In early fall 2018, I rode the broken road nearly to its end high into the Greater Caucasus Mountains at the Georgia-Chechnya border. I sought the plague tombs of Anatori. This necropolis isn’t just another historical burial place. Its series of crypts contain the bones of a pagan tribe who committed self-sacrifice when the Black Plague arrived through the mountain passes. The villages buried themselves alive to save the lives of others.
Two years later, as Covid-19 spreads and reignites across the world, and deniers of Covid’s potency claim self-determination as more important than social distancing, the lessons of Anatori increase in consequence.
Before the Black Death arrived, Anatori was the religious heart of the Caucasus tribes, scattered through mountain villages inaccessible today outside of summer. Anatori priests attended to the shrine of Anatorisjvari, a tree-god whose altar brought everyone together for a yearly pilgrimage. Then the illness arrived. The tribes called it “Zhami.” Time.
Swiftly people died.
This was the 18th century, when the Greater Caucasus tribes were even farther removed from the world than the few people still living there today. When the villagers realized this illness leapt person to person, they did not run from the village. Instead they built crypts out of shale from the Blue Mountains, into which the infected climbed, hoping to stop the spread.
Warrior-like acceptance of this punishment was expected. They believed Anatorisjvari stood in judgment. They lay down on the shale ledges inside the tombs and waited. When death came, the newly ill pushed their bodies to the side and took their place.
In the end, only a boy of twelve years old lived. His became the bard’s voice, spreading Anatori’s sacrifice.