LOCATION: Georgia (Abkhazia in the Caucasus region)
POPULATION: Under 100,000
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; pagan beliefs
Until the early 1990s, the Abkhazians were best known for leading unusually long and active lives. After the Soviet Union was dissolved in September 1991, the Abkhazians were involved in an armed conflict with the Georgians, a neighboring ethnic group. Thousands of Abkhazians were killed. Tens of thousands of refugees fled their homes. As a result, the Abkhazians now fear that they may become extinct as a people. In the 1989 Soviet census, there were already fewer than 100,000 Abkhazians.
In language, culture, and ethnic classification, Abkhazians are related to the Abazins (or Abaza), Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians.
Abkhazia covers 3,300 square miles (8,500 square kilometers) between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains. About three-fourths of Abkhazia is mountainous. The region also has excellent seacoast resorts. The short distance between the coast and the mountains creates a landscape of striking contrasts.
The two largest cities are Sukhumi, the capital of the region, and Tkvarcheli, an industrial center.
Abkhazian belongs to the northwest Caucasian family of languages spoken by the Abazins, Adyghey, Kabardians, and Circassians. There are very few words borrowed from other languages. Much of the vocabulary consists of concrete images. These include "helping leg" for a cane, and "mother's blood" for one's uncle.
Common girls' first names are Amra , Asida , Gunda , Esma , and Naala. Common boys' first names are Adgur , Akhra , Daur , Alkhas , and Gudisa.
According to legend, when God was distributing land to all the peoples of the earth, the Abkhazians were entertaining guests. Because it would have been impolite to leave before their guests, the Abkhazians arrived late. All that God had left was some stones. Out of these he created a land of mountains that was hard to farm but very beautiful.
The oldest Abkhazian folk tales are about the Atzan midgets and the giant Narts. The Atzans were so small that they could walk on the stems of leaves. The Narts were one hundred giant sons of the same mother, Sataney-Guasha. They were warriors who fought, hunted, feasted, and engaged in military games. The Nart epic poems are shared by peoples throughout the North Caucasus region.
Both Christianity and the Sunni sect of Islam are practiced among the Abkhazians. However, traditional beliefs still remain very strong. Families may mark both Islamic and Christian holidays and also conduct rituals in the traditional religion.
According to the ancient Abkhazian religion, the supreme god is Antzva (the plural form of the word for "mother"). Afy rules the thunder and the weather. Azhvepshaa is the spirit of the forest, wild animals, and hunting.
The most important secular holidays are the modern New Year (December 31 and January 1) and the New Year according to the old Julian Calendar (January 13 and 14). This is a time for family gatherings. Another popular holiday is called the lykhnashta (Lykhny Meadow). Celebrated after the fall harvest, it brings people from all over Abkhazia to the village of Lykhny. There spectators watch breathtaking horse races and equestrian games. Since 1993, September 30 has been celebrated as Liberation Day. It marks the departure of Georgian armed forces from Abkhazia. On this day, there is a parade of Abkhazian military forces and there are song and dance festivals.
Rites of passage are not a traditional part of Abkhazian culture. Until the Soviet era began in the 1920s, Abkhazians did not celebrate their birthdays or keep track of their chronological age. However, there are terms in the language that name various stages of life.
All relationships are guided by an ancient code of honor known as apsuara. Abkhazian etiquette focuses on showing and expecting respect. The most common greeting is "Good health to you." Other salutations are "Good day," "Glad to see you," and "Welcome." An older person must be the first to greet a younger one. Similarly, a person on horseback must be first to greet someone on foot (by raising himself on his stirrups).
When men meet, they greet each other by raising their right hands. Handshakes are customary among younger people. It is also necessary to ask about the other person's health, business, and relatives. Relatives greet each other with a gentle hug and a kiss on the left shoulder above the heart. Abkhazians maintain a space of at least a foot and a half between them when they are facing each other and speaking. Other than salutations, it is inappropriate for people to touch in most circumstances.
Abkhazians believe that guests bring wealth and good fortune, so they go to great lengths to please their company. A common saying is, "A guest brings seven pieces of good luck."
The ability to make eloquent speeches is a highly prized skill. It is the main requirement for elders and community leaders. Ordinary people are also expected to make long speeches and toasts at family gatherings and public events.
Most Abkhazians still live in rural areas. They occupy spacious stone or brick single-family houses. Usually, a house has several bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The homestead is usually shared by three and four generations. Traditionally, an Abkhazian kitchen was a separate structure. Now, however, kitchens are usually in the main house. The old-fashioned kitchen has been replaced by a large building where dozens of guests can be served at long tables.
More and more, Abkhazians have settled in cities and towns. There they live in cramped, high-rise apartments like those in all the former Soviet republics. Apartments range from one room to three-bedroom units. Often they house an extended family (parents and children plus other relatives). In these dwellings it is difficult to keep traditional Abkhazian etiquette. In city apartments, running water is available only a few hours a day. Most homesteads in the countryside provide their own water.
The average number of children per family is two or three; a family with more than five children is rare. An Abkhazian baby belongs to the family as a whole—to the aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, and sisters. Family life, especially in rural areas, is governed by taboos that dictate everyday behavior. For instance, couples do not show affection in public or even in front of their own children. A man must not smoke or shave in his father's presence. A daughter-in-law may not speak in her father-in-law's presence unless he gives her permission.
Wedding ceremonies can involve hundreds of guests. First there is a feast at the bride's father's house. The wedding then takes place in the groom's home. No one from the bride's family attends the wedding. The bride and the groom remain hidden from all the guests in a separate room throughout the big feast.
In public, women enjoy fairly equal opportunities with men. In the home, the situation is very different. Men and male children do not cook or clean. Women and children do not usually join guests at the table. They remain standing throughout a feast and do not talk with the guests.
Abkhazians wear mostly Western-style clothing. Children and teenagers tend to wear fashionable clothing, much like their peers in any Western country. Women, however, maintain a few traditions pertaining to modesty. They never wear slacks or shorts, or blouses with low necklines, but they may wear swimming suits on the beach.
On special occasions, the male elders wear the traditional cherkesska. This is a belted black garment with long sleeves, worn over a plain long-sleeved shirt. The traditional headdress for men is a bashlick. It has a long strip of cloth hanging from either side of the head to well below the shoulders. In cold weather, the cloth can be wrapped around the face. In the summer the end pieces are tied together at the back of the head. Men also wear a long felt cape called a burka.
Both men and women wear black clothing after the death of a close relative. Women wear a black dress, scarf, stockings, and shoes for a year or even longer. Widows may remain in black the rest of their lives.
Abkhazians eat homegrown and home-processed foods. Their everyday diet includes yogurt and cheese, plentiful raw fruits and vegetables, some meat, and little fish. Instead of bread, they eat a bland cornmeal mush. They dip it and other foods into spicy sauces made with Abkhazian salt (ajika). This is a tasty mixture of ground red peppers, up to a dozen herbs, and salt. Meals are eaten three times a day, with the biggest meal in the evening.
Children begin school at the age of six and graduate at seventeen. All grades are taught in the same school building, which is called a secondary school. There are very few elective courses. Schooling in the cities continues to a higher level than in rural areas. Abkhazia has one university and several colleges.
Song, music, and dance are important parts of Abkhazian culture. There are wedding songs, ritual songs, cult songs, lullabies, healing songs, and work songs. There are special songs for family gatherings and for the ill, and songs celebrating the exploits of heroes.
There are drama and dance companies, art museums, music schools, and theaters for the performing arts. Poetry and other forms of literature are also highly valued.
Throughout life, work is treated as a basic and natural part of everyday living. Children first learn how to work around the house and on the farm. An Abkhazian saying goes, "Without rest, a man cannot work; without work, the rest is not beneficial." People continue working as long as they can.
The favorite spectator sports are soccer and games involving horseback riding. Every school has a soccer team. Most boys in rural areas learn how to ride horses and play fast-moving ball games on horseback. Traditionally, women also learned to ride, but this is not true any more. Abkhazia has had two Olympic champions, one in javelin throwing and one in equestrian (horseback) sports.
Most entertainment takes place informally at small gatherings of family and friends. Abkhazians gather at each other's homes and spend whole evenings talking and eating. Young and old sit around a big table filled with tasty dishes, wine, vodka, and brandy. Dancing and singing are part of larger gatherings. The theater is also a common form of entertainment. People also like to chat over coffee and snacks at outdoor cafes. Men play board games in courtyards until late at night.
Among the oldest crafts of the Abkhazians are basket weaving, pottery, woodworking and metalworking. Most of the pieces produced are intended for use in the home.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the armed conflict of 1992–93 have led to an economic crisis. This has resulted in unemployment, theft, and drug use. Many of the houses and other buildings in the capital city of Sukhumi have been demolished in the fighting.
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