Circassian refers to indigenous peoples of the northwestern Caucasus who are found today as minority communities in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. The term encompasses several groups linked by language and culture who refer to themselves in their own languages by different ethnonyms; primary among them are the Adyge, Abaza, and Ubykh. The terms Circassian (English), Çerkes (Turkish), Cherkess (Russian), and Sharkass (Arabic) are used by outsiders loosely to include various north Caucasian peoples. In addition to the Russian Federation and the Middle Eastern countries mentioned above, migrations since the 1960s have led to a Circassian presence in Western Europe and the United States. One can thus speak of a widely dispersed Circassian diaspora that is linked through kinship, intermarriage, trans-national social and political organizations, and cultural flows.
Russian and Ottoman Empires
The territories in which the Circassians lived were zones of contention between the Russian and Ottoman empires. After the Russian Empire consolidated its control over the region during the 1850s, Circassians and many other north Caucasian peoples began to migrate into the Ottoman Empire, and a mass migration ensued in 1864. At first they were settled by imperial agencies in the Balkans, although later most were settled in Anatolia and the Syrian Province.
Although this migration led to the current configuration of the Circassian population in the Middle East, there is a long history of linkages across the Black Sea and the Transcaucasus. A slave trade in men, women, and children was an important part of this and Circassians, like many others, fed imperial appetites for warriors, administrators, concubines, and servants. The presence of Circassians in Eygpt as well as some of the major cities of the former Ottoman empire is the complex result of this long history. Thus in Egypt, the Circassian presence goes back to the Circassian Mamluk dynasties of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries, and Circassian identity persisted after the overthrow of the Mamluks and was augmented in the Ottoman period by a continuing inflow of administrators and slaves of Circassian origin.
In contrast, the mass migration during the second half of the nineteenth century led to the formation of farming communities in areas of Anatolia and along what is commonly referred to in the literature on pastoralism as the interface of the "desert and the sown" in the Syrian province. The new Circassian communities often came into conflict with indigenous inhabitants over resources, water, and government services but eventually arrived at various accommodations, as evidenced by intermarriage and mixed settlement.
The Circassian migration also led to a peak in the Circassian female (and to some extent, child) slave trade. Under pressure from the British Empire, black slavery via North Africa had ceased and the Balkans were no longer under Ottoman control, leaving the Caucasus as the main source of slaves for the Ottoman state. This trade was not without its contradictions and contestations, with the state attempting to close slave markets and limit or even sometimes forbid the slave trade while still maintaining the imperial privilege of purchasing women for the harem. Circassian slave and harem women became an integral part of Orientalist literature and arts.
Circassian Communities as Minorities
The breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century meant that the various Circassian communities became minorities within new nation states rather than part of a multiethnic empire. Colonial powers in Syria, Jordan, and Palestine had varying policies towards Circassians and other ethnic groups. Cultural, social, and political organization and patterns thus differ across countries, types of settlement, class, and other factors. However, Circassian identity does persist across time and space. The Circassian language, which is indigenous to the northwest Caucasus and unrelated to Semitic, Turkic, or Indo-European, continues to be spoken across these communities. In addition, Circassians speak the languages of the countries where they live and participate fully in economic, social, and political life. In none of the Middle Eastern countries are the Circassians legally designated as a minority, although some forms of recognition may exist. For example, in the Jordanian parliament a certain number of seats are designated for Circassian as well as for Chechen representatives (the Chechens are also a Caucasian group with a history and presence in Jordan similar to that of the Circassians).
No accurate count exists of the Circassians in the Middle East, as the censuses do not differentiate by ethnicity. Turkey has the largest Circassians' presence - well over 1 million, spread over rural and urban settlements all across the country. The wide variety of lifestyles and life conditions make it difficult to generalize, but Circassians in Turkey have been active in organizational and associational life and have been affected by the legal and political measures to limit ethnic self-expression that stem from the conflict between the state and the Kurdish population.
Syria is the next in terms of numbers, with possibly as many as 100,000. Although pan-Arab ideology is the basis of the Syrian state, Circassians have not suffered from assimilationist policies. However, almost half the Circassian settlements in Syria were originally in the Golan Heights around the city of al-Qunaytra, which was destroyed and captured by the Israelis during the Arab - Israel War of 1973. Almost all the Circassians of this region moved to Damascus and a good percentage then migrated to the United States, forming the core of a community in New Jersey.
In Jordan, the community of around 35,000 was historically influential in government, military, and the security apparatus, and was well represented in the cabinet and parliament. The community grew wealthy with the choice of Amman as the capital during the 1920s, since they were settled mainly in Amman and neighboring villages. Several ethnic associations and clubs, some established as early as the 1930s, form a focus of community activities and there is also a school (kindergarten through twelfth grade) that teaches Circassian language and history in addition to the regular government curriculum.
In Israel, there are two Circassian villages in the Galilee, Kufr Kama and Rihaniyya, with a population of around 3,400. Like the Druze, they serve in the Israeli military and are somewhat privileged over the Arab population. Circassian is taught in schools and folklore groups exist. Until the 1990s and the Oslo Accords, there was little interaction between the Circassians in Israel and those in Arab countries, but it is now increasing.
The most definitive recent change in terms of identity and self-perception has come about with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has enabled Circassians to travel to their homeland for the first time in 150 years and has led many to question their history and identity. Some have chosen to settle in the Russian Federation and others have reaffirmed their ties to their Middle Eastern settlements and citizenship. For all, it has led to the formation of diasporic cultural, social, and economic networks, which may play transformative roles in the future.
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