Laz - History and Cultural Relations

The Laz are ethnically a branch of the Georgian people, representing either a Georgian thrust toward the west or a relic of the passage of the proto-Georgian (Kartvelian) people toward the east, the question resting on whether the Georgians originated in Caucasia or migrated there through Anatolia. The ancestors of the Laz (including the Chaldaeans, the Tzans, and many others) are cited by many classical authors from Scylax (sixth century B.C. ) to Procopius and Agathias (both sixth century A.D. ), but the Laz themselves are cited by Pliny as early as the first century A.D. What is now Lazistan was, at least nominally, included in the Roman province of Polemonian Pontus. By the early fifth century A.D. , as the Roman hold on the eastern Black Sea coast weakened, the coastal tribes seem to have been united by the Laz, who seized control of Colchis (western Georgia), forming a kingdom that came to be known as Lazica, a client of the Byzantine Empire (378-457), then of the Persians (457-522). In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian went to great lengths to reduce the Laz to submission to the empire, cutting down forests, building roads, erecting fortifications, and, in the process, converting the population to Christianity. Most of Justinian's campaigns were waged against the Tzans, and it appears that this was the general Greek name for the western Lazic tribes (the earlier Sanni) lying outside of the direct control of the Lazic kingdom. Lazica remained a client state of the Byzantines from 522 until the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century. In the 790s the Abkhazians ousted the Laz from western Georgia; thereafter, the Laz lived under nominal Byzantine suzerainty in the Chaldian Theme (military province). With the collapse of direct Byzantine rule in eastern Anatolia after the Crusader capture of Constantinople in 1204, the theme of Chaldia, with its capital at Trebizond, became under the Comnenid dynasty a separate state known as the empire of Trebizond. Though Greek in higher culture, the rural areas of this new empire appear to have been predominantly Laz in ethnic composition, the Laz monopolizing its coastal shipping and even transporting Trebizondine troops in their small craft. The Trebizondine Empire even included a "Theme of Lazia," which Bryer (p. 335) describes as "amounting to a Laz tribal reservation."

Conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1461, the former territory of the empire, from just east of Unye to the mouth of the Ch'orokh, was reorganized into the eyalet (province) of Trabzon in 1519 and divided into five sanjaks (counties), of which one, Gonia, corresponded to Lazistan. In actual practice, however, not only were the pashas (governors) of Trabzon native Laz until the nineteenth century, but real authority in many of the cazas (districts) of each sanjak by the mid-seventeenth century lay in the hands of relatively independent derebeys ("valley-lords"), whose power was not really broken until the assertion of Ottoman authority during the reforms of the 1850s. Even under nominal Turkish rule, however, the Muslim faith penetrated among the Laz and, by the eighteenth century, they, together with the Hemshinli Armenians who dwell among them, had become fully converted. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1922, modernization has reached the Laz. With the introduction of tea growing in the 1960s, which has become increasingly important in recent years, the economy has become more diversified, villages have been electrified, schools have been opened, and traditional local customs and folkways have begun to fade. By 1975 literacy in Turkish had reached 75 percent, though over 60 percent of the Laz still spoke their native tongue.

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