Circassians - Orientation

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.

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