They hike loaded with cookies and candies, setting off before dawn to be spared the fiery sun of Dagestan’s summer. Some bring fruit and homemade cheese, many carry clothes; mainly shirts and scarves to be left as offerings. Every year, when the snow on the highlands melts, thousands trek up to Mount Shalbuzdag, one of the highest peaks in the southeastern part of the Caucasus mountain range. It is a pilgrimage that once was key to regional Muslims as a way to keep their faith alive despite the Soviet Union’s decades-long repression of religious beliefs.
Dagestan’s Holy Mountain Pilgrimage
Sandwiched between the rugged, snowy peaks of the Caucasus and the salty waters of the landlocked Caspian Sea, Dagestan is part of the Russian Federation, yet many Russian citizens know little about it. Yet for the last two centuries, Russia and Dagestan’s histories have been tightly intertwined. Tsarist Russia took control of the North Caucasus by the mid-1800s and the Soviet Union deepened its tradition of centralized rule. These years left a deep imprint on Dagestanis’ lives. With the creation of the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921, this traditional Muslim society began to morph into a secular Soviet republic. Dagestani craftsmen began to abandon their individual workshops as the centrally planned economy took hold. Dagestan’s renowned tightrope walkers began working with local Houses of Culture, a mainstay of the Soviet system which limited their performances elsewhere. Religious rituals were discouraged - no longer the Quran’s teachings, but Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin's mottos were the standard to follow. The new order hit the human landscape, too. Entire communities were forcibly relocated from the highlands to the valleys. Many villages were emptied and left to decay.