Villagers. Dagestan Oblast.

Late 19th – early 20th century. Lezgins

Present-day Derbent, no matter how small by Russian standards, is a centre of attraction for migrants from South Dagestan’s mountain areas and is regarded as its unofficial capital.

By the late 19th century Derbent had become one of the Dagestan Oblast’s largest towns, whose dwellers settled between the citadel and the railway running along the sea shore. The town stood out for its ethnic diversity. Azerbaijanis, formerly referred to as Caucasian (also known as Transcaucasian, Aderbaijan or Azerbeijan) Tatars, who were Shiah Muslims, would settle close to the fortress walls. The central area was inhabited by the Armenian and Jewish communities, and the area close to the railway, by the Russian community. Derbent was a multireligious town, as was testified by the functioning Russian Orthodox church and cathedral (the latter demolished in 1938), the Armenian church (now housing the Museum of Local History), the synagogue and a few mosques, one of them dating back to the 8th century.

View of the citadel. Derbent. Dagestan Oblast. 1880s

Hadji. Dagestan Oblast.

Late 19th – early 20th century. Lezgins

The specific use of the Lezgin designation during the late 19th and early 20th century does not allow determining the ethnicity of the men depicted. Notably, it was not only the ethnic group designations that were different at that time, but also the perception of ethnicity as such.

The earliest census carried out in 1897 did not mention this category at all, focusing as it did on faith, language and other details. The people of Dagestan themselves were more concerned with their local and religious self-identity.

A family from the village of Mamedkala. Derbent District.

Mamedkala is ethnically the most diverse settlement in South Dagestan. The local Aliyev Winemaking sovkhoz employed natives of various villages, Azerbaijanian, Darginian and Lezginian. The notion of ethnic identity mattered less for the mutual relations in this locality than elsewhere in Dagestan.

Malik is a jeweller by profession. The most profitable of his commissions are wedding ornaments, as the groom’s family are supposed to give expensive jewellery to the bride and her female relations. New ornaments are often made rom old ones, no longer regarded as fashionable. Jewellers are looked up to as connoisseurs and judges of traditional art; therefore, local people frequently offer them old Dagestanian utensils. Malik has thus accumulated a fine collection, turning his house into a veritable museum. The village of Mamedkala

Young woman. Dagestan Oblast. Late 19th – early 20th century. Lezgins

During the late 19th and early 20th century the Lezgin woman’s costume included a long cotton shirt-like dress and a pair of shalwars worn with a lined buttonless garment, close-fitting at the top and flared at the bottom. In some areas it was customary to wear a short kaftan over the shirt-like dress. Ornaments and a belt served as accessories. The traditional baggy headgear covering the hair was known as shutk’u and worn under a large square shawl. The footwear worn indoors included richly ornamented knitted woolen kemechar socks and shatalar stockings with sewn-on morocco soles. One-piece leather-hide shoes and galoshes worn with socks served for outdoor wear.

Derbent commands a strategically important location on a narrow strip of flatland between the sea and the mountains, which provides a convenient passage between the North and South Caucasus. It is at once apparent that the town is very old, but just how old is it? During the Soviet period its age was estimated at 2700 years, as was corroborated by written sources, primarily those dating from classical antiquity. In the early 2000s, however, the town celebrated its 5000th anniversary, based on the dating of the earliest settlements discovered in the Derbent area. Furthermore, in 2015 the town held a large-scale celebration of its… 2000th birthday. According to recent archaeological findings, this is exactly its age as an urban settlement. Although 3000 years younger than was originally believed, Derbent still remains Russia’s oldest town. As far back as the Antiquity period, it was known to be part of the Great Silk Road and changed hands more than once, coming under the dominance of Persia, the Islamic Caliphate and other states. In 1722 it was visited by Peter the Great during his Persian Campaign, and in 1813, under the Treaty of Gulistan, it was finally annexed to the Russian Empire.

View of the Naryn-Kala fortress and the fortress walls descending to the sea.

Derbent. Dagestan Oblast. 1880s

Men wearing sheepskin coats and tall papakha fur hats. Dagestan Oblast.

Late 19th – early 20th century. Lezgins

Young men exercising in the Mamedkala gym.

Migration processes in the latter half of the 20th century had a considerable impact on the area’s ethnic makeup. Practically all Jewish families abandoned the town, along with a large proportion of Armenian and Russian households. As a result, the population mostly consists of transmigrators from the rural areas of South and Central Dagestan. The most numerous group are Lezgins (about 34% in 2010), closely followed by Azerbaijanis (32%); there is also a tangible Tabasaran and Darginian presence.

Derbent. Dagestan Oblast. 1880s

The Lezginka dance often starts when the dancers are overwhelmed by emotions, particularly in a festive or victorious atmosphere. A school-leaving party is therefore a perfect occasion for it. Rejoicing on the streets of South Dagestan’s capital are school-leavers from Mamedkala who have arrived at Derbent to celebrate.

Khinkal is a traditional Dagestanian dish consisting of small lumps of dough cooked in meat broth and eaten with meat, a cup of broth and a variety of sauces, the most popular being tomato, garlic and sour cream ones. Khinkal is known in a number of varieties associated with particular ethnic groups in Dagestan: there are Avar khinkal, Darginial khinkal, Lak khinkal, etc. They differ in terms of the size and shape of dumplings and the dough recipe. Lezginian khinkal requires unleavened dough, rolled thin and cut into small squares. This variety is also known as thin khinkal, which the Kumyks also regard as their traditional specialty, which arouses never-ending arguments as to its “ethnic” origin. Incidentally, khinkal or khingal is also popular in Azerbaijan, particularly in its northern areas.

Suleyman Stalsky. Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. 1930s

The State Lezginian Music and Drama Theatre is named for Suleyman Stalsky. Its history has largely been shaped by Farukh, the Baku society of Lezginian workers. The first production was shown in Surakhany in 1905 and thereafter in the village of Akhty. Thus two closely linked troupes were formed, the Surakhan and the Akhty companies. The former perfomed during autumn and winter, and the latter during spring and summer. The Surakhany company was active until 1939. The Akhty company was transferred to Derbent in 1949. It staged classical and modern plays, making a point of popularizing literary Lezgic. It is worthy of note that Azerbaijan also boasts a Lezginian state theatre, which was opened in 1998 in the town of Qusar.

The Suleyman Stalsky State Lezginian Music and Drama Theatre. Derbent

Rehearsal of a new production dealing with a major social problem, that of drug addiction. The State Lezginian Music and Drama Theatre. Derbent

The plays are mostly performed in literary Lezgic, based on the Gyuney dialect used in the Magaramkent, Suleyman-Stalsky and Derbent Districts. It is less comprehensible to speakers of other Lezgic dialects, although it is taught in schools as a standard variety. When the company was on tour in zerbaijan, many local Lezgins attended the performances not so much to see the acting as to listen to another variety of their mother tongue. The company performs in Lezginian villages as well as in Russian towns, e.g. in Astrakhan, on the invitation of Lezginian communities. Children’s matinees are performed in Russian, targeted as they are to all child audiences in the town.

Market. Derbent

A small market area is designated for Dagestanian knitted wares, chiefly socks. The women sitting in the merchants’ row sell woollies produced by other knitters alongside knitted wares of their own making. Besides, they offer wool dyes and skeins of dyed yarn. The socks feature Lezginian, Tabasaran and Kubachi patterns. The pattern with a rose on the toe is regarded as Lezginian, although it is also employed by knitters belonging to other ethnic groups.

Derbent market stalls with pickles and salted foods, as well as meat rows, are traditionally regarded as Lezginian.

The Derbent Market is always busy and boisterous, but at the moment its rows turned out to be half-empty, because many customers and leading traders, who are Shiah Azerbaijanis, were still mourning after the Ashura remembrance rituals.

The shop owners often name their shops for their native villages.