Derbent -

district center in Dagestan, 121 km South-East of Makhachkala.

Derbent is situated on the shore of Caspian Sea, at a spurs of Tabasaran Mountains - a part of Great Caucasus. The town has a sea port, and a railway station on the line Makhachkala - Baku. It lies on the federal highway M29 (Rostov-na-Donu - Baku).

The main attraction - the fortress complex of Derbent.


Currently (2004) visits to Republic of Dagestan pose a certain risk. The authors strongly recommend to avoid any travel to Derbent without serious reasons.

General Information

View of Naryn-Kala citadel and a part of the town wall from the East

Dagestan, a beautiful mountainous country, is glorified by numerous poets, writers and artists. Its unforgettable landscapes, original way of life, remarkable carpets, jewellery, pottery and other crafts produced by masters who speak dozens of different languages always surprised and delighted everyone even remotely acquainted with the country.

Beyond any doubts, every traveller is also impressed by the town of Derbent, the oldest in Dagestan, and actually in the whole Russia. It is much older than our country itself, older than the "eternal city" Rome, and it already existed when modern states could not be even imagined on a geographic map. Derbent is 5000 years old.

"The town is situated at the West coast of Caspian Sea, where Caucasus mountains approach the shore very closely, leaving only a narrow strip of a seaside plain about three kilometers wide. In the ancient times, here lied the famous Caspian way - the only convenient road from the steppes of South-Eastern Europe to the Middle East. The first settlement on the site of modern Derbent appeared on this road, in one of its most strategically important and geographically convenient places".

Gate of Dzharchi-Kapy. View from the inner side

This is the place where rich and prospering agricultural peoples of Middle East "fenced" themself off from devastating raids of nomadic tribes from the steppes of South-Eastern Europe.

The idea to intersect a large strip of land between the sea and the high mountains by a wall sounds like science fiction; however, we can see the wall with our own eyes. The idea to make two such walls with the town as a passage between them is not less original, and this is what was done. Finally, the Mountain Wall which heads from the fortress to the West, far into Caucasus, even though can not be regarded as an exceptional invention, has an importance quite comparable to that of the Great Wall of China. We must add though that it is shorter and unfortunately worse preserved.

In different times numerous peoples gave various names to the town (more than twenty in total), but all of them are related to the word "gate". The name "Derbent" is Persian, originates from 6th century AD and literally means "Knot of gates" or "Lock of gates". Russians called this place Derben' or Zheleznye Vrata (Iron Gate).

Detailed descriptions of this remarkable town were compiled by many admiring observers of various epochs, including Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, an author and a decembrist (a participant of the December 1825 officer uprising against Tsar Nicholas 1st) who was sent here to exile. According to him, the town was like "an enormous boa sprawling down the mountains with all its scales of houses bathing in the sunlight, with the Naryn fortress raised up as a toothed head, and with its tail playing in Caspian sea".

The firm laying of ramparts and towers, which endured more than one assault during milennia, is well preserved (with few exceptions) till our days. This provides for a modern traveller a unique opportunity of mental communication with contemporaries of long disappeared tribes and peoples.


Building of the guard-room in the citadel (1828)

On the basis of reliable sources and examinations of remains of Derbent ancient fortifications survived till our days, one concluded that the town was founded in 6th century AD by Persian Sassanid rulers, and the "founding father" was thought to be Khosrau I Anushirvan, who first protected himself in this site by the walls from Khazar raids from the North. Thus, the conclusion was that the age of Derbent is quite respectable, almost 1500 years.

However relatively recently, in 1971, archaeological excavations started which eventually produced truly sensational results, making obvious that the site witnessed much more ancient times.

Excavations revealed an ancient settlement, which was founded approximately in the end of 4th - beginning of 3rd milennium BC - that is, five thousand years ago! On the premises of the now existing citadel they found remains of construction, numerous artifacts, agricultural implements, and granaries, which give evidence for the existence here of one of the most ancient agricultural economies, typical for contemporaneous civilizations of the Middle East and South-Eastern Europe. Ancient fortifications with traces of fires and destruction, and Scythian bronze arrow tips found in the excavations confirm that when Scyths in 8th - 7th centuries BC were on their Middle East campaign, they already had to assault well fortified Derbent. Excavations uncovered a mighty fortress with walls of the rough stone, which was erected at the turn of 8th century BC and with some renovations and rebuildings existed till the Sassanid rulers came. Thus, Naryn-kala citadel was built in the 6th century AD on the remains of much more ancient layings.

Building of khan's office above the gate of the citadel (reconstruction). Gate of Naryn-Kala-Kapy

In 3rd to 1st century BC on the lands of modern Azerbaijan and South Dagestan a new state was created - Caucasus Albania - which at the time included Derbent. 1st - 3rd centuries AD became the time of flourishing of Derbent, as made obvious by a large amount of goods and decorations imported from Syria, India, and Egypt, found in the burial grounds from this time. Specially treated carved stone, clay solution, and alabaster started to be used in construction. Appearance of square fortress towers demonstrates further advances in the art of fortification.

In the middle of 3rd century AD Derbent was seized by Persian king Shapur II, who "produced destruction and fires". But the town finally fell to the Persians only in 4th century AD, and a new important stage of construction of powerful fortifications started under Khosrau I Anushirvan (531-579).

"Construction of Derbent complex was divided into several stages: first, the citadel and the North wall of the town, then the South wall, and then the Mountain wall (Dag-Bary). Also, in 6th century the first transverse wall was constructed, which separated living areas of Derbent and unpopulated seaside parts (two other transverse walls appeared in 10th - 18th centuries)". Intensified construction of Derbent fortifications took place in the situation of permanent instability, due to appearance in 4th century BC Hun state, and then Khazar Kaganate.

In 6th-7th centuries Derbent becomes a developed medieval town, characterized not only by its military importance but also by a high level of social and economic development.

Arab tribes united by Islam created a powerful state - Arab Caliphate, which finally destroyed the Sassanid Empire. Arabs immediately started the fight to capture Derbent, and in the beginning of 8th century won it over from Khazars. Famous Arab military commander Maslama ibn Abd-al-Malik, a close relative of caliphs, is called by historians "the second father" of Derbent thanks to his fruitful town-planning activity.

"Under his guidance, Derbent becomes a prominent military and political center of Caucasus, and also a permanent residence of a very large garrison and of Caliph's deputy-governor. Here they got taxes and provision from the entire North-East Caucasus area. From here Islam was spreading out".

In the struggle with Shirvanshahs, Emirs of Derbent were helped by Rus tribes, who were their allies at the time. Paramilitary units, consisting of Slavs and Norsemen, sailed down River Volga to the Caspian Sea and attacked West and South coasts, but never plundered allied Derbent, which put at their diposal a convenient harbour and a base for replenishing provision and repair of their ships.

However, mighty ramparts of Derbent did not save Russia from Genghis Khan. In 1222, "Tartars crossed Caucausus via unassailable places, filling abysses up with wood, stones, throwing down there their baggage, even horses and military amunition". And in 1223, River Kalka battle started a somber epoch of Tartar occupation of Russia. In the following decades, the Mongols ravaged surroundings of Derbent, and the economy came to a decay. In the second half of 14th century, the occupation by the troops of Tamerlane added up, and in 16th century Derbent got at the center of violent battles between Turkey and Safavid state (which lied in modern Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq).

Safavid Shah Abbas inflicted an important defeat on Turkey in 17th century, and started to restore Derbent port and fortifications.

Armenian church (19th century)

From 18th century, Eastern Caucasus and Derbent entered the sphere of state interests of Russia. On August 23, 1722, Peter the Great with his troops entered Derbent without a battle. He wrote then to the Senate: "Naib of this town brought (us) keys from the gate. It is true that these people accepted us heartily, not hypocritically, and are so glad as if we have rescued our own people from the siege". Peter highly valued the importance of Derbent. He ordered to repair walls, gates, and other fortifications. In memory of his visit, the town inhabitants conserve a dug-out where the great emperor allegedly stayed.

But Derbent was finally annexed to Russia only in 1806. In 1820, with an active participation of General Ermolov (who was in charge of annexing Caucasus) the building of the lower, seaside part of the town began. A part of the South wall was demolished, and new residential areas on a rectangular grid of wide streets extended beyond the wall. In contrast to the European-like pattern of the seaside part, the western part of the town, close to the citadel, preserved spectacular oriental ligature of old magals with narrow streets running between the walls, which hide green cosy inner yards.

The coat of arms of Derbent was approved March 21, 1843. Its description is interesting: "... On the right, interlaced roots of mudder plant and several poppy stems, tied up by a golden rope, to symbolize that the inhabitants successfully process mudder and cultivate poppy to obtain opium."

An important role in the development of the town played the construction of the railroad from Russia to Baku via Derbent, opened in 1900. It was a symbol of the new age. Like if a giant stone bar, for thousands of years closing the road along the Caspian Sea, finally was lifted.


Naryn-Kala Citadel. Viwe from the South

Undoubtedly, the most interesting, truly unique and not reminiscent of any existing system of urban fortifications is the fortress complex of Derbent itself. The main part of the system of fortifications - Naryn-Kala citadel (one of possible translations of this name is "Solar Fortress"), built on a high spur of Dzhalgan mountain range in 6th century. Powerful three-meter thick walls, enclosing the area of 4.5 hectares, are built of two rows of well-treated stone blocks, filled in between with untreated stone and mortar. The same construction is used for the town parallel walls, the North one more ancient and the South one more recent. Both walls have many towers. Long time ago, these walls continued far into the sea, thus making the roundabout way impossible and creating a convenient and well-protected harbour.

An interesting monument, vividly demonstrating an old age of the town, is found in the North-West part of Naryn-Kala citadel. This underground structure, built in the shape of a cross, and covered by crossed arches, for a long time was considered to be a water reservoir cut out in the rock. However, an attentive archaeological study showed that it is a cross-vaulting Christian church. It was built on the ground in 5th century, and then sank into mighty cultural layers. Historians say that Derbent till the middle of 6th century was a centrum of Christendom in Caucasus.

Gates of Kala-Kapy. View from the inner side

North and South town walls have several gates, of which the most interesting and the most architecturally advanced one is Orta-Kaly (Middle Gate). In course of many centuries, walls, towers, and gates have undergone multiple repairs. Architectural details of the upper parts of the walls and the towers, as well as of apertures of the gates, represent various periods of development of architecture and art of construction.

An important place among the town attractions belongs to structures for water conservation and consumption. Water was of an almost exclusive importance for any town-fortress. It originated from springs on the slope of Dzhalgan mountain, and went by stone and ceramic water-pipes, many of which were discovered during the excavations, to several underground water reservoirs, including the old Christian church adapted for this purpose. Also, several ancient fountains, which are still used by inhabitants as sources of drinking water, are preserved in Derbent. They include Khai-Bulakh (Khan Spring), Dgiarchi-Bulakh (Messenger Spring), and others.

A part of the town wall and town magals

Also are of interest ancient baths preserved in the town. One of them is in the central, elevated part of the citadel. This is an underground structure from 17th century with dome arches, several rooms for cold and hot compartments and for undressing, and with reservoirs for cold and hot water.

The citadel has a beautiful view of the town below. Among flat roofs, cut by narrow streets, raise domes of numerous mosques. They remind of the times of Arab domination. The biggest, oldest and prettiest of the mosques is Dzhuma (8th century).

One also sees well from the citadel large ancient cemeteries of Derbent, with many stone monuments and sarcophagi from 5th - 9th centuries, marking funeral sites of many courageous defenders of the fortress, fallen in different ages.

Photo: V. Dinets

In the south-western corner of the fortress wall there is a rectangular aperture, leading to the corner tower. This tower formerly served as an entrance to Mountain Wall (Dag-Bary), which started from here. Only small parts of this wall survived, but their examination showed that this wall was a huge construction 3 meters wide and 10 meters high, with many forts, semi-forts, and rectangular towers. This powerful defence line, twisting on the mountainous landscape, went into Caucausus for more than 40 kilometers.

It goes without saying that the town with 5000 years long history collected so many attractions that they can fill more than one thick book. Such books are written and splendidly illustrated.