Travels in Circassia – Part II - Blackwood's Edinburgh magazine: July-December, 1856

Travels in Circassia – Part II (pp. 45-61)

Blackwood's Edinburgh magazine, Volume 80

July-December, 1856


It would have been interesting, could we have spared the time, to have visited the church of Pitzounda, celebrated as the oldest Christian church in the Caucasus, and situated upon a remarkable promontory, which we steamed past the morning after leaving Ardiller. It is almost exactly similar to that of Souksou, but upon the scale of a cathedral instead of a church. It has been described at length in the elaborate work of Mons. Duboies de Montpereux, whose extensive researches into the history and antiquities of the Caucasian province are a most valuable source of reference. Founded by the Emperor Justinian about the middle of the sixth century, it embraced within is patriarchate nearly all the Caucasian countries. The invasion of the neighbouring Circassians, however, forced the bishops to abandon it, and its importance declined, until under Muscovite auspices there appeared some prospect of its old position being assigned to it. As in former times it was the repository of many valuable documents, which have since been removed to the monastery of Ghelathi, and from which a history of the Caucasian provinces was compiled by a Georgian chronicler, and translated by Klaproth, it may not be uninteresting, in conclusion, to glance cursorily at the history of this part if the coast of Circassia and Abkhasia, as gathered from that record and the pages of Montpereux.

It is satisfactory to find that, according to these traditions, no obscurity hangs over the early portion of the history of these countries. They carry us boldly back to the Flood, and decide that Togarmah, who, it will be remembered, was a great-grandson of Noah, after the confusion of tongues consequent on the building of the Tower of Babel, established himself in Armenia, but whose possessions extended to the banks of the Kuban. He divided his territory between his eight sons, and Abkhasia was included in the portion of the eighth, Egros. These princes owed allegiance to Nimrod, then, in the language of the chronicle, “the first king among the inhabitants of the earth.” At the instigation of the elder brother they revolted, and the might hunter fell by his hand. This prince, whose name was Hhaos, then became king over his brothers, and his rule was paramount in Caucasia and Armenia.

It is precisely at this epoch that the Argonautic expedition is placed by the Greeks, the reputed origin of those colonies which sprung up along the eastern shores of the Black Sea, in the country then called Colchis, and which includes Mingrelia and the greater part of Abkhasia. In the subsequent wars between the Persians and Georgians, these colonies took part with the latter, who, according to the chronicle, were only ultimately conquered by the first Artaxerses. This veracious history then proceeds to describe the invasion of Georgia by the armies of Alexander the Great. After subduing the country, the conqueror is said to have left as its governor a Macedonian named Ason, who united, under his rule in Georgia, the province of Abkhasia. The tyranny of this man, however, roused the spirit of an enterprising young Georgian, who traced his descent to Ouplos, the grandson of the great-grandson of Noah, by name Pharnavaz, and who, in conjunction with a certain Koudji, lord of Abkhasia, conspired to overthrow the Greek oppressor. They collected a large army in Abkhasia, crossed the Ingour, as better men have done since, in the face of the enemy, and utterly routing Ason, Pharnavez became king of Georgia, giving his sister in marriage to his faithful ally, Koudji, prince of Abkhasia, who thenceforward owned his suzerainty. The Greek colonies at the mouths of the Ingour, Kodor, Rhion, and other places upon the coast, and who had sided with Ason, managed, however, still to preserve their independence, although surrounded by a hostile population. Such was the condition of Abkhasia about two hundred and forty years before the Christian era, and so it remained until included within the limits of the vast empire of Mithridates.

To those who know the country, the march of this monarch, after his defeat by Pompey, from the Ingour to Anapa, seems an achievement worthy of his great reputation. The glory of the ancient Greek colonies had now departed, and the far-famed shores of Colchis and lovely valleys of Abkhasia became a Roman province under the rule of a governor appointed by Pompey. Not long after, it was incorporated into the kingdom of Bosphorus, under Polemon I., who had married a grand-daughter of Mithridates. During the reign of Polemon II., or about forty years after Christ, the apostles Simon and Andrew arrived, according to the Georgian chronicle, in Abkhasia and Mingrelia, to publish those truths which have never since been altogether extinguished. The Emperors of Rome continued to arrogate to themselves the right of naming the rulers of these provinces, which were, neverthleless, practically independent. When, however, war broke out between the Persians and the people of the Caucasus, Justinian was obliged to send his armies to the assistance of the latter, for the Persians mediated the conquest of Mingrelia and Gouriel, then united into one province, from which they could threaten Constantinople itself. The Abkhasians took this opportunity of withdrawing themselves from their allegiance to the neighbouring province, which had assumed the right of naming their kings. They succeeded in this attempt, and appointed two kings of their own. Justinian determined to punish them for such contumacious conduct, and sent a picked force to Souchoum Kaleh (Sukhum – AW). The Abkhasians took refuge in a this strong castle which crowned a hill overlooking a step gorge which issues from the mountains a little to the right of Souksou, and which still partially exists under the name of Anakopi. Had we known, when we saw it in the distance, what interesting associations have attached to it, we might have attempted to visit it. The Abkhasians, however, notwithstanding the strength of the place, did not hold our against the military tact of the Roman general, and the castle was taken and burned  but this spot owes its chief celebrity throughout the country to the still older tradition which attaches to it ; for here. It is said, are lad the bones of Simon the Canaanite.

The result of the war between Justinian and Khosroes was to place more decidedly than ever the Transcaucasian provinces under the suzerainty of the Byzantine Empire.

Abkhasia, as well as the other provinces, felt this influence, and between the fifth and tenth centuries made considerable progress in civilisation. The greater part of those churches and forts, the ruins of which add so much to the picturesque character of the scenery, date from this period. Hitherto the princes of Abkhasia, though owning allegiance to the Greek Emperors, were independent of the neighbouring provinces. Towards the close of the tenth century, however, the crowns of Georgia and Abkhasia became united in the family of the Bagrats. Its history is, therefore, identical with that of Georgia until 1442, when the reigning king (Alexander) died, leaving his kingdom divided between his three sons. Abkhasia and the rest of the seaboard provinces fell to the share of one of these, but his successors failed to preserve the allegiance of several of the principal families, who, finding their influence almost as great as that of their sovereign, successively threw off his yoke, so that very soon the kings ceased to exist, and their former territory was divided amongst themselves by the most influential families, whose authority is to this day recognised by Russia in the different provinces which resulted from this separation. Meantime these petty principalities became once more the theatre of war between Persia and the empire of which Constantinople was the capital, now no longer Christian. Abkhasia with its neighbours was placed finally under the suzerainty of the Porte ; and, in 1578, Souchoum Kaleh and Poti at the mouth of the Rhion were built and garrisoned by Turkish troops. For the next two hundred years Abkhasia was a Turkish province, but about the middle of the last century the Abkhasians revolted, and the Turks abandoned Souchoum Kaleh, still, however, retaining the suzerainty. Keliche Bey, the Prince of Abkhasia, then living at Souchoum Kaleh, soon after, by refusing to give up a Turkish refugee, brought matters to a crisis, and called in the protection of Russia, at the same time professing himself a Christian convert. From that moment Russia never relinquished the hold which she was thus enabled to secure ; and at the close of that war with Turkey which terminated in the treaty of Yassy, she acquired Abkhasia, together with the neighbouring provinces to the south. Shortly afterwards Russian troops were quartered at Souchoum Kaleh and other forts on the coast, and the princes of Abkhasia became Muscovite vassals. Their subjects, however, were by no means disposed to concur in this transfer of allegiance, and the Mahometan portion of the population have steadily refused to recognise the sovereignty of their new masters. The Christians, indeed, remain docile subjects of their Prince. They remember with abhorrence the barbarities of their Turkish rulers, and even exaggerate those atrocities which unfortunately but too often characterised their domination. The population of the north and interior, on the other hand, have conceived an inveterate hatred to the Russians, enhanced no doubt by the perpetual struggle with them in which they have been engaged, while they have forgotten the oppression of their former masters, from whom they doubtless suffered less than their Christian compatriots ; and regarding them only as co-religionists, they hailed with joy the arrival of a Turkish Pasha, shortly after the evacuation of Souchoum Kaleh, as an earnest of that change from the Christian to the Mahometan rule which they so ardently desire. The consequence was, that when the Turkish army arrived at Souchoum Kaleh, Prince Michael found himself compelled to receive them with the utmost friendship and cordiality, for he was as unable to change the sympathies of the greater portion of his own subjects as he was to prevent the landing of Omer Pasha, and his forces. Like the Uboochians (Ubykhs – AW), they too contributed their quote to the Turkish army, but, like them, they will gain nothing by the war in return for their co-operation. Had a condition prohibiting Russia from rebuilding the forts on the eastern coast of the Black Sea been inserted, that alone would have sufficed to secure their independence. For although she might have reserved to herself the right of garrisoning troops in the interior of Abkhasia, that attempt would have been found perfectly impracticable, except in the low country, where, as has already been shown, the population is not so strongly opposed to her rule. The evacuation of Souchoum Kaleh by Russian troops, and the residence there of foreign conculs, would have opened up the whole of the Mahometan part of the country to the commercial enterprise of the world. So far from that being the case, in consequence of those hostilities between the Mahometan Abkhasians and Russians, as soon as Souchoum Kaleh is regarrisoned, the  country will revert to the condition in which it was before the war, and which is precisely similar to that of Ubooch. The chances of their ultimate civilisation are more remote than ever ; they will be cut off again from intercourse with humanity. Their villages and fields will be burnt and destroyed as of old by rapacious soldiery, and war, incessant war, will be their only occupation, until at last, determined never to submit, they will become exterminated as a race, savage, but free to the end.

Such is the prospect of the Abkhasian mountaineers, and it is melancholy to think that the unhappy fate to which these brave men are now doomed, might have been averted by a stipulation forbidding the reoccupation of that town which, after having been taken from Russia and permanently garrisoned by Turkish troops for more than a year, might surely have been regarded as a very legitimate conquest. In addition to this, the establishment of Abkhasian independence would have been attended with far less difficulty than that of any province of Circassia. It had a Prince whose right was universally acknowledged, and whose close alliance with the Princess Dadianie of Mingrelia, his only neighbour, would have secured for both a peaceful frontier. Surrounded on all other other sides by Circassians, nothing was to be feared from the depredations of the more lawless of his subjects upon any Russian province ; and it is therefore difficult to conceive how any inconvenience could have arisen from such a measure, while its advantages are apparent.

The population of the province is not 50,000, and is yearly diminishing, owing partly to the constant warfare, and partly to the exportation of slaves. The latter traffic is carried on surreptitiously in spite of the Russian occupation of the seaboard. In fact, that blockade which prevents the ingress of civilised merchants and travellers, protects a traffic which owes its existence to the ignorant and degraded state of the population among whom it is carried on ; and firmans issued at Constantinople to forbid it will be utterly useless, so long as the light of civilisation is never allowed to shine into the dark mountains of the Caucasus.

In a word, the result of this war with respect to Abkhasia and Circassia has been to exclude the benighted populations of those countries from all chance of civilisation more completely than ever-to extinguish in their breasts any hope of their ultimate independence – to render inevitable the continuance of that traffic by which the women are now made the slaves of Turks, until that period arrives when the whole country is subdued, and both men and women will become the slaves of Russians.

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