Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan: Famous Citadel Vandalised

Locals say city administration is not protecting UNESCO heritage site.
By Sapiyat Magomedova
As the oldest city in the Caucasus looks forward to celebrating its 5000th anniversary next year, local people in Derbent are complaining that the old citadel is being vandalised.

"They say that even Genghiz Khan failed to take Derbent because he was unable to break through the citadel walls,” said Nizam Seidov, a war veteran and native of Derbent. “But what was difficult for Genghiz Khan proved possible for the Derbent city administration when it allowed the owner of a clothes market to demolish the citadel wall in order to build an entrance to the new market.”

Seidov blamed city officials for looking after their own interests rather than that of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Derbent was put on UNESCO’s list in 2003.

The Naryn-Kala citadel dates back to the 6th century AD, when Derbent was a great centre in the Persian Sassanid empire. Derbent is often called the oldest city in the Russian Federation.

This IWPR correspondent saw that indeed a hole in the shape of an arch has been knocked in the two-metre-thick fortress wall leading to the new market. A collection of new bright yellow blocks of stone clash with the faded grey of the original masonry.

A representative of the market, who did not want to be named, said shoppers needed the new entrance. "Residents require these passageways,” he said. “They are simply indispensable. The city is expanding both north and south and we have to adapt to this.”

Nazim Kasumov, director of the Ancient Derbent State Museum, who is also an international UNESCO inspector, denied to IWPR that the heritage of the city had been harmed, saying that the wall was already broken at the spot where the new entrance was made.

"A hole has just been given the form of arch,” he said. “This has been done so people do not have to take a detour to get to the market. As for an alternative to the hole, an underground passage, for example, was impossible. The wall itself is heavy and it is leaning."

The mayor of Derbent Felix Kaziakhmedov dismissed critics in a newspaper interview, saying, "We are aware that, by implementing a plan for the 'consolidation of the city', reconstruction of streets, parks and other facilities, we will meet with discontent from citizens who do not understand us. This does concern us - but not sufficiently to make us give up the plan."

Many locals accuse the city authorities of double standards. Andriana Makhova said that an ordinary family who had built a shed up against the citadel’s wall had been prosecuted and fined while a much more serious breach of the wall had been officially sanctioned.

“People are told that you can’t even get near the [citadel],” she said. “But this rule works only for the poor. People whose pockets are full of money can even destroy it. What kind of justice is that?"

Another local resident, Fariza Amirkhanova, said that another piece of the city’s heritage, an old bath-house in Pushkin St, had recently been destroyed and replaced by a big new house. “They are building new houses one after another, destroying everything that is in their way," she said.

Seidov said he and others had complained to the government of Dagestan in Makhachkala, asking them to intervene. “But the government just passed on our complaints to the city administration. It’s clear that the administration doesn’t do anything, as it is the administration itself that issues building permits to businessmen," he said.

Museum director Kasumov said that a reconstruction programme had been approved for the citadel walls and that he had raised with UNESCO the issue of the needs of the modern city as against those of the old one.

“I was told that this is called 'regeneration of a living city’ and, if a necessary permit is obtained, it is possible to reconcile monuments with vital everyday needs. As for official permission, we do have documents giving us permission to reconstruct the wall, but they are in Moscow," he said.

The controversy has attracted the attention of Kirill Zaitsev, head of the Russian heritage protection body Rosokhrankultura. Zaitsev visited Dagestan and told journalists that "the Dagestani president has reviewed the situation himself and it is far from perfect. It has been decided that the republic should have a consolidated independent body that will be in charge of preserving cultural heritage".

Derbent has 64 monuments that have been designated of “federal importance”. Amongst them is a pine forest planted on the spot where Peter the Great visited Derbent in 1722. The forest, known as “Peter’s grove”, is an archaeological site and when Vladimir Putin visited the city in 1999, shortly before becoming Russian president, there was discussion about restoring the house where Peter stayed.

However, it recently transpired that Dagestan’s forestry committee had leased Peter's Grove to a businessman named for the small sum of 90,000 roubles (3,500 US dollars). Despite the land’s heritage status, a local court ruled that the lease was legal. The case is now being heard in Dagestan's Supreme Court.

Magomed Akhmedov, director of the state department for the protection of monuments, is angry. "The territory of a monument that is on the UNESCO list of protected sites has been leased to a businessman for 49 years!” he said in disbelief. “This case should not even have gone to court. It is nonsense!”

Another discontented local, Abdulla Osmanov, says that Derbent’s UNESCO status is being gradually undermined as small pieces of the ancient city are being lost bit by bit. “People were so happy when UNESCO took Naryn-Kala under its patronage. We thought it was in reliable hands that would prevent vandalism and arbitrary behaviour. But things have turned out differently,” he said.

Sapiyat Magomedova is a correspondent for Novoe Delo newspaper in Dagestan.

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