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Abkhazia - Background

Abkhazia is located on the east coast of the Black Sea between Russia and Georgia. Its capital is Sukhumi and is located along the Black Sea in the middle of the country. The region is separated from Georgia proper by the Inguri River.

The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia, at its most basic level, is a war of on one side independence and the other territorial integrity, fueled by the Abkhaz and Georgian ethnic groups. Most of the quarter million people are Christian, though there is a large minority of Muslims in the area. The ethnic Abkhazians believe that Abkhazia belongs to them and deserves to be its own country. The ethnic Georgians believe that Abkhazia is part of Georgia and that it does not have a right to independence. The Abkhazian people have legitimate grounds for their claims to statehood and sovereignty. Abkhazians speak a language unrelated to Georgian. They have their own distinct culture and history. Abkhazians have never been, have never regarded themselves, and have never been regarded by Georgians or, for that matter, by any other people, as part of the Georgian nation.

Today the Transcaucasus, or South Caucasus, is 3 countries: Georgia, Azerbaidjan and Armenia. In the 1800s the Transcaucasus were 7 provinces. Today's Georgia was Tiflis, Kutais, and Abkhazia provinces [gubernia]. Azerbaidjan was Baku and most of Elizavetpol' province. And, today's Armenia was Erivan and the eastern part of Kars province.

There was a bewildering babel of languages in the Caucasus , or "Mountain of Tongues," as it was anciently called. It was once reckoned by Arabian writers that, with the dialects and divisions of the various distinct languages, they numbered some 300 or more. Pliny speaks of 130 interpreters having been necessary to transact business with these numerous linguistical groups at Dioscura, the present region of Abkhazia.

Of the religions of these tribes, the American missionaries, Messrs. Dwight and Smith state, that " with the exception of about 200 families of Armenians among the Cherkes, a considerable body of Jews around Andrera, on the borders of Daghistan, and the Lesghies, who are known as bigoted Sunny Moslems, the religion of the mountains is a nondescript mixture of Mohammedanism, Christianity, and Paganism. In the superstitions of some of the tribes, as the Abkhaz and Cherkes, the features of the Moslem faith are predominant; in others, as the Swani, Christianity forms the largest ingredient ; and in others still, as the Ossetians and Ingoosh, we find little but Paganism, associated with a strong predilection for Christianity over Mohammedanism. History, tradition, and monuments, in their country, unite with various parts of their superstitions, to testify that nearly all of them once professed the faith of Christ."

The Sunnite women especially signalized themselves in war by their intrepidity ; and at the storming of Achulko the Russians saw above four hundred women, who, after enacting prodigies of valor, preferred death to slavery under the Russians, and as soon as they saw all was lost, precipitated themselves from the steep rocks into the yawning abysses beneath.

The ethnological position of these tribes was doubtful, though probably Turanian. Their physical traits are black hair, blue eyes, a finely-shaped nose, sallow complexion, and small thin forms. The princes and nobles have much larger and more powerful frames than the peasantry. The Abassians belong to the Circassian race, and distinguished among themselves five tribes - Abassians (or Abkases) proper, Bsubbes, Tschebeldies, Aschawes, and Imuozahanes. Abkhazia (Aphshegh of the Armenians, and Apsilia of the Byzantines) derives its name from Abjib, signifying "half," or the part situated in the middle. By the mid-19th Century one-half of their number were Christians, the other Mohammedans.

The Abass were of the same antiquity as the Tcherkess, but had never left their original country in the western mountains abutting on the Black Sea. Arrian called them Abasci, the Georgians Abhasi and their country Abhasethi: the Russians Abhas, or Gigeth. They name themselves Absne. Named by themselves Tapanta, they were called Baske'h by A'erkessians, Alti-Kesek Abasi by the Tatars. They are divided from the Aerkessians, on the north, by the river Kapoeti; from the Mingrelians, in the south, by the river Enguri, or, according to Rosen, by the small river Erthitskali. Eastward they were conterminous with the Suanes. Some Abassians lived between the Upper Kuban, the Kuma, and the Malka. The chief Abassian tribes in the northern parts of the Caucasus, and south of the Kuban, lie from east to west; the Besilbai, Midawi, Barrakai, Kasilbeg, Ategreh, Ba'h, Tubi, Ubu'h, Bsubbeh, Abase'h, and the Malka.

They were thought somewhat inferior to the Caucasians in personal appearance, and distinguished from all the other natives of the Caucasus by an oval face, a compressed head, a prominent nose, a short chin, and dark chestnut hair. Their language had no apparent connexion with any othrr Caucasian dialects or with any known European or Asiatic dialect. They resemble the Circassians in their dress and many of their domestic habite.

Strabo describes them as a people of fierce and predatory habits. Strabo - as usual with writers of his day - makes the Achaei or Abkhasses, the descendants of the Greeks (Achaioi) who accompanied Jason in his enterprise for the golden fleece. In the time of the Byzantine emperors, the Abkhusses called themselves Absne, and by the Byzantines they were called Abasgi. In tlie Russian, Tartar, and Circassian dialects they are termed Abkhasses, and their country Abesah; the Georgians denominate them Abkhaseti.

Mithridates, king of Pontus and Bosporus, took possession of Colchis and Abchasia ; and Atag, king of Iberia, and Graces, king of Albania, were tributary to him. Tigranes, king of Armenia, and his son-in- law, assisted him in his war against the Romans. Vanquished by Pompey sixty-five years before the Christian era, he fled to the mountains of Caucasus, while Athalus, viceroy of Colchis, graced the trinmph of Pompey. The Romans brought Georgia and Colchis within their dominions ; but these countries were of little use to them, and therefore they contented themselves with nominating the kings that had been chosen from among the people. This state of things lasted to the fall of the Roman empire.

The Abassians had occupied their present seats on Abassians, the Black Sea at least since the Christian era. The apostles Simon of Cana and Andrew (it is said) preached the Gospel in Abchasia and Colchis ; but it seems with but little success. Already in the year 550 they became Christians under Justinian. But their chiefs having been treacherously assassinated by the Circassians, they became involved in consequence in a series of internal dissensions and gradually lost what small civilization they had received from Constantinople. In the 7th Century the Arabs invaded Georgia, and the ancient kingdom was split up into several principalities. Kakhetia seceded in the east, Imeretia, Mingrelia, and Abkhazia in the west, so that the then reigning dynasty of the Bagratids only ruled the country round Tiflis, under Arab auspices, and Tiflis itself was held by the Arabs.

Under David (1001 ) and Bagrat III. Georgia was reunited once more into an independent kingdom, but soon after it was invaded by the Seljuk Turks, who laid it waste. In 1023 the Abass were defeated by the Romans under their king Georgi. Subsequently the Abass became subjects to the Tchinggis-Khanides, and in 1400 they served in the army of Temir Khan against the Soldan Bayasit. Under the influence of the Persian government, the Abkhasses became Mohammedans; but they retained few traces either of Christianity or Mohammedanism. Polygamy was allowed, but seldom practised among them; and the wife was more the companion than the menial of her husband.

They inhabit the beautiful and fertile country between the rivers Khamysh and Ingour, and enjoy a most delightful and salubrious climate.The climate is mild, and the soil produced barley, millet, wheat, and wine in abundance. Honey ana wax were exported largely to Turkey. Considerable numbers of sheep, goats, horned cattle, and horses, are reared; and poultry, game, and wild fowl were abundant. The rivers are well-stored with trout and other fish ; the land-tortoise and some small species of lizards are exceedingly numerous ; and scorpions, scolopendro, and serpents abound.

They were said to have none of the distinguished qualities of the other Caucasian peoples. Bodenstedt said of them : " Their language resembles somewhat that of the Adighe. They are distinguished from their neighbors by their social democratic organization and their physiognomical and bodily construction. The expression of their irregular features is ferocious ; of medium height and thin, they are vindictive, bloodthirsty robbers, and without faith. Having only vegetated for centuries, they have hardly any history. Christianity was first introduced into Abkhazia by the Emperor Justinianus, but showing little fruit, Queen Thamar had this people baptized again. The advent of the Turks however frustrated her object, and the Abkhaz became Mohammedans. They remained, notwithstanding all these changes, attached throughout to their ancient customs and idols. They have a great veneration for old trees, particularly oaks, and every tribe possesses one of these sacred trees."

Abassia, under the Byzantine emperors, formed an independent state, separate from Georgia. In the eleventh century, by heirship, it fell to the kings of Georgia, under whom it decayed ; and in 1457 it fell under the supremacy of the Turks. In 1771, the Abassians asserted their independence.




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