Avars - History and Cultural Relations

The earliest news of the Caucasian Avars is found in the communications of ancient authors about the Leg tribe, one of the twenty-six tribes comprising the Albanian Union (Strabo 10.5.1; Plutarch, Pompey 35.6). After the conquest of the Caucasian Albanians by Sasanid Iran (3rd century B.C. ), there took shape in the mountains of Daghestan a powerful new political formation called Sarir with its capital in Khunzakh, the residence of the Avar khans until 1834. The ruler of Sarir was called "Avar," which evidently served as a source for the ethnonym. Contemporary researchers reject the hypothesis of an affinity between the Caucasian Avars and the tribe of the same name (probably Turkic-speaking) that swept from Inner Asia to the Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries. The two groups may have come into contact in the mid-sixth century, when the Turkic Avars passed through northern Caucasia. The conquest of Daghestan by the Arabs (seventh-eighth century) only touched the Avars to some extent. In the fourteenth century Tamerlane, "the Conqueror of the Universe," left the mountains, having suffered enormous losses after invading Avaria with a host of 100,000. A combined military force of Daghestan mountaineers smashed the Persian Nadir Shah in Avaria in 1747. The Avars, like other inhabitants of Mountain Daghestan, above all valued their freedom—the sole (and indispensable) condition for the existence of their local communes (the basic form of social and political organization of Avar society). The Avar Khanate achieved its greatest strength in the eighteenth century, when it influenced the military and political life of all of the Caucasus. Better known is the half-century-long struggle of the Avars against the Russian Empire during the Caucasus Wars (1817-1864). During its last twenty-five years their fight was led by Shamil, a native of the Avar village of Gimri. During the years of this war for independence a theocratic state (an imamate) was created on the territory of Avaria and Chechnia (to the northwest). Following the fall of the fortress at Gunib and the capture of Shamil in 1859, Avaria was definitively annexed by the Russian Empire, retaining, however, a significant degree of internal autonomy. A renewed general uprising against Russia in 1877 suffered defeat. In 1920, after the Russian civil war, Soviet power was decisively established in Daghestan, and on 13 November 1921, at an "Extraordinary Session" of the peoples of Daghestan, Daghestan was declared autonomous. Since that time all the laws, orders, and socioeconomic structures pertaining to the USSR have been extended to all Daghestan. In 1944, some of the Avars were deported, along with other Muslim Caucasians (Bennigsen and Wimbush 1986, 153). Among changes in the culture and way of life, the most significant have been the universal opening of schools and the establishment of institutions of higher learning, including a university (1957) and the Daghestan branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1949). Nevertheless, partly because of their leadership under Shamil, their long-standing tradition of holy war, and their present-day Muslim religiosity, the Avars enjoy the greatest prestige in Daghestan and northern Caucasus political consciousness, with the current trend being a gradual unification of various Daghestan groups around them (Bennigsen and Wimbush 1986, 180-181).

Greatly popular among the Avars are the epic-historical songs about the defeat of the armies of Nadir Shah and by the cycle of songs devoted to various episodes of the War of Independence in the nineteenth century. Of the medieval poetic inheritances of the Avars the best-known are the ballads "Khochbar" and "Kamalil Bashir," the dramatic subjects of which are without direct parallel in world literature. In the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Avar culture and literature experienced a significant upsurge. Well-known Avar literary figures include the poets Aligaji of Inkho (died 1875) and Chanka (1866-1909), the lyric poet Makhmud (1873-1919), the satirist Tsadasa Gamzat (1877-1951), and the celebrated poet Rasul Gamzatov (born 1923). Avaria, perhaps more than any other part of Daghestan, was a centuries-old seat of Arabic culture with many learned scholars, visited by disciples from other Muslim lands (Bennigsen and Wimbush 1986, 177).

The script of the Avar alphabet was reformed three times. Texts from the thirteenth century testify to the adaptation of the Georgian alphabet; from the sixteenth century on the language of literacy was Arabic, and in the eighteenth century, on the basis of the Arabic script, the Avar alphabet was established by cleric and scholar Dibir Kadi of Khunzakh. In 1928 a new alphabet was created based on Latin before the shift to the Cyrillic-based alphabet in 1938.

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