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The Circassian Mystique and Its Historical Roots

Submitted by on January 30, 2012 – 8:38 pm 16 Comments |  
Although little known today, the Circassians were once a famous people, celebrated for their military élan, physical mien, and resistance to Russian expansion. In the nineteenth century, “Circassophilia” spread from Europe to North America, where numerous writers expressed deep admiration for the mountaineers of the eastern Black Sea. Prominent physical anthropologists deemed Circassian bodies the apogee of the human form. Promoters and hucksters capitalized on the craze, marketing a number of Circassian beauty aids and even creating fake “Circassian Beauties” to exhibit in circus sideshows.

Map of Mamluk Empire Circa 1400Although their mountainous homeland is noted for its rugged, isolating topography, the Circassians have long been well integrated into the wider world. Circassia fronts a large stretch of the Black Sea, an area that has attracted merchants and settlers from the Greek world and beyond since antiquity. In the later Middle Ages and into early modern times, Genoese traders frequented the Circassian coast. Politically, the region is usually depicted as backwater, as the Circassians never created a powerful state of their own. Yet they were no strangers to statecraft at the highest levels, having largely run the Mamluk Empire of Egypt from 1382-1517. Even after their defeat by the Ottomans, Circassians continued to form much of Egypt’s political elite. Ostensibly their power came to an end in 1811 when Mohammad Ali massacred most of the Mamluks. Still, as Kadir Natho argues in Circassian History, Circassians later reclaimed important Egyptian military and administrative positions. Vestiges of their clout in North Africa linger to this day. As Qaddafi’s power was tottering in 2011, his agents reached out to the remnants of the Circassian community of Misrata, hoping to rally its members to the Libyan regime.

Admiration for Circassian beauty and bravery in the West was widespread during the Enlightenment. Voltaire took it for granted that Circassians were a comely people, a trait that he linked to their practice of inoculating babies with the smallpox virus. In the nineteenth century, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the founder of physical anthropology, invented the concept of the “Caucasian race” partly in reference to the Circassians. He reckoned that the peoples of the Caucasus, particularly the Circassians and Georgians, represented something close to the ideal human form, having “degenerated” less than others since the creation. Early anthropologists thus sought to elevate Europeans by linking them to the Circassians in a common racial category.

Circassophilia” in the English-speaking world is often said to date to the Crimean War (1853-1856), when the British were allied with the Circassians against the Russian Empire. But travel accounts show that the attitude has deeper roots. Admiration for the Adyghe people stemmed in part from the general respect accorded to independent mountain peoples who resisted eastern empires, which in turn was linked to the disdain that most Westerners felt for Asian—and Russian—civilization. Still, the esteem granted to the Circassians in many of these works went well beyond the norm. Consider, for example, Edmund Spencer in Travels in Circassia, Krim Tatary, Etc., (1836):

It was also the first time that I had seen the Circassians mingling on friendly terms with the Russian soldiers; and assuredly a more striking contrast than the two people presented, both in physical appearance and moral expression, it is impossible to conceive. The one, with symmetrical forms and classic features, seemed breathing statues of immortal Greece; the other, coarse-looking, short, and thick-limbed, appeared like an inferior race of beings. But if the physical line of demarcation was broad, the moral was still broader. The mountaineer, free as the eagle on the wing, stepped and moved, as if proudly conscious of his independence, with a dauntless self-confidence not unmixed with scorn, that none but a child of liberty could exhibit in his bearing…  (p. 291).

Both the Circassian reputation for beauty and their heritage of holding political power outside of their homeland stemmed in part from their curious niche in the political economy of the Middle East. The Circassians, to put it bluntly, specialized in providing elite slaves for the powerful states of the eastern Mediterranean world. Mamluks, literally meaning “slaves,” were men recruited in bondage to serve as elite fighters but who later turned the tables and took over the state itself, after which they continued to replenish their own ranks by importing slaves from the homeland. Circassians were by no means the only Mamluk soldiers of the Muslim world, but they were the dominant group in Egypt over an extended period of time.

Circassian women were equally renowned as high-status slaves, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. Many, of course, did not reach elevated standing, and the oppression that they could experience was likely extreme, but many Circassian women ended up in the imperial harem, a center of real political clout. Those whose sons went on become sultans could exercise substantial power in their own rights. Elite Circassian wives, moreover, were not limited to the imperial family. As Reina Lewis writes, “In 1870, Sir Henry Elliot, the British ambassador to Istanbul, realized how indelicate it might be to raise the subject of Circassian slavery since the grand vizier’s Circassian wife had been a slave and so had been or were the wives of many other important officials”  (p. 132).

The reasons for Circassia’s intensive participation in the slave trade are debated. Some writers stress the poverty, crowding, and deep class divisions of the region, which compelled the poor to sell their children. Others counter that the trade was largely voluntary: “it would seem that maids were seldom forced into bondage, instead they themselves opted to enter into this state out of goodwill. They were lured by tales of opulence and luxury in the harems, in which their legendary beauty was at a premium.” Historian Charles King, in his engaging history of the Black Sea, recounts an episode in which six female slaves on a transport vessel intercepted by a Russian warship refused liberation, preferring to take their chances in the slave markets of Istanbul (p. 118).

Whatever its propelling factors, the slave trade deeply influenced social relations in Circassia. According to the British writer John Longwort (in A Year Among the Circassians [1840]), commoners were often unabashedly assessed in terms of market valuation:

 When you hear of their being so many hands high, or worth so many purses, you naturally conclude that they are cattle being spoken of. A Circassian has original notions on the subject: both men and women have their value as property … and it may be some consolation to the latter to know, that with any pretension to beauty, they have ten times the value of the former (p. 57).

         The stereotypical beautiful Circassian woman had dark luxuriant hair juxtaposed against smooth, pale skin. As a result, Circassian-branded hair and skin products came to be widely marked in Europe and the United States. Such connotations even made their way to gastronomy; the dish called “Circassian Chicken” is named not for its place of origin, but rather for its smooth texture and light color. By the late 1800s, “Circassian Beauties” had become circus attractions in the United States; such “performers” were not from the Caucasus, but were rather local woman of light complexion who dyed their hair and then teased and coiffed it into elaborate halos. Charles King again provides insight (in The Ghosts of Freedom, pp. 138-140), noting that Phineas T. Barnum himself took credit for “introducing the Circassians into American popular culture.” The appeal, King shows, was primarily erotic, as the so-called Circassian Beauties would recount to the crowds the “the prods and examinations” that they had experienced “in the slave bazaar.” The origin of their hairstyle is less clear; King suggests that it might have been derived either from the “tall, fuzzy hats” worn by the men of the Caucasus, or from an attempt to “Africanize”—and thus further sexualize—this quintessential Caucasian people. What is clear is that Western marketers of Circassian themes often had no idea what they were selling, as is evident in the French “Koringa” poster reproduced here.

Besides their innate physical traits, posture and bearing also played a role in the Circassians’ reputation for beauty. As numerous videos on the internet confirm, Circassian dancers typically hold their bodies in a strikingly upright manner. John Longwort noted the same characteristic in everyday life while sojourning in the region in the early 1800s. As he wrote of one local woman, “She was tall and well, though slightly, shaped, and held herself, like all Circassians, men or women, very erect” (p. 59).

As the Circassians seek to maintain their identity and bring their situation to global notice, the traditional Circassian modes of dance and dress are increasingly cultivated and disseminated on the internet. Graphic artists are also developing visually arresting Circassian themes and motifs. It will be interesting to see whether the Circassian cause and style re-enter the Western consciousness as the Sochi Olympics approach.

King, Charles. The Ghosts of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford, 2008. Pp. 138-140.

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford, 2004

Lewis, Reina. Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem. I. B, Taurus, 2004

Natho,  Kadir. Circassian History. Xlibris,  2010

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  • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

    Your comment about reintroducing Circassian visual themes and motifs into the Western culture made me think of the parallel case of Celtic Revival, though the latter was greatly inspired by such large-scale conceptual movements as the pan-European Romantic movement (which drew renewed attention to folklore and folk art) and medievalism, as well as by such specific artistic trends as the Victorian “passion for the unseen” (dreams, fairyland, etc.), which was driven at least in part by the invention of photography, which made realistic art somewhat “besides the point”. The role of Queen Victoria herself, who apparently loved Celtic-style jewelry (as do I!), suggests another important lesson for the potential Circassian revival — but I can’t think of any specific figure who could play such a role for Circassians.

    • Martin Lewis

      Interesting observations — I had no idea that Queen Victoria played a role in the Celtic revival.  Celebrity involvement in the Circassian cause might make a difference, but that does not seem likely. 

      • Adyghe

        Circassian celebrities usually turn their back on their fellow countrymen once they have been known by crowds. Worse than that, they tend to harm the Circassian identity, history, culture, etc. I don’t know what kind of psychology lies beneath it…

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Do you have any specific celebrities in mind?

          By the way, it doesn’t have to be a Circassian celebrity, just anybody with enough cultural authority and an interest in things Circassian.

          • Adyghe

            Well, there are numerous famous Circassian actors, actresses, fashion models, journalists, etc. in diaspora especially in Turkey. I can’t say they are global brands. However, some of them are known by even the Westerners. For instance, Mohydeen Quandour. Unfortunately, he is determined to falsify our history in exchange for his personal interests. He has been carrying out an anti-Circassian campaign for years. He acts as if he is the honorary consul of Putin’s Russia. Maybe he is the most notorious anti-Circassian character in the world. It is so sad…

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thank you! What’s surprising though is that the Cherkess Fund seems to promote him (http://www.cherkessfund.org/quandour.htm) — do you find that peculiar too?

          • Adyghe

            No, it’s not surprising for me because I
            know well enough Mr Quandour. He is a greedy opportunist like many diasporic
            Circassian celebrities. He knows how to swim in shallow waters.

             

            I am neither psychiatrist nor academic.
            However, based on my personal observations, I can say that the diasporic
            Circassians are excelled in ascending to the high ranks in the system. Once
            they get a relatively high position in those countries, they use their fame,
            power, influence, etc. to control their people. Why? It’s because if they don’t
            do this, their people might raise some political issues in their host
            countries. Therefore, these celebrities could find themselves in danger. The
            easiest way to eliminate this risk is to control their people by accelerating
            their assimilation. Thus, national values, identities, traditions are attacked
            by these well-known Circassian names. On the other side, non-vital issues such
            as music, dances, etc. are promoted and the nation is presented as it is a community
            made of entertainers of a big circus. In short, the national identity is
            replaced by the cultural one to serve the host countries for personal
            interests.

          • Adgyhe

            To give you an idea about these characters,
            here I will write Mr Quandour’s own words about his people and history:

             

            “Russians did not force us to leave our
            homes in homeland!” this is an excerpt from his interview with Al-Jazeera.

             

            “I am a historian and I refer to factual
            archives…not emotional outbursts and wishful interpretations. It was mostly
            Ottoman ships that brought the Western Circassians out (not Russian) after
            1864… and the Russians did give the Shapsugh/Bzhadough and the mountaineers a
            choice to live in the Kuban area. Some agreed and settled in what is today the
            Adigey Republic (Maykop). These are the facts I stated…” This was shared by
            himself on Facebook.

             

            We all know what the Russian archives and many
            foreigners’ reports say about the Circassian genocide and exile:

            http://www.circassianworld.com/new/history/war-and-exile/1143-the-reports-and-the-testimonies.html

             

            If someone, especially a Circassian, denies these historical facts, what kind of excuses could they have?
            Could we call them (people like Mr Quandour) “objective historians”? I think now we all know the answer…

             

            PS: I am sorry. I wrote quite long. All I
            want is to just clarify some points.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            The facts about Turkish ships and resettlement into Kuban area, which you mention below, are correct, but as you say, they hide the complexity of the events and tell only a small part of the story. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

        • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

          Thank you for sharing these observations. It does seem a shame, as celebrities can be very useful in bringing such issues to public attention. 

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  • Denisov
    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Must be… Speaking of Israeli Circassians… Did you see my recent post on that?

    • Adyghe

      No. Natho is a Circassian family name. We -Circassians- always put our family names in front of our forenames.

      • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

        Thanks for clarifying that!

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  • JT

    Thanks for the article. I appreciate the way you wrote of my blood line. My son is half Cherkess. I am, according to my mother, father, grandmothers and great grandfather, the last full blooded child in the family.
    My family, both sides, came to Jordan thru Turkey from Russia. Other family members married Jordanians, Saudi’s & some from Kuwait.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing your story, it’s fascinating!

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