Tribes and Dialects
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The Bezhta language is a Caucasian language and it belongs to the Dido subgroup of the northwestern group (Avar-Ando-Dido) of the Dagestan languages. Bezhta is also called the Kapucha language, a name which originates in the Georgian name for the village of Bezhita. There is no scholarly agreement on the genealogical classification of the Bezhta (Kapucha) language. E. Bokarev considers it to belong to the Dido subgroup, whereas Georgian linguist, E. Lomatadze, thinks it is a dialect of the Kapucha-Hunzib language. Bezhta is divided into three dialects: Bezhta, Tljadali and Hochar-Hota. The vocabulary has been greatly affected by Avar and Georgian, through which there have also been some borrowings from Arabic, Turkish and Persian. During the Soviet era the biggest influence was Russian.
There is no written language, and instead Avar is used. The Avar language is used as a lingua franca in Bezhta society with the mother tongue relegated to domestic use.
The only official facts concerning the population of the Bezhtas are recorded under the name of Kapuchas in the 1926 census data. In all censuses since, the Bezhtas have been counted as Avars. Later estimates are taken from academic publications and are approximations.
Anthropologically the Bezhtas belong to the Caucasian type of the Balkano-Caucasian race, which is characterized by a comparatively light pigmentation, massiveness of the facial part of the skull, and above average stature. Some features typical to the Caspian type are also distinguishable.
Religion. The Bezhtas are all Muslims (Sunnites). Islam was introduced to the South Dagestan peoples by the Arabs in the 8th--9th century. In the 9th century Christianity, spread by the Georgians, began to penetrate from the west. This is recorded by several Christian monuments and archaeological findings in territories of the Bezhta. Following the 14th century expeditions of Timur, Islam became dominant and the established religion in Mountain Dagestan by the 17th century. At the same time various forms of paganism persisted. These paganistic practices, adjusted to the Islamic liturgy and laws, have an important place in Bezhta society even today.
Ethnic culture. The Bezhtas are similar to other Avar-Ando-Dido peoples in that the greatest influence has been the Avar culture. Material culture and traditional dress have local characteristics and mainly differ in details. The sole differentiating cultural element is language. The Bezhtas' ancestors are considered to be the Proto-Avar tribes, but opinions differ concerning the time the Bezhtas separated from the others and there are disputes over the course of their development. The abundance of Mountain Dagestan languages is accounted for by territorial isolation. Contacts and economic integration between the peoples of the Andi-Koisu river basin, however, are not in keeping with this statement. The mountains isolate the Ando-Dido nations from the outer world, but not from each other. Today, there are more supporters for theories that put the reason for the great number of languages in endogamy (L. Lavrov) or the polystructural political system in Mountain Dagestan (M. Aglarov).
Historically the Bezhtas have been closely connected with Avaria, first mentioned as a geographical unit by classical authors. The earliest records of a larger union (including the Bezhta territory) in Avaria date from the 11th century. When the state consolidated in the 15th--16th century the ruler of Avaria took the title of khan. Invaders who had been attacking Avaria for centuries also reached the territory of the Bezhtas in the 8th century: firts marauding Arabs followed, in the 12th--13th century by the Turks and Persians. Other influential factors were Georgia and Kakhetia, especially in the southwestern part of Mountain-Dagestan. Nominally dependent on the Avar khanate, the Bezhtas formed the free community of Huanal-Kapucha, which was united with the associated communities of Antlritlya. The free community was ruled by a community assembly (rukken), that elected the administrative and judical organs. The religious head of the community was the qadi, who was nominated by the Avar Khan. Social life was controlled by two codes of law, adat (customary law) and shariah (Islamic law). In 1806 the Bezhta villages were annexed to Russia although the new central power only made itself in the 1860--70s after having subjected the whole area to its colonial policy.
Due to the abundance of mountain pastures conditions favoured the breeding of livestock. The Bezhtas reared sheep and to some extent also oxen and horses, which were necessary as pack animals in the mountains. In spite of the mountainous landscape and the lack of farming land, the Bezhtas also took up tilling, especially terrace farming, which proved to be quite productive. Grain, wheat and rye were the main crops. At the end of the 19th century the potato was introduced, though it gave a poor yield because of the primitive agricultural equipment employed. Long-term economic integration between the Ando-Dido peoples gave rise to active trading. Mountain Dagestan was famous for its fairs and its people's fondness for trading. The Bezhtas came to be known as good builders. As distinct from other Ando-Dido peoples their houses are large and have several storeys.
Towards the end of the 1920s, at a time of political instability in the region, two movements started to spread among the Bezhtas -- one nationalist and one religious. These were Dagestan separatism and Pan-Islamism. Bolshevism, though rife in industrial centres and bigger settlements in Dagestan, did not reach the mountain villages. In the war of independence, which lasted for four years (1917--1920), the nationalist forces confronted imperialism (supporters of Denikin, Bolshevists) or foreign expansionism (England, Turkey). There were two separate centres of power whose aim was the independence of Caucasus and Dagestan -- the Dagestan National Committee, founded in 1917 and the Federal Council of Mountain Peoples, founded in Tbilisi in 1918. The nationalists, exhausted by fighting the White Guard, had to surrender to the 11th army of the Red Army in the autumn of 1920. Soviet rule was established in Dagestan in the autumn of 1920, though actually it came into effect only in the larger settlements and industrial regions. The people in Mountain Dagestan were able to maintain the old order and its institutions for a further 10--15 years, until under the guise of collectivization the Soviet authorities were able to rid themselves of all nationalists through deportation or execution.
After World War II Moscow switched from brute force to more peaceful methods in order to mould Bezhta thought and behaviour. These new methods were best employed within the educational and cultural policies of the central power. In the first five forms the language used in teaching was Avar and after that Russian. Colonial policy continued to prevail within the economy. Urbanization, the growth of industrialization, the development of a communications network and the rise in educational standards have resulted in changes in the Bezhtas' material and intellectual culture, and their way of thinking is disappearing. Soviet customs are gaining more popularity. Alongside traditional festivals and holidays Soviet holidays are also celebrated. The abolition of customary law and Islamic law and the weakening of endogamous rules have brought about changes in family life. There are more mixed marriages and families prefer to live separately from their relatives. Every year migration to other districts of the Caucasus increases. Together with the weakening of Islamic rules there has been a gradual rise in alcohol abuse.