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ETHNONYMS: Adyghe, Cherkess (Tscherkess), Dzhigets, Kabardians, Ubykhs (Oubykhs)


Identification. The Circassians and their close kin, the Ubykhs, all call themselves "Adyghe" (three syllables). They originally inhabited an area of the northwestern Caucasus, though after the Russian conquest of 1864 fully half of them emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. Today they live not only in their original homeland but also in scattered groups in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Yugoslavia, with small communities in Europe and North America (New Jersey, New York, and California). Within the Soviet Union they are found, going from west to east, in and around the Adyghe Republic (also known as Adyghea), the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, and the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, all three being federated with the Russian Republic. In Adyghea they share their territory with Ukrainians; in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic with Ukrainians, Turkic Karachays, and Northwest Caucasian Abazas; and in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic with Great Russians and Turkic Balkars. Racially they are comprised of varied European types. In certain tribes many people have blue eyes and blond or red hair, whereas others have dark hair with light complexions. Some groups show a propensity toward long, aquiline faces and dolichocephalic heads, whereas others tend toward round faces and brachycephaly. Many have almond-shaped eyes and fine features. Epicanthic folds are common. Their physical variety attests to their long and varied history.

Location. Originally their homeland extended from the Black Sea coast at the mouth of the Sea of Azov (Taman Peninsula), down along the coast to the Psu River, thence over the Caucasian massif and southeastward along its eastern slopes down into the basins of the Baksan, Malka, and Kuma rivers, then into the so-called Kabardinian plain to a point north of the Terek River, thence northwestward to the course of the Kuban, and along the south bank of the Kuban back to the Taman Peninsula. This original homeland was bounded on the west by the Black Sea; on the northwest by the Crimea; on the north by the Ukraine; on the east by the territory of the Chechens and Daghestanis; to the south by the upland territories of the Ossetes, the Georgian mountaineers, and the Svans; and to the southwest by the land of the Abkhazians. In terms of latitude and longitude their homeland is roughly demarcated: 45°30 N, 38°09 E at its northwestern extremity; 45° N, 44°45 E at its northeastern extremity; 43° N, 41°05 E at its southeastern extremity; and 43°30 N, 39° E at its southwestern extremity. On the coastal plains of the Black Sea (to the west of Adyghea) the climate is warm and humid, growing cooler as the Caucasian foothills are crossed. In the three administrative units the climate is cooler in the highlands and moderate in the rolling hills and plains of the lowlands, where more than half the year is frost-free. Rainfall is moderate. Vegetation ranges from steppe meadows in the plains, to beech and oak forests in the foothills, to evergreen forests and alpine meadows in the mountains. There are many rivers and streams throughout the region, many of which run through heavily forested gorges.

Demography. The vast majority of Circassians live outside the Soviet Union, where their exact numbers are impossible to determine. The following estimates have been made: Turkey, 150,000-1,000,000; Jordan, 20,000-100,000; Israel, 15,000; and New Jersey, United States, 18,000. Within the Soviet Union there are 46,000 Cherkess, 322,000 Kabardians, and 109,000 Adyghes, but the latter figure does not count many Circassians living to the west of the Adyghe Republic. The Karachay-Cherkess Republic is overwhelmingly Ukrainian, with the Circassians accounting for only 9 percent of the population; the Kabardino-Balkar Republic has many Great Russians, with the Circassians accounting for roughly 50 percent of the population, the Adyghe Republic has no more than 25 percent native Circassians within its boundaries, but the population is perhaps greater than 50 percent Circassian in the region surrounding it. In all three regions the Circassians form a rural village population, with the cities being predominantly Slavic.

Linguistic Affiliation. Circassian and Ubykh form two branches of the Northwest Caucasian Language Family, the third being the Abaza-Abkhaz Branch. Ubykh (nearly extinct) formed a transitional language between Circassian and Abaza-Abkhaz. Circassian itself is divided into a conservative Western or Kyakh language, often called Adyghean, and an Eastern one, Kabardian. Besleney, centered in the Karachay-Balkar Republic, is a dialect transitional between the two. Besleney has strongly influenced Abaza, the Abkhaz language spoken in and around the republic. The languages of this family are remarkable for their complexityfor example, the verb can inflect for all persons in a sentence, and most of the vocabulary is formed from more basic roots by extensive processes of compoundingand for their radical departure from the grammatical patterns that characterize the dominating Turkic and Indo-European languages of this region.

The nobility used a "hunting language" derived from standard Circassian by wordplay and distortions. I was once told by an old Ossete (Alexander Zuraetae) that the upper-class Circassian women shared in a northern Caucasian women's language, which was monosyllabic with distinctive pitch. Professor Tamerlan Guri of the North Ossetic Research Institute has suggested that a special jargon or language for small girls was current among some Circassians, as it was among Ossetes. The hunting language died out in the nineteenth century; the women's (or girls') language survived into the twentieth.

Some attempts were made to formulate a Circassian written language in the nineteenth century, using the Arabic script. In the 1920s two literary languages emerged, Adyghean based on the Chemgwi (Kemirgoy; Russian: Temirgoy) dialect of western Circassians and Kabardian based on the Baksan dialect. The first alphabets were based on the Arabic script, then the Latin was adopted, and finally in the late 1930s the Cyrillic was used. Currently efforts are under way to devise a new Latin-based script.

Folklorists both within and without the Soviet Union have recorded extensive texts in all the Circassian dialects and in Ubykh. In the Middle East, only Israel allows publication of material in Circassian.

History and Cultural Relations

At a remote period (3000 b.c.) the Circassian homeland was the site of the Bronze Age Kurgan culture, now identified with the Proto-Indo-Europeans. It is possible that the ancestors of the Circassians may themselves have taken part in this Kurgan culture, for very remote linguistic links between the Proto-Indo-European and Northwest Caucasian languages can be posited. In any event, the Circassians have been in or near their homeland for millennia and have had contacts with the myriad peoples who have passed across the steppes to their north: the Proto-Indo-Europeans; the Kimmerians (from whom the Circassian tribe of the Chemgwi, earlier Kemirgoy,) are descended; the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans; the Goths; the Huns; the Khazars; the Turkic peoples; the Mongols; and lastly the Cossacks, Ukrainians, and Russians. During these millennia the Circassians knew almost constant warfare with these steppe neighbors. More peaceful contacts prevailed between the Circassians and the ancient Greeks in the trading cities along the Black Sea coast, later between them and the Genoese, and then with Venetian traders. Between a.d. 1379 and 1516 Circassians formed a Mameluke dynasty that ruled over Egypt. There is some evidence linking these Mamelukes with the fourteenth-century expansion of the Kabardians eastward of the Caucasian massif. Despite the lack of a centralized government the Kabardians formed a homogeneous political unit resembling a state, whereas the other Circassians remained organized around tribal and clan patterns. During their history the Circassians seem to have been conquered only three times: first by the Kök Turks, the first Turkic empire; second by the Mongols; and last by the Russians. When in the sixteenth century one of the Kabardian noble families, Kemirgoquo (Russian: Temryuk), established close ties with the Russian court (the origin of the Cherkasski family), the Circassians did not see this alliance as an act of submission. Nevertheless, when czarist imperial ambitions brought Russian troops to the Caucasus in force in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Kabardians did not offer prolonged resistance, whereas their kin to the west fought onat first with Ottoman support and then independentlyuntil 1864, five years after the fierce Daghestanis and Chechens had surrendered. An account of this Circassian resistance has been written by Henze (1990), though many details remain to be documented. After defeat, fully half of the Circassiansincluding many Kabardians and all the Ubykhs, as well as all the "Fighetts," a tribe of uncertain affiliationsought refuge in the Ottoman Empire. There they were scattered to the farthest, least desirable regions, where many died of hunger and disease. This emigration was a crucial error, for in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states they have known as much repression as their compatriots who stayed behind. Recently (1991) the old Soviet administrative unitsthe Adyghe Autonomous Oblast, the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast, and the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republicwere elevated in status to three republics and were allowed to fly the old common Circassian flag, the Sangyak Sherif, with three crossed arrows and above them two arcs of stars (nine above and three below, one for each tribe), all on a deep green background. Cultural affairs for all three republics are governed by one common Circassian cultural council, or khasa. A program for the repatriation of diaspora Circassians has been instituted, and some few have in fact returned to grants of land and other incentives. All these changes have survived the dissolution of the USSR itself. The avowed goal of the Circassians is an ethnically and linguistically pluralistic society in which Circassian cultural institutions can once again enjoy a territorial basis. The future of the region promises to be interesting.

The Circassians in the Soviet Union underwent forced resettlement onto kolkhozy and into new villages in the lowlands. Traditional housing styles were replaced with standard Soviet rural brick homes with small plots around them. Some Circassians have moved to the new local cities and have established themselves in modern urban life. The Circassians in Turkey are still largely peasants, with a few that have taken up military careers. The Ubykhs still persist as a distinct type of Adyghe, but their language is now spoken only by one man and one woman. In Jordan, the Circassians are concentrated in and around Amman, where they own a great deal of property and have been entrusted with the state electrical and power monopoly. They enjoy Circassian radio and television but are not allowed to publish in their language. In Syria the Circassians were concentrated in five villages in the Golan Heights. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War these Circassians withdrew into Syria, specifically to slum districts of Damascus. Finding their settlements unacceptable, they petitioned the United States in the mid-seventies to be granted asylum. The United States initiated a program with the aid of the Tolstoy Foundation of New York City to enable many of these Circassians to immigrate into America, where they settled in New Jersey and New York City. In Israel, the two villages of Circassians appear to enjoy relative freedom and have a tradition of serving Israel as an elite border patrol. In the United States, the Circassian communities are largely urban. Here there is considerable tension and debate between those few who came directly from the Caucasus and the vast majority who have come from the Middle East as to the purity of their traditions and the best way to salvage their heritage, for there is considerable anxiety that they are destined for extinction as a people. Some harbor dreams of a repatriation of all Circassians to the Caucasus, and there is a movement, based in Holland, dedicated to achieving that end by peaceful means. It might be mentioned that the only Ubykhs outside of Turkey reside in southern California.


The traditional Circassian wuna was a long rectangular house with a porch extending along its front. It was made of wattle coated with mud, with a thatch roof. The kitchen and eating area had a conical flue over the hearth. There were several rooms, including at least one for the women. The house itself had a vegetable garden behind it and several satellite houses for sons and their families, as well as outbuildings for livestock and food storage. This complex was enclosed in a stockade. Close to this perimeter was a guest house for visitors. The main house would have a large tree planted before its door to symbolize the growth and strength of the family. The whole complex would be near a forest where the family could take shelter in the event of a raid. These units would be spaced fairly far apart along the course of a river, generally in the higher country, though trading posts were in the lowlands. Thus, the traditional Circassian village was much like a necklace, with a river for its chain. Today, in the lowland villages to which they have been moved in the Soviet Union, standardized small brick country homes with surrounding garden plots have replaced traditional patterns. In their immigrant villages in the Middle East, Circassians still build wunas and live in extended family compounds, but the other traditional features have vanished. In the Soviet Union, they live in cities. In Adyghea there is Maikop, with nearby Armavir and Krasnodar lying outside its boundary. In the Karachay-Cherkess Republic there is Cherkassk and nearby Stavropol. In the Kabardino-Balkar Republic there is Nalchik and nearby Mozdok. These centers do have Circassian institutes and schools, and some Circassians have moved there to be near their work in the city industries, but there are no official statistics regarding how many Circassians have done so. In Maikop, for example, it seems that of a population of 105,000, roughly 20 percent is Circassian.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Circassians traditionally practiced agriculture and animal husbandry. They grew a variety of grains (millet, maize, wheat, rye), fruit, vegetables, and nuts. They raised chickens, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and especially horses. Many families were known for their horse breeds, and skill in horsemanship was highly valued. They also practiced apiculture, producing honey and mead. In the highlands, hunting also supplemented the food supplies. The traditional diet consisted of bread, pilaflike dishes, milk and cheeses, thick gruels made of various grains, vegetable and fruit dishes, and the occasional meat dish in a spicy nut sauce.

Industrial Arts. Home industriesmetalworking, the creation of leather goods, and the production of cloth and clothingwere also pursued. As a group Circassians show considerable dexterity and geometric sense, and some immigrants are surgeons or precision machinists.

Trade. The two tribes of the Black Sea coast, the Natukhay and Shapsegh, appear to have engaged in trade. It is not clear whether this was also the case with the Ubykhs, who also lived along the coast. In this honor-oriented culture, money and material possessions were and still are treated with disdain, and trade was not as extensive as raiding.

Division of Labor. Men tended to metal-and leatherworking and even some sewing. Women tended to household chores, the vegetable garden, spinning, and weaving. Men occupied themselves with animal husbandry, especially that of horses, but both genders helped in planting and harvesting. The men hunted.

Land Tenure. In the Soviet Union there was no private property. Now land is being slowly turned over to private ownership. Earlier, land was passed down from father to son, with several sons often dividing a large holding. Sometimes sons would move off with their families to establish homesteads elsewhere. With a history of nearly constant warfare, Circassians seem never to have had a problem with overcrowding.


Kin Groups and Descent. Families were patrilocal and partially patriarchal. Descent was patrilineal. Nuclear families had mixed rule. The wife had authority over many household matters, but the husband was ultimate arbiter in cases of dispute. When the nuclear families were gathered into an extended one, which was usually the case, the father of the sons and his wife assumed comparable roles over the whole. The extended family itself was set within the larger context of the tlapq, the blood frame or clan, consisting of linear and collateral male relatives, with their position in this framework determined by their tl'aqu, the male descendants of a particular ancestor. Members of a tlapq all share a common name, though only patronymic and given names (in that order) and nicknames were used socially.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is analytical. It reads like a literal translation of the anthropologist's elicitation list: "father's sister's son" (i.e., cousin). In West Circassian, consanguineal terms must use the grammatical markers of inalienable possession (for example, one must say s-sh'he, "my son"), whereas affinal kin terms are alienably possessed. "Father," "mother," and "wife" show alienable possession but with a special intimate-association prefix. The semantics of this analytical system show some peculiarities. For example, in Bzhedukh West Circassian "brother" is sh'he and "daughter" is pkhu, and yet together they form "sister," sh'he-pkhu. Imposed on this kin network is a set of emotional relationships that have made this system a paradigm within kinship theory: the Cherkess-Trobriand kinship system. The relationship of the husband to his wife and children is very formal and limited in a public setting (saying nothing of the actual emotional content of these relationships within the privacy of the home). The relationship of a woman to her brother(s) and of her children to their maternal uncle(s) is, on the contrary, highly spontaneous and familiar. Male Ego's brother's sons are his sons. A widow is supported by her husband's surviving brothers.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages traditionally were based on love or interest on the part of both man and woman as long as exogamy beyond the clan was observed and both members were deemed Adyghe. Flirting took place around the well or stream, and romantic trysts were arranged by maternal uncles. Circassians married late, usually in their early thirties. The ceremony consisted of a nocturnal abduction, with the young man being assisted by his friends and the family of the bride offering token resistance and pursuit. (The man paid a bride-price beforehand.) The woman came to live with her in-laws, who then held a celebration that often consisted of several days of feasting and horse races. The young men would observe the odd custom of vying with one another to be the first to throw himself on the bed of the newlyweds before the couple themselves could use it. At one time the young women wore elaborately knotted, tight leather corsets to ensure a thin figure. After the wedding night this corset had to be publicly presented intact as a sign that the groom had exhibited self-control. In some tribes divorces were common, amounting almost to a pattern of sequential marriages. The man continued to support his "divorced" wife and children. Both men and women could obtain divorces. In a valid (legally recognized) divorce the bride-price was not repaid, but it did have to be repaid by the family of the woman if she incurred shame.

Domestic Unit. Outside of urban centers the extended family is the most common unit, consisting of an elder man and his wife, their sons and their wives, with perhaps yet more elderly parents relegated to the status of merely honorary heads of the household. There are no statistics on its size, but it must tend to be large, for the Circassians in the Caucasus have grown substantially in population during this century (100,000 in the twenty years between 1950 and 1970) despite heavy persecution under Stalin. Because of extreme longevity in certain areas of the Caucasus, the extended family may include as many as four or five generations. The extended family itself forms part of a clan with matrimonial and other social links to certain other clans. The clans are characterized by "surnames." Since the sons of a man's brother were considered his own sons, the nuclear family could be enlarged at the death of a brother by a man taking on the surviving widow and her children, though the widow was technically not a co-wife.

Inheritance. The males alone inherited land and other significant wealth.

Socialization. Children were taught to be respectful, particularly of the elderly, and they often enjoyed loving relationships with the elders in a village, often helping the elderly with their needs, waiting upon them at banquets, and such. Boys were taught to be proud both of their clan and of their social presence, to show courage and stamina, and to acquire skill in arms and horsemanship. Girls were taught to be discreet, to observe household etiquette and patterns, to be graceful, and to be knowledgeable regarding remedies and cures. Girls were taught to be thoughtful and generous hostesses so that they could observe the all-important functions of welcoming and housing guests. Girls of marriageable age were given their own reception room in which they could entertain young men. A code of strict etiquette governed such entertainment, and at the first offensive or suggestive remark from the young man, the girl would summon one of her kinsmen to eject him. Both sexes were taught to dance, a paramount form of socializing. Refinement and skill in speech were valued for both sexes. Respect was displayed toward someone, especially the elderly, not only by standing in their presence but also by standing at the mere mention of their name.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. With the exception of the Natukhay and Shapsegh tribes, all Circassians were organized into four castes: princes (pshi ), nobles (warq ), freemen (tlfaquat'l; tlkhwaquat'l in Kabardian), and slaves or vassals (pshit'l ). Within these rigid strata, various families had rankings. The princes organized the overall wealth (storing and distributing surplus) and external relations of their village. They conducted raids and warfare, drawing upon the fighting skills of the nobles. The freemen practiced agriculture, animal husbandry, and small industry. The slaves, usually prisoners of war, served the princes and nobles as servants and workers. Today this old system survives merely as a tradition of origin for families. Its dissolution was precipitated by the emigration of most of the freemen and slaves in 1864, with the princes and nobles primarily staying in the Caucasus. There is a tradition that this emigration followed a bout of internecine warfare between the social castes after the defeat by the Russians. The most important form of social organization among the present-day Circassians of the Russian Federation consists of the Circassian Council (Adyghe-khaasa). This is composed of elders from all the various Circassian groups, and its cultural and social authority transcends the boundaries of the three political regions to encompass all Circassians living in or near the Caucasus. In 1989 it was influential in dissuading many Circassian youth from going south to help their Abkhaz kinsmen in the fighting between the latter and the Georgians. Furthermore, in 1990, to bolster the council's cultural role and perhaps to reward it for its prudence, Moscow granted the council a sum of several million rubles to encourage the growth of Circassian cultural institutions and activities throughout the Caucasus.

Political Organization. The prince presided over a village and promoted village cohesion with feasts, bestowing honor among individuals by assigning to them the position of t'hamata, master of ceremonies. Outside the village the highest level of organization was the tribe. The tribes were the Ubykh, the Natukhay, the Shapsegh, the Hakuchi, the Abadzekh, the Bzhedukh, the Hatukay, the Yegerukhay, the Chemgwi (earlier Kemirgoy), the Mamkhet, the Makhochey, the Besleney, and the Kabardians. The Bzhedukh consisted of two subtribes, the Khamych and the Chercheney. These tribes themselves had rankings, with the Kabardians being ranked high because of their cultural and political influence and the Ubykhs being ranked high because of old religious status, whereas the Shapseghs and Natukhays were looked down upon because of their lack of a caste system and their involvement in trade. Tribes had councils of princes, and grand councils could be called involving more than one tribe. Tribes were based on fictive kinship, such as Besleney, "Those of (Prince) Beslen," or regional identity, such as Abadzekh, "Those in the region of the Abaza." Others may reflect ancient cases of assimilation, as with the Natukhay, "White-Eyed [light-eyed] Ones," perhaps Circassianized Crimean Goths, or the Shapsegh, "Pointed Head or Hat Ones," perhaps an old Alanic tribe.

Social Control. A body of oral, traditional law tightly governed conduct. Furthermore, rules of etiquette were extremely important: these usually consisted of hospitality coupled with a conversational discretion that bordered on taciturnity. The wrong words could ruin social face and engender bloody conflict. The princes and nobles practiced fosterage with their slaves or vassals. It was a great honor for a vassal to rear a child of his prince or noble. The child was returned to his biological home at maturity. The greatest honor for a vassal was for such a mature child to choose to stay in the house of the slave, to become a qan, "one who remained." Such fosterage formed a fictive blood link between slave and master.

Conflict. A Circassian was never without his dagger, and few things were more important to him than his weapons. This reflected the prevalence of the blood feud. Indeed, the word "vengeance" (tlish'ezhen, "to make blood again") must take the marker of inalienable possession in West Circassian. The blood feud, in turn, sprang from the khabza (custom, law) that any death inflicted upon a member of another clan, regardless of whether it was intentional or accidental, had to be avenged by a corresponding death. The obligation of blood feud extended to the protection of one's guests as well as to one's "milk brother," a fictive-kinship bond. Indeed, blood feud obligations could be abrogated by a man of one clan putting his lips to the breast of a woman of the other, thereby forming a fictive-kin link of milk brotherhood between the two warring groups. Blood feud obligations were temporarily suspended during times of war, so that armies could be assembled. Women tended to be outside the blood feud. Injuries were recompensed by money, the amount being determined by a council of elders or by the prince. Theft of livestock within the clan was intolerable; material goods could be stolen by stealth, but it was a disgrace to be caught. This reflected the relative contempt for material possessions. In fact, if a fellow clan member asked for some item, one was obligated to give it. In this way, material goods tended to circulate among the Community. In matters of dispute, the council of elders, headed by the prince, interpreted khabza to reach a settlement. Such decisions were usually obeyed since the dreaded blood feud was the most frequent alternative. A husband could mete out punishment for violations within the sphere of the family. Women enjoyed great respect and status in that they could halt the bloodiest fights merely by dropping their kerchief between the combatants. A maiden could also bestow her kerchief upon a favored youth, in classic feudal manner, so that he could act as her champion in acts of valor and adventure.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Circassians have been Sunni Muslims for the past three or four hundred years, though as late as the first half of the nineteenth century some of the woodland Abadzekh seem to have retained a form of Christianity. The Circassianized Armenians of Armavir (Yermedls) are Christian, and there were some Jewish Circassians in the bodyguard of Chaim Weizmann, the founder of Zionism. Nevertheless, many pagan relics are to be found in their oral traditions, particularly the heroic Nart sagas or Nart epics, which are myths of great antiquity with many striking parallels to the mythologies of ancient India, Greece, and Scandinavia. Herein are a host of pagan gods, each dedicated to one simple function, such as the god of cattle, the god of forests, the god of the forge, a female fertility figure, etc. The gods held Olympian banquets, led by their own t'hamata, at which they drank a sacred brew, sana (wine). They conducted war and intrigues. The gods themselves had gods, but these were nameless. Also evident from the folklore is a belief that the universe was self-creating, that the world had no boundary and is made up of nine layers. In the myths are numerous monsters, cyclopean giants, lizard men, demons, giant eagles, and dragons. Heroes are defined by slaying these monsters, by thrusting their weapons into all nine layers of the earth and then by being the only ones capable of extricating them again, and by their prodigious appetites and thirsts. Certain groves and large trees were held to be sacred.

Various individuals were thought to be warlocks or witches, with the power of the evil eye and control over the weather and the well-being of livestock. A woman could not cross a man's path if she was carrying an empty pail without running the risk of being labeled a witch. There was a belief in ghosts as well, demonic forms that lurked in cemeteries. Eclipses of the sun were thought to be caused by a devil.

Religious Practitioners. Old engravings show that the prince conducted religious ceremonies among the Christian Abadzekh. Today the community elects an imam.

Ceremonies. Some Circassians would shoot arrows at nearby lightning bolts and then look for blood to see if they had made a hit. The Abadzekhs conducted a dance around a tree to the god of thunder, offering sana "(the Peaceful One)". Abadzekh princes would also sacrifice cattle before the cross. Other rites seem to have been conducted in sacred groves or before a sacred tree. Funerals were accompanied by wailing among the women. The deceased's clothes were displayed, and, if a man, his weapons were also laid out. Much effort was expended to retrieve for burial in tribal soil the bodies of those killed on raids. Today the usual Muslim holidays and rituals are observed.

Arts. Oral lore is of paramount importance among the Circassians. They view it as the chief monument of their civilization. Their folklore is extremely rich and varied. There are tales of battles with the Goths, the Huns, the Khazars, and the early Russians. Both men and women can be bards. This folklore has served in the twentieth century as a base for a modern literature both of poetry and prose. It has been collected in seven volumes, Nartkher (The Narts) by A. M. Hadaghat'la (Gadagatl). Some writing exists from the nineteenth century, but most is a product of this century. Some material has been produced in Jordan, most notably by the late Kube Shaban, and this has now been published in Maikop. Most Circassian literature, however, is a Soviet product. Some of it is extremely good and deserving of translation, especially such works as A. Shogentsuk(ov)'s (1900-1941) Kambot and Liatsa (1934-1936, in Kabardian); A. Shortan(ov)'s (born 1916) Bgheriskher (The Mountaineers) (1954, in Kabardian), or Yu. Tliusten's (born 1913) Wozbaanuquokher (The Ozbanokovs) (1962, in Chemgwi). The collected works of major writers are still appearing, such as those of T. Ch'arasha (1987-1989, in Chemgwi). Bards are still active and their output recorded, such as Ts. Teuchezh's The Uprising of the Bzhedugs (1939, in Bzhedukh). Active playwrights include I. Tsey (1890-1936), Dzh. Dzhagup(ov), and M. M. Shkhagapso(ev), among many others. For an ethnic group of its size, the Circassians' literary output has been prodigious.

Circassian song had a lead singer accompanied by a chorus, either on the same melodic line or in a counterpoint. Syncopation and triplets were abundantly used. Today in Jordan and the Circassian republics there are Circassian composers writing in variants of Western polyphonic styles, such as N. S. Osman (ov), D. K. Khaupa, and U. Tkhabisim(ov), to mention just a few, as well as Circassian musicians and conductors, such as K. Kheishkho and Iu. Kh. Temirkhan(ov).

Pictorial arts are based upon folk motifs, which are pleasing scrollwork designs of floral and cuneiform patterns on open backgrounds. It might be added here that the elegant folk costumes of the men's cherkeska, a caftan-like tight coat with cartridges across the chest, worn with a sheepskin hat, and the women's flowing gown with long, oblate false sleeves have spread throughout the Caucasus and have even been adopted by the neighboring Turkic and Slavic Cossack peoples as festive dress.

Finally, wood, usually a tree stump, is sculpted to produce a bust or totem-polelike representation of a god or heroic figure. For example, outside Maikop, in a children's playground on the edge of a wooded area there are several such figuresknight in armor, mushroom with a distorted face on its stem, and a totem-polelike representation of the god of the hunt, She-Batinuquo, with a wolf or dog sprouting from his right shoulder and an eagle soaring atop his head.

Science. The Circassians have produced a notable number of outstanding linguists, such as Z. I. Kerash(eva), G. V. Rogava, A. A. Hatan(ov), M. A. Kumakh(ov), and Z. Iu. Kumakh(ova), among others, who have helped establish literary norms Sfor their dialects by producing dictionaries and grammars while at the same time writing a wide range of theoretical articles. Prominent among native folklorists is A. M. Hadaghat'la, who has also written plays. Native archaeologists are making interesting finds on a steady basis, one of the latest ones being rich in gold and golden armor, along with fragments of what seem to have been an ancient Circassian script.

Medicine. Traditional medicine was the provenance of the women, who were highly esteemed for their skills and knowledge. Healing and medicinal springs were also prized; They were associated with a warrior princess, Amazan, "the Forest Mother" (the source of the Amazon myth), who was skilled in medicine and from whose blood the first healing spring arose.

Death and the Afterlife. After a life spent largely outdoors, Circassians viewed paradise as a comfortable, well-stocked room. The more virtuous the life led, the bigger and more sumptuous the room of eternity. It was said that the afterlife room of an evil man would be so small that he would not be able to turn over in it. From the Nart sagas, the realm of the dead appears to have been under the grave mound. The souls of the dead were guarded from supernatural depredations by a little old man and woman. Links with the dead were maintained by setting a place for them at the table for one full year after death. Feasts were held in their memory and toasts were offered to them by the t'hamata. A particularly illustrious warrior could serve as the head of a t'lawuzhe ("the successors to a man") and thereby be remembered by name even if his lineage did not achieve the status of a clan.


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 228-236. London: KPI.

Allen, W. E. D. (1962). "A Note on the Princely Families of Kabarda." Bedi Kartlisa, Revue de Kartvélologie 13-14:140-147.

Baddeley, John F. (1908). The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. New York: Russell & Russell.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, 190-200. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Colarusso, John (1979). "Verbs that Inflect for Kinship: Grammatical and Cultural Analysis." Papiere zur Linguistik 20:37-66.

Colarusso, John (1984). "Epic, North Caucasian: The Narts." In The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet Literatures, edited by Harry B. Weber. Vol. 7, 1-14. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press.

Colarusso, John (1991). "Circassian Repatriation." The World & I 11 (November): 656-669.

Geiger, Bernhard, Aert Kuipers, Tibor Halasi-Kun, and Karl H. Menges (1956). The Caucasus. Human Relations Area File. New York: Columbia University, Language and Communication Research Center.

Henze, Paul B. (1990). The North Caucasus: Russia's Long Struggle to Subdue the Circassians. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corp.

Luzbetak, Louis J. (1951). Marriage and the Family in Caucasia. Vienna and Mödling: St. Gabriel's Mission Press.

Paris, Catherine (1974). "La Princesse Kahraman, Contes d'Anatolie en dialecte chapsough (tcherkesse occidental)." In Languages et civilizations à tradition oral. Vol. 8. Paris: Société d'Etudes Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France (SELAF).

Wixman, Ronald (1984). "Circassians." In The Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. 2nd ed., edited by Richard V. Weekes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.



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ALTERNATE NAMES: Adyges, Cherkess
LOCATION: Russia; Turkey; Syria, Jordan, Israel, USA
POPULATION: 5.5 million (approx.)
LANGUAGES: Adyghe (Circassian, Kabardian; Russian, Turkish,Arabic,Hebrew,English)
RELIGION: Historically Muslim


Adyghe (a-DEE-gay) is the self-designation for a group of Caucasian peoples who are commonly called "Circassians" by others. Today, three branches of Adyghes live in the Russian Federation: the Kabardins, the Cherkess, and the Adygheians. Few surviving ethnic groups are more ancient then the Adyghes. Their ancestors lived in roughly the same area of the Northwestern Caucasus for the past 6,000 or 7,000 years, since the earliest agriculture and the beginning of metal tool-making.

During much of their history, the Circassians existed independently. They had neither formal states nor towns. The main political units were clans and territorial communities similar to the ancient Greeks and Romans or the Iroquois confederation. Adyghe societies were elaborately subdivided into the ranks of princes, four degrees of nobles called warqs, the free commoners (tfoquat'l, tkhwaquat'l), and up to five different slave and serf statuses reserved for captives, aliens and conquered populations, and debtors. All Circassian communities were once ruled by princes, but in the 17th through 19th centuries the Shapsugh and Natukhay tribes along the Black Sea shore rebelled against their princes and expelled all aristocrats in a series of dramatic revolutions. These democratic Circassians were henceforth ruled by regular meetings of all citizens that usually took place in sacred groves. The meetings determined communal affairs and elected various magistrates. In wartime, Circassians elected temporary warlords and formed highly disciplined detachments of young men. All free commoners were expected to purchase arms and perfect their use. Defense of ancestral land and community was a sacred duty to Circassians, surpassed only by the obligation of the blood feud.

In the 1780s, the Russian empire expanded into the Black Sea basin, previously controlled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Neither the Turks nor the Russians had much interest in the poor and inaccessible mountains inhabited by fiercely independent highlanders, but the supply routes of Russian armies into the newly acquired provinces in Georgia and Armenia wound through the ridges of the Caucasus. This logistic fact made the mountain passes strategically important. The arrogance of Russian colonial governors and Cossack settlers soon provoked anti-Russian rebellions, which eventually led to a prolonged war. The outcome was the devastating Caucasian war, the longest war in Russian history that raged for more than 100 years and ended in 1864 with the defeat and ethnic cleansing of most Circassians from their homeland. The Circassian democratic societies (the Shapsighs, Natukhais, Abadzekh, and Ubykh) fought particularly fiercely. As a consequence the Ubykh, who had a distinct language, are now extinct as an ethnic group. Those who remained became Russian subjects and later Soviet citizens. Most Circassians were resettled in the Ottoman Empire, with the majority of their descendants living today in Turkey. Only 3% of the Circassian population lives in their homeland, with 97% living in exile. Contemporary researchers studying the history of the Circassians regard it as an example of genocide.


The Circassians and their kin, the Ubykhs and Abkhazians (Abazas), dwelt in a triangle running along the east coast of the Black Sea northwards to the Sea of Azov, then eastward along the south shore of the Kuban River to the center of the North Caucasus, and then southwards, over the Caucasus massif, back to the homeland of the Abkhazians. The region consists of temperate steppes and rolling foothills, leading up into the snow-capped Caucasus. The region south of the mountains is semi-tropical.

The stratified and militaristic society of the Circassians prevented them from being conquered for thousands of years. In the west, the lands of Circassians were washed by the extremely treacherous waters of the Black Sea, where sailing ships could navigate only for several months during the year. The coast had few good harbors and many malarial swamps. Only the ancient Greeks were interested in founding colonies or fortresses on such a coast. The mountains rising immediately from the seacoast and extending to the east almost until the Caspian Sea provided impregnable refuge against nomadic invasions from the Eurasian steppe, from the ancient Scythians to the Mongols of Chinggis Khan.

Only modern technology changed the situation, first bringing the Russian regular armies and navy, then European settlers of primarily Slavic origin. After ethnic cleansing the Circassians were reduced to a small native minority. The formerly inhospitable sea coast, not unlike Florida, became the prized vacation spot in Russia. Many mountain slopes became ski resorts. There is still considerable wilderness in the mountains, partly incorporated in the Caucasian Nature Preserve.

Today the Circassians have autonomy within three separated small republics (Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Adygheia) of the Russian Federation. The Kabardins number about 500,000, the Cherkess around 49,600, and the Adygheians about 116,000. Descendants of Circassians still live in Turkey (roughly 4.5 million, with estimates varying significantly) and Syria (35,000). Smaller groups are found in Jordan, Israel, and the United States (8,000 in and around Paterson, New Jersey).


The Circassian dialects (East and West) form, together with Abkhaz, Abaza, and the nearly extinct Ubykh, a separate language family, usually called North West Caucasian. These languages are unusual for their high degree of complexity. The most elaborate forms of Circassian—the Bzhedukh and Shap-sigh varieties—have nearly 70 consonants and only three vowels. All forms of Circassian show a contrast between /k/ sounds and ones made farther back against the edge of the soft palate, usually represented /q/. Four kinds of s-like or sh-like sounds are made. These, as is the case with the /k/ and /q/ sounds, are further modified by rounding the lips. Sounds are made that are aspirated, much as with English /p/, /t/, /k/; voiceless un-aspirated, as with Italian /p/, /t/, /k/; voiced, as with English /b/, /d/, /g/; and with the vocal cords closed, written /p'/, /t'/, /k'/. These contrasts also occur among the /s/ and /sh/ sounds. There are many fricatives made in the back of the mouth, where /k/ and /q/ are made. Clusters of up to three consonants can occur. The vowel systems are the simplest known: a neutral vowel, such as the 'a' in sofa, a slightly open vowel, close to the /e/ in English bet, and for most languages, an /a/.

Nouns are made up from a basic set of about 200 roots through elaborate processes of compounding, so that even words such as "face" consist of a compound, /na-pa/, which means eye-nose. The verb can apply to every noun in a sentence as well as adding various sorts of geometric information and expressing the speaker's attitude toward the object of the sentence. The syntax of the sentence is elaborate. The verb is always at the end. The syntax expresses whether or not an action has been accomplished. If the action is accomplished, then the object is marked by an "absolute case" in Adyghean, which is /-r/. If it is not accomplished, then the subject carries this case but the object is marked with an "oblique case," which is /-m/. Such a system is called "ergative."

The North West Caucasian languages may be distantly related to Hattic, an ancient language of Anatolia (modern Turkey). Hattic is found only in religious rituals within Hittite documents. In the early 21st century, recent research suggested an even more distant link with the Indo-European language family.

In the 1600s an Ottoman scholar, Evliya Çelebi, was sent by the Sultan to record the languages of the Caucasus. Some of his report has survived, along with a folktale about his return. When Çelebi entered the presence of the Sultan after his long and arduous journey, the Sultan asked him what the Cherkess (Circassian) language sounded like. Çelebi took out a sack of pebbles from the sleeve of his caftan and rattled it at the Sultan. "This, O Sultan, is how Cherkess sounds."


The pride of the Circassians is the epic of the Narts, also called Nart sagas, which is an immense poetic narrative about the emergence, upbringing, and exploits of a warring band of mythical heroes called the Narts. The major Narts were Sosruquo, She Bardinuquo, Pataraz, and Warzameg. The chief heroine was Satanay, whose name means "mother of one hundred." She was the eternally youthful and all-knowing wife of Warzameg and mother to the mythical heroes. The Nart tradition also contains dance songs, humorous couplets, and even lullabies.

The Nart is found in varying forms among other North Caucasian peoples, some of whom, like the Ossetians, are totally unrelated to the Circassians. The more archaic Nart songs help scholars "read" pictures they find on artifacts from the excavations of Scythian and Sarmatian graves. The epic's many layers have been created over thousands of years. On the one hand, the Nart epic overlaps with Greek myths, with episodes such as the story of Prometheus. On the other hand, it includes sagas about the lives and deaths of the Circassian historical personalities known to have lived as recently as 400 years ago (such as the warrior Aidamyrkan). Several peoples have preserved and enriched the original epic in their languages, thereby making it part of their cultural heritage. As the epic has passed through different languages and epochs, unique transformations haveoccurred to the ancient songs. The Circassian form is particularly archaic and mixed with local lore.

The Circassians also have fables reminiscent of those of Aesop. Circassian lore generally shows strong ties with that of ancient Greece, the steppe Iranians (Scythians and Sarmatians), and the Eastern Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians).


The majority of Circassians today consider themselves Muslim, although few practice any religion in daily life. Their recent ancestors were Christians. Earlier ancestors were pagans who worshipped a varied pantheon of gods, including Tlepsh, the god of the forge (akin to the Greek Hephaestus or Roman Vulcan), as well as the spirits of sacred mountains, groves, and streams. Distant ancestors several thousand years ago used to build impressive stone megalith structures, similar to those found in Celtic Europe. In the Northwestern Caucasus, the megaliths usually had the shape of houses with enormous stone tops closing the round entrance. Scholars suspect that these "houses of giants," or dolmens, were designed to hold spirits. Later, Byzantine Greeks spread Christianity among the Circassians, but the conversion was very superficial. Circassians began gradually converting to Islam after Byzantium fell to the Muslim Turks in the 15th century. Islam took root in the North Western Caucasus when it became the religion of those seeking democracy and resisting the Russian advance. As lateas 1824, engravings of a Flemish trading expedition show Circassians making offerings to a cross in a sacred grove.

Religion fell into disuse during the Soviet period, but recently there has been some resurgence in reaction to the traumatic experiences of the post-Communist transition. In addition, Jama'ats (Islamic societies) have formed.


Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Circassians have begun commemorating 21 May—the day in 1864 when the last highlander warriors were defeated by the Russian troops and driven to the Black Sea. Despite being nominally Muslim, Circassians celebrate New Year's Eve (like the rest of the former Soviet peoples) with Christmas trees, gifts, and fireworks. The concept of a "World Tree," depicted as a woman, is still alive in the Nart sagas, so the Christmas tree has a natural interpretation in Circassian lore.


In the past, little boys and sometimes girls were often given to foster families for upbringing. This custom was called atalyk (a Turkic word) or /p''wer zeshtara/ (one taken as a student or fosterling) and was used to strengthen the bonds of kinship among the highlander clans and social levels, since the princes and nobles fostered their children to their servants and workers. Children were not to be returned to their biological parents until they were fully educated young adults, usually around eighteen. The moment of return was an occasion for great celebration. Most Circassians would thus have two sets of parents and brothers and sisters. Insult or murder of any relative, either biological or the foster atalyk, would be avenged by all men of both clans. Sometimes Circassians chose people of another language or even Christians, Armenians, or Russian or Ukrainian Cossacks to be their atalyks, which served to prevent conflicts. Sometimes a fosterling would continue to live with his foster parents. This was a great honor for the foster family and such a child was called a qana (one who stayed).

Historically, marriage was by abduction. In most cases, this abduction was a pre-arranged drama. The bride wore a leather corset with 48 knots. The corset with all its leather thongs intact had to be presented after the first nuptial night to show the groom's self-restraint and respect for his bride. Such weddings were the occasion for prolonged feasting. When a true abduction (one that had not been pre-arranged) took place, the brothers and male cousins of the abducted woman would launch a prolonged pursuit. Sometimes these ended tragically; sometimes they ended by the abducted bride's family becoming reconciled to their new son-in-law.

When a person was seriously or terminally ill, close friends or relatives would post a metal plate to the doorframe of the sick room and conduct tschapsh. They would come to the door, strike the metal plate loudly to frighten away any evil spirits and then enter in high spirits, making jokes, both as a sign of contempt for the same spirits and to lighten the mood of the ill person. They would then sing to the bedridden one. After death, close friends and relatives would speak to the corpse and reminisce about their lives together and how they would be reunited in the afterlife of beautiful meadows and hills.


Like other warrior peoples, ancestors of Circassians developed highly elaborate etiquette and a rigorous set of rules of behavior called Adyghe khabze, which can be translated as "the Adyghe way." The rules of khabze demanded very proud and noble conduct in every respect, from the very upright way one walks or rides a horse to civic attitudes toward community affairs. Respect of elders was paramount. For example, there is a story of a young man who lived with his foster atalyk parents and never saw his real father. Gravely wounded in battle, he asked to see his biological father once before he died. When the father came, the dying young Circassian stood to greet him according to the rules of khabze. The father embraced his son, making an effort not to cry, and left immediately, saying: "My son grew up truly a good Adyghe who must stand up when an elder person comes, but I cannot see him stand on his feet bleeding." Once the father left, the son dropped on the floor dead.

A husband's relations towards his wife were highly formalized in public, as was a father's signs of affection for his children. In contrast a woman's relations with her brother, or an uncle's to his nieces and nephews, were spontaneous and overtly affectionate. This peculiar pattern, which did not govern private feelings, is called the Cherkess–Omaha kinship system.

Formerly a young woman had her own room in which to receive suitors. The behavior of these suitors was overseen by the woman's brothers, who were responsible for maintaining her honor. Women nevertheless had wide latitude in matters of love and sex and even to this day retain considerable autonomy in these aspects of their lives.

These customs were observed in all social levels of their society.

Adyghe khabze is no longer fully observed in modern society but the rules of hospitality, protection of strangers, and respect to the elders are still very strong.


Traditionally, Circassians were proud but poor. They lived in long adobe houses covered with reeds or straw that could be easily expanded if one of the sons married. The main house and its satellites were enclosed within a compound. All transportation was by foot, on horseback, or oxen-driven carts with huge wheels because the roads were no more than mountain paths. The people grew corn, millet, and fruit trees, and bred sheep and horses. Their houses had chairs and cots reminiscent of those seen on Greek urns, with carpets on the floor and sometimes on the walls. The poorer people are reported to have eaten without plates, putting thick corn meal with pieces of smoked cheese or meat straight onto the low tables. Native words for dish, pot, and drinking horn indicate that such utensils were known.

This way of life changed during the 20th century. Today, Circassians live in large brick houses or in city apartments. From the 1950s to the 1970s, when the Soviet economy was rapidly growing, many Circassians seized the opportunity to get a higher education, train for a skilled job, or make a small fortune by producing cash crops and selling them in Russia. During this period, many built spacious homes and bought cars or motorcycles. Young people became interested in Western jeans, sneakers, electronics, and DVDs. With the near-collapse of Soviet economy, after 1991 most Circassians experienced severe hardship like the rest of post-Soviet society.


Traditional Adyghe domestic life was characterized by an extended family, itself embedded within larger clan and blood lineage patterns. The eldest man was the arbiter in disputes and represented the family to the public. The eldest woman ran the household with the help of her daughters and daughters-in-law.

In the past, families that were extremely poor could even exchange their children for horses or sell them into slavery. Women were especially prized in the Turkish and Arab harems of the Middle East, and more than one Turkish sultan and powerful courtier was born to an Adyghe concubine mother. Adyghe men came to dominate the Janissary army of the Ottoman sultan and, for two centuries, ruled Egypt as the Circassian Mamlukes.

Today, in Russia the bulk of domestic work in the household still is done by women. Urbanization somewhat changed the traditional gender roles.

In the diaspora Adyghe household dynamics tend to retain certain traits that set them apart from the communities among which they live. Respect for elders and freedom of women are still apparent.


Traditionally, the most prized possessions of a man were his ornamented dagger; his fascha (Circassian suit) or cherkesska (from Turkish Cherkes), a robe-like jacket with bandoleers of cartridge-like measured musket charges sewn on the breasts; and his fur hat. Men wore a sort of peaked head-cloth that wrapped around the neck. Men also wore a sort of leather sock as a riding boot. Women wore long dresses with embroidered ornaments and (at least on festive occasions) silver or gold belts and necklaces. Women had no overcoats and in cold weather rarely ventured outside their homes. Noblewomen wore elevated platform shoes. Veiling of women, however, was never a part of Adyghe tradition. Men wore felt capes called burkas in winter and sharp-domed hoods called bashlyk.

Modern Circassians dress like Europeans except that old men in villages occasionally wear traditional hats made of karakul (dense, curly lamb's wool), which are expensive and thus are objects of ethnic pride. Women, especially in towns, use European-style makeup and perfume. They are often very stylish.


Traditional food was very simple—corn meal, sheep's cheese, ground walnuts, fresh fruit, and dried or smoked meat. As life improved in the latter half of the 20th century, the Adyghe diet became much more varied due to numerous Russian and fellow Caucasian borrowings. The typically Adyghe dish is shipsera pastera (literally, gravy and pasta), in which wheat flour is slowly heated in a pan until it browns slightly; it is then added to chicken or turkey broth until it becomes dense like sour cream. Sometimes herbs (cilantro or parsley) and chopped leeks or onions are added to the broth just before the fried flour. Cooked chicken is chopped and served with this dish. This can be found in some cookbooks as "Circassian Chicken." Some Circassians use a lot of red pepper with shipsera pastera. All tend to use garlic extensively in their main dishes.


Most Circassians are literate today, primarily in Russian or the language of their host nation (Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, or English). Their native language has no traditional alphabet and is written with Russian letters plus special sign combinations for the numerous sounds not found in Russian or any other Indo-European language.

Traditionally, young men and women were taught dance. Young men were also taught horseback riding. The nobles had a special form of martial arts training. Various handicrafts were also taught, such as weapon-making, metal-working, leather-tooling, rug-making, cloth-making, and sewing.


Adigha kafa (Circassians dances) are similar to the dances of all other North Caucasian peoples. The rhythm is provided by drums and wooden clackers, and the melody, once produced by national violin (shichapshyna) and flute (c'amyl), in recent times produced by either the Caucasian fiddle (pshina) or, more commonly, the accordion. There are both slow and incredibly fast dances, some resembling acrobatic tricks. For example, men sometimes dance with several daggers in their teeth, throwing one after another into the ground. Men dance in extremely upright postures, on their toes, with arms extended up and to the sides, facing their partners. There is also a dance where the men whirl about on their knees. Women make graceful circles with their arms, shyly looking down. In olden times a traditional round dance was conducted on horseback as a show of horsemanship.

Written literature and theater in the Circassian languages were created after 1917 as part of he Soviet policies of promoting and modernizing ethnic cultures. There is a great deal of poetry written and even some novels of high quality.


Until recently, with the exception of a few princes, all Circassians tilled the soil. Today, very few still farm or raise horses, but a sizable number work as high government authorities, managers, teachers, doctors, and technicians. There are also Adyghe businessmen, bankers, and traders—a previously unthinkable development because Adyghe khabze, the traditional code, deemed such occupations treacherous and unworthy of real men.


Equestrianism has always been very prestigious. In addition, Circassians are particularly fond of wrestling and martial arts, which is not surprising given their traditional values. Many Circassian men and women are extremely strong and athletic.


Television and movies have been very popular since they appeared several decades ago. Today, however, video is replacing them. Young men frequently visit dancing clubs and discos that exist in every village. Young women are free to attend, assuming they follow the norms of modesty. Violent confrontations between young men over female partners are commonplace and are often considered a form of entertainment in itself. Many older Adyghes are concerned, and the press andcultural figures regularly express sorrow over the loss of ancient values.


Folk dance groups and circles of traditional musicians and craftsmen exist with state support wherever Circassians live in large enough numbers. Promotion of folk traditions is considered a healthy remedy to the social problems of modernity and is seen as important for the survival of the culture itself.


The sense of social and political dissatisfaction is one of the main problems of the Circassian society. Circassians are forced to live in conditions of discrimination at all levels. They fear that policies pursued by Russia will soon lead to the loss of Circassian language and assimilation. Fictitious autonomy in the three forcibly separated republics cannot compensate Circas-sian desire for political autonomy. Circassians are denied the right to elect leaders of their republics, who are appointed by the Russian government. Russia prevents the repatriation of descendants of Circassian exiles seeking to return to ancestral land. Even obtaining a tourist visa to visit Circassia in most cases meets a refusal. Repeated deportation of immigrants is not uncommon. Acute social dissatisfaction often forms protests and has even resulted in armed rebellion against Russia. The last uprising occurred in 2005. The situation is seriously aggravated by unemployment and underemployment and by the proximity of war zones in Chechnya and especially in Abkhazia, where many Circassian volunteers fought and then brought home their arms.


According to statistics, the Circassian population is centered in the regions of Russia with the lowest rate of gender differences in income levels. Circassian women receive equal career opportunities and equal payment. However, in politics and in the corporate world, the percentage of the women in leadership positions is still relatively low, both in Russia and in the countries of the diaspora.

The historical and cultural traditions of Circassians held that women had a free and honorable position in society. In modern society, young women are free to choose a husband, and marriage follows the customs of modern European nations. Divorce and low birth rates are growing problems of Circassian society. For a modern Circassian woman there are no prohibited professions. Circassian women have followed many career paths, including performing arts, law, science, politics, business, and the fine arts.


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—revised by J. Colarusso and F. Tlisova


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Identification. The Circassians are a people indigenous to the northwestern Caucasus who are also found today as minority communities in four Middle Eastern countries: Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. They call themselves "Adyge," the term "Circassian" being the one used by outsiders ("Çerkez" in Turkish, "Sharkass" in Arabic) to refer, rather loosely, to a variety of groups from that region.

Location. The Circassians migrated into the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century after the Russian takeover of their homeland. They were first settled by the Ottoman state in the Balkans but were soon displaced again as the Ottoman Empire lost control of that region. They were then settled in Anatolia and in Bilād ash-Sham (the Syrian province). The general policy of the state was to settle immigrants to act as buffers against dissident local groups and also to extend agricultural settlements and push back the "desert line"; however, specific locations were determined by local exigencies such as the availability of agricultural land. The major settlements were in the regions of the Black Sea coast, western Anatolia and Kayseri (Turkey), Aleppo (Syria), the Golan Heights (Israeli-occupied Syria), Amman (Jordan) and Tiberias (Israel). Circassians also live in the major urban centers of these areas.

Demography. The number of Circassians is difficult to determine because census data are lacking. Estimates point to about 1 million in Turkey, 60,000 in Syria, 30,000 in Jordan, and 1,500 in Israel. There are also no statistics on the rate of intermarriage with non-Circassians, which tends to vary by location, class, and urban versus rural settlement.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Circassian language, Adygebze, is one of the North-West Caucasian Group of languages and is divided into a number of different dialects. It is still spoken in all the Circassian communities, especially in the home and during community events, although the younger generation tends to feel more comfortable speaking in Arabic or Turkish, and many words have been adopted from these languages. There has been a convergence of the various dialects (notably Kabartey, Bzedugh, Shapsoug, and Abzekh) owing to intensive interaction and common residence. When Circassian is written, the adapted Cyrillic alphabet developed in the Soviet Union is used.

History and Cultural Relations

Circassian immigration into the Ottoman Empire began in 1850 and accelerated into a mass migration starting in 1864. There was an earlier Circassian presence in the Middle East, through the Mamluk "slave-dynasties" in Egypt, whose descendants, augmented by continued individual migration, came to form a Turco-Circassian elite ruling class in Egypt. This presence, although an entirely different phenomenon than the later mass migrations, points to important historical links between the Caucasus and various regional empires to which it provided slaves (both men and women) and warriors.

Circassian migration during the nineteenth century resulted from an Ottoman policy of encouraging immigration, both to overcome its shortage of manpower and to increase its Muslim population in turbulent regions. Religion was also a factor inducing the Muslim Circassians' emigration from under czarist Russian rule. In all, about 1.5 million Circassians settled in Ottoman lands. The relations that they established with their host communities were shaped by the nature of Ottoman rule and prevailing local economic conditions. The commonality of religion was an integrative force. The provincial authorities were given instructions to allocate the migrants free land and building materials and to exempt them from most forms of taxation. Soon, however, the number of immigrants overwhelmed both the facilities provided and the capacity of the provinces to absorb them. Conditions quickly deteriorated. More and more immigrants tended to drift toward the cities.

In what was to become Jordan, for example, the areas of Circassian settlement were strongholds of large nomadic and seminomadic Bedouin tribes. Conflict arose over water and pastureland. Furthermore, Circassians refused to enter into the indigenous peasant/Bedouin relationship of paying protection money. Armed clashes ensued, mostly around harvesttime, and a kind of mutual respect grew out of these clashes. Soon treaties were negotiated between various tribes and the Circassians, and some judicious marriages of Circassian women to powerful Bedouin families were arranged.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the accessiblity of the Caucasus after 140 years now allows third- and fourth-generation Circassians to revisit their "homeland" (the republics of Adygei, Cherkessk-Karachai, and Kabardino-Balkaria, all part of the Russian Federation). An estimated two hundred families, mainly from Turkey and Syria, have migrated back, and there is intense cultural activity between various organizations in the Caucasus and ethnic associations in the Middle East, as well as families seeking long-lost kin. The new links are marked by intense nostaligia and emotion, but also by a sense of rupture caused by divergent historical experiences.


The different settlements were formed slowly through the waves of migration and were mainly agricultural. Today some are still primarily agricultural (as in Turkey). Others have become metropolitan centers (as in Jordan), and still others are abandoned (as in Syria, where, after the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967, the inhabitants all became refugees). Some moved to urban areas in the early days of the immigration, others came as part of a wider rural-urban migration, particularly since the 1950s.

Circassian village neighborhoods initially reflected the different dialect groups and the time of settlement. As villages grew more heterogeneous, distinct Circassian and Arab neighborhoods tended to form, although the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred as residential and economic mobility increase. Where urban centers formed, the Circassians eventually became a numerical minority, old neighborhoods broke up, and residence became defined by class rather than ethnicity.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Upon settlement, the Circassians were mainly engaged in agriculture, although they gradually became drawn into the network of internal trade controlled by merchants from nearby towns and cities. In Bilād ash-Sham, although Circassians were engaged in transporting goods such as barley cultivated by Bedouins, they remained essentially suppliers of agricultural goods and did not control trade. The construction of the Hejaz railway to Mecca provided wage-labor opportunities. A few Circassians were also employed in the Ottoman administration.

The changes wrought in the geopolitics of the region in the early twentieth century, with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire into present-day Turkey and several mandate governments (the French in Syria and the British in Jordan and Palestine), changed the economy and nature of Circassian settlements. New opportunities, notably in the armies and bureaucracies, became available to them and their settlements become more heterogeneous. Amman, for example, became the capital of the new Jordanian state. Later, with the transformation of the peasant economy, Circassians, as others, participated in the new avenues for wage labor in industry, agro-business and so on, although the military and bureaucracy remain the main occupations for the communities in Syria and Jordan.

Industrial Arts. Circassian traditional crafts included agricultural implements, especially their distinctive two-wheeled carts, silversmithing and other metalwork, and leatherwork. Very few are still involved in crafts production today, except in the form of "folkloric" items and attempts at the revival of traditional arts.

Trade. The Circassians in the Middle East have largely not engaged in trade and attribute this to national character, saying that Circassians make good military personnel but bad traders. More likely it has to do with the nature of the opportunities that were available to them in their new environments. The Anatolian Circassians were engaged in some horse breeding and cattle trading, and some continue to work as truckers of meat and animals. Furthermore, in some places, such as Jordan, they are heavily engaged in real estate because their lands have gained in value as urban residential areas continue to expand into formerly agricultural land. The new opportunities opened up by the possibility of commercial links with the Caucasus have led some, especially in Turkey, to establish import-export companies as well as travel agencies.

Division of Labor. Previously, the division of labor reflected the nature of agriculture in the areas of settlement. Women do not seem to have worked in the fields, although they cultivated orchards and gardens and raised animals. Where herding was an important activity, women also played a role in managing herds. Young men and women had well-defined duties serving elders at formal gatherings and ceremonies. Where a more urban economy is in place, such as in Syria and Jordan, the former peasant households have been transformed; men work mostly in the military and the bureaucracy. Within the sectors made available to them by the wider economy, women have also entered the urban workforce.

Land Tenure. At the time of settlement, land was allotted to each household according to its size. In Jordan, this amount of land was 60 donums (6 hectares) for households of up to five people and 80 donums (8 hectares) for larger ones. Land was registered in the name of the head of the household. Later, each state undertook different types of land registration and distribution. In Jordan, land is generally privately owned, and until the 1980s, and especially in rural settlements, land was often held by the father until his death, whereupon it was divided among the children, according to Islamic inheritance rules. In those areas where land became valuable commercial property, younger family members pressured elders to divide the property among them. In a rather widespread phenomenon, many elderly women who own vast tracts of land inherited from their fathers are refusing to divide or sell them.


Kin Groups and Descent. In the past, the basic kin units among the Circassians were the patrilineal extended family and a wider patrilineal descent group. In the Caucasus, each descent group tended to live in a separate hamlet. Emigration and settlement broke up these groups, and the new villages included many different descent groups but were often comprised of families of the same dialect group, which, in turn, represented their original region in the Caucasus. Nowadays, in places such as Jordan, descent groups are being organized in formal family associations.

Kinship Terminology. Circassian kinship terminology is extremely descriptive and distinguishes matriline from patriline for both consanguineal and affinal kin. The terms used for "father-in-law" and "mother-in-law" mean "Master" and "Lady," the same terms used to refer to members of the nobility, illustrating the strict hierarchical relations involved between in-laws. The new bride is traditionally given a new personal name upon becoming part of her husband's household and gives new names to all the members of this household, by which she henceforth calls them. Nowadays Arabic or Turkish kinship terms are increasingly replacing Circassian ones, some of them "Circassianized" through a particular pronunciation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Circassians are preferentially endogamous within the ethnic group but descent-group exogamous. Tradìtionally, marriage to kin, up to five generations bilaterally, was prohibited. This has led, in diaspora, to far-flung marriages across communities and settlements but is becoming difficult to maintain. More and more, the rule of exogamy is being ignored, although cousin marriage, which is a preferred form of marriage among Arabs, is still extremely rare among Circassians. A prevalent form of marriage is through elopement, erroneously seen as bride-capture by neighboring groups. Intermarriage with Arabs and Turks does occur, but interesting differences are found between communities. For example, in Jordan, Circassian women marry Arab men, but the reverse (Circassian men marrying Arab women) is rare, whereas in the Kayseri region of Turkey the opposite appears to hold.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit used to be the patrilineal extended family, with each conjugal family living in a separate dwelling within a common courtyard. Circassians are largely monogamous; polygyny and divorce are rare, although remarriage after the death of a spouse is common. In general, family sizeusually three to five childrenis small as compared with that of the surrounding society.

Inheritance. Islamic Sharia precepts of inheritance are followed. In Syria and Jordan women inherit their share of property according to Sharia. In rural Turkey, despite the replacement of Sharia with civil codes that stipulate equal division of property among the progeny regardless of sex, it appears that women often give up this inheritance in favor of their brothers, which is common practice in the Middle East.

Socialization. Circassian families traditionally emphasize discipline and strict authoritarianism. Avoidance relationships are the rule between in-laws and between generations and different age groups. It is a source of shame for a man to be seen playing with or showing affection to his children (but not his grandchildren). Although tempered by necessities of everyday life, the same holds for relations between mothers and children. In the past, paternal uncles played an important role in instructing children in proper behavior. This behavior, both public and private, is codified in a set of rules known as Adyge-Khabze (adyge = mores) and is reinforced by the family as well as the kin group and the neighborhood as a whole. Nowadays ethnic associations sometimes make attempts to discuss the Adyge-Khabze with young people, and the term is almost always invoked at public gatherings. In Jordan, a Circassian school has been operating since the mid-1970s and has become an arena for socialization and reproduction of Circassian identity.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Displacement led to the amalgamation of the different groups with one another while, at the same time, separating families and descent groups. Emigration led to the breaking up of old authority relationships and the creation of new ones. Traditionally, Circassian society was ranked into nobles, warriors, free peasants, and bondsmeneach status maintaining strict endogamy. Emigration disrupted this stratification, and land distribution tended to equalize the communities until new, class-based stratification and rural-urban differences emerged; however, the older status ranking is sometimes still a consideration in deciding on acceptable marriage partners.

Political Organization. The Circassian communities are encapsulated in different formal political systems that range from parliamentary democracies (Turkey and Israel), to one-party regimes (Syria), to constitutional monarchies (Jordan). Other than in Jordan, Circassians do not have a special quota of elected representatives in government. Informal politics of ethnicity and state policies toward minorities govern the political trends and types of participation in the communities. The ethnic associations are the primary arena for organizing the communities; elections may be hotly contested. For example, during the Abkhazian-Georgian war, aid for Abkhazia was collected by such associations. Links with the Caucasus are generally established via these associations.

Social Control. Avoidance relationships diffuse potential conflict, and control is reinforced by the strict discipline imposed through deference to the authority of elders. The latter, however, complain that the younger generation, being ignorant of customs and tradition, no longer respect them sufficiently.

Conflict. Disputes that do not involve civil law tend to be solved through negotiation and consensus by local-level leaders within the community, but intraethnic conflict sometimes involves complicated processes. In Jordan, Arab tribal law, in which not all Circassians are well versed, continues to play an important role in conflict resolution. To this end, a group of Circassian leaders in Jordan established a "Tribal Council" in 1981 to help Circassian individuals and to mediate on their behalf.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Circassians in the Middle East are all Muslims of the majority Sunni sect. Islam spread late into the northern Caucasus, after the sixteenth century, although a largely syncretic form of Islam, including Christian and local beliefs, continued to be practiced. Exposure to Islamic Orthodoxy occurred mostly during the immigration process, when the Ottomans sent imams to instruct the new immigrants in beliefs and practices.

Religious Practitioners. There are Circassian imams and religious specialists, but, except where there are still ethnically homogeneous villages, there are no mosques where Circassians worship separately from fellow-Muslim Arabs and Turks. Some graveyards that were established before the settlements became heterogeneous continue to be favored by Circassians for burial, even if they do not reside nearby.

Ceremonies. The main ceremonies that distinguish the Circassians from the wider society are those relating to weddings (especially when marriage is through elopement). Several days of dancing and feasting are divided into separate phases for the different age groups. Some other ceremonies (e.g., marking age grades) are now less frequently performed. Many occasions are now celebrated at ethnic organizations. In addition, the major Islamic rituals are observed.

Arts. Folk dancing figures most prominently in Circassian expressive culture, partly because of weddings and other ceremonies in which it plays a major part. Ethnic organizations have focused on folklore troupes. In some cases, notably Turkey, Circassian dances have been incorporated into the national folklore "repertoire." In other countries as well, Circassian dancing is routinely presented at national festivals and occasions.

Medicine. Besides the use of herbs and poultices, traditional Circassian medicine emphasized forbearance of pain and the value of constant entertainment in distracting the ill or wounded from dwelling on their suffering. With the encroachment of Western medicine, these practices are being abandoned. There are no specialized Circassian healers.

Death and Afterlife. Contemporary Circassian beliefs about death and the afterlife are congruent with the Islamic faith, although vestiges of distinctive beliefs in immortality are reflected in the myths of the Narts (half-divine, giant ancestors of the Circassians) and in the tales of Susoruga, who brought fire to humankind. Distinctive funeral practices are still observed, including placement of a large, open pair of scissors on the chest of the deceased and the digging of a particular type of grave.


Abujaber, Raouf S. (1988). Pioneers over Jordan. London: I. B. Tauris & Co.

Karpat, Kemal (1977). "Ottoman Immigration Policies and Settlement in Palestine." In Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World: The Illusion of Endurance, edited by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Baha Abu-Laban, 57-72. Illinois: Medina University Press International.

Lewis, Norman N. (1987). Nomads and Settlers in Syria and Jordan, 1800-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shami, Seteney (1992). "19th Century Settlements in Jordan." In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan. Vol. 4, 417-421. Amman: Department of Antiquities; Maison de l'Orient Méditerranéen.

Shami, Seteney (1995). "Disjuncture in Ethnicity: Negotiating Circassian Identity in Jordan, Turkey, and the Caucasus." New Perspectives on Turkey 12 (Spring): 75-95.



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a term that includes several groups linked by language and culture.

Circassian refers to indigenous peoples of the northwestern Caucasus who are found today as minority communities in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. The term encompasses several groups linked by language and culture who refer to themselves in their own languages by different ethnonyms; primary among them are the Adyge, Abaza, and Ubykh. The terms Circassian (English), Çerkes (Turkish), Cherkess (Russian), and Sharkass (Arabic) are used by outsiders loosely to include various north Caucasian peoples. In addition to the Russian Federation and the Middle Eastern countries mentioned above, migrations since the 1960s have led to a Circassian presence in Western Europe and the United States. One can thus speak of a widely dispersed Circassian diaspora that is linked through kinship, intermarriage, trans-national social and political organizations, and cultural flows.

Russian and Ottoman Empires

The territories in which the Circassians lived were zones of contention between the Russian and Ottoman empires. After the Russian Empire consolidated its control over the region during the 1850s, Circassians and many other north Caucasian peoples began to migrate into the Ottoman Empire, and a mass migration ensued in 1864. At first they were settled by imperial agencies in the Balkans, although later most were settled in Anatolia and the Syrian Province.

Although this migration led to the current configuration of the Circassian population in the Middle East, there is a long history of linkages across the Black Sea and the Transcaucasus. A slave trade in men, women, and children was an important part of this and Circassians, like many others, fed imperial appetites for warriors, administrators, concubines, and servants. The presence of Circassians in Eygpt as well as some of the major cities of the former Ottoman empire is the complex result of this long history. Thus in Egypt, the Circassian presence goes back to the Circassian Mamluk dynasties of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries, and Circassian identity persisted after the overthrow of the Mamluks and was augmented in the Ottoman period by a continuing inflow of administrators and slaves of Circassian origin.

In contrast, the mass migration during the second half of the nineteenth century led to the formation of farming communities in areas of Anatolia and along what is commonly referred to in the literature on pastoralism as the interface of the "desert and the sown" in the Syrian province. The new Circassian communities often came into conflict with indigenous inhabitants over resources, water, and government services but eventually arrived at various accommodations, as evidenced by intermarriage and mixed settlement.

The Circassian migration also led to a peak in the Circassian female (and to some extent, child) slave trade. Under pressure from the British Empire, black slavery via North Africa had ceased and the Balkans were no longer under Ottoman control, leaving the Caucasus as the main source of slaves for the Ottoman state. This trade was not without its contradictions and contestations, with the state attempting to close slave markets and limit or even sometimes forbid the slave trade while still maintaining the imperial privilege of purchasing women for the harem. Circassian slave and harem women became an integral part of Orientalist literature and arts.

Circassian Communities as Minorities

The breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century meant that the various Circassian communities became minorities within new nation states rather than part of a multiethnic empire. Colonial powers in Syria, Jordan, and Palestine had varying policies towards Circassians and other ethnic groups. Cultural, social, and political organization and patterns thus differ across countries, types of settlement, class, and other factors. However, Circassian identity does persist across time and space. The Circassian language, which is indigenous to the northwest Caucasus and unrelated to Semitic, Turkic, or Indo-European, continues to be spoken across these communities. In addition, Circassians speak the languages of the countries where they live and participate fully in economic, social, and political life. In none of the Middle Eastern countries are the Circassians legally designated as a minority, although some forms of recognition may exist. For example, in the Jordanian parliament a certain number of seats are designated for Circassian as well as for Chechen representatives (the Chechens are also a Caucasian group with a history and presence in Jordan similar to that of the Circassians).

No accurate count exists of the Circassians in the Middle East, as the censuses do not differentiate by ethnicity. Turkey has the largest Circassians' presencewell over 1 million, spread over rural and urban settlements all across the country. The wide variety of lifestyles and life conditions make it difficult to generalize, but Circassians in Turkey have been active in organizational and associational life and have been affected by the legal and political measures to limit ethnic self-expression that stem from the conflict between the state and the Kurdish population.

Syria is the next in terms of numbers, with possibly as many as 100,000. Although pan-Arab ideology is the basis of the Syrian state, Circassians have not suffered from assimilationist policies. However, almost half the Circassian settlements in Syria were originally in the Golan Heights around the city of al-Qunaytra, which was destroyed and captured by the Israelis during the ArabIsrael War of 1973. Almost all the Circassians of this region moved to Damascus and a good percentage then migrated to the United States, forming the core of a community in New Jersey.

In Jordan, the community of around 35,000 was historically influential in government, military, and the security apparatus, and was well represented in the cabinet and parliament. The community grew wealthy with the choice of Amman as the capital during the 1920s, since they were settled mainly in Amman and neighboring villages. Several ethnic associations and clubs, some established as early as the 1930s, form a focus of community activities and there is also a school (kindergarten through twelfth grade) that teaches Circassian language and history in addition to the regular government curriculum.

In Israel, there are two Circassian villages in the Galilee, Kufr Kama and Rihaniyya, with a population of around 3,400. Like the Druze, they serve in the Israeli military and are somewhat privileged over the Arab population. Circassian is taught in schools and folklore groups exist. Until the 1990s and the Oslo Accords, there was little interaction between the Circassians in Israel and those in Arab countries, but it is now increasing.

The most definitive recent change in terms of identity and self-perception has come about with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has enabled Circassians to travel to their homeland for the first time in 150 years and has led many to question their history and identity. Some have chosen to settle in the Russian Federation and others have reaffirmed their ties to their Middle Eastern settlements and citizenship. For all, it has led to the formation of diasporic cultural, social, and economic networks, which may play transformative roles in the future.

see also arabisrael war (1973); black sea; golan heights; oslo accord (1993); ottoman empire.


Jaimoukha, Amjad. The Circassians: A Handbook. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Karpat, Kemal. "Ottoman Immigration Policies and Settlement in Palestine." In Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World: The Illusion of Endurance, edited by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Baha Abu-Laban. Wilmette, IL: Medina University Press International, 1974.

Lewis, Norman N. Nomads and Settlers in Syria and Jordan, 18001980. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Shami, Seteney. "Nineteenth Century Circassian Settlements in Jordan." In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan IV, edited by Adnan Hadidi. Amman, Jordan: Department of Antiquities, 1992.

Shami, Seteney. "Prehistories of Globalization: Circassian Identity in Motion." Public Culture 12, no. 1 (winter 2000): 177204.

Toledano, Ehud R. The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression, 18401890. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Seteney Shami


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The Cherkess are one of the two titular nationalities of the north Caucasian Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia in the Russian Federation. In the Soviet period this area underwent several administrative reorganizations but was then established as an autonomous oblast (province) within the Stavropol Krai. The capital is Cherkessk and was founded in 1804. The Cherkess form only about 10 percent of the oblast's population, which numbers 436,000 and 62 percent of whom make their livings in agriculture, animal husbandry, and bee-keeping. Health resorts are also an important local source of employment and revenue here, as it is in most of the North-West Caucasian region.

The Cherkess belong to the same ethnolinguistic family as the Adyge and the Kabardians, who live in neighboring republics, and they speak a sub-dialect of Kabardian, or "Eastern Circassian." Soviet nationalities policies established these three groups as separate "peoples" and languages, but historical memory and linguistic affinity, as well as post-Soviet ethnic politics, perpetuate notions of ethnic continuity. An important element in this has been the contacts, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, with Circassians living in Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Western Europe, and the United States. These are mostly the descendents of migrants who left for the Ottoman Empire in the midand late nineteenth century after the completion of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. The long and painful process of conquest firmly established "the idea of Circassians" as "noble savages" in the Russian imagination.

The Cherkess are Muslims, but other religious influences can be discerned in their cultural practices, including Greek Orthodox Christianity and indigenous beliefs and rituals. The Soviet state discouraged the practice of Islam and the perpetuation of Muslim identity among the Cherkess, but it supported cultural nation-building. In the post-Soviet period, interethnic tensions were clearly apparent in the republic's presidential elections. However, Islamic movements, generally termed "Wahhabism," are in less evidence among the Cherkess than with other groups in the North Caucasus. The wars in Abkhasia (from 1992 to 1993) and Chechnya (19941997; 19992000) have also affected Cherkess sympathies and politics, causing the Russian state to intermittently infuse the North West Caucasus republics with resources to prevent the spreading of conflict.

See also: adyge; caucasus; kabardians; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Baddeley, John F. (1908). The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Borxup, Marie Bennigsen. Ed. (1992). The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gammer, Moshe. (1994). Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan. London: Frank Cass.

Jaimoukha, Amjad. (2001). The Circassians: A Handbook. New York: Palgrave.

Jersild, Austin. (2002). Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 18541917. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

Matveeva, Anna. (1999). The North Caucasus: Russia's Fragile Borderland. Great Britain: The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Seteney Shami


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Kabardians are one of the titular nationalities of the north Caucasian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian Federation. The population of the republic, whose capital city is Nalchik, is 790,000, of whom 48 percent are Kabardian. Of these, 55 percent are rural and engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, and metallurgy, as well as in health services in the well-known spa resorts of the region. Kabardians also live in the adjacent Stavropol Krai, the Krasnodar Krai, and in North Ossetia.

Kabardian is linguistically classified as East Circassian, and the Kabardians belong to the same ethnolinguistic family as the Adyge and the Cherkess who live in neighboring republics. Policies on nationalities during the Soviet era established these three groups as separate "peoples" and languages, but historical memory and linguistic affinity, as well as post-Soviet ethnic politics, perpetuate notions of ethnic continuity. An important element in this has been the contact, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, with Kabardians living in Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan, western Europe, and the United States. These are the descendents of migrants who left for the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century after the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. In the 1990s a number of Kabardian families from the diaspora settled in Nalchik, but integration remains fraught with social and legal problems.

The Kabardians are largely Muslim, though a small Kabardian Russian Orthodox group inhabits the city of Mozdok in Ossetia. Other religious influences, including Greek Orthodox Christianity and indigenous beliefs and rituals, can still be discerned in cultural practices. The Soviet state discouraged Islamic practice and identity but supported cultural nation-building. Kabardian folk-dance groups (i.e., "Kabardinka") have achieved widespread fame.

In the post-Soviet period, interethnic tensions led, in the early 1990s, to an attempted partition of the republic between the two nationalities, but this did not come to pass. The wars in Abkhasia (between 1992 and 1993) and Chechnya (19941997; 19992000) affected Kabardian sympathies and politics, causing the Russian state to intermittently infuse the republic with resources to prevent the spreading of conflict. Islamic movements, generally termed "Wahhabism," are in some evidence, and mosque building and religious instruction and practice are on the increase.

See also: abkhazians; adyge; caucasus; cherkess; chechnya and chechens; islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Baddeley, John F. (1908). The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Borxup, Marie Bennigsen, ed. (1992). The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gammer, Moshe. (1994). Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan. London: Frank Cass.

Jaimoukha, Amjad. (2001). The Circassians: A Handbook. London: Curzon Press.

Jersild, Austin. (2002). Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 18541917. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

Matveeva, Anna. (1999). The North Caucasus: Russia's Fragile Borderland. Great Britain: The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Seteney Shami


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Originally from the Black Sea area, some Circassians and Chechens (all Muslim) emigrated to the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century, when tsarist troops invaded their lands. Since they were famous for their abilities as warriors and scouts, Sultan Abdul Hamid inducted them into units responsible for the Syrian and Palestinian frontiers. Small groups still live in Syria, Jordan, and Israel. In Israel, as a non-Arab minority, they are required to serve in the military and are generally incorporated into units in charge of border security.