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Derbent: Contested Ancient City Stronghold on the Silk Road

Derbent: Contested Ancient City Stronghold on the Silk Road


Nestled between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, the Russian city of Derbent and its famed citadel tells the story of ancient power struggles to control the Silk Road trade route which stretched between Western Europe and Asia. Remembered by many as the oldest city in Russia, nowadays the battle continues for control of the memory and history of this highly prized and strategic location.

Origins of the City of Derbent

The name “Derbend” is derived from the Persian darband, meaning “closed gate”. To the Arabs, the city was known as Bab al Abwab, meaning “Gate of Gates”, whereas the Turks referred to the city as Demirkapı, meaning “Iron Gate”. Moreover, Derbent has often been identified with the legendary Gates of Alexander. The various names of Derbent reflect the city’s geographical position and significance.

Derbent is situated in the southeastern part of the Republic of Dagestan in Russia. The ancient city developed in the narrow gap between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains at their closest approach, and was originally founded as a stronghold to protect and control the Silk Road caravan route that traversed between Europe and Asia.

Derbent fulfilled this role for about 1,500 years, longer than any other fortress in the world. This long-lasting importance also meant that Derbent was a highly prized city, and was fiercely fought over by the various powers that laid claim to the region. In any case, Derbent was an important city up until the 19th century, thanks to its strategic geographical location. This is best reflected in its fortress and walls, which were built during by the Sassanians, and are still standing today. Since 2003, Derbent has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Naryn Kala Castle fortress in Derbent on a stamp commemorating its so-called 2,000th anniversary. (Public domain)

The Naryn Kala Castle fortress in Derbent on a stamp commemorating its so-called 2,000th anniversary. (Public domain)

Controversial Dating: The Changing Age of Derbent

Long before Derbent was establishment as a fortress, the area was already inhabited. Archaeological work, which has been conducted in Derbent since the late 1970s, yielded numerous ancient artifacts. These included pottery, two primitive terracotta figurines (supposedly of fertility goddesses), and an early Bronze Age axe.

Initially, the finds were thought to be 5,000 years old, making it the oldest city in Russia, and this view was widely disseminated throughout the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Consequently, the belief that Derbent was 5,000 years old became entrenched in the popular imagination, especially amongst the city’s inhabitants. Indeed, it has become a source of local pride amongst them.

In more recent times, the age of Derbent has been revised by the Russian government. This revision occurred several years ago, when the city was preparing to celebrate its 5,000-year anniversary. The celebration, however, needed federal approval. Whilst approval was granted by the Kremlin for the celebrations, it came with a cost: the city would “lose” 3,000 years of its history with the Kremlin claiming it was only 2,000 years old.

This revision has not been viewed favorably, causing displeasure amongst the local population who believe that the decision was politically motivated. Many in Derbent believe in the conspiracy theory that their city’s age was greatly reduced because it conflicted with the various founding myths that the Kremlin wants to disseminate for Russia, especially since Derbent is historically a Muslim city.

The Ancient History of Derbent and its Fortress

In any case, the earliest evidence for the intense settlement of the area is said to date to the 8th century BC. Later on, during the 6th century BC, the area was controlled from time to time by Persian rulers. Subsequently, Derbent was part of Caucasian Albania until the 4th century AD, after which it came under the control of the Sassanian Empire. The fortress is said to have been built in the 430s, by the Sassanian ruler Yazdegerd, though others claim that it was built during the 6th century AD.

The fortress of Derbent is known also as the Naryn-Kala Citadel. According to some sources, this name translates to mean “Sun Fortress”, whilst others claim that Naryn, which means “tender” or “beautiful”, was the name of one of the Sassanian rulers. The fortress is naturally defended on three sides by steep slopes. Additionally, it is protected by a circuit of massive stone walls. The walls rise to a height of between 10 and 15 meters (32.8 and 49.2 ft), and have a thickness of between 2.5 and 3.2 meters (8.2 and 10.5 ft).

The remains of several buildings have been found within the fortress. These include the Khan’s Place, a bath, several underground water tanks, a 5th century AD Christian church, and an 8th century AD mosque. The last of these is regarded as one of the earliest mosques in the former Soviet Union. 

The Naryn-Kala citadel is known for its defensive walls and courtyards. (Linar Khalitov / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Naryn-Kala citadel is known for its defensive walls and courtyards. (Linar Khalitov / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Imposing Sassanian Walls of Derbent Fortress

Some sources mention that between the late 5th century and early 6th century AD, another Sassanian ruler, Kavad I, re-established the city. It is commonly thought that the city’s imposing walls were built during the reign of Kavad’s son and successor, Khosrau I. Two walls were constructed, being between 300 to 400 m (984 to 1312 ft) apart from each other.

The walls extend about 3.6 km (2.2 mi.) from the Caspian Sea up to the Naryn-Kala Citadel, and about 0.5 km (0.3 mi.) into the Caspian Sea. The latter is meant to protect the harbor. The mountain wall continues 40 km (25 mi) west, effectively blocking the pass between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. The walls were bolstered by 73 defensive towers, 46 of which were in the north wall alone. The walls were punctuated at 14 points by gates. Nine of the original gates have survived till this day.    

Thanks to citadel and walls of Derbent, the Sassanians were able to maintain a strong grip over the flow of trade between Southwest Europe and Southwest Asia. Despite is formidability, the walls were not however impregnable. In 627 AD, Derbent was sacked by hordes of the Western Turkic Khaganate, who were led by the Tong Yabghu. A graphic description of this incident is provided by the Armenian historian Movses Kagankatvatsi.

Incidentally, Kagankatvatsi also wrote about the building of Derbent’s walls by the Sassanians, during which he stated:

The wondrous walls, for whose construction the Persian kings exhausted our country, recruiting architects and collecting building materials with a view of constructing a great edifice stretching between the Caucasus Mountains and the Great Eastern Sea.” 

Gate at the Naryn-Kala fortress in Derbent. (Savory / Adobe Stock)

Gate at the Naryn-Kala fortress in Derbent. (Savory / Adobe Stock)

Derbent Under Islamic Rule

Derbent did not remain in the hands of the Western Turkic Khaganate for long, as it was recaptured by the Sassanians during the reign of Tong Yabghu’s successor, Buri-sad. Around the same time, Islam came to dominate the Arabian Peninsula and soon its armies were advancing into the Caucasus region. In 654 AD, the Arabs captured Derbent, which they maintained as an important regional administration center. Additionally, Derbent was used for the propagation of Islam in the area.

In the centuries that followed, Derbent remained in the hands of the Muslims, though it was contested by the Khazars during the Arab-Khazar Wars, which lasted for about a century between the middle of the 7th century AD to the middle of the 8th century AD. Harun al-Rashid, the 5th Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate, lived in Derbent for some time.

Thanks to the caliph, Derbent became renowned as a center of learning and the arts. Apart from that, Derbent is recorded as the largest city in the Caucasus during the 9th century. According to Arab historians, the city had a population of over 50,000 people.

By the 10th century, the grip of the Abbasid caliphs over many of their provinces had weakened. This was especially true for those furthest away from Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate. In some cases, autonomous emirates were founded. Derbent became the capital of one of these emirates based in the Caucasus. The Muslim emirs of Derbent were constantly at war with their neighbors, the Christian state of Sarir, and lost many battles to them. In the long run, however, Derbent outlived its rival, surviving, and even thriving, until the arrival of the Mongols in the 13th century.

Derbent fortress from the air. (Евгений Герунов / Adobe Stock)

Derbent fortress from the air. (Евгений Герунов / Adobe Stock)

Power Struggles to Control Derbent

Over the next few centuries, Derbent was occupied by many different powers. This reflects the strategic value and importance of the city, especially with regards to its control over trade routes. During the 14th century, Derbent was captured by the Timurids, who were led by Tamerlane. In the following century, the city fell under the control of Shirvan, a Muslim state in the Caucasus led by a Persianized dynasty of Arab origin.

During the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks and their rivals, the Safavid Persians, fought for supremacy over the Caucasus. Needless to say, Derbent was a city highly prized by both powers. By the early 17th century, the Safavids, under Shah Abbas I, succeeded in inflicting a crushing defeat on the Ottomans, thereby bringing Derbent back under Persian rule.

As part of a long history of struggles for the control of Derbent, during the 18th century the Persians had to contend with a new enemy, the Russian Empire. In 1722, for instance, the town was captured by Peter the Great during the Russo-Persian War. 14 years later, in 1736, however, the city was returned to the Persians, who were led by the formidable Nadir Shah.

In 1796, the Persian Expedition brought Derbent back under Russian control. Although the expedition did not have a lasting impact for the Russians, Derbent would become part of the Russian Empire in 1813 following the Treaty of Gulistan between the Russians and Persians. During the Russo-Turkish War, which lasted from 1877 to 1878, Derbent, as part of Dagestan, rebelled unsuccessfully against the Russian Empire.

Between 1917 and 1920, during the Russian Civil War, Derbent became part of the Republic of the Mountaineers of the North Caucasus. In 1921, the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. Although the Soviets were making inroads into the region, the local population continued to resist. Two nationalistic uprisings, one in 1920, and another in 1930, were instigated. Both, however, were unsuccessful. The process of collectivization during in the middle of the 1930s dealt a severe blow to the nationalistic movement. This continued after WWII, through the education system and Soviet cultural policy.

Erasure of Ancient History in the Name of Progress

In 2003, the citadel, ancient city, and fortress buildings of Derbent were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite this great honor, Derbent is but a shadow of its former self. In an article from 2015, for instance, it was reported that the city was being refurbished as part of Derbent’s 2000th anniversary.

This refurbishment included 13 streets being re-laid, five parks being renovated, and the construction of a new drinking water pipeline. Although these developments were welcomed, some have pointed out that all these works are the basic responsibilities of a city council, independently of an anniversary celebration.

Another issue with the anniversary projects that has been highlighted is the way the restoration of the old monuments was carried out. For instance, some have complained that the upper part of the city, which dates to the Mongol period and falls within the area of the World Heritage Site, was neglected, and not restored at all. Apart from that, numerous historical buildings in the city were demolished. These old buildings have been replaced by shopping centers and flats. This is indeed a blow to the city’s historical architecture.

Derbent is certainly one of the oldest cities in Russia, even though there are disagreements about its actual age. Thanks to its strategic location at the juncture between Southwest Europe and Southwest Asia, the city was able to control the trade routes that passed through the area. Consequently, the city was fought over throughout its history by the various powers that dominated the region, including the many Persian states, the Turks, and the Russians.

Although control over Derbent in Dagestan switched hands numerous times throughout its history, the city has survived it all. This is best reflected in its fortress and ancient walls, which date to around the 6th century AD, and have been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In relation to recent renovations, a 2015 article asked the question: “Will the ancient city survive the onslaught of its latest rulers, the bureaucrats?”

Top image: Wall of Naryn-Kala fortress and the view of Derbent city in Russia. Source: Konstantin / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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