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Religious Rituals of the North Caucasus

North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan, 19th - 30th of August 2020

Guide — Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Group: 3 — 5 people

The North Caucasus, despite its relatively small territory, is one of the few places in the world where you can learn a variety of religious traditions and see some impressive rituals such as Ossetian prayers, Dhikrs (devotional acts in Islam) of various Sufi communities, and Shia mourning rituals on the day of Ashura.
This trip is designed specifically for cultural anthropology and ethnography experts and enthusiasts. Our trip is for those who are ready to sacrifice comfort and delicious lunch for the sake of visiting a unique ritual that no more than a dozen experts have seen before you. This trip is for the responsible people who respect other cultures and certainly for the photographers. You will get a unique chance to take amazing photos.
But there’s much more to the trip. We will come a long way from North Ossetia to Dagestan, enjoy nature, acquaint ourselves with the culinary heritage of the peoples of the Caucasus, see traditional crafts and incredible architectural works in the mountains.
All the rituals we are going to see are 100% real, not that fake stuff artificially created for tourists. There are no arrangements, they occur naturally. Therefore, our trip might be modified.

Itinerary

August 19. Arrival in Vladikavkaz

Pedestrian avenue in Vladikavkaz. Photo of Timur Agirov

Our guide will pick you up at the Beslan Airport (Vladikavkaz). We recommend you getting a flight that arrives no later than 1 p.m.
After eating lunch in Vladikavkaz, we will go to the mountains to see the City of the Dead near the village of Dargavs. It is the biggest medieval crypts complex in the Caucasus. In the evening, we will visit a dance workshop that will help you fit in at any Caucasus holiday celebration. We will learn how to dance the Simd which is traditional Ossetian folk group dance and a local version of Lezginka which is the most popular dance of the peoples of the Caucasus.

Histar (the head of the table) is praying with a candle and horn of arak (home-made wheat distillate). Photo of Anton Agarkov

Then, we will bring together our Ossetian friends so that you can take part in a traditional feast that is more a religious ritual than ordinary eating.
We’ll spend the night at the Alexandrovsky 4* Hotel.

August 20. Our First Dhikr

Dhikr of Mani Sheikh’s murids. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

In the morning, we’ll take a walk around Vladikavkaz. This city emerged at the crossroads of major trade routes and experienced a real economic boom at the end of the 19th century. As a result, the first theater in the Caucasus, the first museum, art nouveau mansions, and culture mixing because people from all over the Caucasus came there to set up their ateliers and shops. It is not surprising that we will get a chance to visit an Orthodox church, a mosque, an Armenian church, and even a Lutheran church on our way.
After eating lunch, we will go to Mozdok to see the Sufi Dhikr of Mani Sheikh murids.
We will return to Vladikavkaz late in the evening.
We’ll spend the night at the Alexandrovsky 4* Hotel.

August 21. Ingushetia Mountains

An old Sufi in mountains of Ingushetia. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

In the morning, we are going to the mountainous part of Ingushetia to see the famous defensive towers. We will walk through several medieval tower complexes — Erzi, Vovnushki, Egikal and get to see the Tkhaba-Yerdy Church which is one of the most ancient Christian churches in Russia.
After a picnic in the mountains, we will come down to visit the Borga-Kash Muslim Mausoleum which was built in the 15th century. This is the only monument in Russia of the Golden Horde period preserved in its original appearance.
We will be in Grozny in the evening.
We’ll spend the night at the Grozny City Hotel 5*.

August 22-23. In Search of Dhikrs

Dhikr in Chechnya. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

On these days, we will try to see the Dhikr of Kunta-Hajji or Chimmirza brotherhoods. They take place a few days after the death of a member of the community. Our company cannot arrange a funeral, but our guide almost certainly will be able to find funeral ceremonies using his extensive contacts.
We will be also exploring Grozny — the hafiz school where students learn the Quran by heart, museums, the market… We will take a walk down Putin Avenue, talk to the local hipster youth in a cafe…
We’ll spend the night at the Grozny City Hotel 5*.
By the evening of August 24, we will make it to the Lake Kezenoy-am and spend the night at the Kezenoy-am Hotel 3*.

August 24. History of the Caucasian War

A salt getter from Kvanhidatli village. These people use archaic technique of extracting salt from the mineral spring till now. We are going to meet them on the way if weather permits. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Many people have heard of the Great Caucasian War of the 18th – 19th centuries which ended with the conquest of the Caucasus by the Russian Empire. Perhaps the most intense part of it took place from 1829 to 1859 when the imams of Dagestan and Chechnya, followers of the Naqshbandi Tariqat, waged Jihad (holy war) against the Russian Empire and its allies. The Murids fought not only with Russia but also with local feudal lords who did not want to replace the traditional law (Adat) with Sharia.
On this day, we will visit Akhoulgo and Gunib. These places are related to history of this war and the famous Imam Shamil. We will also see how they make burkas (traditional Caucasian coats made from felt) and urbech (a spreadable paste made of flax seeds or apricot kernels).
We’ll spend the night in Gunib at the Eagle’s Nest Hotel 3*.

August 25. Visiting Laks And Kubachi

On the street of Balkhar village, Dagestan.

On the street of Dagestani village. Photo of Anton Agarkov

On this day, we are going to take a break from religion. We are going to hike to see the waterfall located in the depths of a small cave near the village of Salta, explore the Lak village of Balkhar, the famous pottery center, and the village of Kubachi where the people of the same name live. Kubachi language is similar to Dargwa which is spoken by the Dargin people which is one of the major communities of Dagestan, but there are so many features in their culture that many (and most importantly, Kubachi people themselves) decided that they should form a separate nation.

Blacksmith in Kubachi. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Each Kubachi is a hereditary jeweler. Items made by the people from this village are exhibited in the best museums of the world — the St. Petersburg State Hermitage Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City.

Kubachi village. Photo of Anton Agarkov

Kubachi women walk around the village wearing kazs — gold embroidered white scarves. There is an “exhibition” room in many Kubachi houses. It features a collection of ceramics, engraved items, and other valuables.
We’ll spend the night in rural homes of jewelers.

August 26. Islamic Shrines of South Dagestan

Mausoleum of rulers of Kala-kureish. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

After the morning walk around Kubachi, we will go to Kala Koreish. This village is now abandoned, but once it was the capital of Kaytag which used to be one of the largest feudal states of Dagestan. The legend has it, for several centuries it was ruled by Arabs from the Quraysh tribe. The Islamic prophet Muhammad was born into the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe. The Mausoleum of the Kaytag rulers and the mosque of the 12th century are a place of pilgrimage for Muslims of the North Caucasus.
We will stop in Derbent for lunch and then go south to the Dagestan-Azerbaijan border, to the ancient Lezghin village of Akhty.
We’ll spend the night at the Samur Hotel 3*.

August 27. Hiking to pir Erenlar

Old ladies hikng to pir Erenlar along the pilgrim trail. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Each year, thousands of pilgrims hike to the Erenler ancient sanctuary located on the slope of the Shalbuzdag Mountain. Back in the day, it was a pagan temple of Eren spirits, but today it has been “Islamized.” Now, there are many Muslim legends around the mountain. Both young and old hike along a steep slope from the highest mosque in Europe, located at an altitude of about 3,000 meters (9,942 ft.), to the sanctuary located at 3,700 meters (12,139 ft.) above sea level. We are going to join them and walk along the pilgrim trail.
We will have lunch with the pilgrims, and get back to Derbent in the evening.
We’ll spend the night at the Scarlet Sails Hotel 3*.

August 28. Preparation for the Ashura Day

Children of Derbent. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

1339 years ago, Husayn, the son of the last righteous caliph of all Muslims, was killed in the desert near the city of Karbala. This event finalized the split between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The Shiites of the whole world still grieve and commemorate Husayn every tenth day of Muharram. In 2019, this day falls on September 10th. Preparations for the event will begin on September 1, but it’s going to get really interesting in the last two days. Believers will beat themselves with metal chains and daggers, praise Imam Husayn, and talk about the circumstances of his death.
Also, on this day we will meet the representatives of other religions, see the Naryn-Kala Medieval Fortress, visit an Orthodox church, city museums, and a synagogue.

August 29. Ashura Day

Mourning procession of Ashura day in Derbent. Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky

In the morning, we will take part in the mourning procession consisting of thousands of people to the Juma Mosque and witness the rituals that will be performed in the courtyard.
After lunchtime, we will go to Makhachkala.
We’ll spend the night at the Jaques Hotel 4*.

August 30. Makhachkala

Рынок в Махачкале

Herbalist in «Second Market» of Makhachkala. Photo of Max Avdeev

We will spend this day in the city, visit the Second Market, which is the largest farmers market in the North Caucasus, the Dagestan Museum of Fine Arts, which features the richest collection of items made by Dagestan craftsmen, and walk through the historic center of the city. If possible, we will meet with some of the followers of Salafi movement.
In the evening, we will go to the airport.

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Conditions

Flexibility

We are not going to show you much of touristic stuff. This tour is more like ethnographic expedition. We don't organize religious rituals, they are real, that's why we can not guarantee you'll see everything mentioned in the itinerary. Women will probably face some restrictions during religious events. But we can guarantee we'll do our best to keep the plan and even give you more then you expect.

Group

We are ready to take up to 5 people in this tour. And if there are just three, we’re still doing it! Thus, everyone will get our full attention. All you need is to respect other cultures, have sense of tact and be flexible about the itinerary.

Getting around

We will be using mini-vans and off-road vehicles to get around. Few parts of the trip (like hiking to pir Erenlar on Shalbuzdag mountain in Dagestan) requires good health, but in general just normal walking skills are required.

Accommodation

Nothing but the best! 4-5* hotels in the capitals of the republics. But in other places be ready for 3* hotels (however they are clean and rather new) and even one home-stay in the village (Kubachi).

Food

All-inclusive. In the cities, we’re going to be eating in our favorite restaurants. In the villages, we’ll enjoy local cuisine and homemade dishes.

Safety

First, North Caucasus has been a peaceful for more then 10 years now. Secondly, Caucasian people are hospitable. They are happy to welcome guests especially from far away because tourists are rare in those places. In fact, if you're a guest in the Caucasus, you shouldn’t worry about your safety at all. The owner of the house you stay in will take care of everything. Traditionally, the owner is responsible for your well-being and making sure you get good impressions from your stay.

Included:

  • guide + local experts;
  • transport (Mercedes Vito minivan, Mitsubishi Delica or Nissan Patrol off-road vehicle);
  • accommodation (Aleksandrovsky Hotel 4* - 2 nights, Grozny City 5* - 2 nights, Kezenoy-am 3* hotel - 1 night, Eagle's Nest 3* hotel - 1 night, rural homes in Kubachi - 1 night, Samur 3* hotel - 1 night, Scarlet Sails 3* hotel - 1 night, Jaques 4* hotel - 1 night);
  • food (breakfast, lunch, dinner);
  • other (entrance tickets, workshops, etc.).

Excluded:

  • flight to Vladikavkaz and back from Makhachkala;
  • souvenirs;
  • other personal expenses.