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Mission Possible: Syrian Circassians – The Road Home, by Naima Neflyasheva

Naima Neflyasheva
Center for Civilizational and Regional Studies, RAS, Moscow

This blog is originally published in

In the last twenty days the Syrian Circassians have been the focus of the experts and media specializing in the Caucasus.

To date, four groups of Syrian Circassians totalling three hundred people have appealed to the President Dmitry Medvedev and the heads of the republics in which Circassians are the titular nation – Aslan Tkhakushinov of Adygea, Arsen Kanokov of Kabardino-Balkaria and Rashid Temrezov of Karachai-Cherkessia- to help them return to their historic homeland at a time when Syria is actually on the verge of a civil war.

Caucasian Knot reports that, “since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian security forces have killed more than four thousand people and arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands, many of whom have been tortured.  Committed as part of the massive and systematic repression of the civilian population, these incidences are widely documented by Human Rights Watch, based on the evidence of hundreds of victims and witnesses. They qualify as crimes against humanity”. According to the UN statistics, the number of victims in the clashes in Syria has exceeded three and a half thousands. However, the official figures from Damascus states more than a thousand deaths on either side, of which 1,100 are law enforcement officers.

A demonstration in the village Takhtamukai in Adygea in support of the Syrian Circassians. Children also participated.  Photo from

I would like to look at the nature of reports appeared in the Russian media on the position of the state authorities and the attitude of the general public towards Circassians of Syria.

Firstly, the number of reports on this topic in respectable media outlets on federal level has exceeded all expectations. Secondly, all of them are low-key rhetoric and follow the pattern of the publications unfriendly towards the “Circassians Question”. The pattern has been growing since 2010. All of a sudden many have proclaimed themselves “experts” on the Circassian Question.

Apart from a few, most of the publications in news portals were baloney and disinformation in nature (such as 5 million roubles to be allegedly allocated from the Federal Budget to each Syrian Circassian who will return to the Caucasus). They have never bothered to check the authenticity of the information they have disseminated. The media was politically correct and reserved in offering support

Perhaps this is a signal that has been sent to Moscow, the international community and Syria.

Circassian community in Syria

According to various sources, today there are between 90 and 100.000 Circassians in Syria who are mostly settled in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.  In the mid-1860s, Circassians appeared in Syria as part of Circassians’ settlement in the Ottoman Empire as a result of their deportation during and after the Caucasian War.
The Ottoman authorities settled Circassians as a buffer in pursuit of several objectives: to provide Circassians with more productive crops so that they can start using unused land; to protect agricultural lands from Arab nomads, and to employ the services of Circassians as bearers of advanced military traditions against the neighbouring peoples whose national liberation movements gained momentum and became a problem for Istanbul.

In addition, the Circassian settlements increased the number of Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. Be reminded, though, that even by the middle of the 19th Century, the processes of Islamization of Circassians had not been completed. In the minds of the new subjects of the Porte, Islam was still not compatible the traditional code of behaviour, the Adyghe Habze, at the time the most powerful social system in within the Circassian society to regulate personal motivation and social relations.

Settlement process of Circassians in Syria has passed through several stages since the 1860s. The majority were resettled here from the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878.

The Circassian (Circassian) Encyclopaedia states that “Circassian immigration into areas that are now Syria has lasted until the early 1920s.  After the end of the World War I., dozens of Circassians from Turkey sought refuge in Syria. In 1930, seven Circassian families numbering fifty people from the Soviet Union settled in the town of Kuneitra. ”

The Circassians in Syria reproduced their Circassia in their new environment in the sense that the society was administered by the Circassian national Assembly, Xase, the members of which were selected from each locality. As the head of the settlement, Thamada was elected. The Ottoman authorities arranged this order of things in that they gave Circassian elders relevant positions in the Ottoman regional system of governance.

The famous explorer, ethnographer and the author of “In the Wide World,” Eliseev wrote that Circassians in Syria “transferred onto their new settings the life styles they had in the Caucasus”. The life-support system, customs and rituals and all the institutions of self-regulation became a defence mechanism that conserved their national culture and prevented assimilation.

Such self-enforced isolation still persists somewhat to this day. One Circassian student from Syria who studied at Maikop about 5 years ago told me that the Circassian families in Damascus only invite other Circassian families for festivities. He added that Intermarriage with Arabs is rare and that such a marriage actually increases the standing of the Arab groom/bride in the eyes of his/her own family.

The traditional occupation of Circassians until recently was military service: the traditional allegiance to their government (in the period of Ottoman rule, during the French mandate and since the independence) has established a reputation for Circassians as law-abiding and loyal citizens of Syria.

Anzor Kushabiev, a researcher from Russia studying the Circassian diaspora in Syria, wrote that “by the end of the last century, there were 30-35 Circassian generals in the country’s armed forces”. But it would be an exaggeration to say that Circassians in Syria are exclusively a military caste since there are also well-known and successful doctors, farmers, scientists, writers and poets among them. “One of the first filmmakers in the history of Syrian cinema, Ismail Anzor, who shot the country’s first documentary in 1952, is a Circassian”, said the Circassian Encyclopaedia.

In the next part, I will continue with the transformation and current dynamics of the Circassian diaspora in Syria and attempt to answer whether there really is so big a cultural distance between the Syrian and Russian Circassians. I will also look into the repatriation experiences of some Syrian Circassians’ in Adygeya and try to understand whether the Circassian community is with Assad or with the opposition.

To be continued….


Syria’s Circassians ‘Seek Return’ to Russia

March 26 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti)

Large numbers of Syria’s Circassian community are seeking a return to their traditional homeland in Russia’s North Caucasus as fighting intensifies between government forces and rebels, a Russian senator said on Monday.

“The possible coming to power of the radical Syrian opposition is viewed by the Circassian community as a direct threat to their lives,” Federation Council senator Albert Kazharov told journalists.

Analysts say the Circassian community has traditionally backed President Bashar al-Assads’s regime.

“More than 200 families are ready to pack their things today and leave immediately,” Kazharov said. “But the situation there is tough and unpredictable and many people are in no state to say what they want – but I did not meet anyone who ruled out leaving.”

Kazharov is senator for the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, where the majority of Russia’s Circassians live. He was part of an eleven-strong Russian delegation that flew into Syria for a four-day fact-finding mission on March 16.

The delegation included senators from other republics with ethnic Circassian populations and visited a number of cities, including the capital, Damascus, and Homs, which opposition activists say has suffered heavy shelling by government forces. The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians, during the year-long uprising against Assad’s rule.

But, he said, for those who want to flee, the current chaotic situation in Syria makes it extremely difficult to get the necessary documents, including passports and visas. Kazharov has proposed changes to existing Russian immigration laws to help facilitate the speedy return of the Circassians. The Russian authorities have yet to approve the proposals.

Over 100 members of Syria’s Circassian community sent an appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev in December asking to be repatriated, Russia media reports said.

Circassians were exiled en masse from their North Caucasus homeland to the Ottoman Empire by Tsarist Russian forces in the 19th century, with unconfirmed numbers perishing both on the beaches of the Black Sea and in its waters themselves. Some 90 percent of Circassians are reported to live outside of their historical homeland, with large communities across the Middle East.

Georgia became the first country to recognize the “Circassian genocide” last May and has called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi – the traditional homeland of the Circassians. Georgia and Russia have a fierce rivalry in the Caucasus region – the two former Soviet republics fought a war over the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia in 2008.

Kazharov was speaking less than 24 hours after Medvedev said UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace mission to Syria may be the last chance to avoid a “prolonged and bloody civil war”. Russia has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, but has given full backing to Annan’s mission. And in an apparent hardening of Russia’s position on Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Assad had handled initial peaceful protests “incorrectly.”

Source: Ria Novosti

Russia, The South Caucasus and the Caspian: A Handbook, by Patrick Armstrong

Russia, The South Caucasus and the Caspian: A Handbook

Patrick Armstrong Ph.D.

Ottawa, Canada, August 1998

Executive Summary

The Caspian Sea area is shaping up to be one of the biggest sources of oil and gas in the world. A conservative estimate gives about one-sixth the amount of oil as there is in the Gulf area. Every major oil-connected company (including many Canadian companies) is involved today in the oil business in and around the Caspian. Other interests will pull the West, into the area.

The Caspian area – particularly the Caucasus – is extraordinarily complicated: there is no other like it anywhere. Dozens of distinct peoples claim it as their home. Many more peoples have arrived “recently” (ie in the past millennium). Since 1991, six wars have been fought in the Caucasus and none of them has produced a final settlement. There are at least nine outstanding border disputes – ten if one counts the Caspian Sea itself. The area is so uniquely complicated, with such an entanglement of ethnic and historical concerns, that ignorance of its complexities can be fatal for wise policy.

This paper is intended to be a reference guide and not to be read straight through; continuous reading would, therefore, reveal a good deal of duplication. The Table of Contents has been arranged so that the reader can directly turn to the sections of concern.

The sections are summarized below.

  • Oil and Gas” discusses current expectations of Caspian hydrocarbon reserves. It is thought that the Caspian area contains at least 100 billion barrels of oil and 500-600 trillion cubic feet of gas. But, as much is not yet explored, there may be more.
  • The Land” gives an overview of the geography of the territory under discussion.
  • The Peoples of the Caucasus” describes the extraordinary ethnography of the Caucasus in which are found, at least, twenty-six distinct peoples who call the area home. In addition to the “natives”, the years in the Russian and Soviet Empires means that many other peoples now make the area home.
  • History” sketches the major events of the Caucasus from early times to the present. Generally speaking, the Mountaineers (the peoples of the North Caucasus) were independent until conquest, after a tremendous resistance, by Russia in the Nineteenth Century. The South Caucasus had lost its independence centuries before to Ottoman and Persian power. It was conquered (if Muslim) or “liberated” (if Christian) by Russia during the Nineteenth Century until, by 1900, for the first time in history, one power ruled the whole Caucasus. All peoples tried for independence after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire but were brought under communist power. Demands for independence re-appeared after the fall of the Soviet Empire.
  • Memories are long in the Caucasus and the section “National Dreams and Nightmares” recounts the national myths of the area. Georgians dream of the Greater Georgia of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Armenians cannot forget the massacres of Armenians by Turkish power. Azerbaijanis seek to find their identity whether as Turks, as Caucasians or as Muslims. Mountaineers dream of a Mountain Republic, free from outside power. The collapse of Soviet power liberated all these dreams and nightmares.
  • Diasporas” speaks of the large and influential populations of Armenians and Mountaineers who have transported their national myths to their new countries.
  • Soviet legacies” briefly touches on the problems and – even – the benefits of seventy years of communist rule on the area.
  • Sufism-Wahhabism – An Islamic Fissure” discusses a tension that has already caused strife in Chechnya and Dagestan and may cause much more. The traditional form of Islam in the east North Caucasus – Naqshbandi Sufism – appears to be under threat from a rigorously purist form of Islam from Arabia – Wahhabism.
  • Post 1985 wars” gives a brief account of the wars fought in the area since the Gorbachev reforms began to release the pressures built up by the communist system – the Karabakh war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis; the Ingush-Ossetian troubles; the Russo-Chechen war; the Georgian civil war; the war between the Abkhazians and the Georgians and between the Ossetians and the Georgians. This section is the most argumentative portion because the fairly widely held belief that Moscow started and maintained these troubles must be combated. In most cases, these wars have their origins in Stalin’s border decisions, which the world recognized in 1991 and 1992.
  • Potential Border Disputes” deals with some potential war-causing territorial and ethnic disputes. These have not so far caused any great amount of violence but could explode.
  • Historical Hatreds” attempts to describe the attitudes that Armenians and Azerbaijanis; Georgians and Russians; Chechens and Russians have towards each other. These attitudes – hatred or contempt for the most part – greatly affect relations in this small area.
  • The sections “Kalmykia” and “Tengiz Oil and Gas Field” move the reader out of the Caucasus proper to the north end of the area. The Tengiz field is already producing and one of the possible pipeline routes from it passes through Kalmykia. Output may also be connected to the central Caspian fields and so this area may become connected to the Caucasus.
  • Caspian Sea Borders” discusses one of the initial problems: the littoral states cannot agree on how to divide up the Sea. However, now that Moscow has virtually agreed to the position that Baku has held all along, this issue is close to settlement and the entire area will likely be exclusively divided among the littoral states.
  • Pipeline Routes” briefly discusses the principal routes suggested for the exit of the oil and gas to their customers. A vexed question which has attracted some extreme statements, it seems that the Russian and Georgian routes will certainly be used while the others depend on the price of oil.
  • National Interests” sets out what the players can expect to gain from the Caspian hydrocarbons. President Aliyev of Azerbaijan has very cleverly involved almost all players in almost all possibilities. This represents a force for stabilization as nearly all can become “winners” of something. But, three players – Armenia, Karabakh and Abkhazia (and the last two are the local military powers) – have been altogether left out. Russia’s involvement is also discussed and it is argued that Moscow’s involvement is no more or less malign than anyone else’s and that any attempt to cut Moscow out of the profits is, simply, impossible.
  • Federalism” highlights what is probably the only stable long-term solution for the area in which a mono-ethnic “homeland” state can only be established by war.

A number of appendices complete the Handbook.

If there is as much oil and gas in the Caspian as there seems to be, the Caspian, and all the peculiar problems of the peoples who live nearby, will be the stuff of headlines, international meetings and briefings for years to come.

>>Download the full-text document in PDF format (1. 06 MB)

Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and started working for the Canadian government as a defence scientist in 1977. He began a 22-year specialisation on the USSR and then Russia in 1984, and was Political Counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996.

The Circassians in Jordan

» The incredible fate of Jordan’s Circassians
Photo Press Agency © 2004 Maher Attar / MGA PRODUCTION

Forced out of their homeland by the Russians in awful conditions, thousands of Caucasians emigrated to Turkey in 1864. Refugees then scattered to the four corners of the Ottoman Empire, from Turkey to the Suez Canal, from Syria to Palestine and Transjordan.

» Circassians at the service of the king of Jordan

They are Circassians, originate from the Caucasus and have been guarding the safety of Hachemite sovereigns with the utmost devotion and faithfulness for more than a century. This report will take you on an exceptional journey to the heart of the royal guard of Jordan.

» Prince Ali of Jordan supporting the Circassians

The Circassians are an anciant race, compsed of twelve tribes, who have been dwelling in the mountains if the North Caucasus and along the Black Sea coast since time immemorial. Many would be invaders had found them a terrible foe.

The Circassians in Jordan (A Brief Introduction)

by Amjad Jaimoukha

1. Historical Background


The original homeland of the Circassians, or Khakuzh (the Old Country) as it is referred to by them, is Northwest Caucasia between the Black Sea to the west and the Urukh river to the east, and between the Caucasus Mountains to the south and the Kuban, Bakhsan and Terek rivers to the north (map 1). Historical Circassia, a term used to designate Circassian lands prior to commencement of the catastrophic Russian war in the Caucasus at the beginning of the 19th century, had an area of approximately 100,000 square kilometres, roughly a quarter of the size of the whole Caucasus, which made it the largest country in the region.

The main feature of Circassia is the Caucasus Range which extends from the northwest to the southeast for almost 1,300 km (map 2). It is regarded as the boundary between Asia and Europe. The Caucasus is endowed with fertile soil and mild climate. Its natural beauty has been legendary since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and it was immortalized in the works of the Russian literary giants, like Tolstoy, Pushkin and Lermontov.

Before the War, the main economical activities were pastoral and agricultural in nature. There were some mercantile activities. The area was famous for horse breeding. A sizeable equine export trade thrived with Russia and Persia. The most renowned pedigree was the Kabarda, which is still considered the best mountain horse. It is known for its fair speed and remarkable endurance. Gold- and silversmiths and personal arms manufacturers were held in high esteem.

1.2 NATIONAL AND TRIBAL STRUCTURE. (Please refer to maps 3 and 4 and to appendix 1 for the following discussion)

The Circassians were divided into three national groups: the Ubykh, the Apsua, or Abkhaz-Abazians, and the Adygha. Though ethnically related and closely allied, they spoke mutually unintelligible languages that belong to the North-western group of Caucasian languages, the other groups being North-eastern (Chechen, Ingush, Bats, Avar, Lezgian, Dargwa, etc.), and Kartvelian (Georgian, Mingrelian, Svan, Adjar, Laz, etc.). Some linguistic research suggests that about six thousand years ago all Northwest Caucasians spoke the same proto-Circassian language [Chirikba, A 27], much the same way as Semites conversed in proto-Semitic. However, because of geographical separation, the original language was differentiated into three distinct entities, and even these were further divided into divergent dialects.

The Ubykh used to inhabit the south mid-western portion of Circassia on the Black Sea coast. Their territory stretched between the rivers Khosta and Shakhe to the north of Abkhazia. Though relatively small in size, Ubykhia was known for the war-like character and tenacity of its people. It was principally these attributes that caused its downfall. The Ubykh as a nation have ceased to exist. Their language became absolutely extinct in the autumn of 1992, by the death of the last speaker in Turkey.

The Apsua were made up of the Abkhaz and Abaza. The former occupied the south-western part of Circassia between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains from west to east, and between the Bzyp and Ingur rivers from north to south — the historic Colchis of the Argonauts. The land of the Abaza lay at the foothills of the main Caucasus Range at the upper reaches of the Great and Little Zelenchuk, Kuban and Kuma rivers. Each group was divided into several tribes that spoke mutually intelligible dialects. The main Abkhaz tribes were the Bzyp, Abzhwa, Sadz and Samurzakan. The Abaza were divided into the Tapanta and Shkharawa.

The Adygha were by far the largest nation. They were made up of two groups: Eastern and Western Adygha. These were further divided into several tribes and clans.

The eastern branch was made up of two main nation tribes. The Kabardians, who occupied the strategic central region of the North Caucasus, were the most numerous and mightiest in Circassia and their land was the richest. They maintained a thriving trade with the Genoese mercantile colonies on the Black Sea coast and with Astrakhan. At its zenith Kabarda was so dominant that all powers with vested interests in the area, namely Moscovy and the Ottoman Port, sought to court and bestow honours upon its princes in order to further their interests. This culminated in the betrothal of Tsar Ivan the Terrible to the daughter of prince Temriuk, Kucheney Gwashcha, later Princess Maria, in 1561 A.D. to cement the so-called “Union” between Russia and Kabarda. However, as will be explained later, the authority of Temriuk over the other Kabardian princes was very tenuous and many of these declined to “ratify” the alliance, which was at best symbolic.

The other eastern nation tribe was the Beslanay who lived to the west of, and were closely allied to, the Kabardians. In fact, Kabardian and Beslanay are so close that it is suggested that the latter is just a divergent dialect of the former.

The western Adygha or the Kiakh were made up of many tribes: the Abzakh who lived in the middle of Circassia; the Shapsugh in the west on the Black Sea coast; the Bzhadugh in the north-west; the Natukhuaj in the extreme north-west and the Kemirgoi and Hatuquay in the north. It is worthy of note that the Plains Western Adygha were socially differentiated from the Mountain Western Adygha, mainly in Abzakhia, in that the latter had no social hierarchy, where all men were considered equal. This followed an upheaval in the 18th century in which all the princes and nobility of the mountain Kiakh were banished.


The social structure of Circassian society was very complex and was based on hierarchical feudalism, except for a few egalitarian tribes. The classical Kabardian hierarchical system is shown in fig. 1, as an example. Each tribe was divided into princedoms, which were effectively independent, although there was a council of princes, which met at times of national crises. At the apex of each principality stood the prince who wielded almost absolute power over his subjects. Land and serfs were owned collectively. The clan was not divided into nuclear families and all obeyed the eldest member of the clan. Inheritance was not devolved from father to son but from brother to brother.

Next to the prince came the nobles, who were divided into the proper and lesser nobility, and the vassals who were given a free hand in their fiefdoms in return for their allegiance. A peculiar custom, the Ataliqate, whereby the children of the princes were entrusted at an early age to the vassals to be raised and trained in a military fashion, played a major role in strengthening the relationship between the prince and his nobles. Below the nobility came the freemen and free peasants, then the bond peasants and finally the slaves and villeins who performed the menial tasks and were mainly taken from war captives.

This pyramidal structure ensured the existence of many social units internally cohesive, but whose inter-cohesion was at best suspect. No one prince was ever powerful enough to subdue the others in order to establish a central authority. The case of prince Temriuk and his courting of the favour of the Russian Tsar by betrothing his daughter to him is illustrative of this point. It is safe to assume that the majority of Kabardian princes refused to accept this unholy alliance as it brought no advantage to them. It is in fact this very same structure that rendered Russian policy of co-opting the Kabardian elite so futile (Lemercier-Quelquejay, B 9). Russian policy makers had never been able to understand the nature of Kabardian society, which was diametrically different from the centralized autocratic organization of Russia. The only immediate beneficiaries were the sons and relatives of Prince Temriuk and their progeny, some of whom went into service in the imperial court and established the powerful Cherkassky princely dynasty whose descendants still survive to this day.

The behavioural and social norms were regulated by an orally transmitted codex called Adiga Khabza, or Circassian Etiquette, which was very rigid and complex and its contravention was severely punished. It had evolved to ensure that strict militaristic discipline was maintained at all times to defend the country against the many invaders who coveted Circassian lands.

Notwithstanding the feudalistic nature of Circassian society, there were strong indications that by the end of the 18th century, a major societal transformation was beginning to unfold and that a new phase of stability and prosperity was about to ensue. The rudiments of civil society were slowly but surely taking root. Through mercantile contacts with the Europeans, especially the Genoese, some Circassian intellectuals began to realize that modernity and progress were the beacons to guide society to the next stage of evolution beyond feudalism. Paul B. Henze states in his work Circassian Resistance to Russia (B 4):

After the Georgians and the Armenians, the Circassians came closest of all the Caucasian peoples to developing the prerequisites for nationhood. They had traditions of roots extending back to the dawn of recorded history..

Circassian civilization was at its most crucial phase of development. It needed the goodwill of Fate. Moira turned her head. It is one of the harshest ironies of Circassian history that, as this realization was dawning on the Circassians, Russia launched its ruinous war that pushed the nation to the brink of extinction.

2. The Russo-Circassian War

From the middle ages up to the 17th century, Circassia remained mainly peaceful and quiet. After the demise of the Golden Horde, the Tartar Kipchak Empire founded by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, on the banks of the Volga River, at the end of the 16th century, Russia began to push south towards the northern steppes of the Caucasus in a process of gradual encroachments. By 1700, the Cossacks were firmly established in the Stavropol Region. The Plains Circassians were gradually pushed south between 1763 and 1793. The Russians built a string of fortresses that were used as springboards for further expansion. By the end of the century most of Kabarda was under Russian control. Some Kabardians, later dubbed as Hajarat, immigrant or fugitive Circassians, who refused to accept Russian hegemony, moved west to what are now known as the Karachai-Cherkess Republic and the Adighey Republic.

During the first quarter of the 19th century, the Russians made no lasting gains in Circassia. In 1829, Turkey gave Russia a free hand in the Caucasus in the treaty of Adrianople, despite the fact that the Ottomans had no claim whatsoever over Circassia. Thereafter, Russia embarked on a vicious war of attrition, which met with fierce resistance for 35 years. The odds were heavily stacked against the Circassians, whose limited manpower and resources were no matches to the continuous stream of cannon fodder unleashed at them. One is tempted to say that the Circassians, to their mortal detriment, had never really grasped the full extent of the might and ruthlessness of the Russian war machine.

The Circassians, up until the very last moment, entertained the hope that the western powers, especially England, would intervene on their behalf and deliver them from the vicious claws of Russia. That expectation reached a crescendo after the defeat of the Russians in the Crimean War in 1857. But the allies neglected to address the Caucasian Issue, which fact engendered in the Caucasians feelings of resentment and betrayal. Thereafter, relieved of a costly and humiliating defeat, the Russians wreaked their vengeance on the hapless highlanders, whose morale was at its nadir. It was a matter of time before the inevitable would happen. The lamb was set for slaughter.

  After the surrender of Shamil, the legendary Daghestani war-lord of the eastern Caucasian front, and cessation of war in Chechnya in 1859, the Russian bear turned westwards to the Kiakh (Circassians), who held on for five more years, until the last battle was fought and lost in 1864.

3. The Aftermath

In this long war of attrition, the Circassians suffered heavy losses in terms of human life, as much as 800,000 dead, and their country was utterly destroyed. Many tribes were wiped out, notably the Ubykh, some Abkhazian clans, like the Sadzians, and the Abzakh who are at present represented by only two villages in the Caucasus.

After the war, the Russians expelled the majority of Circassians to the Ottoman Empire by pursuing a policy of organized and systematic terror. Whole villages were pillaged and then burnt down to the ground. Thousands of people were massacred in cold blood. Those horrific acts, together with the collusion of the Ottomans, resulted in a mass exodus that irreparably compromised the demographic balance in Circassia. It is estimated that more than a million people were forced to immigrate and only 800,000 were eventually settled in the Ottoman Empire, the difference being the victims of hunger, disease, shipping accidents and the chaotic Ottoman administrative system.

Those who remained in the Caucasus, about 150,000, were compelled to resettle in the northern plains of the Caucasus where they were easier to control. The mass expulsion of the Abzakh and Beslanays, who, as was mentioned earlier, occupied the central part of Circassia (map 3), meant that the Circassians were effectively separated into three main entities with huge geographical chasms in between: The Kabardians in the east of Circassia, the Abkhazians in the southwest, and the dessimated Kiakh in the northwest. It was a classic and evil practice of the Machiavellian maxim divide et impera (divide and rule). It is worthy of note at this stage that during Soviet rule, four Circassian entities were to be established along these self-same territorial divisions. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. The north-eastern coast of the Black Sea was totally cleared of Circassian presence. The Old Country was ripe for Slavic colonization.

It is markworthy that before the onset of Russian aggression, the Circassian Nation used to be the largest in the whole of the Caucasus. Using retro-projection, it is possible to calculate the number of Circassians that would have been living in the Caucasus today, had the Russians not embarked on their devastating war. This comes up to 10 million, using the most conservative estimates. If this number is compared to that of Northwest Caucasians actually living in the Caucasus at present, which is about a million, then one can begin to appreciate the full extent of the disaster that befell them.

4. Settlement in Jordan

The first wave of Circassian immigrants, who were mainly of Shapsugh extraction, arrived in Jordan in 1878 and took refuge in the old ruins of Amman. These were followed by the Kabardians who settled in Amman, Jerash (1885), Sweileh (1905), and Russeifa (1909) and the Abzakh and Bzhadugh who established settlements in Wadi-Sseer (1880), and Na’ur (1900) [Peake, B 1]. All in all, about 3,500 people found a new homeland in the area.

The motive behind the Turkish move to settle the Circassians in Jordan is still a subject of speculation. G. H. Weightman [D 18], believes that this was done for strategic reasons and out of religious piety and charity. This view is also shared by Raphael Patai [A 23], who is also of the opinion that the Sultan placed them in this area as a buffer against Bedouin attacks. Satanay Shami and Karpat [B 42], maintain that they were mobilized mainly for agricultural reasons after the loss of the Balkans, the breadbasket of the Ottoman Empire. The deployment of loyal subjects to turbulent regions of the Empire seems to be a convincing motive for the connivance of the Ottomans with the Russian expulsion of the Circassians and their resettlement.

The early settlers were presented with tremendous challenges and difficulties by the new and alien environment. A substantial number succumbed to the many diseases to which they had never been exposed before. Also, the fact that they inhabited the best areas of the region (some say the worst) put them at loggerheads with the native population, especially the Bedouins, who considered these lands as the traditional grazing ground for their cattle. Many skirmishes were fought out, but eventually reason prevailed and many alliances and treaties of friendship were struck up between them definitely helped by the mutual respect with which they held each other and the common characteristics that they shared, notably chivalry, hospitality and courage.

In this respect, it is worthwhile to mention that the local people realized that the Circassians came not as colonists but rather as co-religionists who escaped the hell of Russian persecution.

The Ottoman Authorities distributed arable government land among the immigrants who were mainly of peasant stock. Lands designated as Ard Al-Sawafi, which were the personal property of the Sultan and thus were not liable for taxation, were also allotted on the basis that it was his duty to bestow money or lands on the needy.

5. The Early Years

Life in Amman and its neighbouring villages was simple and slow-paced. The Circassians introduced settled agriculture into an area previously used for pasture. They applied their imported know-how to establish large and well kept farms. They used large-wheeled carts, another novel introduction, for transport and commerce. Mary C. Wilson [B 26] writes:

Granted land and tax concessions by the sultan to facilitate their settlement, these hardy and self-sufficient peasants held their own against the beduin and even introduced large-wheeled carts and a system of dirt roads into the area..

Though mainly farmers, there were many artisans among them, like carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths, saddle makers, leather tanners, dagger and sword craftsmen and carriage makers. A high level of co-operation existed among them and a good standard of living was achieved. In the guest houses (Hesch’esch) of neighbourhood leaders(Themade), community affairs were managed, defence plans were devised and folk tales (‘ueri’uatexe, Psisexe) were recounted. Circassian was the principal language of communication and exogamous marriages were rare.

Because of the Circassians’ deeply entrenched traditions and the good neighbourly relations they maintained with other people, their society was very stable and their villages were relatively secure, despite the threat of raids posed by some bedouin tribes not in alliance with them. In fact they succeeded in establishing a rudimentary administrative system and a gendarmerie. Weightman states that “For almost twenty years their tribal organization constituted the only political and police institutional agencies in Jordan.” (The Circassians in Jordan). All these factors made their settlements quite attractive for other people who started to flock to them in large numbers. Soon these became substantial social and commercial centres.

6. Winds of Change

In the early years of the twentieth century work on the extension of the Hijaz Railway, which was planned to pass through Amman, started. This had a significant effect on the Circassian community. Many of its members were hired to work in the various projects and to protect it from Bedouin attacks. Mary C. Wilson [B 26] writes:

The [Hijaz] railway brought increased employment, trade and security, along with greater contact with the central [Ottoman] government. Circassians at Amman were employed as laborers on the line and in positions of lower management. Goods bought in Damascus for resale in Transjordan were sent south by train and transported in Circassiancarts from the station to their point of sale.

The Railway drew Circassians from other countries, especially Syria, to work in the building process.

A new class of regular wage earners emerged, some of who bought more land to augment their wealth. Many of those ‘nouveau riches’ were able to send their offspring to Damascene and Cairene schools for the best education money could buy. Those were some of the roots of disparity and social differentiation in the Circassian community.

At this point, it may be useful to mention that very few of the Circassian upper castes ended up as immigrants in Jordan. Most of those found the cosmopolitan scenes of the larger Ottoman cities more alluring. Many of them were catapulted to high positions in the Sublime Porte. Therefore, at least initially, Circassian society in Jordan was largely egalitarian. Of course, one could always find the odd family that traces its roots to some princely patronym. But, to strike a note of societal levelling, no person of sublime status would have chosen to be transported to the back of beyond, as this part of the world was considered at the time, to find a new life. Hopefully, this would be a sobering thought to any person entertaining unjustified and, definitely, unhealthful, claim to exalted lineage.


Sir Herbert Samuel’s second visit to Transjordan, etc. Britishers, Bedouins and Circassians with airplane. 1921 Apr. 17


Sir Herbert Samuel’s second visit to Transjordan, etc. Circassian horsemanship. 1921 April 
Sir Herbert Samuel”s second visit to Transjordan, etc. H.M. King Hussein at Amman.  (Source: Library of Congress Archives, US)


Mirza Pasha was a brigadier in the Ottoman army. Heading the Voluntary Circassian Cavalry, which he founded in 1905, he started on a mission to maintain stability and peace among the various peoples in Jordan, to draft his people into the army and protect the farmers and their lands.

During the First World War, Mirza Pasha and his demi-legion of 1200 soldiers were commissioned to protect the strategic Hijaz Railway that connected the Centre of the Empire to its sources of vital supplies as well as with the German headquarters in Aleppo. They fought on the side of the Ottomans in the Suez War in 1918 and in Gaza against the British troops.

After Al-Salt battle with the British in 1918, the British commander warned the Circassian leaders against attacking the British forces while they were withdrawing. The Circassians paid no heed and eight of them fell in battle. Six months later, the British attacked again and the Turkish troops pulled out of Jordan in 1919.

When the Turks left Jordan, the Circassians made a collective decision to stay in Jordan. They saw in the future Emir a true and noble leader. They were among the first Jordanians to receive the Founder and pledge their allegiance to him. Salibi [B 73] offers the following factor as playing some role in augmenting the Circassians’ enthusiasm in welcoming the Emir:

The Circassian farmers of Amman and its vicinity, for example, had long been weary of living, year after year, under the threat of bedouin raids.

The prospect of a strong government curbing unchecked lawlessness had been a powerful motivating force for some sedentary segments of Transjordanian society to back the Shereefian progeny.


In 1915, The British contacted Shereef Hussain of Mecca promising him recognition of Arab independence in return for his support against the Turks. After the First World War, the allies broke their promise and Syria was occupied by the French and Palestine by the British. Transjordan was put under British Mandate. The Arabs retaliated by proclaiming Faisal King of Syria and Jordan. The Jordanian tribes, together with the Circassians, who were headed by Mirza Pasha and Sa’id Pasha Al-Mufti, joined the Arab revolt and sent a force to aid King Faisal in Damascus. On its way, it was learned that the Battle of Maysaloon between the Arabs and the French had ended in favour of the French. The force turned back.

The British army did not occupy Jordan. Under the supervision of the British, local governments were formed. The Salt government, which included Amman, was formed with two Circassian members in it. However, the situation in Syria remained volatile. The people of Horan, a province in Syria, sent a cable to Shereef Hussain imploring him to send one of his sons to become their leader. The Shereef responded by sending Emir Abdulla, who arrived in Ma’an. The tribal leaders and notables, including the Circassian representative Sa’id Pasha, went to Ma’an to receive the Prince and to swear allegiance to him. Despite British threats, the Nationalists met in Amman and decided to call on the Emir to proceed there. After meeting with Winston Churchill in Jordan, an agreement was reached in March 1921 in which the Emirate of Transjordan was declared with its capital Amman.

9. Circassians Today

The Circassian community in Jordan has been undergoing tremendous changes in the past one hundred years. It has transformed from a compact, mainly agrarian society into a fully integrated modern one.

At the establishment of Modern Jordan in 1921, Amman was mainly a Circassian town with Circassian still heard in the streets. However, there followed a huge influx of people into it after its designation as the Capital of the new Emirate. Mary C. Wilson [B 26] states:

Circassians lived in exclusively Circassian settlements, except for Amman which had begun to attract a more diverse population.

As the years went by, the relative number of Circassians gradually decreased and at present they constitute 5% of the population of Greater Amman at best.

The rapid modernization of young Circassians and their participation in the socio-economic development in Jordan has led to rapid assimilation. The spread of higher education shifted the emphasis from stereotypical careers as landlords, army officers and government employees to new fields such as engineering, medicine, private enterprise and industry. A new dynamic and highly motivated generation has overtaken the old traditional elite. It is quite significant that none of the recent parliamentary deputies or ministers belong to the elite whose hold on political and economical inter-communal affairs is presently non-existent. The important landlords are to be found outside Old Amman in the western and southern approaches of the Capital. The astronomical rise in land prices has resulted in the emergence of a new breed of millionaires who seem to have more business sense and investment acumen than their predecessors.

The Circassians and Chechens are reserved a quota of three deputies in the Lower House of Parliament and two senators in the Upper House. Traditionally a minister is chosen from them. This undoubtedly reflects the positive role that they have been playing in recent Jordanian history.

Over the years, the Circassians dispersed to various locations in the expanding city of Amman. At present, there are no compact Circassian communities, although they mainly reside in the 3rd and 5th electoral districts of Greater Amman, in each of which they are represented by one parliamentary deputy. As a result of such dispersion, Circassian has ceased to be the principal language of communication among the Circassians. Only a small percentage of parents choose to teach their children the language. In many cases the option is not even there, as when one or both parents are not familiar with the language. It is estimated that only 17% of Circassian youth are familiar with their mother tongue. What is true of language is also true of other aspects of culture, such as traditions, which have been eroded to such an extent that what remains merely serve symbolic functions.

Although it could be claimed that the Circassian community in Jordan forms an ethnic minority from theoretical and practical viewpoints, the Jordanian Constitution considers them as full citizens with equal rights and duties and guarantees them freedom of cultural expression. It is quite paradoxical that, despite these privileges and their considerable wealth, the Circassians failed to preserve their language and culture. It is perhaps this liberality that precipitated acculturation, in the absence of strong cultural institutions that could preserve Circassian heritage. It would seem that the Circassians lack the collective will and vision to effect a cultural revival, not to mention the technical know-how. It is wholly to the detriment of the present and future generations that they have been divorced from their mother culture. History will point her accusing finger at the Circassians who are flippantly and wilfully abandoning their heritage.

10. Circassian Institutions


The Circassian Charity Association was established in 1932, which makes it the second oldest charity organization in Jordan. It is mainly concerned with the welfare of indigent Circassians. However, Its role extends far beyond distribution of alms, for it purports to organize the affairs of Circassians in some social and cultural spheres. It also maintains contacts with other Circassian communities, especially in the Caucasus. There are about 15 scholarships offered every year to the progeny of its members in the Circassian universities and colleges in Kabardino-Balkaria and the Adyghey Republic in the Caucasus. It issues a magazine (Nart — the singular generic designation of the heroes of the Circassian Nart Sagas), and a periodical leaflet (Family Matters), both of which deal with Circassian matters. Recently, an Internet site was created to disseminate information and as a point of contact. The Association is a member of the International Circassian Organization (Duney-pso Adige Xase).

The Association is made up of the Centre, 6 branches in towns and cities of considerable Circassian concentrations — Zarqa, Jerash, Wadi-Sseer, Na’ur, Sweileh and Russeifa — and the Ladies’ Branch.

The Ladies’ Branch runs a school (Emir Hamza) which aims is to preserve Circassian language and culture. The Circassian language teachers are native speakers who hail from the Caucasus. However, Circassian is not a compulsory subject and many of the students choose not to put too much effort into learning it because its scope of use is very limited. Many projects are currently under way to improve the standards of the school. The Friends of the Emir Hamza Schools Club, whose members are mainly graduates of the school, supports fund-raising activities and functions.

The Wadi-Sseer Branch has recently inaugurated Prince Ali Ibn Al-Hussein Kindergarten within its premises to teach the young their mother tongue and inculcate Circassian culture upon them.


Al-Ahli Club, which is one of the oldest Clubs in Jordan, was established in 1944 with the aim of furthering the needs, ambitions and aspirations of its members and to participate fully in the social, cultural, sporting and artistic scenes in Jordan and abroad. It has become a household name, intimately associated with sporting success and achievement. It excels in basketball, handball, swimming and the martial arts. Its records in these games are very impressive. The respective teams take part in national championships and in regional and Asian tournaments. Many members of the national squads are regularly chosen from them.

The Folklore Committee was set up in 1993 by a group of dedicated people whose vision was to preserve and develop Circassian culture. It runs a Dance and Song Troupe that is considered to be one of the best outside the Caucasus. Besides its celebrated Annual Festival and participation in local celebrations, to which it is invited regularly, the Ensemble staged its spectacular show The Kingdom of Peace which tells the story of how the Circassians found refuge in Jordan after they were subjected to brutal Russian persecution and expulsion, in the United States and Bahrain. It has become one of the major attractions in the annual Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts.


Al-Jeel Al-Jadeed Club was established in 1950 as a backlash against cultural assimilation. Its cultural activities were at their peak in the late fifties and the sixties. Many productions of Circassian plays were staged during that period, initially under the guiding hand of Csaban Kube, the renowned émigré scholar who penned many books and plays and who devised and disseminated a Circassian alphabet based on Roman characters. However, after Kube and his disciples left the scene, there followed a long period of cultural stagnation, which lasted until the early eighties.

In 1982, a new interest in culture, mainly dance, was evidenced. Nevertheless, Al-Jeel is at present mainly known for its Annual Summer Dance Festival. Its basketball team was promoted to the premier division in 1997.

The Tribal Council was set up to manage tribal affairs and resolve disputes that might disrupt harmony with other sections of society. Its work is invaluable in maintaining social stability. It is composed of Circassian notables with substantial experience and knowledge in tribal issues.

The Friends of the Circassians in the Caucasus is a new organization whose principal aim is to maintain and strengthen relationships with the fatherland. Its charter allows it to deal in political matters. It is supposed to complement the work of the Association, which is barred from delving into politics.


The Circassians have fared really well in their new homeland. Although cognizant of their ethnic and cultural identities, the Circassians look upon themselves as full members of society and they actually engage in all walks of life.

The Circassians played a major and positive role in recent Jordanian history. Prior to the establishment of the Emirate, they managed to set up stable and secure centres that attracted many people. The rudiments of civil society were slowly taking root. When Amman was chosen as the capital of Jordan, it was transformed from a small town into a sprawling metropolis. The Circassians benefited greatly as they were the major landlords. Many of them became very rich.

However, there was a steep price to pay. Circassian language and culture have suffered immensely. The language is irrevocably lost and traditions have been largely discarded. The new generation must be given an identity that is in harmony with the past and in line with the present. The task is immense.

Amjad JAIMOUKHA, The Folklore Committee, Al-Ahli Club, Amman – JORDAN


Western Caucasian Dolmens, V.I. Markovin

Western Caucasian Dolmens, V.I. Markovin


Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia, vol. 41, no. 4 (Spring 2002), pp. 68– 88.
© 2003 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1061–1959/2003

Vladimir Ivanovich MARKOVIN

Western Caucasian Dolmens
Mysticism, Scientific Opinions,
and Perspectives on Further Study

If a scientific thought has sustained the touchstone of criticism,
it will remain a link in the golden chain of knowledge. 

—Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of Historya

Every type of monument from the western Caucasus gains certain popularity from time to time. When this happens, it receives extensive coverage in the media and newspapers, radio, and television run endless stories on it. This was the case with the tower structures in Chechnya and Ingushetia in the 1960–70s. Lively debates about the Alans’ antiquities were held and are still being held in the Northern Osetia, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Kabardin-Balkaria. Recently in Krasnodar region and Adygeia, enormous interest in the dolmens has arisen. The region surrounding the town Gelendzhika was especially lucky in this regard. The interest was caused not by specialists’ scientific research, but by small books by Vladimir Megre, published as part of the series “Ringing Cedars of Russia” (Megre 1997a,b; 1998). Enjoying great success, these books caused a sensation, not so much among local inhabitants as among vacationers. The dolmens’ sites became a place of pilgrimage, and the monuments themselves, a place of worship. People adorn their foothills with flowers and turn to them with their questions and requests. Such touching scenes were shown once on the television show “Travelers’ Club.” They were so impressive that they attracted the attention of the Dutch archeologist Albert Becker, who was visiting Russia. He managed to visit a “Black Sea Mecca” and photograph “pilgrims” praying near the dolmens (Trifonov 1999).

>>Download the full-text document in PDF format (408 KB)

Tevfik Esenç – the last person able to speak the Ubykh language

Tevkif Esenç
The Last Ubykh

He was the last person able to speak the language they called Ubykh

Tevfik Esenç (1904 – October 7, 1992) was a Circassian exile in Turkey and the last known speaker of the Ubykh language.

Esenç was raised by his Ubykh-speaking grandparents for a time in the village of Haci Osman  in Turkey, and he served a term as the muhtar (mayor) of that village, before receiving a post in the civil service of Istanbul. There, he was able to do a great deal of work with the French linguist Georges Dumézil to help record his language.

Blessed with an excellent memory, and understanding quickly the goals of Dumézil and the other linguists who came to visit him, he was the primary source of not only the Ubykh language, but also of the mythology, culture and customs of the Ubykh people. He spoke not only Ubykh but Turkish and the Hakuchi dialect of Adyghe, allowing some comparative work to be done between the two languages. He was a purist, and his idiolect of Ubykh is considered by some as the closest thing to a standard “literary” Ubykh language that existed.

Esenç died in 1992 at the age of 88. The inscription that he wanted on his gravestone read as follows: This is the grave of Tevfik Esenç. He was the last person able to speak the language they called Ubykh.

Ubykh sample sound file (Spekar: Tevfik Esenç, Recorded by Georges Dumézil / Lacito Data Archive)

LACITO Data Archive – Ubykh Records, Lacito Archiving project

In memoriam: Ubykh (Tevfik Esenç)

Martin Haspelmath, Freie Universität Berlin, 1993-06-09

Perhaps it is not inappropriate to post not only obituaries of linguists, but also obituaries of languages.

Since October 7, 1992, when its last native speaker (Tevfik Esenç) died, the north-western Caucasian language Ubykh must be considered extinct.

The fate of Ubykh is particularly sad not only because of its structural peculiarities that make it so interesting for us linguists, but also because its extinction is the final result of a genocide of the Ubykh people. Until 1864 they lived along the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the area of Sochi (north-west of Abkhazia). When Russia subjugated the Muslim northern Caucasus in the 1860s, tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of people were expelled and had to flee to Turkey, no doubt with heavy loss of life. The entire Ubykh population left its homeland, and the survivors were scattered over Turkey.

Our knowledge of Ubykh owes particularly much to Georges Dumézil (La langue des Oubykhs. Paris 1931) and Hans Vogt (Dictionnaire de la langue oubykh avec introduction phonologique. Oslo 1963). Until recently, the last native speaker, Mr. Tevfik Esenç worked with several linguists so that as much as possible of his people’s language could be recorded. The 1991-92 (No 6-7) issue of the Revue des Études Georgiennes et Caucasiennes was dedicated to Tevfik Esenç.

The most striking structural feature of Ubykh is/was its large consonant inventory, consisting of 81 segments according to John Colarusso (“How many consonants does Ubykh have?”, in George Hewitt (ed.) Caucasian perspectives. Unterschleissheim: Lincom Europa, 145-55). To elucidate some of its puzzling features, Mr. Esenç even allowed himself to be x-rayed while articulating. For many years Ubykh was thought to be the world record-holder of consonant inventory size. Now it seems that some African languages surpass Ubykh in this respect, but still, Colarusso remarks, “any rigorous account of human phonetic percepual capacity will have to take into accountthis precious marvel, Ubykh”. This precious marvel is now lost forever.

Tevfik Esenç 1982

Language will die with man now 82
By John-Thor Dahlburg, the Associated Press., ca. 1987.

BANDIRMA, Turkey – When 82-year-old Tevfik Esenç dies, what linguists say is the world’s rarest living language will become a dead one.

A century and a half ago, the Oubykh language belonging to the Caucasian group of languages was spoken by as many as 50,000 Oubykh tribesmen in the Caucasus valleys east of the Black Sea.

Now a frail farmer in Turkey is the last known speaker, and language scientists visit Esenç in a hamlet in Asia Minor to register his every word.

“Because Oubykh today is just one man and he will one day disappear, all of this fuss may appear trivial, even useless,” said Georges Dumézil of the Académie Française, who has studied Oubykh and other Caucasian tongues for more than 50 years. “But from a scientific point of view, each and every language has great importance.”

For researchers like Dumézil, Oubykh’s fascination lies in its extreme variety of sounds, or phonemes. English has about 30 different phonemes, while Oubykh boasts more than 80, including four different pronunciations of the twinned letters “sh.”

There are 82 consonants, but only three vowels. Transcribers have had to use both Greek and Latin letters, plus some signs of their own invention, to capture the wealth of sounds.

“Oubykh is doubly interesting, first because only one person still speaks it, and second because there is that huge number of phonemes,” said Dr. Luc Bouquiaux, deputy director of the Paris-based Laboratory for Languages and Civilizations of Oral Tradition.

It was the French center’s 40 researchers who identified Oubykh as the world’s rarest language – “unquestionably the rarest because there is only one man who can speak it,” Bouquiaux said.

The Caucasian tongue is also “among the richest, if not the richest, language we know in terms of the sounds you have to make to speak it,” Bouquiaux added.

Oubykh’s decline started with the exodus of the Moslem herders and farmers from czarist Russia in 1864 after the Crimean War, and their resettlement in Ottoman Turkey near the Sea of Marmara.

There, the need to speak Turkish to be understood, plus competition from other Caucasian languages, made a knowledge of Oubykh useless. Today only Esenç has complete mastery of the tongue, though four or five other tribal elders still remember some phrases.

“No one is really responsible for the death of our mother tongue,” said Esenç in a recent interview in Bandirma, speaking Turkish through an interpreter. “It happened because of our poverty, and our being dispersed several times by the Russian czars and the Turks.”

To preserve as many scraps of the dying language as possible, linguists have taken Esenç to Oslo and to Paris, where he has been four times. Others have trooped rutted tracks to the farm village of Haci Osman where the last of the Oubykh speakers lives in a hut with a dirt floor.

When Esenç dies, Dumézil said, “much will be lost. But much has already been saved, and unlike ancient Greek or Latin, we have Oubykh speakers on tape.”

There is no chance, scholars and native speakers agree, of resurrecting Oubykh as a living language.

“Turkish authorities aren’t interested, and our own young don’t want to learn it,” Esenç said. His three sons are incapable of carrying on a conversation in their father’s tongue.

Scholars praise the cooperation of Esenç and other villagers in helping them pierce the mysteries of the dying language before it is too late. “Tevfik immediately understood the importance of helping us,” said Dumézil, who has thousands of Oubykh words inscribed on file cards awaiting incorporation into a French-Oubykh dictionary.

Esenç hopes to die where he was born – in the hilly village of Haci Osman near Bandirma. He says he already has written the inscription he wants carved on his tombstone of white marble:

“This is the grave of Tevfik Esenç. He was the last person able to speak the language they called Oubykh.”

Photo credits:

Tevfik Esencc at 57, from Georges Dumézil. 1962. Documents anatoliens sur les langues et les traditions du Caucase. Vol. 2: Textes Oubykhs. Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie.

Tevfik Esenç at 82, from Associated Press, printed in The Arizona Daily Star, 1987.

Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey

Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864.

London, Printed by Harrison & Sons.

The full original papers in PDF can be downloaded by clicking here (1.61 MB)

Sir H. Bulwer to Earl Russell. – (Received April 23)

Constantinople, April 12, 1864

My Lord,

The continued advances of the Russians in Circassia, and the ill-treatment experienced by the natives from Russian troops, have led to an almost complete emigration from the country: 25,000 have already reached Trebizond, and others are endeavouring to escape in small boats at every risk. The conglomeration of vast quantities of these people, who have no industrial habits, threatens the health and peace of any one locality, and the loss of life which is occasioned by their hazardous attempts to escape from their conquerors isshocking to humanity. The Turkish Government is therefore about sending vessels to Trebizond to remove the emigrants thence, and place them in different parts of the Empire; and it is also in negotiation with the Russian Chargé d’Affaires here, in order to be able to adopt some measures by which those unfortunate people, who, after the most heroic attempts in defending the country where they were born, are at last obliged to abandon it, may be able to seek asylum with safety in the Ottoman dominions.

I understand that the Russian Chargé d’Affaires has shown no difficulty, as far as he is concerned, in entering into arrangements with the Porte, and has applied to his Government for further instructions.

(Signed) Henry L. Bulwer

PS. – I may take this opportunity of transmitting to your Lordship a Petition which has been addressed to Her majesty the Queen by the Circassians, together with a translation of the same.



“Our most humble Petition to Her Magnificent Majesty the Queen and Emperor of England is to the effect that —

It is now more than eighty years since the Russian Government is unlawfully striving to subdue and annex to its dominions Circassia, which since the creation of the world has been our home and our country. It slaughters like sheep the children, helpless women, and old men that fall into its hands. It rolls about their heads with the bayonet like melons, and there is no act of oppression or cruelty which is beyond the pale of civilization and humanity, and which defies description, that it has not committed. We have not, from father to son, at the cost of our lives and properties, refrained from opposing the tyrannical acts of that Government in defence of our country, which is dearer to us than our lives. But during the last year or two it has taken advantage of a famine caused by a drought with which the Almighty visited is, as well as by its own ravages, and it as occasioned us great distress by its severe attacks by sea and land. Many are the lives which have been lost in battle, from hunger in the mountains, from destitution on the sea-coast, and from want of skill at sea.

We therefore invoke the mediation and precious assistance of the British Government and people – the guardian of humanity and centre if justice – in order to repel the brutal attacks of the Russian Government on our country, and save our country and our nation together.

But if it is not possible to afford this help for the preservation of our country and race, then we pray to be afforded facilities for removing to a place of safety our helpless and miserable children and women that are perishing by the brutal attacks of the enemy as well as by the effects of famine; and if neither of these two requests are taken into consideration, and if in our helpless condition we are utterly annihilated notwithstanding our appeals to the mercy and grace of the Governments, then we shall not cease to invoke our right in the presence of the Lord of the Universe, of Him who has confided to your Majesty sovereignty, strength, and power for the purpose of protecting the weak.”

“We beg your Excellency [Sir Henry Bulwer] to be the medium of making known to the great British Government and to the glorious British nation our condition of helplessness and misery, and we have therefore ventured to present to your Excellency our most humble petition. A copy of it has been submitted to the Sultan’s Government and to the Embassies of other Powers.”

(Signed by the people of Circassia)                                        29 Sheval, 1280 (April 9, 1864)


Papers Respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Pages 2 and 3.

Enclosed  in  Despatch  No.3  From  Sir  Henry  Bulwer  to  Earl  Russell,  Constantinople,  April 12, 1864 (FO 881/1259)


Consul-General Murray to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Odessa, April 29, 1864.

My Lord,

I have the honour to report that information has reached me that Vardan and Sochyi have recently been occupied by the troops under the command of Major-General Heyman, who encountered no resistance. The mountaineers are in most distressing condition, and are emigrating to Turkey as fast as boats can be found to take them away.

Grants of land in the conquered districts will now be offrerd to such of the Azoff Cossacks as desire to settle in the South if the Caucasus, and every encouragement will be given them to do so.

His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Michael has recently made a tour of inspection in the South.

(Signed) E.C. Grenville Murray.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 4.

Consul Dickson to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Soukoum-Kalé, March 17, 1864.

I feel it is a painful duty to report a deed that has come to my knowledge, which has so exasperated the Circassians as to excite them to further resistance, however desperate their case may be.

A Russian detachment having captured the village of Toobeh on the Soobashi River, inhabited by about 100 Abadzekh, and after these had surrendered themselves prisoners, they were all massacred by the Russian troops. Among the victims were two women in an advanced state of pregnancy, and five children. The detachment is question belongs to Count Evdokimoff’s army, and is said to have advanced from the Pshish valley.

As the Russian troops gain ground on the coast, the natives are not allowed to remain there on any terms, but are compelled either to transfer themselves to the plains of the Kouban or emigrate to Turkey.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 2.

Consul Dickson to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Soukoum-Kalé, April 13, 1864.

The Ubikh and Fighett tribes are fast embarking for Trebizond. In fact, after their land having been laid waste by fire and sword, emigration to Turkey is the only alternative allowed to those mountaineers who refuse to transfer themselves to the Kouban steppes and contribute periodically to the militia.

The condition of these poor people is described by eye-witnesses as most distressing. In the hurry of departure the overcrowding of boats is so little heeded as to lead to frequent disasters, while such of their horses and cattle as war and famine have spared are being sold for a few paper roubles.

In some instances the emigrants, sooner than see their weapons (may be heir-looms in the family for centuries) exchange hands with the enemy, have flung them into the sea.

With a view of introducing Russian colonization in the conquered districts the Government offer grants of land and other privileges to the Azoff Cossacks who may desire to settle there. Government employés indiscriminately, who may have served ten years in the Caucasus, will be entitled to claim an allotment if the land.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 3 and 4.

Consul-General Murray to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Odessa, April 29, 1864.

My Lord,

I have the honour to report that information has reached me that Vardan and Sochi have recently been occupied by the troops under the command of Major-General Heyman, who encountered no resistance. The mountaineers are in most distressing condition, and are emigrating to Turkey as fast as boats can be found to take them away.

Grants of land in the conquered districts will now be offrerd to such of the Azoff Cossacks as desire to settle in the South if the Caucasus, and every encouragement will be given them to do so.

His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Michael has recently made a tour of inspection in the South.

(Signed) E.C. Grenville Murray.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 4.

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