Using “Text-On-Maps” Search to Explore the Mapping of Circassia and the Circassian Genocide

As was explored in the previous GeoCurrents post, Circassia often appeared on maps of Asia and of the world before the twentieth century. But how did the mapping of Circassia change over time? This has not been an easy question to answer, but advances in text recognition are now making it much more feasible. A collaboration between the Machines Reading Maps project and the David Rumsey Map Collection is currently pioneering such a program. Although it is still in the testing stage, the new “text on maps” search function should be both visible and editable by late 2023 through the LUNA viewer system that is used to access maps in the David Rumsey Collection online. This post, like the previous one, relies on a beta version of this technology to quickly locate instances in which the term “Circassia”* (or “Circassie,” in French) appears in geo-rectified maps held in the Rumsey collection. As this system is further honed, many more appearances of the term “Circassia” will probably be found on the maps in the collection. I therefore hope to revisit this issue some months from now to see how the results change. (For more information on on “search maps by words, see this article by Valeria Vitale.)

Preliminary though it is, my investigation yielded clear results. Appearances of the term “Circassia” increase dramatically in the early and mid-nineteenth century and then rapidly diminish, disappearing altogether by the turn of the twentieth century (see the histogram posted below). A single late outlier (dated 1901) turns out to be a historical map, designed to depict the situation not at the time of publication but a century earlier, at the time of Napoleon. Appearances of the French term “Circassie” follow a similar pattern.

The increase in appearances of the term Circassia in the nineteenth century no doubt reflects, in part, the sheer number of maps in the Rumsey collection from that era. But it is also true that Circassia gained attention from the Western public as the Russian Empire engaged in its increasingly brutal war against the Circassian people. Once that war had been concluded, with the Circassian people mostly either expelled or slaughtered, the term “Circassia” on maps receded and disappeared. First the people were removed from the place, and then the place was removed from our maps. Cartographic invisibility no doubt contributed to the erasure of the Circassian genocide from the public imagination.

My preliminary investigation also found changes in the way Circassia was cartographically depicted from the seventeenth to the ninereenth century. Earlier mapping often showed it as extending over a large area, including most of the steppe zone between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (see the previous post). Later depictions tend to be more modest, limiting Circassia to the northern and especially northwestern portion of the Caucasus and the lowlands immediately north of it. Some maps from the later period, however, severely misconstrue its location. A John Dower map of 1836, for example, misplaces Circassia south rather than north of the Caucasus range. A French map from 1834 places Circassia in the northeastern Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan essentially), while a British map from 1844 puts it outside of the mountain zone altogether, situating it in the lowlands to the east of the Sea of Azov. Most interesting is an 1821 table equating modern and classical place names, which identifies Circassia with Colchis (western Georgia) and Bosphorus (meaning the Cimmerian Bosporus, or the Strait of Kerch region).

The Western public was deeply intrigued by Circassian people in the early and mid-nineteenth century, owing both to Russian assaults on the region and to the popular notion that the Circassians were the world’s most beautiful people. But perceptions of the actual geography of Circassia evidently remained rather vague throughout this period.