1902 Encyclopedia > Circassia


CIRCASSIA. The name of Circassia is commonly given to the whole of the north-western portion of the Caucasus, including the district between the mountain range and the Black Sea, and extending to the north of the central ridge as far as the River Kuban. In this sense the term is still in use as a geographical appellation, though the Circassians, as a nation, may be regarded as extinct. The region thus defined may be considered as extending from the neighbour-hood of Anapa on the Black Sea to the frontiers of Mingrelia, and having a seaboard of about 280 English miles. Throughout this extent the country is almost wholly mountainous,—the great range of the Caucasus, which begins in the neighbourhood of Anapa at a moderate elevation, rising gradually as it extends towards the south-east, till it culminates in the lofty summit of Mount Elbruz, at an elevation of 18,526 feet. The strip of land between the dividing ridge or watershed of these mountains and the sea, a tract varying from twenty to forty miles in width, is extremely rugged, traversed by successive offshoots of the mountains, extending quite down to the sea, and covered for the most part with extensive forests. The slopes on the northern side of the Caucasus are more gentle, and here the valleys afford abundant pasturage, but hardly any portior of Circassia, properly so called, is a level or open country.

The Tcherkesses or Circassians, who gave name to this region, of which they were until lately the sole inhabitants, are a peculiar race, differing from the other tribes of the Caucasus in origin and language. They designate themselves by the name of Adighe, that of Tcherkesses being a term of Russian origin. By their long-continued struggles with the power of Russia, during a period of nearly forty years, they attracted the attention of the other nations of Europe in a high degree, and were at the same time an object of interest to the student of the history of civilization, from the strange mixture which their customs exhibited of chivalrous sentiment with savage customs. For this reason it may be still worth while to give a brief summary of their national characteristics and manners, though these must now be regarded as in great measure things of the past.
In the patriarchal simplicity of their manners, the mental qualities with which they were endowed, the beauty of form and regularity of feature by which they were distin-guished, they surpassed most of the other tribes of the Caucasus. At the same time they were remarkable for their warlike and intrepid character, their independence, their hospitality to strangers, and that love of country which they manifested in their determined resistance to an almost overwhelming power during the period of a long and desolat-ing war. The government under which they lived was a peculiar form of the feudal system. The free Circassians were divided into three distinct ranks, the princes or pschi, the nobles or uork (Tartar usden), and the peasants or liokotl. Like the inhabitants of the other regions of the Caucasus, they were also divided into numerous families, tribes, or clans, some of which were very powerful, and carried on war against each other with great animosity. The slaves, of whom a large proportion were prisoners of war, were generally employed in the cultivation of the soil, or in the domestic service of some of the principal chiefs.
The will of the people was acknowledged as the supreme source of authority; and every free Circassian had a right to express his opinion in those assemblies of his tribe in which the questions of peace and war, almost the only subjects which engaged their attention, were brought under deliberation. The princes and nobles, the leaders of the people in war and their rulers in peace, were only the administrators of a power which was delegated to them. As they had no written laws, the administration of justice was regulated solely by custom and tradition, and in those tribes professing Mahometanism by the precepts of the Koran. The most aged and respected inhabitants of the various aouls or villages frequently sat in judgment, and their decisions were received without a murmur by the contending parties. The Circassian princes and nobles were professedly Mahometans; but in their religious services many of the ceremonies of their former heathen and Christian worship were still preserved. A great part of the people had remained faithful to the worship of their ancient gods,—Shible, the god of thunder, of war, and of justice, Tleps, the god of fire, and Seosseres, the god of water and of winds. Although the Circassians are said to have possessed minds capable of the highest cultivation, the arts and sciences, with the exception of poetry and music, were completely neglected. They possessed no written language. The wisdom of their sages, the know-ledge they had acquired, and the memory of their warlike deeds were preserved in verses, which were repeated from mouth to mouth and descended from father to son.
The education of the young Circassian was confined to riding, fencing, shooting, hunting, and such exercises as were calculated to strengthen his frame, and prepare him for a life of active warfare. The only intellectual duty of the atalik, or instructor with whom the young men lived until they had completed their education, was that of teaching them to express their thoughts shortly, quickly, and appropriately. One of their marriage ceremonies was very strange. The young man who had been approved by the parents, and had paid the stipulated price in money, horses, oxen, or sheep, for his bride, was expected to come with his friends fully armed, and to carry her off by force from her father's house. Every free Circassian hail unlimited right over the lives of his wife and children. Although polygamy was allowed by the laws of the Koran, the custom of the country forbade it, and the Circassians were generally faithful to the marriage bond. The respect for superior age was carried to such an extent, that the young brother used to rise from his seat when the elder entered an apartment, and was silent when he spoke. Like all the other inhabitants of the Caucasus, the Circassians were distinguished for two very opposite qualities, the most generous hospitality, and implacable vindictiveness. Hospitality to the stranger was considered one of the most sacred duties. Whatever were his rank in life, all the members of the family rose to receive him on his entrance, and conduct him to the principal seat in the apartment. The host was considered responsible with his own life for the security of his guest, upon whom, even although his deadliest enemy, he would inflict no injury while under the protection of his roof. The chief who had received a stranger was also bound to grant him an escort of horse to conduct him in safety on his journey, and confide him to the protection of those nobles with whom he might be on friendly terms. The law of vengeance was no less binding on the Circassian. The individual who had slain any member of a family was pursued with implacable vengeance by the relatives, until his crime was expiated by death. The murderer might, indeed, secure his safety by the' payment of a certain sum of money, or by carrying off from the house of his enemy a newly-born child, bringing it up as his own, and restoring it when its education was finished. In either case, the family of the slain individual might discontinue the pursuit of vengeance without any stain upon its honour. The man closely followed by his enemy, who, on reaching the dwelling of a woman, had merely touched her hand, was safe from all other pursuit so long as he remained under the protection of her roof. The opinions of the Circassians regarding theft resembled those of the ancient Spartans. The commission of the crime was not considered so disgraceful as its discovery; and the punishment of being compelled publicly to restore the stolen property to its original possessor, amid the derision of his tribe, was much dreaded by the Circassian who would glory in a successful theft. The greatest stain upon the Circassian character was the custom of selling their children, the Circassian father being always willing to part with his daughters, many of whom were bought by Turkish merchants for the harems of Eastern monarchs. But no degradation was implied in this transaction, and the young women themselves were generally willing partners in it. Herds of cattle and sheep constituted the chief riches of the inhabitants. The princes and nobles, from whom the members of the various tribes held the land which they cultivated, were the proprietors of the soil. The Circassians carried on little or no commerce, and the state of perpetual warfare in which they lived prevented them from cultivating any of the arts of peace.
The early history of Circassia is exceedingly obscure This part of the coasts of the Black Sea was inhabited in ancient times only by wild and barbarous tribes, whose names are very differently given by ancient writers. No Greek colonies were planted within the limits of Circassia proper, though the Greeks carried on an extensive trade with the nations of the interior at Dioscurias, near Sukhum

Kaleh. Tn the 12th and 13th centuries the princes of Georgia were successful in reducing Circassia into the condition of a province ; and are said to have also been the first to introduce Christianity into the country—a religion which they continued to profess (in name at least) till the 18th century, when they were converted to Islamism by the teaching of a fanatical devotee named Mansur. The common people, however, retain to a great extent their pagan customs and beliefs. After they had succeeded in throwing off the Georgian yoke, the Circassians passed for a time under the rule of the Tartar khans of the Crimea, from whom they emancipated themselves, with the assistance of Ivan I., czar of Russia. But the Russian monarchs do not appear to have regarded their conquest as a matter of much importance, until the time of Peter the Great. That powerful monarch, perceiving how much the possession of the Caucasus would contribute to his political and commercial influence in Western and Central Asia, made an unsuccessful attempt to reduce it permanently under his dominion. Catherine II. pursued a similar line of policy. Georgia having been harassed by the successive invasions of the Persians and Turks, the prince of that country at last threw himself under the protection of the Russians, and became tributary to their power. The River Kouban being afterwards fixed as the southern boundary of the Muscovite empire, the Russians became ambitious of extending their dominion uninterruptedly to the extreme limits of Georgia. In the wars which now took place between the Russians and the Turks, the latter used every exertion, by exciting the fanatical feelings of the Circassians against the infidels, to induce them to harass the Russians by frequent incursions into their territory. After various vicissitudes of fortune, the Turks were worsted, and compelled by the treaty of Adrianople in 1829 to cede a considerable portion of their territory to the czar. Assuming a right of political sovereignty which they had never possessed, they included Circassia in this cession. The Circassians, refusing to acknowledge the right of the sultan (whom they had never recognized as their sovereign, though acknowledging him as head of their religion) thus to dispose of their country, were now exposed to the hostility of the Russians, who determined to become masters of the territory on the coasts of the Black Sea, and indeed of the whole Caucasian region, by force of arms. This was the origin of that remorseless war which was carried on with so much animosity down to a very recent period, and cost the Russians an incredible amount of blood and treasure.
A brief outline of the leading events which characterized
this long-protracted struggle will be found in the article
CAUCASUS. After the Circassians were finally reduced to
submission, the inhabitants of the sea-coast, rather than
submit to the regulations imposed by the Russian Govern-
ment, determined to quit their country, and emigrate in a
mass to Turkey. Not les3 than half a million of people
carried out this resolution, and were settled in different
parts of the Turkish empire,—the greater part of them in
Asia Minor, but some also in the mountain country on
the borders of Bulgaria and Servia. Since that period the
whole tract along the sea-coast from Anapa to Sukhum
Kaleh, which was that best known as Circassia, has been
almost entirely destitute of inhabitants. But the northern
slopes of the Caucasus, and the valleys descending towards
the Kuban, are still occupied by tribes of Circassian race ;
and the Kabardans, a kindred tribe, but of less warlike
character, extending eastwards to beyond the Terek, have
long settled down quietly in the condition of Russian
subjects. (E. H. B.)

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