The Republic of Dagestan (older spelling Daghestan) is a republic of the Russian Federation, and is the southernmost part of Russia.
The word Dagestan means “land of mountains,” it is derived from the Turkic word dağ meaning mountain and Persian suffix stan, meaning “land of.”
Dagestan borders the Republic of Kalmykia to the north, the Chechen Republic to the west, Stavropol Krai to the northwest, Azerbaijan to the south, Georgia to the south-west, and the Caspian Sea to the east.
Some call it the gateway to the Caucasus, others the bridge between Europe and Asia, the Russian republic of Dagestan is the southern boundary of the Russian Federation. It’s the birthplace of nearly 30 different indigenous tribes, and 102 nationalities now call it home. Experience the music, tradition and culture of the land where two great civilizations and a hundred cultures clash and blend.
A lack of archaeological data makes it difficult to be specific about the history of the ethnic groups that occupy Dagestan. The earliest written records date from ancient Georgia and Armenia. Mountain dwellers have lived in remote areas scarcely accessible by the outside world, but isolation did not protect the region from invaders. It is possible to depict the ancient history of the region by describing the various societies that have occupied the territory.
Approximate extent of Scythia and Sarmatia in the first century B.C.E.
The Scythians, a nation of horse-riding nomadic pastoralists who spoke an Iranian languages dominated the Pontic steppe, a vast area stretching from north of the Black Sea as far as the east of the Caspian Sea, from around 770 B.C.E. to 660 C.E. During the fifth to third centuries B.C.E., the Scythians evidently prospered, obtaining their wealth from their control over the slave trade from the north to Greece, although they also grew grain, and shipped wheat, flocks, and cheese to Greece.
Westward expansion brought the Scythians into conflict with Philip II of Macedon (who reigned from 359 to 336 B.C.E.), who took military action against the Scythians in 339 B.C.E. Scythian leader Ateas died in battle and his empire disintegrated. In the aftermath of this defeat, the Celts seem to have displaced the Scythians from the Balkans, while in south Russia a kindred tribe, the Sarmatians, gradually overwhelmed them.
The Sarmatians were a people originally of Iranian stock. Mentioned by classical authors, they migrated from Central Asia to the Ural Mountains around the fifth century B.C.E. and eventually settled in most of southern European Russia and the eastern Balkans. The Sarmatians flourished from the time of Herodotus and allied partly with the Huns when they arrived in the fourth century C.E. Herodotus describes the Sarmatians’ physical appearance as blond, stout and tanned—much as the Scythians and Thracians were seen by the other classical authors.
Caucasian Albanians were one of the Ibero-Caucasian peoples, the ancient and indigenous population of modern southern Dagestan and Azerbaijan. Its capital was at Derbent, a city situated on a thin strip of land (three kilometres) between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. Other important centers were at Chola, Toprakh Qala, and Urtseki. The northern parts were held by a confederation of pagan tribes.
In 65 B.C.E., the Roman general Pompey invaded Albania at the head of his army. Between 83 and 93 C.E., in the reign of Domitian, a detachment of the Legio XII Fulminata was sent to the Caucasus to support the allied kingdoms of Iberia and Albania in a war against Parthia. During the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138) Albania was invaded by the Alans, an Iranian nomadic group.
In 252-253 C.E., Caucasian Albania along with Iberia and Armenia was conquered by the Persian Sassanid Empire (226-651). In the middle of the fourth century, the king of Albania was baptized by Gregory the Illuminator, but Christianity spread in Albania only gradually, and the Albanian king remained loyal to the Sassanids.
Sassanian king Yazdegerd II passed an edict requiring all the Christians in his empire to convert to Mazdaism, (a form of Zoroastrianism) fearing that Christians might ally with the Roman Empire, which had recently adopted Christianity. This led to rebellion of Albanians, along with Armenians and Iberians. In a battle that took place in 451 in the Avarayr field, the allied forces of the Armenian, Albanian and Iberian kings, devoted to Christianity, suffered defeat at the hands of the Sassanid army. Many of the Albanian nobility ran to the mountainous regions of Albania, particularly to Artsakh (which became Ngorno-Karabakh), which became a center for resistance to Sassanid Iran.
In the fifth century, the Sassanids constructed a strong citadel at Derbent, known henceforward as the Caspian Gates.
Arab and Seljuk domination
In the middle of the seventh century C.E., Arabs overran the kingdom and, like all Islamic conquests at the time, incorporated it into the Caliphate. The Albanian king Javanshir, the most prominent ruler of Mihranid dynasty, fought against the Arab invasion of caliph Uthman on the side of the Sassanid Persia. Facing the threat of the Arab invasion on the south and the Khazar offensive on the north, Javanshir had to recognize the Caliph’s suzerainty. The Arabs then reunited the territory with Armenia under one governor.
From the eighth century, Caucasian Albania existed as the principalities of Arranshahs and Khachin, along with various Caucasian, Iranian and Arabic principalities: the Principality of Shaddadids, the Principality of Shirvan, the Principality of Derbent, among others. Most of the region was ruled by the Sajid Dynasty of Azerbaijan from 890 to 929.
Although the local population rose against the Arabs of Derbent in 905 and 913, Islam was eventually adopted in urban centers, such as Samandar and Kubachi (Zerechgeran), from where it steadily penetrated into the highlands.
The northern part of Dagestan was overrun by the Huns, followed by the Eurasian Avars. Known as Sarir, this Avar-dominated medieval Christian state lasted from the fifth century to the twelfth century in the mountainous Central Dagestan highlands. Its name is derived from the Arabic word for “throne” and refers to a golden throne which was viewed as a symbol of royal authority.
Sarir neighbored the Khazars to the north, the Alans to the east, the Georgians and Derbent to the south. As the state was Christian, Arab historians erroneously viewed it as a dependency of the Byzantine Empire. The capital of Sarir was the city of Humradzh, tentatively identified with the modern-day village Khunzakh. The king resided in a remote fortress at the top of a mountain. Due to Muslim pressure and internal disunity, Sarir disintegrated in the early twelfth century, giving way to the Avar Khanate. By the fifteenth century, Albanian Christianity had died away, leaving a tenth century church at Datuna as the sole monument to its existence.
An approximate map of the cultures in European Russia at the arrival of the Varangians in the ninth century.
Khazaria, also known as Khazar khaganate or Khazar khanate was the country of the Khazars, neighboring the Byzantine Empire in the southwest, Kievan Rus’ in the northwest, Volga Bulgaria in the north, and Azerbaijan in the southeast. This Turkic people adopted Judaism in the eighth or ninth century, becoming the only Jewish state ever without Abrahamic descent. As an independent state, Khazaria existed between about 652 and 1016. Its supreme ruler was known by the title khagan. Its last khagan was named George Tsul. Much of Khazaria was covered by steppe land. Khazaria bordered the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. The Volga River (known as Atil) passed through eastern Khazaria.
The Avar Khanate was a long-lived Muslim state which controlled Central Dagestan from the early thirteenth century to the nineteenth century. Following the downfall of the Christian kingdom of Sarir in the early twelfth century, the Caucasian Avars, who had migrated there from Khwarezm, underwent a process of peaceful Islamization.
Military tensions escalated in 1222, when the region was invaded by the pagan Mongols under Subutai, the primary strategist and general of Genghis Khan. Although the Avars pledged their support to Muhammad II of Khwarezm in his struggle against the Mongols, there is no documentation for the Mongol invasion of the Avar lands.
The Khanate of Avaristan survived Tamerlane’s raid in 1389.
As the Mongol authority gradually eroded, new centres of power emerged in Kaitagi and Tarki. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, legal traditions were codified, mountainous communities (djamaats) obtained a considerable degree of autonomy, while the Kumyk potentates (shamhals) asked for the Tsar’s protection.
In the eighteenth century, the steady weakening of Tarki fostered the ambitions of the Avar khans, whose greatest coup was the defeat of the 100,000-strong army of Nadir Shah of Persia in September 1741. Avar sovereigns managed to expand their territory at the expense of free communities in Dagestan and Chechnya.
The reign of Umma-Khan (1774-1801) marked the zenith of the Avar ascendancy in the Caucasus. Among the potentates who paid tribute to Umma-Khan were the rulers of Derbent, Shaki, Quba, Baku, Shirvan, Akhaltsikhe, and even Erekle II of Georgia.
Russia-Persia borders before and after the treaty.
Dagestani man, photographed circa 1909 to 1915 by Prokudin-Gorskii and reproduced through digichromatography.
Leaders of the MRNC with prime minister Tapa Tchermoeff front row center.
Russians intensified their hold in the region in the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great annexed maritime Dagestan in the course of the First Russo-Persian War (1722-23). Although the territories were returned to Persia in 1735, the Persian Expedition of 1796, resulted in the Russian capture of Derbent in 1796.
In 1803, within two years after Umma-Khan’s death, the khanate voluntarily submitted to Russian authority, but it took Persia a decade to recognize all of Dagestan as the Russian possession (Treaty of Gulistan in 1813). Yet the Russian administration disappointed and embittered freedom-loving highlanders. Heavy taxation, coupled with the expropriation of estates and the construction of fortresses, electrified the Avar population into rising under the aegis of the radical Muslim Imamate, led by Ghazi Mohammed (1828-32), Gamzat-bek (1832-34), and Shamil (1834-59).
The Caucasian Wars of 1718–1864, was a series of military actions waged by the Russian Empire against a number of territories and tribal groups in Caucasia including Chechnya, Dagestan, and the Adyghe (Circassians) as Russia sought to expand southward. The Russian invasion was met with fierce resistance, notably led by Ghazi Mollah, Gamzat-bek and Hadji Murad.
Imam Shamil followed them. He led the mountaineers from 1834. In 1845, Shamil’s forces achieved their most dramatic success when they withstood a major Russian offensive. Imperial Russia was distracted by the Crimean War (1853–1856). The Caucasian War raged until 1864, when Shamil was captured, when the Avar Khanate was abolished, and the Avar District was instituted instead. Shamil remained the figurehead of Dagestani nationalism.
In the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), Russia sought to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea by capturing the Balkan Peninsula from the Ottoman Empire. Dagestan and Chechnya profited from this to rise against Imperial Russia for the last time.
During the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), the region became part of the Republic of the Mountaineers of the North Caucasus (1917–1920), a short-lived state situated in the Northern Caucasus, later forming the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia-Alania, and Dagestan, of the Russian Federation. With a population of about one million, its capital was initially at Vladikavkaz, then Nazran and finally Buynaksk.
After more than three years of fighting White movement reactionaries and local nationalists, the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was proclaimed on January 20, 1921.