The ancient city of Derbent has been crucial for the control of the north-south passage on the western side of the Caspian Sea since the 1st millennium BC. The defences built by the Sassanians in the 5th century AD, which were the most significant section of the strategic defence systems on their northern frontier, and were in continuous use by the Persian, Arabic, Mongol and Timurid governments for some 15 centuries.
Derbent is situated on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, in the narrowest place between the sea and the slopes of the Tabasaran Mountains (part of the Larger Caucasus). The city has an important strategic location as it forms a natural pass (the Caspian Gates) between the Caucasian foothills and the sea. For many centuries, it was thus in the position to control the traffic between Europe and the Middle East. As a result of this geographical particularity, the city developed between two parallel defence walls, stretching from the sea to the mountains. Over the centuries, the city has been given different names, all connected to the word 'gate' (dar band is Persian for 'lock gate'). The fortification was originally built during the Sassanian Empire, and continuously repaired or improved until the 19th century, as long as its military function lasted. The fortification consists of the defence walls, the citadel, and the historic town.
The Defence Walls, the most outstanding feature of Derbent, rise some 3.6 km from the Caspian Sea up to the citadel on the mountain. There are two parallel walls (north and south) 300-400 m from each other. The city was built between these walls. The wall then continues over the mountains 40 km to the west (mountain wall), as well as extending into the sea (500 m), to protect the harbour. The north wall still exists to its full length; much of the south wall was demolished in the 19th century. The earliest parts are in unbaked brick, but the main part of the structure (6th century AD) is in solid ashlar with lime mortar, and a rubble core. Some of the later construction used smaller stones. The stones are laid face and header side alternately for better binding. The thickness of the walls varies from 230 cm to 380 cm; the height is about 12 m. A total of 73 defence towers were built at regular intervals. The north wall has 46 towers at about 70 m intervals. There are several gates, which are of architectural interest in their design. Originally, most gates date from the 6th or 7th centuries, but some have been rebuilt or changed later. There used to be 14 gates, and 9 still remain.
The citadel is situated up on the mountain; its walls are provided by small defence towers, the most interesting of which is in the south-west corner, a square tower that serves as a link to the mountain wall. On three sides, the citadel is defended by steep slopes. Inside there are a number of historic buildings, most in ruins. Along the southern wall is the Khan's Palace, which was an elaborate building with courtyards, now partly in ruins. In the citadel, there are also the remains of a 5th-century Christian church, subsequently built over when Zoroastrianism and then Islam were introduced. Djuma-mesjid is one of the earliest mosques in the former Soviet Union, built in the 8th century, rebuilt in the 14th and 17th centuries. The madrasa in front of the mosque is from the 15th century. Together with an administrative building, the mosque and madrasa form a closed courtyard. The citadel also has bath buildings and several underground water tanks.
The Historic Town of Derben was articulated in two main parts, and there were also some transversal walls (dating from the 10th to 18th centuries). The western part, on the mountain slope just under the citadel, formed the residential section. The eastern part, close to the sea, was used for merchants, craftsmen, storage buildings, barracks and depots. Close to the seafront, there was another fort built in the 18th century for the Shah's Palace (now demolished). In the second half of the 19th century, Derbent lost its defensive function; most of the southern wall was demolished, and the modern town developed in the lower part of the walled area, along the seafront. Nevertheless, most of the historic town core has been preserved, although with some minor changes. The old city was divided in separate quarters, and the street pattern referred to the gates. The streets are narrow and tortuous. The town still contains interesting courtyard houses, as well as some public stone buildings: mosques, baths, madrasas , and the remains of a caravanserai.
The site of Derbent is understood to have been inhabited since some 5,000 years. There was a fortress structure already in the 7th or 8th centuries BCE. In the 1st century BCE, the place was part of a new state formed in the area of Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan.
The subsequent periods related to the nominated property can be summarised as follows:
- Sasanian Empire from 5th to 7th centuries CE;
- Arab Capliphate from 7th to 10th centuries;
- Mongol rule from 13th to 14th centuries;
- Timurid Empire from 14th to 15th centuries;
- Shirvan Khan from 1437;
- Turkish-Persian conflicts during the 16th century;
- Safavid Empire from the 17th to 18th century;
- Derbent Khanate from 1747;
- Russia from 1813.
The Persians (Sasanians) conquered the site at the end of the 4th century CE. The current fortification and the town originate from the 6th century CE, when they were built as an important part of the Sasanian northern limes, the frontier against the nomadic people in the north. From this time and until the 19th century, Derbent remained an important military post. From the 7th century, it was ruled by the Arabs, taken over by the Mongols in the 13th century, and by the Timurids in the 14th century. The Persians took it back in the early 17th century (the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas, whose capital was in Isfahan). In the 18th century, the Persians and Russians fought over Derbent, and finally the Russian sovereignty was recognized by the Persian Shah in the early 19th century.
Over some 15 centuries, the fortification system was in military use. It was regularly maintained and repaired, and additions were built according to needs. In 1820, the south wall was demolished and an active building started in the lower part of the city. The upper part, with its 11-12,000 inhabitants, remained more or less intact. In the second half of the 19th century, the economy was in decline, but the city recovered at the end of the century, when the Vladicaucasus railway established a connection with Baku (1900). At the moment, the city is again facing some problems, and looks for new resources such as tourism.