second floor with a groin vault which served as a second foundation for the remaining upper floors.
The entrance to the tower was located on the second floor. It was guarded by massive wooden shutters which were kept closed from the inside by a bar stuck in a niche in the wall. Militarily it was wise as the attackers could not use a battering ram to get inside the tower. The first two floors were usually used as a prison or a storage area, the upper floor served as an armory. The other floors were used for defensive and administrative purposes. All four walls were fitted with box-machicolations.
The key difference from battle towers is the height – some 20-25m high. Also semi-battle towers are not so narrow. People could easily live in them and on certain occasions – when need be –could turn them into battle ones. This type is considered to be an evolution on the way from a residential tower to a battle one.
Erzi Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Timur Agirov
As a rule they have a wide and elongated foundation and up to three floors – all in all some 10-12m high. Inside there was a squared stone pole used to support the beams. The ceiling was made of wood covered with clay while stones were attached to the walls to protect the interior against rain and snow.
Ozdiche Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Timur Agirov
Towers' roofs were flat and a little bit sloping. Just like with the battle towers the first floor was not meant for living – it was used as stalls for cattle. People lived on the second and the third floors of the tower. Windows were small and narrow – no wonder for a medieval house. Little light came through and they could be used as arrow slits.
Niy Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Sergey Altushkin
As I said in the beginning there were other buildings around the towers that together formed a well-protected medieval castle-like village – temples to worship ancient pagan gods and mausoleums with bones of the ancestors.
Crypt in Vovnushki complex, Ingushetia. Photo credits: Vyacheslav Argenberg
The fate of these beautiful medieval tower complexes in Ingushetia is quite sad. During the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus many of the towers were destroyed. At the same time locals constantly fought each other. In the Soviet Union under Stalin some 500.000 Ingush and Chechens were deported en masse to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzia in 1944.
Erzi Towers in Ingushetia. Photo credits: Vyacheslav Argenberg
Ingush people call themselves 'galgai' – that means 'People of Towers' clearly showing how they used to think and do think of themselves in the past and now. Indeed, they were skillful masons and possessed the know-how of building these both elegant and safe defense structures. Some families (teips) were known exclusively as tower builders.