Viacheslav Chirikba. "The Ubykh People Were in Practice Consumed in the Flames of the Fight for Freedom"

The Ubykh and Abkhazian leaders in the Sochi valley 1841

The Ubykh and Abkhazian leaders in the Sochi valley 1841, drawn by Prince G. G. Gagarin

Conversation of Ina Khadzhimba with Doctor of Philological Sciences, Linguist and Caucasologist, Viacheslav Chirikba.

- How did you begin studying the Ubykh language?

- I began to be professionally involved with Ubykh when I wrote my candidate's thesis in Moscow. I defended it in 1986 on the topic of the comparative phonetics of the Abkhaz-Circassian languages. At the time I had no contact with native speakers of Ubykh, but my interest in the language was very great. Having enrolled in the doctoral programme at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, in 1991 I made the first trip to Turkey. And then I was lucky enough to meet for the first time a person for whom Ubykh was his mother-tongue, the famous Tevfik Esenç, who lived in the village of Haji Osman in northwestern Turkey. I worked there for about four hours, and recorded from the mouth of Tevfik texts and different words.

- Tevfik Esenç, the last Ubykh! Did you record him?

- Yes. Moreover, I was the last foreign linguist who worked directly with him and recorded him. On 7 October of the following year (1992), he sadly passed away, and this date is deemed to be the date of the death of the Ubykh language. However, in terms of learning the phonology, morphology, etymology, I have been and continue to be engaged with the Ubykh language. Now there is a great amount of Ubykh material on tapes. Last year I made an expedition to Turkey and visited about 20 Ubykh villages. I was helped in the organising of the expedition by the Adyghe-Abkhazian Scientific Association in Turkey. These are small villages, some very small, some bigger. I was trying to find out how much of the traditional culture and language they have preserved. It turned out that the language is already in practice completely extinct. This year, I spent three weeks in Turkey and completed my Ubykh expedition. I was greatly helped in the organisation of the trip to the Ubykh villages of Samsun and Sinop by Professor Erol Taymaz and other Circassian, Abkhazian and Ubykh friends. This expedition of mine produced many gains for me.

- What does "completely extinct in practice" mean?

- Some words have survived; old people can remember expression, but they are unable any longer to speak the language and to carry on a conversation. They remember such words or expressions as: asmyts’an "I do not know that," yadan anyshәa apxjadykw "very nice girl", mawykj’any? "Where are you going?" sowshyny? "How are you?" etc. `of the language there was very little, but I gathered materials also on the genealogy of the Ubykhs, on their traditions and wedding-ritual. I think I gathered interesting material, but these are, unfortunately, only small pieces of the traditional culture of the Ubykhs.

- Do the Ubykhs differ from us Abkhazians in terms of custom, ritual, and culture?

- The Ubykhs lived between the Abkhazians and the Circassians. Those who lived near the Abkhazians had more Abkhazian features, whilst those who lived alongside the Circassians experienced, of course, a greater influence from the culture of the Circassians. However, the Ubykhs preserved their own Ubykh elements. I also succeeded in establishing these. These were their wedding-ceremonies and tunes. They no longer sing songs in the Ubykh language, because the language is no longer known, but melodies on the harmonica survive. But I did, though, have the good fortune to record one song in Ubykh.

- The melodies are specifically Ubykh?

- Well, this is a matter for musicologists. Although even to me it is clear that, for example, the wedding-songs contain explicitly Ubykh features.

- But when we say that they are close to us, isn’t it the case that they take offence? Don’t they say that they are Ubykhs?

No. I never encountered such a reaction. They know it well enough that Abkhazians, Circassians and Ubykhs are brothers. Though in fact they are not Abkhazians or Circassians, but a third nation that is related to the Circassians and the Abkhazians but with their own distinct language; but this is already another matter.

- Does the current Ubykhs have a sense of their own identity that is separate from the Adyghean or Abkhazian?

- Already at the beginning of XX century, the early researcher into the Ubykhs, the German scholar Adolf Dirr, noted that Ubykhs had a vague sense of identity. They didn’t distinguish themselves greatly from the Circassians. And this is to some extent understandable. There were mixed families, marriages with Circassians, fewer with the Abkhazians. And even today this is also valid. If in Turkish you ask an Ubykh: ‘Who are you?’, he will say: "I am a Circassian." He doesn’t say: "An Ubykh." However, if you start to dig a little deeper, you find that he is an Ubykh.

They consider themselves Ubykhs but as part of a common-Circassian ethnocultural community. And as for language, most older Ubykhs are fluent in the Adyghe language. Thus. they are very well aware of their close relationship with both the Circassians and the Abkhazians.

As I have already said, they lived between the Abkhazians and the Circassians, and, naturally, the Abkhazian influence on them is palpable. But even stronger was Circassian influence. I repeat that, in principle, they are all well aware that the Abkhazians, Circassians, Ubykhs are closely related peoples, and also that we have to stick together to survive. Such is the understanding there is. They have a poorly developed local identity but a very clear sense of belonging to the common Abkhaz-Adyghean ethno-cultural world. And this sense is felt fairly strongly amongst them in fact! Therefore, the word "Cherkess" to them means "representative of the West Caucasian ethnos", including therein Kabardians Adygheans, Abkhazians, Abazinians, and, of course, the Ubykhs themselves.

- And the sound-system of Ubykh?

- The Ubykh language is considered one of the world’s record-holders as regards the number of consonants. It has 80 consonants. That is a lot! In Turkish there are 21 consonants, in French and English 20. In Ubykh there are consonants that are not found in other languages of the world. At the very least, they are very rare. For example, pharyngalised consonants.

- And vowels?

- Three vowels. Long /a:/, short /a/ and /ı/. Ubykh phonetics is very similar to that of Abkhaz and Adyghe. The first person to record Ubykh words and phrases was the Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi in the XVII century. His recordings are very accurate, and they are generally easy to read. Çelebi, apparently, was a born linguist; he made the first recordings in Abkhaz, Adyghe, Megrelian and other languages. Later, in the mid-19th century, the brilliant self-taught linguist, Russian General Peter Uslar, became occupied with the Ubykh language.

- Did Evliya Çelebi know Abkhaz?

- Unlikely so. His mother was Abkhazian; his uncle, the Grand Vizier Melik-Ahmed Pasha, with whom he spent a lot of time on campaigns, was an Abkhazian, and they knew the language, so that from childhood he could hear sounds strange to Turkish ears. This is highly likely because he made amazingly accurate records, in spite of such complex sounds. Yes, it is not to be excluded that his wonderful perceptiveness, his flair for languages, for phonetics, and indeed his interest in the different languages which he recorded for his "Travel Book" might have been caused, among other things, by the fact that from childhood he could hear Abkhazian speech, and his ear became trained to such complex sounds. After all, the Turkish language is very simple.

- You said that you collected their genealogy among the Ubykhs. Do they remember even those who were buried back in the Caucasus?

- Yes, but not all, only some. Sometimes you wonder how they could have retained these complex genealogical schemes of their ancestors and relatives. But there were some who could not even recall their Ubykh surnames. Yes, such is also the case. After all, the process of assimilation is very strong there. Especially over the last 40 - 50 years.

- Do you think the Ubykhs could have preserved the language? After all, all the other nations in the diaspora have preserved their native language.

- Uslar was already writing that the Ubykh language was in agony, which is to say that already in the Caucasus it was in a dysfunctional state. It obviously could not compete with Abkhaz and especially with the Adyghe languages. The influence was just too great. When the Ubykhs moved to Turkey, they were scattered all over Turkey in the area between Trebizond and Bursa, between Samsun and Adana and Marash. Many of them in the early years died from disease, starvation and cold. A part was assimilated. They had no possibility of keeping their own language. Firstly, they were not compactly settled, and secondly, they lost a lot of people during the resettlement-process. They had no time to think of the language. They had to survive. The language held on the longest in two regions of Turkey: near Izmit, in north-central Turkey, and near the city of Bursa, in the north-west. Near Izmit there are several villages in which Ubykhs live; there beside them live both Abkhazians and Circassians. But near Bursa only Circassians now live. There the language held on until 1992, and even a little longer. However, there is still some mystery about the rapid disappearance of the Ubykh language, as the Abazinians also resettled in roughly the same numbers as the Ubykhs, but they have retained their language.

- And the borders of Ubykhia in your opinion? ...

- I found in Turkey a community called Hamyshaa whose ancestors lived in Khosta, and another community, Chywaa, who lived in Matsesta. The Hamyshaa are pure Abkhaz-Sadzians. Among them, there are only two surnames of Ubykh origin, although they are now Abkhazians. But the village or community of Chywa is mixed Sadzian-Ubykh. And that means that in fact ethno-linguistic boundary between the Ubykhs and the Abkhazians lay not on the river Khosta (Khamysh), as is commonly thought, but rather along the river Matsesta, which, incidentally, carries the Abkhazian designation "Fire Valley" (from /Mtsa-psta/). But it may be that just after Khosta there were mixed Ubykh-Abkhazian villages.

- What speaks of the Ubykhs having been forcibly evicted?

- The Ubykhs were considered the most warlike tribe in West Caucasia. They were irreconcilable opponents of Russia during its colonisation of the west Caucasian coast. Unfortunately, the nation were denizens of the main road leading from Russia to Georgia, and this fact proved fatal for them.

- They lived along the road?

- They lived on the main coastal road. On the one side the sea, on the other the mountains, and between these was Ubykhia; through it passed the road from Russia to Georgia, which had previously become part of Russia. If the Ubykhs had found a common language with the Russians, then, of course, they could have remained in their homeland, just like the Abkhazians and Circassians, who today live in the Caucasus. There would now have been a lot of them in Sochi and the surrounding areas. But they decided to fight Russia. It was a conscious decision. And they were spurred to war with Russia by foreigners too, the Turks, and the British and the Poles ... The result of this intransigent stance is well-known to us: on the ancient territory of the Ubykhs themselves there is not a single Ubykh left, but in Turkey they have already lost not only the language, and many have lost even their identity.

- What were the British after?

- The British feared that Russia would advance from the Caucasus farther to the south-east and reach India. There were British colonies there. They tried by all means to create a Circassian buffer to the movement of Russia to the south-east. For this they even wanted to create a Circassian state. They pursued their own interests, and, for their own advantage, they incited the Ubykhs, Circassians and Abkhazians to fight against Russia, though this struggle was, as it turned out, hopeless. Russia was a huge country with inexhaustible military and human resources, and neither the Abkhazians nor the Circassians, let alone such a small nation as the Ubykhs, could not resist it. And so what happened was the tragic event known as the ‘mukhadzhirstvo’ (Exile), which in 1864 saw all the Ubykhs, all the Sadzians, all the Akhchipsy, all the Aibgans, all the the  Pskhuians deported to Turkey once and for all.

- Did faith play a decisive role?

- Only partly. The Ubykhs were offered only the choice of moving either to the Kuban or to Turkey, but, because they hated the very idea of being under the control of the Russian Tsar, a Christian ruler, they decided to move away under the patronage of the Sultan of Turkey, who was perceived to be the defender of all Muslims. So the religious factor seems to have played a certain role — at least in the case of the Ubykhs. In general, the Abkhaz-Circassian mountaineers did not want to have any foreign control over them, the more so any control exercised by a Christian empire that was alien to them in spirit and culture. On the other hand, the Ubykhs had very lively trade-relations with Istanbul and with Turkey. There they had acquaintances, friends, even family-members, including in the sultan's court, whereas with Russia there were no such ties. They were afraid of Russia. And in this the anti-Russian propaganda of foreigners amongst them played a role. They were told that all of them would be forced to live in the same village, where there would be no differences between the nobility and the peasantry. But social inequality in Ubykhia was quite significant. All this taken together had an effect on them, with the result that, not without great hesitation and bitter arguments, they finally took the decision that would prove fatal for them, namely that, no, they did not want to live under Russian rule. And in this the religious factor did not play the decisive role in this. The most important thing for the Ubykhs was to keep their freedom.

- And in Turkey how did the destiny of the people unfold?

- Tragically. Firstly, there were very few of them. Thirty thousand, no more. These thirty thousand, or rather, those who survived, were scattered throughout Turkey, from Trebizond to Bursa, where even today small Ubykh villages have been preserved. If they had been all settled compactly in one place, like the Abkhazians and the Circassians, they might, perhaps, been better able to maintain themselves as a separate small ethnic group. But they lived alongside Turks, Kurds, Laz, Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, other peoples resident in Turkey. All this hastened their assimilation.

- Was this done intentionally?

- Partially. But they were given the right to take up residence. They searched for wooded areas, foothills, resembling the Caucasus, where there was water, where there were no malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Upon finding such places, they settled there and put down roots. Since Turkey was then a sparsely populated country, they were given the freedom to choose their places of residence. So they became scattered all over Turkey.

- Even so, they were an important nation?

- They were a very interesting people. The Ubykhs put up a very organised resistance to the expansion of tsarist Russia; they were the heart and brains behind the resistance. They even set up in Sochi a Caucasian parliament with the participation of representatives from the Ubykhs, Circassians and Abkhazians. In general, almost the entire people were consumed in the flames of the struggle for freedom. Therefore, the Ubykhs, naturally, stand out as a sad symbol for all of us, Abkhazians and Circassians alike, as we could just as easily have disappeared without trace. We, fortunately, had greater luck than the Ubykhs.

- And they were supported by the Abkhazians...

- They were supported by part of the Abkhazians, those were the Western Abkhazians (Sadzians, Akhchipsy, Pskhuians, Aibgans and also the Tsebeldans), and so all these were expelled or forced to depart along with them. The Ubykhs were also supported by the Abadzekhs and Shapsughs. And they too almost disappeared. Abadzekhs and Shapsughs were the largest Adyghean tribes. Today, in the Caucasus, there are only one or two Abadzekhian villages and a few Shapsugh villages left. In general, those who turned out to be irreconcilable disappeared from the Caucasus.

- In general, is there is no constellation Ubykhs, of their language?

- Difficult question — have the Ubykhs survived as a people? It can be said that the Abkhazian people have survived in the diaspora; one can also say that of the Adyghe, but it is more difficult when it comes to the Ubykhs. Because, in general, although there are exceptions, they do not identify themselves as a separate entity, they do not see themselves as a separate nation. They consider themselves part of the Circassian world. Although they know the difference between themselves and the Circassians and the Abkhazians.

- Can Ubykhs return to Abkhazia?

- They can. But it is for them not a simple matter. The problem is not only a matter of financial support, but it is also one of social adaptation. They would be coming from Turkey to a country where the language is foreign, where the customs are foreign, and where there is a foreign mentality. They would have to get used to all this, to adapt. And, even so, there are a few Ubykhs who have come and live here. After the war, our President Ardzinba proposed even to create a village for the Ubykhs.

- You read lectures on Ubykh at the Abkhazian State University and the Institute Abkhazology. Is this a first?

- Lectures on Ubykh were read before in France by Georges Dumézil and Georges Sharashidzé. In the Netherlands Ricks Smeets taught Ubykh. But, yes, in Abkhazia, I am the first to give them. And today this happens almost nowhere else in the world, only here.

- By self-awareness you are Abkhazian, but it has been said that by nationality you are Ubykh.

- No. I am not Ubykh, I am Abkhazian. It’s just that our name, according to the work of G. A. Dzidzaria, came to Abkhazia from Sochi in the early XVIIIth century. In Turkey, all of my namesakes are Ubykhs, though I still hope to find Abkhazians too. For example, someone whose grandmother was "Chyryg-pha." But among my Ubykh namesakes there are, probably 10 families.

- What other Ubykh surnames have you encountered?

- Kjets’e, Zejshwa, Khamyta, Shhaply, Dechen, Chyzamyghwa. There are many Ubykh surnames.

- At the end of the year you have a book coming out. What's it about?

- With the financial support of the first President, my book, my doctoral dissertation, was translated from English. This is a reconstruction of the proto-Abkhaz-Adyghean language, the ancient ancestor of the Abkhaz-Adyghean languages. I have about 20 percent of the texts to correct. Hopefully, by the end of the year the manuscript will be ready for publication. Next in line are my grammar of the Sadz dialect of the Abkhaz language and also a dictionary of the Abkhaz-Abaza dialects.

- I understand that there is no living Ubykh language, but still is there any hope in your heart? Are there attempts to change the situation?

- There are people who are trying to learn the Ubykh language. But they are few. In addition, though, it’s necessary to have someone to talk to in this language, otherwise what's the point of learning it? With whom are you going to talk in Ubykh? For the revival of the Basque language and of Welsh, all the conditions exist, and there are quite sizeable speech-communities in the Basque Country and in Wales. With the help of special programmes, which are generously funded, they are successfully reviving their language. But amongst the Ubykhs there are only a few enthusiasts who can learn only words, or individual phrases, or small texts.

Of course, this is very sad. They were a wonderful, beautiful and proud Caucasian people, with a very interesting and, in many respects, unique language. This people lived on the coast, communed during their history with the Byzantines, the Genoese, the Turks, as well as the Abkhazians, and they took a lot from them. This people were very militant but at the same time fully developed culturally.

If the Ubykhs had moved to the Kuban, as they were offered…, well, the Kuban is two hundred kilometers from Ubykhia, and it is, after all, the Caucasus, very fertile soils, mild climate, they would surely have survived better than in Turkey.

However, in Turkey too the Ubykhs have made their mark. From their midst, especially from the noble families, came warlords, Pashas, and there even seem to have been ministers. There have been writers and artists.

- What is the situation with the Ubykhs today in Turkey?

- Ubykhs actively participate in the general life of the Abkhaz-Adyghean, the North Caucasian diaspora. There are even some enthusiasts who want to bring together a Congress of the Ubykhs. To gather together their people! An intensive dialogue is being conducted on the internet among the Ubykh community of Turkey. There are special Ubykh groups on-line that communicate with one another. This is indicative of the fact that Ubykh self-awareness is to some degree being revived, especially among young people, as there are a number of Ubykhs who consider themselves to be Ubykhs, that they have their own culture, their own historical past, and they want to communicate, to study their history, their own nation.

- Can Abkhazia help in any way?

- Abkhazia will help in taking in repatriates of Ubykh origin. True, there are at the moment very few. I have friends - Ubykhs who dream of coming to Abkhazia, to start a business, or just to live here. But we need to create the conditions to make them feel welcome, not just guests.

- What was the Ubykhs’ self-designation, and what did they call the Abkhazians?

- The Ubykhs’ self-designation is "Tpakhy." Abkhazians are called by them "Azgha" and the Abkhaz language "Azgha-bza" and Abkhazia "Azgha-shwabla."

Published in the journal "Abaza" (anniversary edition), 2012, p. 203-206.

This interview was published by on February 17th, 2013 and is translated from Russian by George Hewitt. 

George Hewitt's Recordings from Turkey (1974)

In the course of 6 weeks spent in Turkey in 1974, I made recordings of Circassian (mostly the Abzakh dialect but also some Shapsugh) in the Anatolian village of Demir Kapı and of Ubykh (mostly with Tevfik Esenç in Istanbul but also with some other elderly speakers in the village of Haci Osman Köyü). The recordings posted here represent a selection of those materials.




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