Having been bowled over by Charles King‘s latest book, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams—one of the best books about a city I’ve ever read—I’ve moved on to his 2008 The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, and I’ve just come across a brief passage (on p. 83) about the famous rebel Shamil that serves as a nice summary of the difficulty of applying modern ideas of nationality to the Caucasus:

The imam was, if anything, an Avar insofar as he was born in the region of Dagestan controlled by the Avaristani khan. As in much of Dagestan, his language of official communication was Arabic, and it is likely that he used a variety of Turkish, the broad lingua franca of the highlands, in everyday speech. He may have spoken Avar, but there is no evidence that he thought of himself as an Avar in a modern ethnonational sense. He also spent a good deal of his career fighting the hereditary rulers of his native region.

As King keeps pointing out, the notion that there was some kind of unitary “Muslim rebellion” against Russian rule is actively misleading; for one thing, there were plenty of Muslims who had no problem with Russian rule (for example, Kabardians whose princes had been assimilated into the Russian aristocracy) and Christians who fought it. And while of course I would have assumed that Arabic was used in religious study, I was surprised to learn that it served as a language of official communication, and equally surprised that Turkish was “the broad lingua franca of the highlands.”


  1. The “variety of Turkish” is most likely Kumyk (also known in XIX c. as Dagestani Tatar).
    Across the region (in Azebaijan, too) it was quite fashionable to invent Arab ancestors. Some blood links may have been real, of course, since Maslamah resettled tens of thousands of Arabs to Derbent a.k.a. Gate of Gates a millennium earlier, at the conclusion of his Khazar campaign.

  2. I think we already had a discussion on Kumyk’s role in Dagestan

  3. So we did! Here‘s a direct link.

  4. In the Dagestani highlands, Turkic / presumably Kumyk influences are widely known in the toponims (e.g. at bilingual Kumyk history and culture portal). BTW the ethnonym of the (originally highlander, non-Turkic) Laks in many local languages is also Kumuk, so twe two groups have been frequently identified together by many observers; the shared political structure of the Shamkhal rule made the co-identification even stronger (and the opinion that the lowland Kumyks got their Kypchak Turkic languages from the Steppe neighbors further North). Of course a large fraction of the Laks turned lowlanders too, side-to-side to Kumyk homelands, after Stalinist forced resettlements of the highlanders of the Caucasus.

  5. Hello, yup this article is actually fastidious
    That would be the last adjective I’d ever apply to a Language Hat posting. Or just about.
    Speaking of which, it’s well-known that the first pharaoh of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty was named Ahmose. More accurately, Ahmose is the first pharaoh of that dynasty whose name we know. That’s because he appointed a special scribe whose sole duty, to be executed on the Pharaoh ‘s death, was to inscribe his name on a specially constructed stela placed in the desert some 25 kilometers outside the capital. This position of death-scribe was made hereditary, so that as long as there were pharaohs of the dynasty, there would hopefully be scribes to see to it that the pharaoh’s names were duly engraved on the stela.
    Unfortunately, in the waning days of the dynasty, Pharaoh Damnir, fourth of that name, didn’t notice that his death-scribe, though alive and well, did not have any heirs of his body, and the Pharaoh failed to appoint a new death-scribe. Consequently, though the Pharaoh’s name was duly engraved, his son and his son’s son, the penultimate and ultimate members of the dynasty, had no death-scribes to posthumously engrave their names for them.
    But hey, things could be worse. The stela survived the millennia intact, and so we have a solid record of just about all the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty, from Ahmose the First to Damnir the Last.

  6. Damnir the Last
    Well played, sir!

  7. marie-lucie says

    I second this!

  8. To give credit where it is amply due, this is a very loose paraphrase from memory of an anecdote by Randall Garrett, the American science-fiction writer. He once defined pun as ‘the odor given off by a decaying mind’, and like Katisha, I think I am sufficiently decayed to be fit for the purpose.
    I looked up the Wikipedia article on Ahmose I to get his dynasty number, which Garrett did not mention in his version. The transliteration “jˁḥ ms(j.w)” appeared there, and I thought about faking the transliteration of Damnir as well, but decided it would be overreaching.
    Private to D.R.R.: If you believe this is a post where you “be capable of genuinely obtain useful information” about the 18th Dynasty, you have another think coming.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Arabic was the language for Caucasus-wide and wider communication, now replaced by Russian. For more regional purposes, more regional languages were and AFAIK are used, so that people end up speaking four or five in total.

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  12. hello, this is Avarian.
    Arabic was not communication language for Avars, arabic was science language, and islamic religion based on it, Avars are Muslim, so they.must know Arabic to learn Islamic religon. Avari people communicate with Avar Bolmatz (Avar army language), not only Avars, two centuries ago this language was using by east Chechens, Andis, Didos, Dargins, Leks… to comminicate with highlander Dagestan nations. Avar Khans were rule all west Dagestan highlands, and some southeast of Chechen lands, army – trade language was Avar, religion – science language was Arab. But Tatar language was using for communication to plain nations as Kumyks, Nogais, Karapapaqs, Azeris.

    Shamil was from Avar blood, his father changed his name from Ali to Shamil. This is an Avar tradition, Avars change boys name to strength them, if children are weak. But in highlands, many Avar tribes were trying to free their lands from Avar Khans, this liberated Avar people named themselves as Maarulal (the highlanders), in Avar language. Shamil was a Maarulal (highlander) Avar.

    Avar Khans were not only war lords and leaders, but they are religion leaders for Avars. When the last Avar khan Umma died in 1801, he had any son to rule Avaristan, he had only a girl, Bakhu Bika. This girl married with Djangutai ( another Avarian root dynasty, but they spoke Tatar). Bakhu Bika and her husband came to rule Avars from Djangutai planes. Only Avar capitol city Hunzak accepted this, and other Avars rejected them. For this reason Bakhu Bika and his husband called Christian Russians to protect their dynasty against highlander Avars. Shamil said countless times : “There is no Khans or Kings for Avars then ! we are free people, we have to choose our leaders.” Then Avars united under Shamil’s flag, and killed Bakhu Bika and erased “Avar dynasty” from history. Dynasty eliminated, not Avar nation. Russians tried to build Avar Khanate against Shamil’s Avars, but they couldnt.

    Shamil was Avar but he was not a national leader of Avars, so he didnt use Avari ethnonym. Shamil was religious leader of multi-national Caucasus, from Checens to Dargins, many muslim nation followed him to liberate Caucasus from Russians.

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