La questione circassa, Parte I

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

‘Circassian’ is a word which might recall an adventure in a faraway land of the mysterious and impenetrable Orient. In truth, if we take for granted the manual land borders of Europe (the Ural Mountains and the Caucasus), the Circassian people rightly belong to the traditional geographical area of the Old Continent: the historical seat of this population is located in a vast area that, from the northern slopes of the Great Caucasus, winds uninterruptedly along the coasts of the Black Sea until it touches the Sea of Azov at its westernmost point. The relative mystery that surrounds this ethnic group, at least in today’s West, certainly does not mean that from a historical point of view this population is less noteworthy than many others who have acted and continue to act as a bridge, if one exists, between Europe and the surrounding worlds. The misfortunes that mark the history of this people are extremely useful to reflect both on a multi-ethnic political structure such as Russia and to start a serious discussion on the concept of genocide, often misused.

The earliest phases of Circassian history are difficult to reconstruct, as is the case for all peoples of the North Caucasus, mainly due to a substantial lack of written sources concerning the territory before the modern age. The Circassians or Adygeans, as they are known, often appear as secondary protagonists in the chronicles of those populations that encountered them, from the Greeks in the 6th century BC to the Georgians and Slavs in the Middle Ages. The image that is generally given is that of a people divided by incessant infighting between tribal entities and demographically decimated by the practice of selling the defeated as slaves. The majority of the Mamluks, soldiers of servile extraction who dominated Egypt for centuries, were of Circassian origin.

In the 16th century the Kabardinians, the most easterly and powerful of the Circassian subethnic groups, were for a time able to control a large part of the north-western Caucasus, but the hypothesis of a unitary political structure soon faded, both because of internal divisions and the continual invasions of the neighbouring Crimean Tatars. Contact with the Crimean Tatars certainly had the characteristics of a clash, although it should not be forgotten that earlier, in the 14th century, it was the influence of the Crimean Tatars that had strengthened the presence of Islam in a region where, leaving aside some Christian-Byzantine influences, a large part of the population was still strongly attached to the traditional religion.

Finally, in the 18th century, Circassia found itself having to face the expansionist aims of a Russia that had long since become an empire and had huge interests in taking possession of the region. The areas occupied by these people were not only attractive from an agricultural point of view but the valleys and passes of the Great Caucasus, which the Circassians had controlled for some time, were an essential watershed to dominate to expand towards the territories controlled by the Turkish and Persian Empires, both by now weak and at the mercy of the western powers. The subjugation of these two to tsarist power would open the way to the Indian subcontinent and its riches: Circassia had to be conquered. At any cost.

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