Derbent has an important strategic location in the Caucasus: the city is situated on a narrow, three-kilometer strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. Historically, this position allowed the rulers of Derbent to control land traffic between the Eurasian Steppe and the Middle East. The only other practicable crossing of the Caucasus ridge was over the Darial Gorge.
The first intensive settlement in the Derbent area dates from the 8th century BCE; the site was intermittently controlled by the Persian monarchs, starting from the 6th century BCE. Until the 4th century CE, it was part of Caucasian Albania and is traditionally identified with Albana, the capital. The modern name is a Persian word (دربند Darband) meaning "closed gates", which came into use in the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century CE, when the city was re-established by Kavadh I of the Sassanid dynasty of Persia.
The 20-meter (66 ft) high walls with thirty north-looking towers are believed to belong to the time of Kavadh's son, Khosrau I. The chronicler Movses Kagankatvatsi wrote about "the wondrous walls, for whose construction the Persian kings exhausted our country, recruiting architects and collecting building materials with a view of constructing a great edifice stretching between the Caucasus Mountains and the Great Eastern Sea." Derbent became a strong military outpost and harbour of the Sassanid empire. During the 5th and 6th centuries, Derbent also became an important center for spreading the Christian faith in the Caucasus.
Movses Kagankatvatsi left a graphic description of the sack of Derbent by the hordes of Tong Yabghu of the Western Turkic Khaganate in 627. His successor, Böri Shad, proved unable to consolidate Tong Yabghu's conquests, and the city was retaken by the Persians. In 654, Derbent was captured by the Arabs, who transformed it in an important administrative center and introduced Islam to the area. Because of its strategic position on the northern branch of the Silk Route, the fortress was contested by the Khazars in the course of the Khazar-Arab Wars. The Sassanids had also brought Armenians from Syunik to help protect the pass from invaders; as Arab rule weakened in the region at the end of the ninth century, the Armenians living there were able to establish a kingdom of their own, which lasted until the early years of the thirteenth century.
Excavations on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, opposite to Derbent, revealed the Great Wall of Gorgan, the eastern counterpart to the wall and fortifications of Derbent. Similar Sasanian defensive fortifications there—massive forts, garrison towns, long walls—also run from the sea to the mountains.
The Caliph Harun al-Rashid spent time living in Derbent and brought it into great repute as a seat of the arts and commerce. According to Arab historians, Derbent, with population exceeding 50,000, was the largest city of the 9th century Caucasus. In the 10th century, with the collapse of the Arab Caliphate, Derbent became the capital of an emirate. This emirate often fought losing wars with the neighboring Christian state of Sarir, allowing Sarir to occasionally manipulate Derbent politics. Despite that, the emirate outlived its rival and continued to flourish at the time of the Mongol invasion in 1239.
In the 14th century, Derbent was occupied by Timur's armies. In 1437, it fell under the control of the Shirvanshahs of Azerbaijan. During the 16th century, Derbent was the arena for wars between Turkey and Persia ruled by the Iranian Safavid dynasty. The Ottoman Empire gained control of the city following the Battle of the Torches in 1583, and Ottoman ownership was secured with the Treaty of Istanbul of 1590.
By the 1735 Ganja treaty, Derbent fell within the Persian state. In 1722, during the Russo-Persian War, Peter the Great of Russia wrested the town from the Persians, but in 1736, the supremacy of Nadir Shah was again recognized. In 1747, Derbent became the capital of the khanate of the same name.
During the Persian Expedition of 1796, Derbent was stormed by Russian forces under Valerian Zubov. As a consequence of the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813—between Russian and Persia—Derbent became part of the Russian Empire.
A large portion of the walls and several watchtowers have been preserved in reasonable shape till our days. The walls, reaching to the sea, date from the 6th century, Sassanid dynasty period. The city has a well-preserved citadel (Narin-kala), enclosing an area of 4.5 hectares (11 acres), enclosed by strong walls. Historical attractions include the baths, the cisterns, the old cemeteries, the caravanserai, the 18th-century Khan's mausoleum, as well as several mosques. The oldest mosque is the Juma Mosque, built over a 6th-century Christian basilica; it has a 15th-century madrassa. Other shrines include the 17th-century Kyrhlyar mosque, the Bala mosque and the 18th-century Chertebe mosque.
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