Azerbaijan’s Budukh: Looking for a Road to Relevance

Budukh boys play outside a house with views overlooking the chain of rugged mountains that surrounds their village. (photo: Ethiram Jabi)

Chai Khana

It’s not the loss of their severely endangered language that worries the residents of Budukh, a hillside village of about 150 people overshadowed by the mountains of Azerbaijan’s Greater Caucasus range. It’s the lack of a good road and how to manage without it.

Eighty-year-old Tarlan Mammadov understands that emotion. In 1957, Mammadov, a driver for the local sovkhoz, or state collective farm, drove the first vehicle, a GAZ-51 truck, to reach Budukh.

“Children were running after the vehicle. . .Villagers ran to the vehicle, they were so happy that a motor vehicle arrived in the village for the first time,” he recollects.

At the time, there was no paved road to Budukh; only a “very steep” and “narrow” dirt path that was “so difficult” to ascend, he says. Today, there are three roads, but just one of them, 40-45 kilometer drive from Quba, is considered relatively safe. At least between June and September, where there is no risk of snow or rain.

Villagers say that all other problems – migration for work, in particular – are related to their lack of a good road. They envy Khinaliq, a protected historical village about 14 kilometers (roughly 9 miles) to the west, that, since the construction of a decent road in 2006, has turned into a bit of a tourist hub.

By contrast, isolation is a way of life in Budukh, located to the southeast of 4,243-meter-(13,921-feet)-high Mount Shahdagh, near the border with Russia’s Daghestan.

Public transportation does not exist. Private, four-wheel-drive taxis only leave Quba for Budukh in the afternoon and return in the early morning, around 6 or 7. Prices for the drive to Quba run about six to 10 manats ($3.53-$5.88) per person; not cheap in an area that lives off livestock and subsistence agriculture.

To get around these obstacles, Budukh villagers plan carefully. In summer, when the roads are dry, they purchase supplies in lowland locations. Pregnant women must also move down to the lowlands in time to give birth since Budukh only contains a doctor’s office for basic care.

For cash, villagers often give their ATM cards and passwords to a trusted person heading to the lowlands who can get cash for them from a bank machine. Others simply leave their card with a lowland relative for them to pass on the cash to someone traveling to Budukh.

Living a bit downhill has other advantages, too. Running water came to Budukh only in 2010, when villagers living beneath a mountain spring ran a pipe from it to their houses. Those living higher up on the mountain still rely on donkeys and water cans to get water from the spring.

The village has power (and phone lines), but no gas. Locals burn blocks of animal excrement to heat their houses, the walls of which they hang with carpets.

These inconveniences take their toll. Budukh’s population has shrunk steadily since the Soviet era, locals say. Even more so since the tsarist era, when Budukh boasted more than one mosque and had clerics schooled in Sunni Islam, the faith of most Budukhs.

But it’s not only population that Budukh is losing. Today, mostly only elderly villagers can fully communicate in the Budukh language, part of the Lezgian sub-group of Northeast Caucasian languages. If they don’t hear Budukh at home, young people either don’t know the language or only a few words.

Some villagers believe a functioning mosque would help preserve that knowledge. The one existing structure, built in 1894 to accommodate the entire village, had been a warehouse during Soviet times.

Written use of Budukh, which has a Cyrillic alphabet, is as important as conversational use. One former villager, Adigozal Hacıyev, a fluent Budukh-speaker who has worked with this writer, has created a Latin-based alphabet to help facilitate use of Budukh online, and is at work on an illustrated alphabet book with translations in Azerbaijani, English and Russian.

But the ultimate tool – schools – remains elusive.

Budukh is not taught in the village’s only school, even though the government has given permission for such classes. The district education department reportedly plans to close the school, which has just 20 students between the ages of six and 11.

That means that these students will have to migrate to lowland villages, where the population is more of a mix (ethnic Lezgians, Tats, Kryz and others), and Azerbaijani prevails. Budukhs living there are strongly assimilated and have totally lost their language. The Budukhs and Kryz can understand one another’s language, but each is distinct.

As is the village of Budukh itself.


*Elnur Aliyev, a linguist specializing in Caucasian languages
Photos and videos by Ehtiram Jabi. Editor: Elizabeth Owen