The Circassians are an ethnic group originally from the northwest Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, but are now more numerous in Turkey and the Middle East than in Russia. The Circassian are comprised of a number of tribes. Among the better known ones are the Cherkess, Kabardins, Ubykhs and Adyghes.
Circassians (also known as Abaza) are a very mixed lot, with a lot of European and Asian input. Many member of some tribes have blue eyes and blonde or red hair while others are dominated by people with dark hair and fair skin. Some groups have large number of members with aquiline faces; while others have almond shaped eyes and other still have round faces. Epicanthic fold, usually found among groups like the Chinese and Japanese, are also common. Circassian women are said to be especially beautiful. They were sought after by Ottoman sultans for their harems.
The Circassian language is a branch of the Northwest Caucasian language group. It is quite complex and has a number of unusual distinctions. For example, a verb can inflect for all persons in a single word and many words can be constructed from basic roots through extensive compounding, In the old days Circassian aristocrats had their own “hunting language.” There reportedly was also a special women’s language. The first written languages for Circassian were not developed until the 20th century. A Cyrillic alphabet was not derived for Circassian until 1930s.
Many Circassians live in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. There are also some in Israel, former Yugoslavia and Europe and the United States (there are small communities in New Jersey, New York and California). In Russia they are found in Adyghe republic (Adyghea), Karachay-Cherkess republic and Kabardino-Balkar Republic.
There are between 200,000 and 2 million Circassians in the world. Determining the number of Circassians is quite difficult because they are so widely scattered and intermixed with the local populations in the places where they live. According to one estimate there are between 150,000 and 1 million in Turkey, 20,000 to 100,000 in Jordan, 15,000 in Israel, and 18,000 in New Jersey.
Withing the Soviet Union there are around 50,000 Cherkess, 322,000 Kabardins and 110,000 Adyghes. There are about 50,000 Circassians and 30,000 Abazins in Karachay-Cherkessia, which is dominated by Ukrainians. Circassian make up 50 percent of the population of Kabardino-Balkar Republic and maybe 25 percent of Adyghe Republic. They make up maybe 50 percent of the population in the regions around the Adyghe Republic. In the places in Russia where Circassians are found they tend to live mostly in the countryside while Slavs dominate the cities.
There are about 130,000 Adygeis in Adygeya. There are about 300,000 Kabardins in Kabardino-Balkaria. The Karbadardians are a branch of the Circassians. They are famous for horse breeding. They are Muslim and heavily patriarchal.
The Circassian homeland was the site of te Bronze Age Kurgan culture, which emerged around 3000 B.C. (See Russian History). It is possible that the Circassian could have links to these people. The Kurgan culture is believed to have links to proto-Indo-Europeans. Some scholars have argued there are remote linguistic links between Northwest Caucasian languages like those spoken by Circassians and Proto-Indo-European languages.
In any case the Circassians are believed to have been in or near there northwest Caucasus homeland for millennia and had contacts with the waves of people that passed through: the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Goths, Huns, Khazars, Turks, Mongols, Cossacks and Russians. Conflict and warfare was a characteristic of the relations between the Circassians and these people.
The ancient Circassians are believed to have traded extensively with the ancient Greeks and later with Venetians and Genoese. In their long history, the Circassians never really formed a large state with set borders. Even so appear they appear to have been conquered only three times: by the Kok Turks, by the Mongols and by the Russians.
After the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in 1864 nearly half of the Circassians in the Caucasus, including nearly all the Kabardins and Ubykhs, emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. Many of them sought refuge in remotest corners of the empire and many died of hunger and disease. Those that survived endured repression and persecution. Even today only the ones in Israel are allowed to publish materials in their own language. Those in Turkey are still largely peasants. In Jordan they live mainly around Amman, Some are quite rich and powerful and own a great deal of land. In Syria, they lived in the Golan Height until Israel captured it and then moved to a slum in Damascus and then emigrated to the United States.
Circassians that remained in Russia endured hardships under the Soviets. They were forced to resettle on kolkhozy (collective farms) and severely persecuted under Stalin. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a rebirth of Circassian nationalism,. The Russians have invited some of diaspora back to Russia with promises of land. Circassians abroad are talking about reuniting and reestablishing a homeland. There are worried the Circassians may become extinct.
Circassians, Mamluks and the Ottoman Empire
Between A.D. 1379 and 1516 Circassian formed the Mamluk dynasty that ruled Egypt. Mamluks (or Mamelukes) were a self-perpetuating caste of non-Muslim slave soldiers used by Muslim states to fight wars against one another and non-Muslims. The Mamluks were used by the Arabs to fight the Crusaders, the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, and the Mongols.
Mamluks were mainly Turks from Central Asia. But some were also Circassians and other ethnic groups (Arabs were generally excluded because the were Muslims and Muslims were not allowed to be slaves). Their weapons were the composite bows and curved swords. Their horsemanship, mounted archery skills and swordsmanship made them the world's most formidable soldiers until gunpowder made their tactics obsolete.
Among the important Mamluk leader were Sultan Qalawun, who rose from slavery to found a dynasty that lasted for 100 years in the 13th and 14th centuries; and Sultan Mu'ayyard, a Circassian slave who came to rule Egypt in the 15th century. Blond-haired Circassian were regarded as very beautiful. The Ottoman sultans sought them for their harems.
Most Circassians are Sunni Muslims. There are also Christian Circassians, including Circassianized Armenians, and some Jewish ones. The bodyguards of Chaim Weizmann, the founder of Zionism, were Circassian Jews. Circassian Muslims converted only about three or four hundred years ago, Many traditional beliefs remain, which have many similarities with the beliefs of ancient Greeks and Scandinavians.
The traditional Circassian pantheon of gods included deities associated with specific functions: a god of the forests, a god of cattle, a fertility goddess. These gods held huge feasts and drank a sacred brew called sana and engaged in feuds and intrigues, In the boundless, self-generating universe there were a host monsters, include giant cyclops, lizard men, dragons and giant eagles. Great heros were slayers of these monsters. These heros had great appetites and were so strong they could thrust their weapons into the nine layers of the earth and extract them. The Circassian “Forests Mother”, some have said, is the source of the Amazon myth.
There were also beliefs in the power of special trees and sacred groves and a fear of the harm that could be caused the evil eye. Circassians feared warlocks witches and have traditionally been superstitious. A women for example risked being deemed a witch if she crossed the path a man carry an empty pail. They also believed that eclipses were caused by devils and the cemeteries were inhabited by ghosts.
Some Circassian ceremonies have traditionally been held in sacred groves. They used to dance around a tree to honor the gods of thunder and conduct sacrifices of cattle in front of a cross. Some Circassian shot arrows at lighting and looked for blood as a sign that they shot something. During funerals women wailed at displays the clothes, and if a man, the weapons, of the dead. Great efforts was made to retrieve the dead from the battlefield. Traditionally, the afterlife was regarded as a comfortable, well-stocked place to live. The more virtuous one was the more things they had. Many of these beliefs have disappeared and have been replaced by traditional Muslim beliefs.
Circassians traditionally have practiced agriculture and animal husbandry and a few cottage industries. They reportedly are very good with their hands. Some immigrant Circassians are skilled surgeons and precision machinists.
The traditional Circassian house was called a wuna. It was long and rectangular and had a front porch. It was made of wattle coated with mud and had a thatch roof. The hearth had a conical flue. There were several rooms including one for women. Around the house was garden, separate houses for sons and their families, a guest house for visitors, and various buildings for animals and food storage. The whole complex was surrounded by a stockade and was built near a forest so that household members could seek refuge in the event of a raid. Circassians in the former Soviet Union lived in the cities. Many of those who live in the countryside no longer live in wuna.
The primary social unit was the extended families. Because some Circassians lived for long lives, these families could be quite large and have members from four, even five generations. Strong bonds were often formed between young children and the elderly. Patrilineal descent and matrimonial connections were used to connect extended families into clans.
Circassians have traditionally had little respect for material goods. If one person asked another person for sometimes the other person was obligated to give it. The punishment for theft of material goods was minimal. The major crime was to be caught. By contrast, stealing livestock was a serious crime.
Circassian marriages were traditionally based on love. Flirting was often done around a stream or a well and romantic trysts were sometimes arranged by maternal uncles. Girls of marriageable age had special rooms where they could meet suitors but there were strict rules on what was permitted. If a young men was deemed to pushy the girl could summon her male kin to throw him out.
Boys were taught to be strong and have courage and endurance and skill with horses and weapons. Girls were taught to be graceful and thoughtful, with an emphasis placed on leaning how to be a good hostess and express hospitality.
Couples tended to marry late, when they were in their 30s, with marriage consisting of a payment of a bride price and a night time bridal abduction by the groom, assisted by his friends. A celebration with feasting and horses races was held when the bride was welcomed into the groom’s family’s household.
Among the unusual Circassian wedding customs was a clash between young men to be the first to lie on matrimonial bed before the newlyweds and the wearing of corsets by the bride and groom on their wedding night to demonstrate their self control. In some tribes divorce and remarriage were common. Some individuals remarried many times.
Society was organized both on the clan level and the village level. Clans were composed of extended families and they in turn were grouped into tribes. There were 12 tribes. The tribes were ranked with the Kabardins and the Ubykhs at the top based on their organization and religious influence and the Shaoseghs and Natukhays at the bottom because they were engaged in the lowly practice of trade.
Traditionally, Circassians were organized into four castes: princes, nobles, freemen and slaves. The princes organized the wealth. The nobles were the equivalent of knight and they were mobilized for raids, warfare and defense. Freemen practiced agriculture. Slaves were usually captives from raids or wars. The system was undermined with the migration of most of the freeman and slaves after 1864. Today the system survives in the prestige or lack of it associated with one’s background.
The most powerful political and social force is a the Circassian Council, composed of elders from all the major groups in Russia.. Its authority is higher than that of local or national law. Women have traditionally been accorded high status and respect. They have held many positions that men have held and traditionally have acted a healers and were admired for their skilled and knowledge,
A great emphasis is placed on generosity, hospitality and diction. Circassian were conditioned to be careful with what they said because some ill chosen words viewed as an insult could set off of a feud.
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.
The Circassians have their own flag. It has three crosses arrows, two arcs of stars (with a star for each of the 12 major Circassian tribes) on a green background.
Circassians have traditionally had a very rich oral folklore, with legends associated with their religions and stories of battles and heros and clashes with Huns, Khazars and Russians. Skilled storytellers were greatly admired. Both men and women could be storytellers. Circassians performances often features a solo singer backed by a chorus. Circassians are regarded as skilled woodcarvers and makers of folk costumes. The used to carve images of their gods from tree stumps.
The traditional male Circassian outfit is a cheksesha, a tight caftan-like coat with traditionally worn with bullet cartridges, a felt cloak, a dagger, a long shaggy overcoat and tall sheepskin hat. Women traditionally wore a flowing gown with long, oblate false sleeves.
Circassian Tribes: Adygh, Cherkess and Kabardins
The three main Circassian tribes are the Adygh, Cherkess and Kabardins. The general group from which these three peoples descend has occupied the northern border of the Caucasus Mountains at least since the Greeks began exploring beyond the Black Sea in the eighth century B.C. The Adyghs, most of whom accepted Islam early in the nineteenth century, speak a Caucasian language.
The Cherkess are the remnants of a once-dominant Circassian group of tribes that were dispersed, mostly to the Ottoman Empire, by the Russian conquest of the Caucasus region in the early nineteenth century. The original Cherkess now inhabit three republics, divided among five tribal groups: the Adyghs, Kabardins, Balkars, Karachay, and Cherkess (who inherited the original generic name).
The Kabardins live with Balkars in Kabardino-Balkariya and the Karachays live with the Cherkess in Karachayevo-Cherkessia even though the Cherkess and Kabardins speak similar languages and the Balkars and Karachays speak similar languages. In the fifteenth century, Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Turks brought Sunni Islam of the Hanafi school to the territory that is now Kabardino-Balkaria, but Muslim precepts have been observed rather superficially since that time. A small group of Christian Kabardins remains.
Although the tribal system of the Kabardins disappeared with the first contact with Russians, some aspects of the traditional clan system persist in society, and family customs are carefully preserved. Unlike other ethnic groups in the region, the Kabardins were strongly pro-Russian in tsarist times; they did not participate in the numerous uprisings of Caucasus peoples between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. This affinity survived into the Soviet period despite the dominant position of the aristocracy in Kabardin society. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The Adygh Autonomous Oblast was established in 1922 as part of Krasnoyarsk Territory; between 1922 and 1928, it was known as the Cherkess (Adygh) Autonomous Oblast. It was redesignated as the Republic of Adygea in 1992. A landlocked sliver of land, Adygea occupies 7,600 square kilometers just inland from the northeast coast of the Black Sea, reaching southward to the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The oblast was formed by the early Soviet government for the Adygh people. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
In 1995 the Adyghs constituted 22 percent of the population of Adygea, which was estimated at 450,400. The rest consisted of 68 percent Russians, 3 percent Ukrainians, and 2 percent Armenians. Adygea is the only Muslim republic of the Russian Federation where the Muslim share of the population has decreased in the last two decades. The official languages are Russian and Adygh. Rich soil is the basis for an agricultural economy specializing in grains, tobacco, sugar beets, vegetables, fruits, cattle, poultry, and beekeeping. Processing of meats, tobacco, dairy products, and canned goods is an important industry. The republic's only substantial mineral resource under exploitation is an extensive natural gas and oil deposit. The capital city, Maykop, is the main industrial center, with metallUgrical, machine-building, and timber-processing plants.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); 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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016