My Citizens! Few things in life are more valued by the Prince of Propriety, the Hetman of History – YOUR TFD! – than having the opportunity to cast a blinding white spotlight upon cuisines rarely come across in the mundanities of everyday Western life. Today is such a day, and I am honored to introduce you to the glory that is Circassian cuisine – born in the Caucasus mountains and midwifed by the denizens of the Levant in the Middle East! Follow MY imperious lead – march with Me on the path of Knowledge this day!
The Circassians (also referred to as Cherkess or Adyghe; Adyghe and Kabardian: Адыгэхэр, romanized: Adıgəxər) are an indigenous Northwest Caucasian ethnic group and nation native to the historical country-region of Circassia in the North Caucasus mountains. Much like the most recent history of the Jewish people, the Circassians today mostly live in a diaspora, but sadly without the opportunity to return home as the Jews can to Israel – they are a proud and noble people whom I admire a great deal.
As a consequence of the Circassian genocide, which was perpetrated by the Russian Empire in the 19th century during the Russo-Circassian War, most Circassians were exiled from their homeland in Circassia to modern-day Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, where the majority of them are concentrated today. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization estimated in the early 1990s that there are as many as 3.7 million Circassians in diaspora in over 50 countries.
The Circassian language is the ancestral language of the Circassian people, and Islam has been the dominant religion among them since the 17th century. Circassia has been subject to repeated invasions since ancient times; its isolated terrain coupled with the strategic value that external societies have placed on the region have helped shape the Circassian national identity to a large extent.
The Circassian flag is the national flag of the Circassians and consists of a green field charged with twelve gold stars, also charged with three crossed arrows in the center. The twelve stars represent the twelve historical Circassian provinces: the Abzakh, the Besleney, the Bzhedugh, the Hatuqway, the Kabardians, the Mamkhegh, the Natukhaj, the Shapsugh, the Chemirgoy, the Ubykh, the Yegeruqway and the Zhaney.
In Jordan (it is in fact a Jordanian recipe on today’s menu!), Circassians founded the capital city of Amman, and play a big role in all affairs of the country; in Syria, they served as the guards of the Allies against the Nazis and still have high positions; in Libya, they serve in high military positions; in Egypt, they were part of the ruling class, and contributed to business life during the reign of Muhammad Ali pasha. Today, approximately 800,000 Circassians remain in historical Circassia, while 4,500,000 live elsewhere.
The Circassians refer to themselves as Adyghe (also transliterated as Adyga, Adiga, Adige, Adığe, Adyge, Adygei). According to one view, the name derives from Atyghe (Adyghe: Iатыгъэ, romanized: ‘atığə) meaning ‘high’ to signify a mountaineer, as the Circassian people have lived in the mountains for thousands of years. The word Circassian is an exonym, Latinized from Russian Cherkess (Russian: Черкес; Adyghe: Чэркэс/Шэрджэс), which is of debated origin.
While the term, in Russian, was traditionally applied to all Circassians before Soviet times, it has since usually referred only to the Circassians living in northern Karachay-Cherkessia, a federal subject of Russia, where they are indigenous and formed just under 12% of the population in 2010. In English, it still refers to all Circassians.
There is dispute over the origins of the term ‘Circassian’. One view is that its root stems from Turkic languages, and that the term means ‘head choppers’ or ‘warrior killers’ accounting for the successful battle practices of the Circassians. There are those who argue that the term comes from Mongolian ‘Jerkes’, meaning ‘one who blocks a path’. Some believe it comes from the ancient Greek name of the region, Siraces.
According to another view, its origin is Persian and is a combination of two parts: kar (mountain) and kās (region, in Pahlavi language) which means ‘the mountainous region’. Also the spelling ‘Cherkess’ may be an abbreviation of Persian Chahār-kas (‘four people’), denoting four tribes. Though Jahārkas was used by Ibn Khaldun (died 1406) and Ali ibn al-Athir (died c. 1232/3), the Persian hypothesis remains uncertain.
In the 17th century, under the influence of the Crimean Tatars and of the Ottoman Empire, large numbers of Circassians converted to Sunni Islam from Christianity. To demonstrate just how bad-ass the Circassians were in battle, I share this historical anecdote: In 1708, Circassians paid tribute to the Ottoman sultan in order to prevent Tatar raids, but the sultan did not fulfill the obligation and the Tatars raided all the way to the center of Circassia, robbing everything they could.
For this reason, Kabardian Circassians announced that they would never pay tribute to the Crimean Khan and the Ottoman Sultan again. The Ottomans sent their army of at least 20,000 men to Kabardia under the leadership of the Crimean Khan Kaplan-Girey to conquer the Circassians and ordered that he collect the tribute. The Ottomans expected an easy victory against the Kabardinians, but the Circassians won because of the strategy set up by Kazaniko Jabagh during the battle of Kanzhal.
The entire Crimean army was destroyed in one night on 17 September 1708. The Crimean Khan Kaplan-Giray barely managed to save his life, and was humiliated, all the way to his shoes taken, leaving his brother, son, field tools, tents and personal belongings. In 2013, the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences recognized that the Battle of Kinzhal Mountain was of the most paramount importance in the national history of Circassians, Balkarians and Ossetians.
In 1714, Peter I established a plan to occupy the Caucasus. Although he was unable to implement this plan, he laid the political and ideological foundation for the occupation to take place. Catherine II started putting this plan into action. The Russian army was deployed on the banks of the Terek River. The Russian military tried to impose authority by building a series of forts, but these forts in turn became the new targets of raids and indeed sometimes the highlanders actually captured and held the forts.
Under Yermolov, the Russian military began using a strategy of disproportionate retribution for raids. Russian troops retaliated by destroying villages where resistance fighters were thought to hide, as well as employing assassinations, kidnappings and the execution of whole families. As the resistance was relying on sympathetic villages for food, the Russian military also systematically destroyed crops and livestock and killed Circassian civilians.
Circassians responded by creating a tribal federation encompassing all tribes of the area. In 1840, Karl Friedrich Neumann estimated the Circassian casualties at around one and a half million. Some sources state that hundreds of thousands of others died during the exodus. Several historians use the phrase ‘Circassian massacres’ for the consequences of Russian actions in the region.
In May 1864, a final battle took place between the Circassian army of 20,000 Circassian horsemen and a fully equipped Russian army of 100,000 men. Circassian warriors attacked the Russian army and tried to break through the line, but most were shot down by Russian artillery and infantry. The remaining fighters continued to fight as militants and were soon defeated – all 20,000 Circassian horsemen died and the war ended officially on May 21, 1864.
The place where this war took place is known today as Krasnaya Polyana. ‘Krasnaya Polyana’ means red meadow. It takes its name from the Circassian blood flowing from the hill into the river. Between 75%-97% of the ethnic Circassian population were affected. Considering these rates, calculations including those taking into account the Russian government’s own archival figures, have estimated deaths between 600,000-1,500,000.
Ivan Drozdov, a Russian officer who witnessed the scene at Qbaada in May 1864 as the other Russians were celebrating their victory remarked:
On the road, our eyes were met with a staggering image: corpses of women, children, elderly persons, torn to pieces and half-eaten by dogs; deportees emaciated by hunger and disease, almost too weak to move their legs, collapsing from exhaustion and becoming prey to dogs while still alive.
— Drozdov, Ivan. “Posledniaia Bor’ba s Gortsami na Zapadnom Kavkaze”. Pages 456-457.
The Ottoman Empire regarded the Adyghe warriors as courageous and well-experienced and encouraged them to settle in various near-border settlements of the Ottoman Empire in order to strengthen the empire’s borders. Hundreds of thousands were forced to leave the Circassian homeland. By 1864, three-fourths of the population was annihilated, and the Circassians had become one of the first stateless peoples in modern history.
Circassians in Jordan (Adyghe: Иорданием ис Адыгэхэр, romanized: Yiordaniyem yis Adıgəxer; Arabic: الشركس في الأردن) are descended from these Circassian refugees, who arrived in Jordan in the late 19th century, after being exiled during the Circassian genocide in the 1860s and later the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878). They settled in Jordan, then a part of Ottoman Syria, in and around Amman and Jerash. Circassians today are fully-credited with founding modern Amman (the capital of Jordan).
With Ottoman territories decreasing and tens of thousands of refugees overcrowding the cities of Anatolia, Thrace and Macedonia, the imperial government resolved to resettle Circassian refugees along the peripheral areas of the Levantine provinces. The policy of establishing Circassian agricultural communities in grain-producing regions in Syria Vilayet was partly motivated by the Empire’s loss of its key agricultural region, the Balkans.
The Ottoman authorities assigned lands for Circassian settlers close to regular water sources and grain fields. Between 1878 and 1884, three Circassian villages were founded in areas of modern Jordan: Amman (1878) and Wadi Sir (1880) in the Balqa and Jerash (1884) in Jabal Ajlun, while a Turkmen village called al-Ruman (1884) was also established. Amman had been abandoned during the 14th century and the settlement of the Circassians there marked the founding of the modern town.
The lands on which the Circassians were settled had traditionally served as winter campgrounds for Bedouin tribes who lacked deeds. The Bedouin and the townspeople of Salt viewed the Circassians as beneficiaries and agents of the government due to the land grants and exemptions from taxes for a ten-year period they received and the service many took up with the Ottoman Gendarmerie.
The Circassians refused to pay the khuwwa (protection fees) solicited by the Bedouin, which entailed a portion of their harvest to the tribes in return for the tribes’ ‘protection’. The mutual hostility between the Circassians and their nomadic and settled Arab neighbors led to clashes. Despite the superiority of Bedouin arms and mobility, the Circassians maintained their positions and were feared by the Bedouin and the Salt townspeople, who blamed them for a number of killings.
As their numbers increased, the Circassians became a major local power and a number of pacts were formed with the Bedouin, including a mutual defense alliance with the Bani Sakhr in the late 1890s. The alliance proved instrumental in the Bani Sakhr’s intervention in the 1906–1910 conflict between the Circassians and the Balqawiyya tribal confederation.
As Amman has experienced exponential growth and urbanization since Jordan’s independence, the Circassian proportion of the city’s population currently stands at about 5%. Most Circassians in Jordan formed part of the country’s urban middle class. They largely work in the government bureaucracy and military and are given significant representation in Jordan’s parliament and executive branch. Circassians form the royal guard (in their traditional dress!) to Jordan’s King and his family to this very day!
Circassian cultural identity in Jordan is mainly shaped by their self-image as a displaced people, as settlers and as Muslims. Beginning in the 1950s, Circassian ethnic associations and youth clubs began holding performances centered on the theme of expulsion and emigration from the Caucasus and resettlement in Jordan, which often elicited emotional responses by Circassian audiences.
Eventually the performances were made in front of mixed Circassian and Arab spectators in major national cultural events, including the annual Jerash Festival of Arts. The performances typically omit the early conflicts with the indigenous Arabs and focus on the ordeals of the exodus, the first harvests and the construction of the first Circassian homes in Jordan. The self-image promoted is of a brave community of hardy men and women that long endured suffering.
In 1932 Jordan’s oldest charity, the Circassian Charity Association, was established to assist the poor and grant scholarships to Circassians to study at universities in Kabardino-Balkaria and the Adygea Republic.
The Al-Ahli Club, founded in 1944, promoted Circassian engagement in sports and social and cultural events in Jordan and other countries, while the establishment of the Folklore Committee in 1993 helped promote Circassian traditional song and dance. Today, an estimated 17% of the Circassian community in Jordan speak Adyghe. Circassians are mandated 3 seats in the Jordanian parliament. However, Circassians also produce a disproportionate amount of ministers, which some Jordanians regard as an unofficial Quota.
Circassian chicken (Adyghe: Jed de ships sch’etu) is a dish of shredded boiled chicken served in a rich paste made with crushed walnuts and a lot of garlic, served with a rice-based ‘pasta’ to soak up the sauce as well as a hot sauce known as ‘shepshidagha’. Circassian Chicken is a classic Circassian dish, adopted by the Imperial Ottoman cuisine. Although it was typically served as a main course, it became popular as an appetizer, or meze. Being an Imperial-era dish, it can also be found in other cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean.
As noted in a story about Circassians from vice.com:
Incredibly loyal to King Abdullah, they have served the monarchy since it was founded, and are known for their distinct uniforms: red capes, black wool hats and leather boots – a get-up as unexpected as their heavy food is in this desert climate.
As the ships w pasta arrives, I’m told to brace myself. The pasta itself consists of bulgur wheat and rice, mashed and kneaded before being cut into square-shaped blocks. Served with garlic-infused chicken, ships is a gravy that’s comprised of crushed walnuts, chicken stock, butter, milk, paprika, and roasted flour. The resulting dish is topped with red pepper oil for flavour. On the whole, ships w pasta, though sleep-inducing, is sumptuous.
A similar walnut sauce and a chicken dish made with this sauce is known as satsivi in Georgian cuisine, and it is to Georgian-style seasoning that I have turned to add TFD‘s indelible stamp to this classic recipe, in My fervid attempt to bring it closer back to its Caucasian roots. My Circassian seasoning blend is resplendent and adds a true flavor boost to this delicious recipe! You can find both top-quality smoked paprika and Aleppo pepper at their respective links. These are the only walnuts I endorse!
My Citizens – I hope you will see fit to enjoy this delicious recipe and to have learned of the difficult history of the proud Circassian people. I hope you tell their tale to your guests as you enjoy this for dinner at a meal surrounded in comfort by friends and family alike! As the Russians sadly once more repeat history and attempt to bring war to a peaceful region along their border – please remember this ancient Circassian proverb: Зауэм и кIэр хьэдагъэщ – “War brings mourning in its wake”…
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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