Balkars - Orientation



Identification and Location. The Balkars or Taulus are a constituent population of the former USSR, administratively part of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, which is part of the Russian Republic. A small number of Balkars live in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The northern part of the population is located in the highest mountain strip of the central Caucasus. Most of the Balkars live in the mountains and foothills of the southwestern part of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Over 80 percent of Balkar territory lies more than 2,000 meters above sea level. The main Caucasus chain includes the mountains Elbrus (5,633 meters), Shkhara (5,200 meters), Dykhtau (5,198 meters), Koshtau (5,145 meters), and others. The river valleys are cut deep into the mountains, forming gorges, pits, and canyons, the majority of which are very eroded. Avalanches and mountain torrents follow the courses or channels of these formations. The canyons afford protection from the cold northern winds in winter and from the heat of the flatlands in summer; the climate in these valleys is temperate-continental.

The vegetative zones are made up of strips of forest brakes and yellow rhododendron, changing to conifers as the elevation increases, then to subalpine meadows with thickets of Caucasian rhododendron and low-lying alpine grasses, which in turn yield to lichenous scree.

The mountain fauna include various birds, most noticeably the indigenous Caucasian ular. But the most characteristic animals of the high mountains are the varieties of Caucasian mountain goats: the chegemo-bezengli, the balkar, and the sugam. Also inhabiting this region are wolves, brown bears, stags, wild boars, and—rarely—lynx and leopards.


Demography. The population is small: in the middle of the nineteenth century, the number of Balkars did not exceed 10,000; in 1897, the census counted 23,100; in 1926, 33,300; in 1939, 42,600; in 1959, 42,400; in 1979, 66,000; and in 1989, 86,000. Today more than half of the Balkars live in the foothills and in the cities of Nal'chik, Chegem, and Baksan. In terms of physical anthropology, the Balkars are typical representatives of the Mountain Caucasian type.


Linguistic Affiliation. The Balkars speak the Karachay-Balkar language, which belongs to the Kipchak Subgroup of the West Hunnic Branch of the Turkic Language Family. The Karachay-Balkar language inherited traits of the Kuman, Bulgar-Khazar, and Oghuz languages. The Balkar lexicon contains words borrowed from Iranian (Ossetic), Arabic, Greek, Caucasian, and Slavic languages. The following dialects can be distinguished on phonological grounds: Baksan-Chegem, Malkar, and the mixed dialect Khulamo-Bezengi. There is a distinct dialect for almost every valley. Among dead languages, the closest to Karachay-Balkar are Old Bulgar and Kuman-Kipchak, and among living languages the closest are Kumyk, Crimean Tatar, and the Karaite languages. In 1979, 96.9 percent of Baikars claimed Baikar as their native language (Bennigsen and Wimbush 1986, 203).


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