Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Circassians of Syria: A History of Migration

The Circassians of Syria are an ethnic minority with a notable influence on Syrian society and a significant role in Syria's history.

Circassians of Syria
A young Syrian Circassian boy plays accordion while two girls from the village of Marj al-Sultan dances in this picture dated from the early 50s. AFP

Yousef M. Sharqawi

The Circassians are an ethnic minority with a notable influence on Syrian society and a significant role in Syria’s history. The Circassians have had a tumultuous history marked by conflicts with the Russian Empire prior to their settlement in Syria.

Upon their arrival in Syria, the Circassians successfully assimilated into the diverse fabric of Syrian society while safeguarding their distinct identity and cultural heritage.

Origins, Etymology and Language

Khairuddin Mashfidj, a Circassian journalist and history graduate of the University of Damascus, explains to Fanack that Circassians are the indigenous inhabitants of Caucasia. They trace back their ancestry to the Hittites and their once-great empire. The Circassians also commonly link themselves to the Aryan people, as is a widespread custom among the people of the northwestern Caucasus.

Mashfidj aligns with the historical accounts of the Circassians, particularly referencing The Circassians: Civilization and Tragedy, the work of Circassian researcher and historian Murtaqu Qasim.

The Circassians refer to themselves as Adyghe. Some interpreters have suggested that “адыгэ” or “Adyghe” may mean “the ideal human being.”

The name “Circassians” originated from the Greeks. The first mention of the peoples of the northwestern Caucasus as “Circassians” occurred when ancient Greeks encountered the Adyghe people on their journeys around the Black Sea.

The Adyghe language is of a primitive nature, known for its descriptive and syllabic character. It encompasses 52 letters, each with a distinct meaning. Altering the vowels within a letter can change its meaning. For instance, according to Mashfidj, the letter “нэ” or “na” means “eye,” while “ны” or “ne” signifies “mother,” and “хь” or” ha” denotes “barley,” “dog” and the imperative verb “reap” simultaneously.

The Adyghe language dialects in Syria include Abzakh, Bzhedug, Kabardian and Shapsug. According to Mashfidj, older individuals can distinguish between these dialects, whereas younger generations may face challenges. Although the language still exists within Circassian circles, its usage is declining in Syria due to the Circassians’ integration into Arab society and the consequential need to speak and learn Arabic.

Ancient History

Circassians of Syria
Tribe of Circassians moving, forced to emigrate from their homeland – Drawing by Firmani, 1868 ©Bianchetti/Leemage Leemage via AFP

The history of the Circassians in Syria can be divided into two main periods. The first period is related to the Mamluk state, particularly the era of the Burji Mamluks (or Circassian Mamluks) from 1382 to 1517, during which they assumed power. The Circassians had lived in Syria for five centuries before that.

However, with the defeat and death of their Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri at the Battle of Marj Dabiq against the Ottomans in 1516, the Mamluk army and the Circassians ceased to play a prominent role in Syrian affairs.

Numerous buildings, shrines and place names in Damascus and other areas are linked to the Circassians of the Mamluk era, with the Salihiya-Circassian municipality being the most well-known. Another example is the Jharkissian school, attributed to the Circassian Prince Jharkis al-Salahi.

The second period is tied to the Russo-Circassian War from 1763 to 1864. This conflict displaced the population of the northwestern Caucasus (Cherkessia) to several countries, including Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and the Balkans.

Mashfidj notes that the initial waves of displaced Circassians arrived in Syria in 1872 after spending several years in northern Turkey or the Balkans. These Circassian immigrants were received at the Beirut, Haifa and Latakia ports before settling in Syria.

According to Ottoman policy, Circassians were placed along a dividing line between the desert and the interior. This line came to be known as the “Circassian Nalmes Line.” It extended from Manbij in Aleppo to Kfar Kama in occupied Palestine, ending in Amman, Jordan.

This period of Circassian history has played a significant role in contemporary Syrian history. Many studies have been conducted on the Ottoman resettlement policy, which focussed on leveraging the Circassians and their combat experience.

Russo-Circassian War and Migrations

For a century, the Circassians endured the horrors of wars with the Russian Empire, culminating in the widespread displacement of Circassian populations from their original homeland in the northern Caucasus.

As Mashfidj points out, the origins of this conflict can be traced back to the 1760s when the Russo-Ottoman rivalry intensified. The Russian tsar’s ambitions expanded towards the Caucasus region to gain access to warm waters. The Circassians’ conversion to Islam and their distinct ethnicity further fueled hostilities between the two sides.

Consequently, the Russo-Circassian war persisted for over a century. The war and the adversities of displacement, including disease, epidemics and conflicts with local populations, resulted in immense loss of life and the erasure of entire Circassian families.

The initial wave of Circassian immigrants from the Balkans and the port area of Trabzon in northern Turkey on the Black Sea arrived in Syria in 1872 through the port of Latakia. In the same year, multiple waves of immigrants continued to arrive at the Beirut, Latakia and Antakya ports. The majority of these Circassian immigrants settled in the Golan Heights.

Subsequent waves of immigration followed, with the second major wave in 1880. According to Mashfidj, most of these immigrants settled in Palestine, Jordan and various villages in Syria, including Khanaser, Manbij, Talamri, Ayn al-Niser and Marj al-Sultan.

The third wave occurred in 1905, and immigrants were distributed among the abovementioned Circassian villages and some neighbourhoods of cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Antakya, Homs and Jisr al-Shughur.

Persecution by the Russian tsarist authorities, characterised by policies of Russification and Christianisation, was the primary driver of these migrations, as the Circassians sought refuge from oppression.

Integration into Syria

In Damascus, the Circassian community is mainly concentrated in the neighbourhoods of Rukneddine, Muhajireen and Dahiyat al-Assad (Dahiyat Harasta). It is worth noting that the primary headquarters of the Circassian al-Makassed Charitable Society can be found in Rukneddine. In Homs, Circassians reside in the villages of Talamri, Ayn al-Niser and Talil, while several families are dispersed in neighbourhoods of Aleppo and Latakia, as well as the Jisr al-Shughur area.

The Circassians constitute the smallest ethnic minority in Syria, as stated by Mashfidj. The Syrian crisis has led to the emigration of residents of Marj al-Sultan, located in the Damascus countryside, and other areas, some returning to their homeland in the Caucasus.

Mashfidj highlights that the June War of 1967 and the occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights had a significant impact on the distribution of the Circassians in Syria. The Syrian Golan Heights, particularly the city of Quneitra and twelve Circassian villages in its vicinity, contained the largest concentration of Circassians in Syria.

As for integration into Syrian society, notable Circassians have made remarkable contributions. Examples include Lieutenant Colonel Jawad Anzour, a hero of the Battle of Tal al-Aziziyat that took place in 1948, prior to the Nakba of Palestine, and Al-Damad Ahmad Nami Bey, Syria’s first head of state during the French Mandate, who was of Circassian descent.

According to Mashfidj, Circassian integration into Syrian society can be divided into two periods. Some Circassians assimilated into Syrian society during the Mamluk era, exemplified by families like al-Ghouri in Aleppo, Jarkas in Damascus and Abaza in Suwayda. The second comprises the period between the 1870s and the early 20th century, during which new immigrants arrived in Syria whose descendants continue to reside in the country.

Adyghe Khabze

Circassians are known for their adherence to a strict set of customs and traditions known as “Adyghe Khabze” (адыгахабзэ). This unwritten moral code serves as a constitution, understood by all within the Circassian community. Historical references mention that the renowned Circassian scholar Kazan Yaqwa Dbagha, a contemporary of Tsar Peter the Great, refined this moral constitution. He established societal rules, etiquette and homeschooling methods per Islamic moral values.

According to Syrian Circassian journalist Nawar Kattaw, Adyghe Khabze encompasses the recognised Circassian system of moral and social values. It is passed down through generations that learn and uphold these principles throughout their lives. Going against this system is considered shameful.

From a social perspective, it regulates human life from birth and governs aspects like clothing, child-rearing, education and training. It continues to influence marriage and family life as people age and eventually come to pass. Adyghe Khabze, thus, extends to the most intimate human relationships, ensuring they are in line with rules that command nothing but respect.

The book Glimpses of Circassian Customs – The Adyghe Khabze by Raya Adil B. Mamkhigh supports Kattaw’s interpretation.

Circassian Community

Mashfidj notes that the Circassian community in Syria is predominantly Sunni Muslim. However, some may find they are set apart from other ethnic groups in Syria by distinct cultural characteristics such as the Circassian folkloric wedding dances, the traditional playing of the accordion and unique customs related to marriage, such as khatifa (bride kidnapping).

According to Mashfidj, the Circassians undergo a strict upbringing as families instil values of strength, honesty, covenant-keeping and loyalty during childhood. Young Circassian women are taught to excel in domestic responsibilities and contribute to the well-being of their families. Circassians hold their families in high regard and strive to embody the chivalrous spirit of Circassian culture.

According to Circassian culture, the finest horse is the Circassian horse, and the most esteemed father, despite being perceived as tough, is the Circassian father. Even a Circassian mother maintains a strict approach with her children until they become proficient in Adyghe Khabze.

Fanack Water Palestine