Traditional Caucasusian Society
In the Russian Empire (1721 – 1917) the generic term “highlander” or “mountaineer” was applied to any indigenous person living anywhere except on the steppe (prairie) or in lowland river valleys, people we might now classify as Chechens, Avars, Lezgins or Georgians. The equivalent term in English was “Circassian.” In its narrowest sense, however, Circassian specifically refers to speakers of Adyga languages, the major linguistic group of the northwest Caucasus…
The Caucasus is essentially a mountain country; its inhabitants, with the exception of the Christian population occupying the river valleys of the Rion and Koura, essentially mountaineers; for, just as, thanks to its mass and elevation, the great central range has largely influenced all other physical features, so together with them has it been the determining factor in the matter of population. The peoples of the Caucasus owe to it not only their salient characteristics, but their very existence. It may be said without exaggeration that the mountains made the men; and the men in return fought with passionate courage and energy in defence of their beloved mountains, in whose fastnesses, indeed, they were wellnigh unconquerable.
Caucasian is a term introduced into ethnology by Blumenbach, in whose classification of mankind it was applied to one of the five great races into which all the different nations of the world were divided. Blumenbach believed this to be the original race from which the others were derived, and he gave it the epithet of Caucasian because he believed that its most typical form — which was also that of man in his highest physical perfection — was to be met with among the mountaineers of the Caucasus. The physical superiority of these people is scarcely maintained at the present day, but the name is still retained in classifications. The Caucasian race was said to comprise the most highly civilized nations of the world, including most of the inhabitants of Europe (the Turks, Hungarians, and Fins being excluded); the Hindus, Persians, Arabs, Hebrews, and the ancient Phoenicians of Asia; and a large proportion of the inhabitants of northern Africa.
A well-known passage in Strabo states that Dioscurias, on or near the site of the present Soukhoum-Kale, was frequented by people speaking seventy different languages. Pliny quotes Timosthenes to the effect that the number was 300, and says " afterwards we Romans conducted our affairs there with the aid of 130 interpreters." And Al-Azizi called the eastern Caucasus " the Mountain of Languages" (Djebal Alsuni) because, according to him, the people inhabiting it spoke 300 different tongues. Allowance must be made for Oriental exuberance of imagination, but even quite recently the number was given by sober Europeans as not less than forty for Daghestan alone, and it was supposed that many if not most of these were totally unconnected one with another.
Shamil's explanation of this great variety of population in the Caucasus was, that Alexander the Great took a dislike to the country owing to the barrenness of the soil and severity of the climate, and out of spite made it a place of exile for the criminals of all the world; and with the bitterness of this 19th Century Caucasian leader who felt that his defeat in 1859 was due to the defection of his own people rather than to the power of his enemies, the captive chieftain professed to attribute the evil nature of the mountaineers to this vile origin.
But Alexander was never within hundreds of miles of the Caucasus, and it is unnecessary to seek elsewhere than in its geographical position and physical configuration for good and sufficient reasons why the mountain range between the Caspian and Black Seas should have become the refuge of many a people conquering and conquered in turn, succumbing at last to fresh waves of invasion from south or from north. Driven into the mountains, where defense was easy and the temptation to follow them slight, they made good their footing among those who had preceded them in similar circumstances, or, failing in that, disappeared for ever from among the nations of the earth.
The Caucasus was inhabited probably by a greater number of different tribes and peoples than any similar extent of territory on the surface of the globe, speaking, too, a greater variety of languages; and, the more inaccessible the valleys in which they dwell, the smaller the individual groups and the sharper, apparently, the linguistic and other distinctions between them. Though of different origin, and separated by language and dialects into many tribes, there was a striking agreement in the character, manners, and customs of the whole people and all the peoples of the Caucasus traditionally adhered strictly to one and the same code of oral and traditional law, by which their communities, their households, their customs, and even their dresses, were governed and regulated.
While their virtues were strengthened and upheld by these traditions, their national vices were often excited by them to savage excesses. Traditionally the tendencies of the people were all republican; and most tribes admitted neither of aristocracy nor hereditary titles. All men being equal among them, the jurisdiction of the chiefs or princes (called in the different dialects Psahy, By, Bel, Beg, and so on) was exceedingly limited; and that of the nobles. (Usden, Work, or Mursden) was still more restricted, unless they possessed means of upholding the lustre of their ancestral rank by a rich showy appearance, or by preeminent valor on the battle-field. On the other hand, in times past great homage was paid to aged men of unblemished character, as well as to those who had distinguished themselves by exploits against the common enemy; and also to minstrels.
The life of the mountaineer of the Caucasus in the past was one continued series of dangers and hardships, imposed upon him by the necessity of defending his mountain home: he must, therefore, in order to gain lasting influence over his tribe, make continual displays of dexterity, perseverance, and undaunted courage.
Prior to the arrival of the Russians, where princes reigned a small tribute was paid to them, and they, as well as the nobles, had a right to a hospitable reception in every house, rich or poor^ which they may enter, and they may remain as long as the provisions last. In all other respects they were on an equality with the rest of the clan, and must obey the will of the popular assemblies denominated Tafes, which are called together to discuss matters concerning military service, or when a battle is to be fought, a feast to be celebrated, or judicial business, such as the trial or condemnation of a culprit, to be transacted.
These mountaineers were taught, that the spirits of their relatives who had been slain can never rest in peace until they shall have been avenged; and not only is a brother or friend of one who has fallen, always ready to pursue an assassin to death.
The leading features of the Caucasian character, in short, are valor, pride, reverence for age, and a high sense of the duty of hospitality. When a guest enters any dwelling, the host considers himself as bound to wait on him, to serve him, to minister to his wants, provide for his comfort, and afford him every gratification in his power. The best place in the house, the choicest morsels at the dinner, are allotted to him, and the members of the family vie with one another in endeavouring to amuse him; the utmost care is taken never to disturb his repose; and should he fall sick, he is nursed with the utmost anxiety and tenderness.
One of the darkest features of Caucasian life was the existence of the Slave Trade, which, notwithstanding the vigilant opposition of the English Ambassador at Constantinople, is still a favourite object with these races, and often carried on, in defiance of all obstacles, with the most daring intrepidity. On most occasions, the father himself sells his daughters to a broker who supplies the Turkish harems; and frequently receives a good round sum for his merchandise. The poor girls, on their parts, by no means objected to the proceeding, as they were taught from their infancy to long for the luxurious idleness of the harems of Stamboul, and regard it as a kind of earthly Paradise.
As the Caucasians were exceedingly fond of their arms, one of their greatest amusements is to polish their jeweled dirks, and often richly ornamented guns and pistols, or the long straight sword, which they wear in a coloured scabbard. Helmets, shirts of mail, etc., were formerly worn by them, but they had been discontinued since the use of fire-arms became general.
Warlike expeditions in pursuit of plunder, either to the Russian territory, or to that of a neighbouring tribe, had great charms for a people accustomed to constant exertion, and delighting in tumult and activity. When one of these is in contemplation, the first step is the ceremony of taking the "Blood Oath", as it is called, which binds those who take it to perseverance in valorous effort, and to standing by each other to the death. The bravest warrior among them was then chosen as leader, and the occasion was celebrated by a feast and a dance. The warriors after this retired to rest; but at daybreak they rose and set forward on their march, ascending mountains, crossing rivers, and forcing their way through primeval forests, till they reached the point of attack. The march was mostly planned so as to surprise the enemy in sleep, and in such case the deadly onslaught usually spared no one.
Should any prisoners be made, they were speedily driven to some place of security, where the spoil is deposited; and the retreat of the assailants is generally as sudden as their appearance. Prisoners of war often prefer death to captivity; they destroy their arms and mutilate their horses, that they may not render service to the enemy; and sometimes, finally, embraced the first opportunity to precipitate themselves into some rocky abyss, rather than endure the passing their lives in bondage. Sanguinary battles were often fought for the sake of recapturing the body of a slain friend; as it was considered a great misfortune and disgrace that one who has fought and bled in the cause of the common weal should be buried on a hostile soil.
Cowardice, treachery, or the violation of the law of hospitality, are all regarded among these races as unpardonable crimes; and whoever is known to have committed any aggression on the person or goods of a guest, is, according to law, to be tied hand and foot, flung into an abyss, and left to perish without mercy. A coward is regarded as an outcast from the community; and should he be prevented by disease from leaving the abodes of his tribe, he is condemned to live and feed with the dogs. Robberies committed on the property of unfriendly neighbors, especially if well planned and boldly executed, were greatly applauded.
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