Circassians in history

This essay is a summary and extension of remarks made at a conference on Circassia sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation Washington DC, 21 May 2007


by Paul B. Henze

Circassians share with the Georgians the distinction of being the oldest continually identifiable ethnic group in the Caucasus. As far back as it is possible to project their history, they seem to have populated the northeastern shore of the Black Sea and the hinterlands extending to the high mountains behind. Their original territory certainly extended to the Straits of Kerch and possibly into Crimea. Men who spoke languages ancestral to the complex Circassian dialects of modern times probably met the Greek colonists who in the last millennium BC established trading posts along the Black Sea shore, but the Greeks did not penetrate far into the interior. Greek colonies linked Circassians to the Mediterranean world but the Circassians' ancestors were also in contact with a wide range of peoples who moved through the Caucasian foothills and the steppes to the north over the millennia. The great variety of physical types among Circassians is evidence of admixture from many ethnic strains. Nevertheless, the fertile valleys and forested uplands of their homeland provided for such a secure mode of life that Circassian groups seem to have experienced little temptation to migrate elsewhere. Livestock herding and agriculture provided a dependable livelihood. Population increased steadily, leading adventurous young men to seek employment as soldiers far from home. Thus a pattern which has continued to modern times was established. Circassians were deeply attached to their homeland, but at the same time aware of the world beyond and unafraid to embark on foreign adventure.

Englishmen and other Europeans who spent time among Circassians in the early 19th century found reason to compare their society to ancient Greece. This was more than a mere reflection of classical education. There are distinct parallels between Circassians and ancient Greeks. Both were conscious of belonging to a common nationality, with close linguistic ties and common social structures, sharing customs, traditions of origin and ancestry, but they did not develop unified political institutions or hereditary ruling structures. Instead they remained divided into separate tribes and clans confined to their own regions, based on ancient, semi-mythological kinship traditions. There were rivalries between them, sometimes blood feuds and raids and from time to time extended hostilities. Like the ancient Greeks Circassians shared an enormous body of oral tradition--literature passed from one generation to the next. While the Greek gods and goddesses became part of the Western intellectual tradition and still form part of the imagery of European languages and Western civilization in general--Venus, Mars, Mercury, Apollo, etc.--Circassian gods and heroes are mostly unknown, but as John Colarusso has demonstrated, their lore is as rich as that of the Greeks.

There are also important differences between Greek and Circassian development. Circassians did not evolve a literate culture. Their language remained unwritten. Consequently they produced no written literary or historical records, as the Greeks did. Likewise they did not develop arts such as architecture, painting and sculpture. For knowledge of Circassian history up to the 16th century we must rely on scraps of information provided by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab writers and, until the end of the 18th century, Russian sources. Systematic examination of these and additional sources which may come to light may, of course reveal new information.

Circassian tribes living along the Black Sea engaged in trade with Venetians and Genoese, who continued earlier Greek traditions of commerce in the Black Sea and established trading posts on the Circassian/Abkhaz coast. The Circassian lands were for the most part not directly affected by Islam until the 18th century. As late as the early 19th century many traces of early Christian influence, which apparently came both from Byzantium and Georgia from the 6th or 7th century onward, could be found. There is almost no evidence of links to Russian Orthodoxy, but Russians were assiduous in investigating evidence of early Christian influence when they penetrated Circassia in the 19th century. They restored churches at Gagra and Pitsunda and in Soviet times maintained that these were evidence of ancient Russian links to the area.

Meanwhile young Circassian men had continued to depart to find employment in armies to the south. Along with Georgians and other Caucasians they found employment as mercenaries with Muslim armies opposing the Crusaders, including those of Saladin and the Seljuk Sultans. Circassians and Turks formed a major portion of the Mamluk regiment which rebelled and replaced the ruling dynasty of Egypt in 1250. The Mamluks ruled Egypt for the next 300 years until the Ottoman conquest in 1517. Mamluk rule was one of the most brilliant periods of Egyptian Islamic history:

Late Mamluk culture was rich in Persian and Ottoman influences. The cosmopolitan heritage of Mamluke Egypt was... reinforced by the migration of Iranian, Turkish, Spanish and Mesopotamian craftsmen and scholars, who brought with them metalwork, textile, ceramic and building crafts, which were adopted by the Mamluks to adorn the life of the court and the military aristocracy. The religious and cosmopolitan aspects of Mamluke court culture were tempered by a parochial and military emphasis. The Mamluk court listened to Turkish and Circassian poetry. The Mamluks also reveled in military reviews, tournaments and displays of martial arts.

Thus while individual Circassians were both aware of the outer world and some were involved in it, those who remained in their valleys and hills northeast of the Black Sea led isolated rural lives. They were rarely affected by famine or outbreaks of disease. Population increased gradually but produced little social or political pressure, for emigration provided an outlet. Clan and tribal groups pursued rivalries with each other and interrelated in various ways with neighboring Cossacks. Patterns of government and administration differed. Inland in Kabarda princely families dominated life. It was in this region that contact with the expanding Russian Empire first occurred. The first Russians to make contact with the Circassians were Cossacks, men who fled from the north for a variety of reasons, mostly for a freer style of life. They became unconscious agents of Russian expansion. They often established friendly relations with local inhabitants, sometimes intermarrying and adopting local styles of life. In the 16th century Russians representing imperial authority reached agreement with Kabardian princes who welcomed traders and military support against rivals. The marriage of Maria Temryukovna to Tsar Ivan the Terrible and her conversion to Orthodoxy symbolize the cooperative relations that existed at that time. Russian expansion always entailed some degree of missionary purpose--encouragement of the spread of Russian Orthodoxy, but religion was a secondary factor in Russian expansion into the North Caucasus. Kabarda, where the population was divided into clearly defined social classes, marked the beginning of a Russian technique of gaining predominance by co-opting the local aristocracy--the Kabardan princes, whose descendants became prominent among the Russian nobility. This approach was less effective with ethnic groups that had a more egalitarian social structure, such as the Chechens and the Ingush, many of the other Circassian tribes, and the peoples of Dagestan.

Islam had entered the Caucasus early, with Arab incursions into Dagestan in the 7th and 8th centuries, but its spread westward was slow. Most of the mountaineers of the eastern and central Caucasus adhered to traditional beliefs until the early 18th century. Islam penetrated gradually in the form of Sufi (mainly Nakhshbendi) brotherhoods which took root in Chechnya, while in Azerbaijan under Persian rule Shi'ism became predominant while Dagestan remained primarily Sunni. The Russian advance southward into the central mountain regions met with strong resistance by most of the mountaineers. Ushurma, a Chechen from the village of Aldy (not far from present-day Grozny) was born in 1832. As a young man he developed a strong interest in religion. He went to Dagestan for education and returned to become an imam deeply concerned about the Russian advance. Russia established the fortress of Grozny in 1818--deliberately choosing the name ("Awesome") to intimidate the Mountaineers. As the Russian advance continued, Ushurma changed his name to Sheikh Mansur ("Victor") and declared holy war against the invaders. It soon inflamed the entire Caucasus. His greatest success was in Chechnya and Dagestan, but his activity extended to the Circassian lands as well where he was active in the early 19th century. He happened to be in Anapa on the Circassian coast when it was captured by Tsarist forces in 1791. He was treated as an outlaw, taken to St. Petersburg and imprisoned in Schlusselburg where he died in 1794. His mission was not finished; it lived after him. The holy war he had sparked continued unabated in Chechnya and Dagestan, where it came to be led by the great Shamil. In Circassia too the memory of "Elijah Mansur" served to inspire resistance to Russia in the 1830s and 1840s. A Tatar bard was reported singing of him

He was born to tred the Moscoff's pride
Down to the lowly dust;
He fought, he conquered, near and wide,
The northern race accursed.

Sheikh Mansur's campaigns made Islam a symbol of resistance to Russia throughout the Caucasus, thus contributing to its firmer establishment among the Circassians. The Ottomans favored the consolidation of Sunni Islam in the territories over which they exercised suzerainty. Istanbul never established a regular administrative structure in the Caucasus as it did in the Balkans. Turks preferred to exercise authority through local chiefs and regarded adherence to Islam as a measure of their loyalty. Trade and other forms of contact with Turkish ports expanded in the early 19th century. Circassians were well received when they came to Trabzon or Istanbul; some emigrated. Many Circassian beauties entered Ottoman harems, including those of the Sultans. Russia pressed steadily against Circassian territories along the Black Sea and built forts at strategic locations on the coast. As throughout the rest of the Caucasus, Tsarist policy was based on "divide and rule" approaches, setting one ethnic group against another. In the case of the Circassians, Russians aimed to capitalize on clan and tribal rivalries, offering trade advantages in return for cooperation and withholding them from groups opposing Russian advance.

I will not repeat an account here of the long struggle of Shamil which lasted until 1859 or of the parallel struggle of the Circassians from the 1830s through the 1860s, for I have already described Shamil's campaigns in earlier articles and they have been more extensively recounted in a variety of books, notably the recent one by the Israeli scholar, Moshe Gammer. Shamil was overwhelmed and surrendered in 1859. Circassian resistance continued for five more years. It took strenuous Russian efforts to defeat them. An aspect of the final phase of the Circassian resistance against Russia which I did not cover was the involvement of Poles who were resisting Russian domination of their country and regarded the Circassians as their allies. Their involvement is well described by Peter Brock, "The Fall of Circassia: a Study in Private Diplomacy" in The English Historical Review, July 1956, pp. 401-427. It is available on the Circassian World Website. Poles, who fought Russian domination in repeated rebellions, played an important role in many aspects of Caucasian resistance to Russia but in the end were unable to prevent Caucasian--and Circassian--defeat, or their own, until 1918.

Tragedy overwhelmed the Circassians, as it had the inhabitants of the central and eastern Caucasus. The fate of the Circassians comes much closer to constituting mass genocide because their lands had long been coveted by the Russians for settlement. The regions inhabited by Chechens, Ingush and the peoples of Dagestan were less appealing for settlers from Russia and Ukraine, though these peoples were also eventually subjected to colonization by Slavs. Consequently, though hundreds of thousands of people from these regions also fled to the Ottoman Empire, Russia pursued a straightforward policy of ethnic cleansing in Circassia. During the years 1985-1890 well over a million Circassians were forced to depart, often under extremely onerous circumstances. Others were forced to move to less desirable lands than those they originally occupied. Perhaps 150,000 Circassians remained in their original territories. At least half a million are estimated to have reached the Ottoman Empire, but that many more perished of starvation and disease. Modern Americans and Europeans have difficulty understanding how different conditions were then from what they are today. There were no international organizations that concerned themselves with refugees. There were no international sources of assistance for countries receiving them. Ottoman authorities welcomed the Circassians but their resources were extremely limited. The most they could do was to send them to parts of Anatolia and Arab areas to the south where there was room for them to settle. There was little knowledge of these events in the outer world. There was almost no journalistic reporting of the plight of the Circassians and other Caucasians. British consular officers in Trabzon continued a tradition of following Caucasian developments. Their reports are a primary source of information on the fate of these people, but in recent years more material from Ottoman archives and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, recollections and documents from Caucasians themselves, have shed further light on these tragic happenings.

The excellent presentations of Prof. Kemal Karpat during the conference provide a great deal of insight into the fate of Circassians in the Ottoman Empire. His and other researches are continuing. Since the collapse of Soviet communism, Circassians who inhabit the three "autonomous" territories in the North Caucasus that were established for them in the early Soviet period have generated a revival. The perhaps 150,000 Circassians who remained in Russia after the expulsions had increased to 572,168 by the time of the 1989 Soviet census. Of these, 69% were Kabardans. 124,941 Adygei and 52,536 Cherkess were counted in this census, not all living within the boundaries of their designated regions. There has no doubt been an increase in numbers during the past, almost three, decades though current estimates are controversial for there has been emigration but only small numbers of Circassians from outside Russia have been allowed to return.

I will conclude by attempting to answer two important questions: (1) Were and are Circassians a nation? and (2) Were they the victims of genocide?

Criteria for judging nationhood have always been controversial and no one has ever succeeded in establishing absolute standards of judgment. Obvious factors are a common language, a sense of history, shared traditions, a territorial base, a prevailing sense of nationality, and an established state and government. But if we look at a variety of nations whose existence are not questioned, we find that some of these factors are lacking. Switzerland has no common language, but it has a strong sense of history, shared traditions and a strong state. Armenians regard themselves as a nation, but only a minority of them live in their state; their sense of history and traditions is nevertheless strong. They are best defined as a diaspora nation. The same was long true of Jews who eventually succeeded in creating a strong state and reviving a language that had almost become extinct. Poles survived partition and fragmentation by maintaining their language and traditions in the face of oppression and eventually re-established their state, though its location had shifted westward. Old, established European nations and many of those of Asia meet most of the criteria I listed above, so their nationhood is never questioned. But a large proportion of new, post-colonial states that are members of the United Nations lack a common language, consist of several ethnic groups, have little historical basis or agreed traditions, and are nations only in the sense that they exist as diplomatically recognized states with governments.

Circassians had (and have) a common language, a keen sense of history and shared traditions. Though they were deeply attached to the territories they occupied, they did not develop a strong state or a broad governmental system. They nevertheless regarded themselves as a nation. Russian pressure against them reinforced their sense of nationality. It grew stronger as they suffered reverses and, finally, defeat. A major portion of Circassians moved to the Ottoman Empire, where they maintained their identity. They have continued to maintain their identity in Ottoman successor states. As many as 10% of the present population of the Turkish Republic may have Circassian ancestry, though the language has been almost completely lost. In post-Ottoman Middle Eastern states Circassians have maintained their identity and sometimes their language and have come to occupy special niches in the societies of these states: Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel. In the Soviet Union remaining Circassians were allocated three different territories. These have continued to exist as republics of the Russian Federation. There is a strong desire among them to unify. The collapse of the Soviet Union has resulted in restoration of relations between Circassians still living in their ancestral territories and their compatriots in the world outside. Thus, the Circassian nation has survived and continues to exist both within the boundaries of Russia and abroad, most notably as a component of the Turkish Republic. Are Circassians a nation? The answer is yes!

Have they been the victims of genocide? Their fate after defeat by the armies of the Tsarist Empire in 1864 was clearly attempted genocide. Russian actions against the Circassians and other Caucasians in the four final decades of the 19th century generated waves of violence among ethnic groups which continued into the 20th century and spread throughout the region to the south of the Caucasus. Imperial Russia's divide-and-rule approach to other peoples, setting them against each other, resulted in tragic consequences for Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, Syriac and Nestorian Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities--Christian and Muslim alike--throughout the region. The policies and actions of the Soviet Union exacerbated these effects.

Circassians have retained their sense of nationhood and identity in spite of the vicissitudes they have endured. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century they face an opportunity to restore their nationhood, in part in their ancestral lands but perhaps more importantly in the wider world where they are, in effect, a diaspora nation.


There was no relationship between Greek, an Indo-European language, and Circassian, a Palaeocaucasian one. Greeks found Circassian speech puzzling and called it "babble", giving rise to the term "barbarian".

In early Greek and later Hellenistic times some Circassians undoubtedly served as soldiers in regions to the south. They can occasionally be identified in accounts of Greek historians. By the time of the Byzantine Empire, Circassians and other Caucasians as well as men from various Turkish ethnic groups were serving in Byzantine formations.

''Nart Sagas from the Caucasus, Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz and Ubykhs'', Princeton University Press, 2002.

Note references in my ''Circassian Resistance to Russia'', distributed to participants in the conference.

Circassian women had already become legendary for their beauty; increasing numbers were sought for Turkish harems.

Prof. Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 356.

It was never changed during the Soviet period though Vladikavkaz ("Rule the Caucasus") was changed twice (first to Ordzhonikidze and then to Dzaudzhikau) before being restored to its original form.

Anapa was returned to the Ottomans in the Treaty of Iassy in 1892 and remained in their hands until 1829 when it was finally ceded to Russia.

Cited by Edmund Spencer, ''Travels in Circassia...'', London, 1839, Vol. II, p. 294.

Paul B. Henze, "Fire and Sword in the Caucasus: the 19th Century Resistance of the North Caucasian Mountaineers", Central Asian Survey, II/1 (1983), pp. 5-44, and "Islam in the North Caucasus - The Example of Chechnya" written in 1993/95 but unpublished; now made available to the Jamestown Foundation.

''Muslim Resistance to the Tsar, Frank Cass'', London, 1994.

Brock overstresses the importance of British support for the Circassians, especially the role of the Scot, David Urquhart.

They have been drawn on extensively in recent studies of the expulsion, e.g. Kemal Karpat, ''Ottoman Population, 1830-1914'', University of Wisconsin Press, 1985; Justin McCarthy, ''Death and Exile, the Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922'', Princeton, NJ, 1995. Good work is also being done among Circassians remaining in Russia, e.g. the symposium of the Adygei Republican Institute of Humanitarian Research, Rossiya i Cherkessiya, Izdatel'stvo "Meoty", Maikop, 1995.

The late Hugh Seton-Watson made one of the most notable attempts in his ''Nations and States'', Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1977.

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