Circassians in Israel

Aug 16, 2010 by

There is a small diasporic community that most Israelis do not know much about. They are known as Circassians (or Cherkessians) and call themselves Adyge. They live in two villages: Kfar-Kama on the shores of the Sea of Gallilee and Rihania (Reyhaniye) further north, on the border with Syria. Who are these people? What language do they speak?

The Circassians/Adyge come from the Northwest Caucasus. It is an ancient people going back to the early Bronze age. By the 6th century CE, Byzantine influence was increasing in the Northwest Caucasus and the coastal Adyge had converted to the Byzantine-style Christianity. In 944 CE, after the defeat of the Khazar Khanate by the Kievan prince Svyatoslav, the Adyge fell under the Russian rule. The Russian Lavrentev Chronicle first mentions the Adyge under the name of Kasogs in the 10th century. With the weakening of the Kievan state, the Russian princes lost the city of Tmutarakan at the end of the 11th century to the Kipchaks (Polovtsy), and the Slavic population of the Northwest Caucasus merged with the Adyge.

From the second half of the 13th century to almost the end of the 15th century, the Genoese, who had their own colonies in Adyge lands in northwest Caucasus, had a decisive influence on the cultural and historical development of the Adyge. The celebrated Silk Route passed through the territory of historical Cherkessia (Circassia), as shown by archaeological finds from several sites ranging from the 7th to the 15th century.

From about the 1240s onward, the word “Cherkess” appears in sources. The name Cherkess, which comes from the Turkic designation for the Adyge, was adopted by other nations and became fixed in European and Eastern literature.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, there was a thriving trade in Adyge slaves on the slave markets of Middle Eastern countries, especially Egypt, where sultans acquired them as additions to their Mameluke guard. The influx of slaves allowed one of the Adyge, Al-Malik-az-Zakhir Barkuk al Cherkesi, to seize power in Egypt and found the Circassian dynasty of Mamelukes, which ruled Egypt and Syria from 1382 to 1517. The Mamelukes finally disappeared from the Middle Eastern political arena in 1811. The Circassian Mamelukes left a significant imprint on the history and culture of Egypt, Syria, and the entire Middle East. They repelled invasions of Crusaders, halted the onslaught of the conqueror Tamerlane, and greatly extended the boundaries of the Mameluke state. During the period of Circassian rule, architecture progressed significantly; irrigation systems were built; and poets, musicians, philosophers, and historians enjoyed special patronage.

The decline of Christianity among the Adyge began at the end of the 15th century after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire from the world political map. From the end of the 16th century, the Sunni branch of Islam was introduced among the Adyge through the efforts of the Crimean Tatar khans and Turkish missionaries. The Caucasian War of the 19th century and the way the Russian Empire conducted it had a decisive impact on the strengthening and final establishment of Islam in the Northwest Caucasus.

By the 1860s, as a result of the Caucasian War and forced deportation to the Ottoman Empire, only 5% of the Adyge remained in their historical homeland. The Russian Civil War resulted in another sizable migration of Adyge to Turkey and Middle Eastern countries. Today, more than 3 million Adyge live in more than 50 countries, including Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the United States, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

Linguistically, the Adyge language belongs to the Northwest Caucasian (Abkhazo-Adygean) language family. While sources as early as the 6th century CE refer to the Adyge as the Zikhs and Kasogs, suggesting that the single Adyge people had split into the western and eastern Adyge (now known as Kabardians), the division was well established after the Mongol invasion that precipitated migrations of some of the Adyge east to the edge of the Central pre-Caucasian plain. This resulted in a division of the common language into western (Adygean) and eastern (Kabardian) dialects and later formed the basis of the modern Adygean and Kabardian languages.

Northwest Caucasian languages, such as Adyge, Kabardian and Abkhaz, are agglutinative, meaning that grammatical features are expressed through adding prefixes and suffixes each of which expresses only one feature. In the case of Northwest Caucasian languages, the morphological “action” is centered on the verbs, which are marked for tense, as well as for agreement with not only subjects (as in more familiar indo-European languages; cf. English: The children play but The child plays) but with other arguments: direct objects and indirect objects. The noun system is much simpler: for instance, Abkhaz distinguishes just two cases, the nominative and the adverbial. In other words, grammatical relations, such as subject, object and indirect object, are expressed on the verb and not on the nouns themselves. Northwest Caucasian languages are also characteristically SOV (Subject-Object-Verb).

Finally, another interesting property that Northwest Caucasian languages are known for is the highest ratio of consonants to vowels: for example, Abkhaz has 58 consonants but only 2 vowel PHONEMES (a phoneme is a sound that is used in a given language to distinguish meaning): an open vowel /a/ and a closed vowel schwa (= the first vowel of about). Another Northwest Caucasian language, Ubykh – now extinct – had possibly the most skewed consonant/vowel ration of all languages: like Abkhaz, it had only two vowel phonemes but a whopping 80 consonant phonemes!

To go back to Circassians/Adyge in Israel, they were resettled here from the Balkans by the Ottoman Sultan in the 19th century. Today, despite being a small community of less than 3,000 people, they manage to maintain their language (as well as cultural and ethnic identity) to a remarkable degree. Circassians speak Adyge at home, children acquire the language from their parents, the primary education in the village schools is conducted in Adyge and the National Circassian Alphabet of Caucasus (developed by the Soviets) is used in teaching. In fact, much of the primary education in Adyge in Israel was based on the Soviet models, so much so that in 1982, the Israeli Ministry of Education published its own Circassian primer based on a Soviet model, complete with such non-Israeli themes as Young Pioneers with their red ties, or sledding and snow balls.

But not all is well in the Circassian community in Israel: maintaining the language and culture is more and more difficult as more and more younger people intergrate into the Israeli society through secondary schooling, serving in the army and finding jobs outside the community. Some Circassians are even returning to the Caucasus despite all the ethnic and political problems there.

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