They hike loaded with cookies and candies, setting off before dawn to be spared the fiery sun of Dagestan’s summer. Some bring fruit and homemade cheese, many carry clothes; mainly shirts and scarves to be left as offerings.
Every year, when the snow on the highlands melts, thousands trek up to Mount Shalbuzdag, one of the highest peaks in the southeastern part of the Caucasus mountain range. It is a pilgrimage that once was key to regional Muslims as a way to keep their faith alive despite the Soviet Union’s decades-long repression of religious beliefs.
Dagestan was not immune from these crackdowns: spiritual leaders were persecuted, mosques and madrasas were shut down. Yet, somehow, the pilgrimage to the holy mountain endured.
According to oral tradition, the pilgrimage predates the arrival of Islam to Dagestan in the 7th century. The faith spread slowly and embraced existing cults.
In keeping with this history, the veneration of Mt. Shalbuzdag combines both Islamic beliefs, and its regional elements manifested in devotion to local “righteous men” and their burial sites, called ziyarats or pirs. Specific spots like large stones or trees, often believed to bring health, long life and fertility, are also elements of the practise.
The pilgrimage to Mt. Shalbuzdag also combines tales about contemporaries of the Prophet Muhammad, like his daughter, Fatima, with stories about these “righteous men,” known as saints.
Unable to perform the hajj -- the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, which Muslims believe must be performed at least once in a lifetime -- Dagestani believers under Soviet rule turned to the Shalbuzdag.
“In Soviet times, it was one of the [few] places where a man could reconnect with Islam, recite prayers and communicate with Allah through the saints," recalls 70-year-old Hadijat Guseynova. Every year, together with other women, she travels from her village of Karakyure to read prayers, recite dhikrs (Islamic devotions consisting of short phrases and prayers) and to thank God for the year that has passed trouble-free.
Magomed Magomedov echoes Hadijat’s memories.
"My grandmother used to tell me stories about the righteous men walking up to the top of Shalbuzdag. When the village mosque was closed, she started coming to the foot of the mountain to pray and leave offerings,” says this 57-year-old pilgrim from the village of Khryug.
Today, the long hike is one of the region’s many religious practices and no longer an alternative to the hajj. Yet hundreds still flock to the mountain each summer.
Many devotees insist that seven trips to Shalbuzdag equal one hajj.
On the mountain, people collect holy water from its lake and throw stones at rocks symbolizing evil -- just like pilgrims to Mecca “stone the Devil” by throwing pebbles at three walls.
A lot of pilgrims come to Shalbuzdag because of their illnesses. Retired kindergarten teacher Fatima Ramazanova, who formerly had no interest in religion, can speak of that from personal experience.
"I had never been [up] here until my legs stopped functioning properly when I was 50,” explains Ramazanova, a native of the village of Khlut, a few hours’ drive from Mt. Shalbuzdag. “My uncle then suggested to me to go on a pilgrimage and ask Allah for help, so I did.”
The two climbed Shalbuzdag together. “I was going up very slowly, with a lot of pain. When we arrived at the lake [Zamzam], I fainted. I don't know how long I lay there, but when I woke up, my legs moved all differently. I felt the pain was leaving. I swore then that I would come to the top every year while I still have the strength to do it."
At 3,800 meters, the ascent for most pilgrims terminates at a plateau; the mountain peak itsef, situated at 4,142 meters, can only be reached with mountain-climbing equipment.
Along the way, believers stop at various sites.
One of them is the mausoleum dedicated to Pir Suleyman, a local shepherd who lived a simple life until, legend has it, people heard him talking with an animal, an action believed to reveal his holiness.
Lake Zamzam is another site for prayers. Zamzam is also the name of the well in Mecca where pilgrims draw holy water during the hajj. The ice water of Lake Zamzam -- technically a large pond -- is considered holy and believers fill plastic bottles with it.
Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, and her son are believed to have stopped to rest on Mt. Shalbuzdag as they fled from Abu Sufyan, one of her father’s enemies. Devotees stop in two places en route to the plateau to remember Fatima’s flight.
On the plateau, there are stone buildings made from rocks chipped out of the mountain. Dagestanis believe that two 20th-century sheikhs, or revered men, Shalbuz and Vaguf Buba, were able to teleport here from a nearby Lezgin village to spend nights in prayer. Pilgrims enter their "houses" to pray and leave offerings, tying scarves to commemorative sticks inside. Couples who desire children tie rocks to the buildings’ walls with scraps of cloth and swing them like cradles.
These rituals demonstrate the ongoing strength of the Mt. Shalbuzdag pilgrimage -- it marks people’s memory of the past as well as strengthening their faith in the future.