ALTERNATE NAMES: Adzharians; Ajarians
LOCATION: Adjaria (within republic of Georgia)
LANGUAGE: Gurian dialect of Georgian language; standard Georgian
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
The Adjarians (also called Adzharians or Ajarians ) are seldom mentioned outside their native land. Their history has contributed to ethnic conflict between them and neighboring ethnic groups in the Republic of Georgia (in the former Soviet Union). Adjarians are like Georgians in almost every respect, except that they are Muslim (followers of the religion of Islam).
Georgians have been Christian since at least the eighth century AD . The ancestors of the Adjarians were once Christian, too. However, in the seventeenth century the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Adjaria and many people converted to Islam. Adjaria remained under Turkish rule until 1878, when it was seized by the Russian Empire. By that time Adjarians had been Muslim for ten to fifteen generations. They viewed themselves as a separate ethnic group, with their own traditions that were derived from Islam.
To recognize its religious and cultural uniqueness, Adjaria was granted limited autonomy (authority to rule itself) within the Soviet republic of Georgia. The post-Soviet era (1991–) has been marked by ethnic tensions between the Muslim Adjarians and the mostly Christian Georgians.
Adjaria is a tiny land of 1,150 square miles (2,634 square kilometers) with beautiful mountains. Its wooded valleys descend to the coast of the Black Sea, where the capital, Batumi, is located. More than one- third of Adjaria's 400,000 people live in the capital.
Adjarians speak the Gurian dialect of the Georgian language. Adjarians have no trouble in understanding or speaking standard Georgian.
Adjarians share much of their folklore with other Georgians. However, some of their local folk tales show Turkish, Armenian, and especially Laz influences. (The Lazes are members of another Muslim people speaking a Georgian dialect.)
Adjaria's much-admired current ruler, Aslan Abashidze, is the subject of many popular tales. People tell fabulous stories demonstrating his courage, wit, and diplomatic skills. He is famous for his legendary showdown with Georgian nationalist leaders in April 1990.
Adjarians have been Sunni Muslims (a sect of Islam) for the past four centuries. However, religious observance was lessened during the more than seventy years of Soviet rule (1921–91) and modernization. Today, only a small number of elderly men can recite sacred Arabic verses from the Koran. Few people attend mosques even on Fridays, and hardly any women veil their faces.
Muslim holidays are observed, but not strictly. As with Lent in the Christian West, many Adjarians do not observe the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with fasting. However, almost everyone feasts when it is over. Due to Russian influence during the Soviet period (1921–91) in Georgia, Adjarians celebrate New Year's Eve. Many even put up Christmas trees. However, nobody attaches any religious significance to this holiday.
Men's Day (February 23), a former Soviet holiday, is still celebrated. On this day, women give small gifts to men, but few people care that this day marks the first battle for the Soviet Red Army in 1918. In a similar way, International Women's Day is celebrated on March 8 with flowers and chocolates, but it is no longer associated with socialism.
Adjarians still mark some major life events with Muslim traditions. For instance, male circumcision is still common. Adjarians like to invite a special guest, called a kirva, for the circumcision ceremony. The kirva must be a Christian neighbor. Traditionally he holds the baby boy on his lap during the operation. The special relationship between the Christian kirva and the child is like that of a godparent and godchild in other cultures.
Lavish weddings are also customary.
Adjarians are polite and courteous under most circumstances, even when they are bargaining at a bazaar (market). Hospitality is considered a supreme virtue. Adjarians would starve if necessary in order to offer a feast to their friends and guests.
Many Islamic rules have been relaxed considerably in recent decades. This is especially true for rules governing relations between men and women, Many women in Adjaria dress and live more like Eastern European women than like women in Arab countries. Hardly any Adjarian women wear the traditional Muslim veils.
Traditionally, most Adjarians have lived in log cabins. Houses have also been made of stone and adobe, mostly near the seashore. In the towns and villages of today, some Adjarians live in two-story or three-story houses with modern conveniences including hot water and even air conditioning.
During Georgia's Soviet era (1921–91), many people moved into apartments in high-rises built by the government, similar to those elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. However, old village habits die hard. Many Adjarians keep chickens, turkeys, and sometimes even cattle in their city houses. In the capital, Batumi, cows roam the streets freely, even in the downtown area.
Large extended families (parents and children, plus other relatives) are no longer common in Adjaria. But the ties of kinship and neighborhood remain very strong. A modern family normally consists of two parents, one to three children, and any living grandparents. Divorce is fairly rare, although not unknown. Many households are run by women, who also do most of the housework. There are no servants. Almost all private homes have pets—dogs, cats, and sometimes caged birds (canaries or exotic parakeets).
Traditionally, Adjarians dressed like Turks or other peoples of the Near East. This outfit was completely replaced by modern European-style clothing around the middle of the twentieth century. Today, Adjarian men prefer expensive suits or tennis shirts and Levi's jeans. (However, these "designer" items are often fakes manufactured in Turkey.) Women try to follow French and Italian fashions in dress and makeup.
Adjarian cuisine is mainly the same as that of the Georgians. To this, the Adjarians add fish from the Black Sea: mackerel, flounder, and anchovies.
In recent years, Adjarians began drinking wines and beer which are prohibited by Islamic law. Tea is the customary local drink.
During the Soviet era (1921–91) in Georgia, high-school education became a requirement for Adjarians. As in other parts of Georgia, the proportion of college-educated people in Adjaria was among the highest in the Soviet Union. Almost as many women have advanced degrees as do men.
Most Adjarian cultural traditions (dances and music, for example) overlap with those of the Christian Georgians from the neighboring province of Guria. Islamic traditions are nearly forgotten. This has happened both because of the rapid social changes of the Soviet years, and also because of hostility from the Georgian government. Today Adjarians differ from other Georgians mostly in their Muslim first names.
Adjaria was one of few places in the former Soviet Union whose climate allowed the growth of tangerines, kiwis, and other tropical fruits. Since 1990, hardly anything has been produced in Adjaria or grown for export. Most Adjarians now make a living from serving as police or customs officers, trading across the Turkish border, or doing odd jobs.
Traditional sports include wrestling, archery, fencing, javelin throwing, horseback riding, tskhenburti (a form of polo), and leloburti (a field game similar to rugby). As in the rest of Georgia, soccer is very popular. It is played in streets and yards as well as in stadiums.
In the past, Adjarians spent their leisure time at restaurants, movie theaters, and pop music concerts. However, their economic problems have reduced the choice of activities. ties. TV and video remain the cheaper forms of entertainment, provided there are no electrical outages.
Adjarian folk art is similar to that of the Georgians. Pottery and rug making are still village crafts. Rugs are either woven in traditional patterns or made from compressed felt in abstract patterns. The colors most often used are deep red, brown, blue, and yellow. Metalworking, especially in gold and silver, is an ancient skill that is still practiced. Enameling and jewelry making are also treasured crafts.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Adjaria's economy has practically collapsed. People are often without electricity or running water. Unemployment is extremely high, and drug abuse has grown rapidly. The crime rate, however, is relatively low because one out of ten men serves in the Adjarian police.
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