A short guide
to historical Dagestan
The land of legends, ancient monuments and ghost villages, Dagestan is home to plenty of little-known historical gems and the perfect place to visit for every curious explorer. From its long-standing Datun church to the towering Derbent fortress, here are some of the spots worth visiting.
Derbent Juma Mosque
Standing in the midst of leafy Plane trees is Russia’s oldest mosque, the Derbent Juma Mosque. Built in the eighth century for the Muslim friday prayers, it quickly became one of the main places where Islam spread in Dagestan, and Russia.
According to legend, the ancient Platanus trees were planted by the famous Persian mystic and Sufi, Junayd of Baghdad in the inner yard of the Juma mosque, where they still remain today.
At the time of its construction, the building is believed to have been the largest building in the city, with a capacity to host more than six thousand people. Inside the mosque’s compound there is an Islamic school, madrasa, and housing for the clergy. This centuries-old mosque remains in good condition, recognised by UNESCO as cultural heritage.
The Citadel, ancient city and Fortress of Derbent were part of the northern lines of the Sasanian Persian Empire, extending east and west of the Caspian Sea. Two parallel walls were built, forming a barrier from the seashore up to the mountain — and between these two walls, the town of Derbent was built.
Taking its name from Persian dar, meaning gate, and band, barrier, Derbent is home to what is considered today as one of the largest defensive fortifications in the world.
With three sides closed off by mountain cliffs, its double walls descended deep into the sea allowing it to protect the entire coast. Twenty metres high and three metres thick, the immense wall stretched forty kilometres between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains.
Inside the city walls, the fortress was equipped with the necessary means for life under siege, including a huge reservoir of drinking water enough to last six months. In the late 19th century, the southern wall was demolished, and along the seafront a modern city developed.
Medieval buildings and fortifications form Derbent’s unique cultural landscape, which has been largely maintained and provides impressive documentation 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.
In 2003, the fortification complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the most unusual Orthodox monuments in Russia in the mountains of Dagestan is the Datun church. While many churches were built in the mountains of the North Caucasus with the spread of Christianity, this church remains well preserved today due to its high location.
Built by Georgian missionaries, the church functioned for a few centuries until the spread of Islam in the region. Following the Caucasus war, the church was utilised again by Old Ritualist soldiers.
Deep in the Caucasus Mountains on a small rocky hilltop surrounded by rivers is the village of Kala-Koreysh, the fortress of the Quraysh. Difficult to reach even today, the medieval fortress was almost impregnable and is believed to have been established by Arabs from the Quraysh tribe from which the prophet of Islam, Muhammed, is descended.
The fortress served as an influential political and religious centre for many centuries and with its geographic location, was a site of significant importance for the spread of Islam in the North Caucasus region. With its last inhabitants forced to flee to Chechnya in 1944, Kala-Koreysh gradually became a ghost village.
Today local enthusiasts are reviving Kala-Koreysh and its history with organised excursions and inclusion in touristic routes. One of the main sightseeing attractions is a mosque dating from the twelfth century, considered to be one of the oldest Muslim buildings in Dagestan. A mausoleum of local governors, as well as ruins of a 14th-century caravanserai, roadside inns where travellers could rest at, can also be found nearby.
Qatari Russian Center for Cooperation (QRCC) with Dagestan University and Geoscan company will digitise ancient cultural objects in Dagestan, including Kala-Koreysh, Juma mosque and the Datun church. This initiative hopes to support those interested in learning the rich heritage of Dagestan. While the region boasts many monuments of Islamic heritage and has a wide collection of Arabic scripts, little is known and not much research is available. The creation of 3D models hopes to allow specialists from different parts of the world to run common scientific research about the history of Dagestan on the global level.
PHOTO: Ilyas Hajji / http://hajji.ru