AVAR AND LEZGINS: DAGESTAN’S LARGEST GROUPS

AVAR

The Avar are one largest of Dagestan’s ethnic groups. The are around a half million Avar. They live mostly in the mountainous parts of central and northeastern Dagestan around Dagestan’s highest mountain, 5,012-meter-high Mount Kazbek. The Avars like other Dagestani groups have traditionally valued their freedom and independence. They are regarded as among the least Russified and least Sovietized of all the ethnic groups in Dagestan.

The Avar language belongs to the Dagestanian branch of Northeast Caucasian family of languages. It in turn is broken down into local dialects. Many Avars also speak the language of the people that live around them: the Kumyk, Andi. Bolamt is the main dialect. It has its own literary tradition and serves as a lingua franca for many of the small ethnic groups that live in the region.

The Avars, known for their warrior heritage, live mostly in the isolated western part of the republic, retaining much of their traditional village lifestyle. Like the Chechens, the Avar are known for Muslim piety and their tradition of fighting holy wars. They regard the 189h century rebel leader Shamil as one of their own and have a huge canon of poems and songs that celebrate their military victories. The Avar and Andi are closely related.

History of the Avar

The Avars are said to have descended from a Turkish group related to the Huns who arrived from China and Mongolia in the 6th and 7th century and advanced as far as the Balkans. Most historians say that this was not the case. They contend the two groups may have had some contacts but were not related to one another.

The Avars began to take shape as an ethnic group in the A.D. 3rd century after the Albanian Union was defeated out by the Iranian Sassanids. A political entity called the Sarir, based in Khunzakh, was established. The rulers of Sarir was called an Avar and they ruled until 1834. The ruling khans reportedly traced their ancestry back to the Egyptian pharaohs.

The Arabs had little impact on the Avars. Tamerlane left the region after suffering huge losses in the 14th century when he attacked Avarai with a force of 100,000. A combined army of Avars and Dagestani mountaineers annihilated the Persian Nadi Shah in 1747. The Avar khanate was at its zenith around this time. It had military and political influence across the Caucasus. The Avars were at the center of the Caucasus Wars (1817-1864). Shamil was a native of the Avar village of Gimri.

Avar Villages and Homes

Some Avar villages are like one large building. As is true with Andi villages, the houses share walls and roofs and streets are covered by the upper stories of buildings. One scholar in the 1970s wrote: “Nowhere in Avaria does the density of houses reach such concentrations where these streets and thoroughfares run like tunnels, sometimes at two levels below the houses, and the densely-packed houses form one great, indivisible amalgamation.” The houses are built this way to make them easer ro defend and create more space for agricultural land.

The houses have traditionally been built in tiers, which made the entire village look like a series of terraces. In many villages the livestock quarter and storage areas were placed around the perimeter of the village. Traditional dwellings had several floors, with a flat roof, bottom floors used for storage or economic activity, and a deep-set porch that faced south. Some houses have a large, elaborately-decorated pillar, situated in the front of an open hearth, where a fire is always burning.

Modern villages tend to be more spread out and have houses with slanted roofs. The defensive towers that used to dominate many villages have not been present since the Middle Ages.

Avar Life

The Avar practice agriculture the best they can through terracing but have traditionally relied on animal herding and trading products from their animals. Dairy products and meat are their main source of food, supplemented by grain, fruits and vegetables they grow and edible herbs and wild grasses they collect. Industry has traditionally been specialized on the district level.

The traditional costume for Avar men consists of pants, a shirt, a beshmet (quilted coat), a cherkeska (long, collarless coat), a cowl, a fur cap and leather shoes. They traditionally wore a dagger and also possessed a saber, rifle and pistol. Since the 1930s the possession of arms has been forbidden. Women’s clothing, particularly their traditional silver-ornament-decorated headdress, varies from community to community.

Avars traditionally married in their late teens. Young men and women generally had some input into the decision on whom they would marry and could even marry a first cousin if they wanted. Elopement and simulated abductions sometimes occurred when their wishes were not considered enough. Forcible bridal abductions were rare. Weddings often featuring dancing, feasting, horse races and games. A dowry was given to the bride. The couple was expected to live with the groom’s family who either provided them with a separate room or a new house.

Avars celebrate a “bull harnessing” festival around the time of the spring equinox like the Andi. Traditional medical duties were handed both by village sorcerers using magic amulets and village mullahs who wrote out special incantations and prayers.

Lezgins

The Lezgins are an ethnic group that live in northern Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan in Russia. They are the second largest Dagestani group with 367,0000 members and are the dominant group in southern Dagestan. They are similar culturally and linguistically to the Agul and to a lesser extent to Tabasarans, Rutuls and Tsakhurs. They are also known as the Lezgi, Lezghins and Lezgians. Because of the Lezgins' location, their society has been more affected by foreign cultural influence than the other groups.

The Lezgin language belongs to the Lezghian subgroup of the Dagestani group of North Caucasian languages. It was written for many years in Arabic and then written with a Latin alphabet in the 1920s as part of the anti-Islamic campaign and written in Cyrillic beginning in the 1930s as part of the Russification campaign. Lezgins speak more than 20 different languages. Many speak Russian, Azerbaijani and at least one of the other Dagestani languages. Many Dagestani groups speak Lezgin.

The Lezgins have traditionally lived mostly in the valleys of the tributaries of the Samur and Gulgeri Rivers in an area of high mountains and foothills. The area is distinguished by rugged gorges with torrential rivers. Some mountains are over 3,500 meters high and have permanent snow. There is generally enough rain to provide good pastures for the animals. Agriculture is difficult. The Lezgins have traditionally raised goats and sheep and grew barley, rye, and millet. In the foot hills the pastures are better and agriculture is easier but these area are also very dry.

The Lezgins are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi school and been strongly influenced by Azerbaijan and Turkish culture. Some Lezgins are Shiites. Others belong to Sufi orders. About 50 percent of Lezgins live in Dagestan and 42 percent live in Azerbaijan. Many of those in Azerbaijan have abandoned their traditional homeland and in live in cities and towns.

History of the Lezgins

The Lezgins are descendants of ancient people that have lived in the Caucasus since the Bronze Age. Little is known about these people. According to legend the Lezgins converted to Islam at a relatively early date, not long after the Arab conquest in the 8th century. Most are believed to have converted in the mid-15th century when the Lezgin homeland was conquered by the Iran-based Shah of Shirvan. After that various parts of Lezgin territory came under control of different mostly Turkish khanates but large areas remained free.

In 1864 Lezgin territory formally became part of the Russian Empire. Lezgins fought on the side of the 19th-century rebel leader Shamil and played major role in struggle against imperial Russia in the Caucasus Wars.

Prior to the Russian Revolution the Lezgins did not view themselves as belonging to a specific ethnic group. They identified themselves and others by the village they lived in or by the religion they belonged to. Lezgin was a term applied to them by the Russians and one they eventually adopted. Since 1992 Lezgins in southern Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan have demanded the creation of a single Lezgin republic within Russia.

Lezgins in Azerbaijan have called for greater rights, including the right to maintain contacts with Lezgins that live across the border in Russia. They have also complained of human rights abuses such as restricted educational opportunities in their native language.

Lezgin Life

The Lezgin people traditionally raised sheep and cattle because the climate was too cold and harsh for agriculture. The animals were taken to highland pastures in the summer. In the past the could only grow grains like rye, barley and wheat. With improved farming methods introduced in the Soviet period they have been able to increase crops yields and grow a greater variety of stuff.

The environment the Lezgins live in is quite harsh. They often lost animals to lack of food and delays caused by weather, landslides and snow that kept them from reaching their pastures. Lezgin women were regarded as skilled carpet makers. But other than by selling wool, carpets and dairy products the Lezgin were unable to earn much money at home and have a tradition of going to the cities and the Baku oil fields to work. Men traditionally left their villages in the winter to seek work in urban areas. When this happened many villages were home only to women, children and the elderly.

Lezgin Society and Culture

Traditional Lezgin society revolves around extended families and large extended patriarchal clans called tukhum. Lezgin tukhum traditionally owned all property, with members offering support through village work, economic activities and defense in times of trouble. Important decisions were made by the tukhum patriarch and senior members of the clan. The justice system was based on adat. Vendettas traditionally involved the entire tukhum.

The Lezgin tend to marry within their clan. In the old days marriages were arranged by elder women. Weddings feature games, dancing and feasting and lasted for two days. The groom’s family was traditionally required to pay a bride price but today these payments are mostly symbolic.

The Lezgin are reasonably pious Muslims. Some pre-Islamic rituals remain. Many Lezgin still evoke the names of pagan deities and visit pilgrimage sites that pre-date Islam. Bones of animals are thought to have magical and healing powers. During the spring people still jump over bonfires to bring about a good harvest and fertility.

Lezgin Clothes and Food

Traditional Lezgian-style clothing for men includes a ukhun (a tunic- like shirt with a decorated neckline), badu (breeches), beshmet (a narrow-waisted quilted jacket). Among the male clothes worn for more festive occasions are the cherkeska (a caftan-like coat with a narrow waist and flowing bottom part), silver cartridge belts, barmak (a tall sheepskin hat made of shaggy wool sheepskins) and kyamashbir (high boots with upturned toes). In the winter people wear a qqabachey(a sheepskin coat with sleeves) or a chopuz (a felt tunic-like cloak traditionally worn by shepherds).

Traditional Lezgian-style clothing for women includes a ukhun (a tunic- like shirt like that worn by men), vakhchag (trousers), and a valzhag (Azerbaijan-style overcoat) or beshmet (a narrow-waisted quilted jacket). In the winter they too wear a qqabachey. On their head women wore a hairnet and scarf folded in the form of a triangle. Silver jewelry was an important accessory. These days both men and women wear mostly Western-style clothes. Traditional clothes are worn mostly by old people.

Lezgian staples including fresh or dried meat, sausages dairy products such as butter, cottage cheese and sheep milk cheese and flour-based dishes such as porridge, dumplings, meat pies and bread made with and without yeast. Some dishes are made with wild herbs and grasses. Ritual foods include kharegvay (oat porridge), tabag (millet porridge), khiv (large-load bread) and vichvichima (large pies with a covering). During weddings khyan, a mildly alcoholic beerlike drink, is consumed.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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