The Other Albania

A logjam of sheep turns a traveler onto a mountain mystery in remote Dagestan.

By / October 2012

On a bright morning last May, I was driving in the mountains near Dagestan’s border with Georgia, on a humanitarian mission to an ancient Dido village that had recently been ravaged by fire, when a herd of sheep appeared around a hairpin curve and blocked the path of my white Lada jeep.

There was a mountain to the left, a cliff to the right, and no easy way to reverse, so I kept center. The sheep were like a wayward river. They coursed towards us, flooding the narrow road. A lone shepherd stood in the middle, more concerned with lightning a cigarette than steering his wily, jaywalking flock. The vehicle began to quake as the herd enveloped it. The air was a cacophony of loud, warbled bleating.

I had brought the jeep to a complete halt when up ahead of the herd, to the side of the road, my eyes alighted upon a signpost. The faded blue and white marker, hoisted on two modest, uneven concrete pillars, harbored a single word: Albania.

Albania, the country, had to have been at least 2,000 miles west of here. I stretched out a map on the dusty dashboard above the steering wheel. Albania, the village, if that’s what this was, was not on my map. In the sheep-stalled jeep, my mind went to racing.

For I had read about another Albania. It was neither town nor country. During Roman times, it had been a small yet formidable Caucasus mountain kingdom that included much of modern-day Azerbaijan, as well as swaths of Armenia, Georgia, and, yes, Dagestan.

In the 2nd century AD, some 600 years after its founding, the kingdom of Caucasian Albania entered into an alliance with the Roman emperor Hadrian. The accord held until the sacking of Rome, after which Caucasian Albania became a wily suzerainty of the Sassanid Persian Empire. But Albania remained de facto independent, and her individual tribes, especially the mountain variety, became the stuff of legend.

“Why don’t we stop and stretch our legs?” I suggested to my carpool. The sheep had already passed us by, but my friends agreed, reluctantly.

The green hillside was dotted with stone-and-mud houses along with a few newer, metal-roofed dwellings. Here and there an oversized satellite dish was mounted to a dry tree stump. A river called the Avar-Koisu, the Sheep River of the Highlanders, which was gray with dust from the mountains, flowed nearby.

As we ambled toward the Albania sign, an old man, staff in hand, Muslim prayer beads between his fingers, approached. In Dagestan, etiquette requires for younger people to initiate with elders. “Peace be upon you,” I said. “Awaleykum asalaam,” he replied in kind. He was tall. His hands were leathery, his forehead wrinkled, his eyebrows thick and grown together. Tufts of white hair protruded from his tan skullcap. His name, he said, was Muhammed-rasul.

From his deep, guttural accent, I could tell he spoke little Russian. The people of western Dagestan – ma’arulal, or mountaineers, as they call themselves — speak various dialects of Avar, the largest and most variegated of Dagestan’s 30-plus local languages. Avar has fifteen major ethnolinguistic divisions, and those fifteen carry dozens of additional mutually unintelligible dialects, each of them among the most complex and ancient tongues on the planet.

“Are you from the village of Albania,” I asked Muhammed-rasul in Russian. “This is not a village; it’s an empire!” he thundered in reply. “We are the last of the Caucasian Albanians!”

Muhammed-rasul seemed to have little doubt as to his hometown’s provenance. He had obviously never heard of the Udi, a Lezghi-speaking mountain tribe in Azerbaijan that most ethnographic scholars peg as the purest offspring of Caucasian Albania. Like Muhammed-rasul, the Udi self identify as Albanian. I wondered: Could this overlooked Dagestani village have also been a genuine godchild of that warrior realm?

Muhammed-rasul cleared his throat. My compadres, antsy to get back on the road, had refused his invitation to tea. Internally, I vowed to pay another visit some day to solve the mystery once and for all.

We returned to the vehicle; returned, it would seem, to the 21st century. At the turn of the key, the jeep roared awake. On a high curve above the village, the kingdom, the remnant, whatever it was, we caught sight of the sheep without whose intervention we doubtful would have ever taken notice of little Albania. The cliff behind the herd was the color of charcoal. Wool has never looked so white.


Dave Hayton, an ethnographer living in the Russian republic of Dagestan, is a contributing writer to EthnoTraveler.