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Abkhazians

Abkhazians

ETHNONYMS: Apswa (self-designation); Abkhazy andfor those north of the Caucasian ridgeAbazintsy (Russian)


Orientation

Location. Since February 1931, the Abkhazia region has had the status of an autonomous republic within the Republic of Georgia. It is bounded on the northwest by the Russian Federation (specifically the Krasnodar region), on the northeast by the Karachay-Cherkess region, on the east by Svanetia, and on the southeast by Mingrelia. The linguistically related Abazians live in fifteen villages in the Karachay-Cherkess region, north of the Caucasus Mountains at the sources of the Kuban and Zelenchuk rivers. There are also some Abkhazian settlements in the Ajarían Autonomous Republic in southwestern Georgia, and many live in Turkey and other parts of the Near East (the result of nineteenth-century migrations). Physically the Abkhazian region is bounded by the Black Sea along the southwest, the Psu River in the north, the Inguri River in the south, and, along the northeast, the main chain of the Caucasus Mountains. The capital, Sukhumi (in Abkhazian, Aqw'a), lies on the Black Sea, roughly in the center of the region. Of Abkhazia's 22,360 square kilometers, three-quarters consists of mountains and foothills. In a strip along the coast, the climate is humid and subtropical; moving inland, temperatures decrease as elevation increases (moderate cold at about 2,000 meters, cold at 3,300). The highest peaks are always covered with snow. The average temperature in Abkhazia is 14.5° C, but in the coastal resort of Gagra the average during the summer is 27.5° C. Average rainfall varies between 130 centimeters (e.g., in Sukhumi) and 240 centimeters.

Demography. The majority of Abkhazians live in their own republic, but within it they constitute a minority. According to the 1989 census, there are 102,938 Abkhazians. Besides Abkhazians, the 1979 census had counted 239,872 Kartvelians (mainly Mingrelians, with some Georgians and Svans); 76,541 Armenians; 74,913 Russians; about 14,000 Greeks; 11,000 Ukrainians; and about a thousand or so each Jews, Ossetes, and Tartars. Demographic changes in the area have been drastic: the population of Abkhazians fell from about 140,000 in the 1860s down to 58,000 in 1886, but then it gradually rose to the present number. In 1886 Russians and Kartvelians numbered only 972 and 4,000, respectivelyless than 2 percent of the present population. By 1979 about a third of the Abkhazians were urban, constituting about 13 percent of the total urban population of the Abkhazian area. The most densely Abkhazian areas of Abkhazia today, however, remain rural, in upland regions away from the coast and north of the Kodor River. Most urban-dwelling Abkhazians maintain ties with relatives in villages, and people frequently go back and forth. (One typical pattern is to send children to spend summer vacations with their grandparents in the country. Another is for young Abkhazians to stay with their city relatives while they attend university or work for a while.) Abkhazians are famous for living to great ages: in 1970, 40 percent of those over 60 years of age were also over 90. Abkhazians today tend to marry late and, at the present time, to have only one or two children.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Abkhaz language, consisting of Abkhaz proper and Abaza, belongs to the Northwest Caucasian Family, whose other members are Circassian (e.g., Kabardian) and Ubykh (spoken only in Turkey since 1864, and now virtually extinct). There is probably a remote genetic relation between the Northwest Caucasian Family, the North-Central Caucasian (Nakh) languages (Chechen-Ingush and Bats), and the Northeast Caucasian languages of Daghestan, but any connection with South Caucasian, also called Kartvelian, is unlikely. There are two main Abkhaz dialects: northern (Bzep) and southern (Abzhewa), the latter being the basis of a literary language. The more northern, Abaza group has three dialects: Ashkharewa, Samurzaq'an and Tap'anta (the latter being the basis of a second literary language). Abkhaz, like the Northwest Caucasian languages in general, is characterized by a huge inventory of consonants and a correspondingly minimal vowel system. There are many categories of person in the verbal system. There are many relatively assimilated items from Arabic and Turkish, whereas the Russian borrowings, pertaining mainly to technology and government, are relatively unassimilated. The first attempt to provide an alphabet for the Abkhaz language was made by the Russian soldier-linguist Peter von Uslar in 1862-1863. After a number of refinements, another alphabet of fifty-five letters, devised by A. Ch'och'ua, was used from 1909 to 1926, when N. Marr's "analytical alphabet" of seventy-five letters replaced it. This script gave way in turn to the unified Abkhaz alphabet of 1928 (as part of the USSR's Latinization drive). In 1938, at a time when the USSR was changing its so-called Young Written Languages to Cyrillic-based scripts, linguists created a Georgian-based script for Abkhaz, and between 1944 and 1954 the Georgian language replaced Abkhaz entirely for use in the public domain, as part of a general attempt to Georgianize the Abkhazians. The Georgian-based script, in turn, was replaced in 1954 by the present Cyrillic-based alphabet. As of 1989, 97 percent of Abkhazians claimed Abkhaz as their native tongue and 78.2 percent claimed fluency in Russian; many southern Abkhazians also speak some variant of Kartvelian (Mingrelian or, less commonly, Georgian), whereas many speakers of the northern Abaza also speak Kabardian. In Abkhaz-language schools, Abkhaz is the language of tuition through the fifth grade, after which Russian is used. Finally, there is some talk now of a return to a Latin-based alphabet.


History and Cultural Relations

Abkhazians are probably aboriginal to the area. The landscape is rich in archaeological sites dating back to the Paleolithic period, notably the thousands of dolmens (burial structures built of stone slabs, often weighing many tons) dating from the end of the third millennium b.c. Abkhazia later formed part of the Colchis Kingdom, famous in ancient Greek literature as "the Land of the Golden Fleece." This kingdom, which reached its peak between about 900 and 800 b.c., was apparently a leader in developing bronze- and ironworking technology. The Greeks colonized Abkhazia in the 6th and 5th centuries b.c., founding Sukhum (now Sukhumi) and establishing themselves as traders. (Using Greek and Near Eastern sources, historians have traced Abkhazian political and social history back to this time; laterin the first and second centuries a.d.they are referred to in the works of Pliny the Elder and Arrian, respectively.) The country was subordinate first to the Roman and then to the Byzantine empires and converted to Christianity about 543-546 (in the reign of Justinian I); however, neither empire exercised consistent, strong control in Abkhazia, and there were several uprisings (e.g., in the 550s). Between the third and sixth centuries, Abkhazia developed a feudal system similar to that of Europe, although all free men and women bore arms and the gap between princes and commoners was modest. Abkhazians escaped the worst of the Arab invasions (seventh-eighth centuries), and with the waning of Byzantine influence in the Caucasus in the late eighth century, they emerged as a regional military power, notably from the eighth to the tenth centuries in the so-called Abkhazian Kingdom. In 1008, the Armenian-connected line of the House of Bagration united the Abkhazian and Georgian thrones, although war and intrigue continued among the region's princely families. The two kingdoms were legally coordinate, but the Georgian language came to replace Greek in the liturgy. In general, Abkhazia as a separate political and cultural entity was eclipsed during the following several hundred years by an ascendant Georgian Empire. With the Ottoman invasion in the fifteenth century (about 1451), this empire again splintered into small kingdoms and principalities in shifting alliances. Islam was now gradually adopted by some Abkhazians, who first formed part of an unstable West Georgian state (sixteenth century) and then became basically independent (seventeenth century). Many times during the eighteenth century the Abkhazians assisted the Georgian efforts to throw out the Turks even while the Russian presence was growing. The competing influence of Russians and Turks ended in 1810, when the dukes of Abkhazia yielded Sukhum, and Abkhazia itself became a Russian protectorate; in 1864 it became directly subject to Russian rule. By 1870 the Russian government had emancipated Abkhazian serfs and slaves; however, most of these peasants already believed they owned their land, and they resented having to pay indemnities. This resentment led to several rebellions and continuing social and economic instability until 1912, when all such debts were canceled. In the meantime, though, the majority of Abkhazians (like many other northwestern Caucasians) had accepted Turkey's offer of sanctuary in a fellow Islamic country and had emigrated, despite the fact that most of them were only nominally Muslim. In Turkey they were given poor land or none at all, they felt homesick and deceived, and they died in large numbers. During and after the Russian Revolution there was fierce fighting in Abkhazia, often involving close Abkhazian cooperation with Georgian Communists and class conflict within Abkhazia itself. Georgian Mensheviks destroyed a short-lived commune in 1918. Nevertheless, Bolsheviks reestablished their power and the Abkhazian SSR became allied with the Georgian SSR. Both entered the Transcaucasian Federation in 1922; by 1931, however, Abkhazia had become an autonomous republic within the larger Georgian entity. A policy of Georgianization, initiated under the Mensheviks, was later pursued by Joseph Stalin and the Bolshevik leaders in Georgia: L. Beria (1931-1938), Chark'viani (1938-1952), and A. Mgeladze (1952-1953). The government never carried out its plans to transport the Abkhazians to Central Asia in the late 1940s, despite pseudoscholarly articles that claimed that the Abkhazians had only resided in their homeland since the seventeenth century. Large-scale, sometimes forced migrations of other groups into Abkhazia reduced the native percentage of the population, and the closure of Abkhaz-language schools and a prohibition against publishing in Abkhaz temporarily weakened the status of the language.


Settlements

Traditionally, upland homesteads tended to be isolated and hidden in wooded gorges, with gardens and fruit trees adjacent. Villages developed as sons married and established houses near their fathers; thus villages, or groupings within villages, would consist of a cluster of houses around a common lawn with the inhabitants all sharing a single surname. Individual houses might contain nuclear or extended families, however, depending on space and personal inclinations. Such houses were traditionally one-story wattle-and-daub structures, but today brick and concrete blocks are popular and many houses have two stories. Houses usually have verandas and balconies with curved wooden railings, where people spend a lot of time in good weather. The kitchen on the ground floor traditionally was dominated by a large pot, hung by a chain over the hearth, in which the family cooked the staple food, millet porridge. Also, there would be a long wooden table, on which slices of porridge were laid directly. Abkhazians considered it rude to close the kitchen door because that implied that the family was not willing to offer hospitality to any passing guests. Today the kitchen is still the main locus of family life, along with a downstairs parlor (now equipped with a television set). At least one upstairs room is usually set aside for entertaining and for displaying gifts. Instead of replacing an older house with a newer one, a family may choose to keep houses of different sizes and eras side by side; the newest is reserved for guests, whereas the oldestthe grandparents' houseis still called "the big house." Even in large villages today, patrilineally related people live in neighboring houses, cooperate economically, and recognize family shrines (often trees or mountains). They have their own holy days, on which they are forbidden to do certain kinds of work, and their own burial grounds. In the past these lineages and their councils of elders formed the main political entities of Abkhazia, and they continue to meet regularly, make communal plans, and settle disputes. With the exception of Gudauta and the mining town of T'q'varchal, all larger towns are on the coast and are inhabited by people of many ethnic groups, with the Abkhazians in the minority. In 1980 Sukhumi, the capital, had a population of 117,000.


Economy

Classical authors describe an economy divided between animal husbandry and household craftwork. Maize, millet, and tobacco were the important crops until the Revolution, after which tea and citrus plantations were greatly expanded; today tobacco is the leading crop, but fowl breeding, fish farming, beekeeping, and viticulture and wine making are also all significant. Only about 6 percent of the land is available for agriculture60 percent of the country is wooded and about 13 percent is used for pasture. Cattle breeding is important, but animal husbandry does not suffice to supply local demands. (Meat is not an essential part of the daily diet in any case.) The staple foods are bread and maize meal or millet mush, often with cheese cooked into them; these foods are accompanied by yogurt, more cheese, and special spice blends, especially a very hot blend called ajek'a. Fruits and vegetables (but not potatoes) are cultivated locally and consumed in considerable quantities, as are nuts and honey.

Collectivization of the land in the 1920s proceeded relatively smoothly in Abkhazia, in part because existing family-based organizations of labor resembled it. By 1980 there were eighty-nine collective farms and fifty-four state farms. The law allows each household the use of 0.5 hectare, although in practice this allotment is often exceeded. Rural Abkhazians still raise many of their own fruits, vegetables, and chickens on these plots and make their own jams, pickles, condiments, and winethe last with particular pride. Pre-Revolution hunters' and herders' guilds survive within collectives as professional unions, traditionally excluding women. Women, however, are the main tobacco pickers and processors, though this work has become more mechanized. (The home was the traditional locus of women's activities, but today many work outside it in the general economy.) Major changes since the Revolution include the improvement of roads and railways and an increase in the mining of coal and barite in T'q'varchal. Other important industries are canning and lumber processing; the mighty Inguri hydroelectric power plant is on Abkhazia's southern border. Local crafts still practiced today include ceramics, leatherwork, wood carving, and repoussé metalwork, especially on daggers and drinking horns. Tourism is crucial economically, especially in the famous resort towns of Gagra, Pitsunda, and Sukhumi, where many sanatoriums are located. Local crafts, a good selection of agricultural products, and many other kinds of goods are traded in open-air peasant bazaars; uninspired state shops stock staples, with some items in erratic or short supply. Much trade is still in the hands of Greeks and Armenians, or now Russians and other non-Abkhazian residents.


Kinship

Abkhazian culture, as is typical of the Caucasus, is centered on the family and family relations. Specifically, there is a pattern of patrilocal residence, patrilineal descent (and descent groups), and a strong patriarchal authority, particularly public male dominance. Within the home, older women also command respect from their daughters and daughters-in-law, and mothers may be the family anchor, depending on personality. All carriers of the same patrilineally inherited name are regarded automatically as relatives and may be loosely styled "brother" and "sister." These people together are an azhavala, a group which is then divided into abipara ("descendants of one father") who usually all know each other, though they may be scattered over the country. Abkhazians consider all the people who eat from the same pot to be an extended family, though they may live in separate structures. It is considered unfortunate when such extended families have to break up, but this practice is becoming increasingly common.

A bride, on marriage, moves into her husband's father's home, or into a new house nearby. She becomes part of that network of relatives, but she also maintains strong ties to her own parents' siblings and relatives by descent, ties that her children later maintain. She is still part of her descent group of birth and remains under the protection of its members. These extended, nonlocalized ties have become, if anything, stronger today in light of the characteristically small size of the nuclear family (two children). A man is particularly close to older men in his mother's patrilineal groups, that is, to men who are classified as his "mother's brothers." (The kinship term that literally means "mother blood" may be applied to any man descended from the mother's brother.)

Apart from adoption, which is still widespread today, two forms of ritual kinship also existed prior to the Revolution and the abolishment of blood feuds in the area. First, a child often was brought up by another familytypically a noble child by a nonaristocratic familywith the aim of establishing kin ties between the two. Second, the ritual tie of milk brotherhood would be established between adults to cement a friendship: the mother of one would make a symbolic offer of her nipple and the man being inducted into the family would make a corresponding gesture of sucking it. Such kinship was felt to be even stronger or more inviolable than natural kinship. Ties of blood and marriage are labeled with terms that have clearly recognizable constituents: a "granddaughter," for example, is called "the-son-his-daughter" (a-pa-y-pha ) or "the-daughter-her-daughter" (a-pha-l-pha ), even primary terms such as the one for "sons" may be broken down into such constituents. An element indicating reciprocal status (ay- ) is obligatory for some kinship terms unless a definite possessor is indicated; thus ay-asha, "brother" (with the reciprocal marker), contrasts with s-asha, "my brother." The interconnectedness between termsachieved through the workings of reciprocity and through deriving one term from otherscreates a special lexical web of kinship among the Abkhazians.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Women usually get married in their early twenties, but men may wait until their thirties or even forties. Marriage is forbidden with all possible relatives; people do not marry those with the same surname as any of their grandparents, ritual kin, close affines, or, usually, covillagers. In the past, marriages were arranged, but now the bride and groom choose each other. A young man and his friends may occasionally still steal a bride when she has agreed and her parents have not. In any case, the groom brings his bride to his house, where his whole family mounts a large feast. The bride's family, however, does not attend, and the bride herself must stand secluded throughout the feast, not smiling or speaking. The feast itself is the wedding ceremony. Afterward, the bride and groom traditionally spent a few nights in a special hut. The husband would remove his wife's leather corset, but his friends would try to prevent the couple from consummating the marriage on the first night. Mixed marriages, particularly with Mingrelians in those areas where the two peoples live in a single community (that is, in southern Abkhazia) are quite usual; the common language in such cases tends to be Mingrelian or Russian. Divorce is rare. Widows and widowers may remarry.

Domestic Unit. Women and younger people occupy clearly subordinate positions within the household: they serve food while others eat first, keep quiet, and do as they are told. More generally, people like to spend time with others of the same gender and generation, and there is a strong, assumed distance between such groups, which is often simply respectful. Guests, regardless of age and gender, are treated with the sacred deference shown to older men and are seated with them at table. As across the Caucasus, the coming of guestsand in fact any holiday, special occasion, or even ordinary get-togetheris celebrated with a ritualistic supper party. Over wine, hosts and guests go through rounds of toasts, honoring each other and getting better acquainted. Providing hospitality in this waythe food, the wine, and the wordsis a matter of family pride, pleasure, and solidarity.

On first entering the family by marriage, brides are relative strangers and are treated with a different, but related, kind of formalitysometimes even hostility. A bride may not speak to her father-in-law until he decides that sufficient time has elapsed; a shorter period of silence is enjoined with the mother-in-law. A bride also avoids using the first names of her husband's siblings (especially older ones); she gives them nicknames, which then tend to persist for that bride. Husband and wife are also restrained in showing their affection for each other in public. A year is supposed to elapse before any children are born to a couple.

From all people a certain stoicism and self-reliance is sometimes demanded. Wounded people try not to cry; women hide that they are pregnant and, formerly, gave birth on their own; children obey their elders even when what is asked of them is difficult. Children are swaddled, and expected behavior is instilled by censure and praise (though corporal punishment is not excluded). Parents (especially fathers) are not supposed to show much concern or affection for their own children in public. Instead, the members of the extended family care for each other's children, building a wide, thick network of relations. The extended family, particularly the joint fraternal one, retains its conceptual and organizational importance even if in the towns brothers can no longer build their homes around a family plot. Because of the clustering of brothers' families, division of land was traditionally not a problem; even today the parents' house passes to the youngest son.


Sociopolitical Organization

Until the Revolution, Abkhazia had a strongly developed class system dominated by a hereditary nobility; the people still remember formerly aristocratic surnames and afford their bearers special esteem. Yet the aristocrats were closely linked to the peasants in many ways (such as child adoption) and in spirit the society had and still has an orientation that is decidedly egalitarian. Kinship or ritual kinship was the basis of most political relations, and village or regional allegiances were often more strongly felt than larger ones; this pattern retains some strength. Abkhazians function today at all levels of society, although their political empowerment is limited in specific ways; for one thing, they tend to be farmers rather than merchants; for another thing, the preservation of a certain number of administrative posts for Abkhazians (more than would be expected for 17 percent of the population) loses much of its significance when one recalls that most important decisions are made at higher levels anyway. Formally, there are five administrative districts plus the area controlled by the Gagra city council; these regions exercise their control through the village councils and the collectives. Informally, however, these typical Soviet organs are significantly influenced by the local groups of elders and by the unofficial Abkhazian Council of Elders. Up until the last century, however, these leaders had little interest in influencing local affairs. On a more local level, Abkhazians, like other Caucasians, used to engage in constant small-scale feuding and raiding, among themselves and with other ethnic groups. Boys were trained in the arts of fighting. Many young men were killed. This kind of conflict is both glorified and lamented in Abkhazian folklore and poetry. Partly because of their strategic position between east and west, north and south, the Abkhazians have been repeatedly conquered or at least invaded (e.g., by Byzantium, Turkey, Georgia, Russia) and have almost as repeatedly fought back or rebelled.

Conflict. A dispute with Georgia that has been festering certainly since Beria and possibly since the Mensheviks exploded in violence on 15-16 July 1989. In 1978 leading Abkhazians had requested the right to secede from Georgia and join the Russian Federation. Then, taking advantage of glasnost, Abkhazians made requests (1988, 1989) for a return to the status enjoyed by Abkhazia from 1921 to 1931. A series of provocations followed, instigated by informal leaders in connection with the opening of a branch of Tbilisi State University in Sukhumi. Few Mingrelian residents in Abkhazia supported their fellow Kartvelians in the actual 1989 fighting. Many Georgians seek the abolition of Abkhaz autonomy and inclusion of this ethnic group within an independent Georgia, whereas now (1991) the Abkhazians are demanding restoration of their republican status of 1921-1931 or an association with other northern Caucasian peoples within a revamped USSR. Their position is understandable because, despite its status as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), Abkhazia was allowed no real autonomy after the deaths of Stalin and Beria. The declaration of 23 July 1992 that reinstated Abkhazia's 1925 constitution, which granted the area republican status (albeit with special treaty ties to Georgia), led to the Georgian invasion of 14 August. Fighting continues, with no secure resolution in prospect, as of 1 October 1992.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Abkhazians subscribe to one of two world religions: about half are Orthodox Christians and about half are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi rite. Muslims are mostly distinguished by not eating pork. In fact, these religions are a surface layer for the old paganisms, which vary between regions and families. In the Abkhazian conception, God is one, but he is of infinitely numerous parts. Each manifestation of nature and each clan, family, or individual has its own part of God. The word for "God" in Abkhazian is Antswa, which has been etymologized as the plural of "mother." The main local spirits who receive respect from adherents of all religions are Afa, who rules the thunder and other aspects of the weather; Shasta, protector of blacksmiths and all artisans; Azhveipshaa, the spirit of the forest, wild animals, and hunting; and Aitar, the protector of domestic animals.

Certain trees, groves, and mountains are sacred to clans and villages and are centers of religious gatherings. They embody the strength of a patrilineal line, its connection to a certain place and to God above. Other observances center more on the home and the role of the mother; many holidays feature special loaves of bread or cheeses, which are cut and distributed. Folk medicine is widely practiced, most often by older women, given the inadequacies of Soviet health care. Traditionally Abkhazians believed that the rainbow god was responsible for illnesses. Cures typically involved taking the patient to the riverside and offering prayers and food. Animal sacrifices may be performed to ensure the recovery of a family member who is ill or as part of rain-making ceremonies. Stones with naturally worn holes are suspended outside the home to ward off the evil eye. In general, certain days of the week are regarded as propitious or ill-omened for certain activities. Irrespective of orthodox adherence, the most important holiday is the New Year. Many Abkhazians, especially the younger ones, are essentially atheistic.

Arts. Abkhazians share with other northern Caucasian peoples the cycle of epic-sagas about the legendary figures known as the Narts. The Narts were giants, ninety-nine brothers (in one version) who lived together with their revered mother, decrepit father, and beloved sister. The poems tell of their military exploits, of their conflicts with their mother's illegitimate son, Sasreqw'a, and of the wonderful arms made for them by Ainar, the blacksmith. Abkhazians also have a body of tales about Abrsk'il, a Prometheus-like figure with analogues across the Caucasus. Unlike the case in Circassia, in Abkhazia Abrsk'il is the people's special benefactor and protector, but he refuses to bow his head before God, and God finally has him imprisoned. In various stories, Abkhazians meet him in the mountains and he asks them how the country has been since his captivity; the answer is always a sad one. In general, Abkhazians have a rich tradition of folklore, kept alive by groups who sing, dance, and play traditional instruments, such as the two-stringed, bowed apkh'artsa. There is a tradition of using music for comfort and healing and to pacify spirits of the dead. The writings of Fazil Iskander, who is considered one of the leading modern-day writers in Russian, are replete with Abkhazian life and culture.


Death and Afterlife. Many elaborate rites are associated with the cult of the dead. The corpse lies in state for at least a week at home, constantly attended by a group of wailing females dressed in black. A line of male relatives waits to receive all who come to pay condolences, and neighbors help to sit with the corpse and to prepare food for the visitors. Further respects have to be paid on the day of the funeral, when guests gather throughout the day for the funeral in late afternoon. After this a feast is held. Further ceremonies at the grave and feasts are held at forty days and at twelve months after death. Depending on their closeness to the deceased relative, mourners (especially females) will wear black until the fortieth day, the first anniversary, or even longer; men will perhaps not shave for forty days. A set of the deceased's clothing is laid at home for a year, and graves are becoming even more ornate. It is very important that a person be buried in his or her family graveyard and that the relatives care for the grave. The soul is believed to remain with the body at death. In northern Abkhazia corpses are buried within two or three days of death and with less ceremony that in the south, where there has been much Mingrelian influence; a child under one year of age will be buried on the day of its death. There is classical evidence for the suspension of male corpses in trees, and this custom was noted among the Abkhazians as late as the seventeenth century.


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B. GEORGE HEWITT AND ELISA WATSON

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Abkhazians

Abkhazians

PRONUNCIATION: ahb-KAH-zee-ahns

LOCATION: Georgia (Abkhazia in the Caucasus region)

POPULATION: Under 100,000

LANGUAGE: Abkhazian

RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; pagan beliefs

1 INTRODUCTION

Until the early 1990s, the Abkhazians were best known for leading unusually long and active lives. After the Soviet Union was dissolved in September 1991, the Abkhazians were involved in an armed conflict with the Georgians, a neighboring ethnic group. Thousands of Abkhazians were killed. Tens of thousands of refugees fled their homes. As a result, the Abkhazians now fear that they may become extinct as a people. In the 1989 Soviet census, there were already fewer than 100,000 Abkhazians.

In language, culture, and ethnic classification, Abkhazians are related to the Abazins (or Abaza), Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians.

2 LOCATION

Abkhazia covers 3,300 square miles (8,500 square kilometers) between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains. About three-fourths of Abkhazia is mountainous. The region also has excellent seacoast resorts. The short distance between the coast and the mountains creates a landscape of striking contrasts.

The two largest cities are Sukhumi, the capital of the region, and Tkvarcheli, an industrial center.

3 LANGUAGE

Abkhazian belongs to the northwest Caucasian family of languages spoken by the Abazins, Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians. There are very few words borrowed from other languages. Much of the vocabulary consists of concrete images. These include "helping leg" for a cane, and "mother's blood" for one's uncle.

Common girls' first names are Amra, Asida, Gunda, Esma, and Naala. Common boys' first names are Adgur, Akhra, Daur, Alkhas, and Gudisa.

4 FOLKLORE

According to legend, when God was distributing land to all the peoples of the earth, the Abkhazians were entertaining guests. Because it would have been impolite to leave before their guests, the Abkhazians arrived late. All that God had left was some stones. Out of these he created a land of mountains that was hard to farm but very beautiful.

The oldest Abkhazian folk tales are about the Atzan midgets and the giant Narts. The Atzans were so small that they could walk on the stems of leaves. The Narts were one hundred giant sons of the same mother, Sataney-Guasha. They were warriors who fought, hunted, feasted, and engaged in military games. The Nart epic poems are shared by peoples throughout the North Caucasus region.

5 RELIGION

Both Christianity and the Sunni sect of Islam are practiced among the Abkhazians. However, traditional beliefs still remain very strong. Families may mark both Islamic and Christian holidays and also conduct rituals in the traditional religion.

According to the ancient Abkhazian religion, the supreme god is Antzva (the plural form of the word for "mother"). Afy rules the thunder and the weather. Azhvepshaa is the spirit of the forest, wild animals, and hunting.

6 MAJOR HOLIDAYS

The most important secular holidays are the modern New Year (December 31 and January 1) and the New Year according to the old Julian Calendar (January 13 and 14). This is a time for family gatherings. Another popular holiday is called the lykhnashta (Lykhny Meadow). Celebrated after the fall harvest, it brings people from all over Abkhazia to the village of Lykhny. There spectators watch breathtaking horse races and equestrian games. Since 1993, September 30 has been celebrated as Liberation Day. It marks the departure of Georgian armed forces from Abkhazia. On this day, there is a parade of Abkhazian military forces and there are song and dance festivals.

7 RITES OF PASSAGE

Rites of passage are not a traditional part of Abkhazian culture. Until the Soviet era began in the 1920s, Abkhazians did not celebrate their birthdays or keep track of their chronological age. However, there are terms in the language that name various stages of life.

8 RELATIONSHIPS

All relationships are guided by an ancient code of honor known as apsuara. Abkhazian etiquette focuses on showing and expecting respect. The most common greeting is "Good health to you." Other salutations are "Good day," "Glad to see you," and "Welcome." An older person must be the first to greet a younger one. Similarly, a person on horseback must be first to greet someone on foot (by raising himself on his stirrups).

When men meet, they greet each other by raising their right hands. Handshakes are customary among younger people. It is also necessary to ask about the other person's health, business, and relatives. Relatives greet each other with a gentle hug and a kiss on the left shoulder above the heart. Abkhazians maintain a space of at least a foot and a half between them when they are facing each other and speaking. Other than salutations, it is inappropriate for people to touch in most circumstances.

Abkhazians believe that guests bring wealth and good fortune, so they go to great lengths to please their company. A common saying is, "A guest brings seven pieces of good luck."

The ability to make eloquent speeches is a highly prized skill. It is the main requirement for elders and community leaders. Ordinary people are also expected to make long speeches and toasts at family gatherings and public events.

9 LIVING CONDITIONS

Most Abkhazians still live in rural areas. They occupy spacious stone or brick single-family houses. Usually, a house has several bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The homestead is usually shared by three and four generations. Traditionally, an Abkhazian kitchen was a separate structure. Now, however, kitchens are usually in the main house. The old-fashioned kitchen has been replaced by a large building where dozens of guests can be served at long tables.

More and more, Abkhazians have settled in cities and towns. There they live in cramped, high-rise apartments like those in all the former Soviet republics. Apartments range from one room to three-bedroom units. Often they house an extended family (parents and children plus other relatives). In these dwellings it is difficult to keep traditional Abkhazian etiquette. In city apartments, running water is available only a few hours a day. Most homesteads in the countryside provide their own water.

10 FAMILY LIFE

The average number of children per family is two or three; a family with more than five children is rare. An Abkhazian baby belongs to the family as a wholeto the aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, and sisters. Family life, especially in rural areas, is governed by taboos that dictate everyday behavior. For instance, couples do not show affection in public or even in front of their own children. A man must not smoke or shave in his father's presence. A daughter-in-law may not speak in her father-in-law's presence unless he gives her permission.

Wedding ceremonies can involve hundreds of guests. First there is a feast at the bride's father's house. The wedding then takes place in the groom's home. No one from the bride's family attends the wedding. The bride and the groom remain hidden from all the guests in a separate room throughout the big feast.

In public, women enjoy fairly equal opportunities with men. In the home, the situation is very different. Men and male children do not cook or clean. Women and children do not usually join guests at the table. They remain standing throughout a feast and do not talk with the guests.

11 CLOTHING

Abkhazians wear mostly Western-style clothing. Children and teenagers tend to wear fashionable clothing, much like their peers in any Western country. Women, however, maintain a few traditions pertaining to modesty. They never wear slacks or shorts, or blouses with low necklines, but they may wear swimming suits on the beach.

On special occasions, the male elders wear the traditional cherkesska. This is a belted black garment with long sleeves, worn over a plain long-sleeved shirt. The traditional headdress for men is a bashlick. It has a long strip of cloth hanging from either side of the head to well below the shoulders. In cold weather, the cloth can be wrapped around the face. In the summer the end pieces are tied together at the back of the head. Men also wear a long felt cape called a burka.

Both men and women wear black clothing after the death of a close relative. Women wear a black dress, scarf, stockings, and shoes for a year or even longer. Widows may remain in black the rest of their lives.

12 FOOD

Abkhazians eat homegrown and home-processed foods. Their everyday diet includes yogurt and cheese, plentiful raw fruits and vegetables, some meat, and little fish. Instead of bread, they eat a bland cornmeal mush. They dip it and other foods into spicy sauces made with Abkhazian salt (ajika). This is a tasty mixture of ground red peppers, up to a dozen herbs, and salt. Meals are eaten three times a day, with the biggest meal in the evening.

13 EDUCATION

Children begin school at the age of six and graduate at seventeen. All grades are taught in the same school building, which is called a secondary school. There are very few elective courses. Schooling in the cities continues to a higher level than in rural areas. Abkhazia has one university and several colleges.

14 CULTURAL HERITAGE

Song, music, and dance are important parts of Abkhazian culture. There are wedding songs, ritual songs, cult songs, lullabies, healing songs, and work songs. There are special songs for family gatherings and for the ill, and songs celebrating the exploits of heroes.

There are drama and dance companies, art museums, music schools, and theaters for the performing arts. Poetry and other forms of literature are also highly valued.

15 EMPLOYMENT

Throughout life, work is treated as a basic and natural part of everyday living. Children first learn how to work around the house and on the farm. An Abkhazian saying goes, "Without rest, a man cannot work; without work, the rest is not beneficial." People continue working as long as they can.

16 SPORTS

The favorite spectator sports are soccer and games involving horseback riding. Every school has a soccer team. Most boys in rural areas learn how to ride horses and play fast-moving ball games on horseback. Traditionally, women also learned to ride, but this is not true any more. Abkhazia has had two Olympic champions, one in javelin throwing and one in equestrian (horseback) sports.

17 RECREATION

Most entertainment takes place informally at small gatherings of family and friends. Abkhazians gather at each other's homes and spend whole evenings talking and eating. Young and old sit around a big table filled with tasty dishes, wine, vodka, and brandy. Dancing and singing are part of larger gatherings. The theater is also a common form of entertainment. People also like to chat over coffee and snacks at outdoor cafes. Men play board games in courtyards until late at night.

18 CRAFTS AND HOBBIES

Among the oldest crafts of the Abkhazians are basket weaving, pottery, woodworking and metalworking. Most of the pieces produced are intended for use in the home.

19 SOCIAL PROBLEMS

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the armed conflict of 199293 have led to an economic crisis. This has resulted in unemployment, theft, and drug use. Many of the houses and other buildings in the capital city of Sukhumi have been demolished in the fighting.

20 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benet, Sula. Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.

Brook, Stephen. Claws of the Crab:Georgia and Armenia in Crisis. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992.

Dolphin, Laurie. Georgia to Georgia: Making Friends in the U.S.S.R. New York: Tambourine Books, 1991.

Gachechiladze, R. G. The New Georgia: Space, Society, Politics. East European Studies, no. 3. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Garb, Paula. Where the Old Are Young: Long Life in the Soviet Caucasus. Palo Alto, Calif.: Ramparts Publishers, 1987.

Pitskhelauri, G. Z. The Longliving of Soviet Georgia. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1982.

Roberts, Elizabeth. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Former Soviet States. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Spilling, Michael. Georgia. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1998.

WEBSITES

Embassy of Georgia, London, Eng. [Online] Available http://www.darafeev.com/georgia.htm, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Georgia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ge/gen.html, 1998.

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Abkhazians

ABKHAZIANS

Abkhazians call themselves Apswa (plural Apswaa). Abkhazia (capital: Sukhum/Aqw'a) comprises 8,700 square kilometers (between lat. 43°35'42°27' N and long. 40°42°08' E) bordering the Black Sea, the Caucasus, Mingrelia, and Svanetia. The early Soviets' drive to eradicate illiteracy saw Abkhaz attain literary status; like Circassian and Ubykh (extinct since 1992), Abkhaz is a northwest Caucasian language. Christianity arrived two centuries before its official introduction under Justinian sixth century. Sunni Islam spread with Ottoman Turkish influence from around 1500. Traditional paganism has never entirely disappeared, making adherence to either major religion relatively superficial, although within Abkhazia most Abkhazians are nominally Christian.

Life revolves around the extended family, morality (including respect for elders) being essentially determined by the dictates of custom (akjabz ) and an ever-present sense of "Abkhazianness" (apswara ). Local nobility fostered their offspring among the peasantry to cement societal relations only captured foreigners served as slaves. English visitor James Bell noted in the 1830s that Abkhazians rendered this concept by their ethnonym for "Mingrelian" (ag ərwa ). Milk-brotherhood was another social bond, symbolic establishment of which between two warring families could end vendettas.

A semi-tropical climate with abundant water resources, forests, and mountain-pasturage dictated an economy based on animal husbandry, timber, and agriculture, with fruit, viticulture, and millet (yielding to maize in the nineteenth century) playing dominant roles; tea and tobacco gained importance in the twentieth century. Greece, Rome, Persia, Lazica, Byzantium, Genoa, Turkey, Russia, and Georgia have all influenced Abkhazian history. In the 780s Prince Leon II took advantage of Byzantium's weakness to incorporate within his Abkhazian Kingdom most of western Georgia, this whole territory being styled "Abkhazia" until 975 when Bagrat' III, inheriting Abkhazia maternally and Iberia (eastern Georgia) paternally, became first monarch of a united Georgia. This medieval kingdom disintegrated during the Mongol depredations (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries), and part of Abkhazia's population (the Abazinians, who speak the divergent Abaza dialect and today number around 35,000) settled in the north Caucasus. The Chachbas

controlled Abkhazia, the Dadianis controlled Mingrelia, vying for dominance in the border regions; the current frontier along the River Ingur dates from the 1680s.

Abkhazia became a Russian protectorate in 1810 but governed its own affairs until 1864 when, in the wake of imperial Russia's crushing of North Caucasian resistance (1864) and again after the 18771878 Russo-Turkish War, most Abkhazians (along with most Circassians and all the Ubykhs) migrated to Ottoman lands. Soviet power was established in 1921; this Abkhazian SSR was recognized by Georgia, the two then contracting a treaty-alliance that lasted until Abkhazia's 1931 demotion to an "autonomous republic" within Georgia. The Stalin years were characterized by forced (largely Mingrelian) immigration and suppression of the language and culture in an attempted Georgianization.

Post-Soviet Georgian nationalism led to war in August 1992. Abkhazian victory in September 1993 resulted in the mass flight of most of the local Mingrelian population, numerically the largest group in prewar Abkhazia. The conflict remained unresolved as of the early twenty-first century. Abkhazia declared independence in October 1999 but remains unrecognized. There are roughly 100,000 Abkhazians in Abkhazia (or ex-Soviet territories) and up to 500,000 across the Near East, predominantly in Turkey, where the language is neither taught nor written.

See also: caucasus; cherkess; georgia and georgians; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist

bibliography

Benet, Sula. (1974). Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Hewitt, George. (1993). "Abkhazia: A Problem of Identity and Ownership." In Central Asian Survey 12(3): 267323.

Hewitt, George, ed. (1999). The Abkhazians: A Handbook. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.

Hewitt, George, and Khiba, Zaira. (1997). An Abkhaz Newspaper Reader. Kensington, MD: Dunwoody Press.

B. George Hewitt

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