Dagestan’s Holy Mountain Pilgrimage

Author: Makar Tereshin

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.  

A view of Mt. Shalbuzdag on a bus ride from the village of Miskindzhi in southern Dagestan. The mountain (4,142 meters tall) has been sacred to Muslims for centuries and is a pilgrimage destination for thousands each year.

This mosque on Mt. Shalbuzdag, situated at an elevation of at 2,500 meters, was built in the early 2000s to provide an overnight rest stop for pilgrims. The last ascent up the mountain starts from here at dawn.

A mausoleum dedicated to the local saint Pir Suleiman is the first place of prayer during the ascent up Shalbuzdag. Legend has it that Pir Suleiman kept his sanctity secret and lived as a shepherd in a nearby village. As his holiness was revealed, he fell ill and died. A flock of piegons then transported his body to Mt. Shalbuzdag. In the early 2000s, a mausoleum was built at the site of his supposed burial.

Women praying in front of Pir Suleiman’s tomb. Pilgrims walk around the mausoleum three times, making wishes and tieing a scarf to a wooden pillar for every wish they make. Unlike at the mosque, men and women pray together here.

Pilgrims on the rocks where Fatima, the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, is believed to have stopped for a brief rest with her child while fleeing her enemies. Pilgrims come here to pass through the rocks’ arches and ask Allah to bless them with a child.

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."

A group of pilgrims from Derbent, Dagestan’s second largest town, observe the sunset from Mt. Shalbuzdag. Migration from mountainous southern Dagestan to the lowlands appears to have spread the tradition of Shalbuzdag pilgrimages, which have become more frequent in recent years.

A woman hiking up to the top of Mt. Shalbuzdag at dawn. Pilgrims leave the mountain’s mosque at around 3am and stop at different sites to pray and rest. The 10 kilometer-long journey to the top takes between four and five hours.

Pilgrims rest and collect water at Lake Zemzem, which is considered sacred. It is close to the trek’s end on a 3,800-meter-high plateau. Special mountain-climbing equipment is required to reach the mountain’s peak.

A woman throws stones at a large rock symbolizing evil and makes a wish. The rock is believed to be the place where Allah saved Fatima, the Prophet’s Muhammad’s daughter, from her pursuing enemies.

The approach to the highest point (3,800 meters) pilgrims can reach on Mt. Shalbuzdag without special equipment

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.

A young man helps a girl climb through a narrow split in a rock on Mt. Shalbuzdag. Believers maintain that only innocent people can make it through this opening. Sinners, they say, will get stuck in between and not be able to continue their ascent.

Worshippers pray at the so-called house of Sheikh Shalbuz, a saint who they believe was teleported from his village to the top of Shalbuzdag to pray. The building where he is said to have performed miracles is now a place of pilgrimage.

Women recite a dhikr, an Islamic spiritual practice in which short phrases and prayers are repeated to get closer to God.

Men rest in Mt. Shalbuzdag’s mosque after returning from a pilgrimage to the mountain top.




Chai-khana Survay