Excerpts From Fridtjof Nansen's 'Through the Caucasus to the Volga'
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Fridtjof Nansen continues his trip through the Caucasus Mountains begun in Armenia and the Near East.  In addition to Georgia and Armenia, Nansen also visited Daghestan: he could fairly claim to have travelled through much of the fascinating and dramatic Caucasus region from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.  Even at the time of Nansen’s visit, at the start of the Communist era, some mountain tribesmen still wore metal armour and carried shields and swords.

THROUGH THE CAUCASUS TO THE VOLGA


While working to soften the dreadful consequences of the great famine of 1921 and 1922 in Russia, I met in Moscow Samursky, the president of the Daghestan Republic.  There was also great distress there, and he besought me earnestly to go and see there conditions and to help.  I was hindered from doing so, and could do no more than send some of the most necessary medicine; I had now had a telegram from him and his government sending me a hearty invitation to come to Daghestan on my way home.  As there was nothing to hinder me, I wired back that Quisling and I would be in Vladikavkaz on Monday, July 6th.

Instead of taking the long railway journey round the east coast of the Caucasus, first to Baku and so along the coast of the Caspian Sea through Derbent to Daghestan, we wished to drive by motor car along the so-called Georgian military road right across the Caucasian range.

We were now told many tales of the many remarkable things that may happen on this road.  The year before, the mail carrier had been shot right beside the passenger, who had been robbed of everything and left stripped to the skin on the road.  In the spring a passenger in the post car had been so unlucky as to get a bullet through both knees, so that he had been left with them stiff ever since.  These rugged mountain folk in the high impassable valleys of the Caucasus, where every man carries arms, find it hard to give up their old ways altogether.  But we were told that the road would now be quite safe.


The First Part of the Journey


…We drove by the town of Dushet, where the eristav (viceroy) of the province of Aragva had his residence in former times.  He was very powerful, and often waged war with the kings of Georgia.  Not far away there is an old grove with a church to Saint Kvirik and Saint Avlita.  This church lies on top of a 1,000 metre mountain under the venerable holy trees.  Such holy trees and groves are often found in the Caucasus, and evidently were old sacrificial places in heathen times.

But on we went through fruitful lands; the mountains around became more and more thickly clothed in forests.  We drove down into the valley of the White Aragva, past the town of Ananur, with the ruins of the old stronghold on the mountain slope above it.  This latter was surrounded by a wall, which also encloses several churches, and it must have commanded the whole valley in the Middle Ages.  It was hither that King Heraklius II, Georgia’s old broken lion, fled during the final fight against the Persians in 1795, when Tiflis was taken and ravaged by them, but here it was also that this old hero, well over 80 years old, gathered another small army together, and once more defeated the foe and won Tiflis back.


Here we met Ter Kasarian’s (‘Napoleon’s’) wife and two children...  Although Quisling and I had never met the ladies before, we were not introduced, and it was only later on that we by chance came to know who they were, and could pay our respects.  This is certainly characteristic of the manners of the country, which are so different from ours.  Although we had been now so long a time with our friend Ter Kasarian, who had been our host as representing the government throughout our journey in Georgia and Armenia, yet we had never set eyes on his wife, just as we had not been introduced to any of the leading men’s ladies.  This is undoubtedly owing to somewhat Eastern views on woman - that she does not count outside her own little world, which is the home...  They seemed not to be used to playing any part, and to have no wish to do so.  Yet women have played important parts in the history of these peoples:  we have only to think of Saint Hripsime and her nuns in Armenia, of Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia, and not least of the mighty Queen Tamara.  But in the days of knighthood there was undoubtedly another standpoint as regards woman, which shows itself today, among other ways, by the man going third class in the train, but letting ladies of his family go in the first, when the family means are small.

On the open space before the hotel a half grown bear was walking about fastened by a long chain.  It looked quiet, but at the same time it did not seem advisable for a stranger to come too near; if he did, it would often suddenly run spluttering at him as far as the chain would let it, and evidently with no friendly intentions.  Possibly this gives a picture of the true feelings of the Caucasian mountain peoples towards us Europeans.  They certainly have no reason to love us.  It is the Europeans that have conquered them and robbed them of freedom...

Chapter 3 Over the Caucasus


At Passanaur the White Aragva, coming from the north and north west, joins the Black Aragva, coming from the mountains in the north east.  The names for the colours of these streams are due to the mud carried down by them, which again varies with the nature of the ground.  If the rocks are hard, the water is clear, and the stream gets dark look from its bed and its depth, and is called black or dark; if the rocks are softer the water carries mud along with it of the colour of the rocks. 

We drove north and north west along the left bank of the White Aragva, which came foaming down towards us at the bottom of the green forest clad valley.  The villages are still mainly Georgian, but also partly Ossete on the west side of the valley, which latter strikes one at once as being poorer.

We drove on steadily at a good speed up along the valley, the road steadily rising.  High up on the steep slopes on the west side of the valley hung Ossete villages with old defence towers.  It is so steep up there that hay and crops must be carried on the back or in sleds.  When villages were built on such inaccessible spots it was mainly for defence; fortified as they were with towers, they were not easy to take.  The conditions were hard:  there was always fighting, always defence against attacks and robbery, always heavy toil besides - such was the life of these mountain tribes.

East of the valley towards the land of the Khevsurs there are no villages to see; they keep farther away from the outside world and in their mountain gorges.

When the village of Mleti (1,513 metres above the sea) has been passed - it lies on a high precipice over the Aragva - the road crosses a bridge over the foaming waters, and here the mountain world starts in earnest.  Up to now the road has been able to follow the gradually rising valley along the stream; but now there is an end to this, and we cannot help asking ourselves whether we are really to climb those high precipitous mountain walls that soar before us.  But yonder winds the road, indeed, bend after bend, till it disappears high up over the rim.

Up, up we went, turn after turn, forwards and backwards, higher and higher.  The valley sank deeper and deeper at every bend; we could not see the precipice below us, but only knew that the edge of the road fell sheer down hundreds of metres.  Some of the bends were so sudden that we had to take the car to the very edge of the precipice so as to swing round.

As we climbed higher and higher we had a wide view up and down the valley.  We saw the Aragva like a white ribbon of foam deep down in the abyss, and the villages clinging like swallows’ nests to the mountain walls below us on the other side, with patches of field and green grass let into the steep slopes around them.  Behind this again the view opened as far as the snowy mountains; peak rose behind peak - the Red Mountain and then the Seven Brothers, which are made up of reddish volcanic rocks.  There were snow and glaciers everywhere, and in between were deep clefts and ravines with perpendicular sides, and white foaming streams at the bottom.  At last we came to the edge of the abyss;  and now to our left we could look right down into Gud-khevi, the Devils’ Gorge, through which the Aragva plunges as it comes out from the mountains - a dizzy narrow abyss, deep down between almost perpendicular walls in the lofty mountains.  It was all like some mighty giant aroused and turned to stone in his fury.

Soon we reached Guda-ur, at 2,160 metres above the sea...  The scenery grew wilder and wilder.  In many places the road was covered by a roof on pillars against snow and stone avalanches.  We often drove by children, who were probably looking after the cattle that were browsing along the grass clad mountain side.  They danced about in front of the car on the very edge of the precipice, and threw small bunches of flowers into it as a greeting or welcome to us, after the custom of the land, but they did not beg.

Then we came to the highest part of the Krestovi pass (that is, the Cross pass), about 2,380 metres above the sea; it is marked by a stone pillar, and opposite it on the right side of the road there stands an old cross, from which the pass is probably named; it is said to have been set up there by Queen Tamara.  Up here in the mountains, too, her name still lives.  In many places there are small old stone churches, or the ruins of them, and tradition says they were built by her.  It is said that she herself at the head of the warriors penetrated into the high mountain valleys, subdued the savage mountain tribes, and brought them Christianity.  This still lives in song on the people’s lips in Svanetia:

...and the mountains bowed before her.
Tamar came to Svan-land, wearing her crown.

Tamar’s eyes were like precious stones.
Over her silk kirtle she wore a coat of mail.
Tamar had a belt of gold;
Tamar wore her royal sword at her side…


As we went on we came to a still wilder and more forbidding landscape, with gray mountain-sides, scraped utterly bare.  The road sloped slightly downwards, and the streams ran north.  We came down into a narrow cleft along a stream that runs foaming down to the great Terek.  This is a dangerous stretch owing to avalanches in the winter and spring, as the long galleries bear witness.  We stopped at a spring that gushed out from the rock, and had to drink health and strength from its refreshing waters...

Before us we had the mighty volcanic masses that have broken up through the basic rock on the northern slope of the mountain fold, and tower up as great volcanoes, of which Kasbek is the highest.  Now and then we caught a glimpse of the giant Mkin-vari’s proud snowy peak through the sea of clouds.

We came upon the Terek in the valley on the south side of the Kasbek group; it flows headlong from west north west out of the gloomy Trusso gorge between sheer cliffs.  At Kobi there rose defiantly a lofty, dark wall of basalt with its six sided columns.  The valley now widened, but its sides were steep and bare.  On ledges up them were perched small, generally Ossete, villages with their square defence towers telling of the constant fighting of these people, even in this barren landscape; here, too, are tribal feuds, the never ending blood revenge between families, and robbery.

On a dominating hill in the valley was the old fortress of Sion.  In this valley there is a birch grove which has been watched over from olden times by the Ossete peasantry, being held sacred by them.  It lies about 1,800 metres above the sea...

On the west side of the valley stood a high rock with buildings, most probably a church, on top; but behind it everything was hidden in the swirling mists, and one could but dimly feel the presence of a wonder world.

But as we gazed up there, suddenly there was a rift high up in the curtain, and amid the whirling masses of cloud there hung a mighty white glacier over us from the sky.  One caught one’s breath; it seemed to be beyond belief; but the highest peak stood dizzily clear for a moment, and them once more the dreamlike sight was hidden again in the clouds.

It was Kasbek (Mkin-vari), 5,043 metres high, over 3,300 metres above where we stood.  It was up there that Zeus chained Prometheus, who, having stolen fire from Heaven and given it to mankind, thought he could also defy the unswerving laws of the gods, and in open fight with the mighty ones, snatch power and happiness for the children of men.  Up there above the dizzy cliffs the foolhardy dreamer chafes in his chains, whilst the greedy vulture of envy gnaws at his liver.  It is the old tale of our erring kind, which seeks to storm Heaven and steal happiness, but is left hanging on the edge of the abyss; it is the spirit of Cain, the rebel, with the hot greed that knows no bounds.

According to what is told by some of the mountain dwellers the hero is now old, his hair is white like his beard, which reaches to his feet, and his whole body is covered with white hair.  Around his body and hands and feet are iron chains fastened to the rock.  Only a few men can gaze upon him, since it is so dangerous to climb the high, steep mountains and snowfields, and none can look at him twice; those that have tried have never come back.  There are some old people in the mountains that have spoken with him.  They may not tell of all they have seen and heard.  But the old man is sore glad and rejoiced when he can see people.  There are three things he asks about:  whether strangers yet ride through the land, and towns and villages are built; whether the young folk in all the land are yet taught in schools; and whether the wild fruit trees bear much fruit.  If, as is usual, the answer is No, he is greatly afflicted.

The first of ordinary mortals to climb Kasbek was the well known English mountaineer Freshfield... in 1868.  It is the highest mountain in this part of the Caucasus; but far away to the west north west is another mighty volcanic mass, which likewise has broken out on the northern slope of the range, and which has still higher volcanoes - the highest being Elbruz, 5,629 metres above the sea.

The fact of both volcanic masses lying separated from the main range gives these volcanoes a still more overwhelming effect, and makes them so clearly visible far off and from many sides...

We drove over a bridge, the valley narrowed; the rocky walls rose sheer on both sides for 1,000 to 1,500 metres straight up from the stream, which whirled along far below us.  The Terek now cuts its deep gorge towards the north, right through the high ridge in front.  There was hardly room for the road, and often it was cut into the perpendicular or even overhanging wall, with a hundred metres sheer fall into the whirling stream... 

The road wound down the mountain side through the wild ravines, while the telegraph and telephone wires stretched from pole to pole, or hung on the mountain wall and spanned the clefts.  Unceasingly these thin wires carry silent messages through this isolated mountain world from one community to another - it may be the latest gossip, or it may be a message deciding men’s fate.

We were in the Darial Gap (that is, the Gate of the Alans; Persian, dar-i-Alan), also known as the Gate of the Iberians (or the Sarmatians).  How, one may well ask, can there have been any passage her for men and livestock and caravans, not to speak of great armies and whole peoples with their baggage, before this road was made?  But we also know that people went through here already in the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago, and probably long, long before then…

It is quite possible that when at certain seasons the stream was low, there was some kind of passable road along the bed of the stream.  But when it is swollen, as it was now, the rushing waters fill the whole bottom of the gorge, and there is no way through it to be seen for men or wingless cattle along the perpendicular sides.  It must have always been easy for a small force to shut this gateway against the strongest army.

We came down again to the stream, and a bridge led over to the right side.  But the gap grew still narrower; it was as if we were squeezed into the very floor of this rent in the mountains, between the mighty, lofty masses of rock.  It is only nigh to Hell that there can be such a road.

Farther on the way was quite shut to us; there could not be any passage.  But the way down must be here.  And when we came nearer, a narrow cleft opened where the stream raced through.

This was evidently the gate itself, and before it on the left side of the river was a little Russian fort with round strong towers at the corners, flat on top, with breastworks and embrasures for guns, and loopholes in the walls.

According to old Georgian writers, King Mirvan of Mzkhetha in the third century B.C. shut this gap with a wall and strong iron gates, and there are said to be remains of the wall.  Strabo (about the beginning of our era) says that ‘a fortress wall difficult to take guards the end of the road’.  Pliny (first century A.D.) says of ‘the Caucasian Pass, which many wrongly call the Caspian Pass,’ that ‘here there are gates with iron studded beams; under them runs an evil smelling stream, and up on the mountain on this side of the pass lies a strong fortress called Cumania, which has barred the way for countless peoples.  At this spot, which lies right opposite the Iberic town of Harmastes, the land is thus shut off with gates.’  Possibly there is here a confusion with the fortification at Derbent, east of the Caucasus on the Caspian.  The evil smelling stream may, on one supposition, have reference to the naphtha springs and gas rising out of the ground there.  The Arab geographer Yakut-el-Hamavi (about A.D. 1230) tells us that ‘in the Caucasian Pass, whereby the Alans are reached, lies the stronghold of Bab-Allan (the Alan’s Gate), a most remarkable place; there a very few men can bar the way over the mountain.  It lies impregnable on a steep rock and has a spring.  Before the stronghold there is a deep valley, across which a bridge leads that is right under the castle wall, and is fully commanded by it.’

But however that may have been, it seems almost an impossibility for even a great army, without the artillery of today, to have got through here, so long as the place was held by a handful of brave and stout warriors of the kind reared by these mountain tribes.

On a high hill behind the Russian fort were the ruins of an old Ossete stronghold.  This was Tamara’s.  So, as we took leave of this land of wonders, this magic name rang in our ears as a last greeting.  That the fortress was built by her is not very likely, but undoubtedly the fair queen’s strong arm reached as far as this over the mountain rampart, and her little well shaped hand held the key to the gate shutting the wild Darial gap and the entrance to her kingdom...

The view now opened out on to the plain before us; there lay the town of Vladikavkaz (‘The ruler of the Caucasus’), and we whirled over the broad green flats smiling in the sunshine.  The deep, gloomy gorge that had brought us through the mighty mountains was now behind us.

We reached the town about midday, having spent eight hours on one of the most remarkable drives anywhere - hours filled with an unbroken succession of new, and ever more overwhelming, impressions, so that the mind could barely take them in.  It was the same journey for which a traveller in the ‘thirties of last century had to spend a whole month.  (Cf. C. F. Lehmann-Haupt, Armenien Einst und Jetzt, 1910, vol i, p 53).  The restlessness of European civilization had driven us onwards, and prevented us from travelling slowly and stopping to take in at our leisure all the manifold wonders we had gone through.  We see and experience much, but it is on the surface only; we never get time to make it our own and deepen our knowledge.  It was with a sharp feeling of how fleeting all is today that we drove across the bridge over the Terek, and then up the broad main street of Vladikavkaz with rows of lindens on each side…

Now we had to say farewell to our friend Napoleon, otherwise Narriman Ter Kasarian, our faithful companion throughout the crowded journey from the time when we arrived at Batum, which now seemed so long ago, although it was only a little over three weeks.  He was now going back the same way with his Armenian friend and the ladies.  We were sad at heart, and felt a deep yearning to go back there, and once more to go through the great adventure in that overwhelming world heaved up and torn asunder by the mightiest cosmic forces in the abysmal depths and on the surface - by the mighty buckling of the earth’s crust, by volcanoes and their fiery streams, by the poised glaciers, by the splintering strength of the frost, by the thundering avalanche, by the rushing, wearing masses of water.  Gladly would we have spent days, nights and weeks in this untamed nature on so vast a scale, high up there above all the struggles and pettiness of earthly life…

In Makhach Kalá

In the morning of the 7th of July I took a stroll through the town.  My first goal was the Caspian Sea; I sought it through the streets, and so down to the shore.  There it lay, stretching away towards the horizon, a glorious blue under the fresh breeze in the morning sunshine.  But not a sail, not a ship, not a boat was there to see on the broad blue surface.  Along the low sandy shore were strewn yellow-brown clusters of bathing buoys.  There was no essential difference to be seen between this, the world’s greatest inland sea, and the sea in general - anyhow, at first sight.  True, the shore had no marks of ebb and flow, as we know them; but then there are none in the Mediterranean or the Black Sea.  It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that when the old Greeks heard of this mighty lake with salt water, they took it to be an inlet of the Okeanos girdling the whole inhabited world, although Herodotus held it to be an enclosed sea.



Chapter 5 Muridism and the Fight for Freedom

When in 1801 the Tsar of Russia had taken to himself the crown of Georgia, it became of great importance to subdue the mountaineers - mostly Mohammedans - in the Caucasus lying between, so as to make the Russian power in the south quite secure.  The object was to allow the Tsar to stretch his grasping hand towards the Turks in the south west and the Persians in the south east and, indeed, further still, towards India.  These mountain peoples were not in great numbers, and could doubtless be overcome without any great difficulty by the huge Russian forces.  True, they had done no injury to Russia, and this country had no right whatever to their land, but this had no weight against an Imperial wish; their land had to be made an integral part of the Russian Empire, and free or autonomous tribes in these mountains, or on the plains north of them, ‘were incompatible with the dignity or honour of the Tsar’.  What the conquest was to cost in streams of blood, in devastation, want, misery, and suffering for tens of thousands of mountain dwellers was, needless to day, of little weight; this was these people’s own fault for setting themselves up against the Imperial commands.  Moreover, so it was said, they carried on robbery, took cattle, and plundered people on the high roads.  But what shall one say of the Russian Tsar and his people, who by no right whatsoever forced their way into their valleys, killed them right and left, plundered their villages (a-ul), and seized their whole land?

At the beginning it looked as if all would be comparatively easy for the Russians.  The nominally Christian Ossetes and the Christian Georgian mountain tribes (Khevsurs, Pshavs, Tushes, and Shvans or Svanetians) were either not hostile, or even joined the Russians.  This was of very great importance, since they controlled the military road through the Caucasus to Georgia.  It is true they now and then practised robbery, or revolted against the oppressors; but this was of no very great importance.  The Kabardians on the northern side of the mountains and on the plain both sides of the river Terek were, of course, Mohammedans, but their land had been quickly captured by the Russians, and occupied by numerous forts and Cossack stanitsas (villages) so they had to keep themselves quiet.  On the other hand, the Cherkesses on the mountain slopes farther west, and the Abkhasians towards the Black Sea, were bitter foes against the Russians, as also were the many Mohammedan tribes in the eastern Caucasus...

The small Chechen tribes had a highly democratic system with no regular leaders, and were therefore weak at a united defence.  Most of the tribes in Daghestan had, as was said above, khans ruling over their own districts, and so they could raise stronger forces.

But owing to the want of union among the tribes the Russians were able to attack them one by one; sometimes, too, they could make friends with some of the tribes and khans, and to some extent play them off against the others.  In this wise the Russians in the first period succeeded in making a considerable advance...  This was especially so after General Yermolov took over the command in Georgia and the Caucasus in 1816.  He set methodically to work, and attacked one khanate after the other... he thought he could report in 1820 to the Tsar:  ‘The Conquest of Daghestan, begun last year, has now been carried to its end; and this land, proud, warlike, and hitherto unvanquished, has fallen before the sacred feet of your Imperial Majesty.’

Although it was only an inner western strip of Daghestan that the Russians had not reached, Yermolov’s announcement was to prove indeed over hasty.  It was still to cost 39 years’ bitter fighting with streams of blood before Daghestan should be overcome.  Yermolov’s hard and cruel treatment of the inhabitants, the plunder and destruction of their villages (a-ul) by him, and the putting of the inhabitants to the sword, gave rise to a burning hatred of the Russians, and to a craving for freedom which yielded a fruitful soil for a fanatical anti-Russian religious movement, and brought together the tribes in a united resistance.

The strength of Islam had been greatly weakened through the split into two sects:  the Sunnites, to which the Turks belonged, and the Shiites, whose doctrines the Persians had adopted.  The new doctrine, which soon won the upper hand in the mountain valleys of Daghestan, had for one of its objects the uniting once more of these two sects, and the strengthening of Islam to wage a war of extermination against the unbelievers.

In the a-ul of Yaragh in south Daghestan there was living at the beginning of last century a highly respected, kindly old judge called Mullah-Mohammed.  He was a mild, peace loving, wise man of good deeds, and in the course of long nights he had searched the Koran and holy books, which he expounded to the people.  He was loved and venerated by all, and they came in crowds to hear him.  And so one day Allah’s message came to open his eyes, and the peaceful man saw to his horror what a dreadful sin it was to submit to the unbelievers instead of wiping them off the face of the earth.  By day and by night he brooded, and then in 1824 he stood out before the people, that were gathered together in great numbers, and spoke of the greatest thing of all - the faith of their fathers; and in his hearers was lit, as it were, a flaming fire.  He showed that according to the word of the Prophet no Mussulman must be subject to an unbeliever, and how all acts of penance, purifications, and offerings are of no avail so long as a Muscovite’s eye falls on them; ‘nay, so long as the Muscovites dwell among you, the Koran is a curse unto you, instead of a blessing’.  He preached a holy war against unbelievers.  He that would share in the eternal blessings of the other world must, according to the words of the Prophet, yield up his life and his belongings for the sake of Allah; he must leave wives and children behind, and throw himself into the fight.  Only in this wise can he cross the bridge El-Sirat into Paradise.  Here below our hours are told like those of the day, but yonder above, life is everlasting; our true home is there.  ‘Black eyed Houris (In Muslim belief, Houris are virgins awaiting the blessed in Paradise), whose eyes are like gleaming stars and arms like swans’ necks, will smile on us, but not each and all will they clasp to themselves, fountains with diamond like water gush out of milk white marble, but not all shall be refreshed by them; slender cypresses and leafy plane trees wave their coolness to us, but not all shall rest in their shade’; for he only that goes to the fight to spread the Prophet’s teaching and break the unbeliever’s power can come unto the blissful state of the chosen.  Keep armed, so as to be ready when the hour strikes, calling to the fight!

These words of the old, wise man, born of a glowing hatred for the unbeliever, and calling them to a relentless warfare against the Russians, made a deep impression; the new doctrine quickly spread through Daghestan, where a hatred for the cruel oppressors was already flaming in their hearts.  The movement also reached Chechnia, where Russian cruelty and destruction had aroused a serious rising in 1824 and 1825.  The apostles consecrated and blessed by Mullah-Mohammed were called murids, that is, disciples, from the Arabic word murid = ‘one that seeks’ (that is, to find the way).  With burning zeal they preached the doctrine, and the battle cry was:  ‘War against the unbelievers!  Death to the Russians!’  What appealed to the people, too, was that Muridism preached the absolute equality of all mankind; according to the Koran none could be subject to another...

This was in 1826, and the fiery Kasi-Mullah, supported by the young Mullah-Shamyl, who was also from Ghimri, at once set about his task...  While the Russians were taken up with the war against the Persians and the Turks, he had a fairly clear field; and he was chosen as imam, that is, the leader of the people in all spiritual and temporal matters.  The greater part of Daghestan was gradually won over; but the Khan of Avaria, in the town of Khunsakh, had not joined him.  The quarrelsome inhabitants of this town had no wish to put themselves under the strict laws of Muridism.  With an army of some 6,000 men Kasi-Mullah marched against Khunsakh in February 1830.  The khan was a minor, and the government was in the hands of his mother, Pakhu-Bikhé.  The town of over 700 houses was in an inaccessible position beside a high precipice, and was strongly fortified by breastworks and towers.  She thus thought she could hold it.  The Murids, in two divisions, one led by Kasi-Mullah himself, the other by Shamyl, rushed forward with the war cry:  ‘Allah-Akbar, lia-il-allahu!’  (‘God is great, there is no god but God!’).

At the sight of these yelling ranks already sure of victory, the defenders, who had never before seen or heard anything of the kind, were overcome with fear and began to waver.  Then the towering figure of Pakhu-Bikhé put herself at their head with drawn sword and flaming eyes.  ‘Avars,’ she shouted, ‘you are not worthy of bearing arms.  If you are afraid, hand them over to us women, and save yourselves behind our skirts!’  Goaded by these scornful words, the defenders rallied just as the foe came swarming over the breastworks, and they drove them back with heavy losses.  The Avars who had joined the Murids now withdrew, and these latter were put to flight, leaving 200 dead, many wounded, and 60 prisoners.  Shamyl was for a time in great danger of being killed by his excited fellows, but was saved by a dervish.  This was the first of his many dangerous rescues, which to the superstitious mountain dwellers were a proof that he was Allah’s chosen one for carrying out his work on earth...
In August 1832 the Russians invaded Chechnia with success; they took the largest and wealthiest a-ul there, Ghermenchuk, whose inhabitants put up an heroic defence, although most of them had no firearms.  Kasi-Mullah withdrew into Daghestan, and, followed by the faithful Shamyl, he fortified himself in the end in his native town of Ghimri; but many of his followers had now lost hope and fallen away.

In October the Russians advanced against Ghimri.  The approach was extraordinarily difficult, scarred with ravines and deep precipices.  When it was said that the road was impassable for troops, the Russian commander in chief, General Veliaminov, asked:  'Can a dog make its way along this road?'  When they answered:  'Well, perhaps a dog could.'  'That's enough!' said he.  'Where a dog can go, a Russian soldier can, too.'

Kasi-Mullah and Shamyl had built a threefold wall in the gorge, with a stone breastwork at the side...  Near the outer wall were two small stone houses...  When the first attempt to storm the outer wall failed, General Veliaminov had a drum brought up, on which he sat down, and quite calmly began to examine the enemy's position... bullets whistled round him; men fell right by his side.  The Prince of Mingrelia begged the general to come farther away.  Veliaminov calmly answered him:  'Yes, Prince, it is indeed a dangerous spot; will you therefore, be so good as to lead your regiment at once against the breastworks there on the right.'  In the end the defenders were driven from the walls and breastworks; but in two stone houses some 60 Murids kept up the defence, and would not give in.  The defenders neither asked for quarter nor accepted it; they rushed out in twos and fours seeking to cut their way through, and died fighting; only two men escaped.  A tall, slender figure showed itself on the high threshold of the doorway; but as the soldiers raised their guns to fire he leaped over their heads and alighted behind them; he turned in a flash and cut down three of them, but he got a bayonet right through his breast; he caught hold of it with one hand, cut down his assailant, drew the bayonet out of his own breast, and slipped away into the forest, in spite of also having a rib and shoulder broken by a stone.  None knew him, but it was Shamyl.

Among the many dead lying before the two stone houses there was a remarkable figure which in death had taken up the attitude of a Mussulman at prayer, with his left hand about his beard and the right lifted towards the sky.  When the natives came up they recognized their imam, Kasi-Mullah.  The Russians rejoiced, and exposed the body, but the mountaineers were gloomy; his attitude showed him to be a holy man, and he had died in the great cause.

Next day the Russians could march into Ghimri without meeting any resistance.  They now believed that Muridism was definitely overcome, and that the Russian dominion was assured.  They had not taken into account that Shamyl had got away and was perhaps still alive, nor the impression Kasi-Mullah's heroic death had made upon his followers.

After three days without food Shamyl managed to reach Untsukul, near the Koisu, south of Ghimri.  Here for 25 days he lay between life and death, for the Russian bayonet had gone through one of his lungs... 


Chapter 6 Shamyl

Shamyl, perhaps one of the most remarkable figures of the century, was born in 1797 at Ghimri in Avaria, on the Avarian Koisu near where it meets the Andian Koisu.  His name was Ali, but later he was called Shamyl, that is Samuel...  He was, to an extraordinary degree, a born leader of men, and richly endowed by nature.  Physically, he was fairly tall, slender, and with a proud bearing.  His eyes were blue or grey, his hair and beard blond with a touch of brown, his face fairly long and narrow with regular features, and an earnest, thoughtful, and calm expression.  In a simple and dignified garb with a belt round his waist, and usually without any of the glowing colours affected by his Murids or any gold or silver, his figure always made a deep impression on his people, and his movements were careful and dignified.  He excelled as sports, and was first in fencing, running, and jumping... it was said of him that he could leap a ditch 27 feet wide (?), and could jump higher than his own height.  As a young man he went bare legged and bare breasted in all kinds of weather, and stood out even among the Daghestan mountaineers for his daring and powers of endurance. 

He was gifted with a sharp understanding, capacity for organisation, inventiveness, shrewdness, extraordinary strength of will and self control, and unswerving courage...  He knew his own people, and always understood the right thing to say and do.  Like most great leaders, he was an excellent actor; and through his calmness, his prophet like bearing, his ascetic life, his way of keeping in the background, so that people seldom saw him, and his long lonely wrestling with the Prophet and Allah, he wrapped himself in the mystical glory of Allah's chosen one and Mohammed's vicar, winning an extraordinary sway over men's minds.  Besides this he had a varied knowledge, and had read deeply in the Koran and the holy books, as also in the Christian Gospel, which he applied to the revision of his own doctrine.  He well knew how to make use of all this knowledge; his glowing proclamations to the peoples were often true masterpieces.

But he could also be crafty and cruel, ruthlessly severe towards his own, if they did not blindly yield to his will; and he made himself feared through his gruesome punishments and death sentences.  Thieves he punished by cutting off their hands, and small offences were often punished with death.  The penalties were always enjoined on him by Allah, whose prophet he was, and in whose name, as imam, the all powerful dispenser of everything spiritual and temporal, he wrote his laws after his own will and could alter the precepts of Sharshat as he chose.  His words and promises were therefore not always to be trusted; and towards prisoners of war his behaviour was often cruel and showed scant nobility.

Always, even in the greatest danger, he was fully master of himself, and he passed the cruelest sentences of punishment and death as calmly as he praised and rewarded meritorious deeds.  But this stern man had also his milder side; he was a tender son, husband, and father, and could show a touching love for children, and delight in being with them.

Although the Russians once more thought they had wholly broken down the mountaineers' resistance, this new leader was to hold his own against mighty Russia for 25 years.  With his comparatively few followers he defeated the Russians time after time; and each time they thought they at last had him in their grasp, he slipped through their hands mysteriously, and attacked them as soon again from another side.  It was as though he were in league with supernatural powers.

…it had been planned that the Tsar Nicholas I should visit the Caucasus in the autumn of 1837, and for the Russians it was highly important to have Shamyl on friendly terms, and that he should meet the Tsar at Tiflis.  The brave and capable General Klugenau was appointed to carry on the negotiations, and there was a dramatic meeting between him and Shamyl in a wild mountain gorge near Ghimri on the 18th of September, 1837.  Shamyl came to the meeting with over 200 armed Murids on horseback in their brightly coloured garb with turbans, while Klugenau had only an aide-de-camp, fifteen Don Cossacks, and ten natives with him.  He applied every resource within the range of his eloquence, but Shamyl was adamant.  When Klugenau saw it was hopeless, he rose and held out his hand to take leave of Shamyl, but a Murid rushed forward, held his arm, and said that the leader of the faithful must not touch a giaour's (unbeliever's) hand.  The hot tempered general was furious, and raised the crutch he always walked with to knock off the Murid's turban.  Then, luckily Shamyl grasped the crutch, held back the Murid, who had drawn his kindjal (dagger), in a thundering voice ordered his men to stay where they were, and bade Klugenau go off without delay.  But the furious Austrian, utterly heedless of the danger, gave free rein to his tongue, uttering the most violent abuse against all mountaineers, until his aide-de-camp succeeded in pulling him away by the tip of his cloak... 

The future, as so often, was hanging by a hair; if the blow with the crutch had not been held up at the last moment by Shamyl, Klugenau and all his men would undoubtedly have been slain; while Shamyl and many of those nearest him would probably have also been killed in the fight.  The war in the following years would have gone quite otherwise, but perhaps the lives of many thousands could have been spared.  Tsar Nicholas soon after made the journey to Transcaucasia, from September till November, but he did not meet Shamyl.

Shamyl chose the a-ul of Dargo in Chechnia as his capital, and during the following years used his time in organizing his kingdom.  He divided it into district governed by naibs, each of whom had to furnish at least 300 mounted fighting men...  These men had always to be ready to carry out orders, and when a campaign was over they came back to their a-uls, where they also kept a hold on the other inhabitants...  Furthermore, every man between fifteen and fifty was bound to enter the army if needed.  Shamyl brought in systematic taxation... in 1840 he founded orders for the reward of bravery.  An express post was set up throughout the land.  On the whole he proved to be a great organizer, but he was terribly harsh and often cruel; he was followed by his executioner carrying a heavy long handled axe and ready to cut off hands and heads at once, if there was the least suspicion of untrustworthiness.  Thus Shamyl's sway was feared, but not loved, especially in Avaria, where moreover, he had had a share in the murder of the Khans; this was never forgotten.

In 1841 the Russians again attacked, but with little success; Shamyl and his horsemen made most daring raids into their territory where they least expected him...  At the end of 1842, while Shamyl was on an expedition against the Kasimukhians in southern Daghestan, General Grabbe with an army of 10,000 men and 24 guns marched into Chechnia to take Dargo.  On the road, however, bands of the inhabitants swarmed round him, attacking first from one side, then from another; after three unfortunate days Grabbe had to abandon the undertaking, and the army marched back in a sorry plight, and having lost heavily...

Suddenly, on the 27th of August, Shamyl set out with an army from his quarters at Dilim in Chechnia; in less than 24 hours he was standing in front of the a-ul of Untsukul in Avaria, 60 kilometres to the south, and here he was met on the same day by Kibit Mahoma from Tilitl and Hadji Murad from Avaria with strong forces; there were now 10,000 men gathered together.  The speed and precision with which the long marches were carried out by the large bodies of cavalry, right under the eyes of the Russian general, and the accuracy with which the several divisions operated together, show the high capacity of Shamyl as an army leader.

Untsukul had openly deserted his side, and furthermore had received a Russian garrison.  It was of the greatest importance to show that such a thing could not be done with impunity.  Some Russian companies, 500 men in all with two guns, that heedlessly hastened to the relief from Ghimri near by, were wholly wiped out, only a few men escaping.  Untsukul was taken by storm, and the garrison in the Russian fort surrendered after so brave a resistance that Shamyl, to show his respect, let the commander, Lieutenant Anozov, keep his sword.

Within 25 days after his sudden appearance before Untsukul, Shamyl had taken all the Russian fortified places in Avaria except Khunsakh, the capital.  He now went back to Dilim... but suddenly, at the end of October, he marched once more to the attack... all the Russian forces in northern Daghestan were shut up in four forts.  Gurko (the Russian commander in chief) was relieved by General Freitag, but by the end of November all the Russian troops had been driven out of northern Daghestan.  Shamyl was master of the situation, and was stronger than ever before.  The Russian losses since 27th of August were 92 officers, 2,528 men, 12 fortified places, and 27 guns.

An episode from this time gives a remarkable insight into Shamyl's character and his methods with his people.  During the fighting in Daghestan he had not been able properly to defend Chechnia, and the Chechens on the lower slopes of the mountains and the plains to the north had suffered more than usually from the destruction wrought by the Russian invasion.  In despair they sent four messengers to Shamyl at Dargo, begging either for adequate protection or for leave to make peace with the Russians.  As the messengers, fearing for their lives, did not dare to go to the fanatical imam himself, by using intermediaries and making large gifts of money they prevailed on his old mother to speak on their behalf with her son, who greatly loved her; but he could not grant her request.  He saw at once that to kill the messengers, send them back blinded, cut off their hands, or inflict some other mutilation (which would have been most like him) would entail incalculable consequences.  He therefore made known the request of the Chechens, and announced that he was going to fast and pray in retirement until the Prophet himself should declare his will to him.  He shut himself up within the mosque, while the Murids and inhabitants of Dargo gathered around it by his orders to join their prayers with his.

For three days and nights the door of the mosque stayed shut; the crowd without were worn from fasting and praying, and were worked up through the long wait into a state of religious fever.  Then slowly the door opened and Shamyl was standing on the threshold, pale and with bloodshot eyes.  Accompanied by two Murids, he went up in silence on to the flat roof of the mosque, and at his bidding his mother was brought there, veiled in her white shawl (chadra).  Led by two Mullahs, she drew near her son with slow, faltering steps.  For a few minutes he gazed on her without speaking, then lifted his eyes to Heaven, and called out:

'O great Prophet Mohammed!  Holy are thy commands and not to be altered!  Let thy just sentence be carried out as an example for all true believers!'

Then, turning to the people, he told them that the Chechens had forgotten their oath, and wished to submit to the giaours.  They had been shameless enough to send men hither to Dargo to ask leave, but as these men had not dared to come to him himself, they had turned to his unhappy weak mother, that she might speak on their behalf.  Her insistent representations and his boundless devotion to her gave him boldness enough to ask God's Prophet Mohammed himself what was his will.

'And look!  Here with you around me, and supported by your prayers, I have three days' fasting and praying been granted his gracious answer to my presumptuous question.  But this answer has struck me like a thunderbolt.  It is Allah's will that the one who first told me about the shameful purpose of the Chechen people shall be punished with a hundred heavy lashes with the whip, and this first one was - my own mother!

At a sign from the imam the Murids tore the chadra from the unhappy old woman, grasped her by the hands, and began lashing her with a plaited whip; a shudder of bewildered horror ran through the crowd.  At the fifth lash the victim swooned, and Shamyl, beside himself with pain, stopped the executioners and threw himself at his mother's feet.  The spectacle was heart-rending, and with tears and groans the onlookers begged for mercy for their benefactress.  In a few moments Shamyl rose without a trace of his earlier emotion.  Once more he lifted his eyes to Heaven, and in a solemn voice he called out:  'There is only one God, and Mohammed is His Prophet!  O ye dwellers in Paradise, ye have listened to my fervent prayer, and have allowed me to take on myself the rest of the lashes that were awarded to my unhappy mother.  These lashes I most joyfully accept as a most precious gift from your loving kindness.'

And with a smile on his lips he took off his red cloak, and gave the two Murids heavy Nogai whips, and told them that with his own hand he would kill the man who should dare to be lenient on carrying out the Prophet's will.  In silence and without the least sign of pain he took the remaining 95 lashes.  After putting on his cloak he stepped down among the frightened crowd, and asked:  'Where are the scoundrels on whose account my mother has had to suffer so ignominious a punishment?'  The wretched men were at once dragged up and lay at his feet; their fate was looked upon as certain.  But to their surprise and the surprise of all he raised them up saying: 'Go back to your people, and as the answer to your foolish prayer tell them all you have seen and heard.'

What is probable is that in a scene such as this it is also the fanatical believer who takes part by the side of the mime; but we can easily understand that a masterly and dramatically planned performance such as this made a deep impression in the superstitious and credulous men of the mountains.

At this time Tsar Nicholas I was sitting in very ill humour in his palace in St Petersburg, chafing angrily at the way things were going on in the Caucasus, and at the fact that this insolent bandit Shamyl was still quite free and able to oppose his, the all powerful autocrat's, will.  On the 18th of December, 1843, therefore, he gave his new commander in chief on this front General Neidhardt, orders to force his way into the mountains and 'strike at and scatter all Shamyl's hordes, destroy all his military works, take possession of all the most important points, and fortify those which it might seem essential to hold'...

On the Russian side the greatest exertions were made with increased numbers... on the whole they failed, and yielded no lasting results.

In the summer one of those bloody deeds happened which, though they strengthened his authority at the moment, yet in the end helped to undermine it.  One of his faithful friends had been killed near the a-ul of Tsonteri near Dargo as the result of a blood feud.  Shamyl sent 200 men to take some of the most important dwellers in the village for not having hindered the murder.  This action of Shamyl was in utter contradiction with the generally received law (adat), under which blood revenge was actually a duty, although according to Shamyl's doctrine this was against the holy precepts (sharvat).  The inhabitants therefore drove back the Murids by armed force.  Then Shamyl came down upon the luckless a-ul, persuaded the inhabitants to yield, and every living soul, from children to the oldest, was slain, in all a hundred families.

In the following years the Russians were no more successful.  Shamyl pursued ruthless guerrilla tactics, drawing the numerically superior and better armed Russian forces into the mountains and forests, where he would mount swift and violent attacks on them.


In 1854 he invaded Georgia, and plundered the fruitful Alazán valley; his troops were then beaten, but a party got as far as the castle of Tsinondal, and took prisoners the two Georgian princesses, the sisters Chavchavadze and Orbeliani.  When they were ransomed later, Shamyl, besides receiving a sum of money, was at last able to get back his son Jamalu'd-din, whom in 1839 he had had to give up at Akhulgo.  But after 15 years' education in Russia - from the age of 12 - where he had become an officer in the army, he was utterly estranged from his father, his people, and his land.  This was a bitter disappointment to the father; the son pined away, grew melancholy, and in three years was dead.

When peace had been made in Paris on the 30th of March 1856 (the end of the Crimean War), Russia could again set about the conquest of the Caucasus in earnest...

For Shamyl's people the rest had not been long enough to heal the deep wounds of war; there was not a family but had lost men.  They were war weary...  Moreover, the people were murmuring louder and louder at Shamyl's tyrannical rule and his cruelty, which made themselves especially felt in peace time.  Many, therefore, were quite ready to go over to the Russians, if only they could trust to their protecting them against the mighty and much feared imam; and, curiously enough, the Crimean War had very greatly increased the mountain peoples' respect for the power of Russia.  An empire which had been able to stand up against mighty Turkey and the still mightier Western Powers was one which it was hopeless for them to fight against, while on the other hand it could defend them.  Thus many fell away one by one from Shamyl and went over to the Russians.

While the Russians all the time could be sending fresh or strengthened forces against him, he had but one army, always the same, and his Murids, who were ever being thinned through losses and desertions...

Shamyl now went off into Daghestan, and with iron courage strove to put up a defence there in permanent positions...

Betrayed and forsaken, with wives and children and a small following he now took refuge for the last time on the mountain known as Gunib, on the left bank of the Kara Koisu...  The mountain is like a huge truncated three sided pyramid, whose sides rise perpendicularly over the mountain land around.  The flat top is perhaps ten square kilometres in area, with grazing and plough land, birch woods and brooks running through it.  On this plain lies the a-ul of Gunib; and here were several farmsteads and mills, and other sources of supplies.  With the men of the a-ul and his small following he had together about 400 men.

This natural stronghold Shamyl sought by every means to strengthen.  Had it been defended by proper numbers the mountain would not have been easy to take, but his four hundred men with only four guns, needless to say, were not enough to defend so much ground against the greatly superior forces that soon surrounded the mountain on every side.  Prince Baryatinsky (commander-in-chief and viceroy in the Caucasus) himself came there.  Negotiations were started, and Shamyl was called upon to surrender on honourable terms, which he refused; he could not give up the cause he had fought for his whole life long.

After two week's siege and various feigned attacks on the eastern and easiest accessible side, the Russians advanced to the storm.  As day broke, several battalions by help of ladders and ropes climbed up on the north and south sides, where the mountain people believed no one could do so.  They did not succeed in taking the defenders wholly by surprise, who threw themselves on the Russians; but Russian troops made their appearance on the south eastern side at the time.  After putting up a hot defence with heavy losses, the defenders fled into the a-ul, where Shamyl shut himself in with his family.  About a hundred Murids who had thus escaped fell on the attackers with sabres and kindjals, but were killed to a man.

Prince Baryatinsky wished to take Shamyl alive, if possible; the Russians therefore made a halt before the a-ul, which soon was encircled by fourteen battalions.  As parliamentary, an Armenian colonel was sent to Shamyl.  The old fanatic wavered; had he been alone, he would probably have fought on to the death; but could he sacrifice his wives and children?  This was to touch him at his tenderest spot.  He mounted and rode out of the a-ul, but he had not come far before the Russian soldiers, seeing their thirty years' foe at last in their hands, gave a loud cheer.  Shamyl grew pale, pulled up his horse, and turned back towards the a-ul.  Then the ready witted Armenian ran after him, and called out that the cheers were a token of esteem towards him.  Followed by about 50 Murids, the last remnants of his once so powerful army, he then rode to the little birch wood nearby, where Prince Baryatinsky surrounded by his staff received him, and he surrendered himself with his Murids.

Thus ended Shamyl's long fight against the penetration of his mountain world by foreign unbelievers, and against their conquest of its peoples.  When as a prisoner he journeyed through Russia to St Petersburg, he was deeply struck by the size of the towns - so huge, compared with his small a-uls - the many people and the vast stretches of the land; and he was dismayed to think that it was against this mighty empire that he with his small forces had fought for over thirty years.  He was hailed on his journey by the Russians as a great hero, and Tsar Alexander II received him near Kharkov, and clasped and kissed him as a friend.  Shamyl, who had feared retaliation for the cruelty he had so often shown towards Russian prisoners, was deeply touched, and was overwhelmed with gratitude for this magnanimity.  In the evening a great ball was given for him; but when he and his Murids saw the ladies' dresses and the way they exposed themselves, they were dismayed, turned away, and started praying.  That gentlemen and ladies should embrace one another before everyone and dance together was beyond their understanding.

He was assigned the little town of Kaluga, south west of Moscow, as his abode.  A good and roomy house was built there for him and his family - three wives and sons and daughters - and the Tsar granted him a yearly pension of 10,000 silver roubles.  In 1870 he was granted leave to make the pilgrimage to Mecca; from there he went to Medina, dying here in 1871, seventy-four years old.

When Shamyl had been taken prisoner there was none left who could gather the Lesghis and Chechens to fight the Russians, and the whole of Daghestan and Chechnia made its submission.  The Russian forces were thereby set free on this front, and could now be concentrated against the Circassian or Cherkess tribes who were still defending themselves with the utmost heroism…


Chapter 7 Excursions in Daghestan

…next morning it was announced that a remarkable man had come to greet me.  He was the magistrate in an a-ul high up in the mountains; he had made a journey to the government at Tiflis, then to Baku, and now had come this way when he heard we were here.  I went to the President's reception room and saw him.  He was one of the strongest built men I have ever seen, over six feet tall, with powerful shoulders and chest and a body in proportion, mighty arms, and hands like scoops, with which he shook mine with great heartiness.  He had a large, strong face, wearing a childlike, kindly expression, as is usual with strong men, dark eyes and hair, and somewhat coarse features, reminding me rather of the Nordic type than of the Armenian with its long narrow face.  He might have been taken right out of the old tales of giants and berserkers.  He was wearing the Caucasian dress, with high boots, a belt around his waist, and the usual heavy dagger.  So far as I could understand he was a Lesghi.  I was told of him that he had carried on his back all the earth for the garden and patches of field that he was now cultivating in the eyry where he dwelt right up among the mountain precipices; it looked as though the back could still carry a good load.

These people, indeed, up in the mountains, have but little ground to till, and therefore in the former days, when food grew too scanty, they were wont to make an excursion down below to carry off something from the plain dwellers.  The patches of field that they till generally lie scattered on ledges along the mountain slopes...  Korkmazov told us how one day a peasant went up the mountain to work in his field; it was a hot day and when he had come there he threw off his cloak (burka).  When he looked round for his field he could not find it, it had disappeared; and in the end he had to pick up his cloak to go down again, but there lay the field after all under it...


The women here in Tarki go about unveiled; we met many of them in the streets, and could look upon them without offence; indeed, they were so 'Christian' that one could even photograph them.

The sun blazed ruthlessly down on us, and it was indeed a hot climb…  We kept on steadily mounting through the steep streets.  In the little market place we were met by a group of men, among them several of the notables of the town, who welcomed the presidents and us foreigners.  But we soon went on with our climb in the heat.  It was pleasant, indeed, to see in a small square in the street a little basin with clear water gushing out of two pipes, and a curious stone erection over it shaped like a beehive; but what this was for I could not find out.  Here the pretty young girls met and drew water in their metal pitchers, and men, as pious Mohammedans, performed the prescribed foot washing.

We had to climb still higher; but then at last we were right up under the perpendicular mountain wall over the town, where a lovely, cold, clear spring came out of the mountain.  It was wonderful to lie stretched on one's back by this splashing, cooling water under the shady canopy of leaves, with a wide view over the town at our feet, right away over the plain far below us to the blue sea, and then to dip one's head down and fill one's mouth with the grateful coolness.

It was very touching to see the hospitality of the peasants; they came from the houses below bringing their precious Daghestan rugs, and spread them out on the ground for us to lie on, and they brought pillows and cushions to make us comfortable.  Then, when the sad discovery was made that through a mistake in the names our lunch had gone to the town of Talgi (which has mineral springs and baths) down on the plain instead of up here to Tarki, the peasants came up loaded with samovars, bread, butter, eggs, cheese, cherries, and lots besides.  It was a lunch that could not have been bettered…



Chapter 8 Over the Caspian to Astrakhan

Quisling and I would gladly have made a long stay in this interesting country among its sympathetic people if only there had been time; and it was with regret that in the afternoon we drove to the steamer that was to take us over the Caspian to the Volga.  Our kind friends the two Presidents, Samursky and Korkmazov, and others of the commissariat went on board with us.  We now said goodbye to our hosts... the utmost thought was given to our comfort on the overladen boat, and an array of gifts was sent us on board worthy of an Eastern prince.

The boat came from Baku and was full of passengers bound north for Astrakhan; many, too, came aboard at Makhach Kalá, and the landing stage was packed tight with people and crowded with row after row of herring barrels piled on one another.  Then at last we were off, our hosts accompanying us some way out in a small tug to wave a last goodbye.  Makhach Kalá on its plain, with the blue wall of the Caucasus behind, sank slowly below the blue surface of the sea in the evening.

On this steamer we had come again into a new world.  The many passengers seemed to be mostly Russians; but what struck us like something new after we had been travelling in the Caucasian world was the comparatively great number of women among them, and the free way they associated with the men, like comrades on an equal footing.  All ages were here, and several young loving couples, who may well have been on their honeymoon…



Chapter 10   The Volga

Up the Volga


In A.D. 922 Ibn Fadhlân came there [to the Volga] as envoy from the Khalif Al-Muktadir billáh in Baghdad.  He has left a remarkable account of his stay.

For us northerners he is particularly interesting as telling us of his meeting with traders belonging to the Rûs people, who were from Scandinavia, and mostly Swedes; they founded the Russian State of Gardarike, having Novgorod for its capital.  This description of these forefathers of the Norwegians is one of the first known to us, but it is not altogether very flattering.  'He saw the Rûs,' says he, 'as they came with their wares', and there were mainly skins and young girls.  'They came from their land in their ships to Itil (that is, the Volga), and anchored there, and built themselves great wooden houses.'  What way they had come he does not say...
‘Never have I seen such tall people,’ he says; ‘they are as tall as palms, ruddy and red cheeked.  They wear no undershirt or caftan.  The man wears a coarse cloak, which he throws round one side so that a hand is left free.  Each man carries an axe, a knife, and a sword.  You never see them without these weapons...  The women wear on the breast a box made of iron, copper, silver, or gold; to this a ring is fastened, and to this a knife.  Around the neck they wear chains of gold and silver, and the number depends on the husband’s wealth.  Their greatest ornaments are green glass beads.

They are the dirtiest people God ever made; they never wash after the calls of nature, nor at night...  They are just like wandering wild asses.’

We are told of their idols made of wood, and of their offerings to them to be granted good trade.  In the houses each man had a broad bench on which he sat with his girls and beauties that were for sale.  There he dallied with one of his girls, while his friend, sometimes even several of the men at the same time, looked on...

There is a very remarkable account of a chief’s funeral witnessed by Ibn Fadhlân.  The dead man, wearing splendid apparel of gold cloth with gold buttons and a gold cloth cap edged with sable, was on his ship, which was drawn ashore, seated on a bench spread with coverings of Grecian gold cloth and pillows of the same cloths.  His weapons were laid at his side, and intoxicating drink, fruit, bread, meat, and so on.  A dog was cut up and thrown into the ship, as also two horses, two oxen, a cock, and a hen.  They drank heavily, and ‘often one of them would die, beaker in hand’.  The girl who had agreed to follow the dead man, after much drinking and debauchery, especially with six of his men, was killed on the ship by the death angel, an old woman.  At the end, the dead man’s nearest kindred walked backwards and naked up to the ship, and set fire to the wooden props underneath it.  Everything was soon alight, and the chief with the girl took the long journey to the other world…

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