ETHNONYMS: Apswa (self-designation); Abkhazy and—for those north of the Caucasian ridge—Abazintsy (Russian)
Location. Since February 1931, the Abkhazia region has had the status of an autonomous republic within the Republic of Georgia. It is bounded on the northwest by the Russian Federation (specifically the Krasnodar region), on the northeast by the Karachay-Cherkess region, on the east by Svanetia, and on the southeast by Mingrelia. The linguistically related Abazians live in fifteen villages in the Karachay-Cherkess region, north of the Caucasus Mountains at the sources of the Kuban and Zelenchuk rivers. There are also some Abkhazian settlements in the Ajarían Autonomous Republic in southwestern Georgia, and many live in Turkey and other parts of the Near East (the result of nineteenth-century migrations). Physically the Abkhazian region is bounded by the Black Sea along the southwest, the Psu River in the north, the Inguri River in the south, and, along the northeast, the main chain of the Caucasus Mountains. The capital, Sukhumi (in Abkhazian, Aqw'a), lies on the Black Sea, roughly in the center of the region. Of Abkhazia's 22,360 square kilometers, three-quarters consists of mountains and foothills. In a strip along the coast, the climate is humid and subtropical; moving inland, temperatures decrease as elevation increases (moderate cold at about 2,000 meters, cold at 3,300). The highest peaks are always covered with snow. The average temperature in Abkhazia is 14.5° C, but in the coastal resort of Gagra the average during the summer is 27.5° C. Average rainfall varies between 130 centimeters (e.g., in Sukhumi) and 240 centimeters.
Demography. The majority of Abkhazians live in their own republic, but within it they constitute a minority. According to the 1989 census, there are 102,938 Abkhazians. Besides Abkhazians, the 1979 census had counted 239,872 Kartvelians (mainly Mingrelians, with some Georgians and Svans); 76,541 Armenians; 74,913 Russians; about 14,000 Greeks; 11,000 Ukrainians; and about a thousand or so each Jews, Ossetes, and Tartars. Demographic changes in the area have been drastic: the population of Abkhazians fell from about 140,000 in the 1860s down to 58,000 in 1886, but then it gradually rose to the present number. In 1886 Russians and Kartvelians numbered only 972 and 4,000, respectively—less than 2 percent of the present population. By 1979 about a third of the Abkhazians were urban, constituting about 13 percent of the total urban population of the Abkhazian area. The most densely Abkhazian areas of Abkhazia today, however, remain rural, in upland regions away from the coast and north of the Kodor River. Most urban-dwelling Abkhazians maintain ties with relatives in villages, and people frequently go back and forth. (One typical pattern is to send children to spend summer vacations with their grandparents in the country. Another is for young Abkhazians to stay with their city relatives while they attend university or work for a while.) Abkhazians are famous for living to great ages: in 1970, 40 percent of those over 60 years of age were also over 90. Abkhazians today tend to marry late and, at the present time, to have only one or two children.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Abkhaz language, consisting of Abkhaz proper and Abaza, belongs to the Northwest Caucasian Family, whose other members are Circassian (e.g., Kabardian) and Ubykh (spoken only in Turkey since 1864, and now virtually extinct). There is probably a remote genetic relation between the Northwest Caucasian Family, the North-Central Caucasian (Nakh) languages (Chechen-Ingush and Bats), and the Northeast Caucasian languages of Daghestan, but any connection with South Caucasian, also called Kartvelian, is unlikely. There are two main Abkhaz dialects: northern (Bzep) and southern (Abzhewa), the latter being the basis of a literary language. The more northern, Abaza group has three dialects: Ashkharewa, Samurzaq'an and Tap'anta (the latter being the basis of a second literary language). Abkhaz, like the Northwest Caucasian languages in general, is characterized by a huge inventory of consonants and a correspondingly minimal vowel system. There are many categories of person in the verbal system. There are many relatively assimilated items from Arabic and Turkish, whereas the Russian borrowings, pertaining mainly to technology and government, are relatively unassimilated. The first attempt to provide an alphabet for the Abkhaz language was made by the Russian soldier-linguist Peter von Uslar in 1862-1863. After a number of refinements, another alphabet of fifty-five letters, devised by A. Ch'och'ua, was used from 1909 to 1926, when N. Marr's "analytical alphabet" of seventy-five letters replaced it. This script gave way in turn to the unified Abkhaz alphabet of 1928 (as part of the USSR's Latinization drive). In 1938, at a time when the USSR was changing its so-called Young Written Languages to Cyrillic-based scripts, linguists created a Georgian-based script for Abkhaz, and between 1944 and 1954 the Georgian language replaced Abkhaz entirely for use in the public domain, as part of a general attempt to Georgianize the Abkhazians. The Georgian-based script, in turn, was replaced in 1954 by the present Cyrillic-based alphabet. As of 1989, 97 percent of Abkhazians claimed Abkhaz as their native tongue and 78.2 percent claimed fluency in Russian; many southern Abkhazians also speak some variant of Kartvelian (Mingrelian or, less commonly, Georgian), whereas many speakers of the northern Abaza also speak Kabardian. In Abkhaz-language schools, Abkhaz is the language of tuition through the fifth grade, after which Russian is used. Finally, there is some talk now of a return to a Latin-based alphabet.
History and Cultural Relations
Abkhazians are probably aboriginal to the area. The landscape is rich in archaeological sites dating back to the Paleolithic period, notably the thousands of dolmens (burial structures built of stone slabs, often weighing many tons) dating from the end of the third millennium b.c. Abkhazia later formed part of the Colchis Kingdom, famous in ancient Greek literature as "the Land of the Golden Fleece." This kingdom, which reached its peak between about 900 and 800 b.c., was apparently a leader in developing bronze- and ironworking technology. The Greeks colonized Abkhazia in the 6th and 5th centuries b.c., founding Sukhum (now Sukhumi) and establishing themselves as traders. (Using Greek and Near Eastern sources, historians have traced Abkhazian political and social history back to this time; later—in the first and second centuries a.d.—they are referred to in the works of Pliny the Elder and Arrian, respectively.) The country was subordinate first to the Roman and then to the Byzantine empires and converted to Christianity about 543-546 (in the reign of Justinian I); however, neither empire exercised consistent, strong control in Abkhazia, and there were several uprisings (e.g., in the 550s). Between the third and sixth centuries, Abkhazia developed a feudal system similar to that of Europe, although all free men and women bore arms and the gap between princes and commoners was modest. Abkhazians escaped the worst of the Arab invasions (seventh-eighth centuries), and with the waning of Byzantine influence in the Caucasus in the late eighth century, they emerged as a regional military power, notably from the eighth to the tenth centuries in the so-called Abkhazian Kingdom. In 1008, the Armenian-connected line of the House of Bagration united the Abkhazian and Georgian thrones, although war and intrigue continued among the region's princely families. The two kingdoms were legally coordinate, but the Georgian language came to replace Greek in the liturgy. In general, Abkhazia as a separate political and cultural entity was eclipsed during the following several hundred years by an ascendant Georgian Empire. With the Ottoman invasion in the fifteenth century (about 1451), this empire again splintered into small kingdoms and principalities in shifting alliances. Islam was now gradually adopted by some Abkhazians, who first formed part of an unstable West Georgian state (sixteenth century) and then became basically independent (seventeenth century). Many times during the eighteenth century the Abkhazians assisted the Georgian efforts to throw out the Turks even while the Russian presence was growing. The competing influence of Russians and Turks ended in 1810, when the dukes of Abkhazia yielded Sukhum, and Abkhazia itself became a Russian protectorate; in 1864 it became directly subject to Russian rule. By 1870 the Russian government had emancipated Abkhazian serfs and slaves; however, most of these peasants already believed they owned their land, and they resented having to pay indemnities. This resentment led to several rebellions and continuing social and economic instability until 1912, when all such debts were canceled. In the meantime, though, the majority of Abkhazians (like many other northwestern Caucasians) had accepted Turkey's offer of sanctuary in a fellow Islamic country and had emigrated, despite the fact that most of them were only nominally Muslim. In Turkey they were given poor land or none at all, they felt homesick and deceived, and they died in large numbers. During and after the Russian Revolution there was fierce fighting in Abkhazia, often involving close Abkhazian cooperation with Georgian Communists and class conflict within Abkhazia itself. Georgian Mensheviks destroyed a short-lived commune in 1918. Nevertheless, Bolsheviks reestablished their power and the Abkhazian SSR became allied with the Georgian SSR. Both entered the Transcaucasian Federation in 1922; by 1931, however, Abkhazia had become an autonomous republic within the larger Georgian entity. A policy of Georgianization, initiated under the Mensheviks, was later pursued by Joseph Stalin and the Bolshevik leaders in Georgia: L. Beria (1931-1938), Chark'viani (1938-1952), and A. Mgeladze (1952-1953). The government never carried out its plans to transport the Abkhazians to Central Asia in the late 1940s, despite pseudoscholarly articles that claimed that the Abkhazians had only resided in their homeland since the seventeenth century. Large-scale, sometimes forced migrations of other groups into Abkhazia reduced the native percentage of the population, and the closure of Abkhaz-language schools and a prohibition against publishing in Abkhaz temporarily weakened the status of the language.
Traditionally, upland homesteads tended to be isolated and hidden in wooded gorges, with gardens and fruit trees adjacent. Villages developed as sons married and established houses near their fathers; thus villages, or groupings within villages, would consist of a cluster of houses around a common lawn with the inhabitants all sharing a single surname. Individual houses might contain nuclear or extended families, however, depending on space and personal inclinations. Such houses were traditionally one-story wattle-and-daub structures, but today brick and concrete blocks are popular and many houses have two stories. Houses usually have verandas and balconies with curved wooden railings, where people spend a lot of time in good weather. The kitchen on the ground floor traditionally was dominated by a large pot, hung by a chain over the hearth, in which the family cooked the staple food, millet porridge. Also, there would be a long wooden table, on which slices of porridge were laid directly. Abkhazians considered it rude to close the kitchen door because that implied that the family was not willing to offer hospitality to any passing guests. Today the kitchen is still the main locus of family life, along with a downstairs parlor (now equipped with a television set). At least one upstairs room is usually set aside for entertaining and for displaying gifts. Instead of replacing an older house with a newer one, a family may choose to keep houses of different sizes and eras side by side; the newest is reserved for guests, whereas the oldest—the grandparents' house—is still called "the big house." Even in large villages today, patrilineally related people live in neighboring houses, cooperate economically, and recognize family shrines (often trees or mountains). They have their own holy days, on which they are forbidden to do certain kinds of work, and their own burial grounds. In the past these lineages and their councils of elders formed the main political entities of Abkhazia, and they continue to meet regularly, make communal plans, and settle disputes. With the exception of Gudauta and the mining town of T'q'varchal, all larger towns are on the coast and are inhabited by people of many ethnic groups, with the Abkhazians in the minority. In 1980 Sukhumi, the capital, had a population of 117,000.
Classical authors describe an economy divided between animal husbandry and household craftwork. Maize, millet, and tobacco were the important crops until the Revolution, after which tea and citrus plantations were greatly expanded; today tobacco is the leading crop, but fowl breeding, fish farming, beekeeping, and viticulture and wine making are also all significant. Only about 6 percent of the land is available for agriculture—60 percent of the country is wooded and about 13 percent is used for pasture. Cattle breeding is important, but animal husbandry does not suffice to supply local demands. (Meat is not an essential part of the daily diet in any case.) The staple foods are bread and maize meal or millet mush, often with cheese cooked into them; these foods are accompanied by yogurt, more cheese, and special spice blends, especially a very hot blend called ajek'a. Fruits and vegetables (but not potatoes) are cultivated locally and consumed in considerable quantities, as are nuts and honey.
Collectivization of the land in the 1920s proceeded relatively smoothly in Abkhazia, in part because existing family-based organizations of labor resembled it. By 1980 there were eighty-nine collective farms and fifty-four state farms. The law allows each household the use of 0.5 hectare, although in practice this allotment is often exceeded. Rural Abkhazians still raise many of their own fruits, vegetables, and chickens on these plots and make their own jams, pickles, condiments, and wine—the last with particular pride. Pre-Revolution hunters' and herders' guilds survive within collectives as professional unions, traditionally excluding women. Women, however, are the main tobacco pickers and processors, though this work has become more mechanized. (The home was the traditional locus of women's activities, but today many work outside it in the general economy.) Major changes since the Revolution include the improvement of roads and railways and an increase in the mining of coal and barite in T'q'varchal. Other important industries are canning and lumber processing; the mighty Inguri hydroelectric power plant is on Abkhazia's southern border. Local crafts still practiced today include ceramics, leatherwork, wood carving, and repoussé metalwork, especially on daggers and drinking horns. Tourism is crucial economically, especially in the famous resort towns of Gagra, Pitsunda, and Sukhumi, where many sanatoriums are located. Local crafts, a good selection of agricultural products, and many other kinds of goods are traded in open-air peasant bazaars; uninspired state shops stock staples, with some items in erratic or short supply. Much trade is still in the hands of Greeks and Armenians, or now Russians and other non-Abkhazian residents.
Abkhazian culture, as is typical of the Caucasus, is centered on the family and family relations. Specifically, there is a pattern of patrilocal residence, patrilineal descent (and descent groups), and a strong patriarchal authority, particularly public male dominance. Within the home, older women also command respect from their daughters and daughters-in-law, and mothers may be the family anchor, depending on personality. All carriers of the same patrilineally inherited name are regarded automatically as relatives and may be loosely styled "brother" and "sister." These people together are an azhavala, a group which is then divided into abipara ("descendants of one father") who usually all know each other, though they may be scattered over the country. Abkhazians consider all the people who eat from the same pot to be an extended family, though they may live in separate structures. It is considered unfortunate when such extended families have to break up, but this practice is becoming increasingly common.
A bride, on marriage, moves into her husband's father's home, or into a new house nearby. She becomes part of that network of relatives, but she also maintains strong ties to her own parents' siblings and relatives by descent, ties that her children later maintain. She is still part of her descent group of birth and remains under the protection of its members. These extended, nonlocalized ties have become, if anything, stronger today in light of the characteristically small size of the nuclear family (two children). A man is particularly close to older men in his mother's patrilineal groups, that is, to men who are classified as his "mother's brothers." (The kinship term that literally means "mother blood" may be applied to any man descended from the mother's brother.)
Apart from adoption, which is still widespread today, two forms of ritual kinship also existed prior to the Revolution and the abolishment of blood feuds in the area. First, a child often was brought up by another family—typically a noble child by a nonaristocratic family—with the aim of establishing kin ties between the two. Second, the ritual tie of milk brotherhood would be established between adults to cement a friendship: the mother of one would make a symbolic offer of her nipple and the man being inducted into the family would make a corresponding gesture of sucking it. Such kinship was felt to be even stronger or more inviolable than natural kinship. Ties of blood and marriage are labeled with terms that have clearly recognizable constituents: a "granddaughter," for example, is called "the-son-his-daughter" (a-pa-y-pha ) or "the-daughter-her-daughter" (a-pha-l-pha ), even primary terms such as the one for "sons" may be broken down into such constituents. An element indicating reciprocal status (ay- ) is obligatory for some kinship terms unless a definite possessor is indicated; thus ay-asha, "brother" (with the reciprocal marker), contrasts with s-asha, "my brother." The interconnectedness between terms—achieved through the workings of reciprocity and through deriving one term from others—creates a special lexical web of kinship among the Abkhazians.
Marriage. Women usually get married in their early twenties, but men may wait until their thirties or even forties. Marriage is forbidden with all possible relatives; people do not marry those with the same surname as any of their grandparents, ritual kin, close affines, or, usually, covillagers. In the past, marriages were arranged, but now the bride and groom choose each other. A young man and his friends may occasionally still steal a bride when she has agreed and her parents have not. In any case, the groom brings his bride to his house, where his whole family mounts a large feast. The bride's family, however, does not attend, and the bride herself must stand secluded throughout the feast, not smiling or speaking. The feast itself is the wedding ceremony. Afterward, the bride and groom traditionally spent a few nights in a special hut. The husband would remove his wife's leather corset, but his friends would try to prevent the couple from consummating the marriage on the first night. Mixed marriages, particularly with Mingrelians in those areas where the two peoples live in a single community (that is, in southern Abkhazia) are quite usual; the common language in such cases tends to be Mingrelian or Russian. Divorce is rare. Widows and widowers may remarry.
Domestic Unit. Women and younger people occupy clearly subordinate positions within the household: they serve food while others eat first, keep quiet, and do as they are told. More generally, people like to spend time with others of the same gender and generation, and there is a strong, assumed distance between such groups, which is often simply respectful. Guests, regardless of age and gender, are treated with the sacred deference shown to older men and are seated with them at table. As across the Caucasus, the coming of guests—and in fact any holiday, special occasion, or even ordinary get-together—is celebrated with a ritualistic supper party. Over wine, hosts and guests go through rounds of toasts, honoring each other and getting better acquainted. Providing hospitality in this way—the food, the wine, and the words—is a matter of family pride, pleasure, and solidarity.
On first entering the family by marriage, brides are relative strangers and are treated with a different, but related, kind of formality—sometimes even hostility. A bride may not speak to her father-in-law until he decides that sufficient time has elapsed; a shorter period of silence is enjoined with the mother-in-law. A bride also avoids using the first names of her husband's siblings (especially older ones); she gives them nicknames, which then tend to persist for that bride. Husband and wife are also restrained in showing their affection for each other in public. A year is supposed to elapse before any children are born to a couple.
From all people a certain stoicism and self-reliance is sometimes demanded. Wounded people try not to cry; women hide that they are pregnant and, formerly, gave birth on their own; children obey their elders even when what is asked of them is difficult. Children are swaddled, and expected behavior is instilled by censure and praise (though corporal punishment is not excluded). Parents (especially fathers) are not supposed to show much concern or affection for their own children in public. Instead, the members of the extended family care for each other's children, building a wide, thick network of relations. The extended family, particularly the joint fraternal one, retains its conceptual and organizational importance even if in the towns brothers can no longer build their homes around a family plot. Because of the clustering of brothers' families, division of land was traditionally not a problem; even today the parents' house passes to the youngest son.
Until the Revolution, Abkhazia had a strongly developed class system dominated by a hereditary nobility; the people still remember formerly aristocratic surnames and afford their bearers special esteem. Yet the aristocrats were closely linked to the peasants in many ways (such as child adoption) and in spirit the society had and still has an orientation that is decidedly egalitarian. Kinship or ritual kinship was the basis of most political relations, and village or regional allegiances were often more strongly felt than larger ones; this pattern retains some strength. Abkhazians function today at all levels of society, although their political empowerment is limited in specific ways; for one thing, they tend to be farmers rather than merchants; for another thing, the preservation of a certain number of administrative posts for Abkhazians (more than would be expected for 17 percent of the population) loses much of its significance when one recalls that most important decisions are made at higher levels anyway. Formally, there are five administrative districts plus the area controlled by the Gagra city council; these regions exercise their control through the village councils and the collectives. Informally, however, these typical Soviet organs are significantly influenced by the local groups of elders and by the unofficial Abkhazian Council of Elders. Up until the last century, however, these leaders had little interest in influencing local affairs. On a more local level, Abkhazians, like other Caucasians, used to engage in constant small-scale feuding and raiding, among themselves and with other ethnic groups. Boys were trained in the arts of fighting. Many young men were killed. This kind of conflict is both glorified and lamented in Abkhazian folklore and poetry. Partly because of their strategic position between east and west, north and south, the Abkhazians have been repeatedly conquered or at least invaded (e.g., by Byzantium, Turkey, Georgia, Russia) and have almost as repeatedly fought back or rebelled.
Conflict. A dispute with Georgia that has been festering certainly since Beria and possibly since the Mensheviks exploded in violence on 15-16 July 1989. In 1978 leading Abkhazians had requested the right to secede from Georgia and join the Russian Federation. Then, taking advantage of glasnost, Abkhazians made requests (1988, 1989) for a return to the status enjoyed by Abkhazia from 1921 to 1931. A series of provocations followed, instigated by informal leaders in connection with the opening of a branch of Tbilisi State University in Sukhumi. Few Mingrelian residents in Abkhazia supported their fellow Kartvelians in the actual 1989 fighting. Many Georgians seek the abolition of Abkhaz autonomy and inclusion of this ethnic group within an independent Georgia, whereas now (1991) the Abkhazians are demanding restoration of their republican status of 1921-1931 or an association with other northern Caucasian peoples within a revamped USSR. Their position is understandable because, despite its status as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), Abkhazia was allowed no real autonomy after the deaths of Stalin and Beria. The declaration of 23 July 1992 that reinstated Abkhazia's 1925 constitution, which granted the area republican status (albeit with special treaty ties to Georgia), led to the Georgian invasion of 14 August. Fighting continues, with no secure resolution in prospect, as of 1 October 1992.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Abkhazians subscribe to one of two world religions: about half are Orthodox Christians and about half are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi rite. Muslims are mostly distinguished by not eating pork. In fact, these religions are a surface layer for the old paganisms, which vary between regions and families. In the Abkhazian conception, God is one, but he is of infinitely numerous parts. Each manifestation of nature and each clan, family, or individual has its own part of God. The word for "God" in Abkhazian is Antswa, which has been etymologized as the plural of "mother." The main local spirits who receive respect from adherents of all religions are Afa, who rules the thunder and other aspects of the weather; Shasta, protector of blacksmiths and all artisans; Azhveipshaa, the spirit of the forest, wild animals, and hunting; and Aitar, the protector of domestic animals.
Certain trees, groves, and mountains are sacred to clans and villages and are centers of religious gatherings. They embody the strength of a patrilineal line, its connection to a certain place and to God above. Other observances center more on the home and the role of the mother; many holidays feature special loaves of bread or cheeses, which are cut and distributed. Folk medicine is widely practiced, most often by older women, given the inadequacies of Soviet health care. Traditionally Abkhazians believed that the rainbow god was responsible for illnesses. Cures typically involved taking the patient to the riverside and offering prayers and food. Animal sacrifices may be performed to ensure the recovery of a family member who is ill or as part of rain-making ceremonies. Stones with naturally worn holes are suspended outside the home to ward off the evil eye. In general, certain days of the week are regarded as propitious or ill-omened for certain activities. Irrespective of orthodox adherence, the most important holiday is the New Year. Many Abkhazians, especially the younger ones, are essentially atheistic.
Arts. Abkhazians share with other northern Caucasian peoples the cycle of epic-sagas about the legendary figures known as the Narts. The Narts were giants, ninety-nine brothers (in one version) who lived together with their revered mother, decrepit father, and beloved sister. The poems tell of their military exploits, of their conflicts with their mother's illegitimate son, Sasreqw'a, and of the wonderful arms made for them by Ainar, the blacksmith. Abkhazians also have a body of tales about Abrsk′'il, a Prometheus-like figure with analogues across the Caucasus. Unlike the case in Circassia, in Abkhazia Abrsk′'il is the people's special benefactor and protector, but he refuses to bow his head before God, and God finally has him imprisoned. In various stories, Abkhazians meet him in the mountains and he asks them how the country has been since his captivity; the answer is always a sad one. In general, Abkhazians have a rich tradition of folklore, kept alive by groups who sing, dance, and play traditional instruments, such as the two-stringed, bowed apkh'artsa. There is a tradition of using music for comfort and healing and to pacify spirits of the dead. The writings of Fazil Iskander, who is considered one of the leading modern-day writers in Russian, are replete with Abkhazian life and culture.
Death and Afterlife. Many elaborate rites are associated with the cult of the dead. The corpse lies in state for at least a week at home, constantly attended by a group of wailing females dressed in black. A line of male relatives waits to receive all who come to pay condolences, and neighbors help to sit with the corpse and to prepare food for the visitors. Further respects have to be paid on the day of the funeral, when guests gather throughout the day for the funeral in late afternoon. After this a feast is held. Further ceremonies at the grave and feasts are held at forty days and at twelve months after death. Depending on their closeness to the deceased relative, mourners (especially females) will wear black until the fortieth day, the first anniversary, or even longer; men will perhaps not shave for forty days. A set of the deceased's clothing is laid at home for a year, and graves are becoming even more ornate. It is very important that a person be buried in his or her family graveyard and that the relatives care for the grave. The soul is believed to remain with the body at death. In northern Abkhazia corpses are buried within two or three days of death and with less ceremony that in the south, where there has been much Mingrelian influence; a child under one year of age will be buried on the day of its death. There is classical evidence for the suspension of male corpses in trees, and this custom was noted among the Abkhazians as late as the seventeenth century.
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B. GEORGE HEWITT AND ELISA WATSON
LOCATION: Georgia (de jure within Georgia, de facto independent from Georgia)
POPULATION: Unknown but under 100,000 (2002)
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; pagan beliefs
Until the early 1990s, the Abkhazians were best known for their unusually long and active lives and a Black Sea coastal resort. In August 1992, soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Abkhazians made newspaper headlines as participants in a tragic armed conflict that erupted between them and the Georgians, a neighboring ethnic group (see separate entry). The dispute was over Abkhazia's post-Soviet status. The conflict led to the deaths of thousands of citizens, and it generated tens of thousands of refugees. Negotiations persisted in many formats over the years but never resulted in a peace treaty. In August 2008, war broke out again and the remaining Georgians in Kodori Gorge, Abkhazia, were expelled. After the war, which on the Abkhazian side was largely directed by the Russian army, Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia. Only Nicaragua followed Russia's example. The international community still considers Abkhazia part of Georgia.
Abkhazians fear their extinction as a people, which has consolidated them as a group and shaped their collective cultural identity. In the 2003 census, which is disputed by the Georgians, there were fewer than 100,000 Abkhazians. The group's shared sense of vulnerability heavily influences their attitudes and behavior in interpersonal relations with each other and with non-Abkhazians, as well as their transmission of cultural values from generation to generation.
The Abkhazians are Caucasians. They typically have narrow faces, fair skin, and dark hair and eyes. Redheads are rare, and blondes even rarer. Gray hair appears quite late, and baldness is uncommon. They tend to be slender and have erect posture. Linguistically, culturally, and genetically, Abkhazians are related to the Abazins (or Abaza), Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians. These groups have always been neighbors of the Abkhazians in the Caucasus, but in the post-Soviet era have been separated from the Abkhazians because they live within the borders of Russia, in the North Caucasus. All of these peoples share many cultural traits, and in their large communities outside the former Soviet Union (in Turkey, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States for example), they have a fairly clear collective identity and are commonly known as Circassians.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Abkhazia covers 8,500 sq km (3,300 sq mi) between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the crestline of the main Caucasus range and from the rivers Psou (in the north) and Inguri (in the south). To the north, Abkhazia is bordered by Russia and to the south by the Georgian provinces of Svanetia and Mingrelia. Approximately 74% of the territory is mountains or mountain approaches. The coastal valleys are humid and subtropical. At higher altitudes the weather ranges from moderately cold to areas with temperatures so low that the snow never melts.
The relatively small distance between the coast and mountains gives Abkhazia a strikingly contrasting landscape.
Abkhazia has prime seacoast resorts that were always crowded with vacationers from all over the Soviet Union. Major cash crops are tea, tobacco, and citrus fruit. The two largest cities are Sukhumi, the capital, with a pre-1992 population of 100,000, but which now looks totally empty, and Tkvarcheli, an industrial center known for its coal. There are three urban resorts (Gagra, Gudauta, and Ochamchira), two rural spas (Pitsunda and Novy Afon), and 575 villages.
Abkhazians describe their country as harsh but beautiful. A legend says that when God was distributing land to all the peoples of the earth, the Abkhazians were entertaining guests. Because it would have been impolite for hosts to leave before their guests, the Abkhazians arrived late, and all that God had left were some stones. Out of these he created a land that was hard to cultivate but paradise-like in its beauty.
The Abkhazian language belongs to the northwest Caucasian family spoken by only the Abazins, Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians. There are very few words borrowed from other languages. Abkhazian is quite difficult to learn, although the large variety of consonants and vowels enables Abkhazians to pronounce foreign languages fairly precisely. The modified Russian Cyrillic alphabet currently in use does not fully represent the sounds of Abkhazian, which include a wavering trill, whistling noises, and a prolonged buzz. Much of the vocabulary preserves concrete images in the form of metaphor, for example, "helping leg" for staff and "mother's blood" for mother's brother. The language is rich in proverbs that guide everyday behavior and values.
The ability to make eloquent speeches is a highly prized and cultivated skill. It is the primary requirement for elders and community mediators, people held in the highest esteem in Abkhazian society. Ordinary people are also expected to make long and eloquent speeches and toasts at the family gatherings and public events that are a common feature of daily life. Many Abkhazians speak Russian as their first language.
Common girls' first names are Amra, Asida, Gunda, Esma, and Naala. Common boys' first names are Adgur, Akhra, Daur, Alkhas, andGudisa. Prominent surnames areAchba, Agrba, Avidzba, Kutsnia(orKvitsinia), andAdleiba, Shamba.
The oldest folk tales are about the Atzan midgets and the giant Narts. The Atzans were so small that they could walk on the stems of leaves, but they also displayed great physical power and courage. The downfall of the Atzans came when they rejected the existence of any authority, including God. They defiled their water sources and committed other sacrileges that compelled God to destroy them by fire. The Nart epics are shared by peoples throughout the North Caucasus. The Narts were warriors who fought, hunted, feasted, and engaged in martial games. They were the hundred giant sons of the same mother, Sataney-Guasha, who was known for her great beauty, perennial youth, and wisdom. Her husband became old and feeble and was not held in esteem. The brothers had one sister, named Gunda, whose beauty and gentleness drove her sisters-in-law to plot to kill her, and for this they were punished. The Nart tales depict Sataney-Guasha, the mother-in-law, as the victim of her scheming daughters-in-law, in contrast to European tales, where mothers-in-law are the most likely villains.
Christianity was brought to Abkhazia from Byzantium in the 6th century, and the Sunni sect of Islam was introduced by the Turks in the 15th and 16th centuries. Neither of these religions, however, ever completely eroded pagan beliefs, which still remain very strong. Families may mark both Islamic and Christian holidays and also conduct pagan rituals. According to the ancient Abkhazian religion, Afy rules the thunder and the weather; Shasta is the protector spirit who rules blacksmiths and the arts; Azhvepshaa is the spirit of the forest, wild animals, and hunting; and Aitar is the protector of domestic animals. The supreme god is Antzva, the plural form of the word for mother. There are several sacred sites in Abkhazia where individuals and families pray to the spirits of the Abkhazian pantheon.
The most important secular holidays are the New Year (December 31 and January 1) and the Old New Year (January 13 and 14) according to the Julian Calendar (also known as the Old Style Calendar), which was followed until Soviet government was established. This is a time for family gatherings. Another popular holiday, celebrated after the fall harvest, is called the lykhnashta (Lykhny Meadow). This brings people from all over Abkhazia to the village of Lykhny, where spectators watch breathtaking horse races and equestrian games and explore outdoor exhibits that boast produce and crafts from dozens of Abkhazian villages. Since 1993, September 30 has been celebrated as Liberation Day, which marks the routing of Georgian armed forces from Abkhazia. There is a parade of Abkhazian military forces and song and dance festivals.
RITES OF PASSAGE
It appears as though rites of passage were never part of Abkhazian culture. Until Soviet government was established in the 1920s, Abkhazians did not celebrate their birthdays or keep track of chronological ages. There are terms in the language that denote various stages of life. These stages are not defined by age; however, they refer to standards of behavior that fit a certain period in one's life.
All relationships are guided by an ancient code of honor known in the Abkhazian language as apsuara. This code is not merely a set of superficial manners, but rather a code of behavior dictated by a profound concept called Abkhazian alamys, or "Abkhazian behavior according to conscience." Such etiquette is typical of peoples who, like the Abkhazians, have survived through the millennia despite constant threats from formidable neighbors. In such cultures a high value is placed on honor befitting a true warrior. Thus, Abkhazian etiquette focuses on showing and expecting respect. This is reflected in the diverse forms of salutations, which vary considerably according to the age, social status, and gender of the parties. The most common greeting is "Good health to you." Other salutations are "Good day," "Glad to see you," and "Welcome." An older person must be the first to greet a younger one, and a person on horseback must be first to greet someone on foot. (It is necessary to raise oneself on one's stirrups, just as it is rude to stay sitting in a chair while saying hello.) Gestures are also important to the Abkhazians. When men meet, they make a hand-fist salute by raising the right hand. Handshakes, although not obligatory, are customary among younger people. It is also necessary to ask about the person's health, affairs, and relatives. Relatives greet each other with a gentle hug and a kiss on the left shoulder above the heart. It is customary to kiss children on the top of the head while placing a hand gently on the back of the neck. A common gesture of greeting for an elderly woman is to gently make a circle with her hand, which is intended as a blessing of safekeeping. Specific salutations are used depending on a person's trade and pursuits. To a blacksmith, one might say, "May your work bless you." To a hunter, the greeting would be, "May your game, good and killed, be waiting for you." The words of welcome spoken to a traveler back from a long journey translate as "Happy homecoming to you always." These words are also addressed to a soldier back from war.
The traditions of generous hospitality are sacred law and binding on every person. All guests must be given a heart-felt welcome, even if they are enemies, and never asked why they have come or for how long. Hosts offer guests their best food, which they reserve for just such occasions, and guests are provided the best sleeping accommodations. Abkhazians believe that guests bring wealth and good fortune, and they go to great lengths to please their company. A common saying is: "A guest brings seven pieces of good luck." Abkhazians maintain a space of at least a foot and a half between one another, and it is inappropriate to touch in most circumstances other than salutations. Shaking one's finger or similar gestures of displeasure and speaking in a loud voice are considered very rude behavior.
The majority of Abkhazians still live in rural areas in spacious stone or brick single-family homes with several bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The homestead is usually shared by three and four generations. Because land is plentiful, additional homes may be built on the same homestead to provide privacy for members of extended families. Traditionally, an Abkhazian kitchen was a separate structure. Now, however, kitchens are usually in the main house, and the old-fashioned kitchen has been replaced by a larger building where dozens of guests can be served at long tables. Abkhazian households are kept neat and clean, and there is usually ample space in the yard for lawns and for growing fruits and vegetables.
Increasingly, Abkhazians have settled in urban areas, where they live in the cramped, high-rise apartments typical of all the former Soviet republics. Apartments range from studios to three bedrooms and often accommodate extended families. In such housing it is difficult to maintain the traditional norms of Abkhazian etiquette, because the avoidance customs between certain family members require more space. The dilapidated water and sewage system inherited from the Soviet government causes the greatest inconvenience and considerable sanitation problems in urban areas. In city apartments, running water is available only a few hours a day, whereas homesteads in the countryside can provide their own water. Most Abkhazian city dwellers have close relatives still living in the countryside where they visit regularly, so they are not completely separated from their rural heritage and traditions.
The average number of children per family is two or three; more than five is rare. Perhaps small family size was an adaptation to conditions of frequent warfare, which made it important to be able to travel quickly and easily. Children are desired, and boys are important in the patrilineal system, but having children does not validate masculinity or femininity. An Abkhazian baby does not belong to its parents but to the family as a whole-to the aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, and sisters. Family life, especially in rural areas, is distinguished by taboos that dictate everyday behavior in the home. For instance, couples do not show affection in public or in front of relatives, including their own children. No matter how old a man is, he must not smoke or shave in his father's presence. A daughter-in-law may not speak in her father-in-law's presence unless he has given her explicit permission, which may take many years and the event is marked by a feast. Although these customs are dying out, many are still practiced and their legacy clearly influences contemporary family relations.
In the public domain, women enjoy fairly equal opportunities with men. In the home, their duties are distinctly different. Men and male children do not cook or clean. Men slaughter animals and usually cook meat for feasts, however, it is common for boys to serve guests. Children and women do not usually join guests at the table, but remain standing throughout a feast, never conversing with the guests, and remaining ever vigilant that wine glasses and plates are kept full. Wedding ceremonies can involve hundreds of guests who are accommodated at long tables outside the house. The groom and his senior relatives and friends come to the bride's father's house to escort her to the wedding. There they have a feast with drinking and speech making that lasts a few hours. The bride then rides on horseback or travels by car to the groom's household, accompanied only by her bridesmaids and a male friend or relative of her own age to see to it that her rights are protected. No one from her family attends the wedding at the groom's home, where she and the groom remain concealed from all the guests in separate quarters throughout the big feast. When guests visit the bride, she must not smile or reveal any joy over her wedding. The groom may appear briefly, but he also must not exhibit any joy over the occasion. To do so would be considered immodest, especially with regard to the elders. To demonstrate how modest, self-disciplined, and traditional they are, a couple may wait a day or even longer before spending their first night together. For a long time after the wedding, the couple must go to bed later than everyone else in the household and wake up earlier so that no one sees them go into or emerge from their bedroom. Any manifestation of affection or sexual desire in the presence of others is scorned. The prevalent attitude toward sex is that it is good and pleasurable when it is strictly private.
Abkhazians wear predominantly Western clothing, but women maintain a few traditional restrictions in keeping with the high value placed on what they consider to be modest behavior and dress. For instance, women never wear slacks, shorts, or blouses with low necklines or straps. It is acceptable to wear swimming suits on the beach, but minimal body exposure is the norm everywhere else. Both men and women wear black clothing after the death of a close relative. Men wear black for a month or so, but women wear a black dress, scarf, stockings, and shoes for a year or even longer. Widows may remain in black the rest of their lives. The number of women in black is so great, especially since the 1992-93 war, that black attire may appear to a visitor to be the national costume. On holidays and during family feasts, the male elders wear the traditional cherkesska, a belted black garment with long sleeves, which falls to mid-calf, and has a row of cartridge pouches on the chest. This is worn over a plain long-sleeved shirt. The cherkesska is common to all Caucasian peoples.
The traditional headdress for men is a bashlick, made of soft brown or black cloth with two long ends hanging from either side of the head to well below the shoulders. In the cold, the cloth can be wrapped around the face, and in the summer the end pieces are tied together at the back of the head. Men also wear a long felt cape called a burka to protect them from heat and cold. When a shepherd or hunter sleeps in the open fields, he wraps himself in his burka. Pants are tucked into calfskin or kid boots that are so tight they must be soaked in water and grease before being worn the first time. Traditionally, women wore white pantaloons gathered at the ankles and a high-collared, long-sleeved coat of thick material, which flared out as it descended from the waist. From an early age until her wedding night, a girl wore a narrow corset made of soft animal skin or strong linen to shape a narrow waist, flatten the breasts, and maintain an erect posture. Children and teenagers tend to wear stylish clothing much like their peers in any Western country.
The everyday diet of all Abkhazians consists of homegrown and home-processed foods, including yogurt and cheese, abundant raw fruits and vegetables, moderate meat consumption, and even less fish. This diet is low in fat and calories. Instead of bread, they eat a bland cornmeal mush, and dip it and other foods into spicy sauces made with Abkhazian salt (ajika), which is a tasty mixture of ground red peppers, up to a dozen herbs, and salt. Eating habits are formed in early childhood and persist consistently throughout a lifetime. The diet contains elements thought to be associated with low risk of heart disease and cancer. Meals are three times a day at regular times, with the biggest meal in the evening.
Children begin school at the age of six and graduate at seventeen. All grades are taught in the same school facility, which is called a secondary school. Some schools are named after historical or literary figures, but most are distinguished only by a number. There are very few elective courses. Schooling in the cities continues to a higher level than in rural areas. Parents regularly supervise and help with homework throughout secondary school. Higher education is valued highly, so parents and teachers strongly encourage students to go on with their schooling. Abkhazia has one university and several colleges.
Song, music, and dance are important to Abkhazian culture. There are wedding songs, ritual songs, cult songs, lullabies, healing songs, and work songs. There are special songs for the gathering of the lineage, for the ill, and songs celebrating the exploits of heroes. All of the arts are represented in Abkhazia. There are drama and dance companies, art museums, music schools, and theaters for the performing arts. Poetry and literature are also held in high regard.
Children learn how to work around the house and on the farm before they go to school, but it is like play for them. They are not required to do anything beyond their abilities. Th rough-out life, work is treated as an integral part of everyday living. An Abkhazian saying goes "Without rest, a man cannot work; without work, the rest is not beneficial." People continue working as long as they can.
The favorite spectator sports are soccer and equestrian contests. Every school has a soccer team. Most boys in rural areas learn how to ride horses and play fast-moving ball games on horseback. Traditionally, women also learned to ride, but this is no longer the case. Abkhazia has had two Olympic champions, one in javelin throwing and one in equestrian sports.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Most entertainment is informal, in small gatherings of family and friends at each other's homes. Whole evenings are spent indiscussions and eating around a big table filled with a variety of tasty dishes, wine, vodka, and cognac. Both young and old participate. Dancing and singing are common at larger gatherings such as weddings, which are quite frequent in the fall. Throughout the year, going to the theater is also a common form of entertainment. People of all ages chat at length over coffee and snacks at outdoor cafes. Men play board games in courtyards until late at night
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Among the oldest crafts of the Abkhazians are basket weaving, pottery, woodworking, and metalworking. The designs are simple and utilitarian because most of the craft items were intended for use in the home. Contemporary craftsmen and artists produce a wide range of sophisticated works based on traditional motifs.
The economy has been practically at a standstill since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the armed conflict of 1992-93. This has created unemployment, theft, and drug use, which are the biggest social problems. Some people without jobs and money rob their neighbors, and some who have endured the trauma of war, turn to drugs to forget their pain. The legal system is unable to combat the problems of crime and drugs because the government has problems of a major proportion in rebuilding the country. In some areas of the capital city of Sukhumi there are blocks where two of every three homes and buildings are no more than crumbling walls, and hotels and public buildings have been demolished by the fighting. Nongovernmental organizations have emerged from the grassroots to deal with these problems but do not have significant resources. They focus on healing post-traumatic stress syndrome, promoting conflict resolution training, and the principles of civil society.
Women in Abkhazia significantly outnumber the men. The Soviet legacy has raised expectations of equality among Abkhazian women, but in reality they cannot compete equally for jobs with men and do most of the housework and child rearing. Gender roles in the home are quite rigid. A man would never be seen washing dishes, for example, although he may do them privately. Women are active in the NGO community but are poorly represented in the government and parliament. Many are widowed and families headed by females are among the poorest in the region.
Benet, Sula. Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.
Garb, Paula. Where the Old Are Young: Long Life in the Soviet Caucasus. Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts Publishers, 1987.
Hewitt, George. The Abkhazians: A Handbook (Peoples of the Caucasus Handbooks), Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
—revised by S. Jones
LOCATION: Georgia (Abkhazia in the Caucasus region)
POPULATION: Under 100,000
1 • INTRODUCTION
Until the early 1990s, the Abkhazians were best known for leading unusually long and active lives. After the Soviet Union was dissolved in September 1991, the Abkhazians were involved in an armed conflict with the Georgians, a neighboring ethnic group. Thousands of Abkhazians were killed. Tens of thousands of refugees fled their homes. As a result, the Abkhazians now fear that they may become extinct as a people. In the 1989 Soviet census, there were already fewer than 100,000 Abkhazians.
In language, culture, and ethnic classification, Abkhazians are related to the Abazins (or Abaza), Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians.
2 • LOCATION
Abkhazia covers 3,300 square miles (8,500 square kilometers) between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains. About three-fourths of Abkhazia is mountainous. The region also has excellent seacoast resorts. The short distance between the coast and the mountains creates a landscape of striking contrasts.
The two largest cities are Sukhumi, the capital of the region, and Tkvarcheli, an industrial center.
3 • LANGUAGE
Abkhazian belongs to the northwest Caucasian family of languages spoken by the Abazins, Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians. There are very few words borrowed from other languages. Much of the vocabulary consists of concrete images. These include "helping leg" for a cane, and "mother's blood" for one's uncle.
Common girls' first names are Amra, Asida, Gunda, Esma, and Naala. Common boys' first names are Adgur, Akhra, Daur, Alkhas, and Gudisa.
4 • FOLKLORE
According to legend, when God was distributing land to all the peoples of the earth, the Abkhazians were entertaining guests. Because it would have been impolite to leave before their guests, the Abkhazians arrived late. All that God had left was some stones. Out of these he created a land of mountains that was hard to farm but very beautiful.
The oldest Abkhazian folk tales are about the Atzan midgets and the giant Narts. The Atzans were so small that they could walk on the stems of leaves. The Narts were one hundred giant sons of the same mother, Sataney-Guasha. They were warriors who fought, hunted, feasted, and engaged in military games. The Nart epic poems are shared by peoples throughout the North Caucasus region.
5 • RELIGION
Both Christianity and the Sunni sect of Islam are practiced among the Abkhazians. However, traditional beliefs still remain very strong. Families may mark both Islamic and Christian holidays and also conduct rituals in the traditional religion.
According to the ancient Abkhazian religion, the supreme god is Antzva (the plural form of the word for "mother"). Afy rules the thunder and the weather. Azhvepshaa is the spirit of the forest, wild animals, and hunting.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
The most important secular holidays are the modern New Year (December 31 and January 1) and the New Year according to the old Julian Calendar (January 13 and 14). This is a time for family gatherings. Another popular holiday is called the lykhnashta (Lykhny Meadow). Celebrated after the fall harvest, it brings people from all over Abkhazia to the village of Lykhny. There spectators watch breathtaking horse races and equestrian games. Since 1993, September 30 has been celebrated as Liberation Day. It marks the departure of Georgian armed forces from Abkhazia. On this day, there is a parade of Abkhazian military forces and there are song and dance festivals.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
Rites of passage are not a traditional part of Abkhazian culture. Until the Soviet era began in the 1920s, Abkhazians did not celebrate their birthdays or keep track of their chronological age. However, there are terms in the language that name various stages of life.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
All relationships are guided by an ancient code of honor known as apsuara. Abkhazian etiquette focuses on showing and expecting respect. The most common greeting is "Good health to you." Other salutations are "Good day," "Glad to see you," and "Welcome." An older person must be the first to greet a younger one. Similarly, a person on horseback must be first to greet someone on foot (by raising himself on his stirrups).
When men meet, they greet each other by raising their right hands. Handshakes are customary among younger people. It is also necessary to ask about the other person's health, business, and relatives. Relatives greet each other with a gentle hug and a kiss on the left shoulder above the heart. Abkhazians maintain a space of at least a foot and a half between them when they are facing each other and speaking. Other than salutations, it is inappropriate for people to touch in most circumstances.
Abkhazians believe that guests bring wealth and good fortune, so they go to great lengths to please their company. A common saying is, "A guest brings seven pieces of good luck."
The ability to make eloquent speeches is a highly prized skill. It is the main requirement for elders and community leaders. Ordinary people are also expected to make long speeches and toasts at family gatherings and public events.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Most Abkhazians still live in rural areas. They occupy spacious stone or brick single-family houses. Usually, a house has several bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The homestead is usually shared by three and four generations. Traditionally, an Abkhazian kitchen was a separate structure. Now, however, kitchens are usually in the main house. The old-fashioned kitchen has been replaced by a large building where dozens of guests can be served at long tables.
More and more, Abkhazians have settled in cities and towns. There they live in cramped, high-rise apartments like those in all the former Soviet republics. Apartments range from one room to three-bedroom units. Often they house an extended family (parents and children plus other relatives). In these dwellings it is difficult to keep traditional Abkhazian etiquette. In city apartments, running water is available only a few hours a day. Most homesteads in the countryside provide their own water.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
The average number of children per family is two or three; a family with more than five children is rare. An Abkhazian baby belongs to the family as a whole—to the aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, and sisters. Family life, especially in rural areas, is governed by taboos that dictate everyday behavior. For instance, couples do not show affection in public or even in front of their own children. A man must not smoke or shave in his father's presence. A daughter-in-law may not speak in her father-in-law's presence unless he gives her permission.
Wedding ceremonies can involve hundreds of guests. First there is a feast at the bride's father's house. The wedding then takes place in the groom's home. No one from the bride's family attends the wedding. The bride and the groom remain hidden from all the guests in a separate room throughout the big feast.
In public, women enjoy fairly equal opportunities with men. In the home, the situation is very different. Men and male children do not cook or clean. Women and children do not usually join guests at the table. They remain standing throughout a feast and do not talk with the guests.
11 • CLOTHING
Abkhazians wear mostly Western-style clothing. Children and teenagers tend to wear fashionable clothing, much like their peers in any Western country. Women, however, maintain a few traditions pertaining to modesty. They never wear slacks or shorts, or blouses with low necklines, but they may wear swimming suits on the beach.
On special occasions, the male elders wear the traditional cherkesska. This is a belted black garment with long sleeves, worn over a plain long-sleeved shirt. The traditional headdress for men is a bashlick. It has a long strip of cloth hanging from either side of the head to well below the shoulders. In cold weather, the cloth can be wrapped around the face. In the summer the end pieces are tied together at the back of the head. Men also wear a long felt cape called a burka.
Both men and women wear black clothing after the death of a close relative. Women wear a black dress, scarf, stockings, and shoes for a year or even longer. Widows may remain in black the rest of their lives.
12 • FOOD
Abkhazians eat homegrown and home-processed foods. Their everyday diet includes yogurt and cheese, plentiful raw fruits and vegetables, some meat, and little fish. Instead of bread, they eat a bland cornmeal mush. They dip it and other foods into spicy sauces made with Abkhazian salt (ajika). This is a tasty mixture of ground red peppers, up to a dozen herbs, and salt. Meals are eaten three times a day, with the biggest meal in the evening.
13 • EDUCATION
Children begin school at the age of six and graduate at seventeen. All grades are taught in the same school building, which is called a secondary school. There are very few elective courses. Schooling in the cities continues to a higher level than in rural areas. Abkhazia has one university and several colleges.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Song, music, and dance are important parts of Abkhazian culture. There are wedding songs, ritual songs, cult songs, lullabies, healing songs, and work songs. There are special songs for family gatherings and for the ill, and songs celebrating the exploits of heroes.
There are drama and dance companies, art museums, music schools, and theaters for the performing arts. Poetry and other forms of literature are also highly valued.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Throughout life, work is treated as a basic and natural part of everyday living. Children first learn how to work around the house and on the farm. An Abkhazian saying goes, "Without rest, a man cannot work; without work, the rest is not beneficial." People continue working as long as they can.
16 • SPORTS
The favorite spectator sports are soccer and games involving horseback riding. Every school has a soccer team. Most boys in rural areas learn how to ride horses and play fast-moving ball games on horseback. Traditionally, women also learned to ride, but this is not true any more. Abkhazia has had two Olympic champions, one in javelin throwing and one in equestrian (horseback) sports.
17 • RECREATION
Most entertainment takes place informally at small gatherings of family and friends. Abkhazians gather at each other's homes and spend whole evenings talking and eating. Young and old sit around a big table filled with tasty dishes, wine, vodka, and brandy. Dancing and singing are part of larger gatherings. The theater is also a common form of entertainment. People also like to chat over coffee and snacks at outdoor cafes. Men play board games in courtyards until late at night.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Among the oldest crafts of the Abkhazians are basket weaving, pottery, woodworking and metalworking. Most of the pieces produced are intended for use in the home.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the armed conflict of 1992–93 have led to an economic crisis. This has resulted in unemployment, theft, and drug use. Many of the houses and other buildings in the capital city of Sukhumi have been demolished in the fighting.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Benet, Sula. Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.
Brook, Stephen. Claws of the Crab:Georgia and Armenia in Crisis. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992.
Dolphin, Laurie. Georgia to Georgia: Making Friends in the U.S.S.R. New York: Tambourine Books, 1991.
Gachechiladze, R. G. The New Georgia: Space, Society, Politics. East European Studies, no. 3. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.
Garb, Paula. Where the Old Are Young: Long Life in the Soviet Caucasus. Palo Alto, Calif.: Ramparts Publishers, 1987.
Pitskhelauri, G. Z. The Longliving of Soviet Georgia. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1982.
Roberts, Elizabeth. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Former Soviet States. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1992.
Spilling, Michael. Georgia. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1998.
Embassy of Georgia, London, Eng. [Online] Available http://www.darafeev.com/georgia.htm, 1998.
World Travel Guide, Georgia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ge/gen.html, 1998.
Abkhazians call themselves Apswa (plural Apswaa). Abkhazia (capital: Sukhum/Aqw'a) comprises 8,700 square kilometers (between lat. 43°35'–42°27' N and long. 40°–42°08' E) bordering the Black Sea, the Caucasus, Mingrelia, and Svanetia. The early Soviets' drive to eradicate illiteracy saw Abkhaz attain literary status; like Circassian and Ubykh (extinct since 1992), Abkhaz is a northwest Caucasian language. Christianity arrived two centuries before its official introduction under Justinian sixth century. Sunni Islam spread with Ottoman Turkish influence from around 1500. Traditional paganism has never entirely disappeared, making adherence to either major religion relatively superficial, although within Abkhazia most Abkhazians are nominally Christian.
Life revolves around the extended family, morality (including respect for elders) being essentially determined by the dictates of custom (akjabz ) and an ever-present sense of "Abkhazianness" (apswara ). Local nobility fostered their offspring among the peasantry to cement societal relations— only captured foreigners served as slaves. English visitor James Bell noted in the 1830s that Abkhazians rendered this concept by their ethnonym for "Mingrelian" (ag ərwa ). Milk-brotherhood was another social bond, symbolic establishment of which between two warring families could end vendettas.
A semi-tropical climate with abundant water resources, forests, and mountain-pasturage dictated an economy based on animal husbandry, timber, and agriculture, with fruit, viticulture, and millet (yielding to maize in the nineteenth century) playing dominant roles; tea and tobacco gained importance in the twentieth century. Greece, Rome, Persia, Lazica, Byzantium, Genoa, Turkey, Russia, and Georgia have all influenced Abkhazian history. In the 780s Prince Leon II took advantage of Byzantium's weakness to incorporate within his Abkhazian Kingdom most of western Georgia, this whole territory being styled "Abkhazia" until 975 when Bagrat' III, inheriting Abkhazia maternally and Iberia (eastern Georgia) paternally, became first monarch of a united Georgia. This medieval kingdom disintegrated during the Mongol depredations (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries), and part of Abkhazia's population (the Abazinians, who speak the divergent Abaza dialect and today number around 35,000) settled in the north Caucasus. The Chachbas
controlled Abkhazia, the Dadianis controlled Mingrelia, vying for dominance in the border regions; the current frontier along the River Ingur dates from the 1680s.
Abkhazia became a Russian protectorate in 1810 but governed its own affairs until 1864 when, in the wake of imperial Russia's crushing of North Caucasian resistance (1864) and again after the 1877–1878 Russo-Turkish War, most Abkhazians (along with most Circassians and all the Ubykhs) migrated to Ottoman lands. Soviet power was established in 1921; this Abkhazian SSR was recognized by Georgia, the two then contracting a treaty-alliance that lasted until Abkhazia's 1931 demotion to an "autonomous republic" within Georgia. The Stalin years were characterized by forced (largely Mingrelian) immigration and suppression of the language and culture in an attempted Georgianization.
Post-Soviet Georgian nationalism led to war in August 1992. Abkhazian victory in September 1993 resulted in the mass flight of most of the local Mingrelian population, numerically the largest group in prewar Abkhazia. The conflict remained unresolved as of the early twenty-first century. Abkhazia declared independence in October 1999 but remains unrecognized. There are roughly 100,000 Abkhazians in Abkhazia (or ex-Soviet territories) and up to 500,000 across the Near East, predominantly in Turkey, where the language is neither taught nor written.
See also: caucasus; cherkess; georgia and georgians; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist
Benet, Sula. (1974). Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Hewitt, George. (1993). "Abkhazia: A Problem of Identity and Ownership." In Central Asian Survey 12(3): 267–323.
Hewitt, George, ed. (1999). The Abkhazians: A Handbook. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.
Hewitt, George, and Khiba, Zaira. (1997). An Abkhaz Newspaper Reader. Kensington, MD: Dunwoody Press.
B. George Hewitt