The Circassian exile: 9 facts about the tragedy

Circassians, a Muslim people indigenous to Caucasia, had long been persecuted by the Russian Empire. Their last remnants of resistance against the Russians ended around today's Black Sea port city of Sochi on May 21, 1864.

Photo by: Wikimedia Commons
Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Circassians in Istanbul, Turkey, commemorate the banishment of their ancestors from their homeland by Russia on May 21, 2011.

Updated May 21, 2016

Circassians: A Muslim indigenous people of Caucasia

Circassians are a predominantly Muslim people whose homeland is in Caucasia – a geographic region extending from the eastern Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

They're known traditionally as mountaineers and are accustomed to living in harsh conditions, and traditionally follow a tribal structure made up of 12 tribes. 

The land which gives them their name is Circassia, which is situated along the eastern shore of the Black Sea.

This was a strategic location between two past empires which were also fierce rivals – the Muslim Ottomans and the Christian Russians.

They were culturally and politically influenced by the Ottomans and their vassals, the Crimean Tatars.

That relationship along with its crucial location made Circassia the target of a full-scale Russian invasion in the 19th century.

The Circassian flag. Each star represents one of the 12 Circassian tribes.

Here are nine facts which briefly show how the Circassian tragedy unfolded through the centuries:

1. Circassians & Islam

Most Circassians were Christians before they converted to Islam in the 15th century.

Several Muslim states had recruited Circassians and other Caucasians into their elite military units.

Circassian fighters even reached high ranking positions in Muslim Sultanates.

The Egyptian Mamluk Dynasty, which came to power in the 13th century and ruled most of the Middle East for over 300 years, was led by Circassians.

At the turn of the 17th century most Circassians eventually came to adopt Islam as their religion.

Tuman Bay II, who was the last Circassian Mamluk Sultan. He reigned in the 16th century.

2. Russian expansion

The expansion of Russia after the 17th century moved southwards towards where large populations of Muslims – including the Crimean Tatars and Circassians – had been living for centuries under the protection of the Ottomans and Qajars of Persia.

As it expanded the Russian Empire wanted to break the connection between the Ottoman Empire and the Circassians.

They also wanted to gain full control of the northeastern Black Sea, as the Ottomans controlled the southern Black Sea.

To do this, they decided to seize Circassian land.

The Russian Army marched into the highlands of Caucasia after defeating neighbouring Muslim powers such as the Qajars in successive wars since the early 18th century.

The new political reality created perilous conditions for all Muslims in the region.

But the Circassians were the worst affected because they offered the most resistance.

3. The Russo-Circassian War

For over 100 years – between 1763 and 1864 – the Circassians fought Russian armies in the mountains of Caucasia.

The Circassians deployed effective guerilla warfare tactics against the Russians during the war.

But power struggles among Circassian tribes and internal disagreements between chiefs and commoners created serious problems for the resistance.

In addition, the Circassians could not establish effective military alliances with other Caucasian peoples even though they had a common enemy.

Despite this, the Circassians fought hard to prolong the war and used tactics which frustrated Russian military strategists in ways they never expected.

An 1840 illustration shows Circassians attacking a Russian Military Fort which was built over a Shapsugian village.

4. Russia attacks Circassian villages

The Russian Army developed a new strategy of retribution in the early 1800s against Circassian raids.

Russian troops were ordered to attack villages where the families of supposed Circassian fighters were living.

The Russians conducted various assassinations and kidnappings in order to wipe out the broad rural support Circassian fighters long enjoyed as highlanders.

Russia also destroyed crops and livestock, leaving Circassian commoners with no way to survive.

They were eventually forced to submit to Russian rule or expelled from their villages.

5. Death or exile

Top Russian Military General Dmitry Milyutin found a solution to Russia's problem with the Circassians.

He advocated completely expelling the Circassians from their homeland, a policy he called a "public necessity."

Milyutin shared his views publicly by publishing them in 1857.

He said, "Eliminating the Circassians was to be an end in itself – to cleanse the land of hostile elements."

His plans were approved by Tsar Alexander II and Milyutin was appointed to the position of Minister of War in 1861.

Not long after, Russian military commander Nikolai Yevdokimov proposed that the Circassians should be expelled to the Ottoman Empire.

He said that Circassians could chose one of two options: "death, or allegiance to the Russian Empire."

An 1885 illustration of Count Dmitry Alekseyevich Milyutin, who was the last Field Marshal of the Russian Empire.

6. 1864: A dark year for the Circassians

Between March 6 and May 21, 1864, almost the entire population of the Ubykhs – a prominent Circassian tribe – were exiled to Anatolia in the Ottoman Empire.

The expulsion was so massive that the Russian Empire could not find enough farmers to cultivate the fertile lands of western Caucasia.

Circassians now all over the world mark May 21 as a day of remembrance of their tragic exile.

Circassian activists currently estimate that 90 percent of Circassians – around 3 million people – were banished from Caucasia by Russia during the expulsion process.

An 1872 painting by P.N. Gruzinsky shows Circassians leaving their homeland.

7. 1864: A year celebrated in the Russian Empire

The same year was however seen differently by the Russian Empire.

It viewed the killing and expelling of the Circassians as a great victory for its national aims and a cause for celebration.

The Russia's Caucasian Army said, "In this year, a deed has been accomplished almost without precedent in history. Not one of the mountaineer inhabitants remains on their former places of residence, and measures are being taken to cleanse the region."

The expulsions were carried out to prepare Caucasia to be settled by Christian Russians.

Imperial Russian records claim "more than 400,000 Circassians were killed and 497,000 were forced to flee abroad to Turkey. Only 80,000 were left alive in their native land."

An illustration of Circassian warriors by Theodor Horschelt.

8. The "floating graveyards"

The Ottoman Empire sent ships to bring the Circassians to Anatolia.

During the mass exile, thousands of Circassians lost their lives on the waters of the Black Sea.

Diesease and drowning were some of the main causes of death.

The Black Sea became the resting place of thousands during the grim journey.

The Ottoman Empire's Circassian settlement policy, which was seen by some as means to exert greater control over its Christian population, has also been criticised on the grounds that it was poorly planned and executed.

9. New homelands

Today Circassians live and thrive in all four corners of the world.

Their overall global population is estimated to be around 8 million, with the majority living in Turkey.

They've contributed to many developments and achievements in the country – such as the emergence of the political reform movement known as the Young Turks and the Turkish War of Independence.

They've also been credited with the creation of modern day Amman, the capital of Jordan in the Middle East.

In addition, several prime ministers of Iraq have had Circassian roots.

In Syria and Egypt certain elite families with a lot of political and economic influence are also from Circassian backgrounds.

Circassian guards march inside Basman Palace in Amman, Jordan, on Jan 11, 2016. Their unique uniforms include 16 decorative rifle cartridges. Traditionally, one cartridge held poison for suicide if they were captured or for pouring into a slot on their sword.

Still, many long to return to their homeland in the highlands of Caucasia.

Today, the region is part of the Russian Federation.

On May 21 each year, Circassians from around the world commemorate the killing and exile of their ancestors in 1864.

Descendants of Circassian exiles hold a remembrance ceremony in the Kandira District of Turkey's Kocaeli Province, on May 17, 2015.