Peoples of the Caucasus

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Peoples of the Caucasus

LOCATION: Caucasus Mountain region that includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia
POPULATION: See Location and homeland
LANGUAGE: Five language families, see Language
RELIGION: Christianity; Islam; Judaism; Sufism; traditional beliefs


Between the Black and Caspian Seas rise the Caucasus Mountains, stretching in a line 1,000 km (600 mi) long from the northeast corner of the Black Sea, near the Sea of Azov, south-eastward to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, near northwestern Iran. The region has traditionally been considered the southeast corner of Europe. As such, it contains the highest mountains in that continent: Mount Elbruz, whose twin peaks rise to heights of 5,621 m (18,441 ft) and 5,642 m (18,510 ft), and Mount Kazbek at 5,047 m (16,512 ft), all of which are higher than Mount Blanc in the Alps, 4,810 m (15,781 ft). In the north, the region extends into the plains of southern Russia and is bordered by the Kuban and Terek rivers. In the south, it runs into the highlands of eastern Turkey and northern Iran, where it may be thought of as ending at the borders of these two nations, which in part follow the Aras River. The region is a meeting place for European, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern civilizations and exhibits a mixture of features from these cultures as well as some that are strictly its own.

There are roughly 50 languages indigenous to this region, and the ethnic complexity of the Caucasus is unequalled in Eurasia, with nearly sixty distinct peoples, including Russians and Ukrainians. The Trans or South Caucasus is home to three new nations that formed at the breakup of the Soviet Union: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Georgia has a history dating back to the 2nd century ad. It was annexed by Russia in 1801. Armenia is the sole surviving fragment of the Armenian nation, which at one time occupied most of eastern Anatolia (Turkey). It was annexed by Russia in 1828. Azerbaijan was once a part of Iran called "Aran." It has emerged as a mixture of Turkic peoples who have mixed with and assimilated the earlier Caucasian Albanians or Alwanians. Azerbaijan was also annexed to Russia in 1828. The North (or Cis) Caucasus has seven republics, all part of the Soviet legacy and located within what is now the Russian Federation. From west to east, they are: Adygheya, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya (Ichkeria), and Daghestan. In addition, the southern portion of Krasnodar kray (district) extends south of the Kuban. The central region of the North Caucasus traditionally looked to Moscow for protection against raids from the Krim Khans (Crimean Tatars) and formed political links early (1774 in the case of Ossetia). The northwest region traditionally turned to the Ottoman Empire for trade and hence saw Russia as an enemy. It was only annexed in 1864 after prolonged and bitter warfare. The northeastern region traditionally looked south to the Middle East and hence also saw Russia as an adversary. This area was annexed by Russia in 1859 after prolonged resistance led by the famed Imam Shamyl. To some extent, this threefold west- to-east division crosses over into the south as well and in many ways rivals the customary north-south division in its social and political importance.

The region is potentially wealthy. Gold, iron, zinc, molybdenum, copper, lead, aluminum, tungsten, oil and coal deposits exist. Semi-precious stones, fine mineral springs, hot baths, and ski resorts also can be found. Agriculture is well developed. Tea, tobacco, cotton, walnuts, melons, apples, peaches, pears, and citrus fruit are grown; cattle, oxen, sheep, and fine horses are raised. Most important, however, are vast reserves of oil and natural gas; particularly, it was known to exist in Chechnya's case but during the last few years oil was found in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia as well. The crude oil from the latter is the finest known, emerging from the earth nearly clear.

Political stability could bring prosperity, but the Caucasus is the most unstable region of the former Soviet Union. Since 1989, the region has witnessed six wars: Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia-Azerbaijan) (1989–1995), South Ossetian–Georgian (1991–1992), Abkhazian-Georgian (1992–1993), North Ossetian–Ingush (1992), and two Chechen-Russian (1994–1996, 1999-present). Not only have these wars been ruinous in terms of loss of lives and property, but also they have occurred in a region whose economic collapse was abrupt. Furthermore, nearly every area has some serious conflict over borders or land rights that stem from Communist patterns of abuse and manipulation. The two wars in Chechnya have been exceptionally destructive, with the second war still simmering as sporadic guerrilla action. Tensions have spread from Chechnya out across most of the North Caucasus. Uprisings and terrorist attacks erupt with tragic consequences, as with the school attack in Beslan, North Ossetia–Alania on 1–3 September 2004; the uprising in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, on 13 October 2005; or with ongoing turmoil in and around Nazran, Ingushetia, and tension in Karachay-Cherkessia. Further turmoil can be expected in what the West has only just begun to realize is a geopolitically crucial region.


The Caucasus region is roughly the size of Spain (approximately 388,498 sq km/150,000 sq mi). The South Caucasus is arid in portions that constitute the eastern extremity of the Anatolian highlands, primarily Armenia. Azerbaijan is arid toward its Iranian border, but becomes lusher as it rises into the foothills of the Caucasus. Georgia, by contrast with these two, is lush and well watered. Even in its highlands, it enjoys substantial rainfall from the winds off the Black Sea. This verdant landscape is semi-tropical along the Abkhazian coast of the Black Sea and becomes colder but still verdant across the mountains in the north. Only in the east, in Dagestan, does this pattern alter and the land become dry, all the rain having been taken by the high summits. The lowlands along the Caspian Sea coast are arable, but the Dagestani highlands can vary from alpine pastures to alpine deserts.

The ethnic makeup of two of the three southern states is relatively simple. Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are almost wholly Armenian (nearly 3 million), with a few enclaves of Kurdish speaking Yezidis (1.3%). Azerbaijan (8.1 million) consists almost wholly of Azeri Turks, close kin of the Turks of Turkey and the Turkmens of Central Asia. A few Dagestani peoples spill over into it, but these will be treated with the North Caucasians. At the extreme eastern end of the mountain chain (the Apsheron peninsula) are the Iranian-speaking Tats (10,900). Adjoining Iran at the extreme southeast is an Iranian-speaking people called the Talysh (400,000), most of whom (1 million) live across the border.

Georgia (4.6 million) is by far the most ethnically complex of the southern states. Recently 18 ethnic groups could be found there, but three have either been driven out or emigrated. In the southwest, there are Ajars, Mingrelians, and Laz, the last extending well across northern Turkey to the city of Trabzond. The Ajars are Muslim and inhabit the eastern tip of a large Georgian-speaking region in eastern Turkey. These Muslim Georgians and the Ajars form a cultural continuum, but the Laz and Mingrelians stand apart from the rest of Georgia both in language and customs. In this southwestern region dwelt a Turkish-speaking group called Meskhetians, who were deported to Central Asia in 1944. In 1989, following riots against them in Uzbekistan, most of them relocated to Azerbaijan. In addition, there are in the south large groups of Armenians, Greeks, and Azeris. In the center of Georgia are the Georgians proper (formed from four earlier groups: the Gurians, Imeretians, Kartlians, and Kakhetians). In the highlands are found Georgian-speaking peoples so distinctive as to form separate ethnic groups. These are the Khevsurs (who wore chain mail and fought with broad swords and bucklers until World War I), the Pshavis, and the Tushetis. A Georgian-speaking Shiite Muslim people, the Ingiloi, who wear Maltese crosses on their clothing, reside across the border in western Azerbaijan. Also located in the Georgian highlands is one village of people who speak a language related to Chechen and Ingush, the Batsby or Kists. A few Dagestanis (Avars) were driven from their highland villages in 1991. By contrast, only recently have the Udis found refuge from religious turmoil in Azerbaijan among their kin in the village of Oktomberi in eastern Georgia. The Udis, a Dagestani people, were the central ethnic group around which the old Christian kingdom of the Caucasian Albanians, or Alwanians, was formed. The central highlands are home to the South Ossetians, who fought a war of secession (1992-3) in an effort to unite with their kin in North Ossetia–Alania. To their west live the Svans, a people only distantly related to the Georgians but who are nevertheless content to be part of this nation. Along the northwest coast, however, live the Abkhaz, who fought a war (1992-3) to establish their own state. Finally, Georgia was once home to a distinctive community of Jews who now dwell in Israel.

The northwest Caucasus was home to five ethnic groups, the first three of which are related: Circassians, Abazas (northern Abkhaz), Ubykhs, Mountain Turks, and the distinctive Caucasianized Kuban Cossacks. In 1864, after more than 150 years of warfare, the Russians, aided by the Cossacks, expelled nearly all of these people into the Ottoman Empire. At most 10% remained, with the exception of the Ubykhs, who were all expelled. Today the remaining Circassians are scattered in and around three republics: Adygheya (116,000), Karachai-Cherkessia (49,600), and Kabardino-Balkaria (500,000). The 32,000 Abazas are located in Karachai-Cherkessia. Population figures are suspect, but a total of about 658,000 is possible if the numerous Circassian villages to the west of Adygheya are counted. This should be contrasted with roughly 3 million Circassians, 0.5 million Abazas, and 50,000 Ubykhs in Turkey. The tendency to distinguish the ethnic groups Adyghey, Cherkess, and Kabardian has some basis in dialect diversity and some political motivation (the Kabardians, being in the center of the North Caucasus, tended to have good relations with Moscow). Nevertheless, they themselves do not recognize these divisions, referring to themselves simply as Adyghey. A small population of Circassian-speaking Jews is also considered to be Adyghey. Similarly the Mountain Turks are now called Karachay (169,000) and Balkar or Malkar (105,000), but here, too, the latter are distinctive merely in their proclivity to see in Moscow an ally because they fall in the center of the North Caucasus as opposed to the Karachay.

Although one can speak of the Kabardian Circassians and the Balkar Mountain Turks as being Central North Caucasians, the North Ossetians (445,000) are the only people largely treated as such by the Russians. There is a distinctive western group, the Digoron, and an eastern, the Iron. The southern Ossetians are called tuallaeg, which simply means "mountain men."

To their east are the Ingush, but this too is case of political proclivities splitting an ethnic group in two. Together with the Chechens (1.1 million) further east, the Ingush (361,000) form the Vai Nakh peoples (which include the 5,000 Kists or Batsby of Georgia) and are relatives of the Dagestanis of the Northeast Caucasus. Prior to the Chechen-Russian War, there was a small population of Chechen-speaking Jews, but these have fled to Israel. The northern reaches of Chechnya are also home to the distinctive Terek Cossacks, old Russian-speaking settlers who have adopted many local ways.

Dagestan (2.6 million) is unquestionably the most complex of the Caucasian republics, with 32 indigenous ethnic groups. Turkic nomads are found in the lowlands: Kumyks (366,000), Noghays (38,000), and a few displaced Turkomans (18,000). In the northern highlands are the Akhka Chechens (88,000), the Avars (758,000), and higher still are the Andis (9,000), Karatas (5,000), Chamalals (4,000), Bagwalals (4,000), Akhwakhs (5,000), Botlikhs (3,000), Godoberis (2,500), and Tindis (5,000). Still in the high valleys, but going south toward the Georgian border, are the Tsez ([Dido] 7,000), Hinukhs (200), Hunzibs (400), Khwarshis (1,000), and Bezhitas ([or Kapuchis] 3,000). South of the Avar are the Laks (140,000), Dargwas (426,000), Kubachis (3,000), and Khaidaqs (28,000), all forming a closely related group of peoples. In one high village, standing apart from them, are the Archis (1,000), whose links lie further south with the so-called Lezgian peoples, the Aghuls (23,000), Tabasarans (101,000), and Rutuls (24,000). A part of the Lezgis (337,000) and most of the Tsakhurs (8,000) spill over into Azerbaijan in the south. Other Dagestanis who are restricted to northern Azerbaijan are the Kryz (6,000) in one mountain village and three coastal ones, Budukhs (1,000), Udis (formerly 6,000), and Khinalugs (2,000). There is in Dagestan a group called "Mountain Jews" ([Givrij or Dagchifut] 13,000), who speak an Iranian language. They are sometimes called "Tats," but are not to be confused with the Muslim Tats of Azerbaijan. In addition, there are a few Dagestani Cossacks who are strongly assimilated to indigenous patterns.

It must be emphasized that all of these groups are distinct peoples, however small they may be. Many are further subdivided by tribes, clans, and blood lines. Conversely, most traditionally form larger units for self-defense when threatened. This is particularly true of the smaller peoples of Dagestan. In ethnographic, social, and political terms, the Caucasus is like a miniature continent.

In physical appearance, the people in the South Caucasus tend to be Mediterranean, with dark hair and olive complexions. The Dagestanis often have olive complexions that are suf-fused with a ruddy undertone, an adaptation to cold mountain air in the form of enhanced blood flow to the skin. The Armenians tend to have marked aquiline features, while the Azeris have features typical of Persians. The Georgians exhibit features also seen among the northern Caucasus. Georgians and North Caucasians often have dark hair with light skin, though individuals who are almost brown-skinned can be seen. Aquiline profiles are also common. Most Georgians and North Caucasians look much like central Europeans or northern Italians, with facial features that often have a fine, chiseled quality. The Ingush are the tallest people in the Caucasus, while the Circassians and Karachay-Balkars are famous for their beauty, tall stature, and graceful movement. Among the Ubykhs and Circassians are many individuals with blond or red hair and pink complexions. The variety of its people reflects the region's complex history.


Known as the Mother of Tongues, the Caucasus is home to five language families, three of which are indigenous. In the north, four Altaic languages are spoken: Karachay, Balkar, Noghay, and Kumyk. : These belong to the Kipchak Turkic branch. In the south, two Turkic languages, Meskhetian and Azeri, are found, both belonging to the Ghuzz branch, to which Turkish and Turkoman belong. These Altaic languages show rich verbal inflection (person, tense, mood), and elaborate case systems (alternation of the nouns to reflect their roles in a sentences), but are very regular and transparent in their formation. They have a pleasant, mellifluous sound. Only Azeri is a written language, and it now uses a Latin-based script. Turkic Karachay and Malkar/Balkar use Cyrillic.

Of the Indo-European family, the Slavic branch is represented by Russian and Ukrainian. The Kuban and Terek Cossacks speak Russian. These complex languages have large case systems that extend both to their nouns and adjectives, with many irregularities. Further, nouns come in three categories, called genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The Slavic verb is highly sensitive to "aspect," the degree of completion of an action. There are more than a dozen verbs of motion that reflect subtle differences in movement. The languages are mellifluous, having unusual sustained intonation patterns that give them a song-like quality. One of their hallmarks is palatalization, raising of the tongue to produce a y-like sound along with the main consonant. The Iranian branch is represented by Tat, Talysh, and Kurdish in the South, and by Ossetian in the North. This last is the sole surviving form of the language of the ancient Alans, Sarmatians, and Scythians, nomadic horse-men of classical antiquity. While retaining verbal aspect, much as does Slavic, the grammars of these languages have lost most of their case systems and have leveled out most irregularity. Only Ossetian has kept an elaborate case system due to neighboring Ingush and Chechen influence. Iranian languages make abundant use of fricatives (s- sh- and kh-like sounds). Armenian forms a distinct branch of Indo-European in the south. In grammatical complexity, it stands midway between Iranian and Slavic. It is remarkable for its elaborate consonant clusters. Russian, Ukrainian, Ossetian, and Armenian are written languages. The first three use a Cyrillic-based script, while Armenian has its own distinctive national writing.

The Southern Caucasian or Kartvelian language family consists of Georgian, Mingrelian, and Laz (collectively called Zan or Chan), and distantly related Svan. Only Georgian is written, using its own national alphabet. These languages have complex sentence formation (syntax), with Georgian and Svan being "ergative." Ergative languages mark the person (or thing) undergoing an action by the absolutive case, whether it is done by the person alone (intransitive) or brought upon it by another (transitive). The person or thing that brings the action upon another is marked by a special case, the ergative. For example, (using English), a Georgian would say the boy (absolutive) sleeps, but the teacher (ergative) scolded the boy (absolutive). If the action is incomplete, then the case marking switches with the subject in the absolutive and the object in a sort of geometric role (dative case): the teacher (absolutive) is scolding/ will scold at the boy (dative). Word formation is highly irregular and highly unusual in that material is added both to the front and end of a root (circumfixation). The noun exhibits a large number of cases, while the verb inflects not only for person, but also for intentions, distinguishing between accidental, purposive, direct, and self-serving actions. The sound systems show enormous and difficult consonant clusters, as in mtskheta (a place name), Tbilisi (the name of the capital, which means "of the warm spring"), tqbili (sweet), or prtkhili (careful). Long strings of vowels are also possible. A contrast between regular (k) and back (q) k-sounds occurs. Glottal ejectives, characteristic of the Caucasus, also occur. These are consonants made with a slight popping sound by shutting the vocal cords and causing a momentary smothering sensation.

The Northeast Caucasian languages are also ergative. Most word modification is by means of attaching material at the end of a root (suffixation). The verb is relatively simple, in most cases not even inflecting for person, though some, as in Archi or Chechen, can be elaborate. Most complexity resides in the noun system, where large numbers of cases are used to denote almost every conceivable grammatical role or spatial relationship. Cases even have cases and can express, for example, not only whether something crosses something else (the "translative"), but whether the crossing took place either horizontally, or from above to below, or from below to above. Some languages, such as Lak and Tabasaran, have nearly 50 cases, the largest such systems known anywhere. These systems are suited for the geometric complexity of their mountainous environment. The nouns further belong to class systems. These are gender systems like those found in Slavic, but with as many as nine categories: male, female, neuter, animal, plurals, mass objects (sand, water, etc.), long objects, edible objects, and so on. The sound systems have a profusion of fricatives (s-, sh-, or kh-like sounds), many of them gutturals (made in the back of the mouth or in the throat). One form of Aghul makes such sounds in more places than any other known language: at the soft palate (velars), at the back of the mouth (uvulars), at the back of the mouth with the throat contracted (pharyngealized uvulars), in the upper throat (pharyngeals), in the lower throat (epiglottals or adytals), and in the voice box (laryngeals). Prolonged consonants also occur, as do glottal ejectives, and rounded consonants (simultaneous kw or tw, for example). Many languages show a profusion of laterals (l-like) sounds, (Archi has 11), some of which are made in the back of the mouth. Elaborate vowel systems occur, with ordinary vowels (oral), vowels made with the nose open (nasalized), with the throat constricted (pharyngealized), or with the epiglottis lowered (adytalized). Some languages, such as those of the Andi group (Andi, Botlikh, Godoberi, Chamalal, Bagawalal, Karata, Akhwakh, and Tindi), have tone (like Chinese), as well as breathy voiced vowels, and "stiff " vowels. Chechen and Ingush are written languages, as are Avar, Lak, Dargwa, Tabasaran, and Lezgi. In the 1990s, Aghul, Rutul, and Tsakhur were raised to literary status. All languages use a modified Cyrillic script.

As complex as the South and Northeast families are, the Northwest family is more complex still, approaching what may be some sort of maximum. The family consists of Circas-sian, Abkhaz, Abaza, and Ubykh. Their syntax is ergative, but shows a wide range of alternative patterns depending upon the exact relationship of actor and object. The verb inflects for every noun in the sentence, as well as expressing a plethora of geometric information by the unusual means of attaching material to the front of the root (prefixation). Some sentences have two objects (ditransitives), while others have two subjects (causatives). In fact, the verb is so expressive that conversations in these languages often turn into a series of verbs once the speakers know the nouns they are talking about. The case system on the noun is simple (Circassian, Ubykh) or absent (Abkhaz and Abaza). The vast majority of nouns are made up of simpler terms. For example, na-pa (literally "eye-nose") means "face," sh'ha-pq ("head-bone") means "skull," wunapq ("house-bone") means "frame of a house," and woradi-pq ("song-bone") means "melody." The sound systems, however, are the most unusual feature of the family. All the languages have enormous consonantal systems, with rounded, labialized (simultaneous p- , b-, f-, or v- made with the sound), palatalized (raised tongue), and pharyngealized (constricted throat) consonants made at almost every possible point in the mouth and throat. Kabardian has the fewest with 48 consonants, while Ubykh has the most with 81. (For example, Ubykh has 14 guttural fricatives and 27 s-, ts-, sh-, and ch-like sounds.) These sounds also occur in elaborate clusters, especially in Abkhaz and Abaza. As hard as the consonants are, the vowels are harder. This family is known for its "vertical vowel system," in which vowels contrast only in degree of openness. By some analyses, these languages have four, three, or only two vowels. Some linguists have even argued that the vowels of Kabardian are all predictable and therefore not really part of its sound system (phoneme inventory). Two dialects of Circassian serve as written languages: Chemgwi (West Circassian) and Kabardian (East Circassian). Both Abkhaz and the closely related Abaza are literary languages, while Ubykh, still spoken by a handful of people in Turkey, has been extensively documented by linguists and folklorists. The literary languages use highly modified Cyrillic scripts, while Ubykh has been recorded in an elaborated Latin one. Many families across the North Caucasus have rune-like symbols, tamghas, as emblems of identity. Many of these reach back to old symbols used by nomadic hordes in antiquity.

In the Northwest, special membership in hunting bands carried with it knowledge of a special language for its male members. In old Circassian, this was she-ko-bza ("hunting-go-language"). In Abkhazia, a woodsman language is still used. There are spotty reports of a women's language that seems to have been spoken until recently across the entire North Caucasus. One old Ossetian related how his mother and sister would speak in a monosyllabic language with tone (like Sumerian of ancient Mesopotamia).

Scholars have tried to find links between various Caucasian languages and some of the languages of the Ancient Middle East and Anatolia, such as Hattic (with Northwest Caucasian), Sumerian (with Georgian or Dagestani), Urartean and Hurrian (with Dagestani). One such proposal that has attracted much interest and some support is that linking Proto-Indo-European with the Northwest Caucasian family.

Bilingualism is virtually universal among Caucasians. Nearly everyone speaks Russian in addition to his or her own language. The only people to be predominantly monolingual are the Russians, who tend to dominate in urban centers. The villages and countryside remain bastions of the native languages.

In the North as opposed to the South Caucasus, the family name comes first and then the given names. In Russian, practice this is reversed, but the original order is retained in the social practices of the individual peoples.


The Caucasus is rich in folklore. In the southern highlands, tales of a mountain sorceress, Dal, are widespread. Dal is beautiful and glowing and a protector of the alpine wildlife, but she can lure hunters to their doom. Other tales show strong Zoroastrian influences from ancient Iran. In the North, there are tales that recount battles with the ancient Goths, Huns, and Khazars, the last a Turkic people who ruled the Caucasus and adopted Judaism wholesale. One of the most noteworthy traditions is that of the Nart sagas, dramatic tales of a race of ancient heroes in which the figure of the all-wise and all-fertile Lady Satanaya is pivotal. Other figures include a villainous shape changer (Sosruquo), a mighty hero who is resurrected from the dead and returns to annihilate his enemies (Pataraz or Batradz), a giant or hero who, like the Greek Prometheus, is chained to a mountain top as a punishment for trying to return fire to humankind (Nasran), and a cyclopean giant (Yinizh). There are numerous links to the myths of ancient Greece, ancient India, and Norse Scandinavia. There is even a sort of Christmas-tree figure, Lady Tree, and a "Forest Mother," Amazan, from which the Greeks took the figure of their women warriors, the Amazons.

There is widespread belief in the western Caucasus of wild men in the high mountain forests, especially among people who dwell in the upper villages. These hairy people are reputed to be about five feet tall and to travel in small family groups. Occasionally, they are said to come into the lowland fields at harvest time and feed on the ripening ears of corn. Men are said to be very brave if they can go into the high forests and trade with these wild men, because after having met with one or two of them in a clearing to offer trinkets, they run the risk of being ambushed by the whole band as they return through the high, dense rhododendron forests. It is worth noting that in 1991 and 1992 fossils of small early humans were found at Dmanisis in Georgia. Perhaps these Wildman tales are based on encounters with relic forms of Homo georgicus.


The nation-states of Georgia (Georgian Orthodox Christian), Armenia (Armenian Orthodox Christian), and Azerbaijan use religion as central components in their identity. The first two claim to be the oldest Christian nations and have nationalist churches. Azerbaijan is Shi'ite Muslim (Azeri Turks and Georgian-speaking Ingiloi), Sunni Muslim (southern Lezgi Dagestani peoples), and Alwanian Christian Orthodox Christian, now a branch of the Georgian patriarchate (the small Udi community). These nations-states feel a sense of privilege in comparison with the smaller peoples of the Caucasus and have used their religion as a part of their pride. The Nagorno-Karabakh war (1989–1995) involved serious ethnic clashes between Azeris and Armenians that resonated with religious and ethnic hatred.

By contrast, religious tolerance is one of the strongest features of the North Caucasus, where Christians (Orthodox), Muslims (Sunni), and Jews can be found living side by side. Even during the recent wars in the North, religious hatred never emerged as a motive. The highlands also had mystical traditions of meditation and martial arts that in the east have become Sufipractices. In Dagestan, holy men often have shrines, usually placed at the highest point of the village. Pagan elements persist throughout the Caucasus, and many Abkhaz are avowedly pagan. The Abkhaz even had women shamans. Religion is always socially and conceptually subordinated to ethnic identity throughout the Caucasus.

There are enigmatic relics of older beliefs. For example, Ossetia preserves "beehive" mortuaries made of flat stones, which must reflect an older, local religion of unknown character. Dagestan shows many old beliefs surrounding animals, such as snakes, horses, and especially bears. This last totemistic animal is associated with sacred rocks and even a half-bear/ half-man creature. Sacred rocks of heaven are also mentioned in some of the Nart sagas of the Northwest Caucasian Abazas. These are considered the heaviest stones and might even have been nickel-iron meteorites.

Islamic societies, jama'at, are appearing across the North Caucasus. Many of these have fundamentalist Salafileanings, unlike the usually Hanafiform of Sunni Islam. Given the turmoil and economic stress in the North Caucasus, Islam seems to be emerging once again, as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a unifying principle.


Major holidays are those of the Orthodox Christian and Sunni Muslim faiths. The Northwest Caucasians (Circassians, Ubykhs, Abazas, and Abkhaz) in the diaspora mark deportation day (21 May 1864), the anniversary of their expulsion from the Caucasus. In Dagestan, the "first plowing" in the spring is widely celebrated with a ritual plowing of a furrow by a bull and with festivities, races, and tests of strength.


Apart from Muslim and Orthodox Christian rites of circumcision and christening, there are no rites of passage into adulthood. Both boys and girls are considered mature between the ages of 16 and 18. Marriage is the chief change in life for both men and women.

Funeral rites vary, but almost all groups set out a place setting at the table to mark the missing dead at feasts. After three months a monument is erected and a day of remembrance observed. In Abkhazia the next of kin gather when an elder lies dying and sing to her or him.


In all Caucasian societies, siblings were supposed to be married in order from oldest to youngest. In all cases, the bride went to live in the extended family of her husband (patrilocal marriage). Whether arranged or through love, marriage was viewed as the linking of two families. Accordingly, matters of social rank between them were always a concern.

Marriage was by abduction among the Northwest Caucasians. These were often prearranged by the couple in love, and mock abductions are still performed. A leather corset with many knots was worn by the bride for those prearranged abductions. After the first night, the man had to present this corset with its thongs intact to both families as a sign of his courtesy to his new wife and of his restraint. Marriages often took place when the couple was in their thirties, which is extraordinarily late for a traditional society. Premarital life was filled with decorous and discrete romance. Young girls had a room in their family homes in which they were free to entertain their suitors. Trysts were arranged for an amorous young couple by the youth's maternal uncle, while a young woman's well-being was the responsibility of her brothers. In Ossetia, marriage was generally for love, with couples marrying in their twenties, but family rank was still an important factor. In the Northeast Caucasus, marriages were usually arranged, with young people marrying in their teens. Among the Chechens actual abduction of a woman still takes place. Brides were subservient to their in-laws. In the South Caucasus, a similar pattern was followed in Armenia, where family negotiations and an engagement of their teenage children were begun as early as two years before the marriage. Brides were subservient to their mothers-in-law and had to observe a ritual silence in their new families, often for years. In public, their faces were veiled or even tightly wrapped until they had a child. Among the Georgians, young people marry by mutual consent in their twenties, with civic and church ceremonies. The bride is supposed to have an agreeable, but respectful relationship with her in-laws. Among the Azeris, couples marry in their twenties. Rural marriages are usually arranged, but even those urban marriages that are motivated by love are expected to take place between families who are known to one another or even related. The latter case is unique in the Caucasus, where strict exogamy (marriage outside a clan or lineage) is otherwise the rule.

Throughout the Caucasus, hospitality to strangers is one of the foremost social imperatives. Lavish feasts are given for guests and, in theory, a host would even give his life to defend a guest. In return, a guest is expected to act discretely and respectfully to his host and so bring honor to the host's family. Even a prisoner of war or an enemy could be treated hospitably if he had shown great valor. In the midst of a duel, it was possible for one adversary to seek a suspension of hostilities for a period of time as long as several days. The combatants would then resume their struggle at an agreed upon time and place. This chivalric code has been eroded by modern warfare, however.

People who are strongly attracted to one another or who admire one another can declare themselves to be "milk" sisters or brothers. Such a bond can cross gender lines. To be chosen as a milk sibling is one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed upon someone by a Caucasian. Such bonds last for life and have all the force of true kinship. Often a man and a woman who cannot marry for some reason will instead form a lifelong bond in this way.

Four other marked features are found throughout the Caucasus. First, elders are revered. The old are expected to have full and passionate lives, although women are cautioned that "a man past one hundred is no longer much of a man." The elderly also have economic roles in the community, sorting fruit or tending gardening, which permit them to contribute without taxing their powers. Young people are greatly honored to wait upon or care for an elderly member of their clan or their community. Many groups have choruses or dance troupes in which all the members are 100 or more years old. These have special dances and distinctive songs.

Second, almost all peoples have clan structures of one sort or another. These play a vital role in their societies. Social support, kinship bonds, economic support, socializing, and vengeance obligations are or were defined by clan affiliation. In some cases, as with the Chechen clans, called teips, war has weakened their role, and warlord-like allegiances have come to dominate. In other cases, as among the Circassians and their kin, expulsion has also weakened these old links, reducing them to matters of family pride rather than active social organizations.

Third, vengeance was a dominant theme in the Caucasus, especially the north. Even the accidental death of a clan member forced upon all its males an obligation to seek revenge from the offending clan, even by taking the life of someone who had no role in the incident. Only males were involved in such vendettas.

Fourth, dance was a central social activity of every people. Men and women entered into joint dances, although single gender dances, and solo performances, also existed. Dance is still important, even among Diaspora communities.

Two features found in the Northwest Caucasus, among the Circassians and their kin are the high social prestige and sexual freedom that women enjoy. Among these peoples women are seen as the sources of fertility, social grace, and intellectual knowledge. Until recently, a woman could halt the most vicious fight simply by tossing her scarf between the two men. Women have the right to initiate altruistic friendships with men or even embark upon sexual ones if they do so discreetly. Such overtures are difficult for a man to reject, because he would be rejecting her whole family, so women do not make such overtures lightly. One opener is for a woman to ask to borrow a pen or other small item even when it is obviously not needed. To comply is to show interest. In Dagestan, sexual prerogatives of women can be more circumscribed, with the prowess of men being important. This can be shown when the men set water buckets out on their porches in the evening for nocturnal ablutions after sexual intercourse: the bigger the bucket, the greater his presumed sexual prowess. Some men even set out two. The somewhat lower rank of women in Dagestan correlates with a greater economic burden of toil on their part. Women remain subservient in Dagestan. Efforts to promulgate traditional Muslim norms in Chechnya are met with resistance from women. As in Russia, older women in the Caucasus, especially in the North East and South, often cover their heads with scarves.


Living conditions are relatively good in the South and Northwest, where the land is verdant, but life is difficult in the Northeast where mountain deserts dominate. Life in the high reaches of Dagestan is especially harsh due to the prolonged winters and barren land. Men go on long outings to earn money in the lowlands, while the women remain behind to maintain the households through strenuous work. One advantage to living in the highlands is that every step is either up or down, and the resulting exercise contributes to many people being long-lived. Whatever their age, people are often extremely strong and youthful looking.

The typical Northwest Caucasian house is long with one floor, much like a ranch-style home. It is made of wattle covered in clay daub. Villages were formed of compounds containing a main house and several outbuildings, including guest housing, that were originally strung out like necklaces along riverbanks. Tower fort homes were common in the highlands of Svan territory (Svanetia), Ossetia, and the Circassian and Abkhazian highlands. These striking buildings, sitting within a walled yard, were made of stone, with a first floor for livestock, a second floor for humans, and a high tower in which all could take refuge when under siege from a blood feud. The Northeast Caucasian stone houses run on top of one another, the roof of the lower serving as the porch of the upper, as they cling to hillsides to form compact villages called auls. Andi aul of Muni is so compact that it forms one giant building with enclosed streets. Houses in such auls were usually made of local stone and had two floors; the first for livestock, and the second for people (also to be above the snows).

The cities, many of which were founded as Cossack forts, have a blend of older 19th-century housing and modern Soviet high-rise apartments. Most of these cities are attractive, with large parks and tree-lined boulevards.


Extended patrilocal families are the norm across the Caucasus. In highlands, people often live to be very old, so great-grandparents or (even great-great-grandparents) are part of the family. Children must respect elders and older siblings. Brothers have very close, protective relationships with their sisters. Boys have very close ties with their maternal uncles, while they have relatively formal relationships with their fathers. This is part of the Circassian kinship system, where the husband's relationship to his wife is formal, and the wife's bond to her brother is spontaneous and deep. The eldest man is master of the extended family unit insofar as he rules over disputes or regulates social relationships with the outside world. Within the confines of the home, however, the eldest woman is supreme and runs the details of the household. Often she works hard to organize feasts, supervising her daughters-in-law or even poor female relations who may come to help, but she can be rewarded after the dinner by having her family and guests gather outside the kitchen to applaud her while she takes a bow.

Family life is further integrated into the community by tight networks of clans and blood lines. These are centered around villages in Dagestan, where such clans will have their own tea houses for their members to gather. Clan houses are merely meeting houses among the Chechens and Ingush. With the Ossetians, Northwest Caucasians, Mountain Turks, and Armenians, clans are vital to social organization and have local "seats," but clan houses do not exist. In Georgia, a loose network of noble families serves a similar function, with clans being absent. In Azerbaijan, clans and wider social structures are lacking. Even there, extended families are a social reality and define family matters, such as marriages.

The clans were also the basis for the blood feud or vendetta. Customary law, called adat, stipulated that if a member of one clan killed or even accidentally brought about the death of a member of another, then every man in the offended clan had the obligation to restore "the balance of life" by killing the man responsible or, if that was too difficult, another male from the killer's clan. This obligation passed down the male line for seven generations. There were only fours ways to stop the bloodshed. First, one clan eventually killed all the males of the other, which sometimes happened. Second, a blood price was stipulated, usually in livestock, and the offending clan was able to meet this demand. Third, an exalted social figure, an elder or an imam (Muslim cleric), forced the offended clan to renounce their obligation or risk taking the blame for humiliating him in turn. Sometimes this peacemaker would have to threaten suicide to force such a renunciation. Fourth, the killer could sneak up on a woman from the victim's clan, seize her, tear off her blouse, and place his lips to her breast. Such an act, however fleeting, would suffice to create a kinship bond between the two clans that precluded further bloodshed. This was not an easy feat, because many Caucasian women will fight and are sometimes armed with small daggers. During war, vendetta was suspended so that men could form an army and fight beside their blood enemies. In recent decades, Soviet courts had begun to assume the role of arbiters of justice in such cases, but with the collapse of Soviet authority, vendetta has reemerged.

In the Northwest Caucasus, princely and noble families practiced fosterage: they would give their sons to trusted retainers to be reared. This was nearly the highest honor a retainer could know because it linked his family to that of the nobility by fictive kinship bonds. The highest honor was when the foster child refused to return to his natural family at 16 years of age, but chose instead to remain in the household of his foster parents.


Distinctive to the Caucasus and borrowed by the Cossacks is a man's garment called a cherkesska. This is a robe-like suit, tightly fitting on the upper torso, and flaring out from the waist, with long flaring sleeves. On either side of the chest cylindrical pockets were sewn on in a row for cartridges or to hold cases of measured powder charge for a musket. A long-sleeved, collarless shirt is worn under it, together with fitted trousers. In the Cossack variant, the trousers are baggy. As the name suggests, this dashing outfit originated among the Circassians (the "Cherkess" in Russian). Over it can be worn a heavy, rectangular sheepskin cape, the burka, which can even serve as a makeshift tent. In Dagestan, sheep's wool leather coats with long sleeves dangling below the hands were common as well. Lamb's wool hats are worn, some high and cylindrical, others shorter and flaring or shaggy and spherical, depending upon the region. Footwear consisted of a boot that resembled a leather knee sock. No man was considered dressed without a long dagger, the kinjal, hanging from a narrow leather belt. The belt itself was adorned with hanging weighted straps that served to balance a dagger or sword.

In the Northwest and South Caucasus the traditional woman's garment is a long, flowing gown with pendant sleeves and either a high, crown-like hat, or a pillbox hat with a trailing scarf attached to it. Shoes are pump-like slippers, but in older times noble women wore platform shoes. Northeast Caucasians had woolen sweater-like tunics and heavy socks and mittens to ward off the winter cold. Dagestani women often wore baggy trousers and tunics. Dagestani, Chechen, Ingush, and Karachai-Balkar women often wear head scarves, sometimes hanging far down their backs, but they did not wear veils. Women often wear pendant earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. Some Dagestani women wear large broach-like pieces of silver on their foreheads attached to their head scarves. Outside Dagestan modern dress is now the rule except for parties or festivals when the traditional costumes are worn.


Outside Dagestan, food is relatively plentiful and varied in the Caucasus. Common foods include chicken, mutton, cornmeal, and millet mush, all seasoned with garlic or, in the South, with hot spices, as well as yogurt, a walnut paste, fruits, watermelons, wine, cognac, and millet beer. One popular dish that has spread beyond the Caucasus is "chicken Circassian," which consists of cornbread served with ground chicken that has been mixed with onions and walnuts and topped with a cream garlic sauce. Traditional diets were low in fat, and people were slender. Now, the diet is high in fat and starch and people thicken with age. One item eaten nowadays that reflects such dietary changes is ground liver spread in a layer and then topped with a layer of lard. The whole thing is rolled up and sliced like a jelly roll. Even though feasting could last for days and drinking was heavy, overeating and drunkenness were considered disgraceful lapses in etiquette. The clan or community feast was an important affair and was run by the tamada , a Circassian word, t'hamata , that has spread across the Caucasus, up into Russia and down into Iran. Invariably a man was elected, and he determined seating and set the tempo for courses and drinks. A person was judged by the eloquence of his or her toasts; even women were permitted to offer them among many groups. Only the Aghuls of Dagestan stand apart in that no toasting takes place at their feasts. Dagestanis are noted for grinding grains that have begun to sprout, a practice that enhances the vitamin content of the flour.


All children were reared from an early age to observe formal etiquette, to honor elders, and to dance. In the highlands, training in hunting and stalking was important. In lower lands, training in the details of horse breeding was often vital. Formal education is conducted in local languages up to high school, but then is usually in Russian. Up until the Russian conquest, the religious universities (Medrassas) of Dagestan were renowned throughout the Muslim world. The Russians discouraged such institutions, but they did introduce widespread literacy in both Russian and many of the native languages, and they opened up the Caucasus to modern urban culture and science. In the South Caucasus and in parts of Chechnya, Russia is giving way to English and German as the preferred second language. The Caucasus region has a high percentage of scientists, intellectuals, and artists.


The Caucasus is a refuge for many peoples who were driven from the steppes of Eurasia. The region has preserved many values and customs that seem ancient. Since the Russian conquest and with the advent of modernity, Caucasians have faced many challenges to their heritage and sense of identity. The issue of heritage is difficult for the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs because their expulsion from the Caucasus in the 19th century, when Circassians lost 90% of population during the war with Russia and deportation. Internal deportations play a similar vexing role for the Karachai-Malkar and for the Chechen-Ingush. These peoples were deported to Siberia and Central Asia by Stalin in 1944 and were allowed to return under Khrushchev only in 1956-7. Many died and much was lost. One dominant theme, however, emerges from the array of local concerns. All Caucasians wish to be a part of modern culture in some sense, even those who are otherwise staunchly Muslim. Theirs is a desire to enter upon the stage of world culture as a respected and distinct form of civilization. They feel that they have much to offer, but they have trouble sorting out the details and finding new roles for old values.

Caucasians face a range of difficulties in finding a modern identity for their warrior heritage. They are still outstanding fighters, but urban culture offers them roles and goals that are new. Furthermore, the Diaspora and the home populations have differing needs. The former seek to retain or revive aspects of identity in their new homelands, chiefly Turkey, while the latter try to find viable roles for older customs in the new urban centers established by the Russians. Despite these challenges certain core traits still form part of the heritage of most Caucasians: honoring of elders, keeping of one's word, showing hospitality, showing restraint, feeling the imperatives of vendetta and vengeance if not often acting upon them, forming fictive kinship bonds (milk siblings), avoiding a mercenary attitude toward money, adhering to old home territory if in the Caucasus, observing proper conduct and etiquette, and cultivating good humor and a sharp wit.

Other aspects of Caucasian heritage are dance and music. Music was played at one time on violins and oboe-like instruments, but now clarinets and accordions are preferred. Drums, gourd rattles, and wooden clackers form the rhythm section. Long horns (like Swiss alp horns) were used in Ossetia to communicate between valleys. Poetry recitals are another important cultural element. Women as well as men can be bards in the Northwest. In times past, in Dagestan, bards (only males) would hold contests in eloquence, with the loser reputedly losing his head.

Another vital heritage that has been carried down to modern times is an elaborate tradition of herbal medicine. This is especially active in Dagestan among the men and in the Northwest highlands among the women. It has spread to Russia with Caucasian immigrants and is a highly valued service among the population at large. Its practice is open only to the initiated, and scholars or doctors have yet to study these remedies and techniques.


Labor is specialized by gender across the Caucasus. Men work with livestock and in the open fields, whereas women tend gardens, thresh grain, do household chores, and tend to sewing. Men do metal working and leather tooling. In Dagestan, women both young and old can often be seen carrying enormous loads of hay or kindling on their backs or large jugs of water on their heads. Children and the elderly are also given tasks suitable to their abilities that contribute to the prosperity of the village. Despite the gender-based specialization, both sexes accord mutual respect to their roles.

Some Caucasians engage in careers that carry on older cultural specialties. For example, many diaspora Caucasians have become military leaders in Russia, Turkey, and the Middle East, following the earlier example of the Circassian Mamelukes (hired warriors) who ruled Egypt in the 13th to 15th centuries. The Mongols were finally defeated in their onslaught by the Circassian Sultan Kutuz. The same name was borne by General Kutuzov of the imperial Russian army who defeated Napoleon 500 years later. The name "Kutuz(ov)" is still common among the Chechens. One effect this warrior heritage has on modern society is that one cannot offer to help a Caucasian man without offending him, since such an offer implies that he is incapable of accomplishing his task. He must ask for help. Another effect is the heavy emphasis throughout the Caucasus on etiquette and proper conduct in order to curb the excesses of the warrior code in normal social life.

Other diaspora Caucasians have become skilled machinists, pharmacists, or physicians. The Ubykhs, for example, who were reputed for their healing skills back in the Caucasus, are frequently doctors in Turkey. Others raise horses, and others are merchants.


A popular reworking of the old warrior ethic appears to be the sport of soccer, the most popular sport in the Caucasus. A close second is wrestling, which combines a kick-boxing-like manner of fighting, perhaps descended from the older martial traditions of hand-to-hand combat. Caucasian dance has the quality of a sport, demanding enormous strength in jumps and leaps and attended by a pervasive grace. The men twirl, strut, and leap with a proud bearing, while the women glide and swirl in a demure manner. Arm motions are an important part of the dance, with the arms often held straight upward and then brought downward while flexing the hands at the wrists. Chechen dance adds to these features one that exemplifies the Caucasian virtue of self-control. While the woman glides about, the man whirls around her, moving in and out. At unexpected moments, he will shout abruptly and loudly into her face or ear, and if she is a skilled dancer, she will neither flinch nor even bat an eye. Skill at horseback riding and horse racing are valued. One of the most spectacular feats on horseback is to lean over and cut through 21 oranges (the product of two magical numbers, 3 and 7) with a saber without moving even one of them. It is achieved by pulling the razor-sharp saber toward you while you sweep it through the lined up oranges. The nobles of the Circassians, Ubykhs, and Abkhaz still practice a martial art form. From the age of 12 they toughen their hands by thrusting them into huge bags of clay. In close combat, they were said to have been able to thrust their hands into an enemy's body and rip out his heart. The rule was "in a fight, don't get close to a noble."


Many of the cities have national museums, theatres, and dance troupes based upon local ethnic customs, and these are well attended. Music, dance, and bardic recitations are still popular forms of entertainment. The arrival of a guest is an opportunity for such entertaining, as well as for feasting with a tamada . In the highlands, hunting boars, badgers, stags, and bears is a popular pastime.


The peoples of Dagestan are famous for their woven rugs, tapestries, and textiles, with each ethnic group having its own distinctive repertoire of forms. The peoples of the Northwest Caucasus make felt rugs and folk costumes. Their favored decoration is a pleasing open exfoliate pattern (resembling leaves and vines). Poetry is an active folk art, with some groups, such as the Abaza, producing volumes of popular poetry by hundreds of amateurs. Some groups, such as the Kubachis of Dagestan, are famed for their metal working. Kubachi metal goods, including swords and daggers, are considered among the best examples of Islamic metal working in the world. Many Dagestani peoples supplement their meager incomes with home knitting of socks, mittens, and sweaters. These are often done by hand in a matter of hours or days by the women and then sold in Georgia or in Russia by the men.


The problems faced by Caucasians, both in the Caucasus and among the diaspora, are numerous and acute. In the Caucasus, endemic violence, dislocations in social structure, high youth unemployment, new and seemingly arbitrary borders, sharp ethnic rivalries, the recovery of lost practices and identities, and a coming to terms with the communist legacy are all problems that must in some sense be solved. In the damaged hierarchical Northwest Caucasian societies, where there were once princes, nobles, freemen, and slaves, there is now a chronic struggle for prestige and rank, as former princes and noble no longer command deference from former freemen or slaves. In North Ossetia–Alania, problems center around ethnic identity and union with the South Ossetians. North Ossetians are highly Russified, but have been brought up short in this evolution by the influx of conservative South Ossetian refugees. Northeast Caucasian societies are also hierarchical except for Chechen-Ingush and Lezgi. In this region, the major problem is balancing the competing claims of the numerous ethnic groups. The Chechens face the acute problem of rebuilding after the disastrous wars with Russia and of normalizing their relations with vastly more numerous former imperial masters. These tasks are made even more difficult by the horizontal organization of Chechen society in clans. Chechens are not accustomed to following a hierarchical authority, even when it is their own. Georgian society has endured acute economic collapse, which was exacerbated by South Ossetia and Abkhazia having fought wars of secession. The role of the old Georgian noble families are being revived and reappraised in an effort to enhance social cohesion. Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in a stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenian forces holding more than one-third of what was Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijan has embarked upon a strategy of ethnically and religiously homogeneous social identity that seems ill-suited to accommodate the Lezgi, Tsakhur, Kryz, Budukh, Khinalug, Ingiloi, or Udi peoples who live within its borders, not to mention the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Wars have devastated Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Preventing renewed or future hostilities and rebuilding in the aftermath of those past will be a major challenge for the future of the region. Russian policies under President Putin have aggravated many local problems. Chief among these irritants has been Moscow's policy of appointing regional governors and heads. Often such individuals are corrupt and indifferent to local needs. They have frequently failed to restore the confidence of their populaces.

These same wars have reawakened ethnic identity among the diaspora Caucasians in a vivid and abrupt way, and these people face their own array of social problems. The foremost problem is to find ways to accommodate their newly revived ethnic identities within their host countries, and to find tangible forms of expression for these identities after six generations in exile. Most recently younger members of the Caucasian diaspora have used the internet to establish electronic forms of identity, even going so far as to devise ways of writing their languages in Latin script. This is tied in with another problem among the diaspora: native language literacy. There is a renewed desire both to publish in the languages of their heritage and to learn and preserve those languages. The last few Ubykh speakers in Turkey, for example, are making an effort to revive this language. Ubykhs have emerged as visible components of most diaspora communities, having regained a sense of identity.

Turkey has shown political tolerance and innovation by permitting its large Caucasian minority to establish a North Caucasus Studies Center and to record the languages. A limited amount of publishing in the Caucasian languages is allowed. Jordan and Israel have long allowed their Caucasians language rights. The diaspora offers the promise of assisting other Caucasians through trade and investment.


The role and status of women in the traditions of the North Caucasus in the past and current times differs substantially from Islamic norms. Despite the fact that the peoples of the Caucasus profess Islam, the behavior of women, their status in the family and society is increasingly governed by ethnic laws, which are more liberal than Islamic laws. In the culture of Dagestan, Vai Nakh, (Chechen and Ingush) and others it is adat, for the Ossetians, aeghdau, and for the Circassians, habze.

Women of almost of any nation in the Caucasus have largely similar rights, responsibilities, and privileges. But, there are significant differences. For example, a woman of Dagestan, in the past, had the right to choose her husband. The selected man had no right to refuse, but had to marry, even if he did not like the woman. In the tradition of the Circassians, a woman submitted to the will of her father (or a senior in age) in the choice of a husband. On the other hand, a Dagestan woman was responsible for much manual labor, because it was a disgrace for a Dagestan man to carry anything on his back or shoulder. Often, women gather everything that is needed for the house-hold, including wood and hay. This tradition is still observed in the mountains and in the cities of Dagestan, where you can observe a man and a woman walking together, while he is freely waving hands and she is carrying heavy bags. In Circassian and Ossetian societies, however, such things are not allowed. Traditions do not permit a woman to lift heavy weights if there is a man nearby.

In today's Caucasian society many of the most severe restrictions on women are not as urgent as in the past. There is a freer European style of dress. The ban on women visiting cafes, restaurants, and discotheques was removed. Family members are more or less equal, although the strict adherence to traditional primacy of men is still shown in public life. In Chechnya, a strong tradition of a father's privileges still remains. After a divorce, the children stay with their father and the mother is prohibited for life in seeing her children.

The ban on jobs is no longer widely practiced and modern Caucasian women have the opportunity to get an education and make a professional career in various fields. Nevertheless, the range of occupations remains fairly narrow. Feminine professions are considered school teachers, doctors, university professors, and government employees of average level. Rarely or never are Caucasian women in politics or leading positions in governments.

After Gorbachev's time the market became one of the ways of survival for many families in the Caucasus. Women are actively engaged in buying and reselling items and products. They go to various countries, mostly to Turkey, from where they import large quantities of clothing to the Caucasus. Many trade in the market themselves from 6 am to 4 pm outdoors in all seasons. That business, by local standards, is considered is very profitable, although it only helps families make ends meet, and women pay their health for it. Meanwhile, a major financial, constructional, and tourist or oil businesses remain a closed zone for women in the Caucasus.

In a region that was a hot spot for many years, human rights movements are one of the most dangerous political occupations and, strangely enough, it is women in the Caucasus who play a dominant role in these movements.


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—revised by F. Tlisova