Tribes and Dialects
Order the book
Like other peoples of the Lezgi-Samur group, Tsakhurs are aborigines of the Caucasus. Nowadays, they inhabit the mountains of the upper reaches of the River Samur in Dagestan.
Administratively the Tsakhur villages in Dagestan belong to the Rutul district and the three bordering Azerbaijani districts: Kakh, Zakataly and Belokany. There are 12 Tsakhur villages in Dagestan (the 4 largest are Tsakhur, Gelmets, Kurdul and Mikikh) and seven in Azerbaijan. Aside from these, Tsakhurs also live in 11 villages in Azerbaijan shared with other peoples (in Mukhakh, Zarna, Lyakit etc.). Their neighbours to the east and northeast are Rutuls and Lezgis, to the south Azerbaijanis, to the west Georgians and to the northwest Avars. There have been close contacts throughout history with the Azerbaijanis and the Rutuls. Since the habitat of the Tsakhurs is surrounded on all sides by high mountain ranges, contacts with the outer world could, in the past, only be made in summer, via hazardous mountain paths. Nowadays, contact is facilitated by highways.
Population. Statistics concerning the population of the Tsakhurs is available from 1887:
Religion. The Tsakhurs are Muslims (Sunnites) but their ceremonies and traditions retain many heathen peculiarities.
Anthropologically Tsakhurs belong to the Caspian type of the Balkano-Caucasian race. Certain characteristic features, like darker pigmentation (eyes, skin, hair) and a narrower face, differentiate them from other peoples in Dagestan.
History. A lack of archaeological data makes it impossible to be specific about the history of the Tsakhurs. The earliest written records date back to the sources of ancient Georgia and Armenia where Tsakhurs are called Tsakhaiks. There are notes about the Tsakhur Khanate, also commendations on their culture, their mighty buildings and fortresses. Until the 19th century, Tsakhurs had to fight a succession of fierce and bloody battles to maintain their freedom. Frequently, the encounters were with neighbours, but there were also engagements with more distant enemies: the Arabs (7th century), Tamerlane's army (1396), the Shahs of Shirvan (12th--14th centuries), Transcaucasian rulers (15th--16th centuries) and Turkish and Persian sultans (17th--18th centuries). By the 15th century a khan (later a sultan) had become head of the Tsakhur communities.
Initially, he governed only the area of what is presently Dagestan, but gradually territories in Azerbaijan were conquered and settled by Tsakhurs. Until the 17th century the Khan's residence was Tsakhur. Later it was transferred to Elisu in Transcaucasia and from then on, Turkish and Persian sources call it the Elisu Sultanate. In 1803 the Tsakhurs became subjects of the Russian Empire, but the sultanate was allowed to maintain its own internal politics. In the 1830s, Tsakhurs were involved in Shamil's uprising. First they fought on the side of the Russian troops, then, in 1844, they switched sides. As a result, in 1852, by the order of the Russian commander-in-chief, they were deported to Azerbaijan. Simultaneously, the Elisu Sultanate was dissolved. After the final annexation of Dagestan to Russia in the 1860s, the Tsakhurs were permitted to return to their native land.
Tsakhur society was rural and patriarchal, headed by a village elder. All decisions were made at village community meetings. Despite the supremacy of the Sultan of Elisu, the Tsakhur communities retained their independence. To preserve their position, the communities formed a union. Its higher authority was an assembled body to which every community was entitled to elect one envoy (kevh). In time an aristocracy developed which usurped the seats of the kevhs and made them hereditary. The dependence of the Tsakhurs on the Sultan of Elisu increased during the reign of Daniel-bek in the 1830/40s when, with the assistance of tsarist troops, he succeeded in subordinating most of the Tsakhur communities in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. The strength of the village community presumably lay in their strict endogamy. There is a Tsakhur proverb: "You must get your son, your wife and your bread from your native village". Endogamy has helped the Tsakhurs living in Azerbaijan to retain their identity and it has prevented them from being engulfed in an alien cultural environment.
The main economic activities of the Tsakhurs have been limited to livestock breeding. Land cultivation has been of less importance and of a low standard (the result of unfavourable natural conditions). Cattle and sheep were raised but the production was not sufficient, nor did it provide an all-year-round income. Additional income was brought in by migrant work. The first major economic boom period for the Tsakhurs was from 1856 to 1915. It came with the development of industrialization following the union with Russia. The number of horses increased twofold, the number of sheep threefold and the number of cattle sixfold. During the period of rapid economic growth, more marginal branches of production developed as well. The Tsakhurs were valued in the region as stonemasons, shoemakers and tailors, and their metalwork, jewelry, leather and wool products found their way to market outside Dagestan. The Soviet regime reached the Tsakhurs in the spring of 1920 and brought about numerous changes within the Tsakhur community -- many of which only became evident after World War II, with the consolidation of collectivization.
Animal husbandry is still the main area of production, although it is now more centrally regulated, due to the unification of the economy in Dagestan. In 1949 new winter pastures were allotted to the Tsakhurs. These were located in the Astrakhan province and were adjacent to the winter pastures of the kolkhozes of other peoples of Dagestan. Land cultivation remained of secondary importance. With the material improvement in living standards, there is no longer the necessity to take on migrant work. In times past all men had undertaken migrant work, but in 1970 barely 30 % continued to do so.
The Tsakhurs' everyday life has changed considerably. Obvious changes can be seen in Tsakhur households and in their clothing. Instead of the former one-story and one-room dwellings, multi-storey houses are common with numerous rooms. The Tsakhurs employ manufactured household goods and buy articles of food at the stores. The custom of wearing national costume is diminishing -- more so amongst the men than the women. The women, however, have given up wearing the chukhta (the cowl of the women of Dagestan), and a scarf or a woollen shawl is now tied around the head instead.
At all levels the intrusion of Soviet customs is apparent, from family relations to folk traditions. Owing to Marxist-Leninist propaganda and the socialist structure of the society, many old customs have been modified into a form suitable to the new ideology, while at the same time maintaining their meaning and connexion with the environment (wedding customs, ploughing and sowing celebrations).
Changes of similar kind have left their impact on the mental outlook of the people.
Education has been subjected to the ruling ideology. Before the Soviet regime, schooling was supervised by the Islamic clergy. According to the statistics of 1887, 48 Tsakhurs were able to read Arabic. In the nine-year school opened in Rutul in 1914, there were no Tsakhur pupils. The Soviet authorities introduced positive changes to schooling but they did not allow for Tsakhurs to receive an education in their mother tongue. From the first year, schooling was in Russian, which became the literary language for the Tsakhurs. Although a Tsakhur literary language was founded in 1932, on the basis of the Latin alphabet, it was never used.
The identity of a people is reflected in various ways: the language, population, culture, habitat and migration. With the Tsakhurs the most vulnerable issue seems to be the language. It is under pressure from Russian, which prevails as a literary language and the language of administration. However, because of the historical bilingualism of the people of Dagestan, the problem is not the threat it might be to minorities of other regions of the ex-Soviet Union. Russian, in the multi-ethnic society of Dagestan, has had the effect of a protecting shield since it has not exercised an immediate assimilating influence. The Tsakhur society is not endangered by immigration either, for the harsh natural conditions keep strangers away. Moreover, the trend is towards a growth in population. Circumstances are the most unfavourable in regard to Tsakhur folk culture and to the unity of their habitat. Although the Tsakhurs have maintained contact as people through the centuries, despite administrative ruptures, the present political situation is not encouraging: the Tsakhur habitat is no longer divided by two different parts of an empire, but by two entirely new countries -- the independent Azerbaijan and Russia.