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ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: "Qumïq," from which derive the Russian and Nogay "Kumïk" and the Chechen "Ghumki"; in the languages of the mountain people of Daghestan the Kumyks are generally called "dwellers of the lowlands"


Identification and Location. The Kumyks live in flatlands and foothills, in all the cities of the Daghestan Republic, and in part of Chechen-Ingushia and North Ossetia. Their own territory runs from the Terek River in the north to the Bashlychai and the Ulluchai in the southan area known as the Kumyk plain. The foothills consists of ridges with an average elevation of 500 to 700 meters. To the east Kumykia is bounded by the Caspian Sea into which flow the Terek, Sulak, Gamri-ozen and other rivers; some of the rivers do not reach the sea. There are few lakes in the Kumyk plain. The climate is moderate to warm (continental) with dry and hot summers, rainy autumns, and cool winters with little snow; the average year-round temperature is 11° C. In the Terek-Sulak lowlands the annual precipitation only reaches 20 to 30 centimeters, but in the foothills it is somewhat greater.

Demography. The overall Kumyk population is 282,200 (1989), of which 231,800 live in Daghestan; population growth during the last decade has been 23.5 percent. Until the 1950s and 1960s the Kumyks formed a fairly homogeneous community, but now, with the massive resettlement of mountaineers onto the Kumyk plain, the territorial unity of the Kumyks has been disrupted and the population density on the plain has sharply increased. In terms of physical anthropology, the Kumyks belong to the Caucasian type with an admixture of the Caspian type.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kumyk language belongs to the Kipchak Subgroup of the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Family, while manifesting, however, elements of the languages of the Bulgars and Khazars (ninth and tenth centuries) and the Oghuz Turks (eleventh and twelfth centuries). Roughly from the seventeenth until the beginning of the twentieth century, Kumyk served as a language of interethnic communication in the northeastern Caucasus. The language today consists of five dialects, with the Khasavyurt and Buinaksk dialects serving as the basis of the literary language.

History and Cultural Relations

The Kumyks are one of the indigenous peoples of Daghestan. The ethnonym itself is mentioned by Ptolemy (second century a.d.), Mohammed of Kashgar (eleventh century), P. Carpini (thirteenth century), and others. At various historical periods, the ancestors of the Kumyks must have entered into the Hunnic Confederacy, and those of the Sabirs, the Barsils, the Bulgars, the Khazars, the Kipchaks, and others. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the following political formations existed: the Tarkov Shamkhalate, the Mekhtul Khanate, and the Endireev, Kostekov, and Aksai domains. The southern Kumyks became part of the Kaitag utsmiate (principality). A special place was occupied by the Tarkov shamkhal, who was called the vali (ruler) of Daghestan. He commanded unlimited power although periodically he gathered a council (majlis ) together for decisions on important goals. The shamkhal did not have a standing army but did have a large number of men-at-arms; his vassals included appanage princes (biy, bek ) and ministers (vazir ). Almost the same system was observed in other domains of Kumykia. After the union with Russia the supreme power was concentrated in the hands of the czarist military command.

Language and Literacy

The tribes that played some role in the ethnogenesis of the Kumyks used the Caucasian Albanian and Runic scripts (to at least some extent). There is information to the effect that a writing system was created for the Daghestan Huns (the Sabirs or Savirs) by Byzantine-Armenian missionaries, and another, based on the Greek alphabet, in the Khazar period. From the eighth to the tenth centuries the Arabic script gradually spread to the area and was adapted (in the twentieth century) to the sound systems of the local languages (ajam ). In 1928 the Arabic script was supplanted by the Latin alphabet, and in 1938 by the Russian (Cyrillic).


The basic type of settlement was the village; the term avul usually referred to a village quarter. Many ancient and medieval towns were located in Kumyk territory (Semender, Belenjer, Targhu, Enderi, etc.), as are the majority of modern Daghestanian towns and cities (Makhachkala, Buinaksk, Khasavyurt, etc.). There were also small Cossack-style villages (khutor ), which typically grew into larger settlements. As a result of many military events in the period of the Arab-Khazar wars, the Mongol invasion, the Caucasus wars, and so forth, a number of Kumyk settlements were wiped out, but in the majority of cases they were reestablished in times of peace. In the period of conquest by czarist Russia and later, Russian forts and even settlements were built on the Kumyk plain, which was settled in part by Nogays, Chechens, Avars, and Dargins, each constituting separate communities or settling into Kumyk villages. The old settlements of Kumykia were more often situated on high points for defensive purposes (albeit with horizontal layout).

There are three types of Kumyk dwelling: (1) one-story on a low foundation; (2) one-and-a-half story on a high stone foundationmore recently including a large cellar; and (3) two-story. The lack of natural building material (stone, wood) and the presence of the requisite quantity of land contributed to the predominance of the one-story house among the lowland Kumyks; among those in the foothills, on the other hand, taller buildings were more common. In their internal layout all the rooms were situated in a row, or in an L-shape (when there were more than two rooms in the house), or in a U-shape (if there were three or more rooms). The rooms were usually joined by a gallery running along the front facade. Along the ceiling, supporting the beams, was a horizontal purlin of heavy, finished wood. The purlin was supported in its center by a thick central beam. The doors and windows were massive, made out of single-piece oak planks. The roofs were of clay mixed with straw and gravel, and flat (among the northern Kumyks they were close to being gabled). In the house of a well-to-do Kumyk, every room had its specific function. The most space was given to the kitchen. There was a special room for guests; princes and feudal lords constructed separate guest lodgings in the courtyard. One room was used for storing food. The remainder were bedrooms. All porches, windows, and doors usually faced south or southeast (to catch more sun for warmth). The house was heated by a fireplace. In the second half of the nineteenth century stoves began to be used in each room, similar to those used for baking bread (which had previously been built in the courtyard and on the porch of the first floor). Iron stoves appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. Steam heat is often used now and, for the preparation of food, gas ranges and coal stoves. The courtyard was protected by a wall of stone, adobe, or wattle. The courtyards usually had oak gates with covered passages and massive shutters.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Kumyk economy has been based on agriculture since ancient times. The Kumyks knew the three-field system of crop rotation and artificial irrigation. Land was periodically left fallow. Exploitable land was of four kinds: plow land, hay fields, woodlands, and pasture. The next most important branch of the economy was animal husbandry, the development of which was facilitated by the presence of plentiful fodder. Sheep and cattle were raised for milk and meat. Cattle were also used as draft animals, whereas horses were primarily for riding. Water buffalo were also bred. Livestock were driven to distant pastures: the inhabitants of Mountain Daghestan rented winter pastures in the plains from the Kumyks, whereas the latter used the summer pastures of the mountaineers on the same rental basis. These regulated, centuries-long traditions greatly facilitated the formation of a communality of the economic interests of the Daghestanians and a rational division of labor. Long before the nineteenth century in Kumykia, communal property in land had yielded place to feudal land use. In the nineteenth century there already existed three kinds of land use: private, state, and ecclesiastical (waqf the land belonging to the mosque). Private landownership was subdivided into large feudal holdings and small, privately owned plots of land. After the establishment of Soviet power, land was nationalized. Favorable natural conditions, proximity to the sea, and the presence of rivers contributed to the emergence of fishing. The extraction of salt and oil also had some significance in the economy; the Kumyks supplied the larger part of Mountain Daghestan. Owing to the division of labor between the plains and mountains of Daghestan, and also to the relatively early diffusion of Russian manufactured goods, different aspects of arts and crafts developed early among the Kumyks. Together with this, many branches of cottage industry and crafts continued to play an important role: the preparation of woolen and cotton textiles; working in leather, wood, metal, and stone; rug weaving; pottery and the manufacture of arms. The most important trade routes of the eastern Caucasus (including the Silk Route) passed through Kumykia, which served as the main breadbasket for many regions of Daghestanall of which brought about and continues to promote the significant role of trade. The economy of the Kumyks was on the whole quite complex: the feudal system was relatively highly developed in the lowlands, as were capitalistic relations in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Clothing. The light underclothing of men consisted of a tunic-shaped shirt and pants; riding breeches became popular at the start of the twentieth century. Over the shirt the Kumyk wore a quilted coat (qaptal ) sewn of dark textiles (in winter and for work) or light-colored textiles (summer)wool, silk, or cotton. The quilted coat was gradually replaced by the Caucasian shirt, over which was worn a collarless Caucasian coat (which in the case of the wealthy upper class of Kumyk society was sewn of white camel skin but, more usually, of imported cloth or cotton of various colors). Rows of little cartridge pockets were sewn on both sides of this coat, which was donned when receiving guests and in public places. In the winter a sheepskin coat was worn on top of the Caucasian shirt or coat. Coats for the most important occasions were made from the white skins of young lambs, everyday coats from ordinary sheepskin. The Kumyk feudal upper class and bourgeoisie wore sable, ermine, ferret, and beaver coats made of imported Russian furs. The burka (Caucasian felt coat) served as an outer garment, a defense against rain, cold, and wind. Male footwear included socks of spun wool, light shoes of morocco leather, work shoes from entire pieces of buckskin, and slippers and galoshes of morocco or fine leather (but with a thick sole). In the nineteenth century prosperous Kumyks began to wear fashionable boots with long tops and high heels. The Kumyk headgear was usually a sheepskin hat or a cowl. After the unification of Daghestan with Russia, imported city dress of the European type began to enter the Kumyk milieu.

In the Middle Ages Kumyk warriors wore coats of mail consisting of a metal shirt with short sleeves, an iron or steel helmet, an iron shield, and a quiver; in battle they carried bows and arrows, spears, sabers, and poles with wedge-shaped bayonets; most wore daggers (kinzhal ). In the seventeenth century the Kumyks also used firearms: unrifled guns, pistols, and cannon. Arms were both of local manufacture and of Turkish, Russian, and English make.

Women's attire, to a greater degree than men's, had many local variations. The inner layer of clothing included a long tunic with a front opening; a second part consisted of a close-fitting top attached to a long, wide skirt, gathered at the waist and wide trousers. Outer clothing included an open dress with a long, wide skirt and sleeves that were sewn only to the elbows, below which they hung loose; a closed dress with a fitted and lined top and a long, wide skirt with normal cuffed sleeves; and a ceremonial dress like the open dress but with an insert sewn in and separately cut double sleeves. Women's sheepskin coats had large gores and (unlike men's) were fastened with buckles or clasps; they were longer than the men's but sleeves came down only to the elbows. Female footwear was primarily woolen socks, Caucasian slippers, and leather bootsdistinguished from the men's by more decoration, more refined manufacture from more select materials, and brighter color. On their heads the Kumyk women wore a fillet (chutqu ) in the form of a sack that opened toward the top and the bottom, sewn from satin or wool, which held their braided hair. Over this fillet they tied a large handkerchief of silk, tulle, or calico. These handkerchiefs were varied, selected with regard to age and situation (holiday, mourning, and so forth). Decorations, hanging free or sewn to clothing, included silver decorated with filigree, embossed buckles in the form of small long fish, small sequins, and all sorts of buttons, usually of silver, which were sewn onto the sleeves, the belt, or the front. Adornments worn separately included a broad silver belt, sometimes with a gold or gilded mounting for precious stones, or, for the less wealthy women, of galloons with several rows of sewn-on silver coins; a special type of close-fitting necklace that consisted of twenty to twenty-five small gold or silver plates strung on two strings; ornaments in the form of long, narrow gilded-silver buckles sewn onto a breast cloth of velvet or plush; beads shaped like barley kernels attached to gold or silver plates or coins; corals; earrings; rings; and bracelets. All these decorations were made of gold or silver, often richly ornamented and decorated with precious stones. Mostly they were produced in Daghestan, but some were imported.

Food. Kumyk cuisine included khinkal, a wheat-flour dumpling lightly boiled in a rich meat bouillion and served with a gravy of sour cream (or sour milk, tomatoes, nuts, etc.) and garlic; a dumpling of maize meal; various kinds of soup (with beans, rice, spaghetti, groats, and the like); kyurze, a kind of ravioli stuffed with meat (with curds, pumpkin, pluck, nettles, etc.); a kind of pie of the same ingredients; dolma, grape or cabbage leaves stuffed with sausage and rice; pilaf; shashlik; a kind of scrambled eggs; meat sauce; rice porridge; maize or wheat porridge cooked in milk or water; a thin porridge of wheat flour browned in butter or fat; halvah of flour and sugar in hot fat or butter; halvah with nuts; and other types. This is far from a full list of the Kumyk national dishes; many local variations could be added. There also were pies, breads, fritters, preserves, beverages, and so on. Tea, coffee, cocoa, and many alcoholic beverages are among the borrowed or imported beverages.

Division of Labor. Among the Kumyks there was a fairly clear-cut division of labor by age and gender: men took care of the sheep, goats, and working livestock and their pasture, as well as the bulk of the fieldwork and tasks such as making hay, and collecting firewood; women took care of milk animals but in general were more concerned with the domestic economy, the care of the home, and many domestic industries (sewing, weaving, etc.). Children learned the tasks pertaining to their gender. Public opinion censured adult children if their elderly parents engaged in heavy physical labor.


Kinship Groups. Long before the nineteenth century the Kumyk clan (called tukhum in the northern Caucasus, taipa, qavum, or fins in Kumyk) underwent profound changes, although tukhum relations continued to play a significant role in later periods. Relatives in the paternal line were part of the tukhum only as far as the third degree (normally 100 to 150 persons); the degree of kinship had great significance. There were specific terms for (patrilateral) first cousins of either gender (uzuqariler ), second cousins (qariyanlar ), and their children (ariyanlar ), whereas all more distant relatives were simply called by a generic term (qardashlar or tukhumlar ). Nonkin ties also played a significant role, especially those involving the rearing of children in another house or mutual relations between guests. The tukhum was endogamous. In the nineteenth century it was not the entire tukhum but a subgroup of closely related families that played the primary role in kinship relations; eventually rule by the elders was replaced by the rule of a wealthy upper tier, although the elders continued to have a significant place in kindred and council. Today tukhum relations have weakened considerably, although their maintenance, particularly among close relatives, is considered to be good sense and a matter of honor.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage and divorce were governed by Sharia (Quranic law). Marriage took place at age 15 or 16 (or later). A specially entrusted person (arachï ) carried on the negotiations with the parents of the girl and, when the chances for a favorable courtship were good, matchmakers were sent. A kalim (bride-price) was paid for the bride, part of which went to her relatives and part to buy the dowry. In addition, the husband had to make a payment (gebinhaq ) that guaranteed some security to the wife and children in case of divorce or the death of the husband. The betrothal was marked by formalities. To fix the conditions that had been accepted by both parties, something of value was given to the parents of the bride. The wedding was conducted with due pomp, and all the villagers were usually invited. The groom remained in the house of a close friend, where celebrations also took place, albeit in a narrower circle.

Domestic Unit. In the nineteenth century the basic domestic unit was the nuclear family, although there were also undivided families (and familial communes of twenty-five to thirty people). The natural growth of the family led to the segmentation of the commune, usually at the death of the head of the family. (The family head was usually the oldest man, but also one distinguished by his experience, a competent organizer, and a skillful workeror, less commonly, a senior woman, who likewise enjoyed irrefutable authority.) New families consisting of three or four generations of relatives were headed by the sons of the deceased leader. All members of the family obeyed the head, but for important questions the main role was played by the family council, which was comprised of all adult men and some older, more experienced women. The family maintained and developed many-sided relations within the village commune, regulating the productive, sociopolitical, and cultural life of the village.

Inheritance. All property and food products were considered to be owned by the entire family. The possessions of members of a family consisted of property that had been transmitted to them through inheritance or acquired through the common labor of the family. A woman's dowry was considered her personal property. If a man initiated a divorce, the woman retained everything that she had brought from her parents' house and, in addition, the payment she had received on entering into the marriage. Some types of property (mills, sometimes land) continued to be owned jointly by the members of a large family even after a general division (they took turns using it, or divided the income). The youngest son ordinarily remained in the paternal home, conducting a joint household with his parents. On division of the family household, only the men had rights to the property. A young woman could count only on her dowry. The head of the family had a right to a supplementary part of the property, particularly when unmarried daughters or other relatives remained living with him. If the family consisted of several generations, the property was divided among the oldest brothers. The development of trade and financial relations and of private property, as well as peasant reform, led to the shift from large family units to small family ones.

Socialization. The severity of custom and the ascetic, spartan form of life, did not traditionally allow a man to take part in the raising of small children or to display parental feelings. The woman was occupied with the rearing of children, although, in the presence of strangers or outsiders, she, too, was expected not to caress her children or show her feelings. The education of boys differed from that of girls; it was instilled into a boy that he was called to defend those close to him in the future, to play an independent role in the family and in society, and to become a good worker in the fields. In the girl, on the other hand, a complaisant or obliging character was cultivated; she was taught to care for children and to do housework. All of this was realized by means of a native pedagogy involving instruction in work, play, ritual, and children's folklore.

Sociopolitical Organization

Government and the judiciary were based on both adat (common law) and Sharia (Quranic law). Most cases involving murder, wounding, beating, theft, arson, adultery, abduction, false witness, lawsuits, and the like were decided on the basis of adat. Quranic law applied to cases concerning wills, guardianship, the purchase and sale of slaves, the division of property, and marital questions. Common-law court was presided over by experienced and influential elders from among the aristocracy and free peasantry (uzden ), whereas Quranic law was executed by religious judges (qadis ). There was also an arbitration court, the judgment of which was considered final. In addition to witnesses, jurors played a major role in the judicial process, especially when the cases were to be decided on the basis of suspicion. If the criminal was not known, informers were used in the investigation. The decisions could be changed by the feudal authorities or the czarist administration. The communal assembly of the men gathered for important matters.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Sunni Islam spread among the Kumyks between the eight and twelfth centuries. Christianity had been widespread prior to this and, among the upper class of Khazaria, Judaism. Not many pagan beliefs have been preserved, and the institution of shamanism as such is virtually nonexistant among the Kumyks. Folklore and ethnographic material, however, indicate that Kumyk tribes worshiped the high god Tengiri and the divinities and spirits of the sun, the moon, the earth, the water, and so on. There are surviving heroic poems, narratives, and ritual songs concerning, among others, the demon Albaslï (a woman with huge breasts thrown over her shoulders, who might injure women giving birth); Suv-anasï, the "mother of water"; the three demons Temirtösh, Baltatösh, and Qïlïchtösh (with ax blades protruding from their chests with which they kill people); Sütqatïn, a goddess or spirit of the rain; Basdïrïq, who could suffocate people in their sleep; and a gluttonous figure. The subsequent spread of Islamic mythology often transformed or provided an overlay to the pagan beliefs. Today Muslim and, in particular, pagan beliefs are becoming things of the past.

Arts. In houses of the older type great significance was attached to the carving of the wooden parts of houses: beams, pillars, clothes closets, shutters, the frames of windows and gates, and the like. Stone slabs with traditional carvings and inscriptions were inserted in the walls of porches or gates. Clay decorations were placed on niches, apertures, cornices, and fireplaces. The spacing of decorations was based on the native sense of decorative rhythms. Daggers, pistols, sabers, and rifles were covered with various decorations with gold or silver mounting. Female attire, particularly that of girls, was decorated with gold and silver galloons or lace, or artfully realized gilded pectorals.

The Kumyk people have created highly artistic forms of folklore. Their heroic epics include the ancient "Song of Minküllü," similar to the Gilgamesh epic; the "Song of Kartkozhak and Maksuman," a segment of the Kumyk Nart epic; and the "Song of Javatbi," in which, as in the Oghuz epic of Dede Korkut, the tale is told of the struggle of the hero with Azrail, the angel of death. Poetry of the yearly cycle includes songs for bringing rain ("Zemire," "Sütqatïn"), for meeting autumn ("Güdürbay," "Hüssemey") and spring ("Navruz"), and family-ritual songs: wedding songs and laments. Children's literature is also significantly developed, as are myths, legends, and tales. The epics include songs of legendary heroes such as Aigazi, Abdulla, and Eldarush and the heroes of the anti-colonial and anticzarist struggles of the nineteenth century. To the relatively late genres of Kumyk folklore belong the songs about the freedom-loving Cossack warriors, the takmaks and sarïns (quatrains used in verbal dueling), amatory verse, and humorous and other songs. The telling of proverbs and maxims also flowered. Kumyk dance, which has about twenty variants, is related to Lezgin dance. Characteristic of its choreography are compositional precision, a clearly expressed manner of realization (powerful and masculine by the men; tranquil and proud by the women), a complex pattern, and a duple rhythm. Vocal art is also highly developed, particularly the male polyphonic choir. Dances and songs are accompanied by a kumuz (a plucked string instrument), an accordion, or less often a wind instrument. Solo folk songs are also performed on these instruments.

Kumyk literature began to develop in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but reached a more significant development at the turn of the nineteenth century when poets such as A. Qaqashurinsky, Y Qazaq, and M. Osmanov appeared. Major contributions to Daghestan Soviet literature were made by A. Salavadov, A. Magomedov, A. Adzhiev, and many others. The Russian poet Arseni Tarkovsky is a Kumyk on his paternal side, as is his son, the internationally known film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Kumyk theater, the first in Daghestan, was created in 1930; it has featured such outstanding Daghestani actors as Stanislavsky Prize laureate B. Muradova. I. Kaziev has played a significant role in the development of Daghestan cinematic art. T. Muradov, I. Batalbekova, Z. Aleksenderov, and B. Ibragimova are particularly popular actors.

Medicine. Native healers used herbs, foods, and water; practiced bloodletting and massage; and applied compresses and other poultices together with magical techniques of great antiquity. In Soviet times highly qualified medical personnel have emerged (e.g., R. P. Askerkhanov, corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences).

Death and the Afterlife. In funeral ritual and poetry, side by side with Islamic regulations (particularly regarding the process of burial) and beliefs or concepts regarding the afterlife, are elements of pagan beliefs and even certain rituals and songs, for example, shaghalai (a singular type of keening and ritual dances around the deceased) and a ritual of dedicating a horse to the deceased.


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Adzhiev, A. M. (1983). Kumykskaia narodnaia poeziia (Kumyk folk poetry). Makhachkala.

Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 147-151. London: KPI.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, 169-170. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gadzhieva, S. Sh. (1961). Kumyki (The Kumyks). Moscow.

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SAKINAT SH. GADZHIEVA AND A. M. ADZHIEV (Translated by Paul Friedrich and Johanna Nichols)