Circassian People, a brief history
The Circassians, comprising some 3,000 people concentrated in two northern villages, are Sunni Muslims, although they share neither the Arab origin nor the cultural background of the larger Islamic community. While maintaining a distinct ethnic identity, they participate in Israel’s economic and national affairs without assimilating either into Jewish society or into the general Muslim community The Circassians are a Muslim people, whose Russian name is Cherkess and whose native name is Adygey. They are now officially classified as three peoples: the Kabarda, in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic; the Circassians or Cherkess, in the Karachevo-Cherkess Republic; and the Adygey, in the Adygey Republic. The term Circassian has sometimes been incorrectly applied to all the mountain peoples of the N. Caucasus. Known in antiquity, they inhabited the western side of the Caucasus and the Crimea and were known to the Greeks as the Zyukhoy. They were Christianized in the 6th cent. A.D. But adopted Islam in the 17th cent. After coming under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. In 1829 the Ottoman Turks were forced to cede Circassia to Russia. At this time the Circassians occupied almost the entire area between the main Caucasian range, the Kuban River, and the Black Sea. In the many Russo-Turkish wars in the first half of the 19th cent. The Circassians bitterly fought the Russians. After the Russian conquest of the area, about 400,000 Circassians migrated to Turkey (1861-64). Circassian women were reputed to be great beauties, and many were sold into slavery in Turkey. There are today large Circassian groups in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. Most Circassian are multi- lingual. They learn Arabic in school, speak Adygey (their native language) among themselves, and study English. Students in junior high school often study written Circassian, a language that uses the Cyrillic script but is not related to Russian. However, there are no Circassian newspapers and very few Circassian books printed in Syria. Cultural events play an important role in maintaining the ethnic identity of the Circassian. Traditionally, a Circassian was never without his dagger, and few things were more important to him than his weapons. During holidays and weddings, they perform folk dances and songs in their traditional dress. The men wear long coats to their knees and black wool hats, and the women wear embroidered silk dresses. The dancing is in a squatting Cossack style, and the main musical instrument is the accordion. Historically, the Circassian were organized into four castes: pshi (princes), warq (nobles), tlfaquat’l (freemen), and p*****’l (slaves). The princes organized the overall wealth and external relations of the villages. The freemen were farmers, herdsmen, or worked in plants. The slaves served the princes and nobles as servants and laborers. Today, this system survives merely as a tradition of origin for Circassian families. In the family, the wife has authority over many of the household matters, but the husband has the ultimate decision in cases of dispute. The extended family unit is set in the context of the tlapq, or the clan, which consists of male relatives who descended from a particular ancestor. Members of a tlapq all share the same family name. Marriages are traditionally based on love or an interest on the part of both man and woman. The Circassian generally marry late usually in their early thirties. The Republic of Adyghea is a land, which is shroud in historical legends. In the Middle Ages the Great Silk Road went across it. Here, the ancestors of Adyghe people created the culture, which is known all over the world as the Maykop culture. Dozens of burial-mounds situated not far from each other and bound by legends; enigmatic dolmens, typical only for the North-Western Caucasus- all are open-air museums. They bear witness to the brightest culture of ancient Circassians, of their close connections with Europe and Oriental countries. Luscious Circassian Gardens are very famous. The Adyghes, that gave the name to the Republic- the ancient inhabitants of the North- Western Caucasus. Since the 13th century they’ve been known in Europe and in the East as Circassians. Their ancestors, according to written sources, were once called Kassogs, Zichs and Meots. The Adyghe language belongs to the Abkhaz and Adyghe language group. Along with Russian, the Adyghe language is the official one in the Republic. (Amjad M. Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A Handbook (Peoples of the Caucasus) Hardcover – March 2001.)
In the middle Ages the local population revived the name of Circassians. “The name “zichs” comes from Greek and Latin; while Tartars and Turks called them Circassians, but according to their native language, they are – Adyghes”- wrote the Italian traveler and geographer of Renaissance Georgio Interiano. From the 13th century to the 15th century the land of Adyghes was besitted by Genoese, who founded their towns- trade colonies of Matrega, Kapa, etc. The population of the towns was diverse; here lived Italians, natives, Greeks and Armenians. Citizens salted fish and caviar, which were the most important articles of export. Genuesians were mediators in selling slaves into Minor Asia and Egypt. Later Mamluks appeared on the territory of Egypt. They were guards mainly of Circassian and Turcic origin. In 1250 Mamluks made use of the weakness of ruling dynasty and seized the power in Egypt and Syria. The Circassian dynasty existed there till 1517. Mamluks had a great impact on history of the Near East. The repelled the Crusaders in Egypt and Syria, stopped the army of Tamerlan. Their ruling became a period of prosperity of Mediaeval Egypt.Christianity was introduced to the Circassian between the sixth and twelfth centuries by Byzantine missionaries. However, they have been Sunni Muslims for the past three or four hundred years. Nevertheless, many pagan relics and some forms of Eastern Orthodox Christianity still exist in their oral traditions and religious practices. They are viewed by many of the orthodox Middle Eastern Muslims as being very liberal.(John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs Princeton University Press, December 2002)
Circassian women were reputed to be great beauties, and many were sold into slavery in Turkey. Contrary to popular belief, harems were not the luxurious places we like to imagine and the images of voluptuous women clad in diaphanous robes preparing for endless nights of debauchery are oftentimes false. Heavily made-up, bejeweled, bare-breasted women lounging seductively and playing board games beneath lush courtyards are all part of the mythical fabrications of the 19th Century European painters. Ingres’ Odalisques’ and Gerome’s idealized bathing scenes where nude maidens are attended by muscular servants only serve to cement our romanticism of the harem. In truth, the harem was much more like a prison than a luxury hotel. Girls were obtained as prisoners of war, brought in as slaves, or received as gifts from nobles. Since Islamic law forbade the enslavement of Islamic women, Jewish and Christian women were brought to the harem from distant parts such as Circassia (north of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia) and other regions. Upon entering the harem the women were taught reading and writing, dancing, embroidery and etiquette. They remained ladies in waiting to the Sultan’s concubines and their children, then to the sultan’s mother and if they were good they eventually had the chance to see the Sultan, which rarely ever happened. The harem was a place full of intrigue and treachery and each woman did their best to outwit the others in order to gain the sultan’s attention. Harems tended to be gloomy instead of glamorous. Guarded by black eunuchs, the harem contained as many as 300 rooms interconnected by dim corridors. Baths were chilly affairs in spite of the efforts made to decorate them. Likewise, courtyards prevented women from looking out and passerby’s from looking in. Windows were usually placed towards the ceiling and were barred with elaborate grilles.
Amjad M. Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A Handbook (Peoples of the Caucasus) Hardcover – March 2001.
John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs Princeton University Press, December 2002
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