SMALL DAGESTAN GROUPS
The Tsakhurs, Rutuls, and Aguls are small, isolated groups of mountain people who lack a written language and largely have preserved their traditional social structures. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Other small Dagestan groups are the 1) Akhvakh; 2) Archi, with around 1,000 members; 3) the Bagvala; 4) the Batsbi, with 3,000 members and speak a Nakh-Vaynakh languages; 5) Bezhetins; 6) Botlikh; 7) Budukh; 8) Chamalal;9) Ginukh, with 200 members; 10) Godoberi; 11) Gunzib, with 400 members; 12) Khinalug; 13) Khvarshi; 14) Kryzl; 15) Tindi; 16) Tsez. Most of these groups have less than 500 members.
The Andis are a small Dagestan group There are about 25,000 of them. They are Muslims and live in western Dagestan, southeast of Chechnya. Their principal settled area is the Andia, a vast valley bordered by the snow-covered Andi ridge to the north, which helps moderate the climate by blocking cold winds from the north.
The Andi are Sunni Muslims. They converted to Islam in the 14th century. Many of their laws and customs are based on Islamic law. Some pre-Islamic customs remain. During times of drought, for example, people still climb a sacred mountain to perform rain-making rites. Some of these rituals are combined with Sufi dances. When a person dies, the Andi believe, they go to a Lilliputian world, and when they are alive the are repeating the life their personal doppelganger lived before.
The Andi language belongs to the Andian subgroup of the Andi-Avar-Dido group of the Dagestan group of North Caucasian languages. It has a written form that is not widely used. The Andi have traditionally spoken many languages. Many can speak Russian, Chechen and Avar.
Pliny the Elder described the Andi living in the eastern Caucasus in the A.D. 1st century. According to tradition they originated in the Near East and were driven to the Caucasus in the 9th century B.C. by Assyrian King Sargon II. The converted to Islam around the same time they were raided by Tamerlane in the 14th century. The Andi fought with Chechens again the Russians in the mid the 18th century and distinguished themselves for their bravery in the Caucasus Wars (1817-1864).
Andi Village and Homes
Andi villages feature dwelling arranged like an amphitheater on mountain slopes. In some villages the buildings are clustered quite close together. The village of Muni is like one large buildings. The houses share walls and roofs. The streets are covered by the upper stories of buildings and are like tunnels.
Most houses have two stories: a lower one for animals, an upper one for people, with a flat roof serving as a terrace. In places where houses are spread out some flat roofs have been replaced by sloped roofs of slate or metal. The houses traditionally had a separate room built for guests, a large central column and a a large fireplace decorated with clay relief ornaments. Items are stored on shelves and niches built into the walls.
Andi marriages have traditionally been arranged with the help of a matchmaker and involved the payment of a dowry in land and livestock. Weddings often lasted for three days and featured horse races with prizes, a bridal procession with a mock battle. Bridal abduction was practiced, especially in cases where parents denied the hand of their daughter to the abductor. Such actions thou sometimes led to blood feuds.
The traditional Andi woman’s costume consists of a tuniclike long dress with a tight waist, wide pantaloons, distinctive leather shoes and a chuktu, a kind of headdress in the form of a crescent moon with the horns pointed downward and a forehead part often decorated with brocaded fabric and bright gold embroidery. The Andi also produce silk burkas and Caucasian felt that was both warm and durable and so strong that soldiers since the time of Alexander the Great wore it as part of their battle garments.
The Andi practice agriculture and animal husbandry using the same methods as other Caucasus people. They are also known as traders. The biggest event of the year was the festival of the “bull’s departure,” held on New Year’s Day in the spring. It featured the first plowing, by a pair of bulls, and a number of sporting events such as running, wrestling, horse racing and stone throwing.
Tats are a Persian-speaking group that live in Azerbaijan and Dagestan near the coast of the Caspian Sea. There are about 20,000 of them. Many live on the Absheron Peninsula, where Baku is located. Tat s a word of Turkish origin that original described a social class not an ethnic group. It was originally used by Turks in the region to describe Persian-speaking peasant. Some Mountain Jews call themselves Tats.
The Tats are divided into two groups: 1) Muslims (Shiites in southern Azerbaijan and Sunnis in northern Azerbaijan and Dagestan) and 2) Christians (most associated with the Georgian or Armenian Orthodox churches). Mountain Jews are Tat-speaking Jews.
The Tat language belongs to the Southwest Iranian Group of the Indo-European Language Family. There are two basic dialects: “Muslim Tat” and “Jewish Tat.” Tat was originally written in Persian but was required to be written with the Latin alphabet in the 1920s as part of the anti-Islamic and anti-nationalist campaign and was required to be written in Cyrillic in the 1930s as part of the Russification campaign.
History of the Tats
The Tats are descendants of an Iranian-speaking population that was kicked out of Persia by the Sassanids in the 5th and 6th centuries. They settled in the eastern Caucasus region and suffered by living in a buffer between the Persians and invaders from the north. In the 18h and 19th century the main group of Tats was under the rule of the Kuba and Baku khanates and in 1813 became part of the Russian empire.
In the 19th century, the Tats lived in relatively homogeneous settlements. A census in 1886 counted 120,000 of them in Azerbaijan and 3,600 in Dagestan, A census in 1989 counted 10,200 in Azerbaijan and 13,00 in Dagestan. Their decline in numbers was due primarily to assimilation within the Azerbaijan and Armenian population. There are still some Tat-speaking Azerbaijania. Many of the Tat-speaking Armenians no longer speak Tat and regard themselves as Armenians.
Mountain Jews, See Below
The kinds of settlements and housing the Tats live in depends on whether they live in the mountains or the lowlands. In some mountain areas they live in clusters of stone houses built on ledges on mountain slopes. Their chief economic activity has primarily been agriculture and weaving carpets. Justice was defined by Muslim law and adat, with murders preferably being avenged but sometimes settled through the payment of blood money. Many of these customs disappeared with the introduction of Russian and then Soviet law.
Although Tats have traditionally been reasonably pious Muslims and Christians a number of superstitions have endured. It was believed, for example, that pouring water onto a fire in a hearth would cause a son to die and that giving away leavening for bread would cause prosperity to leave the house. Rain ceremonies were held in times of drought and sacred places—usually graves of holy men—were revered. Novrus, the Persian new Year, was celebrated with people pouring rose water on each other and coloring their hands, feet and hair with henna.
Funerals have traditionally been conducted in accordance with Muslim customs. In a ceremony of mourning women struck faces and chests, tore their hair, scratched their faces and voiced traditional lamentations. Close relatives were expected to wear black. Male relatives didn’t shave their beards as men in some Caucasus ethnic groups do.
Traditional clothes worn by women consist of a cap (usually worn by older women), a light-colored shawl and an outer shawl that covers the woman’s whole figure. In the winter the shawl served as a warm outer garment. The headgear great was fringed with gold and silver threads and decorated with silver coins. Necklaces, rings, earrings and bracelets were commonly worn.
Tats have traditionally married within their clan group and regarded marriages to cousins as ideal. In the old days, marriages were arranged sometimes when the couple were infants and it was not uncommon for girls to get married when they were 11, 12 or 13. The consent of parents was important. If consent was not granted couples sometimes eloped or the bride was “abducted.” A bride price was paid but it went to the bride not the bride’ family. Some of this money was regarded as a provision to help the wife take care of herself in the event of a divorce.
The wedding took place over two to seven days and was usually held in the autumn or winter after the field work had been completed. The groom traditionally gave the father of the bride a horse, a dagger or rifle, and cattle. The bride, wearing a veil over her face, was brought to the groom’s family’s house on a horse. As she entered the house she was sprinkled with rice and wheat. After the wedding people sang Azerbaijani songs and danced Azerbaijani dances. After the wedding both the bride and the groom practiced the custom of avoidance of each other’s parents,
The Rutuls are a small Dagestani group. There are around 22,000 of them. They live mostly in the valleys of the Samur River in southern Dagestan, an area distinguished by rugged gorges with torrential rivers. Some mountains have permanent snow. There is generally enough rain to provide good pastures for the animals the Rutuls keep. The have traditionally raised cattle and sheep and grew barley, rye, millet and spelt.
The Rutuls became Sunni Muslims in the 10th and 11th centuries. They speak a language that belongs to the Lezhian subgroup of the Daghestanian group of the Northeast Caucasian family of languages. They were one of the tribes that belonged to the Albanian Union and were first mentioned in historical records from the A.D. 8th century. After the Caucasus Wars they were ruled by a naib (a Muslim ruler belonging to a Sufi sect).
Many Rutul settlements are quite old. Their location was often chosen by access to water and pastures and ability to set up a defense. Most houses traditionally had two stories: a lower one for animals and storage and an upper one for people. They were made of crushed stone, clay and wood and contained light holes instead of windows. At the center of a traditional village was a mosque and a men’s house.
The environment the Rutuls 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. Rutul women were regarded as skilled carpet and sock makers. Their biggest holiday of the year was a spring festival called Er in which a tree in the middle of town was decorated and people dyed eggs. At the end of winter male clubs performed masked dramas
In the old days marriages were arranged by father and young people, especially women, could not refuse the choices made for them. Weddings featured games, dancing and feasting and lasted for two days. The Rutuls are reasonably pious Muslims. Some elements of hunting and fertility cults remain. Sharp iron spikes have traditionally been placed under the pillows for protection from evil spirits. A bride were required to step on an iron object when she entered the groom’s home for the first time to prevent evil spirits from ruining her wedding day.
Clothing, Food, See Lezgian
The Tsakhurs are a small Dagestani group. They live in remote, difficult-to reach sections of southwestern Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan. The valleys where the live or often closed off because of snow or landslides or floods. There are only 13,000 Tsakhurs with 14,000 in Azerbaijan and 5,500 in Dagestan. The Tsakhur language belongs to the Lezghian subgroup of the Dagestani group of North Caucasian languages. It has no written form. Writing is done in Russian.
As is true with Tabasarans and other Dagestan groups, the Tsakhurs are Sunni Muslims and have been in the Caucasus for some time. They were part of the Albanian Union but did it really emerge as a distinct group until the Middle Ages. They were mentioned in Armenian texts dated to the A.D. 13th century. They are believed to have converted to Islam in the 11th and 12th centuries. They became part of Russia in the early 19th century but also fought in the Caucasus Wars against the Russians.
Tsakhur villages have traditionally been built on slopes in a series of terraces in remote places that were easy to defend. Houses were sometimes connected in such a way the streets become like tunnels. The houses were built of wood, clay and stone and had little furniture but hada special place on the pillars where weapons could be hung.
The Tsakhurs have traditionally been animal herders who kept animals (primarily sheep but also cattle and horses) with them in their villages in the winter and fed them with hay and migrated in the summer to highland pastures where they could graze. Traditionally more than half the Tsakhurs spent six or seven months of the year migrating with their animals.
The Aguls are one of the small Dagestan groups. There are only about 9,500 of them. Historically similar ro the Lezgins and Tabasarans, they are a Muslim people who live in 21 settlements in four valleys in the southern Dagestani highlands. The first road to the region was built in the 1930s. before that the only way to reach the valley was on mountain paths. Even now the road is often closed by landslides and snow.
The Aguls (also spelled Aghul) are Sunni Muslims. They converted at a relatively early date, not long after the Arab conquest in the 8th century. Village mullahs and qadi are active in villages affairs along with the village council. The Agul language belongs to the Lezghian subgroup of the Dagestan group of North Caucasian languages. It has no written form. Writing is done in Russian, which most Aguls speak.
Traditional Agul villages look sort of like amphitheaters. Established at the head of a river valley, they are comprised of buildings arranged in rows, ascending up a slope, with houses often sharing walls and roofs and having at least one defense tower. Such villages are easier to defend in the event of an attack. With peace in the region they have been able to build more conventional villages in lower sections of valleys
The Agul 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. The only problem is the Agul didn’t have any highland pastures themselves and had to pay rent to use those owned by other groups. Poor families that could not afford the rents were sometimes in dire straits. 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.
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. One unusual feature of Agul animal husbandry is the fact that men were in charge of performing all the tasks associated with shepherding, even the milking, and women were charge of taking care of cattle.
The Agul tend to marry within their clan.. In the old days, they lived in large extended family households led a senior male, who acted as a patriarch and had broad authority. In the event of an extended family breakup sisters were given shares of property half of what their brother’s received.
The Kubachins are a small Dagestan group. There are only around 2,000 of them. They live mostly in the settlements in the Kubachi area of Khadaeve District in a mountainous area of southern Dagestan with cold winter and hot summers. They are closely related to and live with the Dargins. There is some debate as to whether or not their language is a dialect of Dargin or a separate language.
The Kubachins are Sunni Muslims. They were mentioned by 7th century Arab chronicler but they didn’t convert to Islam until the 13th century. They have traditionally made their living by selling their crafts and processing bones and relied less on agriculture and animal husbandry than other peoples. Their skill as craftsmen was widely recognized. Their crafts have been displayed at museums such as the Louvre, Hermitage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Weddings last several days and feature the “leading her to water” ritual. Among the biggest holidays are the Day of Spring to mark the beginning of the planting season and “Going to the Waters to Avoid the Evil Eye,” a May celebration featuring dancing, music and flower picking.
The Udis are a small Christian group that has traditionally lived in predominately Muslim areas on the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains in Azerbaijan and Dagestan. There are only about 6,500 of them. There numbers have shrunk over the years despite a very high fertility rate due to assimilation with the Azerbaijani population.
The Udis speak a language in the Daghestanian Group of the Northeast Caucasian Language Family. Until fairly recently it had no written form. The modern Udis are descendants of the Uti, one of the ancient tribes of the east Caucasus, who were described by classical sources. Most Udis assimilated in to the various Turkic tribes that migrated into the region but one group converted to Christianity, primarily Armenian Orthodoxy. A small group that converted to Armenian Orthodox Christianity kept their language, customs and identity. These became the Udi.
The Udis have traditionally raised a variety of agricultural produce, grown grapes and raised silkworms. They are Orthodox and Armeno-Georgian Christian but have kept alive some pre-Christian beliefs such worship of deities associated with the sun, moon, hearht, fire and ancestors. The ruins of certain ancient churches are regarded as especially sacred.
Marriages have traditionally been arranged. The betrothal was celebrated with an exchange of presents between the families of the couple and a procession led by a ram with candles tied to its horns. The groom was obliged to provide “money for the road,” which included a silver belt and silver coins the bride would wear on her headdress.
The wedding took place over three or four days. The bride was fetched from her house and welcomed to the groom’s house by a canopy of crossed swords. While the groom was seated with the guests the veiled bride sat behind a curtain with her father’s sister and was brought food by her new mother in law. This custom is largely a thing of the past. Now both the bride and groom sit together at the banquet table.
Men often wear conical sheep’s wool hats called papakha. The head gear of women consists of several kerchiefs adorned with silver chains, silver coins and strips of colored fabrics. In the old days married women covered the lower part of their face with a kerchief and girls wore henna on their hands as a kind of cosmetic and women ate separately from men and kept a distance from outsiders and other men. New new brides were not allowed to speak to mother- and father-in-law for some time after her wedding.
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