The Ossetians are the descendants of the ancient Alans (Алан), a prominent tribe from the warlike Sarmatian horsemen of Classical Antiquity. The Hollywood production, King Arthur, starring British actor, Clive Owen, casts Arthur’s knights as Sarmatian warriors conscripted in the service of the Roman Empire. Another legend, that of the Amazon warrior women, is based on the Sarmatian women who would accompany their menfolk in battle.
The original stomping ground of the Alans was the steppe land between the great Volga river and the base of the Ural mountains. This region coincides with the European portion of Kazakhstan and is generally thought to be one of if not the original range of the Aryans (or Indo-Iranians), who were the common ancestors of the Indo-Aryan and Iranian peoples.
The Ossetian language is the sole survivor of the northeastern branch of Iranic languages known as Scytho-Sarmatian. Modern Ossetian has two major dialects: Digor, spoken in the western part of North Ossetia; and Iron, spoken in the rest of Ossetia. A third branch of Ossetic, Iason (Jász), was formerly spoken in Hungary. The language also has a number of words remarkably similar to their modern German equivalents, such as “thau” (tauen, to thaw) and “gau” (district, region).
Around 370 CE, the Alans were overrun by the westward marching Huns and split into three main groups. Of these, only the eastern Alans have largely survived intact into modern times. One group of western Alans joined forces with various Germanic nations and spread right across Europe, leaving their mark in Britain, Gaul, Italy and Hungary. Another group headed northwest into present-day Poland before merging with various Slavic tribes to form the Serbs and Croats. The eastern Alans, however, remained dispersed about the steppes north of the Ciscaucasian landmass, albeit under Hunnic rule. Here, they were partially Christianised by Arian missionaries from Byzantium between the 4th-5th centuries. In the 8th century, Alan power was consolidated in the kingdom of Alania, which emerged in Ciscaucasia, roughly in the location of modern Circassia and Ossetia. Its capital was Maghas and it controlled the vital trade route through the Darial Pass. Alania’s trade was also strengthened through its intermittent control of the ancient sea port city of Phasis.
In the early 10th century, the Alanian ruler’s adoption of Christianity served as the basis for an alliance with Byzantium. Although, in reality, the Alans would alternatively switch their allegiance between the Byzantines, Kazars, and Georgians whenever it was militarily advantageous to do so. The main threat Alania’s alliances were meant to counter was that posed by the ever-encroaching steppe peoples: the Pechenegs, Kipchaks, Mongols and Tatars. The most serious of these threats ultimately came in the guise the great Tatar-Mongol conqueror, Timur (Tamlerlane), whose army, in 1395, invaded the Northern Caucasus and decimated the Alanian population. The survivors, perhaps as few as ten or twelve thousand individuals, fled deep into the mountain gorges on both slopes of the central Caucasus range. Here, they mixed with native Caucasian tribes and successfully formed small, independent mini-states.
In the 17th century, the Qabards, an eastern Circassian tribe who had come to prominence throughout North Caucasia following the collapse of the Golden Horde, set about converting the Alans to Islam. As a result, the westernmost Alans, the Digor, were successfully Islamised. The Tuallag Alans, who had settled in what is now the “independent” state of South Ossetia, retained a mixture of pagan and Christian beliefs, although a minority did later become Muslims. While in the north, the Iron (an Iranian dialectical form of “Aryan”, meaning “noble” in Sanskrit) became largely Orthodox Christians after coming under Russian rule in 1767. From from 1890s onwards, all these Alans would receive the name Osset, from “Os”, which is a shortened form of the Greek ethonym for the Alan, “Aorsi” (Αορσι).