How Syria’s Circassians preserved their cultural heritage

A Circassian woman wearing the traditional decorated Circassian dress - 2019 (Al-Jazeera)

A Circassian woman wearing the traditional decorated Circassian dress - 2019 (Al-Jazeera)


Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri

“Khanaser is a garden, but one flower does not make it spring.” With this expression, Marwan Hussein described the condition of Khanaser town, southern Aleppo, after the displacement of its Circassian residents following the battles that took place there.

Hussein, the head of the “Khanaser Diaspora Council,” lived among the Circassian residents before they were displaced from the town and its villages to their relatives in the villages and towns of Ain al-Nisr northeastern of Homs. He witnessed the coexistence, mutual respect, and good neighboring there.”

Khanaser is one of the villages inhabited by the Circassians, who worked on building it with its residents’ help.

According to Hussein, the villagers learned from the Circassians the building of mud clay domes that characterized the town and became a landmark for the Circassians of the town.

The Circassians built other villages in the Syrian occupied Golan Heights and the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Latakia.

Khanaser town of Circassian people majority (Musée Photographique de la Syrie Facebook account)

Khanaser town of Circassian people majority (Musée Photographique de la Syrie Facebook account)

The majority are in the south

The Circassians first came to Syria in 1878 after the Russian genocide. They resided in villages of Circassians only, including the villages of Manbij, Khanaser, and Ras al-Ain, northern Syria, and the villages of Tal Omri and Ain al-Nisr in central Syria, and the towns of Marj al-Sultan, Balmi, and Buraq, southern Syria.

Other neighborhoods in some villages and Syrian cities are home to a minority of Circassians, as few Circassian families resided in cities and towns for study, or work in governmental institutions and others, according to Professor Adel Abdul Salam Lash of Damascus University.

Professor Lash, originally from the Syrian Circassian village of Marj al-Sultan, wrote in his article entitled “The Forced Displacement of the Circassians to Syria and Their Settlement Line” that Syria’s largest concentration of Circassians is in al-Qunaytirah province.

The number of Circassian communities in Syria reached 40 villages and a city, all of which are home to native Circassians (Adyghe).

In a research study entitled “The Circassian Heritage in Syria Within The Context Of Multiple Displacements,” Dima Meiqari mentioned that the Circassian communities in Syria are concentrated in the Golan Heights in the southwestern parts of Syria.

The Circassians built 16 villages and settled in them. They also settled in al-Qunaytirah city and many neighboring villages, revitalized their heritage and lifestyle, and became the largest ethnic minority group there, According to Miqari.

In 1967, the Circassians were once again forced out of their homes, when the Israeli army razed many of their villages and did not rebuild the city of al-Qunaytirah, even after it was liberated in the 1973 “Tishreen/October” war.

They became internally displaced in Damascus, and some of them left to the United States (US) mainly, after the US government offered to transfer them.

A Circassian house in al-Breiqa village in the occupied Golan Heights (Amjad al-Qaoud)

A Circassian house in al-Breiqa village in the occupied Golan Heights (Amjad al-Qaoud)

In Damascus, the Circassians are concentrated in the village of Marj al-Sultan in the Eastern Ghouta region, which is considered one of the biggest Circassian concentrations in Syria, besides other Circassian communities in the al-Muhajireen area, Rukneddine, Qudsaya, and Harasta, according to the Syrian Circassian Taha Jarkas.

Jarkas said to Enab Baladi that the Circassians who live in the Damascus al-Muhajireen area were the most to assimilate into the Syrian society because they were among the first Circassians to arrive there.

However, the Circassians who were the most to maintain the Circassian language and customs are the ones of the Rukneddine area in Damascus, for the presence of the “Circassian Association” in that area.

Jarkas’ family lived in Damascus and integrated into the Syrian society; therefore, there is no indication now that he is a Circassian, especially that Jarkas’ mother is of Arab origin, and he did not learn the Circassian language.

Despite being Circassians, Jarkas’ grandparents spoke the Turkish language, for they immigrated to the Turkish city, Istanbul, and later to Syria.

However, his uncle maintained the Circassian language thanks to his continuance participation in the Circassians’ meetings, events, and gatherings that aim to preserve their culture.

The first forced migration

According to writer Kadir I. Natho, the Circassian diaspora in Syria is considered the second-largest Circassian community in number outside their original homeland. They arrived in separate groups and at different times. The number of exiled Circassians handed over to ports in Syria in 1878 reached about 26,000 persons.

In his book the “Circassian History,” Natho says that according to a plan set in 1879, 10,000 Circassian families were sent to Aleppo and 5,000 families to other areas in Syria. Natho mentioned that the first Circassian communities were established in al-Qunaytirah and Homs provinces in 1872.

Until 1910, more than 60,000 Syrian Circassians were resettled in different regions of Syria, and many of the villages established at that time remain to this day.

According to Natho’s book, the Circassians forcibly migrated from the Caucasus because of the war that lasted more than 100 years by Russia in the region. The native Circassians are a group of people consisting of the Adyghe, the Abkhaz and the Dagestan people.

The Adyghe people are considered native Circassians. They are distributed in 12 tribes, including the “Abzakh, Shabsu, Qapertai, and Hatikway,” according to the Circassian journalist Nawar Chattaw.

Chattaw said these 12 Circassian tribes are represented with a 12 starts flag they chose as a symbol of their unity without any discrimination.

A dying language

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Chattaw said that the “Circassian” is a term that was given to people coming from the Caucasus,” while the indigenous name of these people was the “Adyghe.”

Chattaw pointed out that the Circassians have their own native language, which is completely different from the Russian language. This language differs among the Circassian tribes, as it has various dialects, which might not be understood among the “Adyghe” tribes themselves.

Chattaw added, the Circassian language is at danger of disappearance. He learned simple vocabularies of the “Adyghean” language because he is a Syrian Circassian born in Aleppo and went to Arab schools.

He indicated that Circassians still speak the “Circassian” language, but not on a great scale due to the difficulty of the language and its pronunciation.

The Circassians tried to revive their native heritage in Syria in the 1920s. They opened more than 40 primary schools, mostly in al-Qunaytirah, southern Syria, in which they taught the Circassian children the school subjects in the Circassian language besides the Arabic and French languages.

According to what Natho wrote in his book in the article “The Circassians in Syria,” the Circassians began publishing their weekly newspaper “Marj” in the Circassian language in Damascus in 1928. However, they were forced to stop publishing it shortly, due to the Syrian authorities’ closure of schools, the Marj newspaper, and the Circassian Charity Association in al-Qunaytirah.

Writer Muhammed Nasser al-Aboudi mentioned in his book “The Countries of the Circassians” that the Circassians considered the name “Adyghe” as a national name for its native and national meaning.

Al-Aboudi wrote that the Circassians preserved their nationalism and tribal characteristics and were not integrated into other communities despite some groups’ integration with them, even if they were few in number.

According to al-Aboudi, the Circassians have long-established traditions and customs that are unwritten but applied a long time ago.

“Adyghe Habza” the social code

Chattaw believes that one of the most important features of the Circassians is their “traditions.” They maintained old traditions such as elopement marriages, the Circassian dancing, including the (Qafe, Wij, and Shishan dancing,) the respect for women and the elderly, and the code of social behavior between the Circassians “Adyghe Habza” rather than preserving their language.

Chattaw fears the loss of the “Circassian identity” only within the language, but in terms of traditions and habits there is no fear of its loss, because of the “Adyghe Habza” that regulates the Circassians’ social and ethical life, which is somehow similar to a “constitution of customs and traditions.”

The “Adyghe Habza” code units the Circassians despite their different areas of existence, determines upbringing methods, controls marriage and family life, and ostracizes the violators, according to Chattaw.

The Circassians maintain their old traditions for two reasons, according to Chattaw. The first reason is the fact that these people were forcibly displaced from their “occupied” country; therefore, it is necessary to protect the traditions from disappearing. The Circassians have lived in several countries and cities, and have lived the migration and displacement experiences many times, as they migrated from Russia to Turkey and then to Syria and other Arab countries and from Syria to other countries after the Syrian revolution began in 2011.

While the second reason is “the beauty and human value of these traditions” and the importance of the “Adyghe Habza” code in the Circassians’ life.








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