PEOPLE OF THE CAUCASUS

PEOPLE OF THE CAUCASUS

There are about three dozen different ethnic groups living in the Caucasus region. About two thirds of them can be found in Russia in various numbers. Caucasus groups speak dozens of indigenous languages that are divided in northwestern and northeast groups. They all have written languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet.

The different groups of the Caucasus are organized in a crazy quilt across the valleys, mountains and lowlands of the region. Sometimes one ethnic group will occupy a single cluster of valleys and another ethnic group will occupy a neighboring cluster of valleys. Resources ae often scares and the arrangement causes tensions. Describing the situation in the Caucasus, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinkis wrote, "One can not move anyone without also moving someone else, without doing him injury."

The people of the Caucasus region have traditionally been more loyal to their clans and families than they have been to their region, ethnic group or nation. The royals houses of Georgia and the Caucasus are thought to have some Ethiopian blood.

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus institute of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Book: Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory by Yo'av Karny (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000); Book on Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus: The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland by Karl E. Meyer (Century Foundation/Public Affairs, 2005)

Different Caucasus Groups

The people of the Caucasus can be divided int five major cultural groups: 1) Georgian groups in the western Caucasus, which are mostly Orthodox Christians: 2) Armenians in the south-central Caucasus, who follow their own branch of Christianity; 3) the Azerbaijanis in the east, who are Turkic-speaking and mostly Shiite Muslims; 4) the Northern Caucasus groups, a diverse group that includes groups like the Circassians, Chechens and Avars and 5) the Dagestan area, which contains over 50 different mostly-Muslim groups, including some that occupy a single valley.

Caucasus people can also be divided into 1) lowlanders, descendants of steppe horse people; and 2) mountaineers, who have traditionally made their living raising livestock and moving between winter and summer pastures.

Linguistically the Caucasus is mind-boggling in its diversity. The North Caucasus languages are divided into three major groups. There is some debate among linguists as to whether they are related on not and how much so. There are a half dozen major Turkic languages, including Kumyk and Azerbaijani. In Georgia eight major dialects are spoken. Dagestan is home to 30 major languages and dozens more dialects.

Each ethnic group and nationality in the Caucasus has it own language and culture. The large groups—the Azerbejanis, Armenians and Georgians—have there own countries. Mid-size groups, with a half million or so members, like the Ossentians, the Circassians and the Avars occupy regions and often have their own republic within Russia or another country. Little known people such as the 200-member Ginukh, Akhwakh and Lak occupy single valleys. Attempts to assimilate the people of the Caucasus have largely been unsuccessful.

Groups in the Caucasus

The people of the Caucasus are divided into three main groups (based on the language they speak): 1) the Caucasians: 2) the Indo-Europeans; and 3) the Turks.

Caucasians: A) Northwest Caucasian ethnic groups include Abkhazians, Circassians, Kabarda and Karachay in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic. B) Northeast Caucasian groups include the speakers of Nakh-Vaynakh languages—the Ingush, Chechens and Batsbi and the 27 groups in Dagestan. C) Ethnic groups speaking South Caucasian Kartvelian languages include the Georgians, Mingrelian/Laz and Svan,

Indo-European Caucasians: A) Ethnic groups speaking Iranian Indo-European languages include Kurds, Ossetians, Talysh, and That. B) Slavs speaking Indo-European languages include Russians and Ukrainians who live the Caucasus region. They make up 90 percent of the population of the northern Caucasus. C) Armenians.

Turkic Caucasians: Six ethnic groups in the Caucasus region speak Altaic-Turkic languages: the Azerbaijanis; Balkars; Karachays; Kumyk; Nogay; and Turkmen. The Balkars and Karachays live mostly in the west and central Caucasus. Kumyk and Nogay live mostly in Dagestan.

Caucasians: The Term for White People

The word "Caucasian" as a term for white people of European descent was coined by Johann Friedreich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a German anatomist and naturalist who established the most commonly used system of racial classification. He chose the Caucasus mountains between Russia and Georgia as the inspiration for his classifications for white Europeans because he believed that the people from Caucasus region were particularly attractive and he thought that there was a strong likelihood that the first humans came from this region.

In the third edition of his thesis De Generis Humani Varietaye Nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind), published in 1795, Blumenback wrote, " Caucasian variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because...in that region if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greater probability to place the autochthonous [original forms] or mankind.

Blumenbach described a female skull found near the Caucasus mountains as "really the most beautiful form of skull which...always of itself attracts every eye.” Explaining his view, he wrote: “In the first place, that stock displays . . . the most beautiful form of the skull, from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge by most easy gradations. . . . Besides, it is white in color, which we may fairly assume to have been the primitive color of mankind, since . . . it is very easy for that to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to become white."

Languages and Religion in the Caucasus

About 40 Caucasian languages survive in the Caucasus region, an area about the size of California. Aran geographers called the Caucasus the "mountain of tongues." Ubykh, a language of the Caucasus region, had the most consonants (81). It died in 1992 when its last speaker, a Turkish farmer, died.

Many languages were written in Arabic or some other script before the Soviet era. They were required to be written with the Latin alphabet in the 1920s as part of the anti-Islamic and anti-nationalist campaign and then were required to be written in Cyrillic in the 1930s as part of the Russification campaign.

The Caucasus is basically divided into Christian groups like the Georgians, Armenians and Ossetians and Muslim groups like the Chechens, Ingush, Azeris and the groups of Dagestan.

Vestiges of pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religions remain. Animal sacrifices, shamanist rituala and rainmaking ceremonies are conducted even by people thought of as devout Orthodox Christians or conservative Muslims. Traditional religions often involved the worship of sacred mountains Clans sometimes have their own shrines, where clan members ask a patron saint of god for protection of the clan.

Both Muslims and Christians observe a number of mourning practices such as wearing black and men letting their beards grow. Memorial banquets are often held on the 7th and 40th days and the 1st anniversary after the death. Among the Khinalugh, a small group that occupies a single village in the mountains of Azerbaijan: “Burials are performed according to Muslim practice and usually take place on the day of death. The body is wrapped in a shroud and carried to the cemetery on a stretcher by men, with the women following at some distance (women did not enter the cemetery). The relatives give assistance to the family of the deceased in the form of food (rice, sugar) and money. During the three days after death the villagers come by the home of the bereaved family to offer condolences. Seven days after burial women gather in the home of the deceased to mourn—these are residents of the village specially invited for this purpose. Visitors to the home are served pilaf if the deceased was of advanced age, only tea if he or she was young. The funeral banquet on the day of burial is not a large affair, and only those participating in the burial are invited. The principal funeral banquet is held on the third day after burial. The relatives go to the cemetery, bringing sweets to set on the grave. There is also a memorial on the first Thursday after death, at which relatives and fellow villagers are present. Subsequent memorials are held on the seventh and fifty-second day and the anniversary. Mourning attire is worn by all women of the village for three to seven days and for a longer period by relatives. Men let their beards grow out, and women wear black kerchiefs. [Source: Natalia G. Volkova Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond ( 1996, C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

Islam in the Caucasus

Sufism has traditionally been strong among the Muslim Chechens and Dagestanis in the Northern Caucasus. Many of them are descendants of members of Sufi worship groups that followed charismatic leaders and survived tsarist and Communists era by organizing themselves in small cells.

Sufism is a relatively laid back, mystical form of Islam, which normally discourages the worship of religious leaders and the use of shrines. When the Sufi leaders died, however, their graves have traditionally been turned into pilgrimage sites visited by their followers, who showed their respect and wished for good luck by tying handkerchiefs to trees. One Russian scholar told the Los Angeles Times, "The Sufism practiced here is more like Christianity than Islam, with its cults and saints. It's taken on a from which shouldn't exist in Islam."

In the mid 1990s, the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam from Saudi Arabia began making inroads into Dagestan, Chechnya and Northern Caucasus. Unlike Sufism it is radical, purist and sometimes militant. There have been clashes between Wahhabis and Sufis in the Caucasus. One Sufi unimpressed with Wahhabi purity told the Los Angeles Times, "I can's see why they think that growing long beards and wearing their trousers too short makes them holier than everyone else. They're kids dressing up as devout Arabs. This is not our tradition. It's time they grew up."

Along side Sufism, pre-Islamic custom continue to be practiced. Natalia G. Volkova wrote: “The Khinalughs are Sunni Muslims. They observe the custom of worshiping at pirs (the grave sites of holy people believed to have lived in Khinalugh in the distant past); among these are Jabarbabe pir, Pirajomerd pir, and Shikhshalbarazbabe pir. Alongside traditional Moslem holidays the Khinalughs have retained many pre-Islamic observances: rituals for bringing rain and sunshine, and a fire cult. There were various popular beliefs, including the following: during heavy rainfall young people made dolls of boards (guzhul ), which they dressed in women's clothing and carried throughout the village while singing an Azerbaijani-language song to the effect that "tomorrow the sun will shine." The villagers gave them gifts of eggs and sweets. [Source: Natalia G. Volkova Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond ( 1996, C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

Caucasus Character and Customs

People from the Caucasus tend to have dark hair and dark eyes. They have a reputation for being passionate and emotional and are famous for engaging in bitter blood feuds. Some Russians—who are viewed by many as cold and distant—admire Caucasus people for their fiery spirit. Describing the people of the Caucasus, Mikhail Lermontov, a great poet of Russian nationalism, wrote in 1840:
Wild are the tribes that in those gorges dwell'
Freedom their god is, war their law...
To strike a forman there, is never ill,
Friendship is true—revenge us truer still;
There good for good is paid, and blood
And hate, like love, is boundless as the flood.

Caucasus traditions of hospitality are similar to those Muslims. The duty of a host is to provide hospitality to a guest even if that guest is an enemy and defend them from their enemies. People for the Caucasus are regarded as superstitious. Some Caucasus people don’t like to be photographed because of its association with the “evil eye” and fears the person photographed might fall ill and die.

Caucasus Society

Caucasus societies are strongly tribal and patriarchal often with strict taboos concerning the women. Among some more unusual customs found among Caucasus groups is the ritual of kissing or touching of the breast of unrelated women in order to be accepted into her clan as an honorary member. In some parts of the Caucasus, brides are still kidnapped. Traditional customs were minimized somewhat by Soviet education, collectivization and urbanization but have been experienced some revival since the collapse of Communism.

Divisions between men and women are often very strict and obligatory. Men and women often live in different parts of the house. Traditionally, men have done the heavy work such as plowing, threshing, transporting the harvest, maintaining the and terraces, driving livestock. Women did most everything else: the household chores, raising children, cooking and field work such as weeding, picking fruit and cutting hay. As a rule the further east one travels in the Caucasus the fewer freedoms women have.

Villages have traditionally been run by chefs and councils of elders. In Muslim areas, the villagers elders often act in conjunction with Muslim law as interpreted by Muslim judges called qadi. Disputes and some other concerns are settled through adat (customary law).

Caucasus Kinship Groups

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The Khinalugh community are divided into four major kinship groups or clans: the Malïkla, Gämk'i, K'ämk'i, and Gadakkhi, which earlier formed the basis of neighborhoods within the settlement. These neighborhoods were originally organized strictly on a kinship basis. Each clan had its particular pir (shrine), cemetery, and council of elders. The clan exercised the right to take in newcomers. At the beginning of the twentieth century the community apportioned the summer pastures by neighborhoods, which once corresponded to the clan groupings (mekhelle ). In the course of time the neighborhoods have grown and been divided into smaller groups (kebele ). The kinship groups Nishani, Mameydarar, and Kkharyagdin split off from the Gämk'i; the Jampashali from the K'ämk'i; and the Yalqavan and Mirigi from the Gadakkhi. [Source: Natalia G. Volkova Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond ( 1996, C.K. Hall & Company, Boston) <>]

Each of these groups consists of people related to a greater or lesser degree, tracing their descent from a single mythical or real ancestor. In the nineteenth century, before the kebele groupings came into being, their function as economic and ideological entities was performed by the extended family, the members of which were blood relatives. The extended family had the right to admit outsiders into its midst. <>

Kinship Terminology. The Khinalugh terms for near kin are similar to those of other Lezgin peoples (Lezgins, Budukhs, Kryzes): bïy (father), dädä or jä (mother), tstsa or tssa (brother), rïtsï (sister), she or shi (son), rishe or rishel (daughter)—from rishi (girl), aba (grandfather), äzhä (grandmother), khïdïal (grandson or granddaughter), ts'nas (bride—young wife of son or brother), legeld (husband), and mïsïsts' (husband's brother). Some kin terms have been borrowed from Azerbaijani: ämä (paternal uncle—also used by children to address any older man) and khola (maternal uncle). <>

Blood Feuds in the Caucasus

Blood feuds, blood money and vendettas have traditionally been a fixture of Caucasus society as is also the case in the Balkans. Lermontov, who traveled in the Caucasus in the 19th century, wrote: “Friendship is true—revenge is truer still; There, good for good is paid, and blood for blood.” In most places blood feuds and vendettas are a thing of the past.

Honor is highly valued and dishonor is something that much be avoided at costs. To maintain honor a man is expected to abide by the social code of deference and formality, providing hospitality and being a good economic provider. Women were expected to maintain harmony and be a good mother and remain a virgin before marriage and never commit adultery. To break of any of these taboos, even if a a woman is raped, brings dishonor to her family. Failure to grant hospitality, murder, disrespecting an elder and sex before marriage for a girl are all regarded as acts of dishonor that could trigger a feud.

Kidnapping and vendettas are a tradition among Chechens. Revenge death are often decided by clan elders and blood feuds that ensue can last for generations and is not complete until revenge has been taken. Describing the system of blood revenge Jos de Putter, a member of a Dutch film crew that entered Chechnya in 1998 told the Independent, "If I harm you, then your brother is entitled to kill my mother or anybody he picks in my family. That make it very difficult to operate against other Chechens. People's first duty is to their family."

Blood feuds can erupt over honor or ransom money or both. Successful revenge killing often only seem to trigger more revenge killings. Sometimes the feuds have escalated into clan conflicts that resemble small wars with attacks, ambushes, retreats and negotiations. They are often ended when some kind of blood money is paid and a formal apology is given or an act of contrition is carried out.

Among the Khinalugh, Natalia G. Volkova wrote: “In cases of murder the guilty party, at the command of the village elder, donned a white shroud and went to the home of the victim for reconciliation. At the victim's house he bowed, kissed the hands of the senior men, then, attended by the mullah, the killer went to the grave of the victim in the cemetery and knelt upon it. The mullah read a prayer. The village elder set the blood-price, which the killer's family paid to that of the victim. The recompense for the killing of a man was thirty to forty rams and ten beehives. Traditional law made no provision for recompense for the killing of a woman, and a blood feud was likely to result. [Source:Natalia G. Volkova, Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond ( 1996, C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

Circassian Blood Feuds

Traditionally, a Circassian always carried a dagger. The dagger served as an expression of manhood and was a line a defense in the case of a blood feud. Blood feuds were avoided at all cost because the costs and consequences could be so high. They often resulted from a breach of honor or by disobeying an order from a tribal council.

Circassian blood feuds often extended to an entire clan and included guests as well as “milk brothers”— bonds created when male members of one clan buts their lips on the breast of a woman in another clan. According to customary law, any death inflicted on a member of a clan, regardless of whether it was intentional or accidental, had toe be avenged with a corresponding death.

Blood feuds were traditionally suspended during times of war so armies could be assembled. Injuries were compensated with money. Women were generally kept out of the conflict. In fact they had great power to stop violence. Traditionally a woman could stop even the bloodiest clash by dropping her kerchief between the combatants. In addition a woman could present her kerchief to a favor suitor like a mediaeval maiden and he was obligated to act as the equivalent of her knight in shining armor.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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