Meskhetians - History and Cultural Relations



A Meskhetian population, speaking a language from the Oghuzic Subgroup of the Turkic Family, can be identified in Meskheti as early as the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. This was a time of cataclysmic events in Transcaucasia, of continual fighting in this area between Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Persia. The ongoing expansion of the Turkic world (the penetration of the Seljuks, the Tatar-Mongolian invasions, the devastating onslaughts led by Tamerlane) resulted in a massive influx of Turkic settlers into Transcaucasia and the mixing of the latter with the native populations. The territory of Meskheti was not protected from Turkic areas by any sort of natural barriers, and nothing impeded the swift migration of Turkic nomadic herds-people toward the north and their gradual sedentarization. The mass influx of Turkic peoples into the region and their subsequent assimilation resulted in the Turkic substrate of what was later to be the Meskhetian people. The province of Meskheti (the former Georgian principality of Samtskhe-Saatabago, the Akhaltsikhe pashalïk of Turkey), being a border territory between Georgia and Turkey, had been the site of a distinct national-cultural development long before the expansion of Ottoman Turkey in the sixteenth century.

Until their deportation, the Soviet Turks were compactly settled in villages, some of which were homogeneously Turkish, others with a mixed population: their neighbors included Georgians, Armenians, and Kurds. The intensity and direction of interethnic contact reflected the nature of agricultural activities, ethnocultural characteristics, and religious affiliation of the peoples involved. Despite the long period during which a sizable segment of the Meskhetians were under the cultural and administrative hegemony of Christian Georgia, they maintained their distinct ethnocultural identity. Several factors contributed to this. Among the most important was their physical isolation from Georgia, which limited the extent of their contacts. In contrast, the villages at lower altitudes, were in zones of interethnic contact and maintained closer ties with their Georgian neighbors. The tendency was nonetheless to have contacts only within the Meskhetian community. As it was administratively within Georgia, relations between Meskheti and Turkey were restricted. However, despite the fact that the Meskhetian settlements were more distant from the cultural and administrative centers of Turkey than from those of Georgia (e.g., Batumi, Borjomi), the intensity of cultural and religious ties with Turkey and the historic opposition between Muslim and Christian regions served to hinder any strong influence of Georgian culture.

The above-mentioned factors did not exclude various forms of contact, the foremost being exchange and trade. Meskhetian agriculture was highly developed, including the widespread use of irrigation with wooden and ceramic conduits, cattle herding (with the animals being taken to summer pastures in the mountains), and gardening. This provided them with a variety of products to bring to Georgian markets: fruits, vegetables, wool, meat, and dairy products. Certain villages specialized in the production of honey and tobacco. At the same time, the market served as a locus for contact with Georgian material culture. The influence of Georgian and general Caucasian culture is especially visible in traditional clothing and other aspects of material culture. Contact with the neighboring Armenians was primarily through trade in agricultural products and also through the practice of lodging the larger livestock with Armenians during the winter.

Among the groups with whom the Meskhetians were in contact were the so-called Franks (Firenk). It is not possible at present to determine the ethnic identity of this group. It has been established that the Franks in this region were Georgian- and Armenian-speaking Catholics, distinguished from their neighbors by the lighter color of their skin, hair, and eyes and also by the absence of a prohibition on the eating of meat from cattle that died from natural causes. It is well known that the designation "Frank" was applied throughout the East to European Catholics. Taking into account the religious affiliation and the physical features of the Firenk, one might postulate that they represent the remnants of Christian soldiers who had participated in one of the unsuccessful campaigns of the Crusades. Somehow they found themselves in Meskheti, where they took up residence, eventually being absorbed into the local population. Another possible explanation is that the Franks were connected with the activity of Jesuit missionaries in certain isolated communities.

With the deportation of the Meskhetians in the mid-19405, their relationship with the peoples of Transcaucasia was severed. The subsequent period might be considered a new phase in the formation of contemporary Meskhetian culture. The Meskhetians, resettled in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizia, found themselves in a situation quite conducive to ethnic contact. Given that the local populations were practically all Muslims who spoke Turkic dialects, conditions seemed ideal for interethnic exchange. In principle, one would expect this small immigrant group, sharing a common religion and language with their new neighbors, to be readily absorbed into the population. This did not happen, however, for a number of reasons. Among them was the intensification of Meskhetian ethnic self-consciousness, a development typical of forcibly deported peoples. The attitudes of the local ethnic groups also played a role. Although the immigrants, on the whole, were received amicably, the natural opposition between "natives" and "newcomers" was exacerbated by the political situation. Physical differences between the groups were also a barrier to close ties. Another factor was the typical opposition between "nomadic" and "settled" populations, especially in Kazakhstan and Kirghizia. At the end of the 1960s the status of che Soviet Turks as "special migrants" (Russian spetspereselentsi ) was abolished, and a new wave of migration began into a wider area of settlement. A significant number of Meskhetians resettled in Azerbaijan. The number of immigrants there sharply increased after nearly two dozen Meskhetians were slain in the summer of 1989 by Uzbeks in Fergana. This ethnic conflict had become so violent that in the end practically all Turks left Central Asia (especially Uzbekistan). This recent wave of migration has resulted in the dispersion of the Meskhetians among all of the republics of the former USSR except Georgia.

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