Meskhetian Turks

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ETHNONYMS: Meskhetian Turks, Turks; Russian: Meskhetinskie Turki


Identification. The traditional homeland of the Meskhetians is in south-southwestern Georgia, to the south of the Meskhetian mountain ridge. This is a highland region, with a temperate-cold climate quite different from the subtropical conditions in the Georgian lowlands. Agriculture and other aspects of the culture reflect the ecological niche in which the Meskhetians lived.

Location and Demography. A compact population of Meskhetians, presently numbering around 500,000, inhabited that region of Georgia until the 1940s. In November 1944, as part of the Stalinist policy of deportation, the Meskhetian ethnic group was denounced as "enemies of the Soviet people," forced to leave Transcaucasia, and resettled in Central Asia (mostly in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizia) without the right to change their places of residence or leave their territory of resettlement. The entire population, inhabiting over 200 villages in southern Georgia (115,500 people, plus 40,000 who were at that time serving at the front), was deported.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Meskhetian language is classified in the Oghuzic Subgroup of the Turkic Family.

History and Cultural Relations

A Meskhetian population, speaking a language from the Oghuzic Subgroup of the Turkic Family, can be identified in Meskheti as early as the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. This was a time of cataclysmic events in Transcaucasia, of continual fighting in this area between Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Persia. The ongoing expansion of the Turkic world (the penetration of the Seljuks, the Tatar-Mongolian invasions, the devastating onslaughts led by Tamerlane) resulted in a massive influx of Turkic settlers into Transcaucasia and the mixing of the latter with the native populations. The territory of Meskheti was not protected from Turkic areas by any sort of natural barriers, and nothing impeded the swift migration of Turkic nomadic herds-people toward the north and their gradual sedentarization. The mass influx of Turkic peoples into the region and their subsequent assimilation resulted in the Turkic substrate of what was later to be the Meskhetian people. The province of Meskheti (the former Georgian principality of Samtskhe-Saatabago, the Akhaltsikhe pashalïk of Turkey), being a border territory between Georgia and Turkey, had been the site of a distinct national-cultural development long before the expansion of Ottoman Turkey in the sixteenth century.

Until their deportation, the Soviet Turks were compactly settled in villages, some of which were homogeneously Turkish, others with a mixed population: their neighbors included Georgians, Armenians, and Kurds. The intensity and direction of interethnic contact reflected the nature of agricultural activities, ethnocultural characteristics, and religious affiliation of the peoples involved. Despite the long period during which a sizable segment of the Meskhetians were under the cultural and administrative hegemony of Christian Georgia, they maintained their distinct ethnocultural identity. Several factors contributed to this. Among the most important was their physical isolation from Georgia, which limited the extent of their contacts. In contrast, the villages at lower altitudes, were in zones of interethnic contact and maintained closer ties with their Georgian neighbors. The tendency was nonetheless to have contacts only within the Meskhetian community. As it was administratively within Georgia, relations between Meskheti and Turkey were restricted. However, despite the fact that the Meskhetian settlements were more distant from the cultural and administrative centers of Turkey than from those of Georgia (e.g., Batumi, Borjomi), the intensity of cultural and religious ties with Turkey and the historic opposition between Muslim and Christian regions served to hinder any strong influence of Georgian culture.

The above-mentioned factors did not exclude various forms of contact, the foremost being exchange and trade. Meskhetian agriculture was highly developed, including the widespread use of irrigation with wooden and ceramic conduits, cattle herding (with the animals being taken to summer pastures in the mountains), and gardening. This provided them with a variety of products to bring to Georgian markets: fruits, vegetables, wool, meat, and dairy products. Certain villages specialized in the production of honey and tobacco. At the same time, the market served as a locus for contact with Georgian material culture. The influence of Georgian and general Caucasian culture is especially visible in traditional clothing and other aspects of material culture. Contact with the neighboring Armenians was primarily through trade in agricultural products and also through the practice of lodging the larger livestock with Armenians during the winter.

Among the groups with whom the Meskhetians were in contact were the so-called Franks (Firenk). It is not possible at present to determine the ethnic identity of this group. It has been established that the Franks in this region were Georgian- and Armenian-speaking Catholics, distinguished from their neighbors by the lighter color of their skin, hair, and eyes and also by the absence of a prohibition on the eating of meat from cattle that died from natural causes. It is well known that the designation "Frank" was applied throughout the East to European Catholics. Taking into account the religious affiliation and the physical features of the Firenk, one might postulate that they represent the remnants of Christian soldiers who had participated in one of the unsuccessful campaigns of the Crusades. Somehow they found themselves in Meskheti, where they took up residence, eventually being absorbed into the local population. Another possible explanation is that the Franks were connected with the activity of Jesuit missionaries in certain isolated communities.

With the deportation of the Meskhetians in the mid-19405, their relationship with the peoples of Transcaucasia was severed. The subsequent period might be considered a new phase in the formation of contemporary Meskhetian culture. The Meskhetians, resettled in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizia, found themselves in a situation quite conducive to ethnic contact. Given that the local populations were practically all Muslims who spoke Turkic dialects, conditions seemed ideal for interethnic exchange. In principle, one would expect this small immigrant group, sharing a common religion and language with their new neighbors, to be readily absorbed into the population. This did not happen, however, for a number of reasons. Among them was the intensification of Meskhetian ethnic self-consciousness, a development typical of forcibly deported peoples. The attitudes of the local ethnic groups also played a role. Although the immigrants, on the whole, were received amicably, the natural opposition between "natives" and "newcomers" was exacerbated by the political situation. Physical differences between the groups were also a barrier to close ties. Another factor was the typical opposition between "nomadic" and "settled" populations, especially in Kazakhstan and Kirghizia. At the end of the 1960s the status of che Soviet Turks as "special migrants" (Russian spetspereselentsi ) was abolished, and a new wave of migration began into a wider area of settlement. A significant number of Meskhetians resettled in Azerbaijan. The number of immigrants there sharply increased after nearly two dozen Meskhetians were slain in the summer of 1989 by Uzbeks in Fergana. This ethnic conflict had become so violent that in the end practically all Turks left Central Asia (especially Uzbekistan). This recent wave of migration has resulted in the dispersion of the Meskhetians among all of the republics of the former USSR except Georgia.


Much of traditional Meskhetian material culture was lost as a result of the forced resettlement. The loss was especially marked in regard to agricultural practices, food, clothing, and architecture. The Turks, finding themselves in new ethnic and economic situations and lacking the experience necessary to cope with them, resorted to borrowing from their neighbors the basic components needed for daily life. Among these were the systems of agriculture and animal husbandry and the basic forms of the contemporary dwelling. Even as they maintained several symbols of their traditional culture (festival costumes, several characteristic types of headgear, food ingredients, festival cuisine), the Meskhetians borrowed other cultural elements from the Central Asians (some aspects of traditional dress, cuisine, and the interior layout of the home). There were in essence two types of borrowing: (1) those necessary to cope with the needs of daily life and (2) borrowings that functioned as communicative signs in the realm of interethnic contact. The loss of their traditional agricultural practices, in the context of the further disruption of their traditional way of life, has compelled the Meskhetians to adopt new techniques compatible with their new circumstances. For the most part, this has been within the framework of village agriculture and gardening on the private plots allotted to collective farmers. The produce is sold at the market. It must be noted that until their expulsion from the Caucasus, the Meskhetians practically saturated the markets of Georgia with high-quality agricultural products. Today the goal of the Meskhetian population is to rebuild their ruined villages and cultivate once again their abandoned fields.


Marriage among the Meskhetians was contracted between parties considered to be blood relations, but the pool of eligible partners was supplemented with artificial (or fictive) kin, who are not related genetically. This practice pertains to a person's patrilocal group (kirva ), the social function of which is similar to that of one's godparents. This group might include representatives of other ethnic communities. When one family takes on the role of artificial parent of a child from another family, the two groups are considered blood relatives. One way of doing this is the adoption of children from families with many children. The fact of adoption is confirmed by a ritual, at the conclusion of which the woman adopting the child, in the presence of her husband, passes the naked infant through the opening below the hem of her undershirt, in imitation of giving birth. These traditional practices served as a kind of self-regulating compensatory mechanism, allowing the continuation of preferred (structurally) endogamous marriage, whereas the various forms of artificial kinship enabled fresh blood to enter the genetic pool. Given the restrictions of endogamy, the institution of artificial kinship provided for the viability of the society.

Marriage and Family

At the beginning of the twentieth century large extended families were still present among the Meskhetians. Patriarchal and Islamic traditions have been maintained in the domestic sphere. Marriages were endogamous and patrilocal. If today tradition is not as stable, there are still preferences in regard to marriage, with the most typical being marriage between relatives whose common link was four generations earlier. The marriage was traditionally contracted when the couple was quite young. The matrimonial cycle consists of the agreement, the official matchmaking at the fiancée's home, an evening banquet, and the wedding itself. On the day when the wedding date is set, the father of the bride receives the bride-price, usually worth about 10,000 rubles. By custom, half of this sum is returned during the preparations for the wedding. On Thursday, the day before the wedding celebration, the matrimony is confirmed according to Sharia (Islamic religious law) in the presence of a mullah and two witnesses. Meskhetian weddings are colorful affairs with many people participating. This tradition appears to be stably maintained to the present day. Despite the disappearance of many components of the traditional way of life, the matrimonial cycle has not only been preserved, but has collected (and continues to collect) within its structure many elements that had vanished from other spheres of the culture and that earlier had not been part of the wedding rituals. The contemporary Meskhetian wedding, with its accumulation of variegated elements of the traditional culture, has become a special repository for an otherwise disappearing culture. The matrimonial cycle concludes with the procession of the newlyweds to the husband's home, which was specially constructed for this occasion. Here the newlyweds commence their life together in accordance with the norms of Islam and the customs of traditional Turkish society. Kinship relations (and likewise the entire system of kinship terminology) correspond to those of classical Turkish Islamic culture, with the exception of certain local variations.

Sociopolitical Organization

The possibility of Meskhetians returning to their historical homeland in southern Georgia was severely curtailed by the abolition of the status of special migrants. This was a result of the position taken by Georgia, linking the return of the Meskhetians to the republic to the requirement that they acknowledge themselves to be Georgians and replace their Turkish family names with Georgian ones. An insignificant number of Meskhetians accepted Georgian nationality, but the overwhelming majority, with a stronger sense of ethnic self-consciousness, rejected the conditions. They continue to insist on their Turkish national identity while trying to negotiate their return to Georgia. The conflict among segments of the Meskhetian community was resolved at the 9th Congress of Turks held in Kabardino-Balkaria (named the "Congress of Unity"), which took the form of a traditional meeting with the blessing of a mullah: the congress denounced the advocates of the "Georgian" position and required them to acknowledge the error of their views. But the problem of resettlement remains unresolved to the present day, even more so given the decision by the Georgian government to resettle those Georgians victimized by the 1991 earthquake in Meskheti.

In view of the condition of temporary residence outside of Georgia, contacts between the Meskhetians and local populations have been reduced to a minimum, limited to economic matters. Relations with local groups are determined by the community. At the same time, there has been an increase in political activity among the Meskhetians, in conjunction with more than ten political congresses (which only in recent years have been held openly) and over 400 delegations to the leadership of Georgia and of the USSR in connection with the problem of repatriation. Until recently the members of the delegations, and likewise the participants active in the nationalist movement (the Return to the Homeland Committee), have been leaders whose popularity and authority derive from their political activism and readiness to make sacrifices for the cause of reimmigration. Among the contemporary leaders, those who a few years earlier were brought to trial because of their political activities and held in places of detention enjoy special esteem.

The intensification of nationalist processes throughout the country has also contributed to the formation of the Meskhetian leadership. Under conditions of the progressive increase of ethnic self-awareness, among the important factors contributing to the popularity of a leader are: taking a hard line in regard to the restoration of justice for the Soviet Turks, demanding offical acknowledgment of the illegality of the deportation, and striving for the realization of a consolidated and clearly developed adherence to the values of traditional culture. Recent political events and societal changes in the country have led to the transformation of Meskhetian society from a kinship-based community to a political one. This change was accompanied by a shift in the dominant function of the community from that of governing internal affairs to that of dealing with external matters and likewise a change in the leadership, with community elders being replaced by political leaders. At the same time, the community, maintaining internal relations while controlling the influence of outside groups, has revived the previously lost ethnocultural values and fostered the growth of ethnic self-awareness. For an ethnic group such as the Meskhetians, which has undergone resettlement and dispersion, the maintenance of endogamy has special significance. The community can be a regulating force if it is sufficiently close-knit, resulting in marriages within the group and the preservation of cultural traditions. (The degree of internal cohesion of the Meskhetian community is clear in the context of the other ethnic groups with whom they have had long-term contact.)

Religion and Expressive Culture

The religious and ritual practice of the Meskhetians is also consistant with Islamic norms and formally quite orthodox. There are only some insignificant deviations or additions in a few Muslim rituals. For example, while observing all of the classic canonical forms of the funeral rites, the Meskhetians, over the course of several nights after the burial of the deceased, light a fire over the freshly dug grave. For this reason, according to popular belief, anyone who sees a fire at night is induced to pray for the dead. Daily life is regulated not only by the strict canons of Islamic society, but also involves older pre-Islamic rituals, beliefs, magical practices, and sorcery, which have been preserved to the present day. One still observes the practice of inducing rain by imitative magic (the rattling of pebbles against a brass basin), the healing of people and animals with "moon water" (water left standing overnight under a clear sky), the wearing of various amulets and protective talismans, etc. Some rituals and festivals associated with agriculture and animal husbandry are still partially maintained. For example, echoes of the festival of the first furrow can be detected in the custom of breaking an egg against the head of an ox before plowing. Several components of the traditional spring festival kïzgalin (a folk celebration in the pastures after the spring weeding) have been harmoniously integrated into the contemporary wedding (dances, games, pantomimes, fortune-telling).

On the whole, in recent decades the distinctive culture of the Meskhetians has been greatly disrupted; as a result, its fundamental framework has all but disappeared. With the increase in political activism and because of the growing belief in the need to consolidate ethnocultural processes in Meskhetian society, however, there is a clear tendency toward a cultural rebirth. Although a certain segment of the population, owing to a lack of prospects for a return to Georgia, is inclined toward emigration to Turkey, the large majority of Meskhetians continues to concentrate in Azerbaijan, where land has been granted them. Despite the fact that the situation there is becoming more difficult because of the hostilities between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, all Meskhetians still enjoy the option of resettling in Azerbaijan if they wish. Still, this does not represent a solution to the problem of deportation, and it is questionable whether a more positive resolution of the impasse can be expected.


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EMMA KH. PANESH AND L. B. ERLOMOV (Translated by Kevin Tuite)

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The Meskhetian Turks are a Muslim people who originally inhabited what is today southwestern Georgia. They speak a Turkic language very similar to Turkish. Deported from their homeland by Josef V. Stalin in 1944, the Meskhetian Turks are scattered in many parts of the former Soviet Union. Estimates of their number range as high as 250,000. Their attempts to return to their homeland in Georgia have been mostly unsuccessful.

While other groups deported from the Caucasus region at roughly the same time were accused of collaborating with the Nazis, Meskhetian Turk survivors report that different reasons were given for their deportation. Some say they were accused of collaborating, others say they were told that the deportation was for their own safety, and still others were given no reason whatsoever. The deportation itself was brutal, with numerous fatalities resulting from both the long journey on crammed railroad cars and the primitive conditions in Central Asia where they were forced to live. Estimates of the number of deaths range from thirty to fifty thousand.

In the late 1950s Premier Nikita Khrushchev allowed the Meskhetian Turks and other deported peoples to leave their camps in Central Asia. Unlike most of the other deported peoples, however, the Meskhetian Turks were not allowed to return to their ancestral homeland. The Georgian SSR was considered a sensitive border region and as such was off limits. The Meskhetian Turks began to disperse throughout the Soviet Union, with many ending up in the Kazakh, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz SSRs and others in Soviet Azerbaijan and southern European Russia. They were further dispersed in 1989 when several thousand Meskhetian Turks fled deadly ethnic riots directed at them in Uzbekistan.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Meskhetian Turks have tried to return to their ancestral homeland in newly independent Georgia, but they face strong opposition. Georgia already has a severe refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced by conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In addition, the substantial Armenian population of the Meskhetian Turks' traditional homeland does not want them back. The Georgians view the Meskhetian Turks as ethnic Georgians who adopted a Turkic language and the Muslim religion. They insist that any Meskhetian Turks who wish to return must officially declare themselves Georgian, adding Georgian suffixes to their names and educating their children in the Georgian language.

The Meskhetian Turks are scattered across the former Soviet Union, with the largest populations in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. In southern European Russia's Krasnodar Krai, the local population of Meskhetian Turks, most of whom fled the riots in Uzbekistan, have received particularly rough treatment. The Meskhetian Turks of this region are denied citizenship and, according to Russian and international human rights organizations, frequently suffer bureaucratic hassles and physical assaults from local officials intent on driving them away. In 1999, as a condition of membership in the Council of Europe, the Georgian government announced that it would allow for the return of the Meskhetian Turks within twelve years, but despite international pressure it has taken little concrete action in this direction.

See also: deportations; georgia and georgians; islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Blandy, Charles. (1998). The Meskhetians: Turks or Georgians? A People Without a Homeland. Camberley, Surrey, UK: Conflict Studies Research Centre, Royal Military Academy.

Open Society Institute. (1998). "Meskhetian Turks: Solutions and Human Security." <>.

Sheehy, Ann, and Nahaylo, Bohdan. (1980). The Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans and Meskhetians: Soviet Treatment of Some National Minorities. London: Minority Rights Group.

Justin Odum