Avars (Caucasus)

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Avarian Daghestan Mussayassul.jpg
Portrait of a woman wearing festive Dagestani national clothing, by H. Mussayassul (artist and political emigrant), 1939
Total population
approx. 1 million
Regions with significant populations
 Russia 912,090[1]
 Azerbaijan 49,800[2]
 Georgia 1,996[3]
 Ukraine 1,496[4]
 Kazakhstan 15,675
Sunni Islam[5]
Related ethnic groups
Northeast Caucasian peoples

The Avars (Avar: аварал, магIарулал, avaral, maharulal ("mountaineers")) constitute a Caucasus native ethnic group, the most predominant of several ethnic groups living in the Russian republic of Dagestan.[6] The Avars reside in a region known as the North Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas. Alongside other ethnic groups in the North Caucasus region, the Caucasian Avars live in ancient villages located approximately 2,000 m above sea level.[7] The Avar language spoken by the Caucasian Avars belongs to the family of Northeast Caucasian languages and is also known as Nakh–Dagestanian. Sunni Islam has been the prevailing religion of the Avars since the 13th century.


According to the historian Sergey Tolstov, the Avars originated in Khurasan, south-east of the Caspian Sea, and migrated to the Caucasus.[8] These geographical origins apparently link them to the Hurrians of Subartu.[8] (And subclades of Y-Chromosome Haplogroup J typical of Avar males are also common in the area formerly occupied by Subartu.)

The earliest mention of the Avars in European history is by Priscus, who reported in 463 AD that a combined legation from the Saragurs, Urogs and Unogurs had requested an alliance with Byzantium. The legation claimed that in 461 their peoples had been displaced by the Sabirs, as a result of pressure from the Avars.[9]

It is not clear whether or in what way the Caucasian Avars are related to the early "Pseudo-Avars" (or Pannonian Avars) of the Dark Ages, but it is known that with the mediation of Sarosios in 567, the Göktürks requested Byzantium to distinguish the Avars of Pannonia as "Pseudo-Avars" as opposed to the true Avars of the east, who had come under Göktürk hegemony.[10] The modern Arab Encyclopaedia states that the Magyars originated in this area.

The Avar invasion of the Caucasus resulted in the establishment of an Avar ruling dynasty in Sarir, a medieval Christian state in the Dagestani highlands.

Old Avarian popular symbols appearing on stone and felt

During the Khazar wars against the Caliphate in the 7th century, the Avars sided with Khazaria. Surakat is mentioned as their Khagan around 729–30 AD, followed by Andunik-Nutsal at the time of Abu Muslima, then Dugry-Nutsal. Sarir suffered a partial eclipse after the Arabs gained the upper hand, but managed to reassert its influence in the region in the 9th century. It confronted the weakened Khazars and conducted a friendly policy towards the neighbouring Christian states of Georgia and Alania.

In the early 12th century, Sarir disintegrated, to be succeeded by the Avar Khanate, a predominantly Muslim polity.[5] The only extant monument of Sarir architecture is a 10th-century church at the village of Datuna. The Mongol invasions seem not to have affected the Avar territory, and the alliance with the Golden Horde enabled the Avar khans to increase their prosperity. In the 15th century the Horde declined, and the Shamkhalate of Kazi-Kumukh rose to power. The Avars could not compete with it and were incorporated by them.

From the 16th century onwards, the Persians and Ottomans started consolidating their authority over the entire Caucasus, and divided and consolidated most of its territory for themselves. By the mid 16th century, what is now Eastern Georgia, Dagestan, nowadays Azerbaijan, and Armenia would retain under Safavid Persian rule,[11] while what is now Western Georgia and Abkhazia would remain under Ottoman Turkish suzerainty.[12] Although once briefly occupied by the Ottoman Turks, Dagestan and many of its Avar inhabitants stayed under Persian suzerainty for many centuries since their conquering in the 16th century. However, many ethnic groups in Dagestan, including many Avars, retained relatively high amounts of freedom and self-rule. After losing the Caucasus briefly in the early 18th century, following the disintegration of the Safavids and the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723), the Persians reeatablished full control over the Caucasus again in the early 18th century under Nader Shah through his Caucasian campaign and Dagestan campaign. During that same time, the Avars increased their prestige by routing an army of Nader Shah at Andalal during the later stages of his Dagestan campaign.[13] In the wake of this triumph, Umma Khan of the Avars (who reigned 1774–1801) managed to exact tribute from most states of the Caucasus, including Shirvan and Georgia.

Two years after Umma Khan's death in 1801, the khanate voluntarily submitted to Russian authority following the Russian annexation of Georgia and the treaty of Georgievsk, but this only got confirmed after considerable Russian successes and the victory in the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813), after which Persia would nominally lose Dagestan amongst other lost Caucasian territories it had to cede to Russia.[14] Permanent switch from Persian to Russian rule over Avar inhabiting territories got concluded in the Treaty of Turkmenchay following the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828).

The Russian administration disappointed and embittered the freedom-loving highlanders. The Russians' institution of heavy taxation, coupled with the expropriation of estates and the construction of fortresses, electrified the Avar population into rising under the aegis of the Muslim Imamate of Dagestan, led by Ghazi Mohammed (1828–32), Gamzat-bek (1832–34) and Shamil (1834–59).

This Caucasian War raged until 1864, when the Avarian Khanate was abolished and the Avarian District was instituted instead. One portion of the Avars refused to collaborate with Russians and migrated to Turkey, where their descendants live to this day. Although the population was decimated through war and emigration, the Avars retained their position as the dominant ethnic group in Dagestan during the Soviet period. After World War II, many Avars left the barren highlands for the fertile plains closer to the shores of the Caspian Sea.


Map of the North Caucasus region

The Avars are Northern Caucasian people with Caucasian language. Another tribe with common name "Aβar" according to 'Encyclopaedia Britannica," one of a people of undetermined origin and language",[15] was the so called Turanian nomad people, which to make their presence as "Pseudo-Avars" – in opinion of ruler of Turkic qaganate (Gőktürks) – in Europe.[16]

The Avars inhabit most of the mountainous part of Dagestan as well as portions of the plains (Buynaksk, Khasav'yurt, Kizil'yurt and other regions). They also live in Chechnya, Kalmykia and other regions of the Russian state, as well as in Azerbaijan (mainly in the Balakan and Zakatala rayons, with a population of 50,900 in 1999 [17] and 49,800 in 2009[2]) and Georgia (Kvareli Avars with 1,996 people in 2002[3]).

In 2002, the Avars, who have assimilated with ethnic groups speaking related languages, numbered about 1.04 million, of which 912,020 live in Russia (2010 census).[1] Of those living in Russia, 850,011 are in Dagestan (2010 census),[1] 32% of them in cities (2002).[citation needed]

Symbol of the Avarian Khanate

In Turkey, the population census figures for the North Caucasian population are not given as they are considered as "ethnic Turks". According to Ataev B.M., according to A.M. Magomeddadaev's research, the Avarian population there should have been around 53,000 in 2005.[18] The Avars call themselves "Awaral" (also "Ma'arulal").

Ethnic subgroups

Avar is a collective term for the Avar-Andi-Dido (Tsez) peoples and generalizes to various ethnic groups native to the foothills of Russia's Dagestan Republic; Avars can be classified into the following subgroups:[19]

Symbol of Dagestanis by Prince Vakhushti.
Old gravestone in Avaria. Sekh, Ghunib Rayon

Avars as highlanders and armed people

"МагIарулал" Ma'arulal means "inhabitants of the top grounds, mountaineers", but another group of Avars is described as belonging to another category, "Хьиндалал" X'indalal (with a soft "χ"), namely, "inhabitants of plains (warm valleys) and gardeners".[20] The name Avars has a narrower meaning for Avars, especially a national one connected with former statehood. "Avar" is a significant part of the word "Avaria" for the Khunzakh Khanate that formed approximately in the 12th century after the disintegration of the local Sаrir ("The Throne") empire. From the middle of the 19th century this territory was the Avarian District of the Daghestanian area. Now it is Khunzakhsky District (χunzaχ in a literary Avar language or χwnzaa in a local dialect) of Dagestan.[21]

The modern literary language of Avars (Awar mac'), both in olden times and today, is known among Avars as the language of "boʔ" (bolmac'). The Avarian word "bo" "army, armed people", according to reconstructions, was originally *ʔωar[22] in the proto-Avarian language ("ʔ" is here a glottal stop).

Usage of the name "Avars"

At the same time, in modern Avarian there are three words retaining their ancient basis of "awar": awarag "the envoy, prophet, messiah", awara "obstacle, opposition"[23] (awara habize is "to make an obstacle, to resist") and awari "pommel of a saddle".[24] There is also an Avarian river – "Awar ʕωr" (in Avarian) and "Avar koysu" in Russian.

Avarian River

All three listed words are to be found in ancient lexicons of the Iranian languages: Parthian "apar" Pahlavi/Middle-Pers. abar/aβar = "up, on, over" and "higher, superior" (also abraz "acclivity"); abarag/aβarag "superior", abargar/aβargar "god, divinity", abarmanig/aβarmanig "noble";[25] apar amatan "to surpass", apar kardan/apar handaχtan "to attack".[26]

At the same time, according to the morphology and grammatic rules of the Middle-Persian language, Aβarag "superior" can also be translated as "Aβarian", "Khurasanian", "Parthian" as seen, for example, in a Middle-Persian word, Eranag – "Iranian".

The term "Avar" was known in the 10th century. According to Persian author Ibn Rustah a so-called governor of Sarir, the first authentic mention of a population of Daghestanian Highlanders under the name "Avars" belongs to Yohann de Galonifontibus, who wrote in 1404 that in the Caucasus there live "Circassians, Leks, Yasses, Alans, Avars, Kazikumukhs".[27] "According to V.Minorsky, in Zafer, (written in 1424), Daghestanian Avars are called the Auhar.[28] Abbas Kuli-Aga-Bakikhanov in his book Gulistan-i Iram (1841) based on the chronicle "Derbend-name" wrote that the "inhabitants of vicinities of Agran have been moved here from Khurasan. A residence of this emir also was Agran".[29] The editor of this book, an academician of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, Z.M. Buniyatov, confirms that the district of Agran corresponds to the Caucasian Avaria.[30] This word "Agran" is now unknown to modern Avars, but according to the Altiranisches Wörterbuch of Christian Bartholomae, aγra means erste, oberste; Anfang, Spitze (first, upper, beginning, tip) and aγra'va vom Obersten, von der Oberseite stammend (from the top, coming from the upper side).[31]

Nöldeke, Hübschmann, Frye, Christensen and Enoki identify the Aparshahr/Abarshahr/Abharshahr/Abrashahr with Khurasan, or Nishapur.[32] The Khurasan (χwarasan) in Iranian studies known as "rise of Sun", Parthian apar (Middle Persian/Pahlavi abar/aβar "up, on, over" and Parthian/Middle Persian šahr are cognate with old Iranian χšaθra "empire, power, the sovereign house".) In summary, Aparšahr/Aβaršahr is very similar to the German word Oberland. According to H. W. Haussig, Aβaršahr means Reich der Abar (kingdom of the Abar) and should be sought in the south-western territory of the Western Turkish Empire.

A Dahae tribe, the Aparnak (Parni) moved from the south-eastern shore of the Caspian (now part of modern Turkmenistan), into the territory of Khurasan (including the area of Gorgan), where they founded a Dahae confederation of tribes that was referred to as "barbarians" and "enemies of Aryans" in Avestani texts, according to Christian Bartholomae.[33]

On the border of Khurasan, the Sassanides built a strong wall, named the "Great Wall of Gorgan" or "The Red Snake", was built to protect Iran from invasion by the so-called White Huns (Hepthalites; Khionites, X'iiaona and Xyôn in Zoroastrian texts).[34] Later another wave of White Huns obtained control over Khurasan and kept it for a long time. According to Richard Helli: "By such reasoning, the Ephthalites are thought to have originated at Hsi-mo-ta-lo (southwest of Badakhshan and near the Hindu Kush), which tantalizingly, stands for Himtala, "snow plain", which may be the Sanskritized form of Hephthal.[35] In 484 the Hephthalite chief Akhshunwar led his army to attack the Sassanian King Peroz (459–484), who was defeated and killed in Khurasan. After the victory, the Hephthalite empire extended to Merv and Herat. Some of the White Huns concluded a peace treaty with Iran and the two became allies, both fighting against Byzantium. Thus, Hephthalites really lived in the Khurasan/Khorasan area. According to the Chinese classic Liang chih-kung-t'u, 滑 (pinyin: hua) was the name the Hephthalites used for themselves, and that is probably a Chinese transfer of a similar sounding word, war/Uar.

Mehmed Tezcan writes that according to a Chinese record, the Hephthalites descended from a Ruan Ruan tribe called Hua in the Qeshi region (Turfan area). This tribe came to Tokharistan and soon settled also in eastern regions of Khorasan at the beginning of the 5th century. About the same time, the name Avars/Awards appears in the sources. Again, in his well-known Atlas of China, A. Herrmann shows the eastern regions of Khorasan, Tokharistan, etc. as the dominions of Afu/Hua/Awards/Hephthalites between ca. 440 and 500 A.D., relying on the identification Hua = Uar = Awar.[32]

The German researcher Karl Menges, well known in the scientific world, considered Eurasian Avars to be one of the ancient Mongol peoples, who "were the first to use the title ga gan (later qān, ḵān) for their supreme ruler." Further listing ancient Mongol speaking peoples, he obviously has in view Avars Caucasian when he mentions the "traces of a Mongol residue in Daghestan".[36] Supporters of the so-called old Turanian nomad horde "infiltrate" point of view (with various clauses) include the following scientists: Josef Marquart, Omeljan Pritsak, Vladimir Minorsky, Vladimir Baileys, Harald Haarmann,[37] Murad Magomedov,[38] Alikber Alikberov,[39] and Timur Aytberov.[40]


Party (in the village of Chokh in Ghunib District). Artist: Halil Beg Mussayassul, 1935
Old Avarian cross with an Avarian inscription in the old Georgian script.

The Avar language belongs to the Avar-Andi-Tsez subgroup of the Alarodian Northeast Caucasian (or Nakh–Dagestanian) language family. The writing is based on the Cyrillic script, which replaced the Arabic script used before 1927 and the Latin script used between 1927 and 1938. More than 60% of the Avars living in Dagestan speak Russian as their second language.

Notable Avars

Imam Shamil (Sheyh Shamil)

The most prominent figures in Avar history were Umma Khan Avarian, Hadji Murat, and Imam Shamil. The most celebrated poet writing in the Avar language was Rasul Gamzatov (1923–2003). In Azerbaijan, there was an ethnic Avar Member of the Parliament (MP), Ali Antsukhskiy (elected in 1995), who was killed in 1996.

Famous Avar artists include Halil-Beg Mussayassul, whose drawings were shown at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art,[41] and Kamil Aliev (a distant cousin of Musayasul[citation needed]) who is noted for his ornamental carpet work.[42]

A famous sportsman of Avar origin is a former WBO heavyweight champion Sultan Ibragimov.

The World War II submarine commander and hero of the Soviet Union Magomet Gadzhiyev was an Avar.

Mansur Isaev is an ethnic Avar judoka from Russia. He won gold in the finals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in the class 73 kg.

Alisa Ganieva, a Moscow-based award-winning author, writes in Russian, but identifies herself as an Avar.[43]

Khabib Nurmagomedov is an Avar mixed martial artist and two-time Combat Sambo World Champion currently fighting in the lightweight division for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As of April 2014, he has an undefeated MMA record of 22–0.

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, convicted of the Boston Marathon bombings, were born to an Avar mother and Chechen father.[44]

Gadzhimurat Kamalov, 11 February 1965 – 15 December 2011, was an investigative journalist well known for reporting on corruption in the Dagestan area. He was shot dead in Makhachkala, Dagestan. He was an ethnic Avar born in the village of Sogratl, which is in the Gunibsky District of Dagestan, Russia.

Media files

The famous Avarian archeologist Dr. Murad Magomedov speaks about ancient nomad migration waves of Iranians, Turks and Protomongols to the Caspian-Daghestanian area. 2005. Attention! This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. From archives of Moussaev_M.Z. (http:www.svoboda.org).

Famous in Daghestan and the Daghestanian diaspora in Turkey, the Avarian poet Adallo Ali (also known as Adallo Aliev) speaks about the Avar language, poetry and literature. 2007. Attention! The files are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Attribution: Awarenstuermer at ru.wikipedia


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See also