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ETHNONYMS: Abkhaz: Alas; Georgian: Ch'ani; Greek: Lazoi, Sannoi, or Tsannoi; Russian and Turkish: Laz


Identification and Location. Lazistan comprises the 48 to 80 kilometer-wide area lying between the Ch'orokh (Çoruh) River valley in northeastern Turkey and the Black Sea, extending westward from the former Soviet border as far as Trabzon (Trebizond), although today dense settlement of the Laz does not extend much farther than just west of the port of Rize. A small number of Laz live in the Ajarian village of Sarpi in the Georgian Republic, in the valley of the Chkhala, a left tributary of the Ch'orokh. The location of Lazistan is thus approximately between 42°30 and 41°40 N and 39°45 and 41°45 E. Geographically, Lazistan consists of a series of narrow, rugged valleys extending northward from the crest of the Pontic Alps (Turkish: Anadolu Daglari), which separate it from the Ch'orokh Valley, and stretches east-west along the southern shore of the Black Sea. The climate of Lazistan is generally warm and humid though less so in the upland southern regions of the Pontic Alps, which reach to an average elevation of 3,000 meters. Here on the mountain slopes, a cool, temperate, continental climate obtains, notorious for its dense fogs. Temperatures vary from 22°-30° C in August to 0°-5° C in January. The region is rainy, with an average annual precipitation of nearly 254 centimeters at Batum. The soil is thick and fertile, producing a luxuriant vegetation, mostly shrubs now, especially the Rhododendron pontica and the Rhododendron flavus (yellow azalea). The remains of the once vast forests (largely destroyed to produce charcoal for smelting of ore) comprise beech, birch, maple, box, chestnut, oak, holm oak, Pontic oak, poplars, and various varieties of firs. An enormous variety of birds (especially partridges and pheasants) and animal life (wild boar, antelope, and bear) exist in Lazistan, which also contains many cold springs of carbonic water.

Demography. In Turkish lore the Laz have had a reputation for brigandage and piracy. They are respected today for being industrious, trustworthy, venturous, and patriotic, and also for being good businessmen. The census of 1945 cited 46,987 Laz speakers but did not count Turkish-speaking Laz and is certainly an undercount. The Soviet census of 1926the last one in which the Laz are mentionedlisted 643 ethnic Laz in Ajaria and 730 Laz speakers. Catford (1970) estimated the total number of Laz at about 50,000, but there is no question that they are gradually becoming assimilated to the Turkish population at large.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Laz language is closely related to Mingrelian, the two together forming the Zan Branch of the Kartvelian Language Group, which includes both Georgian and Svan. Laz is not written, Turkish serving as the literary language in the Turkish Republic and Georgian in the Georgian Republic. There are two main dialects of Laz, Western Laz (with two subgroups: Vitse-Arhava [Vits'e-Arkaba] and Atina) and Eastern Laz (subgroups: Hopa [Khopa] and Chkhala).

History and Cultural Relations

The Laz are ethnically a branch of the Georgian people, representing either a Georgian thrust toward the west or a relic of the passage of the proto-Georgian (Kartvelian) people toward the east, the question resting on whether the Georgians originated in Caucasia or migrated there through Anatolia. The ancestors of the Laz (including the Chaldaeans, the Tzans, and many others) are cited by many classical authors from Scylax (sixth century b.c.) to Procopius and Agathias (both sixth century a.d.), but the Laz themselves are cited by Pliny as early as the first century a.d. What is now Lazistan was, at least nominally, included in the Roman province of Polemonian Pontus. By the early fifth century a.d., as the Roman hold on the eastern Black Sea coast weakened, the coastal tribes seem to have been united by the Laz, who seized control of Colchis (western Georgia), forming a kingdom that came to be known as Lazica, a client of the Byzantine Empire (378-457), then of the Persians (457-522). In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian went to great lengths to reduce the Laz to submission to the empire, cutting down forests, building roads, erecting fortifications, and, in the process, converting the population to Christianity. Most of Justinian's campaigns were waged against the Tzans, and it appears that this was the general Greek name for the western Lazic tribes (the earlier Sanni) lying outside of the direct control of the Lazic kingdom. Lazica remained a client state of the Byzantines from 522 until the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century. In the 790s the Abkhazians ousted the Laz from western Georgia; thereafter, the Laz lived under nominal Byzantine suzerainty in the Chaldian Theme (military province). With the collapse of direct Byzantine rule in eastern Anatolia after the Crusader capture of Constantinople in 1204, the theme of Chaldia, with its capital at Trebizond, became under the Comnenid dynasty a separate state known as the empire of Trebizond. Though Greek in higher culture, the rural areas of this new empire appear to have been predominantly Laz in ethnic composition, the Laz monopolizing its coastal shipping and even transporting Trebizondine troops in their small craft. The Trebizondine Empire even included a "Theme of Lazia," which Bryer (p. 335) describes as "amounting to a Laz tribal reservation."

Conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1461, the former territory of the empire, from just east of Unye to the mouth of the Ch'orokh, was reorganized into the eyalet (province) of Trabzon in 1519 and divided into five sanjaks (counties), of which one, Gonia, corresponded to Lazistan. In actual practice, however, not only were the pashas (governors) of Trabzon native Laz until the nineteenth century, but real authority in many of the cazas (districts) of each sanjak by the mid-seventeenth century lay in the hands of relatively independent derebeys ("valley-lords"), whose power was not really broken until the assertion of Ottoman authority during the reforms of the 1850s. Even under nominal Turkish rule, however, the Muslim faith penetrated among the Laz and, by the eighteenth century, they, together with the Hemshinli Armenians who dwell among them, had become fully converted. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1922, modernization has reached the Laz. With the introduction of tea growing in the 1960s, which has become increasingly important in recent years, the economy has become more diversified, villages have been electrified, schools have been opened, and traditional local customs and folkways have begun to fade. By 1975 literacy in Turkish had reached 75 percent, though over 60 percent of the Laz still spoke their native tongue.


Outside of the coastal towns, which are largely Greek in origin and never heavily inhabited by the Laz themselves, the Laz live in villages of separately constructed wooden chalets, often erected on high wooden stilts. The mountains are dotted with the ruins of castles, fortresses, forts, towers, walls, and chapels, and the many mountain torrents are crossed by innumerable hump-backed bridges of stone. There is no traditional Laz capital. The fortified port of Rize (Greek: Rhizaion) appears to have been the chief center in antiquity, whereas the coastal fortress of Petra or Justinianopolis (Georgian: Tsikhisdziri) had that role in the Byzantine period. Under Turkish rule, the great Ottoman-built coastal fortress of Gonia, completed in 1547, was the capital of Lazistan; then Batum served as the capital until the latter was acquired by the Russians in 1878. Thereafter, Rize became the capital of the sanjak and remains so to this day.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional Laz economy was based on agriculturecarried out with some difficulty in the steep mountain regionsand also on the breeding of sheep, goats, and cattle. Seminomadism is still practiced by some of the Laz, who each year take their flocks to the upland summer pastures. Orchards were tended and bees were kept, and the food supply was augmented by hunting. The only industries were smelting, celebrated since ancient times, and the cutting of timber used for shipbuilding. Until the introduction of tea growing in the 1960s, which has grown steadily in importance in recent years, the only bulk export was hazelnuts. The Laz were much given to seafaring, however, and readily engaged in trade, particularly the slave trade. They were notorious kidnappers, especially of young children, and until the nineteenth century engaged in regular slave hunts. Many Laz have emigrated to other parts of Turkey and, before World War I, to Russia as well, where, in the towns, they have a reputation as cooks and pastry chefs. After amassing some savings with which to buy land, they usually return to their native villages.

Clothing. The traditional Laz men's costume consists of a peculiar bandanalike kerchief covering the entire head above the eyes, knotted on the side and hanging down to the shoulder and the upper back; a snug-fitting jacket of coarse brown homespun with loose sleeves; and baggy dark brown woolen trousers tucked into slim, knee-high leather boots. The women's costume was similar to the wide-skirted princess gown found throughout Georgia but worn with a similar kerchief to that of the men and with a rich scarf tied around the hips. Laz men crafted excellent homemade rifles and even while at the plow were usually seen bristling with arms: rifle, pistol, powder horn, cartridge belts across the chest, a dagger at the hip, and a coil of rope for trussing captives.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Living outside of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Laz have eluded the detailed anthropological investigations characteristic of Russian scholarship and have not yet been systematically studied in the West. Generally speaking, until recent times the Laz shared the customs associated with the other Georgian peoples. An elaborate kinship system linked the various clans of the population together, the customs of blood brotherhood and milk brotherhood were common, blood feuds were endemic, and, even under Islam, monogamous marriage was the rule, with the husband retaining the right to kill both an adulterous wife and her lover. Girls were raised to become wives and mothers, and usually moved into their husband's village if not directly into his parents' home.

Sociopolitical Organization

With the collapse of the Laz Kingdom, the Laz appear to have reverted to their tribal condition, the various tribes being only nominally under Trebizondine and, later, Ottoman authority. In the early nineteenth century, the Laz were still living under the rule of some dozen derebeys, each with his own territory (two at Atina, and one each at Bulep, Ardashen, Vitse, Kapiste, Arhave, Kisse, Hopa, Makaria, Gonia, and Batum), not counting the derebey of the Hemshinli Armenians holding sway in the upper valleys of the Kalapotamos and Fortuna rivers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Laz, as we have seen, were converted to Christianity in the sixth century and gradually to Islam after the fifteenth. As Muslims, they belong to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam and are generally conservative in religious matters. Whereas the Laz possess a rich folklore, they have no written literature, although a few poets such as Rasid Hilmi and Pehlivanoglu have appeared among them in modern times.

The Laz are noted for their dances, related to those performed by the Ajarians and other coastal peoples. These may be solemn and precise, performed by lines of men, with carefully executed footwork, or extremely vigorous with the men dancing erect with hands linked, making short rapid movements with their feet, punctuated by dropping to a crouch. The women's dances are graceful but more swift in movement than those encountered in Georgia. The musical accompaniment is either by the kemancha, a fiddle held upright on the knee, or by the zurna (oboe) and doli (a drum held between the knees. In Greece such dances are still associated with the Pontic Greeks who emigrated from this region after 1922.


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