The Abkhazians are a mysterious, non-Georgian people that their own autonomous republic in Georgia—Abkhazia, the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic. There are also some in Russia. The Abkhazians are a Northwest Caucasian ethnic group along with the Circassians. About half of Abkhazians are Orthodox Christians and about half are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. Abkhazia has always been relatively prosperous.
Abkhazian culture is typical of the Caucasus. Society is centered around the family and organized under strong patriarchal authority and adat (tribal law). Both nuclear and extended families are common. Married children often live in houses near their parents. Several dozen families that live along a village street often eat together and have tents, huge cauldrons and collections of plate sand glasses for large feasts. Abkhazian society has traditionally been divided into the princely clans and commoner clans. The customs of milk brotherhood and aristocratic children brought up in peasant families were practiced by the Abkhazians. Blood feuds were abolished by the Russians and Soviets.
The Abkhazians were a minority in Abkhazia, or Abkhazian Autonomous Republic, ethnic state. Abkhazians and Georgians have traditionally not liked each other and Abkhazians have long wanted to secede from Georgia and form their own independent state, complaining that Georgians have never supported their culture or their economy. After the break up of the Soviet Union , Abkhazia did become a de facto independent republic, with Russian help.
In the 1990s there were around 154,000 Abkhazians (Abkhaz), with about 130,000 Abkhazians in Abkhazia. There are also some Abkhazian settlements in Ajarian Autonomous Republic in southwestern Georgia and in Turkey and other parts of the Near East. A 1989 census in present-day Abkhazia counted 102,938 Abkhazians, 239,872 Kartvelians (mainly Mingrelians, with some Georgians and Svans), 76,541 Armenians, 74,913 Russians, 14,000 Greeks 11,000 Ukrainians and several thousand Jews, Ossetians and Tartars.
Abkhaz, the Abkhazian language, has the fewest vowel sounds in the world (2) and long strings of consonants. It is a Northwest Caucasian language along with the Circassian language. This group of language is distantly related to the North-Central Caucasian languages spoken by the Chechens and the Northwest Caucasian languages spoken by the peoples of Dagestan.
Abkhaz had no written language until the 1860s when a Russian soldier-linguist concocted one. A better one with 53 letters was used from 1909 to 1926. This was replaced by a Latin alphabet in 1928 and that in turn was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in 1938 and that in turn was replaced by the Georgian alphabet in the 1940s, and that in turn was replaced by the present Cyrillic alphabet in 1954. There is now some discussion of returning to the Latin alphabet.
In 1989, 97 percent of Abkhazians said Abkhaz was their first language. and 78.2 percent said they were fluent in Russian. Many also speak Mingelian and to a lesser extent Georgian. As of the early 1990s, Abkhaz was the language of instruction in schools through the fifth grade and after that Russian was used.
Abkhazians are believed to be indigenous to the Caucasus region. Their homeland is rich in Paleolithic period archeological sites, including thousand of dolems (burial structures made of stone slabs, sometimes weighing many tons) dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C..
Abkhazia formed part of the Colchis Kingdom, “the Land of the Golden Fleece.” Both Abkhazians and Mingrelian claim they are the direct descendants of Colchians. The Greeks colonized Abkhazia in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. and founded Sukhum (now Sukhumi). After that Abkhazia was part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires and was Christianized under the Byzantines. Abkhazia escaped the worst of the Arab invasions and from the 8th to 10th centuries was as a strong military power and powerful kingdom in the Caucasus region. In the 11th century the kingdoms of Abkhazia and Georgia were united but after that Georgian Empire became ascendant.
After the Ottoman Empire invaded the in 1451, Abkhazia split into a number of small kingdoms and many Abkhazians adopted Islam. After that Abkhazia was part of the unstable West Georgian state that was independent for a while.
Abkhazia Under the Russians and Soviets
In 1810, Abkhazia became a Russian protectorate; in 1864 it came under direct rule of Russia. In 1870 the serfs and slaves in Abkhazia were freed. Abkhazians suffered under Russian rule. There were a number of rebellions that were brutally put down. Many fled to Turkey were they were given poor land and suffered some more. The number Abkhazians declined from about 140,000 in the 1860s to 58,000 in 1886.
Abkhazians also suffered under the Soviets. There was fierce fighting in Abkhazia during the Russian Revolution. In 1918 the Abkhazian SSR was merged with the Georgian SSR and then became an autonomous region within the Georgian republic in 1931. Many died and were persecuted during the Georgianization of Abkhazia under Stalin; the teaching and publications the Abkhaz language was banned; other ethnic groups were encouraged, even forced, to migrate to Abkhazia but plans in the 1940s to deport the Abkhazia to Central Asia were never carried. In the 1950s the policy against them was reversed and they were given preferential treatment.
Under the tsars Abkhazians made up the majority of the population of Abkhazia but under the Soviets they became a minority in their own homeland. By the late Soviet era a number of different ethnic groups lived in th region: Georgians, Mingrelians, Armenians, Greeks and Russians.
Tensions Rise in Abkhazia in the late 1980s
In the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic of Georgia, the Abkhazian population feared that the Georgians would eliminate their political autonomy and destroy the Abkhaz as a cultural entity. On one hand, a long history of ill will between the Abkhaz and the Georgians was complicated by the minority status of the Abkhaz within the autonomous republic and by periodic Georgianization campaigns, first by the Soviet and later by the Georgian government. On the other hand, the Georgian majority in Abkhazia resented disproportionate distribution of political and administrative positions to the Abkhaz. Beginning in 1978, Moscow had sought to head off Abkhazian demands for independence by allocating as much as 67 percent of party and government positions to the Abkhaz, although, according to the 1989 census, 2.5 times as many Georgians as Abkhaz lived in Abkhazia. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
In 1978, Abkhazians request to be made part of Russia rather than Georgia. These efforts intensified under glasnost in the Gorbachev era. A large number of Mingrelians (Georgians) lived in the Gali region of Abkhazian Autonomous Republic, which many Mingrelians regard as part of Mingrelia. A dispute between Mingrelians and Abkhazians became violent in July 1989 over demands by Abkhazian to secede. More than 20 people were killed.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgians in Abkhazia began demanding more autonomy. At that time Georgians made up about half of the population of Abkhazia while Abkhazians made up only 17 percent. The remainder were Armenians, Russians, Greeks and other groups. Despite this Abkhazians claimed that Abkhazia had been their homeland for 2000 years, a claim many historians dispute.
Georgian President’s Gamsakhurdia declared “Georgia for Georgians” after he came to power in May 1991, raising alarm bells among the Abkhazian ethnic minorities and encouraged them to take up arms and form separatist movement to preserve their culture and maintain their autonomy. When Gamsakhurdia was ousted and Shevardnadze came to power he tried be more accommodating but failed to control his own military.
Abkhazia Breaks Away from Georgia in the 1990s
Tensions in Abkhazia led to open warfare. In July 1992, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet voted to return to the 1925 constitution under which Abkhazia was separate from Georgia. In August 1992, a force of the Georgian National Guard was sent to the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi with orders to protect Georgian rail and road supply lines, and to secure the border with Russia. When Abkhazian authorities reacted to this transgression of their selfproclaimed sovereignty, hundreds were killed in fighting between Abkhazian and Georgian forces, and large numbers of refugees fled across the border into Russia or into other parts of Georgia. The Abkhazian government was forced to flee Sukhumi. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
In August 1992 under Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani, the Georgian army invaded Abkhazia without President Shevardnadze’s approval. Georgian troops aided by paramilitary groups went on a rampage lotting, raping, killing and breaking cease-fires.
In September 1993, Abkhazian forces, aided by Russia, launched a major offensive, driving Georgian soldiers and civilians out and taking their turn rampaging, plundering and exacting revenge and successfully completing an ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia, mainly by driving the Georgians out of Abkhazia but also by brutally killing some. The Georgian troops and paramilitary groups didn’t put up much of fight. Some of this, it is said, is because of the large amounts of wine they consumed.
By September 1993, Abkhazians had achieved a military victory and gained control of much of their region. An estimated 10,000 people were killed. The break away was largely seen as a humiliating defeat for Georgia. Ethnic Georgians made about half of the population of Abkhazia when the fighting began. About 250,000 remained on Abkhazia after the war, most of them Abkhazians.
In May 1994 a cease-fire was signed in Moscow installing Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia. United Nations military observers monitored the area but they were unable to make the area safe enough for the Georgians to return.
Aftermath of Abkhazia’s Breaks Away from Georgia
For two centuries, the Abkhaz had viewed Russia as a protector of their interests against the Georgians; accordingly, the Georgian incursion of 1992 brought an Abkhazian plea for Russia to intervene and settle the issue. An unknown number of Russian military personnel and volunteers also fought on the side of the Abkhaz, and Shevardnadze accused Yeltsin of intentionally weakening Georgia's national security by supporting separatists. After the failure of three cease-fires, in September 1993 Abkhazian forces besieged and captured Sukhumi and drove the remaining Georgian forces out of Abkhazia. In the fall of 1993, mediation efforts by the United Nations (UN) and Russia were slowed by Georgia's struggle against Gamsakhurdia's forces in Mingrelia, south of Abkhazia. In early 1994, a de facto ceasefire remained in place, with the Inguri River in northwest Georgia serving as the dividing line. Separatist forces made occasional forays into Georgian territory, however. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
In September 1993, Gamsakhurdia took advantage of the struggle in Abkhazia to return to Georgia and rally enthusiastic but disorganized Mingrelians against the demoralized Georgian army. Although Gamsakhurdia initially represented his return as a rescue of Georgian forces, he actually included Abkhazian troops in his new advance. Gamsakhurdia's forces took several towns in western Georgia, adding urgency to an appeal by Shevardnadze for Russian military assistance. In mid-October the addition of Russian weapons, supply-line security, and technical assistance turned the tide against Gamsakhurdia and brought a quick end to hostilities on the Mingrelian front. His cause apparently lost, Gamsakhurdia committed suicide in January 1994. *
Periodic clashes occurred into the late 1990s and early 2000s. Georgian paramilitary groups and Chechens and Georgian guerillas infiltrated Abkhazia territory and once penetrated as far as the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi. They were held responsible for shooting down a United Nations helicopter and killing Abkhazian fighters and villagers.
Abkhazians are regarded among other people in the Caucasus as pagans. Traditional beliefs remain strong among both Christians and Muslims. Local spirits and gods that protect wild and domesticated animals are explained a manifestations of a single all-powerful god. Certain trees, groves and mountains are sacred. Stones with natural holes in them are placed at the entrance of houses to ward off the evil eye.
The Abkhazia bury their dead behind their homes rather in cemeteries in part so their descendants can look after them and perform rituals. Rites are performed by part-time village priests who usually come from families of priests. In one ritual, clothes of the deceased are hung around a room and beaten with a chestnut twig around midnight by an old woman who shouts, “That’s enough, enough, you are gone now.” At that point the priest announces, “Let’s be merry” and party starts that goes on until dawn.
Funerals are big events, often lasting for more than a week. The mourning period lasts a year. During that time candles must be lit and a meal must be served every Saturday. When the mourning period is a over a huge feast with wine and food for hundreds of people is held. Before the feast a cow is sacrificed and the funerary meal consists of boiled beef, hot cornmeal eaten by hand, white cheese melted on hot cornmeal, sauce made with crushed walnuts and herbs and sour plum sauce. Guest help defer the costs by bringing a chicken or the equivalent of a few dollars.
There are a number of rites associated with the dead. The corpse lies in state for at least a week at the home of the deceased. During much of the time it is attended by wailing women dressed in black. Close male relatives don’t shave their beards. The clothes of the dead are laid out for one year after the death. In the 17th century there were reports of the Abkhazians suspending male corpses in trees. Until the 19th century there were special secondary burials for people who were stuck by lightning.
Folk medicine is widely used. The practitioners are mostly old women. Many illnesses are attributed to the rainbow god and cures often involve going to a river and saying prayers and making offerings of food. Animal sacrifices are performed as part of some healing and rain-making ceremonies.
Abkhazian Marriage and Women Customs
Abkhazians tend to marry late, often when men are in their 30s or even 40s and women are in the 20s, and have few children. Sometimes bride kidnaping was practice if the bride’s parents did not agree with the bride’s choice of partners.
Weddings often last a week. During feasts held in the hot and humid summer women often faint preparing the food and an ambulance is kept on hand in case of an emergency. Men and women tend to eat separately. At this feast the bride is kept separate and not allowed to smile or speak. Afterwards the bride and groom spend a few days in a special hut. One the first day the groom removes the bride’s leather corset while the groom’s friends try to prevent the marriage from being consummated. New brides are not allowed to use the names of her in-laws and they go through a period of avoidance of both her father in law and mother in law.
Young people and women play subservient role in Abkhazian society. In the old days, they were expected to wait while the others ate first and were not allowed to speak until spoken to first. On top of this they were expect to jump and perform any task or chore asked of them. Stoicism and self-reliance are regarded as virtues. Children are told not cry when they are hurt and women are expected not complain when they are pregnant. Traditionally, they gave birth on their own. Divorce has traditionally been very rare.
Abkhazian Food, Drink and Housing
Abkhazian villages have traditionally been organized into neighborhoods of families with the same surname. Houses had verandahs and curved wooden railings and are organized around a common lawn. The kitchen has traditionally been the focal point of family life. Abkhazians have traditionally been regarded as superb horsemen. Men have traditionally worn Caucasus-style wool hats.
Corn or millet porridge, abusta (boiled, unflavored cornmeal-mush patty eaten with the fingers and dipped in a variety of spicy sauces), bread, white cheese, yogurt, tkemali (sour plum sauce), chicken, white cheese pies called acha and dishes cooked with a hot blend of spices called ajeka are the staple foods. Breakfast generally consists of cheese, bread and sometimes honey. The most common drinks are made with sour milk mixed with cold water. Households have traditionally had their own vineyards and made their own wines, which are quite dry and drunk fresh.
As is true with Georgians, making toasts and drinking wine are fixtures of any large gathering or social event. A common drink is Chacha, which is like Italian grappa or moonshine and is often made at home with its quality and potency often varying in accordance with which household made it. When it is consumed a little is poured on the ground as an offering to the spirits.
Visitors are often invited to stay for food and drink, which invariably includes chicken, mutton, beef, goat meat, cheese, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions, garlic, spicy sauces, fresh fruit, some kind of desert and wine.
Abkhazian Culture and Sports
Abkhazian epics are called Narts. Central figures in these stories heros that battle a brotherhood of 99 giants. Singing and dancing are parts of social gatherings. Music is sometimes used in healing rites to pacify the souls of the dead. Abkhazia is known for its Turkish-influenced line dances that traditionally required men and women to dance separately.
Abkhazians is famous for its wrestlers and strongmen. Ankupari is the national form of wrestling. The famous 19th-century Abkhazian strongman Hintba Hdi was so strong he could break a bull’s neck with his bare hands and was never defeated in a wrestling contest. Once after his horse broke its legs in the mountains he reportedly carried it back to his village on his back.
Abkhazians also play a team sport called aimtskachara which is similar to rugby except the players with the ball can not kick or throw it but can hit with a stick. In the old days it was a free-for-all game with teams ranging from 10 members to 1000 and the playing field being two or three kilometers long. The object of the game was to score points by driving the ball across a line. The ball, or ampyl, was made of a sheep skin stuffed with wool and other materials. Each play begins with the ball being tossed into the air and team members trying to hit the ball to their team mates with a stick. The player who gets the ball tries to run forward until he is tackled and play stops and the ball is tossed up again. In this way the team tries to drive the ball towards their goal line. A modern version of the game is played on a soccer field with 13 players on each team and rules prohibiting rough play.
Government in Abkhazia
Abkhazia is a de facto independent state. It has it own 35-member parliament, prime minister and president who serves five year terms, and foreign minister. The Inguri River forms the makeshift border between Georgia and Abkhazia. As of the early 2000s, this border was patrolled by Russian soldiers and United Nations observers. Villages once inhabited have been sacked and abandoned. The population of Abkhazia is a matter of contention. The Abkhazian government claims there are about 350,000 people living there, the vast majority Abkhazians. The Georgian government claims there are only 200,000 people living there and about half are Abkhazian and the other half are Armenians and Georgians.
Abkhazia claims independence but no foreign country recognizes it. Shevardnadze offered Abkhazia considerable autonomy—even symbols such as a flag and national anthem by that wasn’t enough, The Abkhazians routinely has defied Tbilisi and turned to Moscow and about 70 percent if the population carries Russian passports, which allowed them to pass freely between Russia and Abkhazia, escaping to Russia if things got too hot in Abkhazia. This has been a source of great tension between Russia and Georgia.
Vladuskave Ardzinba, a hardline Communists in the Soviet era, was the leader of Abkhazia after it de facto independence in 1993. He was committed to Abkhazian independence. One diplomat said, “In order to get it he will cheat, he will lie, he will do anything.” Another said, he “has broken every agreement he has ever signed” including several cease-fires. He was ill in 2004 and died in 2010.
The national presidential and parliamentary elections in Georgia in 2004 was disregarded in Abkhazia and largely boycotted in South Ossetia. Abkhazia held its own presidential elections. Election results in 2005. Sergei Bagapsh beat the incumbent Ardzina.
Abkhazian Military and Economics
Abkhazia maintains a battle-hardened army with 20,000 or so fighters. It is organized along the Swiss model in that soldiers keep their weapons at home and can mobilize quickly at predetermined locations in an emergency. Abkhazia has its own fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships. tanks and artillery. Mine fields are scattered around.
War duty is regarded as an obligation among men in their 30s and 40s. In the civil war too many young men died. They either left behind young widows and children or hadn’t started families yet. When it is time to mobilize the men gather their rifles from their wardrobes and are picked up by patrols and given rations of cheese and corn meal. The commanders, when the are not fighting, are farmers, accountants and restaurant owners.
Abkhazians have traditionally been farmers and craftsmen. Under the Soviets, Abkhazia became a major citrus fruit and tea growing area and 89 collectives and 54 state farms were established. Today, tobacco is the main crop but beekeeping, fish farming, fowl breeding and grape growing are also important. The wine from Abkhazia is said to be quite good. Many farmers still grow crops on the land allotted to them on the collectives and state farms. Abkhazian melons are famous but they are often produced in Azerbaijan.
There is no state currency (Russian rubles are the dominant currency not Georgian lara). The economy is propped up by foreign aid. Nobody starves because the agricultural land produces lots of food but much of the agriculture land lies fallow because the Georgians who tilled are gone
Abkhazia’s infrastructure is in a sorry state and the government says it budget ($413 million a year in the 1990s) is too small. The are few vehicles on the road and no postal services. The telephone system is even worse than it was in the Soviet era. Some people have never laid eyes on a computer. So many cows wander around freely their manure piles up in the streets.
Abkhazians are famous for living a long time. A census in 1970 found that 40 percent of the people over 60 in Abkhazia were also over 90. Many of the people who live to be over 100 are Abkhazians but some were also Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Russians and Georgian Jews.
Khfaf Lasuria, a resident of Kutol village in Abkhazia, worked at a tea plantation until she was 128, and continued to smoke a pack of cigarettes and drink wine and vodka daily after she turned 130. She still performing native folk dance with a local troop when she was 133. [Source: Alexander Leaf M.D., National Geographic, January 1973]
Lasuria’s age was determined in part by how well she remembered important historical events and how old she said was when she said important events in her life occurred such as the birth of her son and her two marriages. She told National Geographic in 1973 that her father lived to be 100 and here mother was 101 or 102 and she was 50 when she married for the second time; was 52 when her 82-year-old son was born; and started smoking in 1910 when her younger brother died at age 60.
Osman Bzheniya, a resident of the village of Lykhny in Abkhazia, continued to work part time on a collective farm at the age of 120. Temur Tarba, continued riding horseback and smoked heavily (but not inhaling) past 100. Kosta Kashigm, who claimed to be 106 but was probably around 90, spent four months in the summer living in the high mountain pastures, scrambling over rugged mountain trails, sleeping in a simple wooden lean-to, tending his animals with two younger companions. He cooked his meals outside and subsisted on abusta, cheese he made himself and soured goat’s milk.
Some of the centenarians did not fit the stereotype you would expect. One overweight 110-year-old Armenian told National Geographic, “If one is healthy, it is obligatory to drink one liter of wine daily, and holidays and at weddings 17 to 20 tumblers are common.” A chubby 107-year-old woman said, “I became fat when I stopped having children. For 60 years I have been as fat as a barrel and all my children are like me. My mother was fatter, stronger and warmer than I” and she had only died a few years before.
Reasons for Long-Living Abkhazians
Among the reasons that have been suggested for the longevity of the Abkhazians are their high levels of physical activity even for people over 100; low cholesterol (less half the rate of Americans); low calorie intake; being married and having sex late in life; living in a culture that gives high social status to the elderly; a sense of usefulness and having parents or other relatives that lived to be a very old age. [Source: New York Times, Alexander Leaf M.D., National Geographic, January 1973]
Many Abkhazians centenarians had at least one relative that lived to be a 100 or more; had many children; and continued having sex regularly after the age of 80. Many drank alcohol, although often less than younger people. At large feasts old people still drink wine although their portions tend to be smaller than younger people and they forgo the chappa. One study found that only 2.5 percent of the centenarians were childless while 44 percent had four to six children; 23 percent had two or three children; 19 percent had seven to nine children; and 5 percent had 10 to 15 children
Some Abkhazians continued to take long horseback rides and winter swims after they reached 100. Most of the centenarians lived in rural areas. The men worked as hunters, shepherds and farmers. One 117-year-old farmer, who still working outside half a day, told National Geographic the secret to his long life was “active physical work, and a moderate interest in alcohol and the ladies.” A 108-year-old former shepherd said he took long walks and “read no books and had no worries” and “never had a single enemy.”
A Soviet study of 1,000 people over 80 in Abkhazia , including more than 100 centenarians, in the 1970s found that old people consumed around 1,800 calories of food a day; 60 percent ate a mixed diet of milk, vegetables, meats and fruits with 70 percent of the calories from vegetables and grains and 30 percent from milk and meat. Milk was the main source of protein and sour milk and cheeses were widely eaten throughout the year. Georgian cheeses are relatively low in fat. The daily fat intake was only 40 to 60 grams. Bread was the major source of carbohydrates.
Research by Dr. David Kakiashvili, a Georgian cardiologist, found that many of the old people in rural areas had cardiovascular diseases but were able to tolerate heart attacks better than city dwellers because of daily physical activity. He told National Geographic, “The constant physical activity required of them improves cardiopulmonary function...The oxygen supply to the heart muscle is much superior to that in city dwellers.”
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