On October 11-18, 2020, the "Sefer" Center held a school-expedition to study the cultural and historical heritage of mountain Jews in Dagestan.
The expedition was organized by the Sefer Center together with the center for Slavic-Jewish Studies Of the Institute of Slavic studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences with the support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
This year, it was decided to conduct only epigraphic work that does not require contact with people and allows you to observe sanitary and epidemiological precautions. The team of epigraphists was led by Mikhail Vasiliev and Alexandra Kiseleva, and 15 people took part in the expedition.
The result of field work was cataloguing three mountain Jewish cemeteries located in the village of Madzhalis and Yangikent Kaytag district, as well as in the village of Karchag Suleiman-Stalsky district of Dagestan.
During the research, the expedition members discovered and documented more than 400 tombstones and their fragments. Fieldwork included the recording and translation of gravestone inscriptions, photographs of monuments, as well as a description of their material, size and condition. In addition, a geodetic survey of the necropolises was carried out, indicating the coordinates of all preserved tombstones. In total, according to the results of three field seasons 2018-2020, the number of catalogued cemeteries in southern Dagestan reached 12, and the number of documented monuments exceeded 1,450.
Deciphering the texts of the epitaphs (most of which are written in Hebrew) allowed researchers to determine the time frame and chronology of burials in the studied cemeteries. The earliest monuments recorded in the cemetery of the village of Karchag date back to the 70s of the XVIII century. The latest burials were found in a new section of the cemetery in Madzhalis village and date from the mid-XX-early XXI century: the last burial in the cemetery was made in 2019. For all three necropolises, it was possible to identify the most active period of their functioning: more than 60% of the dated tombstones belong to the 1840s-1940s.
As part of further research, it is planned to conduct a comparative analysis of epigraphic and archival materials in order to identify demographic trends characteristic of the mountain-Jewish communities of the southern Dagestan region in the XVIII-XXI centuries.
Ethnographers Svetlana Amosova and Elizaveta Zabolotnykh, who joined the expedition for a few days, managed to talk with 12 natives of Derbent. 9 interviews were recorded about the wedding ceremony, funeral rites, the identity of mountain Jews, the history of the Derbent synagogue, interethnic relations, the current state of the Jewish community, and migrations. Of interest are stories about preserving the memory of where a particular family comes from, what role these memories play in the wedding ceremony, and what reputation people from a particular locality have.
After processing the expedition materials, maps and catalogs of cemeteries, interviews and their transcripts will appear on the website of the Sefer center's SFIRA field research database. Participants of the expedition also prepare scientific reports and articles and think about the further development of the project.
Reviews of participants
I explored the ancient necropolis of the mountain Jews, juhuri, in the neighborhood of Derbent in southern Dagestan. I performed numbering marking of cemeteries, described and photographed tombstones, and recorded texts of epitaphs in Hebrew and Russian. I helped the local surveyor who collaborated with the expedition to make maps of the cemeteries being explored this season. I entered information into the General database for the subsequent compilation of a complete catalog of preserved tombstones in each of the cemeteries. All kinds of work were interesting to me, especially reading and translating epitaphs, and deciphering the names of djuguri, as well as participating in mapping.
I learned to read Hebrew better and translate from Hebrew to Russian. Describing the material of tombstones, I became better versed in the varieties of natural stone. I have gained experience working with local specialists.
I'm still in a state of euphoria. Either because this is the first offline event in a long time. Either because this is basically my first epigraphic expedition. Whether it was because it all happened in Dagestan, with incredible people, a special mission and a very warm atmosphere. It's great that you can try yourself in completely different guises, even when doing work for the first time. I am very grateful for the opportunity to be involved in this story.