Circassians - 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.

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