Dagestan (northeastern Caucasus, west of the Caspian Sea) is a small republic about the size of Illinois with about 3 million people who speak more than 30 languages and are divided into 81 ethnic groups and ethnic groups. Located on southernmost point of Russia, Dagestan encompasses a large section of the eastern Caucasus mountains and 400 kilometers (250 miles) of Caspian Sea coastline.
Dagestan is the largest republic in the northern Caucasus. Its tremendous ethnic diversity is attributed the combination of isolated valleys and its location at the crossroads between cultures in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The largest groups include the Avar, Dargin, Kumyk, Lezghin and Lakh. Most of these groups are Muslims who live in remote valleys. Their neighbors have traditionally viewed them with hostility.
Dagestan is one of Russia's poorest state, with 200 families controlling the majority of the region's wealth in the 1990s. Fertile lowlands that produce famous Astrakhan melons and account for 70 percent of Russia's coastline on the oil-rich Caspian Sea. It also hold a strategic pipeline (which goes through Chechnya) and a railroad used to transport oil. But little money trickles down to ordinary people. The importance of the pipeline and railway diminished when the pipeline between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean through Turkey and Georgia became fully operational.
Dagestan mean the "Mountain Kingdom" or “Land of Mountains” in Turkic languages. Mountains cover half its territory. There are gorges with jagged rocks and vertical cliffs, highlands covered in alpine meadows and the 30 snow covered peaks over 4,000 meters high. . But the mountains would be nothing but cold soulless objects with the rugged, hospitable people living in them. Dagestan has a reputation for being dangerous, and sometimes it can be, but for the most part people that do venture to the republic find the local people are open, friendly and welcoming.
The climate in Dagestan is dry and hot in the summer and cold and dry in the winter. Folklore and handicraft traditions are particularly alive in mountainous southern Dagestan where villages can be found perched on cliffsides and the carpets are regarded as beautiful.
See Separate Articles DAGESTAN factsanddetails.com; CAUCASUS factsanddetails.com; EARLY CAUCASUS HISTORY factsanddetails.com; CAUCASUS UNDER RUSSIA AND THE SOVIET UNION factsanddetails.com LIFE AND CULTURE IN THE CAUCASUS factsanddetails.com
Warning: According to the U.S. State Department: North Caucasus (including Chechnya and Mount Elbrus) – Level 4: Do Not Travel: Terrorist attacks and risk of civil unrest continue throughout the North Caucasus region including in Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Stavropol, Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya. Local gangs have kidnapped U.S. citizens and other foreigners for ransom. There have been credible reports of arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killing of LGBTI persons in Chechnya allegedly conducted by Chechen regional authorities. Do not attempt to climb Mount Elbrus, as travelers must pass close to volatile and insecure areas of the North Caucasus region. The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens traveling in the North Caucasus region, including Mount Elbrus, as U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling to the region.
People of Dagestan
Dagestan is one of the most ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse regions in the world. Known as “Mountain of Languages,” it is home to an estimated thirty ethnic groups, who speak dozens of Caucasian, Iranian, and Turkic languages. There is one story that a horseman carrying the languages of the world stumbled when he was in Dagestan. His bag ripped open and languages spilled out. Russian, Azerbaijani and Turkic (“Tatar”) serves as lingua francas among different groups in different places.
Dagestan groups have traditionally valued their freedom and independence. All 30 or so of the ethnic groups there are predominately Muslim. They practice a relatively mellow form of Islam. Moscow values Dagestan as a buffer zone between mostly Christian Russia and the more politically-active strains of Islam found south of Dagestan in Iran.
The ten non-Slavic groups in Dagestan identified by Soviet censuses within the population of about 2 million are, in order of size, Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Tabasarans, Nogay, Rutuls, Tsakhurs, and Aguls. Knowledge of Arabic and the teachings of Islam are more widespread in Dagestan than in any other Russian republic. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The polyglot nature of Dagestan has made linguistic unity impossible; among the major groups, only the Nogay language is said to be declining in usage. Besides Azerbaijani and Russian, six languages were recognized as official languages in the late Soviet period. In the 1990s, tension has existed among the many ethnic groups, accompanied by a debate over whether the republic should be organized on a unitary or federative basis. *
See Separate Articles AVAR AND LEZGINS: DAGESTAN’S LARGEST GROUPS factsanddetails.com; RELATIVELY LARGE DAGESTAN GROUPS factsanddetails.com; SMALL DAGESTAN GROUPS factsanddetails.com ; CAUCASUS factsanddetails.com; PEOPLE OF THE CAUCASUS factsanddetails.com;
Republic of Dagestan
Dagestan is official called the Republic of Dagestan. It covers 50,300 square kilometers (19,400 square miles) and has a population density of 58 42 people per square kilometer. About 55 percent of the population live in rural areas.Makhachkala is the capital and largest city, with about 570,00 people, making it the largest city in the Caucasus.
The Republic of Dagestan, formerly the Dagestan (or Daghestan) Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Dagestan ASSR), occupies an area along the western shore of the Caspian Sea, from the border with Azerbaijan in the south to a point about 150 kilometers south of the Volga River delta in the north. Designated an autonomous republic in 1921, Dagestan lost some of its territory in 1941 and 1957; most of the original republic was restored in 1957. In the Soviet period, the Muslim majority suffered severe religious repression. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Unlike the other autonomous republics, Dagestan does not derive its existence from the presence of one particular group. Besides its Russian population (9.2 percent of the total in 1989),Dagestan is home to an estimated thirty ethnic groups and eighty nationalities, who speak Caucasian, Iranian, and Turkic languages and account for more than 80 percent of the population. The ten non-Slavic groups identified by Soviet censuses within the population of about 2 million are, in order of size, Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Tabasarans, Nogay, Rutuls, Tsakhurs, and Aguls. Colonies of Azerbaijanis (4.2 percent in 1989) and Chechens (3.2 percent) also exist.
Dagestan’s attraction include majestic mountains, sunny Caspian beaches, delicious Caucasus food and, most importantly, the wonderful Dagestani hospitality. The Silk Road passed through the ancient city of Derbent. The warm waters of the Caspian Sea, the healing mineral springs, in the Gunibsky mountains and the architectural monuments, such as the ancient Djuma-mosque, are all worth checking out.
Sights in Dagestan include Tscoch, a 10,000-year-old settlement, believed to be one of the oldest in the world and Kubachi, a jewelry-making villages. There are also ruined forts, mosques, folk art museums, waterfalls, hot springs and old churches. Derpent has a a lively carpet market; Travelers should beware of violence and disease are problems in Dagestan,
Among the activities you can enjoy are hiking in the mountains, swimming in the Caspian Sea and sampling local fruits and dishes. Because not so many tourists come to Dagestan and the tourist infrastructure is still quite basic, traveling is an adventure and welcomes or more sincere and genuine. It is recommended, however, that you travel with a guide and make all the necessary arrangements with the local tour operators or guides by email and phone well in advance or your arrival. Make sure you deal trustworthy companies and bring cash as ATMs are often not so easy to find.
Getting There: By Air: : The easiest way to get to Dagestan is a flight from Moscow. Every day 5-6 flights depart from Moscow for the Uishat airport outside Makhachkala. A one way ticket is between 3.000 and 12,000 rubles depending on the season and the airline. There are several flights a week from Saint Petersburg to Makhachkala.
By Train: There is daily train service. Every day a train departs from Moscow that travels via Tambov, Saratov and Astrakhan. The train takes 40 hours to get to Makhachkala. Third class tickets cost about 3150 rubles, with 2250 rubles for top bunks, second class tickets are 5780 rubles. In Saint Petersburg there is train service to Makhachkala every other day: the train travels through Moscow, Tula, Lipetsk, Voronezh, Rostov-on-Don, Mineralnye Vody, Mozdok and Gudermes. The travel time is about 65 hours. By Bus: There are several regular bus services between Rostov-on-Don and Makhachkala plus there are also bus services between Dagestan and other southern regions. Normally you can't buy bus tickets online.
Makhachkala is the capital and largest city, with about 570,00 people, making it the largest city in the Caucasus. Located between the foothills of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, at the foot of the mountain Tarki-Tau, it is a hot, dirty, depressing place, full of loitering unemployed youths and crumbling apartment buildings and closed factories. Guns are everywhere, the sale of illegal caviar and stolen oil are the biggest businesses, and about the only thing to do is go to the dangerous casinos and bars or visit the art museum, museum of history and architecture museum.
Makhachkala is the only ice-free in the winter, Russian port on the Caspian sea. Its location on the plains on the West coast of the Caspian Sea — “the corridor of Dagestan” — was important for trade and of strategic military value and possession of it was fought over by many peoples. Makhachkala was founded in 1844 as a Russian military fortification called Petrovskoye. In 1857, the settlement was granted town status and the name of the port city became Petrovsk, so named because it was believed that during the Persian campaign in 1722 Peter the Great set up camp here. .
In The Soviet era, the city became the capital of the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was renamed in Makhachkala, in honor of the revolutionary Makhach Mahadeva.
Today Makhachkala is the fastest growing major cities of Russia. By some reckoning — if all the migrants to the city are included — the population of over 700,000 people. Representatives of more than 60 nationalities and all major religions, as well as countless small denominations. In additions to mosques, the city has an Orthodox Church, the Church of Seventh-Day Adventists and a synagogue. The city also has two railway stations and a large port. Uishat airport is outside Makhachkala.
A satellite city —Makhachkala “Cote d'azur” — is in the planning stages. According to it planners it will have five state universities, eight museums, seven theaters, eight libraries and 62 schools. The Dagestan Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences is played to be set up here along with 20 research institutes.
The Russian part of the Caspian Sea coast is mostly in Dagestan.
Sarykum Sand Dune (18 kilometers northwest of Makhachkala) is a truly unique place. Smack in the middle of a huge steppe there is a massive pile of sand. Scientists not sure how so much sand ended up there. There are lots of theories attempting to explain the origin of this sand dune, plus there are also numerous folk legends and stories. The sand dune is as high as 250 meters. The sand dune was featured in a famous Russian movie “White Sun of the Desert.” Getting There: There is a sign post on the Caucasus highway pointing to the sand dune. Access is 100 rubles. Not far from the sand dune there is the Sarykum hotel where you can stay for 3500 rubles per night.
Gotsatl (50 kilometers southwest of Makhachkala) is a small mountain village known for its skilled silversmiths. The complexity and technique of their craftsmanship is superb and dates back to the 17th-18th centuries. Among the silver objects produced here are pendants, bracelets, rings, earrings, buttons, headdress pieces, hairpins and belts. Melting, forging, assembly, engraving, blackening, are all done in the village. Patterned work is not only done on jewelry, but also on utensils and weapons. Gotsatlinskoy Artistic Works was established in 1958. Pieces from the village have been exhibited at national and international exhibitions and are kept at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Oriental Culture, Folk Art Museum, the State Historical Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Makhachkala, Dagestan’s national museum.
Signalno- Watchtower (in the Village of Muni, 110 kilometers west of Makhachkala) dates to the 16th century. It sits on a small mountain, located on the opposite side of the river from the village. It was one of a chain of signal-guard towers, standing in line of sight at a distance of several kilometers from each other. With their help, you can quickly convey the message of the approaching enemy.
The tower is 16 meters high has an almost square plan about 4.3 meters on each side. The tower tapers inward as it rised upwards. The walls are around 70 centimeters thick. The entrance is constructed on the south side, and is situated 3.85 meters above the ground. The small windows have different sizes and shapes. A small loophole is on the lower tier of the eastern facade. The North and west facades have openings.
This is one of the few Dagestan signal watchtowers left. They used be widespread particularly in the neighboring Chechen-Ingushetia. Like them, the tower in the village of Muni is five-stories high and has an entrance located at the 2nd floor, which is reached by a wooden ladder that can be quickly pulled up if a threat approaches.
Derbent (70 kilometers south of Makhachkala) is an one of the oldest continually occupied places in the world. Situated on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, where the Caucasus mountains come right down to the shore, leaving only a narrow, coastal strip, it is the kind of place where you can walk on ancient and medieval streets that are virtually unchanged from what they were hundreds of years ago. From very ancient times, people traveled through this place, following the Caspian Way between what is now Russia in the north and the Middle East in the south. The route also was a vital link on the Silk Road between Asia and Europe. The cluster of historical and architectural monuments found here are in very good condition. The Citadel, Ancient City and Fortress Buildings of Derbent were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
According to UNESCO: “ Derbent is located in Russia’s Dagestan region, on the western coast of the Caspian Sea. It owes its rich history to its strategic position, along the travel route between Europe and the Middle East, on the border of Europe and Asia, where the mountains of the Caucasus almost arrive at the coast leaving a narrow 3-km strip of plain. [Source: UNESCO]
“Physical evidence of Derbent’s defensive role dates from the 7th or 8th century BCE, and, since the 1st millennium B.C., control of the north-south passage on the western side of the Caspian Sea has been linked to this location. Archaeological excavations since the late 1970s have confirmed Derbent’s nearly 2,000 years of continuous history as urban settlement, the oldest in Russia and one of the most ancient in the region. Evidence was found of a fortified settlement in the region of the citadel during the 3rd century BCE and 4th century CE, which was confirmed by historical documents; Greek-Roman authors knew this settlement by the name of Albanian gate and meanwhile the ancient Armenian authors called it the Chol/Chor.
“The site of the ancient city of Derbent” is important because it: 1) “ has been crucial for the control of the north-south passage on the west side of the Caspian Sea since the 1st millennium BCE. The defence structures that were built by the Sasanians in the 5th century CE were in continuous use by the succeeding Persian, Arabic, Mongol, and Timurid governments for some fifteen centuries.” 2) The “defence structures are the most significant section of the strategic defence systems designed and built in the Sasanian Empire along their northern limes, and maintained during the successive governments until the Russian occupation in the 19th century.”
The first regional museum in Derbent was founded in 1926 thanks to the scientist P. Spassky. In 1977 the museum was transformed into the Ancient Derbent Museum-Reserve, which contains the Naryn-Kala citadel complex, the A.A.Bestuzheva-Marly house-museum, theAncient Derbent Museum, Nature of the Caspian Museum, the Carpet and Arts and Crafts Museum, Museum Culture and Life of Derbent, Ancient Art Gallery and History of Derbent in the Canvases Museum of Military Glory. The entrance fee is 150 rubles. Accommodation: Derbent has a lot of hotels and guest houses with prices per night varying between 1500 and 4500 rubles.
Naryn-Kala Citadel at Derbent
The Naryn-Kala Fortress at Derbent was intitially built in the 8th century and structures were added to it through the 16th century. The fortress occupies the top of the hill that is closest to the sea and is believed to be the oldest fortification in Russia. Despite its age it's in pretty good condition. Inside Naryn-Kala is a whole town, including indoor plumping, bathhouses and a jail. It existed through Byzantine Empire, the Persian empire, the great Arab-Islam Empires in. In the middle ages there also existed an independent Derbent emirate.
According to UNESCO: “The Citadel, Ancient City and Fortress Buildings of Derbent were part of the northern lines of the Sasanian Persian Empire, which extended east and west of the Caspian Sea. The fortification was built in stone. It consisted of two parallel walls that formed a barrier from the seashore up to the mountain. The town of Derbent was built between these two walls, and has retained part of its medieval fabric. The site continued to be of great strategic importance until the 19th century. The citadel is surrounded on three sides by steep slopes and has massive stone walls between 2.5 meters and 3.2 meters thick, over 700 meters in length and 10 to 15 meters in height.Within the citadel, the ruins and archaeological remains of a number of buildings are found, including the Khan’s Palace, a bath, several underground water tanks, a 5th-century Christian church, and an 8th-century mosque, one of the earliest in the former Soviet Union...The property that is inscribed as the Citadel, Ancient City and Fortress Buildings of Derbent covers 37.658 hectares and is surrounded by a 451.554-hectare buffer zone.”
The walls of the citadel, the fortress gates and the staircase that runs along the southern fortress wall are also of special interest. The first gate of the northern wall from the citadel is called Jarchi-kapy (Gate of the Herald). Next to it the khan's herald passed the words. In 1811, the gate was thoroughly rebuilt. An opening was made in the form of the right semicircular arch. The upper part of the gate is composed of rough-worked stones and it is finished with decorative battlement, each of them consists of a solid pointed shape stone.
The Derbent wall is more than 3500 meters long. Built during the Sassanid Period (A.D. 224 to 651), it is a double wall, originates from the Naryn-Kala citadel and ends at the Caspian Sea waters. The North and South walls are parallel to each other for a distance of 300-400 meters. Along the entire length of the wall, more or less equidistant from each other, 73 towers were constructed, of which 46 survive.. They are all built of dark mud brick. The Sassanid gates have interesting architectural features. Of the 14 gate that were built, nine survive: three in the north wall, four the south wall and two 2 in the fortress.
The wall is said to have withstood invasions of the Arabs, Mongols and Persians but exactly who invaded and when and what happened is still unclear. According to UNESCO: ““The modern name of Derbent (from Persian dar, “gate”, and band, “red, communication, barrier”) is associated with a great fortification constructed in the 5th century by the Sasanian Empire. Two walls were constructed 300 to 400 meters apart, extending approximately 3.6 kilometers from the Caspian Sea up to the citadel situated on the mountain.
“The walls extend 500 meters into the Caspian Sea to protect the harbour and the mountain wall continues 40 kilometers west, over the mountains, defending the northern borders from warlike nomads by completely blocking the pass between the sea and the mountains. Seventy-three defence towers were constructed, 46 of which were in the north wall. Nine of the original 14 gates survive. During the 6th century, wall construction, for both the city walls and citadel, was characterized by dry armor-clad brickwork (poke and spoons) made of big rectangular blocks with ragged stone on lime mortar in its internal backfilling.”
Buildings Inside the Citadel at Derbent
According to UNESCO: “Within the citadel, the ruins and archaeological remains of a number of buildings are found, including the Khan’s Palace, a bath, several underground water tanks, a 5th-century Christian church, and an 8th-century mosque, one of the earliest in the former Soviet Union. Between the parallel defence walls, the city was built with the commercial sector close to the waterfront and the residential buildings near the citadel. In the late 19th century, the southern wall was demolished, and a modern city developed along the seafront and beyond the remaining wall. Within the historic town, many buildings survive including courtyard houses, public buildings, mosques, baths, madrasahs, and the remains of a caravanserai. [Source: UNESCO]
“Fortifications combined with the medieval buildings of the old part of the city, the so-called Magalims, form a unique cultural landscape. Derbent has largely maintained its original form and provides impressive evidence of the city’s greatness and power in different historic periods over 15 centuries – Arab, Seljuk, Mongol, Timurid and Safavid periods until the 19th century when it became part of the Russian Empire.
Among the magnificent monuments of architecture, related to different periods of the city's development are : the cross-domed Christian temple of the A.D. 4th and 5th century, the forms and design features of which coincide with the Christian monument of the A.D. 5th century in the Italian city of Ravenna; the ruins of seven palace complexes of the ancient Albanian, Sassanid and Arabian periods, the reservoir of the 11th century, the dungeon of the 12th-14th centuries, the khan's baths of the 17th century, the khan's palace of the 18th century, the khan's chancellery of the 18th century, the guardhouse of the 19th century.
Juma Mosque, built in 734, a few decades after Muhammad’s death, is the oldest mosque not only in Russia but in the entire former Soviet Union. In the northwestern part of the Naryn-Kala citadel, is a monuments cut into rock long thought to be an “underground tank” for storing water. However, recent archaeological studies have shown that this structure, strictly oriented in the cardinal directions, is a cross-domed Christian church of the A.D. 4th century. The whole structure was originally above ground, not cut in the rock, but then it was buried under powerful cultural layers. In the 17th-18th centuries the abandoned church was cleaned, renovated and adapted to store water.
Khan's Palace in the Derbent citadel was built in 1768 by the feudal ruler of the Eastern Caucasus, Fet-Ali Khan. Academician P.G. Butkov, who visited the Naryn-Kala citadel in 1796, wrote that he was in the khan's house that “was built on two floors of wild stone at a height, from where the khan commanded the entire city.” The khan's chancellery is located above the main gate of the Naryn-Kala citadel. To the left of the entrance there is a small room where the gate guard was located. The two-story building of the khan's chancellery included entrance and service rooms, as well as the khan’s reception room.
In the second half of the 18th century, the ruler of the city, Fet-Ali Khan, established a court on the first floor of the chancellery building. In 1960-s the building of the khan's chancellery destroyed by time, was completely reconstructed according to the old plan. The khan's baths in the Naryn-Kala citadel are sunken, vaulted, domed structures illuminated by light through special holes in domes and arches. Siennas, domes and arches are laid out of shell rock. The guardhouse, erected in 1828, is a rectangular building with an arched gallery from the main facade facing the sea. The main eastern facade of the guardhouse is of the greatest interest. Its gallery consists of five semicircular arches, supported by square pillars.
Sulak Canyon: The Deepest Canyon in Russia and Europe
Sulak Canyon (80 kilometers west of Makhachkala) is the deepest canyon in Russia and Europe. The Sulak is one of the biggest rivers in Dagestan. It cuts a valley through the mountains to a depth of 1920 meters, creating a canyon that is 60 meters deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona or any canyon in Europe or Russia.
Sulak Canyon is 53 kilometers long. Stand on it edge are breathtaking views of the steep sides of the canyon dropping off into the abyss. And at the bottom of the canyon there is an emerald mountain river. The canyon is one of the most visited tourist sites in Dagestan. However, it is also one of the most dangerous places: because of its high cliffs, sharp rocks, strong winds and absence of any railings along the canyon edge.
Within Sulak Canyon is Chirkey HPP, a towering dam for the largest hydroelectric power plant in the North Caucasus, Built in the 1970s, the dam and plant was a major feat of Soviet engineering and took great amount of manpower to construct. Behind the dam is the huge Chirkey reservoir, where can enjoy boating and trout fishing.
Getting There: The Sulak canyon is located in the vicinity of the town of Dubki, some 80 kilometers from Makhachkala. You can drive there on the R-217 highway through Kizilyurt and the Chirkey reservoir or alternatively you can take the R-275 highway that follows the ring road around Buinaks and Chirkey.
Gunib, Gamsutl and Chokh and the Picturesque Villages of Gunibsky District
Gunibsky District (100 kilometers southwest of Makhachkala) is the home of several picturesque villages with terraces houses, some of them spectacularly situated on jagged rock outcropping, dizzying cliff and mountain spurs. Gunib (130 kilometers southwest of Makhachkala) is a very picturesque place that gets 300 sunny days per year. You can see this village a famous Aivazovsky painting. Here you can visit the ruins of the Gunib fortress, the Tsar meadow where Alexander II held negotiations with the leader of highlander tribes led by Shamil and other interesting spots.
In Lower Gunib are remains of the Russian fortress used in the Caucasus War. Preserved walls extend for over three kilometers and end at a deep chasm. The Baryatinsky gates of the fortress are also preserved. One one of the main attractions is a rotunda on the site of the capture of Shamil. This place is situated in Upper Gunib on the royal meadow (as it was called later) in the birch forest. The Rotunda’s large stone inscription reads: "upon this rock sat Marshal Baryatinsky taking prisoner Shamil." The village of Gunib has a preserved two-storey building shaped like a cross that is now a museum.
Chokh (10 kilometers from Gunib) is one of the oldest villages in Dagestan and in Russia. It has a very special history. Its past is closely linked with the Silk Road that passed through here. Chokh is an open air museum of architecture with authentic terraced houses in which the roof of one house is adjacent to the foundation of another.
Sogratl (35 kilometers from Gunib) is spread out on a mountain ridge above the Nukatl Tsamtichay River valley and is part of the historical region inhabited by Avars and Avaristan. The village appeared in the Middle Ages but around it are ancient burial grounds and sacred pagan place. Also, in the mountains there are caves with petroglyphs of the Mesolithic era. Residents of the village are engaged in traditional animal husbandry, beekeeping; traditional crafts: stone processing; and metal working. Prior to joining Russia in the mid 19th century Sogratl was one of the oldest educational centers in Avaristan. Some distance from the village is a stylized 16-meter tower, battle mosque and memorial complex of Vatan houses a museum dedicated to a 1741 battle — the Battle of Sagratlya or Andalalskaya — in which the Avars and other Highlanders defeated the forces of Iranian ruler Nadir Shah.
Gamsutl (accessible form Chokh) is a ghost village that is sort of reminiscent of some of the places in Cappedochia in Turkey: a bunch of rock dwellings set against a mountain. The houses are built of the bricks that are practically the same color as the surrounding rocks. The name is derived from Gamsutl Avar words “gamall” which means "at the foot of Khan's Fortress". Historians assume that some ancient Khans lived here or built its fortress or tower but neither the name of Khan or the time when the village was built is known.
Gamsutl is located on the top of the mountain, at an altitude of about 1500 meters above sea level where the surroundings below are clearly visible. The village is surrounded by cliffs and steep slopes, so to get here is not easy. Even so quite a number of people lived here. Even in the 20th century, it had shops, a school, a post office, a hospital and even a hospital. A mobile cinema came to the village from time for entertainment. But residents gradually left a better life and by the 1980s the village was deserted.
Getting There: The distance between Makhachkala and Gunib is 129 kilometers by highway and road. Between Gunib and Chokh it's about 10 kilometers via a dirt road. Once you're in Chokh, drive in the direction of Sogratl, the turn to Gamsutl will be on the right. Your car takes you for about 2 more kilometers (provided it's a four wheel drive), but then you have to climb up a steep mountain. Accommodation: In Gunib you can stay at the White Cranes hotel for 1500 rubles per night.
Karadakh Gorge (150 kilometers southwest of Makhachkala, between Khunzakhsky and Gunibsky Districts) is a gorge that is narrow visitors say it feels as of they are in a tunnel or a cave, as some places are almost completely dark. The gorge is 400 meters long and two to four meters wide, with walls that reach a height of 170 meters in some places.
The walls of the gorge appear to have been polished by flowing of water. At the top, the walls are very close together and sometimes even touch. There are places where huge boulders are stuck between the walls of the gorge. In the summer, it is cool and very quiet and it is easy to make an echo. Hardly anyone comes here in other seasons, because it is either full of water or covered with snow. In the spring, when the snow melts, the level of the water rises to four meters. If you visit in the summer make sure you are not in the gorge during a thunderstorm and a flash flood. The powerful stream of water is strong enough to move heavy boulders.
Karadakh Gorge (Karadakhskaya Tesnina) was created by the tumultous Kvartakh river going from the mountains to the Caspian Sea. The river bed went across the Karadakh ridge, and over millions of years it washed its way through it. For many years the stream washed through the mountain, carrying it away in tiny grains of sand, until a narrow crack was formed and with water erosion this crack grew bigger and bigger until it became a gorge. When hiking through the gorge you can see a narrow strip of sky above. At the exit from the gorge is a huge hive of wild bees, sitting at a height of about 50 meters. In the past, there was a ladder made of wedges pushed into the rock that people used to climb up and gather honey.
Getting There: From Gunib you take the asphalt road to the HPP where you make a left turn. Then you drive on a twisting dirt road for about 20 kilometers. Once you get to a bridge, right next to it, to the left from the road there will be a sign pointing to the entrance into the gorge.
Kubachi: the Aul of Daggers and Jewelry
Kubachi (170 kilometers south of Makhachkala) has been known for a long time for its jewelry. The village is first mentioned in 5th century chronicles and famous in medieval tomes for making chainmail and weapons. Today it specializes in wood and stone carving but is sought out by tourists seeking its goldsmiths and jewelry.
Kubachi Aul is situated at a height of 1,750 meters. Its oldest part looks like a typical mountain aul. Located on a steep slope, houses with beautiful terraces (usually 2-3 stories, but sometimes even 5-6 stories) are molded onto each other, forming a chaotic maze of narrow passages, staircases, and galleries. The flat roofs of the lower houses very often serve as patios of the houses above them. The streets are narrow, and there are still many old buildings and ancient towers, and architecturally designed springs for water.Around the village, there are many old tombstones covered with magnificent ornamental motifs and narrative compositions. These are monuments to the medieval culture of the Kubachi. Some of them are found in the jewelry.
The 17th-century mosque is situated in the lower part of the village. Since ancient times, Kubachi masters have forged magnificent swords, sabers, and daggers, and have produced all kinds of armor, including heavy and light chain armor. The secrets of craftsmanship were passed along in families. Entire dynasties were formed, many of which have survived to the present. Kubachi art reached a high degree of excellence already in the 13th-15th centuries. Their chain armor, helmets, swords, knives, copper utensils, and women's jewelry were famous far beyond the borders of the Caucasus and Persia.
In 1924, a jeweler guild was established. In 1960, it was transformed into an art factory, becoming the largest enterprise of folk arts and crafts, and a successor to the old masters. It mainly manufactured women's jewelry (earrings, bracelets, rings), as well as urban consumer goods (cigarette cases, spoons, elegant silverware). Of all the metalworking, only the manufacturing of daggers and swords has been preserved. Many Kubachi works have repeatedly received awards at national and international exhibitions, and some masters have received the State Prize.
Unique works of Kubachi art are part of collections of major museums in Russia and abroad, including the State Historical Museum and the Russian Museum of Decorative and Applied Folk Art (Moscow), the Louvre (Paris), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).
Kubachins proudly say that the two-horned helmet of Iskander Zulkurnaya (this is how mountaineers called Alexander the Great) was fashioned by them. The sword given to Mstislav and the shield of Alexander Nevsky had no equals. Accommodation: Kubachi offers bed and breakfast guest houses starting at 1400 rubles per night.
Tabasaran: Dagestan’s Carpet Weaving Center
Tabasaran District (170 kilometers south of Makhachkala, west of Derbent) is a center of traditional carpet making . Many auls (villages) here produce artisanal carpets of incredible beauty and matchless pattern. The art of carpet weaving is a traditional craft of Dagestan dating back centuries. Secrets of the trade are passed down the generations from mother to daughter, while patterns and compositions are being perfected. Carpet weaving is the most popular artisanal trade in Dagestan. It received a significant development boost during the twenties and thirties, when the guild of individual weavers was reformed into a number of cooperatives.
Handmade carpets are the national pride of Dagestan. They are highly cherished as family heirlooms. These carpets are extremely sturdy and durable, with many lasting as long as 250 to 300 years. They come in a variety of colors, they vary in density, pile height, hue and composition. Pattern and size variations are countless as well. Carpets are products of a perennially popular, indigenous craft. They bear the tradition and technology carefully preserved since centuries ago. They are widely used in interior decoration, in homes and public establishments alike. They match well to any style of furniture, creating a homelike look. Dagestan carpet patterns are based on geometrical ornaments created to resemble outlines of familiar animals, birds and plants.
Nowadays it's possible to create carpets with elaborate graphic patterns. Portraits, landscapes, depictions of famous buildings and people, even random photographs can be made into carpets now. One can obtain carpets with tridimensional impression, as well as completely pileless carpets. Stark contrast of warm and cool colors emphasized by contouring is characteristic. Patterns executed in this way are vibrant and elegant.
Tabasaran carpets can be found in museums of New York, Paris, Montreal, Osaka, Leipzig, Milan, Tokyo, and other major cities. These carpets match the highest world standards in quality. They are routinely exhibited internationally and domestically, and they have been awarded numerous prizes and medals. Highest praises were attained in 1958 in Brussels and in 1967 at the Leipzig exhibition fair. The world came to know these carpets dubbed as Tabasaran, Derbent, Akhty, and Mikrakh. Beauty and radiance emanating from Tabasaran carpets amazed the visitors of the “Moscow and Regions 2000" Economic and Cultural Collaboration Festival that took place at the VVC in late August 2000. Dagestan carpets were awarded gold in the Folk arts and crafts category of the 2000 Best goods of Russia contest. In 2000, Dagestan carpets were victorious at the All-russian award show “100 best goods in Russia” in the handmade carpet category. This contest was held by the Russian State Committee of Standardization, the Quality Problems Academy, and the “Standard and Quality” information agency.
In times of old, carpets passed quality control in three steps. First a newly weaved carpet was laid under the hooves of a horse herd; then it was exposed to the blistering sunlight for several days; finally, it was immersed in water and left there for a while. Should the carpet pass these trials unchanged, it was declared an excellent piece of work by the creator.
Itsari Village (130 kilometers south of Makhachkala) in Dakhadayevsky District contains an impressive defensive tower. The tower is located on the ledge of the mountain above the settlement. On three sides there are steep slopes. On the fourth side in an eight-meter ditch. Currently it is the largest surviving round towers of the North Caucasus. It is a cone-shaped structure tapering upward from an exemplary dating the 14th century. The main purpose of the tower was defense. It was built to deal with both the foreign invaders and neighboring tribes, an Arabic inscription on the wall of the tower says, "who burned crops and stole cattle"
Resembling a European-style crenelated tower, the tower in Itsari served simultaneously as signaling tower and guard tower. The wall at the base is about two meters thick; the inner diameter there is about seven meters. On the south side, directed to the village, at the level of second floor is an entrance gate with oak door. A ladder, which could easily be removed, was used to reach the gate. On the 4th floor is a viewing window. Toward the north side of the tower, there are about 20 loopholes — five each at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors — with narrow slits for firing arrows and bullet that expand inward and can accommodate three to four archers shootng at one time.
A defensive system employed two groups: the first group of sentinels sitting in the tower; and a second group that kept an eye on the road. The village gates were locked in the evening. According to one story, an army led by Shah Abbas of Persia burned all the surrounding crops so the villagers of Itsari had nothing to eat except for what they had stored bu the invaders could not take the village or the tower. .The tower once had five floors and reached a height of 18 meters. In 1990 it had 3.5 floors. Beginning in 1991, restoration work was carried out save the tower from further destruction restore the 4th floor.
Tindi Village and Juma Mosque
Tindi (180 kilometers west of Makhachkala) is situated deep in the mountains of Dagestan. The Tindi people converted to Islam in about 1350. When the towns main mosque — Juma mosque — was built is not known. According to local residents, the mosque was built about 17th century. An inscription on one of the minarets reads “Juma mosque of Aknady master in 1247 Hijra” (1831-1832).
Tindi is one of the oldest and largest villages in Dagestan,. The Tindi people called themselves "Idar". Tindi was traditionally divided into two parts. The upper village of Ahaganla is said to have been founded in the middle of the A.D. 2nd century. In it resided the founders and their descendants. The lower village of Gikisa was located on steep cliffs near the river. Its inhabitants were migrants who arrived during a later period. The two settlements were often at odds with one another. At night, the entrance to the villages were shut and with bronze gates.
Tindinskaya Mosque is a fine examples of Highland. architecture. Initially, it played the role of a protective fortress of Ahaganla. At the bottom of the mosque is a secret passageway to the river where the gorge was spanned by a bridge. It appears Juma mosque at first was a Christian church with pagan features such as a place of sacrifice.
Main Caucasus Ridge and Russia’s Southernmost Town
Kurush (300 kilometers south of Makhachkala) is a mountain village in southern Dagestan. Situated at 2530 meters above sea level, it is the highest continuously inhabited settlement of the Greater Caucasus and of Europe and the southernmost settlement in Russia. About 813 people live there. Mountains surround Kurush from all sides. The massive 4,467-meter-high Bazarduzu is to the south. Below the village is Kurushvats river.
Caucasus Mountains are the highest mountains in Europe. Stretching between the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, forming an almost impassible natural barrier between Russia and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus range is regarded, along with the Urals, as a dividing line between Asia and Europe. The name Caucasus comes from the Greek word Kaukasos, derived perhaps from Karkaz, the Hittite name for people living along the Black Sea.
The Caucasus are beautiful mountains filled with forests, snow-capped peaks and Alpine lakes. It boasts eight mountains higher than the highest mountains in the Alps. A member of a British expedition that explored the mountains in 1874 wrote that in "in appearance and inaccessibility and in boldness of form they are beyond the Alps, and probably, when they are better known, they will be thought grander and more majestic than the Alps."
The Caucasus Mountains are rugged, of volcanic origin and young. They are believed to be about 25 million years old. The range is relatively small in term of area it covers but in terms if relief they are one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. Bazardyuzyu is the highest point of Dagestan. Pyramid-shaped Nesendag Mountain (3928 meters) is not as tall but is regarded as more beautiful and more challenging for mountain climbers. Nearby are Ragdan (4020 meters) and Yarydag (4116 meters).
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in September 2020