Sukhum and the Abkhazians in the Light of 16th Century Ottoman Documents, by Habat Şogan 

Black Sea Map from the 'Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), by Piri Reis' 1525  | Abkhazia = 'Memleket-i Abaza'.

Black Sea Map from the 'Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), by Piri Reis' 1525 | Abkhazia = 'Memleket-i Abaza'.

This article first published on in Turkish and titled "16. Yüzyıl Osmanlı Belgeleri Işığında Sohum ve Abazalar"

The Sukhum [Sohumkale in Ottoman -ed.] fortress, referred to as the "key to the Black Sea" along with Faş (Poti) and Batum in Ottoman archival documents [1], has always maintained a significant role in the Ottoman Empire's interactions with the Caucasus. Since the 16th century, Sukhum and its environs, frequently mentioned in numerous Ottoman records in conjunction with the Abkhazians [Ottomans called the Abkhazians as ‘Abaza’ -ed.], have been of great military and commercial importance to the Ottoman state.  

The first records of the Abkhazians as "palace members" in the Ottoman Court date back to the first half of the 1500s, evident in a document transferred from the Topkapi Palace to the Ottoman Archives [2]. This archival document lists the clothing needs of palace residents selected from Albanians and similar nations.  

The boundaries of the Abkhazian land, starting from the limit of Mingrelian territories, are confirmed by information in Ottoman archival documents. In a decree mentioned in the Divan-ı Hümayun [The Imperial Council] Mühimme defters [register] numbered 14-1 in the Ottoman Archives [3], it is noted that a person discussed in a correspondence with Iran was found, upon investigation, to be from the Abkhazian region, beyond the lands of the Dadian Melik.  

The Güril region, known in Ottoman terminology as modern Batum and its surroundings, suffered in the 1500s from the raids and plundering activities of the Abkhazians coming from beyond the Mingrelian lands. These frequent raids compelled the Ottoman authorities to take various measures. Instructions given to the Beylerbey of Erzurum mention that the Abkhazians customarily raided the Güril province every spring, and since the Bey [governor] of Batum, İskender Bey did not possess sufficient military force to stop them, the deployment of cavalry was requested to eliminate this issue [4].  

The Abkhazians, conducting these raids with swift boats, not only plundered but also took captives. According to decrees written from Istanbul to the Bey [governor] of Trabzon, the Abkhazians, using two ships, carried out raids causing substantial material damage and taking captives, including 47 individuals from the Makriyal Village in the Goniya district within present-day Artvin [5]. An instruction was issued to collaborate with the Bey of Batum in order to counteract the Abkhazian pirates who had instilled such fear that ships were reluctant to sail in the region. Another decree sent to the Bey of Trabzon requested the establishment of patrol units for constant surveillance along the coastal villages of Arhova, which had suffered similarly from Abkhazian raids [6]. 

Due to the incomplete implementation of the measures taken, the Beylerbeyi [Lord of Lords (commander-in-chief) -ed.] of Erzurum was reminded in a previously sent letter about the situation in the Mingrelian and Abkhazian regions. He was ordered to complete the preparations, initiated by the Bey of Trabzon, in his jurisdiction by proxy. This included readying the designated ships and soldiers [7].  

The Abkhazian region was one of the routes where captains involved in Black Sea maritime trade were prohibited from travelling. Those who defied this ban and were caught faced punitive measures. For instance, a 1572 Ottoman decree in the mühimme registers mandated that judges in Samsun and surrounding areas were to confiscate ships travelling to Abkhazian territories despite the prohibition, punish the captains, and prevent future violations [8]. 

Similarly, the Bey of Batum was instructed to obstruct the voyages of trade ships departing from Ottoman shores to the prohibited Abkhazian lands. Those who insisted on travelling were to have their ships seized in the name of the state, and the perpetrators were to be sentenced to rowing in the galleys [9]. 

Despite the prohibition on transporting goods, humans, and materials to the Abkhazian shores via trading ships, some merchants, benefiting from certain privileges, continued to conduct business by arriving at ports near Sukhum via Crimea or Anatolia. A group of Ottoman citizen merchants, who had travelled to Sukhum, found themselves stranded in the city with their families. To rescue these people, the Bey of Kocaeli, Haydar Bey, provided surety and mediation. As a result, three ship captains were granted special permission by the Ottoman administration to travel to Sukhum. A decree was issued to this effect, and the Istanbul Muhtesib and İskele Emini [pier/custom controller -ed.] were informed [10]. 

Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Publication year: 1525 Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Publication year: 1525 - Language: Ottoman Turkish

In the map showing the entire eastern shores of the Black Sea on page 362 of the Kitab-ı Bahriyye (page 749 in the PDF file), the region of Circassia is marked as “Memleket-i Cherakise”. Following that, immediately to its southeast, the area marked as 'Vilayet-i Abaza' shows Sohum-kale with a note stating: “In this place, Sohum fortress has been newly constructed (built)”. Just southeast of it, starting with a river forming a border, is “Vilayet-i Megril (Mingrelia)”.

Furthermore, all judges along the maritime route between Istanbul and Sukhum were cautioned, allowing only these three specially permitted rescue ships to pass. They were to ensure that these ships did not carry prohibited cargo such as weapons, cannons, gunpowder, or horses before granting passage (11).  

In another Ottoman record related to this event, it was noted that Haydar Bey, acting as a mediator, had obtained special permission for these rescue ships to carry only salt and leather to Sukhum. This information was communicated to all judges and port authorities along the route [12]. 

In a similar manner, various officials of the Ottoman Palace occasionally mediated to obtain voyage permissions for ships on extremely restricted trade routes such as those to Sukhum and Kefe. For instance, records in the mühimme registers reveal that thanks to the mediation of Kaptan Pasha, captains Ahmed and Dervish Reis were able to travel from Istanbul to Sukhum [13, 14]. 

In the strict control system applied to ships conducting maritime trade from Anatolian territories towards the Abkhazian shores and Sukhum, judges at the Black Sea coastal ports played an inspecting role [15]. These administrators had the authority to control and interrogate all trading ships in their jurisdiction, except for certain ships that were specifically notified by Istanbul and granted passage permission. For example, ships that went to the Sukhum region to supply falcons, hawks, and rabbit tails for the Crimean Khan were trading under such special permissions.  

Controlled permissions were also granted to some ships for commercial falcon transport from the Circassian and Abkhazian regions [16]. The ships sent to the Abkhazian province to bring back falcons typically carried goods like salt, leather, and cloth in return [17]. Similarly, to meet the needs of fishermen, a special permission was granted for ships to go to Sukhum once a year solely to bring fishing nets. The Bey of Kefe, responsible for the region’s control, was instructed not to interfere with such trading ships [18]. 

The embargo and strict control applied by the Ottoman state to the Abkhazian shores were also enforced in the Circassian and Mingrelian lands to the north and south of this region respectively. One of the administrators authorised in this matter was the Bey of the Batum Sanjak [district] [19]. Some ships carrying prohibited cargo such as weapons, salt, ammunition to the Abkhazian and Mingrelian shores were found to be evading the embargo and strict controls by pretending to sail to Kefe. Port cities such as Samsun, Kastamonu, Sinop, Trabzon, and Batum were warned by Istanbul to prevent such false declarations by their governors [beys], judges, and port authorities [20].  

Caucasus and Ottoman Anatolia: Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Publication year: 1525
Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation), by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Publication year: 1525. Page 60.

The map showing the entire Black Sea includes the following terms from Crimea onwards: “Memleket-i Küçük Nogay” [The country (homeland) of small Nogay], “Vilayet-i Kuban” [The Province of Kuban], “Memleket-i Cherakise" [The country (homeland) of the Circassians], “Memleket-i Abaza” [The country (homeland) of the Abkhazians], and “Memalik-i Gurjistan". [The country of Georgia]. The two main parts of the Ottoman lands are expressed as “Memalik-i Anadolu” and “Memleket-i Rumeli”. Note: The terms “Memleket”, “Vilayet”, and “Memalik” are geographical and do not carry a political-administrative meaning.

Also see the map: Ottoman Empire by Abraham Ortelius - 1572 (Zichia = Circassia, Avogasia = Abkhazia, Pesonda = Pitsunda).

To distinguish genuine trade ships carrying cargo to Kefe from those showing false routes to the Abkhazian and Mingrelian shores, these ship captains were given sealed documents [21]. Correspondingly, it was requested that ships loading cargo in Trabzon and heading to Kefe be checked in Trabzon for sealed documents issued by the Bey of Kefe [22].  

Despite all these measures, it was understood, from continuous decrees issued to the Bey of Trabzon to warn the judges and shipmasters under his administration, that the prevention of prohibited cargo transport by Ottoman trade ships to the Abkhazian lands was unsuccessful [23]. Due to the ongoing breach of the embargo, the Bey of Batum was also warned by Istanbul [24]. The Ottoman administration resorted to patrolling the sea with patrol ships. In a 1584 decree to the Captain of Faş (Poti), Budak Bey, an order was issued to ensure that a galleon and three patrol boats sent for this purpose diligently fulfil their duties, as small trading ships were still reportedly carrying war equipment and other prohibited materials to the Abkhazian and Mingrelian warriors [25].  

Judges from cities such as Sinop, Amasya, Trabzon, Goniya, and Rize were requested to supply "warrior" personnel for these ships and boats [26]. As a solution for providing personnel for these sea patrols and patrol ships around Sukhum, it was decreed that judges from Ereğli, Amasra, İnebolu, Samsun, Trabzon, Rize, Atina [Pazar], and Goniya [Gönye] should deliver suitable prisoners, except those sentenced to death, to Budak Bey, the Captain of Faş, for rowing duty [27]. From a decree warning the new Captain of Faş, Mustafa, we understand that these measures were also unable to prevent ships from illegally carrying "prohibited cargo" from Ottoman shores to Sukhum and continuing their trade [28]. 

One method used by ship captains who continued their trade on the Abkhazian, Circassian, and Mingrelian shores by transporting prohibited military equipment and weapons through various means was to sell their cargo, consisting of “prohibited” items like rifles, bows, maces, and gunpowder, to smugglers at the delivery points they approached. This practice was executed from ports like Kefe and Azak. Aware of this situation, the Istanbul administration sent orders to the administrators and judges of all ports along the coast from Crimea to Batumi to prevent such activities [29]. 

The main reason for the embargo implemented primarily on the Sukhum and Abkhazian shores by the Ottoman administration was the substantial destruction caused to Ottoman-controlled lands by the Abkhazians and Mingrelians, who had gained power and expanded their influence areas through raiding and looting. Measures taken with the intention of weakening these armed groups in logistical and military terms proved insufficient. Particularly due to the continued actions of the Abkhazians, who often launched raids in boats during the spring months, it was decided to send cavalry from Trabzon to protect the areas around Goniya and Batum from these attacks [30]. A portion of these cavalrymen was to be stationed permanently as guards on the Abkhazian and Mingrelian borders, tasked with preventing potential raids towards Ottoman territories, as understood from another decree sent to the Commander In-chief [Beylerbeyi] of Batum [31]. In later Ottoman documents, we see that the province of Batum [Beylerbeyliği] was continually warned to use the cavalry assigned to it effectively and to prevent the increasing attacks and raids of the “Abaza [Abkhazian], Megril [Mingrelian] and Georgian tribes” with strict security measures starting from the borders [32]. 

The Ottoman administration, further tightening the embargo against the Abkhazian and Mingrelian shores, ultimately ordered in a decree to the Beylerbey of Kefe that no trading ships should be allowed to sail towards the Abkhazian and Mingrelian shores, as the prevention of these ships from carrying “prohibited” cargo to the aforementioned regions was not feasible [33]. 

The restriction on the movement of trading ships to the Abkhazian province due to the ban on transporting military equipment caused difficulties in the travels of merchants trading in Sukhum as Ottoman citizens. In such cases, information about ships specially permitted and sent to Sukhum was conveyed to the Commander In-chief [Beylerbeyi] of Kefe, who was on patrol duty in the Black Sea [34]. 

The relationship of the Ottoman Empire with Sukhum and the Abkhazians began in the last quarter of the 15th century when the empire had effectively established dominance in the region. Although the Ottomans established a governorate [Beylerbeylik] in Sukhum, they did not implement practices such as conscription and tax collection. They tried to value Sukhum as one of the significant military and commercial points in the Black Sea due to its geopolitical characteristics. However, the failure to prevent the raids by the Abkhazians, which could be described as a form of piracy and looting against both their neighbours, the Mingrelians, and the Ottoman-controlled Black Sea shores, despite various measures taken, led to the implementation of a sort of maritime embargo. This embargo prohibited Ottoman trading ships from carrying war equipment and military-grade materials to the Circassian, Abkhazian, and Mingrelian shores. 

Some specially permitted trading ships that did not carry military-grade cargo were allowed to continue their "exceptional" trades, provided they passed inspections with sealed documents issued by the Ottoman administration. The implemented embargo caused difficulties in the movements of Ottoman citizen merchants settled in Sukhum, and, occasionally, ships authorised to bring these merchants to Sukhum were permitted to travel. 

Initially, this restriction applied by the Ottoman State to the trading ships departing from the ports on the shores of the Eastern Black Sea Region was later extended to include ships departing from Crimea. Despite frequent warnings issued from Istanbul to the commanders-in-chief [Beylerbeyleri], judges [Kadı], and port administrators of ports like Trabzon, Samsun, Batumi, Kefe, and Faş (Poti), tasked with implementing and monitoring these measures to prevent the entry of weapons into the region and to end the raids and lootings on Ottoman territories, it is understood from Ottoman archival documents that the desired outcome was not fully achieved. 


[1] BOA, A.{AMD 23/83, 29 Zilhicce 1196 [5 December 1782]. 

[2] BOA, TS.MA.d 4422, 29 Zilhicce 940 [11 July 1534]. 

[3] BOA, 5/1004, A.{DVNSMHM.d, 19 Receb 973 [9 February 1566]. 

[4] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 14-1 /58, 29 Muharrem 979 [23 June 1571]; A.{DVNSMHM.d 17/26, 1 Safer 979, [25 June 1571]. 

[5] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 14-1 /1471, 13 Rebiyulevvel 979 [5 August 1571]; A.{DVNSMHM.d 12/979, 15 Rebiyulevvel 979 [7 August 1571]. 

[6] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 12/980, 15 Rebiyulevvel 979 [7 August 1571]. 

[7] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 18/268, 17 Şevval 979 [3 March 1572]. 

[8] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 16/227, 11 Zilkâde 979 [26 March 1572]. 

[9] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 16/228, 11 Zilkade 979 [26 March 1572]. 

[10] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 19/142, 21 Muharrem 980 [3 June 1572]. 

[11] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 19/146, 21 Muharrem 980 [3 March 1572]. 

[12] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 19/276, 6 Safer 980 [18 June 1572]. 

[13] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 23/495, 13 Ramazan 981 [6 January 1574]. 

[14] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 37/2238, 11 Rebiyulevvel 987 [8 May]. 

[15] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 21/364, 4 Zilkâde 980 [8 March 1573]. 

[16] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 30/226, 10 Safer 985 [29 April 1577]. 

[17] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 30/445, 5 Rebiyulevvel 985 [23 May 1577]. 

[18] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 22/325, 26 Rebiyulevvel 981 [26 July 1573]. 

[19] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 24/727, 3 Safer 982 [25 May 1574]. 

[20] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 30/386, 18 Safer 985 [7 May 1577]. 

[21 BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 30/387, 18 Safer 985 [7 May 1577]. 

[22] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 34/83, 17 Muharrem 986 [26 March 1578]. 

[23] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 34/571, 16 Rebiyulevvel 986 [23 May 1578].
[24] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 42/477, 23 Rebiyulevvel 989 [27 April 1581]. 

[25] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 53/114, 22 Cemaziyelevvel 992 [1 June 1584]. 

[26] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 53/118, 22 Cemaziyelevvel 992 [1 June 1584]. 

[27] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 52/948, 12 Rebiyulahir 992 [21 June 1584]. 

[28] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 60/565, 29 Zilhicce 994 [11 December 1585]. 

[29] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 69/56, 4 Cemaziyelahir 1000 [18 March 1592]. 

[30] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 69/625, 29 Receb 1001 [1 May 1593]. 

[31] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 71/134, 4 Safer 1002 [30 October 1593]. 

[32] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 74/625, 2 Zilhicce 1004 [28 July 1596]. 

[33] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 72/878, 22 Cemaziyelahir 1002 [15 March 1594]. 

[34] BOA, A.{DVNSMHM.d 72/630, 2 Ramazan 1002 [22 May 1594]. 




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