The Aghuls are one of the indigenous peoples of Daghestan, culturally and linguistically akin to the Lezgins and Tabasarans. Traditionally the Aghuls identified themselves only by their village name (Khutkhul, Khorej, etc.).
The Aghuls inhabit twenty-one settlements in four valleys in the southern highlands of Daghestan. Sixteen of the settlements—including Tpig, the largest—are situated in Aghuldere ("the valley of the Aghuls"), which is believed to be the original homeland of this ethnic group. Until recently the Aghul villages were reachable only by narrow mountain pathways, frequently rendered impassable by landslides and snowfall. (The situation improved in the 1930s with the opening of an automobile road between Tpig and the Lezgin village of Kasumkent). The immediate neighbors of the Aghuls are the Lezgins to the south, the Rutuls to the west, the Dargins and Kaitaks to the north, and the Tabasarans to the east. After the annexation of Daghestan by the Soviet Union, the Aghul territories, along with those of the Lezgins, were incorporated in the Kurakh Raion (district) of the Daghestan Autonomous Republic within the Russian Federated Republic.
The earliest enumeration of the Aghuls, in 1886, gave their population as 6,522. The 1979 census counted 12,078 Aghuls, a sharp rise from the 1970 figure of 8,831. About 95 percent of the Aghuls live in the Daghestan Republic, and over 99 percent claim Aghul as their native language.
The Aghul language belongs to the Lezghians (Samurian) Subgroup of the Daghestanian Group of the Northeast Caucasian Family. It is most closely related to Tabasaran. Aghul has never been used as a written language; writing is done in Russian or, for local purposes, Lezgin. Knowledge of Lezgin, Russian, and sometimes other local languages (Lak, Dargin, Tabasaran) is widespread among the men. In earlier times Aghul women were largely monolingual, a situation that has changed with the introduction of universal education.
In the eighteenth century the Aghuls of the Aghuldere were under the hegemony of the Kazikumukh khans. The other Aghul valleys were under the control of other feudal rulers—for example, the qadis (Islamic judges) of Tabasaran. With the conquest of Daghestan by the Russian Empire in the early nineteenth century the Aghul valleys, along with part of the Lezgin territory, became part of the Kyurin Okrug (region).
The typical Aghul mountain village was set along the mountain slope at the head of a river valley, with the buildings ranged more or less in rows going up the slope, giving the impression of a large amphitheater. The individual houses often shared walls and roofs with their neighbors. This sort of village was the easiest to defend from enemies; under the relatively more peaceful conditions of the past century the Aghuls have established settlements in the more accessible downriver regions of their valleys.
Each village had a central square, with a mosque and a place for village council meetings, community festivals, and the like. The villages were divided into three or four quarters, corresponding to clan (tukhum ) groupings. Each Aghul village also had one or more defense towers.
The traditional Aghul dwelling was of the typical Daghestanian type. The hearth was placed at the center of the main room, and external light was admitted through small rectangular openings that could be boarded up from within if necessary for defense. One noteworthy feature of Aghul domestic layout is the division of the interior space into two halves, not for the two sexes (as is the case elsewhere in the Caucasus) but for family and guests. Upon arrival visitors traditionally went directly to their quarters, removed their traveling clothes and weapons, relaxed for a while, and only then came out to be greeted by their hosts. The Aghuls do not pronounce toasts at table, an omission almost unheard of in other Caucasian communities.
Because the harshness of the mountain winters, stock breeding (primarily sheep and cattle) was of greater importance than agriculture in the traditional Aghul economy. As was the case with other Daghestanian mountaineers, the Aghuls grazed their sheep in high mountain pastures during the summer and, if possible, drove them to lowland pastures for the winter. Unfortunately for poorer Aghuls, these winter pastures were outside of Aghul territory and had to be rented from Lezgins, Tabasarans, or Azeris. Those peasants who could not afford to rent pastures had to stable their animals in the village, where the risk of running out of winter food stocks was always present. Agriculture, to the extent the Aghuls practiced it, was extremely labor-intensive, limited to the hardiest of grains (rye, barley, wheat), and imperiled by frequent hailstorms and frost. The yield was seldom sufficient for the needs of the Aghul communities, and they had to obtain additional grain through trade. The introduction of contemporary farming methods during the Soviet period has increased the yields and the variety of crops grown in Aghul territory.
In the past many Aghul men left their villages during the winter to seek work in the lowlands, principally in the urban centers of the region (Derbent, Baku, Kuba). In many Aghul villages only women, children, and the elderly remained throughout the year.
Because of the rugged topography of the Aghul territory, contact with neighboring ethnic groups was more restricted than would have been the case at lower elevations. The Aghuls were most frequently in contact with the Lezgins, apparently a long-standing relationship. In particular, the Aghuls made use of the bazaars in the large Lezgin village of Kasumkent. The Aghuls brought cheese, butter, wool, and woolen products, which they exchanged for grain and manufactured goods.
The apportioning of tasks according to gender is roughly the same as in other Daghestanian mountain communities. One distinctive feature is that men perform all tasks associated with sheepherding, not only pasturing and shearing but also milking and the preparation of dairy products from sheep's milk. Women are responsible for the care of the cattle, which remain in the vicinity of the village throughout the year.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
As elsewhere in Daghestan, the Aghuls were divided into tukhums (clans), comprising twenty to forty households. Each tukhum had its own cemetery, pastures, and hay fields, and the members were bound by obligations of mutual support and defense. The Aghuls tended to practice endogamy within the tukhum—marriages with outsiders were very rare. In the past the Aghuls lived in extended family households, though not especially large ones (fifteen to twenty members, on the average). A senior male, father or eldest brother, functioned as chief, with fairly broad authority over the affairs of the household and its members. Should the extended family split up, sisters—even those who had already married and left the household—received a portion of the land as well as the movable property. They were each apportioned one-half of the land share given to each of their brothers, a practice that was unusually generous by Daghestanian standards.
Each Aghul village had a village council, on which each of the three or four tukhums were represented. The council was headed by an elder. The village mullah and qadi also played an important role in local affairs. In some cases the wealthier tukhums exerted a disproportionate strong influence on village government.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Like their neighbors the Kaitaks, the Aghuls were converted to Sunni Islam at a fairly early date, subsequent to the Arab conquest of the eighth century.
"Aguly" (Aghuls) (1960). In Narody Kavkaza (The peoples of the Caucasus), edited by M. O. Kosven et al. Vol. 1, 529-536. Moscow: Akademiia Nauk.
Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 171-175. London: KPI.
Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, 169. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.