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The heart of the bull and the secrets of Bythi: how to dedicate to Abkhaz priests

Ruslan Berzek, a descendant of the last Ubykh prince Haji Berzek Kerantukh. © Thomas Thaytsuk

Ruslan Berzek, a descendant of the last Ubykh prince Haji Berzek Kerantukh, was ordained a priest at the Elyr-shrine on Thursday 20 February. He it was who had to become the priest of the seventh Abkhazian sanctuary of Bytkha, which is located in the territory of modern Sochi.

For 12 years, Ruslan Berzek has been restoring not only his family-tree, but also the language, culture and traditional religion of the Ubykh people.


Priest of the Elyr-shrine Halter Shinkuba prays to the Almighty during the initiation ceremony of Ruslan Berzek. © Thomas Thaytsuk

Under the 300-year-old linden tree, where the Elyr-shrine is located (in the village of Elyr, Ochamchira District - ed.), one of the seven sanctuaries of Abkhazia, six priests gathered. This is not just an annual meeting of the ministers of the Abkhazian holy shrines. It was here that they decided to ordain the seventh priest. Ruslan Berzek, a direct descendant of the last prince of the Ubykhs, Haji Berzek Kerantukh.

The sacrament of initiation is accompanied by the sacrifice of a bull. The ceremony is conducted by priest of the Elyr-shrine Halter Shinkuba. The priest, holding the heart of the sacrificial animal strung on a special ritual stick and a lighted candle, prays to the Almighty. Then, with the same candle, he encircles Ruslan Berzek’s head. After Halter completes the rite of passage, each of the six priests follows him in prayer.


Priests of six Abkhazian sanctuaries pray during Ruslan Berzek’s rite of passage. © Thomas Thaytsuk

Abkhazians from time immemorial believe that their land is guarded by shrines, which, in totality, are known as byzhnykha [‘Seven-shrine(hood)’], individually being: Dydrypsh-nykha/shrine, Lashkendar-nykha/shrine, Ldzaa-nykha/shrine, Lykh-nykha/shrine, Elyr-nykha/shrine, Inal-Kuba and Bytkha (in the territory of modern-day Sochi - ed.). To date, six of them have resumed their activities. To pronounce aloud the names of shrines in vain is taboo among the Abkhazians.

For more information on the importance of the appearance of a priest in Bytkha, listen to the podcast in the Abkhaz language 



Bytkha, or Aublar-nykha/shrine, is the sanctuary of the Ubykh people, who lived around Sochi until 1864 and were forced to leave their lands after the Caucasian War. In 2012, steps were taken to legalise the traditional religion of the Abkhazians. A Council of Priests was established.


+ Religion, by Rachel Clogg
+ Ubykhs, by T. Tatlok - Caucasian Review, Vol. 7 (1958)
+ Viacheslav Chirikba. "The Ubykh People Were in Practice Consumed in the Flames of the Fight for Freedom"
+ The Ubykhs: Historical and Ethnographical Study, by Leonid I. Lavrov

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