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ETHNONYM: Tabassarans


Identification. The Tabasarans are an ethnic group of the former USSR; they live in southeastern Daghestan (the Khiv and Tabasaran districts, or raions ), and some have resettled in the lowlands (in the villages of Mamedkala and Daghestanskie Ogni in the Derbent District) and the foothills (of the Tabasaran District). Their neighbors to the north are the Kaitag Dargins, with the Lezgins to the south, the Aghuls to the west, and the Azerbaijanis to the east. The largest Tabasaran settlements are the villages of Khiv, Turag, Khurik, Mezhgül, Kondik, Tinit, Sïrtïch, and Khuchni. The Tabasaran territory comprises two natural geographic zones: the upper Rubas Basin in the north and the left bank of the central Chirakh-Chai and the upper Charchag-Su rivers in the south. For the most part the territory is foothills, but part of it is plains, mountains, and valleys.

Location. The climate is moderate to warm, with a relatively mild winter, a hot summer (especially in the valleys), and a rainy and humid autumn. The climatic conditions make the mountains favorable for summer pastures and the plateaus for winter pastures. The Caspian Sea also exerts a significant influence on the climate: in the summer it moderates the temperature and increases the atmospheric humidity, and in winter it insulates Daghestan against cold air masses from Central Asia and western Siberia.

Demography. The Tabasarans in the USSR numbered 75,000 in 197971,700 of them in Daghestan. The average population density is about 20 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tabasaran language belongs to the Lezghian Subbranch of the Daghestanian Group of Northeast Caucasian (Nakh-Daghestanian). Other languages widely used in Tabasaran territory are Azerbaijani in the Tabasaran District and Lezgin in the Khiv District. Russian is also widely known. The development of writing in the Tabasaran area was connected with the spread of Islam. The first written documents in Arabic are dated to the tenth to eleventh centuries, and writing in Tabasaran (using Arabic script) to the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries.

History and Cultural Relations

The Tabasarans are one of the indigenous groups of the Caucasus. In antiquity they were part of Caucasian Albania, and, when it fell, Tabasaran came to figure as an independent region in the historical sources. One of the first references to the Tabasarans is found in the writings of the Armenian author Fawstos Buzand (fourth to fifth centuries), who mentions an independent army of "Tabaspors." The classical Armenian author Egishe (fifth century), noting the peoples and tribes who were enlisted by the Armenian ruler Vasak, includes among them "the entire army of mountain and lowlands Tabasporan and the entire fortified inaccessible mountain country." They are mentioned in a seventh-century Armenian geography book under the name of "Tabaspars." Until the twelfth century there were two feudal estates on the Tabasaran territory, one in the north headed by a qadi (a judge in Quranic law) and one in the south headed by a maysum (a judge in customary or adat law). These were divided into smaller political units headed by begs. In addition to these feudal estates there were unions of village societies (Kïrakh, Churkul, Kukhruk, Suvak, Nitrig, Drich, and others). Tabasaran became part of Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Most Tabasaran settlements are ancient. Whether settlements have a vertical or horizontal plan depends on geography. In the mountains, settlements were located on slopes. There were no straight streets, since the location of streets depended on such factors as topography and kinship ties. The oldest type of settlement is the small village in which a single kin collective (tukhum ) lived. At some stage of historical development the kin-based settlements began to break up and were replaced by larger villages consisting of several blocks based on kin groups. By the nineteenth century the principle of kinship-based settlement was no longer dominant, yielding to purely territorially based settlements. Only the territorial principle is followed today. The social division of the village is into blocks. In many villages the name of the block corresponded to the name of a kin group; villages preserving no memory of kin-based blocks are in a minority. In addition to the division into kin-based blocks, every village also had a topographic division into a zaan mahal (upper quarter) and askan mahal (lower quarter). In every village there was a gathering place (gim, godekan ), usually adjacent to the blacksmith's shop and later to the mosque, where important economic and social questions concerning the whole village were decided and where men met for conversation. Every village cemetery had plots for the individual tukhums, a tradition that persists to the present day. Some villages had cemeteries for each tukhum (Zildik, Chere, Tinit, Julzhag, and others). Structures belonging to the entire community included military towers and mosques. All villages changed in appearance during the years of Soviet power. Sometimes whole new blocks with special buildings for social and cultural activities arose next to old villages. A number of new villages have arisen in the lowlands, with wide straight streets, running water, electricity, and plantings.

The traditional houses are made of stone and are usually two-storied, with living quarters on the second story and large loggias, a gallery with an arcade, or overhanging balconies; these buildings were joined with the other household work buildings into a single complex. Hay barns were constructed separately and placed next to the house or at the edge of the settlement. In mountain settlements there were three-story and occasionally even four-story buildings. Buildings were L-shaped, U-shaped, or square with a flat earthen roof and an internal court. Many had a central support column, the murkhval, often decorated with wood carving. The principal building materials were stone, wood, and clay. Houses were decorated with carved stone detailing with various signs and cosmological symbolscircles, rosettes, swastikasand depictions of animals such as lions and deer. A good deal of wood went into the construction: wide window and door frames, corbels for cornices, column supports, the upper part of the wooden staircase leading to the second story, loggia, and window supports, all decorated with ornamental carving. The wooden elements of the facade, as well as the beams, were smeared with oil to prevent rot. The rooms in the living quarters had hearths (gamu ), and the walls had niches for beds, dishes, and other household items. The interior decoration included rugs; chests (decorated with carving) for grain and other food products; wooden bed frames with shelves underneath; low stools; trunks; children's dolls; dishes; utensils of pottery, wood, or copper; and a loom for weaving rugs. During Soviet times two-story houses were built with large windows, slate or metal roofs, and yards (with orchards, vines, and/or gardens). National traditions are preserved in the plan and decoration of modern dwellings.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The economy is based on agriculture and horticulture (wheat, rye, millet, buckwheat, German wheat, maize, peas and beans, melons and other gourds) and also viticulture and animal husbandry. In the foothills heavy livestock (cows, bulls, steers) was kept in nearby pastures and stalls, whereas sheep were pastured in the more distant mountains and upper foothills. In the past the Tabasarans also cultivated madder, flax, and cotton. The main grain-raising zones are the flatlands and the foothills. Artificial irrigation is used. The main implements for plowing in the past were the light mountain plow in the highlands and a heavier type in the lowlands. With the technology accompanying the Soviet collectivized economy, new forms of cultivation were appropriated and the acreage devoted to horticulture and viticulture was increased.

Clothing. The traditional male attire was generic Caucasian: shirt, pants, quilted coat, cherkeska (collarless Circassian coat), felt cloak, sheepskin coat and cap, footwear of leather with cloth or felt gaiters, knitted woolen socks, soft leather shoes, and heelless slippers with wooden soles. As adornments men wore belts with buckles, pendants, disks, a dagger, and a cartridge belt. The traditional female attire consisted of a tuniclike dress, pantaloons, a headdress and kerchiefs, a belt with a silver buckle, a pendant on the breast made of silver coins, a pendant on the forehead, and an apron decorated with coins, rings, earrings, and bracelets. Adornment to the dress included silver clasps, pendants, coins, and small disks. Footwear consisted of leather Caucasian slippers and woolen socks with floral designs. Children's clothing was of the same type as that of adults. The traditional costume, almost supplanted by contemporary clothing, is partly maintained among the women as domestic attireshirt, wide pantaloons, kerchiefs for the head, woolen socks, and some adornments. Light blue, green, and red are preferred colors for clothing. Old men still wear the traditional headgear, and the felt cloak is still part of the professional attire of shepherds.

Food. The basis of the traditional Tabasaran diet was grains, beans, wild herbs, meat, and milk. The basic daily dishes were dumplings (khinkals ), with or without meat and with a dressing of sour milk with garlic and ground nuts. They also prepared pies stuffed with herbs; curds; rice boiled in milk; minced meat; stuffings of tripe, eggs, and milk; and pancakes. Meat was eaten roasted or boiled. They prepared ravioli, pilaf, and porridge (of grains and flour). Many dishes used poultry meat. Milk products included fresh and sour milk, curds, sour cream, butter, and cheese. Both leavened and unleavened breads were made. The Tabasarans ate vegetables, greens, fruits (both orchard-grown and wild), and sweets. The basic beverage was airan (made from buttermilk). Some mildly alcoholic beverages were known (buza and ukhrag ). Festival dishes included halvah, mutton roasted on a spit, chicken pie, a dish made of dried sheep's feet (quyir ), ground wheat, peas, and aluga (a porridge made of flour from oven-ripened wheat). The cuisine today is also distinguished by the variety of milk, meat, grain, and vegetable dishes and fruit and vegetable preserves (jams, pickles, compotes, marinades).

Industrial Arts. The traditional trades were rug weaving (the known centers were Khuchni, Arkit, Tinit, and Ersi); woodworking (the centers were Khurik, Khanat, and Juli); pottery (in Juli); weaving of wool, flax, and cotton; embroidery (of socks, for example); carving of wood and stone; smithing; wool preparation; felt making; and tanning. In the villages of Marega, Karchag, and Nichras, saltpeter and sulfur were extracted. Many Tabasarans worked as migrant laborers in the Derbent region. The following arts and crafts are still practiced: production of rugs (napped and unnapped), embroidery of socks, and fashioning wooden utensils. In Soviet times the artisans united into cooperative associations (factories, corporations).

Trade. The Tabasarans have internal and external trade relations that were established long ago. Trading operations were completed on fixed market (bazar ) days in major settlements such as Khuchni, Khiv, Kondik, and Tinit. Livestock bazaars were held in the fall in Tinit, Tatil, and Rukel. Being the immediate neighbors of Derbent, the Tabasarans early on were drawn into external trade relations with other peoples of Daghestan, Transcaucasia, and the Near East. After the unification with Russia, trade with central Russia was established and, in some cases, strengthened. Trade was primarily by barter; a strictly established unit of exchange did not exist. The products of animal husbandry and agriculture, pottery, woodwork, rugs, wool, and fruits were traded. Madder also was part of the system of exchange.

Division of Labor. The division of labor in the family was gender-based. The heavy work (plowing, seeding, irrigation, the repair of agricultural equipment and of irrigation systems) was carried out by experienced men. Women worked in grain agriculture, harvesting, gardening, tending cattle, processing dairy products, weaving, knitting, and the like. Young people assisted the adults and did heavy work that did not require a great deal of skill. Children did what they could to help their parents. If, in the presence of their children, the parents did work inappropriate for someone of their advanced years, public opinion would censure the children.

Land Tenure. In traditional Tabasaran society, many forms of landownershipfeudal, peasant-private, communal, and ecclesiasticalprevailed; the feudal pattern was formerly predominant. After the establishment of Soviet power and the nationalization of the land, all the peasants received land. Powerful collective and state farms were established. The collective-farm system made it possible to carry out improvements and convert empty expanses of land into fertile ones.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are various terms for the designation of kinship groups, "tukhum" being the most common; others include nasil, jins, qam, and merasar. All these terms designate an aggregate of all kin relations, near and remote, in the patrilineal lines to seven degrees. Usually the jamaat (communal assembly) consisted of several tukhums, each of which had its own name (usually that of its founding grandfather). Rayat (dependent or bound peasants) did not have the right to organize their own tukhum. Persons arriving from other places or separate families could be accepted into a tukhum with the agreement of all involved. At the same time, the tukhum had the right to ostracize undesirable persons from its midst. Every tukhum used to have its attached plow lands, woods, hay fields, pastures, mills, and enclosures for livestock. In each quarter in the settlements, each tukhum had its gathering place (gim), located by the gate of the head of the tukhum; it was here that patrilineal assemblages met. In the traditional communal way of life of the Tabasarans, the customs of mutual aid, hospitality, and blood vengeance were staunchly preserved. There existed various forms of ritual brotherhood (e.g., in feudal times, the entrusting of a small child to another's household for education and the handing over of an infant for nursing in the home of a prosperous peasant). Kinship is reckoned in both paternal and maternal lines: the father's line was "of the fur cap" (bachuk' teref ) and the mother's line was "of the kerchief (lakach terefnan ). (Such reference to gender by characteristic headgear is known elsewhere in the Caucasus.)

Kinship Terminology. The term for one's mother's brother is khalu ; father's brother is em; mother's sister, khala ; father's sister, erne. Cognatic kinship in the direct line could be designated up to six degrees: son (bay), grandson (khtul ), great grandson (gudul ), great-great-grandson (ts'udul ), and so forth. Collateral relatives (father's older brother, male first cousins, etc.) were not distinguished by special terms but were designated with descriptive constructions; for example, a male first cousin on the father's side was "father's brother's child" (emdin bay ), and so on.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Not only the immediate family but a wide circle of relatives was occupied with the selection of a bride or a groom. A family would seek out a bride from a circle of families that were equal in social and economic position to that of their own family. The usual age of marriage for both young women and young men was 15-16 years. Marriages were forbidden between families related by ritual kinship. Marriage was by arrangement; infant betrothal, levirate, sororate, marital exchange, and abduction were also known. The wedding lasted three or four days, attended by relatives and covillagers and accompanied by dances, songs, masked performances, and horse races. Postmarital residence was patrilocal.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family predominated in the nineteenth century, but up until the twentieth century undivided families were not uncommon, with the residues of large (extended) family organization consisting of three or even more generations and including several couples. An indispensable condition of intrafamilial relations in both the individual and the small family was a solicitous, respectful relation to the woman (wife, mother, sister, daughter). To offend or insult a woman was considered shameful behavior unworthy of a man.

Inheritance. Inheritance followed the norms of Sharia (Quranic law), always taking the degree of consanguinity into account. On the death of the father of a family, the property was divided as follows: first the debts of the deceased were paid off; then a sixth each of the property was apportioned to the father and the mother and an eighth to the widow (a childless widow received a quarter, not counting the kebin, the material insurance for a wife in case of separation or the death of the husband); then the rest was divided among the sons and daughters, with twice as much going to the former as the latter. If only a daughter survived, then she would get one-half of all the property, and if there were several daughters, they would get two-thirds of the total, with the remainder going to the deceased's patrilineal relatives (twice as much to men as to women). The law of inheritance, to which the maysums, qadis, and beh adhered, was based on Quranic law, which completely deprived women of the right to inherit immovable property (which passed down only to direct heirs in the male line, that is, to sons, or, in the absence of them, to brothers or other close consanguines). Children of a marriage between partners of unequal rank had the same rights as so-called pure-blooded beks.

Socialization. The mother and grandmother raised the children. Great significance was attached to moral education, the inculcation of work skills, and the acquisition by children of the norms of social behavior and the customs and traditions of the people and its moral and cultural inheritance. Familial education was directly supplemented by that of the commune.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Communal administration and village legal proceedings were based on customary and Quranic law (adat and Sharia respectively). The latter was the basis for decisions on family relations, the conclusion of marriage, the personal and property relations of spouses, divorce, guardianship, and the division of inheritable property. Adat (customary law) pertained to crimes, relations between clans, and local conflicts. Although customary law was essentially the same throughout Daghestan, every village (jamaat) had its own code; that of Tabasaran consisted of seventy points. The maysum and qadi were the fully empowered rulers in their domains. The governance of the village was conducted by elected officials. Every settlement had its council of elders (qabidir ), with representatives of each clan. At the head of the council of elders stood the senior representative (kevkha ). The jamaat administration also included managers and overseers of fields and accounts. The more important questions that touched the entire union of village communessuch as agrarian conflicts, mutual relations between villages, external enemies, and so forthwere decided at the village assemblies that took place two or three times a year. A representative of each family participated in the assembly (but not women). In the second half of the nineteenth century the senior elder acquired more and more weight in the business of the commune. The elders represented official power in the village at the same time that the rights of the ancient popular assembly were being sharply limited. In the village assemblies members of the village court were selected for a period of one year from among the elders. The village judges were inaugurated by the chief of the district. For hearing cases and complaints, the judges assembled every morning at an accustomed place (usually near the mosque). In particularly important cases or if either side was not satisfied with a decision, they turned to their senior elder. In one type of case, questions were decided by a third court chosen from representatives of influential and wealthy clans.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. The official religion was Sunni Islam, which had spread among the Tabasarans during the Arab conquest of the eighth to ninth centuries. The mosque was an obligatory structure of every village. In small villages there was one mosque; in the larger villages there were also mosques in each quarter or section, each with a mosque school. Side-by-side with the mosques, places of pagan observance (pir ) were preserved. Islamic holidays and fasts were widely observed. The Islamic clergyqadis, sheiks, effendis, mullahsconstituted a large privileged group. There were qadis and effendis in the more densely settled places. The clergy took part in assemblies, in which they had a major voice. Residues of ancient, pre-Islamic religious beliefs were preservedcults associated with fire, stones, trees, caves, and springs, as well as traces of earth, sky, sun, and moon worship. Other popular practices included the worship of the graves of holy men, the belief in spirits and protective divinities, magical performances, and rituals for bringing rain or sunshine. There were also remnants of the worship of animals and birds.

Arts. Tabasaran architecture is among the most distinctive in Daghestan. Certain ancient traditions have been preserved in reworked form, related to the pre-Islamic Christian culture of Daghestan (some traditions go back as far as Caucasian Albania). Islamic graves in the shape of a cross have been uncovered. The arts of woodworking and ornamental carving are highly developed. The Tabasarans maintain the various genres of folklore: legends, myths, historical tales, sermons, fairy tales, everyday ritual and nonritual songs, proverbs, sayings, riddles, and child folklore. Of the folk holidays the most significant and ancient is the Spring Festival (Ebeltsen). The Tabasarans have a rich tradition of music and dance with many kinds of musical instruments, including the clarinet, flute, and tambourine. Their traditional culture, folklore, music, and dance have been influenced by the culture of the Azerbaijanis and the Lezgins.

Medicine. Generally women served as healers in the past. In every village there were healers who were known not only in the village but also beyond its boundaries. Often doctoring was transmitted as an inheritance from parents to children. In the mid-nineteenth century the surgeon Usta Khalil, the bonesetters Gajiomarov and Giul'magomedov, and the midwife Saidalieva were especially renowned. These native healers cured in various ways: with plants, foods, cauterization, bloodletting, baths, massages, curative materials of animal origin, and so forth. They also applied magical techniques.

Intellectual Life. During the Soviet period a national intelligentsia formed. Folklore influences professional culture, as observed in the works of well-known Tabasaran poets and writers (A. Jafarov and many others) and composers (A. Orujev and others). The Tabasarans show great concern for their history and culture, native architecture, traditional crafts, and oral literature. In all fields of culture, both spiritual and material, the native traditions are combined with innovation.

Death and Afterlife. According to the Tabasarans, the dead in the other world live as they did in this oneexcept that they neither age nor die. Burial traditionally took place before sundown. Immediately after death those near to the deceased began to weep loudly. In some settlements, female relatives rent their clothes, undid their braids, tore out their hair, and scratched their faces as they keened. Memorial services were arranged but they were not strictly regulated and were held at different days in different villageson the day of the burial, three days after the burial, on the first Friday, after forty days, or on the fifty-second day. On the holidays of Oraza and Kurban bairam small memorials were conducted with a prayer and the distribution of alms.


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BARIAT MAGOMEDOVNA ALIMOVA (Translated by Johanna Nichols and Paul Friedrich)