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Exploring the Republic of Dagestan

The Russian Republic of Dagestan, located with the Caspian Sea to the east, Chechnya and Georgia to the west and Azerbaijan to the south, while officially forming part of Russia, bears little evidence of that fact. Dagestan means ‘country of mountains’ and this is an apt description, as some areas are so high and remote that they can only be reached by helicopter. With its rugged natural beauty, multicultural population and ancient history, Dagestan has also been described as a ‘diamond in the rough’ with many facets that shine through for travelers willing to spend time discovering its treasures.

While the people of Dagestan include a variety of ethnic groups, such as Avars, Dargins, Lezgins, Kumyks, Nogais, Azeris and Russians, more than 90 percent of the population adhere to Islamic teachings, which is seen as a unifying factor in all this diversity. A local legend tells the story of a horseman traveling through the region carrying a bag of languages. The horseman took a tumble from his steed and upon falling to the ground, the dialects were scattered about, with each village getting its own language. More than thirty languages are spoken in Dagestan, with Russian being a second language as a means of communication between the different language groups.

The city of Makhachkala is the capital of Dagestan and a must-see for visitors to the region. Situated on a wide open plain on the shores of the Caspian Sea and with majestic mountains as a backdrop, Makhachkala was established in the middle of the 19th century and is considered to be relatively young in comparison with the region’s ancient history. Residents of Makhachkala have moved to the city from all over Dagestan, creating a melting pot of languages, customs and cultures. As with elsewhere in the region, Islam is the unifying factor, with the Islamic color of green and quotations from the Koran visible everywhere and a multitude of mosques bursting at the seams with worshipers. The marketplace in the city is a delight to the senses and buzzes with never-ending activity as people go about their daily business. The nearby village of Tarki, located on Mount Tarki-Tau, provides a picturesque view of the entire city of Makhachkala.

Located in a strategic position on a narrow strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the mountain, the city of Derbent is believed to date back to the 4th millennium BC and is considered to be one of the oldest cities in Russia. Because of its strategic position for traffic between the Middle East and the North Caucasus, the city changed hands frequently with Arabs, Turks, Persians and, eventually, Russians controlling it. Naryn-Kala, a 1500-year old citadel stands as a reminder of a tumultuous past with its old mosques, cemetery, lookout towers, rusty gates and a host of other fascinating features. The citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historic value.

Adventurers who enjoy exploring places off the beaten track, may want to travel the network of mountain roads, enjoying breath-taking scenery and visiting ancient mountain villages that remain largely unchanged by the passing of time. With its great diversity and rugged natural beauty, a visit to Dagestan in Russia is almost guaranteed to be a memorable experience.


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