The Lezgis - Лезгияр

Who are they ?

The Lezgis, Lezghis, Lezgians or whatever else you may prefer to call them (they call themselves "Лезги", the plural of which is "Лезгияр"), are one of the Caucasus' indigenous peoples. Their traditional lands are located along the banks of the river Samur and are divided between Azerbaijan and Daghestan, the latter of which is a republic within the Russian Federation. Their kinfolk - the Tabasarans, the Rutuls, the Udis, the Tsakhurs and other nations belonging to the Lezgic subgroup of the great in diversity, but much less so in number, Nakh-Daghestanian language family, inhabit the nearby regions.

The overall number of Lezgis is hard to tell because of some political reasons (really sad story I don't intend to get much into - see below for some details I considered necessary), the estimates vary depending on who is doing the counting. The figure goes as high as 1.5 million or it can be cut to less than one-third of that (of course the estimates given by the Lezgis themselves tend to get closer to that higher estimate). I think it is safe to assume that there are at the very least 600 thousands of them, some 250 thousands of which live in Azerbaijan. According to the latest data Lezgis living in the Russian Federation number some 411 thousands. These figures may seem ridiculously low to you if you're used to "european" type nations, numbering at least a couple of millions, I can however assure you that in the reality of Daghestan with its population split into tens of small, very small and even smaller ethnic groups, the Lezgis are a BIG nation. So big and important a nation they were that at some point of history their name was used to refer to all of the Daghestani mountaneers or to all the Caucasian nations even.

The Lezgis, as nearly all neighbouring nations are Muslims... the majority of them follow the Sunni tradition, yet there are some adherents of Shi'a, too... it is not, however that simple as, quite similarly to the case of other Caucasian nations, the Lezgis have retained many of the old, "pagan", customs and habits which they adapted to their "popular" version of Islam. The tariqat, or brotherhoods of sufi, were very apt in merging the local tradition with their ways and making their presence very strong. The traditional clan structure is also very strong in today's life of the Lezgi society.

The Lezgi culture is in a way a typical sample of the Caucasian tradition. They share with their neighbors some vital aspects of their lifestyle - dominated by agriculture and sheepherding; the clan-centered social structure; the traditional artwork - Lezgi carpets and woodwork are very renowned; rich oral foklore and storytelling tradition - the Lezgi epos is called "Sharvili", which is also the name of its main hero; the music - the vivid Lezgi dance, called simply "Lezginka" is known and danced all around Caucasus... the Lezgi culture is deeply rooted in the traditions of the region and is one of the main contributors to the Caucasian heritage.

The Lezgis are known for their hospitality and their women are renowned and sought after for their beauty. Interestingly enough, we, the Poles, make the same claim regarding our hospitality and our women... I wonder if there's a nation who doesn't think of itself in a similar way... Maybe yours ?

What did they do and what happened to them?

The Lezgis are counted among the autochtonous inhabitants of the Caucasus. This means they've been always living there, or at least we don't know about them coming from someplace else. In scarce notes scattered in the works of ancient historians a number of names of Caucasian nations is evoked. Some of those names are thought to belong to peoples related to modern-day Lezgis... Unfortunately we know little more than just names...

The first sure thing we know about the Lezgis' ancestors is that they were among the nations constituting Caucasian Albania, a relatively strong state, having under its rule lands eastwards from Iberia (eastern Georgia) and westwards from the Caspian Sea, north from the river Kura and south from the Derbent pass... Albanian statehood flourished from ca. III century B.C. to IV century A.D., its culture, as little as we know it, was a mixture of Persian, Hellenic and genuinely Caucasian elements, quite similar in this regard to those of neighbouring countries - Armenia and Georgia. The similarities do not end here. The Albanians accepted Christianity as early as in the IV century - that is in about the same time as Armenians and Georgians (as a side note I may add that some smaller nations of Lezgic language group do remain Christian to this very day) they have also created their own alphabet, which was a major achievement given the multinational society of Albania (the historian claims that tribes ie. distinct nations inhabiting Albania numbered 26).

The Caucasian kingdoms were all cursed by the geographical conditions... they had greedy and expansive neighbours. Albania was too far away for the Roman empire to conquest it (yet there were Roman military expeditions conducted against it with moderate success) but for the Persian Empire it was within an easy reach. Since the most convenient mountain passes lie in the teritory of Albania (so-called the Gate of Derbent - Кьвевар in Lezgi), it was a matter of crucial importance for the Sasanids to control the area. So they did and Albania became a dependant state. Numerous uprisings against persian rule and imposing of zoroastrism were all crushed... many persian families were settled to the region, the Albanian culture began to decline.

It was not the Persians who struck the deadly blow, though. The Empire was swept out by the Arabs who then came to the Caucasus with fire and sword to bring it under the rule of the Caliphate. At the same time the power of the Khazar khaganate waxed in the north. The Caliphate and the Khazars engaged in series of fierce wars which took place mainly in the region of Albania resulting in almost total wipe-out of the previous, Christian tradition of which only scattered remnants passed on to our days. The process of islamization began.

The heyday of the caliphate power soon ended, as it was virtually impossible to control the vast areas of all the conquered lands from one place; to keep the power in one hand. The provincial rulers unhesitantly used the oportunity to free themselves from the caliph's influence. They didn't openly break the oath of allegiance, but step by step they tried to wrestle out more and more power. The farther away their lands were from the capital, the more secure they felt and the sooner they started to rule indepentently. As the mighty mountains were hardly accessible, the governors of Shirvan (northern Azerbaijan) were among the first to form quasi-independent dynasties (from the second half of the 9th century)... Soon many other small state-like organisms appeared, especially in the higher parts of the mountains. The Daghestani nations were always independent-minded.

For many centuries to come the situation in the mountains remained more or less the same. The mountaneers strived to maintain their independence from the stronger neighbours, and when the invaders came (be it the Seljuks, the Mongols or the armies of Timur) they would oppose them militarly, which they usually did, the disparity of forces would drive them back to their high mountain safe havens and they would be eventually forced to accept the aggresors' rule, but only for as short a time as it was absolutely necessary. Sooner or later the invading armies would go away and life in the mountains would go on...

The strongest of all the region's statehoods - Shirvan - was very skillful in the art of survival. Its rulers aptly maneuvered between foreign powers - the Golden Horde and Timur, trying to side with the stronger, with an aim of saving their land from war, always resulting with bloodshed and devastation. Not always were they succesful... unfortunately.

The arrival of the various armies has had a major impact on the ethnic structure of the region... The Turkmen warriors of Timur, the Kara Koyonlu tribesmen were given the plains as their pasture lands. Many Turkish-speaking clans and families arrived and the autochtons were assimilated or driven to the mountains... This situation had started as early as in the Seljuk era and has continued practically to the 19th century (at least)

The rise of the Safavids (Azerbaijani clergy family - rulers of Persia from the beginning of the 16th century), was another peril to the mountaneers and Shirvan. The Safavids were devout, if not outright fanatic, Shiites, while the indigenous Caucasian nations were largely Sunni... The religious difference caused a series of cruel wars. Soon the Ottoman Turkey invaded the region, posing as champion of the 'real Islam' (ie. Sunni Islam). The wars between Sunni Ottoman Empire and Shiite Persia took about 150 years of cruel warfare with short interludiums of peace, resulting in exhaustion of the region's resources, merciless slaughter and ressetlements (the latter were routinely employed as a part of Persian policy towards the untrustworthy... the Sunnis, Lezgis among them were forced to move to the easternmost borders of Persia by the renowned Abbas Shah - he has his successors, too - see below)

As a result of long Turkish-Persian rivalry, the Lezgi inhabited lands remainded under Persian rule. When the power of the Safavid rulers began to dwindle, the local khans came to power and the mountaineers enjoyed their freedom to practise their ways... and their ways were... uhm... specific. Lightning quick plundering raids of the Lezgi warriors used to wreak havoc in neighbouring Georgian kingdom of Iberia... the Lezgi brigands were famous for their courage and universally feared. This fear and enmity exists in Georgia to this very day. In just about that time Russia emerged on the political scene of the Caucasus. Some of the Lezgi warlords were paid by the Russians (some others by the Turks) to destabilize the situation in Persia and give the pretext for military intervention. The slaughter of the Russian merchants in the town of Shemakha from the hands of the Lezgi warriors in 1722 was such a pretext and Russian army invaded.

The last Persian ruler who, at least partially, succeeded in rebuild its influence in Caucasus was Nader Shah. He drove away from the country the Afghan invaders, the Turks and the Russians. And he tried to subdue the mountaneers. Twice was he defeated in 1742 by the allied Daghestanis - the victory they remember to this very day, he did manage though to control the land and he once more resorted to the old Persian policy of ethnic reshuffling. Many Lezgis were forced to settle in the Khorasan region of Eastern Persia, where their descendants live to this day. After Nader's demise in 1749 it was obvious that Russia was the strongest player around and nothing could prevent it from controlling the whole area

It took Russia about 70 years to conquer the whole Caucasus, and another fifty to deal with the numerous uprisings and rebellions of the mountaneers. Needless to say, the Lezgi shared the fates of their kinfolk, rebelled with them and were defeated with them. The Lezgi lands were split between two different administration units - the fact of grave importance and serious consequences... When the oil boom in Baku has exploded many Lezgis saw their opportunity in working in the oil industry in the coastal towns, migration from the mountain homeland began. As I stated before, the fate of the Lezgis was very similar to the fate of other Caucasian nations in Russia. Many of them were forced to migrate to Turkey, some of them fought in the ranks of the famous "wild division" in the World War I. They were split between two republics - Azerbaijan and Daghestan (the latter being a part of the Russian Republic). Things have changed after the fall of the Soviet Union...

What is happening now?

After the fall of the Soviet Union the border between Azerbaijan and Daghestan became a state one. Given the fact it is a totally arbitrary borderline and it often cuts in half the lands traditionally belonging to one family, it separates family members from each other... given all this and the fact that the border is often closed (as a part of 'war with terrorism' probably - irony intended), you can well imagine that the border issues are of grave importance for the Lezgis

Another thing is cultural identity, sense of community and will to maintain them. Not that simple, when we see that the government of at least one of the Lezgi inhabited republics (hint: the southern one) is reluctant to give the Lezgis opportunity to hone their language and culture, which are in serious danger, as the process of assimilation is actively promoted.

The language itself is endangered. The younger generations tend to discard Lezgi for a more prestigious language, be it Russian or Azeri. While certainly there's nothing wrong with bilinguality and Lezgis are truly blessed to be almost 100% bi- (or tri- or quadri-)lingual, it can be the first step towards losing the native language and the loss of one's native language can be a devastating blow to one's culture and diversity...

As a response to these dangers, a Lezgi political movement was created back in the early 90's. Its name was Садвал (Sadval), which means 'Unity' in Lezgi, and the unity of the Lezgi people was its aim, unity in the independent Lezgi state, let's add. A beautiful but dangerous and as you may say foolish dream. Beautiful, because the desire of freedom is beautiful in its nature. Foolish because they didn't think about if it is possible at all, if the projected Lezgi state could really exist on its own. Dangerous because for them violence was an option... Fortunately the movement's influence is gone. Fortunately, I say, because pursuing of its goals would mean unnecessary bloodshed and tragedy which would end in nothing...

As for now the key problem is maintaining the cultural and national identity among the younger generation and using political, peaceful means to achieve cultural autonomy within the existing states.

That's it, for a start... I really hope you enjoyed your stay in here... За умуд ийизва хьи и сайт куь хушдиз къведа...

What comes above is a pretty basic sketch of Lezgi history.
In case you felt that something I said is inadequate, dubious or simply wrong, or if just want to add something....
Well, guess what - what about letting me know (my address- peterlin[at]jzn[dot]pl)
And here you can go back to the main Lezgi page

I owe this page, as I owe everything, to K.D. , whose smile makes the impossible happen