The site of old Shabran straddles the Shabran River, near the village of Shahnazarli in northeastern Azerbaijan. Like its buildings, the origins of the city are lost in time. The most likely theory is that Shabran was founded in the mid-6th century by Khosrow I Nushiravan (531-579), ruler of Sassanid Iran. (Azerbaijan was at that time part of the Sassanid Empire.) This is recorded by Iranian-born geographer, Ibn Khordadbeh. The fortress city was known as Bab ash-Shabiran, or Gate of the Shabirs.
The Shabirs, Sabirs or Savirs were a Hun tribe, neighbours and military allies of the Turkic Khazars, and lived to the north of Azerbaijan in what is now the Russian Republic of Dagestan. Historians think that 10,000 northern nomads who were captured and settled in Azerbaijan by Khosrow I Nushiravan in the 560s were from the Sabir tribe. Shabran is not far from the city of Derbent on the border with the lands of the Huns, which makes it feasible that a group of refugee Sabirs should have built a new town and called it Shabran.
Another account of the city’s origins is given by 13th century historian Kirakos of Ganja. Kirakos wrote that the city of Shabran was founded by the head of the Caucasian Albanian church, Viroy, in honour of Shad, son of the ruler of the Khazars. This was most likely to have been in 628. According to Kirakos of Ganja, the name Shabran is derived from the name of the son of the Khazar kagan (or ruler), Shad.
The ruins of the city of Shabran, which covered more than 40 hectares, were registered for the first time as an archaeological site in 1935. The first archaeological excavations were conducted in 1979 and continued on a smaller scale in 1980 and 1989. After a gap of more than 20 years, the Shabran archaeological expedition was revived in 2012 under the leadership of Qoshqar Qoshqarli.
The excavations have revealed four layers of construction: the first, bottom, layer dates to the end of the early Middle Ages, the second to the 9th-11th centuries, the third to the 11th-13th centuries, and the fourth, top, layer to the 13th-17th centuries. Overall, the cultural layers were 5 metres thick. In all periods, cobblestone, limestone, raw and fired brick were used as building materials. A lot of tiles and particularly turquoise and blue glazed bricks were found in the layers from the 12th-15th centuries, which points to an attractive design for many of the buildings of Shabran.
The first fortified city of Shabran stood for nearly 200 years, from the 6th to the 8th centuries. The fortress was razed to the ground by the invading Arabs in 731 and the population resettled in the surrounding area, according to 10th century Arab writer Al-Kufi. No traces of the fortress walls from this period have been found during excavations.
The fortress was rebuilt. But the forces of Derbent, Sarir and the surrounding area in today’s Russian Republic of Dagestan, united in 968 and stormed Shabran. They burnt the city down, according to The History of Derbent (Tarikh Bab al-abvab), completed in 1106. The History of Derbent goes on to say that the fortress walls were rebuilt in 983 by Shirvan Shah Muhammad ibn Ahmad. Excavations have found the remains of these fortress walls on the right bank of the River Shabran. The walls must have been magnificent. The surviving ruins are 4.1 metres high. The towers in the fortress walls were 8.5 m in diameter and the walls were 2.7 m thick. The fortress walls and towers were built of large stones and fired brick with lime mortar. The outer walls were clad with limestone slabs, the largest of which were 120x55 cm. There was no connection between the towers and opinions differ as to whether this made it easier or harder to defend the city.
The city developed rapidly in the 9th to 13th centuries. Excavations have found the remains of a number of large public and residential buildings from this period, including the foundations of a large bakery. The building, 12 m long and 7 m wide, housed 21 traditional tandir brick ovens.
The remains of a large, 270 m2 building are a mystery for archaeologists. The building of fired brick interspersed with hewn stones had a round tower at every corner. Inside the building are the remains of six limestone columns. The floor was paved with fired brick. It is the building’s purpose that is puzzling the experts.
Excavations have found evidence that a stone-paved street linked major public buildings in the city. The remains of a water supply system have been found in various parts of Shabran. Water was brought to the city in ceramic pipes from springs 14 km away. The remains of a water reservoir and fountain have also been discovered in the city. The fountain was made of limestone and decorated with botanical designs. A drainage system was in place to remove sewage or storm water from the streets and squares. The drainage pipes were made from pieces of limestone 1.75 m long, 0.32 m wide and 0.22 m high. Finding the drainage plant in Shabran was a major breakthrough for the archaeologists. The plant, which dates to the 14th to 15th centuries (or possibly the 11th century), was enclosed and connected to the river. Excavations have also found the remains of a bridge over the Shabran River built in the 10th to 11th centuries. The bridge is thought to have been 6 m long and 2.6 m high with several spans.
Craftsmanship was highly developed in the city of Shabran. This is confirmed by the discovery of the remains of a potter’s kiln and of blacksmiths’ forges, by stamps and seals reading ‘made in Shaburan’ on the base of ceramic items and glassware, by finds of gold, silver, bronze and copper jewellery and of a black touchstone, used to test the quality of gold. Black touchstones were even exported from Shabran to various parts of the world, according to the 10th century geographical manuscript The Limits of the World (Hudud al-alam).
Shabran had the largest mint in medieval Azerbaijan. The ruins of the mint show that it consisted of a 16 m2 square room with a drainage ditch running through the middle and two brick kilns. More than 1,000 copper coins minted on behalf of the rulers of Shirvan and various tools were discovered in the mint, while a lot of unfinished coins and waste materials were found near the kilns.
Various finds show that the mint was in operation from at least the mid-10th century to the early 16th century. Dirhams minted in Shabran in the name of Shirvan Shah Salar ibn-Yazid (1049-1063) were part of a hoard discovered in the village of Rustov in Quba District in 1977, while coins minted in Shabran in 1506 on behalf of Shah Ismail Khatai have also been found.
One of the major prisons of the Shirvan period was located in Shabran, according to written sources. In 999-1002 Abu Nasr, brother of Derbent ruler Leshkeri ibn-Maymun, was held in Shabran prison for three years and executed by order of Yazid Shirvanshah in 1002. Abu Nasr was buried in front of the city gates. In 1170, poet to the Shirvan shahs Afzaladdin Khaqani spent seven months incarcerated in Shabran prison. There he wrote a series of odes including his powerful poem Habsiyya (Imprisonment).
There are even stories that Afrasiyab, legendary ruler of the land of Turan, north and east of Iran, had his prison in Shabran. According to 13th-century geographer Zakariya al-Qazwini, the dungeon was a deep well, the entrance to which was covered by a large stone. The archaeological excavations have found traces of a few buildings with no doors or windows. One of the buildings is thought to have had a domed ceiling with a large hole at the top, which is a typical design for medieval court-houses. Deep wells, which could have been dungeons, were found near the Shabran court-house. Their walls are clad in fired brick.
Travellers report that Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in Shabran. According to Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi, in the 10th century Christians made up the majority of the population of Shabran. Two centuries later William of Rubruck, envoy of the king of France, noted the size of the Jewish communities in Shabran (which he called Samaron) when he visited in 1254.
A Muslim cemetery from the 14th to 18th centuries and the remains of a large tomb have been found on the left bank of the Shabran River. According to The History of Derbent, Shirvan Shah Yazid ibn-Ahmad, who died in 1027, his daughter who died in October 1067, and Shamkuya, wife of the emir of Derbent, Abdulmalik ibn-Mansur, were all buried in the same mausoleum in Shabran. Abu Nasr, brother of Derbent Emir Lashkari, was also buried near the gates of the city of Shabran in 1002.
Excavations have shown that further renovation work was conducted in Shabran in the 11th century, after the city walls were rebuilt in 983. This fortress city stood for nearly 300 years, before it was destroyed by the Mongols in the mid-13th century.
After some 300 years of relative peace and prosperity, Shabran was caught up in the first of the wars between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia. The Ottomans wanted to wrest control of Azerbaijan and the rest of the South Caucasus from Persia. In 1583 Shabran was badly damaged in battles between the Safavid and Ottoman armies. Russian merchant Fedot Kotov, who saw Shabran 40 years later, said that a wall and stone tower were all that was left of the city. Everything else had been destroyed. It is assumed that life came to a temporary halt in Shabran between 1583 and 1623, when the city was again rebuilt.
After rebuilding in the 17th century, Shabran enjoyed only a brief period of peace. In 1711 the city again came under attack, this time from the united forces of the ruler of Dagestan and of local leader Haji Davud, who raised a rebellion against the government of the Safavid dynasty. Shabran was taken and razed to the ground by Haji Davud’s rebels. Dagestani sources record that the rebels were slaughtering without mercy in Shabran, even killing babes-in-arms.
Azerbaijani historian Abbasqulu Bakikhanov wrote in his work The Heavenly Rose Garden, completed in 1841, that ‘the ruins of this famous city which was situated on the right bank of the Shabran River still speak of its grandeur and amenities’. The city was divided by the river, with the fortified citadel on the left bank and the residential and commercial area on the right. It was the residential and commercial area that fell in 1711.
The citadel did not last much longer. In 1743 rebels under the leadership of Muhammad Khan, son of the ruler of Kazikumyk (Dagestan), and Sam Mirza, son of late Safavid Shah Sultan Huseyn (1694-1722), raised a rebellion against the rule of Nadir Shah Afshar and besieged the fortress. They blew up sections of the defensive wall and conquered Shabran. The rebels killed the defenders of Shabran fortress and their leader Abdal Khan Ustajalli. After that, the entire population of Shabran surrendered to Muhammad Khan.
Abbasqulu Bakikhanov wrote that sections of the fortress walls remained in his time. In 1796, Russian historian Petr Grigoryevich Butkov observed that Shabran and Quba fortresses had had the same rectangular structure and similar-sized walls. Both fortresses were surrounded by trenches.
The fall of Shabran in 1743 marked the end of the city in its location of several centuries. Petr Butkov visited the site in 1796 and wrote that he saw no signs of life there.
This was not the end altogether of the remarkably resilient city of Shabran. It was rebuilt several kilometres south on the banks of the Davachi River and survives to this day.
F.A. Abbasova: Shabran (historical and archaeological research). Baku, 2002
T.M. Dostiyev: Northern and Eastern Azerbaijan in the 9th-15th centuries. Baku, 2001
R.B. Goyushov: The Medieval City of Shabran. Baku, 1985
About the author: Mubariz C. Khalilov is an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan. Holder of a Ph.D in history, he is the author of authoritative monographs and articles on archaeology in Azerbaijan.