Circassians - History and Cultural Relations

At a remote period (3000 B.C. ) the Circassian homeland was the site of the Bronze Age Kurgan culture, now identified with the Proto-Indo-Europeans. It is possible that the ancestors of the Circassians may themselves have taken part in this Kurgan culture, for very remote linguistic links between the Proto-Indo-European and Northwest Caucasian languages can be posited. In any event, the Circassians have been in or near their homeland for millennia and have had contacts with the myriad peoples who have passed across the steppes to their north: the Proto-Indo-Europeans; the Kimmerians (from whom the Circassian tribe of the Chemgwi, earlier Kemirgoy,) are descended; the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans; the Goths; the Huns; the Khazars; the Turkic peoples; the Mongols; and lastly the Cossacks, Ukrainians, and Russians. During these millennia the Circassians knew almost constant warfare with these steppe neighbors. More peaceful contacts prevailed between the Circassians and the ancient Greeks in the trading cities along the Black Sea coast, later between them and the Genoese, and then with Venetian traders. Between A.D. 1379 and 1516 Circassians formed a Mameluke dynasty that ruled over Egypt. There is some evidence linking these Mamelukes with the fourteenth-century expansion of the Kabardians eastward of the Caucasian massif. Despite the lack of a centralized government the Kabardians formed a homogeneous political unit resembling a state, whereas the other Circassians remained organized around tribal and clan patterns. During their history the Circassians seem to have been conquered only three times: first by the Kök Turks, the first Turkic empire; second by the Mongols; and last by the Russians. When in the sixteenth century one of the Kabardian noble families, Kemirgoquo (Russian: Temryuk), established close ties with the Russian court (the origin of the Cherkasski family), the Circassians did not see this alliance as an act of submission. Nevertheless, when czarist imperial ambitions brought Russian troops to the Caucasus in force in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Kabardians did not offer prolonged resistance, whereas their kin to the west fought on—at first with Ottoman support and then independently—until 1864, five years after the fierce Daghestanis and Chechens had surrendered. An account of this Circassian resistance has been written by Henze (1990), though many details remain to be documented. After defeat, fully half of the Circassians—including many Kabardians and all the Ubykhs, as well as all the "Fighetts," a tribe of uncertain affiliation—sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire. There they were scattered to the farthest, least desirable regions, where many died of hunger and disease. This emigration was a crucial error, for in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states they have known as much repression as their compatriots who stayed behind. Recently (1991) the old Soviet administrative units—the Adyghe Autonomous Oblast, the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast, and the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic—were elevated in status to three republics and were allowed to fly the old common Circassian flag, the Sangyak Sherif, with three crossed arrows and above them two arcs of stars (nine above and three below, one for each tribe), all on a deep green background. Cultural affairs for all three republics are governed by one common Circassian cultural council, or khasa. A program for the repatriation of diaspora Circassians has been instituted, and some few have in fact returned to grants of land and other incentives. All these changes have survived the dissolution of the USSR itself. The avowed goal of the Circassians is an ethnically and linguistically pluralistic society in which Circassian cultural institutions can once again enjoy a territorial basis. The future of the region promises to be interesting.

The Circassians in the Soviet Union underwent forced resettlement onto kolkhozy and into new villages in the lowlands. Traditional housing styles were replaced with standard Soviet rural brick homes with small plots around them. Some Circassians have moved to the new local cities and have established themselves in modern urban life. The Circassians in Turkey are still largely peasants, with a few that have taken up military careers. The Ubykhs still persist as a distinct type of Adyghe, but their language is now spoken only by one man and one woman. In Jordan, the Circassians are concentrated in and around Amman, where they own a great deal of property and have been entrusted with the state electrical and power monopoly. They enjoy Circassian radio and television but are not allowed to publish in their language. In Syria the Circassians were concentrated in five villages in the Golan Heights. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War these Circassians withdrew into Syria, specifically to slum districts of Damascus. Finding their settlements unacceptable, they petitioned the United States in the mid-seventies to be granted asylum. The United States initiated a program with the aid of the Tolstoy Foundation of New York City to enable many of these Circassians to immigrate into America, where they settled in New Jersey and New York City. In Israel, the two villages of Circassians appear to enjoy relative freedom and have a tradition of serving Israel as an elite border patrol. In the United States, the Circassian communities are largely urban. Here there is considerable tension and debate between those few who came directly from the Caucasus and the vast majority who have come from the Middle East as to the purity of their traditions and the best way to salvage their heritage, for there is considerable anxiety that they are destined for extinction as a people. Some harbor dreams of a repatriation of all Circassians to the Caucasus, and there is a movement, based in Holland, dedicated to achieving that end by peaceful means. It might be mentioned that the only Ubykhs outside of Turkey reside in southern California.

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