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."