A party for 'pearl of the world'

Derbent, Dagestan, marks a multimillennial milestone

History may not record precisely that this ancient city was founded 5,000 years ago this week, in the midst of the Bronze Age. But such imprecision hasn't kept the people of Derbent from throwing a drop-everything birthday bash.

"We must educate people in the way of patriotism," booms city council chief Gadzhiev Murat over speakers in the medieval central square. "Derbent is unique in its eternal beauty. Our city has its own heart and soul; this is where the faraway past of the East meets today's Russia."

Known for millenniums as the "iron gate" crossroads between north and south on the Caspian Sea coast - where earliest Islam and Christianity did battle and conquerors and empires swept through and fell - Derbent was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites this year. Today, it is part of the Russian republic of Dagestan, sandwiched between the war-ravaged republic of Chechnya and the Caspian Sea.

On this day, Derbentis' pride was palpable as they celebrated, with a Soviet-style parade, their impregnable citadel at the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and the golden stone walls that stretch from it to the sea.

There was little room for modesty on such a historic occasion. "Derbent is the pearl of the world," declares a vast banner that every youth and student group in the city will march past.

City chiefs stood on a polished stone dais under a large bronze statue of Lenin. They were flanked by legions of medal- encrusted veterans of the world wars, who stood at attention with emotion in their eyes at the playing of the new Russian national anthem - which is sung to the same powerful tune as the old Soviet one.

"There were different people coming here all the time, and every single invasion left something," says Bayrom Magomedov, who survived World War I. With more than 30 ethnic groups, many with distinct languages, Dagestanis are proud of their tradition of tolerance and relative peace.

The diversity was on full display during the parade. Students jostled for position, from the "Young Pioneers of Dagestan" to groups of "future nurses" in white gowns and hats, to sports teams. Despite vows at the microphone to respect their traditions, the marchers greeted every return to Western pop music with raucous cheers.

Derbent was first mentioned by ancient Greek philosophers in the 4th century BC. The UNESCO citation describes how Derbent "has been crucial for the control" of the north-south passage on the west side of the Caspian Sea since 1000 B.C. The strategic defense lines were built by the Sasanian (Persians) in the 5th century, and "were in continuous use by the succeeding Persian, Arabic, Mongol, and Timurid government" for 15 centuries, UNESCO notes.

Islam first arrived on these shores in the year 684, some 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in the form of 40 apostles who are remembered by a cemetery shrine. Dagestan was once the center of Islamic culture in the Caucasus, and Muslim tribes battled the Russian Czar's armies for several decades in the mid-19th century.

Islam did not sit easily for many Dagestanis. "People still have legends, and keep the knives of their great, great, great grandfather who killed an Arab," says Gazimagomed Galbatsov, a Dagestani historian and journalist. "Religious leaders don't like to say we were forced to believe; they say we were 'enlightened.' "

Nonetheless, violence was common enough. One Afghan warlord, legend has it, took control of Derbent in the mid-18th century, and then explored deeper into the mountains. An uprising followed, and the warlord sent a commander with orders to "put out the eyes" of any city dweller. The yield? Neary 115 pounds of eyes, as legend has it.

Such brutality still exists to a degree in modern Dagestan, which in the late 1990s - thanks to organized crime, proximity to Chechnya, a dislike of ethnic Russians, and a surge of political assassination - had a reputation for the highest degree of political violence in Russia. Still, Dagestanis are proud of their past, and their peace.

""We have two religions: We believe in people, and we believe in God," says Mr. Galbatsov.

"Five thousand years ago, the city already existed," adds his friend, Kaitmaz Abdulkhalikov. "Derbent smells of eternity."

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