The mysterious world of the peoples of the Caucasus 0


The mysterious world of the peoples of the Caucasus

By Ahmat Musukayev

Reports of the Caucasus written by Scottish and Irish missionaries in the 19th century and the medieval ages

The book "The mysterious world of the peoples of the Caucasus" consists of extracts from a number of publications of different authors of the end of the 18th and 19th century. At first sight, the purposes and tasks of the authors are far from each other. But the author of the "Commentaries on the map of the countries located between the Black and the Caspian seas with a list of the Caucasian peoples and dictionaries of their languages" (1788), both Scottish and Irish missionaries, who prepared and published "The Reports of the Edinburgh "Missionary Society in 1817-1818 with the supplement of the geographical and historical description of missions in Asian Russia", and "The Report..." of the Irish Missionary Society (1819), as well as David. Urkart (Urquhart) who wrote the book "Expansion of Russia in the West, North and South", and finally, grand-duke San-Donato E. Demidov, a participant of "The Hunters' travels in the Caucasus" (1898) undertake convincing attempts to share their impressions about the Caucasus and its peoples. Many of the ethnic groups mentioned, some still unknown, some already forgotten in Western Europe, nevertheless, go right back to ancient times. Their past and present, their customs and traditions, the place they occupy in the world of many civilisations, the "mysterious" territory they live in - ail of it was just beginning to be scientifically researched and to attract general attention.

The time frame of the work is wide, but historically justified: beginning with the first centuries A. D. and writings of Strabo, Pliny, Ptolemy and extending to contemporary authors such as I. A. Gueldenstedt, Y. Reineggs, Y. Pototsky, G. Y. Klaprott and many others. The narratives describe the time of conquest of the lands between the Don and Kuban rivers by the Russian grand-dukes, the successful campaigns of Svyatoslav and Mstislav Vladimirovich against the Hazars, trie formation of Tmutarakan, the establishment of political and cultural ties with the peoples of the North Caucasus, the flourishing of the port of Astrakhan during the reign of Peter the Great.

Many other events of the 14th - 18th centuries are described and analysed in chronological order. Special attention is given to the struggles and wars of different peoples of the Caucasus and the Crimea. The historical events are characterised by accuracy and reliability, though some statements of the researchers at times may seem disputable. In the part of "Notes..." where we find a list of the Caucasian peoples, certain thoughts of the author did not stand the test of time and further research. So, in the list of the Tatars, the researcher calls the ethnic community of Balkars, living in small settlements: Malkar - 1000 families, Bisnighe (Bezengi) - 100 families, Khulam (Hulam), and Chegem Nogaj" only because, as he considers, they speak the same dialect. The description of the Circassians, their homes, military skills, and their class structure are given quite correctly and in detail. The author remarks: "Extraordinary bravery and military skills make this tribe a bitter enemy of any adversary. The Circassians could have become the rulers of the whole Caucasus, if they were able to unite".

The researcher treats in detail such questions as the common law of the Adyghe, their craft, "kunachestvo", clothes, utensils, laws of hospitality and vendetta, questions of children's upbringing: boys must be "kunaks", girls must become mothers. He also describes wedding ceremonies and family relations. He is obviously impressed by the abstention of the Adyghe from alcoholic drinks, their skills in handling weapons and that both men and women are good warriors.

In "The Notes...", religious beliefs are of special interest and are thus examined separately. The same is true for the term "Adyghe", which the Circassians use to name themselves. Referring to the logical conclusions of Pliny, the author traces the origin of the name Adyghe to their ancestors, the Agedi.

"The Notes..." not only provide facts and examples from works of ancient and medieval scientists, but also analyse them and give, where possible, necessary comments. So, the author mentions two customs of the Adyghe which obviously bewilder him: "A ban on men, under the threat of public shame, on seeing and talking to their wives in public", (i.e. "shunning") and "the custom of taking the boys away from their fathers and entrusting their education to other people" (i.e. "atalychestvo"). He attempts to trace the roots of these and some other customs to the existence of "amazons and gargarens, who in the opinion of some ancient geographers once lived in the territories now populated by the Circassians".

"The Reports..." of the Edinburgh and Irish Missionary Society, published almost a decade after the "Notes...", are a logical continuation of the latter and represent further attempts to understand the unusual traditional cultures of the peoples of the Northern Caucasus. First, we should note, that these are stories of missionaries who came to the Caucasus from one of the most ancient cities in the northern part of Great Britain. Edinburgh was founded in the 10th century when the state system in Scotland was created on the basis of such tribes as the Brits, the Picts and the Scots. Subsequently Edinburgh was considered as one of the centres of World Mission, spreading the Christian faith among many pagan peoples. Today it is famous as a place where the number of cultural and architectural monuments, archives, libraries and prestigious educational institutions exceeds that of most other cities of Great Britain. The beginning of the 19th century was among other things also a time when many of the influential missionary societies were founded. For Great Britain it is also characterised as a period of opposition between the forces of so-called enlightenment and the preservation of the foundations of the Christian faith and religious influence in society. Therefore, it is quite understandable and justified, that the foreword to "The Report..." (1817) is completely devoted to God, his role and place in the life and affairs of common people. The bookproceeds with the description of difficulties awaiting missionaries carrying the Good News to foreign lands: "Huge crowds of pagans, Mohammedans and the unfortunate adherents of other religions will not come to the "Promised Land" all at once. Not at once will the darkness in which they live be disseminated by the dazzling light of new clean skies". Their dream to see all the world profess a faith in Jesus Christ is, considering their aspiration to zealously and faithfully serve their God and the people he created, quite natural and even logical.

The work of the missionaries was organised on the highest level. Records in the diaries testify to the hospitable reception of the representatives of the Scottish Church in Russia by the Russian emperor Alexander I. in St. Petersburg, in particular, and about well-received meetings of the visitors during their trips to Central Asia, the Crimea and the Caucasus, The goal of the representatives of the Edinburgh Missionary Society in traveling to the Caucasus is given in "The Report..." rather precisely The Edinburgh Missionary Society was created in 1802 by Mr. Brighton and Mr. Paterson with the aim of converting to the true faith the tribes and peoples of Karass (the area of Pyatigorje at the eastern slope of the Beshtau). Furthermore it is underlined that, for example, the Ossetians had addressed the commandant of Mozdok with a request to protect them from their aggressive neighbours and to send them spiritual instructors capable of helping them to develop the basics of the Christian religion.

The beginning of the noble activities of the missionaries was laid at a general meeting of the Irish missionary community in Tataria and Circassia on August 4, 1819. Interrelations dialogue was not part of their picture. The task of the communities is described as follows: "Among the numerous duties of Christians in regard to missionary activities there is no more important puipose than spreading God's truth among the tribes and peoples of Tataria and Circassia, living in the gloom of illiteracy and superstitions".

The missionaries' judgments about the Caucasian peoples are sometimes somewhat subjective. For example, they accuse the Ossetians of lacking integrity and being selfish in their attitude when it comes to dealing with travellers and foreigners on the military. They also blame Kabardians for being aggressive and wild, other peoples as being backward, etc. It is quite evident that this is a subjective judgement based on the behaviour or acts of individuals, which should not have been used to make generalizations. At the same time, we should keep in mind that such observations were never intended to be publicised but are taken from private reports missionaries were sending their superiors back home.

On the other hand there is a lot of evidence that the missionaries did study the history of the peoples they worked with and researched their culture. Mr. Brighton and Mr. Paterson learnt the Tatar, Persian, Jewish and other languages. Since they considered Kabardian with its abundance of complicated combinations as too complex, they even intended to develop a new alphabet and grammar for this language.

The translation and printing of the sacred books "in the languages of the peoples of Asian Russia" were carried out in the port of Astrakhan, which in the view of the missionaries would soon become a significant trade centre. In 1816 alone there were published 9114 religious books and brochures, including chapters from Genesis and Exodus, as well as the Gospel of Matthew and Luke and a brief summary of the Bible.

The fame and popularity of the mission grew not only due to its publishing and preaching activities but also due to its provision of material help to those in need and its custom of buying people out of slavery. "The Reports" give some unique facts of converting slaves to Christianity. One account tells the story, how missionary Halloway married an 18-year old Kabardian girl. Unfortunately, she died right after she had given birth to his child. It was a heavy loss for all the mission, as she was "an outstanding Christian and spoke perfect Tatar and Kabardian". Missionaries J.T. Davidson and Frazer married Ossetian girls also ransomed out of slavery.

The list of names and surnames of the people baptised in the Karass mission during the time of the report is quite significant. There are ten Kabardians, two Tatars, one "Dugor" (Ossetian) in the list of the men. There are seven Kabardians, one Ossetian, one Chechen in the list of the women. The names in the list sound surprisingly "otherworldly": Abraham Warrend, 18 years old, Kabardian; Andrew Hunter, 23 years old, Kabardian; Walter Buchanan, 23 years old, Kabardian; John Aberkrombie, 16 years old, Kabardian; Andrew Skirting Hay, 13 years old, Kabardian; James Peddy, 19 years old, Temirgoevets; Tezada, 17 years old, Kabardian; Haz, 49 years old, Kabardian; Mary, 14 years old, Kabardian, and others. It would be incredibly interesting to follow the further destiny of these converts, who subsequently went to England, and to learn about their children and grandchildren and what place they occupy in English society today and whether there are any traces of their past left in their lives.

Since the tribes of Ossetia seem to have been most open to the message of the missionaries, there is a separate chapter in "The Reports..." (1817) about them, the first baptised Ossetians and the opening of Russian schools. At first the missionaries intended to open outposts in a number of Ossetian villages. But General Dilpitz, the commander of the Russian army in the Caucasus, refused them permission to do so because the Georgian archbishop opposed such actions. The directors of the missions had to change their strategy and began opening Russian schools for Ossetian children, where they were taught conversational English, subjects of elementary school, basics of Christian faith, labour skills and many other things. The teachers and instructors admired the children's, their openness towards education, their good memory and quick mind, their quick grasp of the catechism and their success in reading and writing.

Among the schoolboys of such a school in Karass we learn of a boy whose name was hitherto unknown to local historians. He is one of the descendants of the famous Crimean family of the Gireys -Katte Girey. He became an orphan in his early years at the time of the opening of the Karass mission and lived with his father's relatives near Pyatigorsk. When he learnt that Scottish missionaries could teach him the Arabic language he wrote to Mr. Brighton, the director of the mission. But as his relatives were categorically against his acceptance of Christianity and his dialogue with the "infidels", he had to leave Karass and to go serve in the Russian army. But even there he showed promise and having a chance to promote his military career, he continued to study Christianity and disseminate the Sacred Scriptures and "bases of the Christian faith". In 1816 Katte Girey submitted his resignation to Alexander I. and requested to be sent to England with the purpose of receiving special education. The Russian emperor not only approved the application but also provided him with the means necessary for training. So Katte Girey become a student of the prestigious London College of Old Gomerton. In the letter the president and secretary of the Scottish Missionary Society sent from Edinburgh September 7, 1819, he calls Katte Girey a highly professional theologian, a man of versatile knowledge and the author of a project to open a seminary in the Crimea and expresses high hopes for his future.

As we stated before, while carrying out their main task of sharing their Christian faith, the missionaries also managed to study the history, the culture, the peculiarities and the mode of life of the peoples inhabiting the Caucasus. Noticing the territorial, ethnic, cultural and religious complexity of the region, which, as they write, made it difficult to tell a Circassian from a Tatar, they come to the conclusion that this mix creates a fertile ground for receiving God's Word.

The missionaries from Edinburgh kept for their descendants their observations about the history and culture of the Turkmen, Bashkirs, Crimean and Astrakhan Tatars, Armenians, Greeks and Jews. But they not only described what they observed, they also did their best to develop the grammar of the native languages and the education of the people and to introduce the people to the achievements of the world's cultures and civilisations. They were indignant about the draconian prohibition of the Greek language by the Turkish government and persecution of the Greeks trying to speak their native language not only in public, but also among themselves. The least punishment for breaking the regulations was to hale one's tongue cut off and the worst was to be sentenced to death.

At times some judgements of the missionaries may seem naive, but none will doubt their seriousness in searching for more knowledge, in their aspiration to study, find out and analyse. So their attention was attracted to the Cubachians, who were frequently called Franks by Europeans.

The comparison of the inhabitants of the Cubachian community with Germanic tribes (the free and brave Franks) living in the lower and middle reaches of the Rhine is probably connected with the fact that they had very much in common, particularly the way they manufactured weapons, military ammunition and chain armour. (The term "Cubachians" is translated from the Persian language as "those who make chain armour"). In fact the roots of this ethnic group are East Caucasian, ancient Albanian, plus some admixture of Iranian blood. The lack of more detailed knowledge of the ancient ethnic history of the region, the language and ethnopsychology of this small nation, eventually forced them to abandon a more serious and deep research of "this mysterious tribe".

It is more than curious to find out that pilgrims from Penza and Kazan provinces, Persia and Bukhara approached the mission with different questions including conversion to Christianity. Among the visitors were people like the Turkmen effendi, Baba Khan Hadji, and the Kirghiz Khan Azm Njek Ali. Of course the missionaries hoped that not only they but also their people would put their faith in Jesus Christ. However, at that time such hopes were justified maybe only for the Digors, a sub-group of the Ossetians, but few had a chance to meet a Christian among the Kirghiz or the Turkmen.

Taken as a whole, the task of missionaries in the Caucasus was really difficult and their outreach ofter of limited effectiveness. So, speaking about the Astrakhan period, the author of "The Reports..." (1818) noticed with disappointment but also hope that there were many opportunities to attract the attention of the pagans, Jews, and Mohammedans to "the bases of the Christian faith", but the activity of the mission was more like sowing seeds than gathering crops.

The acquaintance with "The Reports...", the letters and diaries of various religious men from Scotland at the beginning of the 19th century do not leave us any room to doubt their honesty and desire to bring peace, well-being and good will to this land, to promote their faith in God, hoping to bring divine light and blessing into what they considered the darkness of the Caucasian gorges.

Extracts, from the book by D. Urkart "Expansion of Russia in the West, North and South", published in this edition, are devoted to the analysis of political events and international relations in 1820-1830 in the Caucasus and the Balkans: to the Greek revolt of 1821, a military conflict between Turkey and Greece and the Russian-Turkish war of 1828-1829. The author has an independent opinion on everything that happens around him. Still, he gives Great Britain the role of saviour, a fair and honest arbitrator. There is information in the book concerning the Adrianopolis contract (August 12, 1829) and the London treatise. We read: "Despite its philanthropy and honesty, Great Britain was pushed to an unprecedented degree in terms of the brutality of its actions. The deeply errpneous policy in the East was caused by a firm belief that Russia was an unreliable ally." In D. Urkart's opinion England did not suppose that by trusting Russia it would reduce the North Caucasus and many territories of Transcaucasia to subjection only by the force of weapons and a military administration.

The materials placed in the supplement to this edition information about the hunting trips to three different parts of the Caucasus of Grand-duke San Donato E. Demidov, who took part in "an imperial hunt". He was a descendant of the Demidovs, who were given the title of grand-duke San-Donato t aprincipality located near Florence. It was done soon after Anatoli Nikolaevich had married Matilda, the niece of Napoleon I in 1841.

This trip was led by Sergei Mikhailovich, the grandson of Mikhail, who was the fourth son of Nikolai I and who once was a vicegerent of the Caucasus. The author gives brief but copious notes on the territory, commenting that "numerous peoples had been roaming from place to place here from east to west for many centuries and therefore it (:he Caucasus) occupies a special place in the history of humankind. Everything has been mixed together in the Caucasus: Europeans and Asians, Christians and Muslims. Each nation, each tribe that once passed through this isthmus has left its traces here. There has been a great mixture of languages, cultures and religions in the Caucasus. This mountain area represents a field for the most interesting ethnographical researches".

Even in villages and remote mountain areas, densely populated by representatives of different ethnic groups, he meets both Russians and Cossacks, Jews and Armenians and people of many other nations. For example, in one of the picturesque gorges in the upper reaches of Zelenchuk the travellers visited an abbot living in a Christian monastery. There were two ancient churches nearby "most likely constructed by the Byzantines somewhere between the 4th and the 7th centuries".

The author gives a critical opinion on the troubled history of the Caucasian peoples and the consequences of the war waged by the Russian empire. He admires the bravery and persistence of the highlanders defending each foot of land and regrets the resettlement of a significant part of the population to Turkey.

A traveller and a hunter who is primarily interested in leopards, mountain goats and wolves, E. Demidov gives surprisingly exact historical, political and geographical information about the Caucasian lands, "connecting two great continents: Asia and Europe". The composition was written exactly 100 years ago and today it is of considerable interest to researchers of the flora and fauna of the Caucasus. The environment and the conditions of life of the animals, their classification, migration, and many other questions are within the range of interests of this highly educated all-rounder. What is no less important, the book is written in a lively and emotional style, making for some fascinating reading not just for those interested in hunting and tourism. The book also gives names and descriptions of local districts, roads, small rivers, forest reseives and recommendations on how to hunt various animals and game and also offers suggestions about what equipment a traveller and hunter ought to take equipment of a traveller and a hunter. During the whole narrative, E. Demidov names local districts, gorges and small rivers - sonorous Circassian and Turkic terminology, making comments on them at times: the river Psysh (old water), the village Elburgam, the valley Khizdish, the river Arkhyz, the mountain range Kyafar, the river Urup and many, many others.

The descriptions of the Circassians, the Karachai and Cossacks whom the author met during his journeys are given alongside with a fascinating narrative about the land and its inhabitants., For example, Pago "a tall majestic highlander with a grey-haired beard. In his youth he was a mighty djigit (warrior) capable of amazing feats. About thirty years earlier he was in a war with Russia and with the help of a gun and a dagger he doggedly defended each foot of his native land".

E. Demidov recollects a funny episode when Pago met a grandson of a famous prince Baratynsky. a commander of the Russian army during the Caucasian war. We reau; "The old man Pago quickly drew himself to his full height and instinctively seized his dagger. That minute he looked so terrible that Baratynsky was frightened and was sorry to be near the old Circassian". Strange as it may seem, the author calls the highlanders by their first names and never by their surnames (he was either acquainted with them accidentally or their surnames seemed too difficult to pronounce), e.g. the Old man Pago about whom we mentioned above, the skilled hunter Nagoi or the furious-looking Kerim.

In distinguishing the highlanders as representatives of this or that nation, the traveller emphasised their independence and love of freedom more than once: "These peoples have got used to freedom and nobody has succeeded in taming them". And he writes further that though "they were quick-tempered they can on no account be called bad. They behaved like little children at times"
Is this a patronising remark of the aristocrat on "the children of the mountains" or just a certain romantic notion in a traveller's notes? Most likely, it is neither the one or the other. E. Demidov's view on the life, behaviour and mutual relations of the highlanders is sincere and kind. The life of the peoples of the Northern Caucasus, the description of their settlements, clothes, dwellings and elements of their culture is interesting for the inquisitive reader and also important as a factual source for researchers, ethnologists and historians. For example, a group of more than thirty men goes on a hunt and the author describes their armaments, the form of their saddles and clothes and at the same time he tells us in detail about the process of manufacturing felt cloaks, their quality and how they are used. In Batalpashinsk he was strongly impressed by the architecture and engineering of a dwelling designed in such a way that one of the heated rooms was used to heat the others. The same temperature could be maintained for 24 hours in such a dwelling.

The positive attitude of the traveller to this territory, its inhabitants, land and nature is evident. He admires the forests of the Caucasus, the lushness of the flora, the mighty oaks and graceful beeches, the thick trunks of its huge and shapely trees. E. Demidov speaks enthusiastically about his travel, full of unique impressions and fascinating adventures. In his conclusion he writes: "The most delightful and pleasant of all my travels has come to an end, but reminiscences about it will remain alive. I shall remember my hunting trip to the Caucasus with great pleasure to my dying day".

As we condude this brief foreword, we would like to emphasise that despite some theoretical errors, excessive emotions and subjectivity, which is quite natural, the observations in this book will undoubtedly produce the same positive impression on the reader.


Ahmat Musukayev, Balkarian scholar, historian.


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