Karachay and Balkars – Turkik people of the Caucasus

The Balkars and Karachay are a Turkik people who arrived and settled in Central Caucasus around the XII century. Although having their own Turkik languages, they adapted to local Caucasian culture – dressing, dance, customs; also, values like hospitality and honor, prevalent throughout the Caucasus, are essential part of Karachay-Balkar culture.

Karachay-Balkar language is divided in 2 dialects: Karachay-Baksan-Chegem and Balkar. The Kumyks, their ethnic cousins who speak the same language live in today’s Dagestan.

 The Balkars live in Kabardino-Balkaria republic, mostly in the high mountainous regions which are also some of the highest in the world.

The Karachay live in neighboring Karachay-Cherkessia, at the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.

The Karachays and Balkars are followers of Islam.

Deportation

Both the  Karachay and Balkars were deported in 1943-1944 at Stalin’s order, together with the Ingush, Chechens and Digor people (muslim minority of North Ossetia). Like all other deportees, many perished due to unbearable conditions (cold, starvation, hard labor, lack of medical help etc). The survivors were allowed to return in 1957 after Stalin’s death.

A particularly bloody episode took place in 1942, when over 1.500 villagers were killed in Upper Balkaria by NKVD – Stalin’s secret police.

TV report on the Balkar people
Karachay dance called “Abezek”

Karachay song
Dance ensemble “Balkaria” live performance
Balkar dance (couple)

Goor, Dagestan – “Land of the towers”

Goor ancient towers Shamilsky Dagestan North Caucasus

Goor is an ancient settlement in the Shamilsky district of Dagestan consisting of 7 towers and 2-stories residential houses. Only 4 towers survive to this day, one of whom collapsed recently due to severe degradation. The location has not received a historic monument status.

Goor exhibits its old history through its pagan, Christian and Islamic sanctuaries and burial grounds. The residents, originally pagan, underwent a short Christian conversion which ended with the Mongol invasion; the Islamic conversion happened gradually and it reached its peak during the Russia-Caucasus wars. Here you can also find a monument to the Caucasian war martyrs who fought against the Russian invasion in the XIX century.

Nakh towers, Chechnya

Historical organization of Chechen society – Chechnya (like Ingushetia) didn’t have social classes or feudalism. It was governed by council of elders and practiced a pagan religion centered around the solar cult.

Chechen Nakh towers Chechnya North Caucasus Vainakh 2

 

Nakh people were organized in “teips” (family clans). Each family clan had their own defensive structure, mostly represented by Nakh towers. The villages and regional subdivisions of today still hold the names of their “teip” (ex. Sharoy, Chatou etc).

In times of danger, the family clans united under a “tukum” (political-military union), lead by a chosen military chief .

The towers had different purposes (combat, residential tower etc) and were around 7 stories high.

The typical Chechen/ Ingush towers (Nakh towers) developed as response to repeated foreign invasions, especially the Mongol invasion of the XII century.

Hacharoy Chechnya tower Chechens North Caucasus Vainakh Nakh

The teip had a few common features:
* The right of communal land tenure
* Common revenge for murder of a teip member
* Exogamy (marrying a member outside the clan was mandatory)
* Election of a Council of Elders and equal right of all members
* The right of the teip to depose its representatives
* Representation of women by male relatives
* The right of the adoption of outside people
* The transfer of property of departed to members of the teips
* The teip has a defined territory and a traditional mountain
* The teip had its own Godhead (pagan beliefs before the adoption of Islam)
* The teip had specific festivities, customs, traditions and habits
* The teip had its own cemetery
* A common teip hospitality (hospitality in general is highly regarded in the Caucasus)

chenty merk Chechen Nakh tower Chechnya North Caucasus mountains

 

Chanty Mohk Chechnya tower Chechens North Caucasus mountains Vainakh Nakh

Here are a few of the Nakh-Chechen towers which survived the XIX century wars, the Soviet destruction and the recent Russian-Chechen conflicts.

During the 1990’s wars, dozens of ancient Chechen towers were attacked by Mi-24. 

 

Eltyubyu “City of the Dead” Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem Kabardino-Balkaria beautiful scenery

The ancient mausoleums of the “City of the Dead” – located in Eltyubyu village (Chegemsky district). They were built in different stages between the VIII-XVIII centuries. They were part of a pagan burial cult practiced by the locals before the conversion to Islam.

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus 1

beautiful landscapes Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead North Caucasus

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria beautiful scenery

Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem Kabardino-Balkaria 1

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu Chegem valley North Caucasus 1

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu Chegem valley North Caucasus

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem crypt

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus 3

Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem Kabardino-Balkaria 2

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus 4

beautiful scenery Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus

Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria 2

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu village Chegem valley North Caucasus

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem Kabardino-Balkaria beautiful landscapes

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu village North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu village Chegem valley North Caucasus

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu Chegem valley North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria beautiful scenery mountain road

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem crypts North Caucasus

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem crypts North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria

beautiful scenery Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem valley North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria 2

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem crypts

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu Chegem valley North Caucasus 2

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu City of the Dead Chegem Kabardino-Balkaria 1

Caucasus mountains Chegem valley North Caucasus

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu Chegem river North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkaria

Caucasus mountains Eltyubyu Kabardino-Balkaria

Rope walkers

Tsovkra rope walkers Dagestan women Caucasus people 4

While most villages develop skills like craft work or ceramic art, the small mountain village of Tsovkra (in Dagestan) developed an unusual art: rope walking. While skills vary according to age, all the villagers have one thing in common: everyone can walk on rope. They became known as “the Dagestani walkers”.

There are many myths about how tightrope walking appeared – one of them says that young lovers used a rope in order to cross to the neighboring mountain villages, sick of having to walk every day the long distances.

However, historians believe it developed in the XVI century when the ancient Silk Road was crossing the Caucasus, bringing with it different artists including professional rope walkers from around the world.

Once initiated, Tsovkra villagers joined the rope troupers and traveled all the way to China.

During the Soviet period, the Dagestani Walkers traveled all over the world and, as sign of recognition, they received the Soviet Union’s highest award for artists.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all means of funding were cut off, the shows ended and the people are now struggling to keep the tradition alive in a dire economy.

“The golden age was from the 1950’s through the 1970’s,” says local man Nukh Isayev. “The whole world knew about us then and we could sell out a circus in any European capital with our tightrope walking skills.”


Kala-Koreysh (first muslim settlement) Dagestan

Kala Koreysh Dagestan North Caucasus islam

In the mountains of Dakhadaevskiy district in Dagestan, 1000 meters above sea level and 3 kilometers from the village of goldsmiths Kubachi lies Kala-Koreysh, an VIII century medieval fortress, which was the former capital of a feudal community (Kaytag utsmiystva) and the first muslim settlement in the Caucasus.

 

In the middle-ages, Kala-Koreysh was a well-defended fortress that served as political and cultural center, and most importantly it became the focal point for the spread of the Islamic faith in the Northern Caucasus. Built on top of inaccessible mountains by the Kuraysh in VII-VIII century, it stands at the confluence of five important rivers and it’s accessible through one single road. Built on a strategic point, they could control trade in the region and at the same time spread the faith.

Kuraysh was the name of the merchant tribe into which Prophet Muhammad was born – Kala Koreysh means “the fortress of koreyshids”. Several Kuraysh tribesmen came to the mountains of Dagestan as conquerors after Arabs conquered Derbent in 654  – the biggest city of Dagestan at the time. The spread of Islam began in the Cacausus which ended in the XIXth century with the conversion of the Ingush people.

As people started moving to the lowlands in the XVIII century, its role as an important cultural and commercial center gradually decreased. The last inhabitants were forcibly evicted to Chechnya by the Soviets in 1944 and most of the structures were destroyed.

Today, the only constructions still standing in Kala-Koreysh are a IX century mosque and a mausoleum; only one person lives here as guardian of the sacred place. The alabaster tiles of the partially destroyed mosque are displayed in the Regional Museum.

Kala Koreysh also has a graveyard where both noblemen and common residents were buried; tombstones date back to the IX-X century and contain sacred Islamic texts. The unique carving on the tombstones is very similar to the Kubachi pattern design (for more on Kubachi click here). The graveyard also has pagan sarcophaguses which are not typical of Muslim culture (where the dead are buried only in the ground).

Today, Kala Koreysh serves as tourist spot and place of pilgrimage for devout Muslims (the pilgrimage is called “ziyaret”).

Kubachi craft art, Dagestan

 

Kubachi village (situated in Dagestan) has long been considered the main center for manufacture of high-quality armament and jewelry in the Caucasus and Russia, and is still famed to this day for its craftsmen. Every house in Kubachi has a room for jewelry shop and private museum collection. Also every family in Kubachy is using its own design.

In Persian chronicles, the village is mentioned as early as the 4th century under the name of Zerihgeran (Armory).

Kubachi daggers are considered some of the best Caucasian daggers (also known as Kama). The Russian Tsar had personally designed Kubachi daggers in his arsenal.