Balkarians and Karachais

by Ismail M. Miziyev

General description of the Karachai-Balkarian people
Economy and culture-economic relations
Culture, education, science
Old sources about Balkarians and Karachais
The notion of language families and groups
The sources for ethnogenetic study

Geography 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 each other.

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 economy.
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 kinship.

Culture, education, science

The 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 VIIXII centuries.
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 "-ani".(5)
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 Cherkess".

What is ethnogenesis

The 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.

The notion of language families and groups

The 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, Slavic etc…

There 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.

The sources for ethnogenetic study

As 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 annals.

Another 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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)

However, 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.

The 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.

1 Elbrus
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.



Historical narratives in the Caucasus


Historical narratives    in the Caucasus
The history of
   the Karachai- 
   Balkarian people


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