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ETHNONYMS: Ach'areli (self-designation)


Identification. The Ajarians, a historical-ethnographic group within the Georgian nationality, are the major inhabitants of Ajaría (in Georgian, Ach'ara), one of the oldest provinces of Georgia. As is true of the other regions of GeorgiaKartli, K'akheti, Pshavi, Khevsureti, Rach'a, Imereti, Guria, Samtskhe, etc.which throughout history have found themselves in a variety of socioeconomic and political conditions, Ajaria has managed to preserve the Georgian language and other characteristic elements of Georgian national culture.

Location. Ajaria (until recently the Ajarían Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, or ASSR) is a province of 2,900 square kilometers, located along the Black Sea coast in the southwestern part of Georgia. To the north Ajaria borders the province of Guria (Ozurgeti and Chokhat'auri regions) ; to the east is Samtskhe (Adigeni region). Both of these areas are significant ethnographic regions of southwest Georgia. The southern border of Ajaria follows the international frontier between Turkey and Georgia. Within the borders of Turkey is a part of the historical territory of Georgia, which it lost at the time of the expansion of the Near Eastern powers. Until then the population inhabiting the basins of the Kïzïl-Irmak, Ch'orokh, Araxes, Kura (Mt'k'vari) and upper Euphrates rivers consisted primarily of ethnic groups of Georgian origin. Among them were the Laz, a West Georgian tribe that had split off from the Colchians and who preserved features in their material and social-domestic culture stemming from their deep internal relation with ancient Georgian civilization. The evidence for this includes the numerous architectural monuments found on Turkish territory, including pre-Christian and Christian shrines (sanctuaries, churches, monasteries); ruins of castles, fortresses, and bridges; and specimens of Georgian epigraphy. The topography of Ajaria is characterized by a predominantly mountainous terrain. In the lowland parts of Ajaria the climate is damp and subtropical, and in the higher elevations subalpine or alpine. A variety of soil types, fauna, and flora are found in Ajaria, generally varying according to elevation.

Demography. According to the most recent figures (1989), the population of Ajaria numbers 392,432 persons, out of a total of 5,484,000 for Georgia as a whole. Alongside 324,813 Georgians live representatives of at least eighteen nationalities: Russians (30,042); Armenians (15,849); Greeks (7,396); Ukrainians (5,943); Abkhazians (1,636); Azerbaijanis (1077); Jews (655); and others. Most of these minority groups live in the largest city, Batumi, but somefor example, Abkhazians and Greeksengage in the cultivation of subtropical crops in the area surrounding Batumi (Khelvachaur and Kobuleti regions).

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ajarians speak a Georgian dialect of the Southwestern Group. It resembles the Gurian dialect of Georgian, but it also shares many features with the Zan language (Mingrelian and Laz).

History and Cultural Relations

By the late Neolithic period, the basins of the Ch'orokh, Q'orolis-ts'q'ali, and Cholok rivers, in what is now Ajaria, were already inhabited by humans. In Kobuleti region (at Ispaani), excavations in peat strata uncovered a settlement dating to the third millennium b.c. The basin of the Ch'orokh, which has played a significant role in the history of Georgian culture, politics, and socioeconomic life, was an ancient center of mining and metallurgy (copper, bronze, and iron). During the second millennium b.c. a metallurgical industry developed, exploiting local sources of ore, and in the first quarter of the first millennium b.c. the ancient Colchian iron industry (centered in the basins of the Ch'orokh and Cholok-Ochkhamur rivers) played a significant role in the development of the socioeconomic life of the region. At the time of the flourishing of Colchian civilization, this region became the primary Colchian center for the production of iron. The tradition of mining and metallurgy continued through succeeding periods in the history of the region and has been partially maintained up to the present.

The tribes inhabiting the territory of Ajaria during the seventh to fifth centuries b.c. achieved a high level of cultural development. Clear evidence is provided by the excavation of a Colchian grave at Pich'varni (Ch'orokhi Basin, near Kobuleti). The archaeological materials found at the Pich'varni site provide a valuable source for studying the trade, economic, and cultural relations between the Colchian civilization and the antique world during the classical period. West Georgian (Zan) tribes inhabiting the territory of Ajaria, Guria, and Samegrelo (Mingrelia), along with other ethnic groups that lived along the eastern coast of the Black Sea in ancient times, united to form the Colchian Empire. As Byzantine Greek and Georgian manuscripts attest, this empire long maintained close trade and economic relations with the peoples of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. Old Georgian historical documents mention Ajaria only sporadically. The first written attestation is the Ashkharatsuyts (Geography), composed by an anonymous Armenian author of the seventh century, in which the historical-ethnographic regions of Georgia are enumerated: K'larjeti, Art'aani, Shavsheti, Javakheti, Samtskhe, and so on, including Ajaria. According to the eleventh-century Georgian chronicler Leonti Mroveli, during the fourth to third centuries b.c. Georgia was subdivided into military-administrative districts (in Georgian: saeristaoni, "duchies"), one of which was Ajaria. (Written tradition ascribes the division of the country into saeristaoni to King Parnavaz.)

In the year 65 b.c. the Roman Empire expanded its influence into the territory of the confederated West Georgian tribes but was rebuffed by Colchian and Iberian (East Georgian) tribes. In the fourth century a.d., because of the hegemony exercised by the Lazes (one of the Colchian tribes), the Laz Empire (also known as Egrisi) was established. Its southern part included the territory of Ajaria, with its major settlementsKobuleti, Tsikhisdziri, Batumi, and Gonio. During this period Christians propagated their faith in Ajaria. Georgian written sources attribute the initiative for this process to the apostle Andrew the First-Called. In the early feudal period Persia and Byzantium became rivals in the struggle for the possession of western Georgia. At about that same time the fortified city of Petra (Justinianopolis) was erected in Lazica by the order of Justinian. The city of Petra (contemporary Tsikhisdziri) had an advantageous strategic and geographical location on the Black Sea coast and played a crucial role in the political and cultural-economic life of western Georgia at that time. It was the seat of a bishopric of Byzantine orientation: in the tenth century the episcopal see located there formed part of the Laz eparchy, which was subordinate to the patriarchate of Constantinople.

In the seventh century the Arabs conquered eastern Georgia (Iberia). Many people, seeking to save themselves from the enemy, resettled in western Georgia, which had not fallen into the invaders' hands. The process of the Iberization of the Colchian tribes was already under way before the time of Christ, but in this region the formation of new ethnic groups (Ajarians, Gurians) was not completed until the early feudal period, during which the Arabic conquest served as a catalyst for the melding of western Colchian autochthons with immigrants from eastern Georgia. With the formation of the Ajarían and Gurian ethnographic groups, the Black Sea coastal lands belonging to the Colchians (Mingrelians and Lazes) were divided into four territories: Samegrelo, Guria, Ajaria, and Lazeti. The inhabitants of Samegrelo and Lazeti spoke, and still speak, a language related to Georgian called Zan, which has two dialects (Mingrelian and Laz), whereas the population of Guria and Ajaria spoke Georgian dialects.

Several feudal principalities gradually formed in southwestern Georgia: Guria, Ajaria, Sp'eri, Samtskhe, Javakheti, and others, which subsequently were integrated into a more powerful feudal domain called T'ao-K'larjeti. In the ninth to tenth centuries T'ao-K'larjeti became one of the major feudal centers of Georgia, and within T'ao-K'larjeti Ajaria played a not insignificant role, making a substantial contribution to the development of the centralized polity and culture of Georgia. In the tenth century Ajaria received the status of a saeristao and formed a part of united Georgia. In the Middle Ages power in Ajaria was in the hands of the Abuserisdze clan, who were eristavebi (equivalent to dukes) named by the king of united Georgia. A particularly noteworthy representative of this family was Tbel Abuserisdze, a well-known scholar and author of several original works on astronomy and philosophy.

After repulsing the invading Seljuk Turks in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, Georgia became one of the major powers of the Near East. At this time in Ajaria a distinctive Christian culture came to fruition, and various secular and religious edificesarched bridges, monasteries, and churches, mostly of the basilica typewere erected. The brief existence of the centralized Georgian state ended with the destructive Mongol invasions of the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, followed by the division of the country into small feudal principalities. In 1453 Byzantium fell before the attacks of the Ottoman Empire, and thus Georgia was deprived of its primary Christian ally. In the sixteenth century the Ottomans began systematic raids upon the southern borders of Georgia, and step by step conquered T'ao-K'larjeti, Lazeti, etc. In the seventeenth century the Ottomans seized the territory of Samtskhe-Javakheti (Meskheti) and undertook a lengthy struggle for Ajaria, culminating in its total incorporation into the Ottoman Empire.

With Russia's breaking of the Georgyevsk Treaty, signed by Russia and Georgiain 1783, Georgiain the form of two provinces, Tbilisi and Kutaisiwas forcibly incorporated into the Russian Empire. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, on 25 August 1878, Russia returned the territory of Ajaria to Georgia. Under the system of czarist colonial administration, Ajaria was renamed the Batumi District (okrug ). In 1918, after the Russian Revolution, Georgia proclaimed its independence and, as the Georgian Democratic Republic, was recognized by many foreign governments. The agreement concerning Georgian independence, signed by Soviet Russia and democratic Georgia in 1920, was violated shortly afterward: in 1921 Red Army divisions occupied Georgia and established the Georgian Socialist Republic. Following consultations with Kemalist Turkey, the Moscow government handed over a large part of the territory of southwestern Georgia to Turkey in 1921, and in Ajaria the government artificially created an autonomous republic (Ajarían ASSR) within the borders of the Georgian SSR. After the establishment of Soviet power, the historical territory of Georgia was significantly reduced as the Soviet government gave large parts of the republic's territory to Turkey and Russia. In all, Georgia lost about 20,000 square kilometers; the present-day Georgian Republic consists of 69,500 square kilometers, of which Ajaria occupies 2,900 square kilometers.


Ajarían homes and agricultural buildings are notable for their original design. The oldest types of dwellings are the patskha (a type of wicker hut) and the jargvali (a wooden structure). The most developed and widespread forms of traditional homes in use today consist of two or three stories. This building style is dictated by the needs of animal husbandry and agriculture. The first floor is generally utilized as a manger, the second story contains the kitchen and the common room where the family gathers, and the third floor is used for sleeping and receiving guests. Ajaria has two basic types of settlement, not counting intermediate and mixed forms: in one type, the houses are arranged in a row; in the other type, the houses run along the crest of a ridge. Agricultural, geographic, and social factors have contributed to the development of these types of settlements.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . In agriculture a leading role is played by subtropical farming. The various climatic conditions and soil types have encouraged the development of a variegated agricultural industry. In the Ajarían highlands, with their rich alpine pastures, the cultivation of cattle and some agriculture has developed, whereas in lowland Ajaria sheep breeding and agriculture predominate. These two branches of rural economy (animal husbandry and agriculture) have symbolic meaning in both highland and lowland Ajaria. The Ajarians have developed specialized agricultural implements (for example, the arvana and jilgha, two types of small plow especially designed for use in highland soil). The people have practiced viticulture in Georgia, including Ajaria, since ancient times. Ajaria has advantageous conditions for the cultivation of orchards and vineyards. Traditionally Ajarians cultivated at least seventy varieties of grapevine, as indicated by terminology, toponyms, archaeological materials, and other forms of material and intellectual culture. During Ottoman rule these branches of agriculture (in particular the production of wine) fell into neglect in conjunction with the Islamicization of the region.

Traditional Ajarían cuisine is notable for its variety. Meat and dairy products are widely used, along with grains and legumes, vegetables, wild plants, etc., which reflect the agriculture and culture of the region. Ajarían dishes include lobio (beans flavored with spices), pkhali (a salad of minced vegetables), satsivi (turkey or chicken with walnut sauce), bazhe (roasted chicken with walnut sauce), mch'adi (flat maize bread), and khach'ap'uri (bread with cheese inside). Ajarían khach'ap'uri is baked with the cheese filling partially exposed, onto which an egg is added partway through the baking process. Foods peculiar to Ajaria include the dairy product q'aymaghi (very thick sour cream mixed with grated cheese) and borano (cheese fried in butter). A characteristic feature of Ajarían cuisine, and of Georgian cuisine in general, is the frequent use of sharp-tasting flavorings, spices, and aromatic herbs.

Marriage and Family

Domestic Unit. Georgian national characteristics are especially well retained in those social institutions connected with family life, marital relations, kinship systems, and the forms of governance within the village community. Up to the 1930s the basis of social structure in the mountainous parts of Ajaria was the extended family, characterized by common ownership of property, collective forms of production and consumption, division of labor according to age and gender, patriarchal structure of governance, etc. Extended and nuclear families in Ajaria, as forms of social Organization, served to preserve the distinctness of the ethnic group. The socionormative culture associated with domestic relationships represented, at different stages of its evolution, a single system of political, legal, moral, and religious categories, by means of which Ajarians regulated norms of behavior in traditional society. The elements of culture associated with domestic life were the basis of the social and psychological environment within the traditional community. At especially difficult stages of historical evolution they enabled the people to resist alien social and political systems. Despite the three centuries of Turkish rule, the population of Ajaria preserved and developed the typically Georgian forms of life-style and culture, as well as the primary components of national values: the Georgian language, traditional way of life, ethnic self-awareness, and psychology, which still today represent the essential conditions for the normal functioning of the Georgian ethnosocial organism.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Islamicization of Christian Ajaria was a painful process. For a long time the campaign against the Georgian Orthodox church failed to achieve the desired result. As a result of coercive Islamicization an unprecedented demographic crisis occurred in Ajaria. A significant part of the Christian population perished in the struggle against their Muslim conquerors; another segment was compelled to emigrate to the neighboring Christian provinces of Georgia, whereas those that remained were cruelly oppressed by the local feudal lords or became victims of Turkish tyranny. All of these events led to the Islamicization of the province. The Ajarians, although they adopted the principal norms of Islam (circumcision, forms of matrimony, name day, the celebration of Qurban-Bayram, etc.), preserved at the same time many remnants of Christian religious practice in their communal and domestic rituals, even though they were unaware of the Christian origin of such practices. For example, the ritual tracing of the cross on flat maize-meal cakes, the use of traditional Georgian symbols (e.g., the cross with a grapevine wound around it) as ornamentation in the mosques, the careful tending of old Christian graves with stone crosses, and the ruins of churches and monasteries are all instances of the preservation and endurance of Christian symbolism. Of particular interest for the understanding of the dualistic nature of the Ajarían worldview is the interdiction of visits to churches, which, according to superstition, might bring on a psychic disintegration. All of these factors indicate that Islam displaced the Christian world-view from Ajarían self-awareness, but Ajarians somehow preserved it at a subconscious level. In Ajaria up to the end of the nineteenth century there were still families who secretly maintained the Christian faith and performed Christian rituals. After the Sovietization of Georgia, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist party carried out a bitter antireligious campaign, directed especially against Christianity throughout Georgia but also against Islam in Ajaria. All mosques save one were closed, and a number of clergymen were suppressed. As a result, religious indifferentism, if not full-blown atheism, became widespread in Ajaria. At the present time a rather widespread process of voluntary reconversion to Christianity is taking place in Ajaria. As a result, Islamic beliefs and the taking of Islamic names are best preserved among the oldest generations. In the middle-aged generation religious indifferentism is widely represented, along with names of a pan-Georgian or pan-Soviet type. A fairly high percentage of young people have been baptized, and traditional Georgian, especially Christian, names predominate.


Bakradze, D. Z. (1878). Arkheologicheskoe puteshestvie po Gurii i Adchare (Archaeological expedition in Guria and Ajaria). St. Petersburg.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, 207-208. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lisovskii, V. (1886). Chorokhskii krai (The Ch'orokh district). Tbilisi.

Mskhaladze, A. (1969). Ach'aris saojakho sats'eschveulebo p'oezia (Ajarían domestic ritual poetry). Batumi.

Robakidze, A. (1982). Ocherki etnografii Adzharii (Essays on Ajarían ethnography). Tbilisi.

Tandilava, Zurab (1980). Shuamtobis t'raditsiebi da polk'lori (The traditions and folklore of Shuamtoba [festival celebrated in Upper Ajaria]). Tbilisi: Metsniereba.

NUGZAR MGELADZE (Translated by Kevin Tuite)

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ALTERNATE NAMES: Adzharians; Ajarians

LOCATION: Adjaria (within republic of Georgia)


LANGUAGE: Gurian dialect of Georgian language; standard Georgian

RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)


The Adjarians (also called Adzharians or Ajarians ) are seldom mentioned outside their native land. Their history has contributed to ethnic conflict between them and neighboring ethnic groups in the Republic of Georgia (in the former Soviet Union). Adjarians are like Georgians in almost every respect, except that they are Muslim (followers of the religion of Islam).

Georgians have been Christian since at least the eighth century ad. The ancestors of the Adjarians were once Christian, too. However, in the seventeenth century the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Adjaria and many people converted to Islam. Adjaria remained under Turkish rule until 1878, when it was seized by the Russian Empire. By that time Adjarians had been Muslim for ten to fifteen generations. They viewed themselves as a separate ethnic group, with their own traditions that were derived from Islam.

To recognize its religious and cultural uniqueness, Adjaria was granted limited autonomy (authority to rule itself) within the Soviet republic of Georgia. The post-Soviet era (1991) has been marked by ethnic tensions between the Muslim Adjarians and the mostly Christian Georgians.


Adjaria is a tiny land of 1,150 square miles (2,634 square kilometers) with beautiful mountains. Its wooded valleys descend to the coast of the Black Sea, where the capital, Batumi, is located. More than one- third of Adjaria's 400,000 people live in the capital.


Adjarians speak the Gurian dialect of the Georgian language. Adjarians have no trouble in understanding or speaking standard Georgian.


Adjarians share much of their folklore with other Georgians. However, some of their local folk tales show Turkish, Armenian, and especially Laz influences. (The Lazes are members of another Muslim people speaking a Georgian dialect.)

Adjaria's much-admired current ruler, Aslan Abashidze, is the subject of many popular tales. People tell fabulous stories demonstrating his courage, wit, and diplomatic skills. He is famous for his legendary showdown with Georgian nationalist leaders in April 1990.


Adjarians have been Sunni Muslims (a sect of Islam) for the past four centuries. However, religious observance was lessened during the more than seventy years of Soviet rule (192191) and modernization. Today, only a small number of elderly men can recite sacred Arabic verses from the Koran. Few people attend mosques even on Fridays, and hardly any women veil their faces.


Muslim holidays are observed, but not strictly. As with Lent in the Christian West, many Adjarians do not observe the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with fasting. However, almost everyone feasts when it is over. Due to Russian influence during the Soviet period (192191) in Georgia, Adjarians celebrate New Year's Eve. Many even put up Christmas trees. However, nobody attaches any religious significance to this holiday.

Men's Day (February 23), a former Soviet holiday, is still celebrated. On this day, women give small gifts to men, but few people care that this day marks the first battle for the Soviet Red Army in 1918. In a similar way, International Women's Day is celebrated on March 8 with flowers and chocolates, but it is no longer associated with socialism.


Adjarians still mark some major life events with Muslim traditions. For instance, male circumcision is still common. Adjarians like to invite a special guest, called a kirva, for the circumcision ceremony. The kirva must be a Christian neighbor. Traditionally he holds the baby boy on his lap during the operation. The special relationship between the Christian kirva and the child is like that of a godparent and godchild in other cultures.

Lavish weddings are also customary.


Adjarians are polite and courteous under most circumstances, even when they are bargaining at a bazaar (market). Hospitality is considered a supreme virtue. Adjarians would starve if necessary in order to offer a feast to their friends and guests.

Many Islamic rules have been relaxed considerably in recent decades. This is especially true for rules governing relations between men and women, Many women in Adjaria dress and live more like Eastern European women than like women in Arab countries. Hardly any Adjarian women wear the traditional Muslim veils.


Traditionally, most Adjarians have lived in log cabins. Houses have also been made of stone and adobe, mostly near the seashore. In the towns and villages of today, some Adjarians live in two-story or three-story houses with modern conveniences including hot water and even air conditioning.

During Georgia's Soviet era (192191), many people moved into apartments in high-rises built by the government, similar to those elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. However, old village habits die hard. Many Adjarians keep chickens, turkeys, and sometimes even cattle in their city houses. In the capital, Batumi, cows roam the streets freely, even in the downtown area.


Large extended families (parents and children, plus other relatives) are no longer common in Adjaria. But the ties of kinship and neighborhood remain very strong. A modern family normally consists of two parents, one to three children, and any living grandparents. Divorce is fairly rare, although not unknown. Many households are run by women, who also do most of the housework. There are no servants. Almost all private homes have petsdogs, cats, and sometimes caged birds (canaries or exotic parakeets).


Traditionally, Adjarians dressed like Turks or other peoples of the Near East. This outfit was completely replaced by modern European-style clothing around the middle of the twentieth century. Today, Adjarian men prefer expensive suits or tennis shirts and Levi's jeans. (However, these "designer" items are often fakes manufactured in Turkey.) Women try to follow French and Italian fashions in dress and makeup.


Adjarian cuisine is mainly the same as that of the Georgians. To this, the Adjarians add fish from the Black Sea: mackerel, flounder, and anchovies.

In recent years, Adjarians began drinking wines and beer which are prohibited by Islamic law. Tea is the customary local drink.


During the Soviet era (192191) in Georgia, high-school education became a requirement for Adjarians. As in other parts of Georgia, the proportion of college-educated people in Adjaria was among the highest in the Soviet Union. Almost as many women have advanced degrees as do men.


Most Adjarian cultural traditions (dances and music, for example) overlap with those of the Christian Georgians from the neighboring province of Guria. Islamic traditions are nearly forgotten. This has happened both because of the rapid social changes of the Soviet years, and also because of hostility from the Georgian government. Today Adjarians differ from other Georgians mostly in their Muslim first names.


Adjaria was one of few places in the former Soviet Union whose climate allowed the growth of tangerines, kiwis, and other tropical fruits. Since 1990, hardly anything has been produced in Adjaria or grown for export. Most Adjarians now make a living from serving as police or customs officers, trading across the Turkish border, or doing odd jobs.


Traditional sports include wrestling, archery, fencing, javelin throwing, horseback riding, tskhenburti (a form of polo), and leloburti (a field game similar to rugby). As in the rest of Georgia, soccer is very popular. It is played in streets and yards as well as in stadiums.


In the past, Adjarians spent their leisure time at restaurants, movie theaters, and pop music concerts. However, their economic problems have reduced the choice of activities. ties. TV and video remain the cheaper forms of entertainment, provided there are no electrical outages.


Adjarian folk art is similar to that of the Georgians. Pottery and rug making are still village crafts. Rugs are either woven in traditional patterns or made from compressed felt in abstract patterns. The colors most often used are deep red, brown, blue, and yellow. Metalworking, especially in gold and silver, is an ancient skill that is still practiced. Enameling and jewelry making are also treasured crafts.


Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Adjaria's economy has practically collapsed. People are often without electricity or running water. Unemployment is extremely high, and drug abuse has grown rapidly. The crime rate, however, is relatively low because one out of ten men serves in the Adjarian police.


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.

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

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


Embassy of Georgia, London, Eng. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Georgia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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