From kyurins to lezgins
Mt. Shalbuzdag. Dagestan

Avar Lezgin. Dagestan Oblast. Late 19th – early 20th century The Avar Lezgin caption reflects the discrepancy between the meanings of the Lezgin ethnonym as used in the 19th and early 20th century, on the one hand, and at the present time, on the other. Apparently, Lezgin used to be a common designation for any Dagestanian mountain dweller, whereas Avar is generally an Avar language speaker.

Married young Lezgin woman in silk attire. Dagestan Oblast. Late 19th – early 20th century

‘From Kyurins to Lezgins’ is an online multimedia exhibition and a part of the ‘Land of Diversity’ project created by Sardar S. Sardarov. 

‘Land of Diversity’ is a story of peoples living in various natural, historical and cultural conditions. A story that shows how humans master earthly spaces with the help of crafts, trades, ritual practices and perception of the world creating a unique cultural landscape.

Since 2010, ‘Land of Diversity’ has carried out eight ethnographic expeditions and published seven books about: the Russian Old Believers of Altai, the Kirghiz of the Tien Shan, the Khanty and Mansi of Western Siberia, the peoples of the Pamirs and Southern Caucasus, the Russian population of Spitsbergen, and finally the Lezgins of Dagestan and Azerbaijan. Each book is a separate visual adventure with it’s own story and author's interpretation.

The online multimedia exhibition ‘From Kyurins to Lezgins’ is based on the seventh book in the ‘Land of Diversity’ series. It juxtaposes archival findings from the funds of the Russian Ethnographic Museum, modern ethnographic research, fascinating audio stories and facts from the lives of the peoples of the Caucasus.

The story focuses on the Lezgins, one of the many peoples of Eastern Caucasus, descendants of the ancient population of Southern Dagestan. While at the end of the 19th—beginning of the 20th centuries, the name ‘Lezgins’ was associated with all Dagestani-speaking mountaineers of the Caucasus, nowadays, things have changed. The Rutuls, Aguls, Tsakhurs, Udins, Khinalugs and some other related peoples distinguish themselves from the Lezgins per se: through practices and narratives each of them have found their own ethnic identity. However, all of them are united by the common history, centuries-old cultural and trade ties, and good-neighborliness. In this sense, the exhibition provides an opportunity to see both the general ‘Lezgin-ness’ of the mountain population of Southern Dagestan and Northern Azerbaijan, as well as the distinctive features of each nation’s culture that form a unique local charm.

‘From Kyurins to Lezgins’ makes the past and the present collide. On the one hand, it shows a collection of unique late 19th—mid-20th century monochrome photographs from the Russian Ethnographic Museum, one of the world’s largest of its kind. On the other, colourful pictures of the modern day life of Eastern Caucasus taken by the experts on the area — Evgenia Gulyaeva (Russian Ethnographic Museum) and Ekaterina Kapustina (Kunstkamera), and photographer Mikhail Solonenko.

Such a contrast lets you discover both the continuity of cultural landscapes and the dynamics of their transformations. Ethnographic observations of the expedition members, excerpts from the descriptions of travelers and researchers, and statements of the locals themselves serve as commentaries to the photographs and help expose the visual patterns even better.

D.A. Baranov,

Academic Advisor for ‘Land of Diversity’,

Ph.D.in History,

Head of Department of Russian Ethnography at the Russian Ethnographic Museum

The Samur gorge. Dagestan

A group of women from the village of Kryz. Quba Uyezd. Baku Guberniya. 1880s. Kryz

The Caucasus, striking for its natural and cultural diversity, has always been an area of large-scale human transmigrations and epoch-making historic developments. It saw the rise and fall of nations and numerous battles for the right of landed property in this or that part of the Caucasus, where empires fought long and hard for imposing their protectorship on other countries or annexing settlements, be they affluent towns or remote gorge villages of difficult access. As a result, the history of most Caucasian peoples is confused and enigmatic, filled with heroism and drama. Local history has become an integral part of cultural memory, invariably exciting people’s interest, recurring in discussions, stirring up routine disputes, and serving as the main topic of conversation with strangers. A knowledge of local history is therefore held in high esteem. Close attention to the past predictably resulted in the formation of local schools of research, some of which have had a considerable influence on Russian research tradition. The Dagestan school of Oriental studies, in particular, has developed a reputation for research into local written sources.

According to archaeological evidence, the areas populated by the Lezgins and Lezgic-speaking peoples were inhabited as early as the Upper Paleolithic. Their history is linked to Caucasian Albania, one of the region’s most powerful kingdoms between the 1st century BC and the 8th century AD.

The Lezgins went on record in written documents during the Early Middle Ages. Ninth and tenth-century Arabic sources mention “the Kingdom of the Lakz” located in southern Dagestan. After the fall of Caucasian Albania the areas currently populated by speakers of Lezgic languages were ceded to, or recognized the protectorship of, the Islamic Caliphate, Khazaria and Persia. In the 18th century, Russia began to compete with Turkey and Iran in the Caucasus, her envoys establishing contacts with the upper crust of the local Derbent, Quba, Sheki and other khanates as well as historical “free societies”: Akhtypara, Dokuzpara, Djaro-Belokan. Following a series of complicated political games and violent military clashes during the Caucasian War these lands were annexed to the Russian Empire. Some of the historic events still evoke an emotional response with so many people. For instance, local residents are still willing to tell stories about Nader Shah’s plunderous invasion and the battles of the Caucasus Campaign.

Russian Empire’s military men, civil servants and travelers used to apply the Lezgin designation to all non-Turkic peoples of Southern and Central Dagestan (although the Avars of Northern Dagestan were chiefly referred to as Tavlins). It is worthy of note that Lezgins themselves were known as Kyurins, the name related to that of the Kyurin Khanate (subsequently okrug). The presentday name, Lezgins, derives from the Lezgiyar self-designation (sing. Lezgi).

A group of men from the village of Khinalug (now Khynalyk). Quba Uyezd. Baku Guberniya. 1880s. Khynalyks

The formation, in the 20th century, of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic and the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic legalized the administrative division of Lezgic-speaking ethnicities. In the mid-20th century, the Lezgic-speaking peoples were not immune to the all-Dagestan process of the mountain dwellers’ centralized relocation to the plains, including not only southern Dagestan’s plains, but also northern Dagestan. Therefore, a Lezginian village, Kurush, duplicating the name of the mountain village in the Dokuzpara District, sprang up in the Khasavyurt District, whereas the Rutul village of Noviy Borch sprang up in the Babayurt District. A similar process involved the population of mountain villages in Azerbaijan.

Dagestan Lezgins believe that under Abdurakhman Daniyalov (1908–1981), Dagestan’s actual leader in the 1940s through 1960s, the numbers of the Lezgin population figures were deliberately diminished, if only because the Rutuls, Tsakhurs, and Aguls were no longer counted as Lezgins. Thus the political proportion of Lezgins lessened. Interestingly, this belief has been further sustained, for some of the Dagestan Lezgins assert that their influence was reduced yet again when the state frontier was defined between Russia and Azerbaijan.

In the present-day Caucasus, the Lezgic-speaking peoples inhabit densely the valleys and gorges of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range close to the Azerbaijan–Russian border. The Lezgin world’s main waterway is definitely the Samur River. Lezgins per se live in its lower and middle reaches (where the tallest mountains of the East Caucasus are situated: Bazarduzu, Shalbuzdag and Shahdag, to name only a few), and also northward in the valleys of the Kurakhchai, Gulgerychai and other rivers.

The headstream area of the Samur River is inhabited by Rutuls and Tsakhurs. They also live on the opposite slope of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range in Azerbaijan. Aguls inhabit the northwest parts of the Kurakh canyon and the Chiraghchai River catchment area. In Azerbaijan, apart from the Samur valley, Lezgins live in the area of the Qusarchai River. In the mountains close to the Dagestan border, they are neighboured by small Lezgic-speaking ethnic communities: Budug, Kryz, Djeks, as well as Khynalyks (described collectively as Shahdag peoples). Areas west of the Qusar Lezgins and Shahdag peoples on the opposite side of the Greater Caucasus are inhabited by Lezgins and Udins, the areas densely populated by the latter being the village of Nidj and partly the town of Oguz, former Vartashen. Lezgic peoples also live in Makhachkala, Baku and other towns in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. A considerable proportion of Lezgins live in West Siberia’s oil and gas production areas (such as the town of Pokachi, the Khanty-Mansy Autonomous Area, where Lezgins account for 5.5 per cent of the population), which is due, among other things, to the Lezgin population’s long-standing experience in the operation of oil extracting enterprises in the towns of Baku and Sumgait.

The Lezgins are one of Dagestan’s most numerous ethnic groups. According to the 2010 census, they totalled about 385,000, or 13 per cent of the republic’s population, their numbers in the entire Russian Federation totalling about 476,000. In Azerbaijan’s official statistics of 2009, Lezgins were on record as the second largest ethnic group after Azerbaijanis, accounting for approximately two per cent of the country’s population totalling about 180,000. They are nonuniformly settled along the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range: in the Qusar District, Lezgins account for over 90 per cent of the population as against ca. 50 per cent in the Gabala District. Other Lezgin communities are much smaller; e.g., in Russia there are about 35,000 Rutuls and 13,000 Tsakhurs, with approximately the same numbers in Azerbaijan. Practically all Lezgic-speaking groups are Sunni Muslims (excepting a Shia minority living in the Dagestanian village of Miskinja).

In 2016, the UNES CO classified the Lezgic language as “Vulnerable”. In the areas where Lezgins make up the majority of the population, it is the principal everyday language, but in Dagestanian and Russian towns it cedes ground to Russian, and in Azerbaijan, to Azerbaijani. The spheres of literary language use as prescribed during the Soviet era have been shrinking lately notwithstanding the efforts aimed at its support. The state of other Lezgic languages is pretty much the same.

The linguistic and cultural affinity, history and present-day living environment of peoples inhabiting Southern Dagestan (it should be noted in particular that the region, which has always interacted with the South Caucasus’ countries, now feels relegated to the periphery of Dagestan’s political life: the accepted unspoken rule of the ethnic groups’ parity has been breached in the last few years to the disfavour of Southern Dagestan, colloquially termed “Yuzhdag”, a Russian coinage from Yuzhny, i.e. Southern, Dagestan) have given rise to the so-called “Yuzhdag identity.”

Inhabitants of Dagestan’s other regions also set Yuzhdag apart and share a whole set of stereotypes about it. That part of Dagestan is associated with the notions of “warm” and “mild”, which characterize both the local climate and the people’s nature. Indeed, apples ripen earlier in the Samur valley than in other parts of Dagestan, but on the other hand, close to that same Samur, there are some highland villages, e.g. Kurush, where apples may not grow at all; moreover, the forbidding Bazarduzu and Shalbuzdag peaks can be covered with snow even in July.

At rather an early stage, Southern Dagestan was drawn into the orbit of significant Caucasian towns close by: Derbent, an important trading hub, and especially Baku (where Dagestanian mountain dwellers had long been engaged in oil production). Its population, therefore, adopted features of Azerbaijan communicative culture with a focus on marked politeness and a tendency for the resolution of conflicts through negotiations rather than the use of physical force. Yet the Lezgins, like other Caucasian peoples, place a high value on martial prowess and personal valour. Unsurprisingly, one of the Lezgin culture symbols is the national epic about the hero-knight Sharvili. Inhabitants of the eastern part of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range took an active part in all military clashes in the region: they were valiant defenders of their homeland while threatening their neighbours and raiding the valleys of the South Caucasus. It is worthy of note that in Azerbaijan, Lezgins are stereotypically regarded as hardedged and straightforward.

An image of a Lezgin as a high-mountain herdsman is part of the lowlanders’ stereotype of a mountain dweller as such. Indeed, cattle breeding and especially distant-pasture cattle tending has always played a significant role in the economy of the highland Lezgic peoples: it is no coincidence that one of the sheep breeds most popular in the Caucаsus is called Lezgin. The life style of many settlements has been fully determined by distant-pasture cattle tending. The majority of villagers used to spend winters in the valleys of Azerbaijan descending there with their flocks.

Many sheepherders subsequently settled or were relocated there. Even today this kind of life style is characteristic of some villages. At the same time, the fertile soil of the Caucasus Ridge foothills predetermined the high culture of crop farming in those areas, as is indicated by the terraced fields. Areas now inhabited by Lezgins are famous for their fruit and nut orchards. Akhty apples, for example, have become the area’s specialty, while Zaqatala hazelnuts are highly prized worldwide.

The scarcity of Dagestan’s natural resources enhanced the significance of art crafts and cottage industries for the traditional rural economy. Many villages and ethnic communities are famous for their skilled artisans. Andians for example, are known for making burka felt cloaks, Laks used to be skilful tinkers, the villagers of Kubachi and Kumukh have a reputation as silversmiths, etc.

Lezgins have always been recognized as carpet weavers. This is a well-earned reputation. Wherever Lezgins settled, the women would make rugs, both pile and napless, Lezgin sumakhs standing out among the latter. In the Soviet times, teams of female weavers were organized and even carpet factories set up in a number of villages. During the post-Soviet period, however, the local rug making craft has declined. The reason is not only that the Soviet rug production and sale system has ceased to exist, but also that the local people no longer believe in the value of hand-made carpets in a situation where demand is satisfied by cheap Turkish and Chinese products. Mass-produced rugs and carpets can be seen ever more frequently even in the homes of former carpet weavers themselves.

A flattering stereotype presents Lezgins as an educated ethnic group from whose midst came a large number of scholars. In fact, a good education allows a mountain dweller to build a successful career in town and avoid the prospect of exhausting agricultural labour. There is a standing joke among Azerbaijanian Tsakhurs that a high proportion of educated people among them is due to the fact that they have to choose between studying and becoming shepherds. An important role in the advancement of learning was played by the population’s early integration into the Caucasus’ urban culture, especially in Baku, chiefly owing to seasonal work. Yesterdays’ peasants became workers, revolutionaries, politicians, poets and actors. It was near Baku that the Lezgin theatre originated.

Yet another local stereotype, on a more mundane level, is that Lezgin families are dominated by women. However, it is worth mentioning that in the Caucasus highland urban environment women have long enjoyed more rights and freedoms than their counterparts in the valleys. The general view is that this results from a greater degree of the highland women’s involvement in all spheres of the economy.

Associated with Lezgins is the lezginka dance, although the term is somewhat loose, applying as it does to a highlander dance type characteristic of, but not limited to the Lezgins. The ethnonym has traversed the boundaries of Dagestan’s highlands, forming such coinages a Chechen lezginka, a Georgian lezginka, etc.

Lezgic-speaking peoples did not share the same destiny. They have settled in numerous gorges and valleys, entering various, permanently changing administrative divisions and countries. Even today, they are often separated by natural geographic and present-day political boundaries.

As a result, although today nobody refers to all mountain dwellers of the Eastern Caucasus as Lezgins any more, to an outside observer they might look like a relatively uniform community. Therefore, the visual images depicting various ethnic groups on the pages of the same book allow the reader to see both the shared “Lezginianness” of South Dagestan’s and Northern Azerbaijan’s mountain dwellers and the distinctive features forming the unique quality of the local cultural landscapes.

Ye.Yu. Guliayeva and Ye.L. Kapustina
Road to the village of Khynalyk. Azerbaijan
View of the Samur River valley. Dagestan
Orta-Kapy gate. Derbent. Dagestan Oblast. 1880s

The Samur is Dagestan’s second largest river. Its torrent forms part of the state frontier between Russia and Azerbaijan, a considerable proportion of the Lezginian population living on either side. It is believed that the name of this waterway translates from Rutul as ‘one river’ or ‘the river that has become one’. Another version is mentioned by L.I. Lavrov: “The local residents derive the name of the Samur River from the Lezgic word ‘tsmur’ meaning ‘a marten’ and insist that the now bare slopes of the nearby mountains used to be covered with woods harbouring martens. Some also say that in the 18th century Lezgins gave Nader Shah a marten coat.”

L.I. Lavrov. The Ethnography of the Caucasus. L., 1982. P. 80 (in Russian)
The Samur River valley. Dagestan