Feb 052014

Because February 5 is the day that the sun, it is hoped, will shine for the first time in the year in the village of Kituri, and then in Shaitli in the Dagestan region of Russia, the Tsezy (Didoitsy) people celebrate this event marking the first glimmer of spring with a festival known as Igbi. The satellite image above showing the location of the two villages is interactive so you can zoom out and get a sense of their location (a small grey cross shows the location as you zoom out). They are in the northern Caucasus in a remote region near the border of Georgia which, because of their isolation have been very poorly documented by historians and anthropologists. The local language is Tsez which is part of the northern Caucasian family.

Tsez, also known as Dido (????? ??? cezyas mec or ??? ??? cez mec in Tsez) has about 15,354 speakers (as of 2002). The Tsez are Muslims; their location is shown in pink on the map (which you can click on to expand). The name is said to derive from the Tsez word for “eagle,” which is most likely a folk etymology. The name Dido is derived from the Georgian word ???? (didi), meaning “big.” Tsez lacks a literary tradition and is poorly represented in written form. Avar and Russian are used as literary languages locally, even in schools.

Avar is the predominant language in Dagestan (also in the northern Caucasian family, shown in green on the map), with about 800,000 speakers. However, attempts have been made to develop a stable orthography for the Tsez language as well as its relatives, mainly for the purpose of recording traditional folklore; thus, a Cyrillic script based on that of Avar is often used. Fluency in Avar is usually higher among men than women, and the younger people tend to be more fluent in Russian than in Tsez, which is probably due to the lack of education in and about the language. Tsez is not taught in school and instead Avar is taught for the first five years and Russian afterwards.  The semi-polite term for this state of affairs is “Russian hegemony” (aka Russian imperialism).

The vocabulary shows many traces of influences of Avar, Georgian, Arabic, and Russian, mainly through loanwords and, in the case of Russian, even in grammar and style. There are also loanwords of Turkic origin. These factors may eventually lead to the decline of use of the Tsez language, as it is more and more replaced by Avar and Russian, partly due to loss of traditional culture among the people and the adoption of a Western clothing, technology and architecture. This image shows classic Tsev clothing, now rarely seen, even on special occasions such as Igbi.


This video, the call to prayer in a remote Avar village, gives a sense of the isolation and poverty of the region:

The name of the festival, Igbi, comes from the plural of the Tsezian word ig —a ring-shaped bread similar in shape to a bagel, but using regular bread dough—and the baking of these ritual breads plays a central role in the celebration, which involves a number of masked and costumed characters playing traditional roles. Six botsi, or wolves, carrying wooden swords go from house to house collecting the igbi that the women have been baking in preparation for their arrival. The bagels are strung on a long pole known as the giri, and those who fail to cooperate are hit with the swords or have their shoes filled with wet snow and ice.

The children get up early on this day, which is now observed on the Sunday nearest February 5 so they don’t have to miss school, and go through the village collecting the igbi that have been made especially for them.
Igbi is also a day of reckoning. All through the year the young organizers of the feast have kept notes of the good and bad deeds of the villagers. Now after all the igbi have been collected, there is a ceremony in the center of the village in which the kvidili —a traditional figure wearing an animal-skin mask resembling no known animal; lately it looks like a horse with horns and a big mouth like a crocodile—reads out the names of those who have committed a transgression (such as public drunkenness) during the year.

In the past the unlucky ones were dragged to the river and immersed up to their knees through a hole in the ice. Those who are congratulated for their good deeds are handed an ig. At the end of the festival, the kvidili is symbolically slain with a wooden sword.

There was some effort in the late 20th century to document Tsev folklore by Russian folklorists to preserve customs before they died out. This description is taken directly from, “The Communal Winter Festival among the Tsezy” by lu. lu. Karpov in Soviet Anthropology and Archeology, XXII, no 2, (Fall 1983), 39-45 (translated from Russian). Good luck trying to find out more! My suspicion is that the festival continues, but will eventually die out as the younger people move out or are assimilated into Russian culture.


How was the Shaitli igbi observed in 1982? Before we describe the feast itself, we should say a few words about its preparation and about the meaning of the word igbi. Ig in the Tsezian language means a ring-shaped bread, like a bagel, 20-30 cm in diameter, and igbi is the plural of ig; that is, igbi are bagels. They are baked not only for the igbi feast, but also at other Tsezian festivals, in particular the first day of plowing. On this day, the igbis are hung on the horns of oxen during the plowing. The custom of baking ritual rolls for a feast is known among other peoples of Dagestan as well. The Shaitli people count the fifth of February, i.e. the middle of winter, as the day of igbi. Boys and young men, usually between the ages of 14 and 25, take part in the feast. Recently, because it is mainly schoolchildren who participate in it, and the fifth of February is usually a school day, the holiday has been shifted to the nearest Sunday in the traditional calendar. In 1982, igbi was observed on February 7.
Preparations for the festival begin long before its date. Throughout the year, young people organizing the igbi note down various positive and negative deeds of the villagers. The holiday is the day of reckoning for all those who have distinguished themselves or transgressed. One-and-a-half to two months before the igbi day, the direct preparations for it begin: costumes are made, and duties are assigned to the igbi participants. The personages in the feast are wolves (botsi, singular), forest people (tsikes zheklu, singular), a devil, a skeleton, a doctor, spectators, a hiker, a policeman, a soldier, and the kvidili (kh’vidili)–a central figure of the festival. Cone-shaped wolf masks are made out of calf, cow, sheep, and goat skins with the fur on the outside, and slits for the eyes, nose and mouth. Short motley ribbons may be hung from the pointed end of the mask. In addition to the mask, the wolf costume consists of a fur coat with the fur turned outward and cinched with a leather belt, traditional knitted shoes (gedobi), and manufactured gloves. Overalls with moss and pine branches sewed on them are made for the forest people; their masks are made in the same way. For the devil costume, rags, pieces of fur, and empty jars are used. The masks for the other participants (doctor, speculator, hiker, policeman) were made of paper-mache, or cloth. Manufactured goods corresponding to the functions of the personages served as costumes. The skeleton costume was overalls with strips of white fabric imitating bones sewn to it.

The figure of the kvidili is an enigma even to the inhabitants of Shaitli. In their conception it corresponds to no existing animal: neither a bear nor a wolf nor a deer nor a horse. Nor is it a fabulous snake or dragon. “We don’t know what kind of an animal this is,” say the people of Shaitli, “but it has a big mouth, like a crocodile.” “Kvidili” cannot be translated either from Tsezian or the Avar language. The kvidili mask as it has been made in the past few years was the head of a horse. The making of this mask is quite complicated. First a wood base is made in the form of a head, and the skin of a cow or goat is stretched over it with the fur outward. The kvidili mask does indeed have a big mouth which moves by means of a string attached to the lower jaw. The mask is attached to the end of a two-meter pole carried by the person playing the role of kvidili. The costume of this figure of the festival is made out of sewn furs and resembles a loose overall.

A week before the igbi, three to four “wolves” accompanied by boys appear in the center of the settlement; these wolves announce to the inhabitants, in the name of the botsi, the need to prepare for the feast, to make the igbi breads; those who do not make the breads will be punished by the Botsi. On the eve of the feast, Saturday evening, the botsi again appear in the center of the village accompanied by boys, and again proclaim the same warning. The night of the eve of the holiday is hard for the women of Shaitli. They must bake several dozen small igbi and a few large ones. The dough used for them is the ordinary dough.

Then comes the morning of the feast. On the fifth of February the sun should for the first time shine on the locality of Khora situated opposite Shaitli. The people of Shaitli say that when this happens it means that half of the winter is passed and a turn toward the spring has taken place in nature; spring will soon arrive. On this day the children get up earlier than usual. There are already many children carrying bags on the streets by seven in the morning, collecting in groups. They begin to walk about the village and collect the small igbi especially made for them from each house. Soon their little bags are filled with igbi and they carry them off to their houses.
About ten o’clock in the morning, six botsi–“wolves” disguised in costumes, with wooden swords in their hands–come to the godekan from the different ends of the village. Among these wolves is a senior wolf who carries a stick with a fur belt tied to it as a sign of seniority; horns are attached to his mask. About thirty boys gather around the wolves to accompany them as they walk about the village. The botsi choose two adult men from among the spectators and force them to carry the gari, a five-meter-long pole on which the igbi will be strung. No one can refuse this order by the botsi. They can punish all those who refuse in various ways: striking them with wooden swords, or throwing them in a hole in the ice. After the duties are assigned, collection of the igbi begins. Botsi, accompanied by a group of boys and two men, bearing the giri, begin to walk about the village. All the while the igbi are being collected, the boys shout loud and long: make igbi! He who does not give igbi will be punished! (The punishment they threaten is that they will fill the traditional knitted shoe [gedobi] of a housewife who did not give them an ig with wet snow and ice–khatamu). This processing moves from the edge of the village to the center. If they are not greeted by the owner at some house, one of the botsi tries to get into the house and punish (by beating with a sword) the housewife. Usually, however, when they go up to a house where they are already expected, one of the wolves extends the sword and the housewife or man of the house puts an ig on it. After this, the botsi himself begins to string the ig on the giri. Thus they gradually get around to all the houses. As the processing with its collection of igbi moves around the village, some women try to break off one or several of the igbi hanging on the giri; the wolves in turn try with all their might not to permit this, and chase the women off with their swords. After finishing the collection in the eastern part of the village, the procession goes off to the west. During this time, a doctor in a white robe, white hat, and cloth mask on his face appears on the godekan. He begins to offer his services in gestures to the villagers gathered there. The forest people, one in the moss costume, the other in a costume of pine branches, and the shaitan, whose function it is to frighten people, follow the doctor to the godekan. Then the skeleton appears, speaking for the edification of those who observe uraz. At this same time, female and male figures appear and disappear immediately several times on the roof of one of the houses above the godekan. Soon they appear on the godekan; these are the speculators–two women and two men in bright costumes and as many bright masks accompanied by a donkey loaded with various wares. They stop here and begin trading. A policeman appears and chases them from the godekan. The last to come up are the tourists, a man and woman with provocative appearance, and a soldier. All these personages amuse the spectators with their actions.

By this time all the igbi are collected, and the botsi, accompanied by the small boys, return to the center of the village. The igbi are put on the roof of a make shift construction situated on the godekan. The boys stay to guard them, and the botsi go over to the godekan where they enter into the performance. At eleven o’clock, the kvidili appears from the direction of Khora. He gathers all the participants in the feast and the spectators together. The “official” part begins. The kvidili steps up on a platform constructed of snow and ice especially for this occasion and, in Tsezian, wishes the villagers good weather and a good harvest in the new year, and urges all of them to participate actively in all civic work. Then a teacher from a local school goes up on the platform and, in the name of the kvidili, reads out a list of villagers who have committed some transgression with regard to the village or the young people. On the order of the kvidili the botsi drag the transgressors to the river and immerse them through a hole in the ice up to their knees (in the past, instead of this their knitted shoes were filled with wet snow). Thus, in 1982 one villager was punished for drunkenness; they wanted also to punish one of the teachers, but let him go halfway to the river. After these punishments, another person speaking in the name of the kvidili congratulated those Shaitli inhabitants who distinguished themselves with good works in 1982. This year they were: an old collective farm worker who was still doing his share in everything, a party worker of the local forestry farm, and a shepherd. The teacher thanked them for their good work, and expressed the wish that they would continue to work as well in the future, and handed each of them an ig.

By mid-day, the feast had entered into its final phase. All the participants gathered on the godekan around the kvidili and dragged him to the bridge over the river passing through the middle of the settlement. The kvidili was placed on the bridge and the elder botsi symbolically cut his throat with a wooden sword. In past years, so the Shaitli inhabitants related, a small vessel with red paint was hidden under the kvidili’s costume; as he was being “murdered” the kvidili would open the container unnoticed and the paint, looking just like blood, would flow out into the river. This year, there was no blood. The body of the kvidili was placed on a bier and the botsi carried him off behind the buildings. Outsiders and country folk were not allowed into the procession; the botsi would chase them away with their swords.

Dagestani cuisine is very much like that found in neighboring countries in the Caucasus, and in many instances across eastern Europe and Eurasia, although usually with a regional twist. The ubiquitous shashlik (lamb and vegetables grilled on skewers) is common, as are steamed meat dumplings. They also make a dish similar to Scottish haggis, called Sokhta, made from ground sheep’s liver, onions and dried apricots, boiled in the sheep’s stomach. If you could get a sheep’s stomach it would not be hard to replicate.

Here I give you shurp. The name shurp for this stew or thick soup is not onomatopoeia, for the sound made when you eat it, but comes from the Arabic word for drink, “shurbah” (???).Originally it was a Turkish (Ottoman) dish, and in Turkish is “çorba” (tchorba), which simply means “soup.” Variations on this dish, and the name, can be found throughout the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe and deep into South and East Asia and even as China. I had a version of it once, called “shurba,” in a remote village in Ukrainian Ruthenia, which I lapped up because it was made with my beloved – lamb’s tripe. I did get the recipe from the cook, scribbled on a napkin, although it took effort to understand because the cook’s first language was Ruthenian (or possibly Hutsul, I never was quite sure) which a friend kindly translated into Russian, and which I then laboriously translated into English (well before the days of Google translate).  It will appear here one day, no doubt.


I don’t have more than the outlines of the recipe but these general guidelines are really all you need. It can be prepared in one of two ways. The meat which forms the basis of the broth can either be fresh mutton or beef, boiled with vegetables and spices, or it can be leftover roast meat. The latter is more common among the Tsev. You make it as you would any soupy stew. Cut the meat into large chunks, with bone in, and slowly simmer for 2 hours or so with diced onions in water to cover with red and black pepper, coriander, a bay leaf, and tarragon (or fennel). Sometimes turmeric is used as well. Then add your choice of root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, and leafy greens, and cook for another 35-45 minutes. Shurp should be dense, rich and fatty. To achieve this there should not be excessive poaching water, and it should simmer uncovered to allow the stock to reduce. Serve piping hot in deep bowls with flat bread.

Now I want a small round of applause for the days and days I spent digging out this incredibly obscure information for your delight (and mine).

  2 Responses to “Igbi Feast, Dagestan”

  1. Buenas, enhorabuena por su blog.
    Soy especialista en mascarada europea y me gustaría saber si tiene más información sobre estas mascaradas caucásicas.
    Un saludo. Oscar J. González (autor de Mascaradas de la Península Ibérica)

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