The Dargin are one of the larger ethnic groups in Dagestan Also known as the Dargwa, Dargi and Darganti, they live in the foothills, mountains and alpine regions of central Dagestan and speak Kaitang and Kubachi languages, forms of the Dargwa subgroup of the Lak-Dargwa Group of the Daghestanian Branch of the Northeast Caucasian (Nakh-Daghestian) language family.
There are around 380,000 Dargins, with about 76 percent of them living in Dagestan. The first record of them were reference from Aran chroniclers in the 6th and 7th centuries. At that time they were referred to as the “armor makers.” Today the are known for their architecture. They built highly ornamented fortresses and towers and structures built at wells and springs. Like the Avars, the Dargins, divided into several distinct groups, maintain their village communities in relative isolation.
The Dargin are Sunni Muslims that belong to the Shafi school. They converted do Islam between the 14th and 18th centuries. Many of their customs are similar to those of other Dagestani people and are defined by their religion. Many traditional beliefs have remained and some of them have blended with Islam. Certain ritual are still conducted to ward off evil spirits and bring rain. Life is still largely defined by the agricultural cycle and the biggest festival of the year is one that celebrated the first plowing in spring.
The Kumyk are one of the main Dagestan ethnic groups. There are 300,000 Kumyk, with about 251,000 of them in Dagestan. They live predominately in the foothills and lowlands of northern Dagestan. Mountain dwellers in the Caucasus generally refer to them as the “dwellers of the lowlands, The Kumyks, the largest Turkic group in the republic, are descendants of the Central Asian Kipchak tribes.
The Kumyk language belongs to the Kypchak subgroup of the Altaic-Turkic family of languages and is related to the Nogay language. The Kumyk are regarded of one of the indigenous groups of Dagestan and were mentioned by Ptolemy in the A.D. 2nd century. They converted do Islam earlier than other Dagestani groups, in the 8th to 12th century, and a result not so many pre-Islamic beliefs still exist.
The Kumyk have traditionally been farmers. They traded grain for meat and dairy products with mountain people and also sold salt, oil and fish. Their marriage and family customs and justice system is defined by Islamic law. They have an oral literature filled with stories of heros and monsters. Their old religion is present in these stories. Some of the stories are similar to those in the Bible and ancient Mesopotamia stories.
The Lakh are one of the main Dagestan ethnic groups. A small, homogeneous group, they occupy central Dagestan; their region was the original center of Islam on the upper Caspian coast. There are around 100,000 of them. They live mostly in the Lak and Kuli districts in the mountains of central Dagestan, where rain fall is in short supply and the agricultural land is generally not very good. They are closely related to the Dargin, Kubachin and Kaitak and are regarded as the most Russified of all of Dagestan’s ethnic groups. Most speak Russian and many speak a number of other Caucasus languages.
The Lakhs (also spelled Lak) are Sunni Muslims in the Shafi school, with a tradition of Sufism. They were reportedly the first people in what is now Russia to be exposed to Islam (in A.D. 777 according to legend) but they didn’t covert until around the 13th century. They lived for a long time under a feudal system and participated in Caucasus Wars. They were able to maintain their lifestyle under the Soviets because their territory could bot really be adapted for collective agriculture.
The Lakh have traditionally been herders, primarily sheep because they were the animals that survive the best in their harsh environment. Although they were able to grow some barley, potatoes, wheat and peas, meat and milk products from the animals they raised has been their main source of food. Wood from trees for heat and a construction material a hard to come by. Animals had to be moved long distances to find pasture, and then land often had to be shared with other Dagestani people such as the Kumkhs. It is no surprise they also have a history of leaving the area to do migrant work.
The Nogay are an ethnic group that live mostly in Dagestan and North Caucasus. There are about 77,000 of them. Their language is in the Kipchak branch of the Altaic-Turkic family of languages and is related to the languages of Kazakhs, Kumyk and Balkars. Unlike most Caucasus groups the Nogay are lowlanders who live mainly in the steppeland between the Terek and Kuma rivers, a roughly 25,000 square kilometer area known as the Nogay steppe. The Nogay, the second Turkic group in Dagestan, are descendants of one of two Nogay hordes of the Middle Ages; the second and larger group settled to the west, in Stavropol' Territory, and speaks a different language.
The Nogay grew out of a merging of tribes that took place during the Mongol period, with some input from Turkic tribes that lived in area but more from the Mongols themselves and Turkic tribes that arrived with them. After the Golden Horde began to break up, a Nogay Horde was created from the remnant of the Golden Horde is the late 14th century. The first references to the Nogay was in the 15th century. By the 17th century the Nogay controlled large amounts of territory, including large areas around the lower Volga. In the 1780s they became subjects of the Russians.
Most Nogay were semi-nomadic herders, raising sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels, until the early 20th century. They traveled in groups called iauls, with 50 or so members, and with horses and wheeled carts. When they formed camps they set up tents call terme and organized their carts in a circle and kept their animals inside. When the Nogay settled in the winter they lived in fixed round shelters. Later, many began taking up a settled life on their own and others were pushed into settling by the Soviets. By the 1920s most lived in permeant homes made of mud bricks. Under the Soviets they were able to move into more substantial brick homes and develop agriculture with the availability of water from canals.
Nogay men traditionally took care of the animals and women ran the household. There was a strict hierarchy among the women with a matriarch giving orders to the younger women and organizing chores and duties. Marriage traditionally entailed the payment of a bride-price, which was paid in livestock in the old days but is largely a thing of the past now. The Nogay became Sunni Muslims in the 13rh and 14th century but have never been regarded as a particularly religious people. Some pre-Islamic Turkic pagan traditions remain.
The Tabasarans are an ethnic group that live in southeastern Dagestan. There are about 60,000 of them. Historically similar to the Lezgins and Aguls, they are a Muslim people who live in mostly in the foothills of the Dagestan mountains in upper Rubas basin and along the central Chirakh-Chai and upper Charchag-Su Rivers.
The Tabasarans are Sunni Muslims and have been in the Caucasus for some time. They were part of the Albanian Union and were mentioned in Armenian texts dated to the A.D. 5th century. They converted to Islam at a relatively early date, not long after the Arab conquest in the 8th and 9th centuries. They became part of Russia in the early 19th century.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Tabasaran language uses the most noun cases (48). The Tabasaran language belongs to the Lezghian subgroup of the Dagestani group of North Caucasian languages. It has no written form. Writing is done in Russian, which most Tabasaran speak.
The Tabasarans are strongly influenced by the more numerous Lezgins, although folk practices such as vendettas persist. The Tabasarans have traditionally lived in stone and wood houses in villages built around a mosque and whose configuration was determined by the topography of the landscape. The houses themselves were often decorated with images of animals, circles, rosettes, swastikas and other designs.
The Tabasarans raised animals and made wine but their primary economic activity has been agriculture, raising crops such as wheat, rye, millet, buckwheat, German wheat, maize, peas and beans, melons and other gourds. They also produced rugs and traded with the mountain people.
Legal matters and customs were defined by sharia (Islamic law) and adat (customary law). Islamic holidays and the Ramadan fast were widely practiced. Marriages were traditionally arranged between families of similar social rank. In the old days, infant betrothals, levirate marriage, sororate marriage, marital exchange and bridal abductions were all practiced.
The Mountain Jews are a distinct Jewish subgroup and one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Caucasus. They live mostly in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. Only about 17,000 Mountain Jews remain. Around 50,000 were left at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The difference is mostly explained by emigration to Israel.
The Mountain Jews used to live in the mountains but most of them now live in the cities. Among other Jewish groups they are considered illiterate hillbillies. Few speak Hebrew or even know how to pray. The group has traditionally lived among Muslim groups and has tried to hide their religion by calling themselves Tats, another ethnic group in the Caucasus area, to avoid persecution.
Mountain Jews traditionally lived in different groups and spoke a language called Jewish or Tat plus the language and the people that they lived among. Over time the different dialects of Jewish became so different that different Mountain Jew grous often could not communicate with one another. In the Soviet era they learned Russian These days many don’t even speak their own language any more and communicate among themselves and with other groups in Russian. In many cases only a handful of old people if that speak the old language anymore.
Early History of the Mountain Jews
The Mountain Jews and trace their origins to the “Eastern Diaspora” from Babylon in th the 7th century B.C. There are no accurate records that describe how they arrived in the Caucasus but according to their folklore, passed down orally through the generations, they came from Babylon.
Archeological evidence—mostly ancient Jewish gravestones and epigraphic inscriptions—unearthed near Mountain Jew villages—indicates that the Mountain Jews have been in the Caucasus for a long time. The first people that later evolved into Mountain Jews are believed to have arrived from Iran during the ancient Persian period (7th to 3rd centuries B.C.) and the Sassanid period (3rd century B.C. to A.D. 7th century). Most are believed to have arrived in the Caucasus to escape persecution during the Arab and Turk conquests beginning in the 7th century. They fled into the mountains of Dagestan and Khazaria because that is where they found the greatest religious tolerance and favorable living conditions.
Later History of the Mountain Jews
Although they were never great in numbers the Mountain Jews did have an economic impact, by facilitating trade, in the areas where they lived. They also influenced the pagan people they lived among and the Khazars. Some attribute the mass conversion of the pagan Khazars to Judaism in the 8th century to Mountain Jew influence. To this day the Mountain Jews regard their language as that of the original Jewish Khazar khans. During the Khazar period the Mountain Jews enjoyed great influence an prestige.
After the Khazar empire collapse the Mountain Jews retreated to their former Caucasus mountain homeland only to find that many of the ethnic groups there were now Muslims and wanted tribute for permission to live there. They were also required to pay a special tax for permission to practice their religion.
The Mountain Jews suffered in pogroms in the late 19th century and early 20th century, particularly the one on 1905-07. In 1918-1920 they were raided by White Guards and suffered more destruction and death. At that stage many emigrated to Palestine. Some Mountain Jews participated in the Bolshevik Revolution and thus initially did well under the Soviets. There was a blossoming of Mountain Jewish culture for a while. The group had their own theater group and published their own newspaper called Zakhmetkesh (“The Toilet). As time went on the became increasingly Russified. As the Soviets party line became increasingly anti-Israel many Mountain Jews began calling themselves Tats and tried to conceal their religion.
Mountain Jew Culture
Before the Soviet period many Mountain Jews were engaged in agriculture, particularly in the production of wine and tobacco. They were also specialists in preparing rawhide and producing morocco leather. Before the Soviet period there was a rich aristocracy. Mountain Jews traditionally had lots of children and lived in large extend family households. Like their Muslim neighbors a high premium was placed on providing hospitality.
Mountain Jews have kept their culture in their food (they still prepare many unique dishes). Their marriage customs merged Caucasus and Jewish traditions, and included the payment of a bride price and a bridal procession with participants carrying candles as well as lots of feasting, dancing and toast making. All the guests record their gifts, including their cost, in a book so receiving families know what kind of debt they have to pay in the future.
Mountain Jews have traditionally observed most of the major Jewish holidays and rituals. They also incorporated a number of ancient customs into their belief system such as the belief in the purifying power of amulets, fire and water and the protection they offered against sea nymphs and devils. Under the Soviets many became atheists.
Mountain Jew boys are circumcised seven days after they are born. In the old days many were illiterate and only the elite attended school and were bar mitzvahed. Today there are few practicing Mountain Jews anymore, and they are mostly very old. Few if any communities even have a rabbi. Rituals, when they are performed, are done at home rather than in a synagogue.
A traditional Jewish wedding in the southwest mountains begins with a veiled bride traveling by horseback to the grooms house, where guests have gathered. Before entering the house the groom’s mother throws rice and wheat over the bride. According to tradition, the bride avoids the groom's parents and the groom avoids the bride's parents for couple of years. Folk songs and dances are performed to music from drums and clarinet.
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016