Russia is primarily known for it's harsh climate, massive breadth, and fascinating culture. Unfortunately, it is rarely appreciated for its intriguing history. As a whole, Russia amasses one-seventh of Earth's land area, but tucked into a teeny corner between Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Caspian Sea lies a small and ancient city called Derbent. This city, founded no later than the 8th Century BC, is starkly different from most Northern and Eastern cities in Russia. Derbent bears a comfortable climate most days, and uses public transport and railways to connect it’s 119 thousand inhabitants. Yet behind all of this normality, there is a deep and tumultuous history waiting to be unraveled in Russia's oldest known city.
To spare us the gory details of thousands of years of conquest, I’ll review the three main timelines of Derbent's history. The first recorded history of this area begins under Persian rule, transferring to Arab rule, and then finally reaching present with it’s Russian Annexation.
Under Persian rule, Derbent first earned it’s name, formerly “دربند Derband” meaning “gateway”. The title “gateway” was most likely symbolic of the fortress intending to guard the caravan route between Southwestern Europe and Southwestern Asia. In the 5th Century, this border fortress erected under the rule of Khosrow I and consisted of 66 foot high walls and thirty large watchtowers. Architecture like this is considered to be the highest achievement of Persian civilization. Christian faith was also spread throughout the Caucasus mountains from Derbent during this era, alongside the growth of Persian military prowess.
In 654, after Persia had risen and fallen in this small but thriving corner of Russia, the Arabian conquest captured Derbent. Derbent was thereafter referred to as the “gate of gates”, and is sometimes considered to be the cradle of Islam, as Derbent spread Islamic teachings widely and prolifically. Under Arab rule, Derbent was the largest city in the Caucasus Mountain Range, consisting of nearly 50,000 inhabitants. The Arab people were impressed by the fortifications left by Khosrow I, believing they earned the title of one of the seven wonders of the world. Another wonder the Arabs discovered, the Great Wall of Gorgon, was uncovered on the the eastern side of the Caspian Sea. This wall was thought to be built anywhere between 247 BCE to 224 CE, and is the counterpart to the western Derbent Caspian Gate. The Great Wall of Gorgon is famous for supposedly having been crossed by Alexander the Great, and being surpassed in size only by the Great Wall of China. Armenians established a kingdom in this era, followed by the Mongols who invaded in 1239, and the Timurud invasion of 1437.
Derbent stayed under Iranian rule almost exclusively until the 19th century, when Russians invaded Dagestan. This invasion occurred during the Caucasian war, in which Russia militarized in Chechnya, Dagestan, the Circassians, Abkhaz, Abazins, and Ubykh in order to expand Southward. This war lasted from 1817 until 1864, and eventually resulted in the annexation of Derbent by the Russian Empire.
Derbent's long and winding history has left many ages of treasures to be uncovered in its current state. This is exactly why we have put Derbent on our bucket list.
Places To See
This massive wall which sits directly across from the Great Wall of Gorgon was first built under the rule of Khosrow I, and was sequentially utilized and sustained by the Arab, Mongol, Timurid, Shirvan and Iranian kingdoms. These walls are alternatively told to be the "Gates of Alexander", played up to be a barrier built by Alexander the Great with the aid of his men and God to fend off barbarians to the North, although in reality we know that Persian monarchs originally constructed it. Needless to say this wall is large, ancient, and—albeit in decrepitude—a wonderful sight to see.
There are many mosques in Derbent, including the Kyrhlyar mosque, the Bala mosque, the Juma mosque, and the Chertebe mosque. A mosque is a place of Muslim worship, and the Juma mosque is specifically for Friday worship. This one specifically was built over a 6th Century Christian basilica, and remains the central and most important mosque in town. Many of these mosques still remain intact and can be visited.
Other Notable Sights
- Ancient cemeteries
- Old baths
- 18th Century Khan Mausoleum
- Ancient Citadel
Thank you for reading about this amazing city, and let us know in the comments if you have ever been or would want to travel to Derbent! Is this city on your bucket list?