Ismail M. Miziyev
General description of the Karachai-Balkarian people
Economy and culture-economic relations
Culture, education, science
Old sources about Balkarians and Karachais
WHAT IS ETHNOGENESIS
The notion of language families and groups
The sources for ethnogenetic study
and territory of Karachai-Balkarians
Balkarians and Karachais belong to the Turk nationalities
living the most high in the mountains. They occupy the canyons
and foothills of Central Caucasus along the rivers Kuban,
Zelenchuk, Malka, Baksan, Chegem, Cherek and their tributaries.
Nearly all "five-thousanders" (the highest peaks)
of Caucasus are situated on the territory of Balkaria and
Karachai, such as Mingi-tau(1), Dikh-tau, Koshtan-tau, Gulcha
and others. The largest glaciers and névé fields
can be found there too: Azau, Terskol, Itkol, Cheget and others.
The territory of Balkaria and Karachai abounds in mountain-masses,
woods, fertile valleys and Alpine meadows.
General description of the Karachai-Balkarian people
Balkarians and Karachais are among the most ancient nationalities
of Caucasus. The roots of their history and culture are intimately
intertwined with the history and culture of many Caucasian
peoples, as well as numerous Turk nationalities, from Jakutia
to Turkey, from Azerbaijan to Tatarstan, from the Kumik and
Nogai to the Altai and Hakass. In the former Soviet Union,
Turk peoples were second in number, after the Slavic nationalities;
there are more than 200 million Turk-speaking people in the
whole world. In the Alpine ravines of Caucasus, Karachai-Balkarians
live side by side with the people speaking in other languages,
such as Kartvelian, Adyg, Ossetian and others. Since XIVXV
centuries, Balkarians and Karachais gradually became territorially
isolated, otherwise remaining the same people.(2)
The nearest neighbors call Balkarians "As" (Ossetians),
"Balkar" (Kabardins), "Az" or "Ovs"
(Swanes); for instance, Megrelians call Karachais "Alan".
The word "alan" is used by Balkarians to address
Economy and culture-economic relations
Since the ancient times, Balkarians and Karachais have been
engaged in Alpine, distant-pasture or "yailag" cattle
rearing. In the summer, they drive their cattle to the mountain
pastures called "zhailik". The common term "yailag
cattle breeding" originates from this word.(3)
Sheep breeding generally dominates at Balkarians and Karachais;
however, cattle and horse cultivation was very important too.
The possession of huge amounts of cattle, several times more
than the neighbors could have, provided all the life means
to Balkarians and Karachais. The products of cattle breeding
dressed, fed and shoed the people; also, it went to the all-Caucasus
markets, getting exchanged on all the necessary goods: fabrics,
crockery, salt and others.
Highly developed mining industry supplied Balkarians and Karachais
with copper, lead, coal, niter and other raw materials. Since
arable lands were scarce in Balkaria and Karachai, agriculture
did not play as important role as cattle breeding in their
Nevertheless, every spot of land was carefully cultivated,
cleared of stones and watered with the use of ingeniously
designed irrigation systems. The mountain slopes furrowed
by the vast terrace fields of the old Karachai-Balkarian peasants
can be seen in many places up to now.
Balkarians and Karachais had most friendly culture-economic
relations with all the neighboring peoples. These contacts
frequently resulted in numerous mixed marriages and inter-ethnic
Culture, education, science
historic and cultural heritage of the Karachai-Balkarian people
has absorbed many features of the culture of Caucasian peoples
and all the Turk world. This has been reflected in mythology,
epic and other folklore genres, as well as in the earliest
religions, mentioning the highest mountains, the seas and
boundless spaces of Eurasian steppes. The common Turk deities
like Tenhri (Teiri), Umai and others occupy the central place
in the religious cults. The influence of such ecumenical religions
as Christianity and Islam can be seen in the deepest roots
of the culture, manifesting themselves in the various customs,
rites, popular games and common notions existing among Karachai-Balkarians
until now. In the ancient times, the ancestors of Balkarians
and Karachais had a runic writing, judging by the inscriptions
left by Caucasian Bulgarians and now found in great numbers
on the territory of Karachai and Balkaria in the relics of
In the very beginning of XVIII century, Balkarians and Karachais
had already adopted Arabian writing, as it is fixed in the
so-called "Kholam inscription" dated by 1715 and
found in aul Kholam, the inscription of 1709, and others.
Now Balkarians and Karachais use Russian alphabet(4) .
Among the peoples of the former USSR, Balkarians and Karachais
occupied the first place in the number of people with higher
education per thousand of population.
Old sources about Balkarians and Karachais
The modern name of Balkarians ascends to the name of ancient
Caucasian Bulgarians, which were placed by ancient Armenian
sources "in the land of Bulgarians, in Caucasian mountains".
The Arabian author of X century Ibn-Rusteh wrote about the
tribes Taulu-as, i. e. "Mountain As", living in
the most faraway regions of Georgia. This name corresponds
to the geographical self-nomination of Karachais and Balkarians
"Taulu", i. e. "Mountaineers".
Many eminent scientists of the past and of XX century, such
as Menandres of Byzanth, G. A. Kokiyev and others, called
one of the greatest trade roads along the river Kum past Elbrus
through Karachai to Kolkhida (Georgia) owned by the Romans,
"Khoruchon", past the name of Karachai. An analysis
of all the materials available lead Acad. P. Butkov to the
conclusion that Balkarian already lived on the territory of
modern Balkaria in X century.
In 1395/96, world conqueror Timur and his biographers called
Balkarians and Karachais "As" and were in fierce
struggle against them. Until now, Balkarians and Karachais
are called "As" by their immediate neighbors, Ossetians.
In 1404, arch-bishop Iohannes Galonifontibus called Karachais
"Kara-Cherkess"; under the same name they were mentioned
by the traveler of 1643 Archangello Lamberti.
So, from the earliest times up to XIV century, Balkarians
and Karachais were referred to in the written documents as
As, Bulgarians, Kara-Cherkess, Taulu-As In the Georgian documents
of XIV century and later, Balkarians and Balkaria were referred
to as "Basians" and "Basiania" respectively.
The earliest mentioning of this name was found on the gold
"Tskhovati cross". On this cross, it is said how
one eristavi Risia Kvenipneveli got in captivity in Basiania
and was ransomed therefrom on the means of Spass church of
village Tskhovati in Ksan canyon. Basians and the life of
Basians were described in detail in a treatise by the historian
and geographer of Georgia Prince Vakhushti in l745. Georgian
"Basiani" was derived from the name of Khazar tribe
"Basa", with the addition of the plurality indicator
In January and February 1629, Terek voivode I. A. Dashkov
sent two letters to Moscow, informing about the silver deposits
in the land where "Balkarians" live. Since then
the name of Balkarian people often appears in Russian official
documents. In 1639, Russian mission consisting of Pavel Zakhariev,
Fedot Elchin and Fiodor Bazhenov sets off for Georgia. For
15 days, they stayed at Karachai princes Krimshaukhalov in
aul El-Zhurtu near modern Tirnihauz. Balkarian "kabaks"
(settlements) are mentioned in 1643, in the "otpiska"
(official message) of Terek voivode M. P. Volynsky. And in
1651, Moscow envoys N. S. Tolochanov and A. I. Iyevlev, on
their way to Georgia, stayed at Balkarian princes Aidabolov
in Upper Balkaria for two weeks. Information about Balkarians
and Karachais can be found in the documents of European and
Russian scientists and travelers of 1662, 1711, 1743, 1747,
1753, l760, 1778, 1779, 179394, 180708 years. In 1828, Acad.
Kupfer called Karachais "Cherkess"; under that name
they had been commonly known since as early as 1636 or 1692
in the travel notes by Georgian and European authors. In such
texts, Balkarians and Karachais were often called "mountain
meaning of the word "ethnogenesis"
"Ethnogenesis" is a Greek word combining notions
"ethnos" (nationality), and "genesis"
(development (6)). The term "ethnogenesis" is commonly
used for "the origin of the nationality. (7)
"The development of any ethnos is a long and complicated
culture-historical process covering many hundred or thousand
years. This process is closely related to the migration of
various tribes, mixing their specific cultures and languages.
Therefore, the formation of an ethnos cannot be explained
by any single science. Such studies should be based on the
data from many adjacent scientific disciplines: information
from ancient and medieval written documents (text sources),
archeological data, ethnography, material and spiritual culture,
folklore, anthropology, knowledge received from the neighboring
peoples about the ethnos under investigation, and its ancestors.
It is only when the results of all these studies are consistent
enough that it is possible to assert that the right direction
is found in the description of this complicated historical
process. Of course, the principal role in ethnogenetic study
is played by the national language.
notion of language families and groups
languages of the peoples of the world are commonly subdivided
into language families: Indo-European family, Semite-Khamite
family, Ural-Altai family etc. These families group languages
by their grammatical structure, morphology, phonetics, vocabulary
and other features. For example, Hyber-Caucasian language
family includes Kartvelian, Abkhaz-Adyg, Nakh-Daghestan and
other language groups. Turk group, belonging to the Ural-Altai
family, is further subdivided into Kipchak, Oguz and other
branches. Indo-European languages are subdivided into German,
is a misleading tendency to generally associate the origin
of an ethnos with the tribe that gave the name to the corresponding
language group. Thus, all the Turk peoples with the language
belonging to the Kipchak branch of the Turk group are often
considered as the offspring of Kipchaks. This approach ignores
the fact that the names of the major part of language groups,
including the Kipchak group, are merely conventional, and
one should not conclude about the ethnogenetic commonality
among the languages belonging to the same group.
sources for ethnogenetic study
noted, the basic source of information about the origin of
an ethnos is its language. There is much reason in the common
saying that the language of the people is their history. Forming
in the deepest antiquity, language, together with its carrier,
goes through a complicated process of development, being mixed
with the neighbor languages, enriched, influenced by them
and influencing them in its turn. History knows many examples
of language mixture or assimilation of one language by another.
Nevertheless, many languages preserve their peculiarities.
It is these characteristic features of the language that make
language one of the most important source of ethnogenetic
information. The second important source in this problem is
the data of ancient writers, which may describe the territory
occupied by the specific tribes or peoples, the changes in
their boundaries, the ways and causes of their migration in
various directions, as well as report of the mixture of different
peoples, and so on. However, one must always remember that
the tribes or peoples are rarely mentioned in these sources
under the same name in the course of several centuries. Quite
often, the chronicles speak of specific parts of the same
tribes which played more important historical roles in the
particular historical phase and hence get mentioned in the
important component of ethnogenetic data is the relics of
material culture left by the ancient tribes, i. e. archeological
sources. They include the remnants of dwellings, production
tools or common-life accessories, weapons, or other articles
of utility typical for the ancient tribes. Quite often, many
such things are used for centuries in the traditional culture
of ethnos. The specific features of these articles can be
used to judge about ethnogenesis. The sum of many archeological
indicators, such as the burial rite (the leading archeological
specifier), the collection of household articles, the tradition
of dwelling construction, clothes fabrication, ornaments etc.,
constitutes the notion of archeological culture spread in
a definite region in a specific period.
description of the archeological cultures is usually called
the ethnography (the description of people) of ancient tribes
and peoples. Hence, the traces of antiquity and old traditions
in the ethnography of modern peoples can be an invaluable
source for studying their origin. Many ethnographic data,
such as the ways of food preparation and eating, the design
of clothes and footwear, the traditional forms of dwellings,
mythological and religious rites and customs, can be as important
ethnic indicator as language or archeology.
ethnography of an ethnos, its traditional culture, always
reflects a symbiosis and mutual cultural influence of the
peoples living together for many centuries. The important
place in the ethnogenetic study is also occupied by folklore,
in which people always reflected the common understanding
of their origin. Many folklore themes got mixed in the course
of many centuries, incorporating new historical events and
facts, often changing. Still, the historical grain can always
be discovered in folk tales, legends and stories and cleared
from the later features.
state of knowledge about the ethnogenesis of Karachai-Balkarians
The origin of Karachai-Balkarians is one of the most difficult
problems in Caucasus studies. For a long time, the fact that
Turk-speaking people occupy the most Alpine regions of Central
Caucasus, living in an environment of Caucasian and Iranian
(Ossetian) languages attracted the special attention of many
scientists of the past and present to their history and culture
formation. The complexity of a problem lead to numerous hypotheses,
often contradicting each other. Such a situation is due to
that this problem has never been a subject of an integral
study aggregating all the data available from the written
sources, archeology, anthropology, ethnography, linguistics,
topo-hydronymics (names of the territories, mountains, canyons,
settlements, rivers, lakes etc.), folklore and other related
scientific disciplines. An attempt to achieve more clarity
has been made in 1959, at the All-Union scientific session
on the problem of the origin of Balkarians and Karachais(8)
the problem had not been given a comprehensive analysis at
this Session neither. Many hypotheses suggested were based
on the superficial or incidental facts and coincidences, especially
the theory of Kipchak origin of these peoples. The fact is,
that the presence of Kipchaks, widely known in South-Russian
steppes since XII century, in Northern Caucasus and especially
its central regions is not supported by any written documents
or archeological data, and their anthropological type is different
from Karachai-Balkarian. Also, they differ in their language,
which belongs to "yocking" Turk dialects, while
Karachai-Balkarians speak a "jocking" dialect. There
were much more evidence in support of the theory of the Bulgarian
origin of Balkarians and Karachais as presented on the Session.
positive moment of this Session, despite all the shortcomings,
was the indication that Balkarians and Karachais are one of
the most ancient Caucasian peoples, formed from the early
Caucasian, Iranian and Turk tribes.
2 In 1982, there were about 66 thousand Balkarians
and 131 thousand Karachais in the USSR.
3 The standard Russian term is meant here. Actually
it came from the word "jailah" meaning a mountain
pasture in the language of Krimean Tatars, also belonging
to the Turk family.
4 In the early years of Soviet government, Latin alphabet
was adapted for many nationalities of Caucasus and Middle
Asia, but it was replaced by Cyrillic writing all over the
USSR later on, possibly as a reaction on the international
situation of the time.
5 More exactly, "-ani" means "the representative
of", or "descendant from" in Georgean, being
the singular form. The plural is "Basianebi".
7 Rather, "birth".
8 Rather, "ethnos formation".
9 In the former USSR.