Dark tourism, the type of sightseeing that revolves around tragedy and death, is more popular than ever—just ask the half a million people who queued up last year to wander Paris’ catacombs. But one of the world’s most bone-chilling destinations, the Anatori Crypts in northern Georgia, has surprisingly flown under the radar of the goosebump-seeking masses.
From afar, it doesn’t look like much: three crumbling stone structures perched on a ridge. An abandoned hamlet, you might think, or an old lookout post (after all, Chechnya is just two miles away). But peek inside a cobwebbed window, and you’ll be met with a scene so macabre it might knock you off your feet: skulls, femurs, vertebrae, and teeth piled so high that you can hardly see the floor. Something horrible happened in Anatori, and no one is quite sure what.
But there are clues. For starters, the original buildings had no doors or windows (the openings you see today are a recent refit), indicating that their tenants were intentionally walled in. Yet there are no signs of struggle, like scratch marks or weapons or bashed-in skulls, ruling out the houses’ use as jails or torture chambers. In fact, a closer look at the skeletal remains reveals relatively peaceful deaths: adult corpses curled around infant ones in a final embrace, others with arms folded meditatively across their chests.
Why would these ancient tribesmen knowingly, willingly lock themselves away to die among dozens of rotting corpses? According to historians and local oral history, they were making a last-ditch effort to save their compatriots from the plague.
Georgia’s location at the crossroads between Asia and Europe on the Silk Road made the country particularly susceptible to exotic infections. It’s unclear whether the specific plague that swept Khevsureti—the mountain region where Anatori is located—came on the backs of Tamerlane’s armies or Silk Road merchants, but local experts agree that it likely arrived in the second half of the 14th century, around the same time that the Black Death was sweeping Europe.
The plague, which locals called zhami, was so brutal, says Tinatin Ididze, licensed trekking guide and founder of Caucasus Adventure Tours, that there came a point when there were too many bodies to bury and too few survivors to bury them. Instead of dying at home and potentially infecting others, “sick villagers would walk to the crypts, lie down inside, and wait for death,” she said, adding that new arrivals were tasked with freeing up real estate on the stone beds by throwing the freshly deceased cadavers onto the floor—hence the skeletal pileup you can still see today.
As you tiptoe around Anatori’s long-forgotten necropolises, it’s hard not to shudder at the fate of these unlucky ancients, who not only knew their death was imminent but spent their final days in pitch darkness, alone or with other sufferers, surrounded by cadavers of people they probably knew. But their story is as inspiring as it is devastating: Those interred here made the ultimate sacrifice so that their tight-knit community would have a shot at survival.
But in the end, the whole village of Anatori perished. The crypts, built to last, are all that remain.
Call it what you will—dark tourism, black tourism, or otherwise—but coming face to face with tragedy is one of the most powerful ways to connect with a place and reflect on your vitality. Anatori is a case in point.
The Anatori Crypts are situated in the northeastern region of Khevsureti, midway between the villages of Shatili and Mutso. Both are worth visiting for their splendid mountain countryside and impressive stone citadels, which warded off invaders through the centuries. You’ll need a 4x4 vehicle to access the region, and hiring a Georgian-speaking guide is recommended; InterGeorgia Travel is dependable and affordable ($150/day flat rate for up to four passengers).