Derbent: Russia’s Oldest City

Dec 1, 2017 3 comments

Located on a narrow strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains in the far western end of Eurasia, is the city of Derbent. With a history going back by five thousand years, Derbent is said to be Russia’s oldest city. It is also the southernmost city in Russia, and the second-most important city of Dagestan.

From a small early Bronze-age settlement to one of the biggest medieval cities of the Eastern Europe, the city of Derbent has a unique urban structure. It is situated across a narrow seaside strip of plains less than 3 kilometers wide with a pair of defensive walls running across the width of it and extending 40 kilometers into the Caucasus mountains.


The citadel of Naryn-Kala dating from the 6th century is the most important structure in Derbent. Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov

Derbent’s position between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains is strategically important in the entire Caucasus region. It is one of only two crossings over the mountain range; the other being over the Darial Gorge. This position has allowed the rulers of Derbent to control land traffic between the Eurasian Steppe and the Middle East and levy taxes on passing merchants. In fact, the city’s present-day name comes from the Persian word Darband which means “barred gate”.

Naturally, Derbent was of great interest to a number of empires over its history. The city was historically an Iranian city right from the first intensive settlement in the first millennium BC. The city’s modern name came into use during the 6th century AD, when the city was re-established by the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. Derbent’s splendid twin stone walls stretching from the mountains to the sea was built during this period. The walls are up to 12 meters high and 3 meters wide, and are separated by 300 to 400 meters. The old town of Derbent was built between these two walls. Everything outside the walls is new city. The fortress of Naryn-Kala, which stands on the slope of the hill hanging over the city, is at the center of these defensive constructions.

In 654 AD, Derbent came under the hands of the Arabs. They called the city Bab al-Abwab, or “the Gate of Gates”, signifying its strategic importance. The Arabs transformed the city into an important administrative center and introduced Islam to the area. Derbent’s oldest mosque, the Juma Mosque, dates from this period. During the 9th century, Derbent was the largest city in Caucasus with population exceeding 50,000. After the Arabs, the region came under the Armenians who established a kingdom there which lasted until the Mongol invasion in the early 13th century. The city changed hands many times over the next several centuries, coming under the rule of the Shirvanshahs (a dynasty in modern Azerbaijan), the Iranians and the Ottomans. In the 19th century, after the end of the Russo-Persian War, Derbent along with large parts of Dagestan were ceded to the Russian Empire.

Today, Derbent’s main attraction are its defensive walls, or what remains of it. Thankfully, a large portion of the walls and several watchtowers still remain in reasonable shape.



The city of Derbent in the late 17th century. Illustration by Jacob Peeters, circa 1690.


Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


The walls of the citadel. Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


The gates of the Naryn-Kala fortress. Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


The walls of the citadel. Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


View of the city from the citadel of Naryn-Kala. Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


The fortification wall of Derbent. Photo credit: Shamil Magomedov/Flickr


The fortification wall of Derbent. Photo credit: Shamil Magomedov/Flickr


The fortification wall of Derbent. Photo credit: Shamil Magomedov/Flickr


Juma mosque in the city of Derbent. Photo credit: Sulim Kudusov


  1. Derbent is russian city ))) Are you an adiot? Derbent is a city in Dagestan! A traditionally and historically Iranian city, the first intensive settlement in the Derbent area dates from the 8th century BC. Was occupied by Russia in 1813!

    1. Really, it's very fun to hear that is Russian city)

  2. Fascinating.

    Aside from the massive fortress and city walls, it could almost be a town in the southwestern USA.


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