Huns, Alans, Proto-Bulgarians, Dagestan, Belendzer

The invasion of the Huns in Eastern Europe in the IV c. AD (the so called ‘great disturbances’ of Moses Horenaci) had profound consequences upon the population north and north-east of the Caspian. The archaeological studies reveal that most of the monuments of the Late Sarmatian culture were destroyed and they were replaced by another culture [18]. Especially heavily affected were the Iranian-speaking Alans - one of the greatest Sarmatian tribes, characteristic by its catacomb burials. According to the documentary evidence, a large part of them offered resistance and were slain, other were scattered in various parts of the steppes and in the foothills of Northern Caucasus [19]. Since V c. AD they started to settle down and there appeared numerous material monuments - settlements, ruins of strongholds, and necropolises. The Hunnish invasion affected also the situated in the Fore-Caucasus ‘Land of the Bulgars’ of the Unogundurs-bulgars. Some of them were forced to move south to Armenia, other moved to the west or to the south-east. Perhaps the few graves near stanitsa Novo-Labinskaja are their earliest material remains in the lands east of the Sea of Azov.

The chronicle of Zachariah Ritor points us the earliest places where the Proto-Bulgarians started to settled down - the plains of northern Dagestan, north of the Derbend pass. Indeed, exactly in that part of maritime Dagestan, in the valley of the river Sulak near the village of Verhnij Chirjurt, was found a necropolis bearing the characteristic features of  Proto-Bulgarian burial monuments. The necropolis of Chirjurt (necropolis No 1) was excavated by the Dagestani archaeologists as early as in 1957-69 but nothing was published yet except one preliminary report [20].

70 of the totally investigated 101 graves are catacombs, 30 are pit burials and 3 - burials in niches. The catacombs are isolated in the northern part of the necropolis and, generally, they exhibit the characteristics of Alanian catacombs from  foothills of Northern Caucasus and in the upper courses of Don and Severski Donec. Sometimes they contain more that one person (in one catacomb - up to 7). However, there are some deviations from the typical Alanian style - the dominant northern orientation; the isolation of the burial chambers from the burial corridor (dromos) by rock slabs (in some cases the entire dromos is filled with stones); the scarcity of the material remains, especially of pottery [21].

The pit and niche graves group in the southern part of the Chirjurt necropolis and according to the excavators most of them had been destroyed before the start of the excavations. Single stretched skeletons, in some cases with crossed legs (obviously tied together) are placed in shallow and narrow quadrangular pits with very few, if any, material remains.

Next to the village of Verhnij Chirjurt there are 3 more necropolises, contemporary to n. No 1. Necropolises No 2 and No 3 are generally similar to n. No 1, although show a somewhat higher portion of niche burials. Necropolis No 4 is notable for its larger and richer in material remains catacombs, covered by mounds.

Only n. No 1 was anthropologically studied up to now. Unfortunately, the skeletons were not identified and now there are no data which skeletons come from the catacombs and which from the pit graves. Generally, most of the skull are brachiocranic, with slightly Mongoloid features, some artificially deformed. There are also dolihocranes.

Necropolis No 1 is dated reliably to the VII-VIII centuries AD by 3 golden coins of emperor Iraklius (610-641 AD), the are more 5 golden coins of Maurice (582-602) and of Iraklius in n. No 4. Most researches assign the catacombs to Alanian, and the pit graves - the Bulgar-Sabir groups, settled in Dagestan after the Hunnish invasions [22].

M.G. Magomedov [23], however, questions the Alan identity of the catacomb burials. First, neither the stable northern orientation, nor the filling of the dromos, nor the placing of only a single person in each catacomb is characteristic for the Alans. Secondly, the material remains, especially the weapons (slightly curved sabres, chain armours, composite bows) are very similar to that of the nomadic population of Central Asia, Siberia and Lower Volga. Furthermore, the anthropological type of necropolis No 1 is also not Alanian. Utilising the documentary evidence from VII-VIII c. AD speking about the presence in Northern Dagestan of (later arrived) Khazars, and Bulgars-Barsils and Sabirs, Magomedov attributes to the later the pit and most of the catacomb burials, and to the Khazarian aristocracy - the rich tumuli catacombs of necropolis No 4. Still, the presence of family catacombs, the sprinkling of coal on the floor and especially the dolicochrany of some skulls, speaks about the Alanian character of at least some of the catacombs of the Chirjurt necropolis.

Pit burials are predominant also in the large necropolis of the Bavtugaj ruins of stronghold, on the left bank of river Sulak. These data confirm the documentary evidence about the presence of a significant Proto-Bulgarian population in Northern Dagestan in VI-VII c. AD. But the newcomers did not settle down in empty lands. The burial grounds of the older local population, for example the rock tombs, continued to function, although objects of the new nomadic culture as well as artificially deformed skulls, began to appear in them as well. The active relations between the old and new population can be traced even clearer by the archaeological investigations of the permanent settlements in Dagestan, especially the settlements and the ruins of strongholds between the rivers Terek and Sulak.

The Andrejaul gorodishte ('ruins of stronghold, of town')  is located 2 km to the north of the village of Andrejaul, the district of Hasavjurt, on the 50 m high steep bank of the river Ak Tash (White Stone) in the transitional zone between the Caspian coast and the foothills of NE Caucasus [24]. It is 700 m long and 450 m wide, fortified by massive 8-10 ms high earth ramparts, and 30 m wide, 6-7 m deep ditches. The soil beneath the ramparts had been removed and replaced by pure clay in order to prevent ramparts erosion. The highest, inaccessible inner part is isolated by additional fortifications and forms a citadel (150x60m), allocated most probably for the upper stratum of the society. On the other bank of the river there is an extensive (1km x 0.5 km) unfortified settlement. Only a small part of the gorodishte was investigated up to now, but the results reveal much of its history. The cultural layer in the central part is more than 3 m thick, with 3 main horizons separated by signs of fires - an evidence of repeated destructions. The life in the settlement started in II-II c. AD and came to an end as a result of the Khazaro-Arab wars in VIII c. AD.

Both the gorodishte and the unfortified village were inhabited by a settled population, whose main occupation was agriculture and stock-breeding. Along the river Ak Tash there were discovered VII-VIII c. irrigation channels, speaking about the intensive agriculture practised even at those early times. The investigator L.B. Gmirja [25] describes three main periods of development: 1) early - “Sarmatian” (I-III c. AD); 2) middle - “Hunno-Sabirian” (IV-VI c. AD); and 3) late - “Khazarian” (VII-VIII c. AD).

Numerous wheel-turned pottery as well as 20 two-storied pottery single-type ovens, grouped in three workshops, are found. The temperature achieved within them was high enough in order to glaze the walls and the vaults of the ovens. The pottery of Andrejaul and other centres between the rivers Terek and Sulak is described as the earliest example of the Saltovo-Majack pottery type. There were also forge shops judging by the great quantities of iron slag. Thus the Andrejaul gorodishte was not a mere military stronghold but an important centre of production, but despite its imposing proportions and strong fortifications, not even a single massive building was discovered within it. Both in the citadel and in the town itself the dwellings are single-room, oval, with walls of thick clay putty laid on a light wooden frame, and with an open fire-place in the middle of the room. Such dwelling are also called jurts by the archaeologists. The inadequate knowledge of the building techniques reveals the steppe origin of the inhabiting people. This type of dwellings is also characteristic for the steppe (Proto-Bulgarian) variant of the Saltovo-Majack culture. According to the Dagestani archaeologists D.M. Ataev and M.G. Magomedov [26] the Andrejaul gorodishte may be identified as the town Vabandar, which according to the Arab writer Ibn as-Asir numbered 40,000 houses (families?) and was taken by the Arabs of general Dzharrah in 722 AD.

25 km to the east of Andrejaul are situated the ruins of the largest stronghold in the Terek-Sulak region - the Chirjurt gorodishte, which necropolises were described already. It was also inhabited for a long period of time and has a 3 m thick cultural layer. The fortifications are built of stone and are up to 6 m thick and 10 m high. Together with the nearby Sigitmin gorodishte, and the Bavtugaj gorodishte and the fortress Isti-Su on the left bank of Sulak, they formed a strong line of defence, blocking completely the way from the Caspian plain to the Sulak valley. The building techniques applied in Chirjurt gorodishte are far more advanced when compared to these at Andrejaul. Most of the walls are built of stones joined by clayey solution, using the specific Caucasian tilling (panzer) technique. The 6 m thick walls consist of two walls, the space between which is filled by coarse stones, clay and earth. Along the walls and perpendicular to them are built special anti-seismic belts. Here, on the territory of necropolis No 4 were found two small stone churches without roofs, similar in type to the early-Christian buildings south of Caucasus and in the Near East [27].

The most common type of dwellings are small jurts, similar to those at Andrejaul. Dwellings of two and more rooms on stone foundations also appear, but again in middle there is the typical for the nomads open fire-place. The stone foundations of the more elaborately constructed buildings at Chirjurt, Sigitmin and Miatlin are built in the specific Caucasian ‘imbrication’ (‘pine’) technique - the rock slabs are laid slantwise and resemble fishbone (‘pine tree’). Thus the influence of that traditional, survived even nowadays, Caucasian building technique is quite evident. A few skilfully made stone crosses from two stone churches point to the existence of masters stone-cutters. The Chiryurt gorodishte may be identifiied with the mentioned in the chronicle of at-Tabari town Belendzher, also known as Bulkhar-Balkh in the Turkic copy of the work of at-Tabari.

The Chiryurt gorodishte may be identifiied with the mentioned in the chronicle of at-Tabari town Belendzher, also known as Bulkhar-Balkh in the Turkic copy of the work of at-Tabari.

2 km to the south of Chirjurt is the Sigitmin gorodishte in whose northern end there is a 10-15 high rock escarpment. On its smooth surface, 4 m above the ground are scratched several graffiti of horses and a horseman, nearly identical to the graffiti on rock slabs, pottery and metal objects from many Proto-Bulgarian sites from the steppes of South Russia and from Danube Bulgaria [28].

The Sigitmin graffiti are drawn on a vertical rock surface, as is the Madara rock bas-relief in north-eastern Bulgaria. Similar graffiti were also found on rock slabs from the Derbend fortress. Especially these from the lower slabs of the eastern barrier wall are absolutely identical to those found on rock slabs from the Majack gorodishte, from Pliska and Preslav, and on bricks and tiles from Sarkel and Pliska [29].


The archaeological finds point out that during the V-VIII c. an original culture developed in northern Dagestan. It was greatly influenced by the Late Sarmatian cultures and differed significantly from that of the mountainous southern Dagestan. The bearers of that culture came from the northern steppes and entered in active relations with the local population. As a result of the intensified political and cultural contacts with the countries south of Caucasus as well as with Byzantium and Persia, the primitive earthen military structures were replaced by solid stone fortresses. The development of the crafts transformed the strongholds into centres of production, that is - ‘towns’. The inner fortresses - the citadels, speak about the social stratification of the society. In many aspects that original, Sarmatian in essence culture resembled the urban culture of the peoples south of Caucasus, and is regarded by most researches as the earliest manifestation of the Saltovo-Majack culture. During the Arab military campaigns of the first half of VIII c. many of the settlements were destroyed and many people perished or were enslaved. The survived Proto-Bulgarian and Alanian population had to move westward to their still nomadic brethren occupying the steppes near Don and the Sea of Azov, bringing with them part of their cultural traditions. The data are still too scarce to conclude that the Saltovo-Majack culture was created here, in Northern Dagestan, and only here, but it cannot be denied that the steppe population developed a comparatively advanced culture in this part of Dagestan, later known in the Arab sources as ‘the Country Belendzher’.

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[18] K.F. Smirnov, Op. cit., s.114;  V.P. Shilov, Op. cit., s.509.

[19] V.A. Kuznecov. Alany Severnogo Kavkaza, s.14.

[20] N.D. Putinceva, Verhnechirjyrtskij migil’nik. - Materialy po istorii Dagestana, II, Makhachkala, 1961, s.248-264.

[21] V.B. Kovalevskja, Arheologicheskie sledy prebyvanija drevnih bilgar na Severnom Kavkaze. - V: Pliska-Preslav, 2, s.43-50.

[22] V.A. Kuznecov. Alany i rannesrednevekovyj Dagestan (K postanovke voprosa). - Materialy po istorii Dagestana. Makhachkala, 1965, s.88.

[23] M.G. Magomedov. Obrazovanie Khazarskogo khaganata, M., 1983, s.87.

[24] D.M. Ataev, M.G. Magomedov. Andrejaul’skoe gorodishte. - V: Drevnosti Dagestana (Materialy po istorii Dagestana, V). Mahachkala, 1974, s.121-139.

[25] L.B. Gmyrja. Stolovaja keramika Andrejaul’skogo gorodishta (tipologija i stratigrafija) . - V: Srednevekovye drevnosti evrazijskih stepej, M., 1980, s.105, 131.

[26] D.M. Ataev, M.G. Magomedov. Op. cit., s. 138-139.

[27] M.G. Magomedov. Rannesrednovekovye cerkvi Verhnego Chirjurta. - Sovetskaja arheologija, 1979, No 3, s.186, 197.

[28] D. Ovcharov. Srednovekovni bylgarski risunki-grafiti. S., 1982.

[29] D. Ovcharov. Za haraktera i prinadlezhnostta na srednovekovnite risunki ot Basarab (Murfatlar). - Arheologia, XVII, 1975, kn.3, s.3;  A.M. Shterbak. Znako na keramike i kirpichah iz Sarkela - Beloj Vezhi. Materialy i issledovanija po istorii SSSR, 75, 1959, s.363;
S.A. Pletnjova. Risunki na stenah Majackogo gorodishta. - V: Majackoe gorodishte. Trudy sovetsko-bolgaro-vengerskoj ekspedicii. M., 1984, s.57-84