WHO ARE THE CIRCASSIANS?
The term “Circassian” is the English equivalent of the Turkic “Cherkess”. Although this term has sometimes been used in a broad sense to include the Adyghe, the Abkhaz-Abaza and the Ubykhs – whose respective languages belong to the North-West Caucasian family group – or indiscriminately, to all the peoples of the North Caucasus, it should refer more precisely to the inhabitants of historical Circassia, the Adyghe.
Today, only a minority of Circassians live in their divided ancestral homeland, mainly in three republics of the Russian Federation (Kabardino Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygheya), the majority having been forced to migrate to the Ottoman Empire following the 19th century Russian conquest of the Caucasus.
The Circassians first emerged as a coherent entity somewhere around the tenth century A.D., although references to them exist much earlier. They were never politically united, a fact which reduced their influence in the area and their ability to withstand periodic invasions from groups like the Mongols, Avars, Pechenegs, Huns, and Khazars.
Map: Johann Baptiste Homann: Imperii Persici In Omnes Suas Provincias… | Published [Nuremberg, c. 1714]
This lack of unity eventually cost the Circassians their independence, as they were slowly conquered by Russia in a series of wars and campaigns in the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries. During this period, the Circassians plight achieved a certain celebrity status in the West, but pledges of assistance were never fulfilled. After the Crimean War, Russia turned her attention to the Caucasus in earnest, starting with the peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan. In 1859, the Russians had finished defeating Imam Shamil in the eastern Caucasus, and turned their attention westward, finally subjugating the Circassians in 1864.
Like other ethnic minorities under Russian rule, the Circassians were subjected to policies of mass resettlement. Collectivization under the Communists also took its toll.
The Circassians were warlike people. Grown men were expected to carry arms, and boys trained to be warriors. Familial ties were not strongly encouraged; parents fostered their children to other adults rather than raising them themselves. The Circassian society was once matriarchal. Women fought in war alongside their husbands. Although the society is no longer matriarchal, women still give have a high place of respect and dignity.
Circassian society prior to the Russian invasion was highly stratified. While a few tribes in the mountainous regions of Circassia were fairly egalitarian, most were broken into strict castes. The highest was the caste of the “princes”, followed by a caste of lesser nobility, and then commoners, serfs, and slaves. In the decades before Russian rule, two tribes overthrew their traditional rulers and set up democratic processes, but this social experiment was cut short by the end of Circassian independence.
The primary religion among modern Circassians is Sunni Islam. There are also Christian Circassians, including Circassianized Armenians, and some Jewish ones. Circassian Muslims converted only about three or four hundred years ago, Many traditional beliefs remain, which have many similarities with the beliefs of ancient Greeks and Scandinavians.
Circassians have lived outside the Caucasus region since the Middle Ages. They formed a tradition of joining foreign armies, including those of Persia, Rome, Byzantium, and the Golden Horde. They were particularly well represented in the Mamluks of Turkey and Egypt. In fact, the Burji dynasty which ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 was founded by Circassian Mamluks.
Much of Circassian culture was disrupted after their conquest by Russia in 1864. This lead to a Circassian Diaspora, mostly to various parts of the Ottoman Empire. Today, significant communities of Circassians live in Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Libya, and the United States. The small community in Kosovo expatriated to Adygea in 1998.
Circassians, an excerpt from the ”Prometheus among the Circassians”By John Colarusso
Professor in the Anthropology Department of McMaster University. John Colarusso has published articles and books on linguistic theory, Caucasian languages, and comparative mythology. He is currently preparing two volumes of Nart Saga translations and commentaries, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
In the southwest of the Soviet Union, bordering upon Turkey and Iran, lies one of the most ethnographically complex areas in all Eurasia, the Caucasus. The Caucasus mountains, which dominate this area nearly the size of Spain, are home to a bewildering variety of ethnic groups, some of which seem to be survivors from earlier eras. These groups speak roughly fifty languages, the majority of which are unrelated to any other languages on earth, and show complex and exotic features that set them apart from the other languages of Eurasia. In this one area there are three distinct language families: the Southern or Kartvelian, the Northeastern or Daghestanian, and the Northwestern. The Northwestern languages are perhaps the most complex of any in the region and are spoken by the Abkhazians, the Abazas, the Ubykhs, the Kabardians and the Adygheans. The last two peoples are often grouped together as Circassians.
The Circassians originated in the northwestern quarter of the Caucasus, bounded on the north by the Kuban river. They practiced a mixed economy. Those in the higher vallies and montane forests practiced small scale agriculture and hunting, and often preserved old Christian or pagan customs. Those in the foothills and plains practiced horse-breeding, farming and trade, and usualy espoused Sunni Islam, though in their towns Christian and Jewish Circassians could be found. The Circassians were famed throughout the Middle East for the beauty of their women and the courage of their men. Physically most Circassians are European in appearance with perhaps a slight oriental cast to their features. Many Circassians are blond and blue-eyed, while others show a common feature of the Caucasus: very light skin coupled with black or extremely dark hair. A lithe and erect physique were favored, both for the men and the woman, and many villages even today have large numbers of healthy elderly people, many over a hundred years of age.
Their culture was and still is strongly dominated by a warrior ethic. The battle garb of the men, the Cherkesska, is a fitted caftan-like coat with cartridges sewn across the chest, a sheepskin hat and soft-soled knee-high boots of fine leather. It has been borrowed by many neighboring peoples, most notably the slavic Cossacks, so that this costume is often thought of as being Russian. Until recently the eight tribes into which they were divided showed varying degrees of a caste system similar to that surviving in modern India. There were priest-kings, nobles who formed the warriors, freemen who carried on trade, large scale farming and manufacture, and lastly peasants, former prisoners of war who were either small farmers or who acted as retainers to the princes and nobles. In 1864, five years after their defeat at the hands of the Tsarist armies, most of the freemen and peasants emigrated and settled in the Ottoman Empire. Thus today the majority of the world’s one million or so Circassians now live scattered throughout the Middle East and in cities in Europe and the U.S.A.
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