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The Tabasaran language belongs to the southeast group of Dagestan languages (the Lezgi-Samur languages). Administratively, the Tabasarans do not inhabit a single defined territory but are spread through the Tabasaran (centre, Khuchni) and Khiv (centre, Khiv) districts of Dagestan. In the former, there are 98 Tabasaran settlements, in the latter, 25. While the population of the Tabasaran district is ethnically homogeneous, half of the population of the Khiv district are Lezgis. The major Tabasaran settlements are Khiv, Khuchni, Kandik, Kushtil, Lyakhle, Djuli, Tchere, Mejkyul, Kurag, Tinit, Arkit, Dyubek and Shirtich. Their neighbours to the north are Dargwas, to the south, Lezgis, to the west, Aguls and to the east, Azerbaijanis.
After the Lezgis, the Tabasarans are the second largest people among the Lezgian-Samur language speakers. Data from 20th century censuses is as follows:
Anthropologically Tabasarans, like all other peoples of Lezgi stock, belong to the Caspian type of the Balkano-Caucasian race. Characteristic distinctions are dark pigmentation, a thin face and sharp features.
Religion. The Tabasarans are Muslims (Sunnites). The Islamic faith was adopted in the 8th--9th centuries, following Arab conquests. Earlier, heathenism and Judaism were widespread among the Tabasarans. Many heathen traditions have persisted, adjusted to Islam, to the present day (celebrations of sowing and ploughing, worshipping of old trees etc.).
Tabasarans, like other peoples of the Lezgi-Samur language group, are considered to be aborigines of the Caucasus. Their development and ethnogenesis have been influenced by several waves of migration, as well as by the invasion of the Arabs and Turks. Tabasarans are the first people, alongside the Lezgis, mentioned in historical sources. References to them date back to the Primitive Christian Church. According to the Armenian historian, Eghisgi (5th century), 11 nations inhabited the vicinity of Derbent, among whom are the Tavaspare (=Tabasarans). The Tabasarans also make an appearance in the pages of the Armenian Geography (7th century), among the list of the Caucasian peoples. In the 7th century, a Tabasaran state unit emerged, which in the 12th century turned into a maisum state (maisum -- ruler, governor) and between the 13th and 15th centuries is supposed to have become a part of the Khanate of Derbent. Through the centuries, many foreign invaders have been repelled: Arabian khalifs, the khans of the Mongol-Tatars, and Turkish sultans. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tabasaran region was subordinated to two feudal domains: southern or Upper Tabasaran was ruled by the maisum and northern or Lower Tabasaran by the gadi. In the 18th century, 7,000 people lived in upper Tabasaran and 10,000 in lower Tabasaran. The lower gentry (the beks) were granted their domains by the maisum or the gadi, and enjoyed unlimited power in their region. As an alternative administrative unit, free communities existed high up in the mountains. In these power was executed by a village elder with the backing of a village assembly. Traces of the kin-village system still remained there.
The union with Russia in 1806 brought few administrative changes. The beks retained their power and kept their privileges. In 1860, the territories of both feudal units were amalgamated into the Kaitag-Tabasaran district led by a naib and ruled by the Tsarist administration. Local village administrations were formed.
The Tabasaran economy has been determined by the environment. The people of the foothills have always been employed in land cultivation and horticulture, whereas the mountain people's primary occupation has been livestock breeding. Wheat, barley, rye, soybeans, peas and maize were the most common field crops. The more favourable climatic conditions of Lower Tabasaran supported the cultivating of industrial crops and gardening (cotton, tobacco, grapes and nuts). In the second half of the 19th century, fruit and vegetable growing spread. Implements for land cultivation were rather primitive; wooden ploughs with metal shares were used, and sickles and scythes. Handicrafts were quite highly developed, however; Tabasaran wood carving and stone-carving were highly regarded and Tabasaran carpets were internationally renowned.
In the late 19th century, with the advancement of capitalism in Caucasus, several changes took place in the Tabasaran social order. The patriarchal clan (tukhum) began to disintegrate, and family units began to predominate. This process intensified in the 20th century. Social and family relations were regulated by Adat (customary law) and Shariah (Islamic law). Endogamy prevailed and marriages between cousins -- levirat and sororat -- were common. The preferred age for marriage among boys was 16, and among girls 14 or 15. Weddings were still tied to many ancient customs such as the abduction of the bride and bridal ransoms. The official wedding ceremony, as well as divorce, was conducted according to Islamic law.
In 1920, the Dagestan ASSR was established, incorporating the Tabasarans. In the period of consolidation of the Soviet regime, considerable advancements were made in the Tabasaran economy: the area of cultivated land expanded, new crops were introduced, and there was a wholesale implementation of new machinery. Collectivization, completed in Dagestan by 1940, was a regression. Economic planning and development passed from private entrepreneurs to the state who initiated ambitious programmes, with little regard for local conditions or needs. In the 1950s and 1960s, the state launched a programme to increase wine production. Whole villages were deported from the mountains to the plains to provide the manpower required. The industrialization of major settlements brought with it the problem of unemployment. Villages, including those of the Tabasaran, became deserted. In 1926, 0.1 % of all Tabasarans lived in towns, in 1959, it was 8.8 %, and in 1970, 16.2 %. Urbanization, however, is a potential risk for the Tabasarans as a people. In the Dagestan ASSR, a town is a cultural association connected by the Russian language. Over three or four generations, townspeople become distanced from their roots and lose contact with their own people -- although they still may consider themselves Tabasarans.
Most Tabasarans, however, still live in their ancient region where the people are united by a common economy and language. Nevertheless, Tabasaran rural life is not without problems. The development of agriculture and gardening, as well as the onslaught of Soviet ideology, caused many changes in the domestic situation and mentality. An increase in crop capacity has diversified and enlarged the food supply, living standards have risen, all of which have facilitated the use of manufactured goods in households.
In 1932 a Tabasaran written language was created on the basis of the Latin alphabet. In 1938 Latin was substituted by the Cyrillic alphabet. The creation of a written language enabled the Tabasarans to promote native education and culture, especially literature. Schools were opened in Khiv and Khuchni, and a branch of a secondary school in Tinit was given over to Tabasaran. For the first two years, schooling was in Tabasaran. The remainder was in Russian, but Tabasaran was available as an optional subject. A Tabasaran-language newspaper was founded, and there are some Tabasaran writers of note (M. Shakhalov, A. Djafarov). In 1960, a Tabasaran theatre company was founded in Khiv. On first consideration, all these enterprises appeared positive but beneath the surface not all was unquestionably beneficial. Although school gave people an education, it also vigorously propagated Soviet ideology and sought to restrict national awareness. The newspaper, though in Tabasaran, was very much a tool of the regime whose chief aim it was to assimilate the Tabasarans into a single Dagestan people.
Fortunately, some elements of Tabasaran society were maintained keeping alive some sense of national identity and culture. Islam was forcibly abolished and many Islamic customs were replaced by Soviet practices, however, some original traditions and customs were retained (principally those connected with weddings and funerals). Elderly people are the mainstays of tradition. The older generation also has a great influence on the upbringing of children, a factor which may prove vital to the transfer of traditions and wisdom to future generations.
Russian may have replaced Lezgi and Azerbaijani as the lingua franca but the Tabasarans are an almost fully bilingual people with 96.4 % of them fluent in their own native tongue. It is this, together with a steadily increasing birthrate, that might even confirm the survival of these people as a distinct ethnic entity.