31 August 2003, 21:13


In the Muslim cosmology, the name of a mountain or mountain range surrounding the earth, "like a ring the finger"; the border between the revealed and the non-revealed worlds. It is the dwelling of the great angel Kahf it is named after. Allah appointed him leader of the "spreading" angels (Koran, 77:3), that are said to spread their wings seeking divine knowledge, and vested him with authority over the earth and the movement of the earth's crust. The notion of Kahf can be traced back to the most ancient mythological constants, in particular the World Mountain concept. It is generally accepted to have been borrowed from Iranian legends of Hara-berezaiti/Alburz, a mountain at the world's end where gods dwelled.

Some authors (Mutahhar ibn Tahir al-Maqdisi/al-Muqaddasi, Yaqut al-Hamavi, Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, Ibn al-Wardi) describe a green emerald lying at the foot of Kahf, its color mirrored by the heaven. According to others, the emerald is at the foot of a rock (as-sahra) Kahf rests on, which is also called a pillar (watad): Allah made it to support the earth. Kahf is the Mother of all mountains in the world, tied to it with underground branches. When Allah wants to punish people or destroy a country, he makes an earthquake, setting one of its spurs in motion. Kahf is beyond the reach of people; jinn (genii) live behind it. It is the dwelling place of the legendary bird, Anka (or Simurg, in the Iranian tradition), that has lived since the beginning of the world. Heroes and kings came there in ancient times for his wise counsel. Therefore, particularly in poetry, Kahf is called "the mountain of wisdom" or "the mountain of contentment."

In the opinion of a number of theologians, the surah Kahf (Al-Kahf) has an apocalyptic orientation. In the Sufi tradition, the letter 'kahf' stands for the Unseen world ('alam al-ghayb): to draw a parallel between the process of producing human speech sounds in the moment of exhaling and the creating "breath of the Merciful," deeper sounds are in the immediate vicinity of the Divine secret (Ibn al-Arabi).

In the earthly, not cosmological, geography, Kahf corresponds to the Caucasian highlands, the Muslim world's barrier in the north, which some authors (Ibn al-Faqih/Fakih, al-Muqaddasi, and anonymous Hudud al-'alam) believe remains the historic scene of the day of judgment. This concept also became a symbol in the eschatological motives of Muslim preachers at the head of the national liberation movement in the Caucasus (sheikh Mansur, imam Shamil, sheikh Uzun-Haji, and others). In their statements, they claimed the Main Caucasus Range was assigned to be the protective barrier and eternal gathering place of the "faithful" nations and states, while the highlanders were chosen as guards and defenders to wage war against the "infidels," which, as the day of judgment nears, attack even more forcefully. The mythological image of a "wall" containing Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog of Genesis, Ezekiel, and The Revelation) has preserved its viability over centuries, too. A Koranic legend about a wall filled with iron says Zul-Qarnain erected it between two tops, in the way of Yajuj and Majuj. On the day "the Lord's promise comes," the wall will turn into ashes (Koran, 18:93/92-98/97; 21:96). Most medieval authors identified the hostile figures with nomadic tribes, in particular the Scythians whose devastating raids to West Asia and the Middle East were prevented by the powerful fortified line of Derbent stretching for miles. In Zul-Qarnain, they saw epic kings of Iran, Alexander the Great, and other real and mythical heroes and rulers. According to Karachay legends, prophet Zul-Qarnain traveled about the Orient preaching Muhammad's doctrine in the times when prophets were in the world. He protected residents of a certain region from their "bloodthirsty and gluttonous neighbors," undersized and extremely long-bearded. They were hiding in a place surrounded by forbidding rocks. Zul-Qarnain immured the only narrow passage with a highest wall made of iron and copper. So even now, Yajuj and Majuj are trying to smash the barrier and revenge on the "evil humanity." Every night, they stop when the wall is already quite narrow, but find it in its original form in the morning, since they follow no religion and do not know the name of God, nor say: "God grant, we'll finish tomorrow." Before the day of judgment, Yajuj and Majuj will have a leader named Allah-Bersi (God Grant) whom they will suggest finishing the remaining work on the next day. In the morning, the wall will be pulled down; Yajuj and Majuj will come out of the gorge "unfortunately for the entire humanity."

Revering mountains and mountain sanctuaries holds a special place in the religious and cultural life of the Caucasian peoples. Conduct in the mountains is regulated with a definite ritual. Linked to it are cults of "masters" of mountains (mountain spirits), the mother goddess, ancestors, patrons, and a system of initiation and purification rites; even now they sacrifice and practice individual and group prayers there.

Mountains formerly played an important role in determining the time of year or day. Almost every settlement had its own landmarks - a rock or a top "meeting" first rays of the sun and "seeing off" last ones; on which a shadow was thrown or from behind which the moon rose, at a definite, one and the same moment. Thus, Arzh Loam (or Arzhloam, "Black Mountain") was such a landmark in Ingushetia's Assa Gorge; in summer, the day when the sun shone directly on Miat Loam (or Miatloam, "Table Mountain") was considered the longest.

Individual mountains are tribal, national, or even Caucasus-wide cult centers. For example, every Chechen teip (clan) with a definite area belonging to it also has a mountain of its own: the Benoi teip has Benoin Lam; the Terloi teip has Terloin Lam; the Dyshni teip has Dyshniyn Lam; and so on. The most sustainable and consistent tradition in Abkhazia is linked to the sacred mountain Dydrypsh-anykha (610 m above sea level) near the settlement of Achandra, Gudauta district. One representative of god Antsva/Anshchiua, "earthly prophet" (apaimbar) Dydrypsh, is believed to dwell on it. There is a sanctuary at its foot where the Council of Priests gathered formerly; now it is an Abkhaz national shrine. Stories about tops and spirits living on them reflect extraordinary celestial events: rumble, flares, flickering lights, and so on.

In the period when Islam was being established, archaic beliefs were reinterpreted to comply with the new tradition; places of worship were hallowed with the names of the Prophet, "saints," preachers, warriors of faith and martyrs. Thus, even before the Groznaya Fortress was founded in 1818, nationwide Chechen gatherings were arranged on Mount Khankala (or Zhinan Barz, "Conference Hill"). Its name was turned into Zhemi Barz ("Hill of Zhemi") under the influence of a belief that "saint" Evliya Zhemi once lived on that mountain, who is now believed to call there meetings of a Council of "holy" sheikhs from time to time after he has left the "sunlit world"; Sufi "studies" (dhikr/zikr, the perpetual remembrance of God) were practiced there, too. Shamil is known to have preached twice a year near the Chechen settlement of Tsentoroi (from Chechen Tseni te; "clean place"), on Mount Ketash/Kettesh/Khetcha/Kort ("Conference Mountain"), revered from of old. Popular legends reflect ideas of interrelation between all holy places, "kindred" relations between them, and even their unity. Thus, the most ancient "holy" place in Abkhazia - Pskhu-anykha/Sh'kha-nykha/Anykha du/Nal Kuba on Mount Byrdzysh'kha (Byrdzy Sh'kha) in the Pskhu mountainous terrain up the Bzyb River - is considered the Muslim brother; while Ilyrnykh (Ilyr-anykha) near the settlement of Ilori not far from Ochamchira the Christian brother.

The Avars and Laks have ideas of hunting and animal patrons, powerful spirits dwelling on the mountain K'ili/Kiili Meer ("Saddle-mountain"). Invisible, they do not allow people mount the top and drop stone blocks on those who dare: only "the chosen people" can talk to them and the way is open for them alone. In the system of Islam these spirits are perceived as "holy" ascetic sheikhs (budala'al, sg. budala). Ibrahim-hajji al-Uradi's poetry depicts them as "blessed ones": in summer leaves serve them as clothing; neither cold, nor thirst disturb them; they "care not for drink and food."

The sanctuary of Erenlar or pir Suleiman (Sulayman) emerged on the site of ancient sanctuaries of erens, mountain spirits, on the mountain Shalbuz-Dag (or Shalbuzdag, 4,142 m) which is held sacred by peoples of Southern Dagestan and Azerbaijan (it is named after a certain Shah al-Burza who helped the Muslims in their fight against the Khazars in the early VIII cent.). Legend has it Suleiman, a shepherd, lived at the foot of the mountain; when he died, pigeons raised the body to the top and this is when everyone saw Suleiman's "holiness." The natives arranged a pir on his grave and built a wall of mountain sandstone around it (1.2 m high and 0.5 m wide, with a total area of 80 sq m). A mosque called Gold Erenlar was erected up the mountainside, which is distinguished for its magnificent decoration. There are sacred stones (the place for sacrifice) and a spring near it. The mosque can only be approached if the pir is worshiped before - this is an unbreakable rule. Every summer when it starts to thaw, as well as on the eve of Muslim holidays, pilgrims come to the settlement of Mikrakh and sacrificial animals are brought. With hope that their soul will have peace, old people repent of their sins and distribute alms; they also come there under the will of their late relatives. The expression "to go to Erenlar / to Suleiman" means forlorn hope, extreme necessity: they try not to disturb the spirit with minor requests and apply to him only when other possibilities have been exhausted (believers call: "Oh, Erenlar, Shalbuz-Dag, Suleiman, help!"). Pir is taken good care of; any one of those coming must pick up a stone that have fallen from the fence and put it back. They say the spirit of sheikh Gaji (Hajji) Ramazan (his mazar, i.e. place of worship, is in the settlement of Shtul, Kurakh district, Dagestan) every night turns into fire and rushes to the pir like a lightning. Shalbuz-Dag was also considered the place where ancestors dwell. Legend has it Prophet Muhammad visited this mountain during his "ascension" (mi'raj/miraj); the rocks have preserved the tracks of his winged animal, al-Buraq. Seven ascensions to worship the Shalbuz-Dag sanctuaries are equal to the hajj.

Azerbaijan has its own holy places and sanctuaries (pirs and ojagas) located in the mountains: Ilian-Dag/Iliandag at the Aras/Araks River near the city of Nakhichevan/Nakhchivan (one should go there on foot); Khyzyr Zinda on Mount Beshbarmak (Khyzy/Xizi district); Khazarat-baba (Kuba/Quba district); a pir near the settlement of Azykh (Fizuli district); and numerous pirs in Karabakh. There is a "holy" place at the foot of Mount Jinkakh, east of the settlement of Kutkashen (Nukha district) - tracks symbolizing the path of a Muslim preacher. Legend has it an associate of Abu Muslim, military leader Baba Ruten (the alleged son of Uthman, the third "Righteous Caliph"), stopped to perform a prayer (namaz) on a large flat stone called Katyr-dirnagi. The power of blessing softened the stone, so it kept the prints of Baba Ruten's hands and heels (kosh), as well as the hoof-prints of his horse. According to written documents, there was once a time when during drought the natives chose a sinless young man and sent him to the top of Shah-Dag (4,243 m), "nearer to Allah," with a prayer. He was to gather a jug of snow, bring it to Derbent without putting the vessel on the ground, and pour the water into the sea there: the sea bubbled, clouds gathered from heaven knows where, and "heavenly water" gave life to the dry soil.

Caves and clefts in mountains also have miraculous power. If a person is sinful, he can hardly enter one of the clefts when the walls at once begin to close in and squeeze him until he repents; a sinless person can freely go through all clefts. The most celebrated pirs in Azerbaijan's caves are Gurban Kesilen Zachasy (Dastafyur district); Asaf Kekhf (Nakhichevan); Ag-Kaga and Kara-Kaga (Qubadli district); and Benefsha (Konagkend district). The latter is situated at about 800 m above the river; one must take off his footwear before ascending to it. There is a firm belief that touching a stalactite with one's lips and sucking its moisture can make the pilgrim strong and healthy. Soil taken from caves of Shalbuz-Dag is mixed with water and given to a sick person as a cure. The list of rituals every Shi'ite resident of Derbent must perform on the year's last Wednesday (axir/akhir chershenbe) includes the following: a believer must jump down from the upper part of the cave of Forty Maids located not far from the northern wall of the Derbent Fortress (legend has it forty maids hid there from forty youths' pursuit) and then perform a sacrifice at this "holy" place.

Gifts left at the pir include sweets and money; they make a fire there, throw little pebbles as if throwing every evil off them, and sacrifice animals (chiefly rams and cocks). When a person vows to make a sacrifice at the pir, those present are offered to try the sacrificial food (nazir): Naziri gaitarmag olmaz - "Sacrificial donation must not be rejected."

Mount Elbrus (there is no generally-accepted etymology as yet) is particularly revered by all Caucasian peoples. Surrounded with multiple myths, legends, and tales, this volcanic massif (its western top is 5,642 m high and eastern 5,621 m high) towers between the Baksan River and the Kuban. It also has other names: Jinn Padishah/Master of Genii (Turks); Orfi Tub/Residence Mountain of the Blessed (Abkhazians); Oshkhamakho/Fortune Mountain (Kabardians); Mingi Tau/Eternal Mountain, Mountain of Thousand Mountains, and Shad Tau/Joy Mountain (Balkars and Karachays). It is of interest that the Earth in the Balkar-Karachay mythology is enclosed in mountain range called K'af (K'an Taula) / Enclosing Mountains (Fence Mountains). According to ancient legends, Elbrus is the dwelling of gods. One myth of the Chechens and Ingush says god Ts'u/Ts'uv ("heart axis of the world") with his "darling" Sui Azna descended on its ridges in a "gold-shining shell." The Creator allowed the first people to settle down at its foot. Elbrus is linked with tales of a god-fighting hero (in particular, Nasren-Zhache in Adygey Nart tales; Amiran in Tushi (Tuski, Tuzi) and Kakheti legends; and others) and a "water of life" spring or Immortality Lake hidden in a col between two tops. Nart Karaushay and his horse Gemuda in the Balkar and Karachay epos are invincible and live eternally without getting old: when their strength is exhausted, they drink the magic water. The Spirit of Giant Mountain, a Kabardian legend, warns: "Great Prophet Muhammad" most strictly prohibited the Muslims from drinking water from that spring, for these are the scalding tears of a proud Jinni, Evil Spirit, chained to the top of Elbrus by "Great god Tkh'e/Tkha." Folklore motives about Nukh/Noah whose ark stopped at Elbrus are also widespread. It is thought that if one goes to worship the holy mountain before New Year, fortune will favor him in everything. Elbrus is the traditional embodiment of the Cosmos: its saddle-like ridge is the top of the Earth, a step to the Heaven, and the Heaven itself. Legend has it this ancient extinct volcano will "speak" again before the day of judgment.

The mythical and epic traditions of Caucasian peoples highlight ideas of a mountain as an ethic landmark - the world of ideal and integrity, a sort of guidance for spiritual development of the epic hero. Besides, the line linking the foot with the top is also the earthly journey of a human being as an element of infinity. Old characters and ideas remain relevant in contemporary realities: mountain images are typical for state symbols in Caucasian republics. Thus, alongside Muslim symbols (green color), the national symbols of the Kabardino-Balkar and the Karachay-Cherkess Republic feature Elbrus; the emblem of the Republic of Ingushetia represents Miat Loam/Miatloam ("Table Mountain") and Bash Loam/Bashloam (Kazbek).

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