The Adyghe are fascinating people that live in the Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. Not only does the Adyghe language have a wide array of dialects within the area, but Adyghe communities spread throughout the Middle East and Russia speak the same language as well.
Despite having a long, tragic history of invasions, genocides, and forced migrations, the Adyghes are among the most prominent ethnic groups in the North Caucasus region today.
In this article, we will explore the Adyghe language and the fascinating history of the Adyghe people.
The Adyghe Language
The Adyghe language is spoken by around 300,000 people, with 128,528 Adyghe-speaking peoples in the Russian Federation as of 2002. Before 1927 the Adyghe language was written with an Arabic alphabet but was changed to Latin between 1927 and 1938. Since 1938 it has been recorded with a Cyrillic alphabet.
The Adyghe language is mainly spoken in the Republic of Adygea in Russia. West Circassians, also called Lower Circassians, speak Adyghe; the East Circassians, also called Upper Circassians speak Kabardian. The Adyghe language is closely related to the Kabardian language in the North Caucasian language family tree. Many consider these different dialects of the same vocabulary.
The Adyghe language is further broken down into subgroups into the dialect spoken on the Black Sea and the language spoken on the Kuban River, which both have three distinct dialects.
The Chemigory dialect of Kuban River West Circassian language is the most common dialect concerning reading and writing, as the West Circassian alphabet is primarily centered around this dialect. Many of the other dialects are used outside of the Caucasus region entirely, such as the Abzakh dialect, mainly spoken by communities in Israel and Syria.
Except for the Turkish Adyghe people, Adyghe people outside of the Caucasus region hold their language sacred. Many of them continue the Adyghe legacy by teaching their children how to read and write the language, despite its lack of practical application in their country.
Geography of Adygea
The vast majority of Adyghe people of today live in the Adygea Republic, but there are also Adyghe communities in Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, and the Russian federation. The largest community outside of the Caucasus is in Turkey, though the West Circassian language isn’t widely used.
Of all the North Caucasus regions, the Adygea region has the most ethnic Russians, mostly identified as Kuban Cossacks. Adygea covers around 2,900 square miles and has a population of 439,996, according to the 2010 census.
The capital of Adygea is Maykop, where around one-third of the republic’s population lives. Adyghe State University and Maykop State Technological University are the two major educational institutions of Adygea, both located in Maykop.
Forests cover around 40% of Adygea territory, while there are plains in the north and mountains in the south. Despite being relatively rich in oil and natural gas, Adygia is still considered one of Russian Federation’s most impoverished areas.
Early History of the Adyghe People
The first recorded mentioning of the Adyghe people was in the 6th century BC when Greeks referred to them as the Maeots. Archaeologist evidence suggests that the Adyghe have been living in the North Caucuses region since at least 3,000 BC.
Many early tribal Adyghe communities were ruled by both aristocratic and democratic systems of government. Some experts suggest that this may be because some had contact with Greek city-states while others were more isolated in the highlands.
The Circassians would face many invasions throughout their history, starting with the Bolghars in the 4th century. The Khazars would also invade in the 7th century, which began a migration of many Circassians to the Caucasus region’s western portion. Some historians also believe that this also could have been caused by famine.
The Circassians were ruled by the Khazars from the 7th century until their collapse in the 10th century. After the Khazars’ collapse, various rulers were ruled, including the Genoese, who sold many Circassians into the slave trade.
Invasions of the Late Medieval Era
In the 12th century, the Circassians were invaded by the Mongol Empire, which created another westward migration among the Circassians. When the Mongols split, the Golden Horde khanate invaded the region with brutality, destroying many Circassian villages and communities. This caused the first split between the Adyghe and the Karbadians, as communities began to drift apart and become more isolated.
The Tatars of Crimea would make regular devastating raids into the region and brought many West Circassians into their slave trade with even more brutality than the Genoese. West Circassians began making allies to combat these constant threats, namely with Muscovy in the mid 16th century.
Throughout the late 16th century Ottoman missionaries would be sent throughout the Caucasus region to convert the traditionally Christian Circassians to Islam. Along with some communities converting to Islam, many communities changed their style of warfare as well, as they were increasingly able to buy firearms from nearby trading partners. In the early 18th century, they were once again attacked by Crimean invaders but were able to turn away the attackers due to this new arsenal of firearms.
Russian and Cossack forces would attack Circassian villages throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries to control the region in what is today known as the Caucasian Wars. This period is marked by a gradual conversion to Islam across the Circassian people, as they declared a holy war on the invaders. Despite the need to come together to defeat the Russian forces, the Circassian tribes mostly stayed separate and divided during this period.
Many outside powers, such as Britain, encouraged Circassian independence, with some even going so far as raising funds for them. However, when Russia became more diplomatically friendly to these nations, the Circassians were left to fend for themselves.
In the late 18th century the Circassians were given an ultimatum by the Russian army: They could relocate north of the Kuban River or settle in Ottoman territory or be destroyed. As Circassian tribes chose peace and moved to the north, there was a mass blending of different tribes from both the plains and highlands. The Ottomans welcomed the Circassians to their empire, hoping the predominately Muslim Circassians would help “Islamify” Christian areas.
Today, what is referred to as the Circassian Genocide was the extermination of the Circassians who stayed in their homeland by Russian forces. Circassian communities were wiped out with immense brutality. By the end of the 19th century is estimated that up 1.5 million Circassians were killed or expelled from their homeland. During the aftermath of the genocide, the Russian government made a mass effort to assimilate the Circassians to Russian culture. Still, the West Circassian dialects prevailed and remained the prominent language throughout Adyghe communities.
The 20th Century and Beyond
Upon being incorporated into the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution, they were permitted to “derussify” and bring back many forms of traditional West Circassian culture. Circassian quality of life vastly improved during its time in the Soviet Union, though it did receive some cultural suppression under Joseph Stalin.
The area inhabited by the Adyghe people became an Autonomous Oblast in July 1922. There was unrest amongst the Adyghe and their leaders during the aftermath, as they desired fully independent republic status.
After Stalin’s death and the remainder of the 20th century, the West Circassians increasingly embraced their traditional cultural practices. However, some felt more culturally connected to the Russian Federation once the Soviet Union dissolved.
Adygea finally gained full autonomy in 1991, though it was entirely surrounded by Kabardian territory.
Circassian Ways of Life
The Circassians are mostly rural people that depend on herding and farming, along with growing fruit. They raise chickens, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, with horses being their primary animal. They predominately hunt in the highlands and grow a variety of grains in the flatter regions.
Circassians usually lived in houses called “wunas,” which were made of mud and twigs throughout their history. Trees were often planted in front of the house to symbolize the strength of the family. The Circassians had a paternal society, where women had power in the household but were ultimately subservient to their husbands.
Between the 1st and 3rd centuries, the Roman empire often used the Caucasian coast of the Black Sea as a place for exiled Christians. Christianity spread throughout the region during this period and became the prominent religion of the Circassian people. Throughout the violence of the 18th and 19th centuries, they gradually became a predominately Muslim people.
The Adyghe Today
Despite its poverty, the region produces many of Russia’s grain, sunflowers, tea, and tobacco. Timber and woodworking, paper, heavy engineering, and metalworking are the most advanced Adyghe industries, while sheep and goat breeding also bring in much of the region’s income.
Along with a large rural population, many modern Circassians live in Caucasian cities like Maikop, Armavir, Krasnodar, Cherkassk, Stavropol, Nalchik, and Mozdok.
Through land grants, there has been a movement to return the Circassian people to their traditional homeland, especially for Turkish Circassians. There have also been many attempts to merge the Adyghe republic and Krasnodar, though it has been unsuccessful.
Proponents of the merger point out that the Adyghe are already surrounded by Karbadian territory and would benefit from the superior tourism-driven Krasnodar economy, as well as being connected to Russia. The Slavs who live in the Republic of Adygea support the merger because they suffer from regular discrimination by the Adyghe.
Opponents hope to preserve Adyghe culture and communities, as they fear becoming a minority in the merged nation. There have been conflicts between the Adyghe people and Kurds in the Adyghe Republic, as thousands of Kurds have moved there to escape violence and unrest in their home countries.
We’ve shown many sides of the Adyghe people and their language.
Let’s sum up the central components of Adyghe culture:
- The Adyghe are one of the prominent ethnic groups of the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation
- Their language is closely related to other North Caucasus languages
- They have a long history of invasions, slavery, and even genocide
- The Adyghe are alive and well today, not only in the Adygea Republic but in communities around Russia and the Middle East
The Adyghe are fascinating people that survived centuries of horror and destruction. They are a testament to the power of unity within communities and the durability of strong cultural values. Through their extraordinary strength, they have been able to keep their culture and language alive despite a long, bloody history of overwhelming odds.