3. About the Karachay-Balkar people



Already in the Middle Ages European travellers came across a Turkic-tongued people naming themselves tavlu ‘mountaineer, highlander’ in the area of the snow-capped Central Caucasian Mountains, on the Elbrus, the heart of the Caucasus, and in its abysmal valleys.

The missionary Johannes de Galonifontibus visiting the Caucasus in the early 15th century wrote of the Karachays called Kara Cherkes by his neighbours:

“Cherkessia or Zikia lies at the foot of the mountains behind the Black See. Various peoples live here. In the valleys of high mountains live the Black Cherkes, on the shore of the sea live the White Cherkes people. No one visits the Black Cherkes people, and they never leave the mountains barring the acquisition of salt. The Black Cherkes have a language of their own.”(Tardy 1978: 105)

The missionary A. Lamberti working in the Caucasus two hundred years later, in 1635−1653 writes of the Karachays:

“On the northern side of the Caucasus there is a people called Karachayli (Karachioli) or Kara Cherkes. Their name echoes the mountains constantly wrapped in clouds. Their language is Turkic but their fast speech is hard to understand. It is astonishing how they have preserved their pure Turkic language amidst people speaking so many peculiar tongues. Earlier, on the northern side of the Caucasus Hun Turks used to live. The Karachays are also a branch of the Huns who have kept up their ancient language to this day.” (Şamanlanı 1987: 180)

In the early 19th century the German scholar A. C. Lehrberg declared that the Karachays were the most direct descendants of the Scythians also mentioned by Herodotus, who were particularly worthy of note for their customs, language, religion and augural art (Klaproth 1814: 5).

In the mid-19th century Russian scholars interested in the Caucasian peoples began to explore the ethnic roots of the Karachay people, too. Since the Karachays speak a typical Kipchak tongue, they thought the Karachay-Balkars were of Kipchak origin. The Russian historian G. Tokarev, who toured the Karachay region in 1848, wrote the following:

“Cumans (Cuman-Kipchaks) lived in this land. They built pyramidal houses with pointed roofs for their lords. The name of the Kuban River surely comes from the Cumans. The Karachays are some of the most beautiful people of the Caucasus. Their faces do not resemble those of the Tatars, Mongols, Nogays. The Karachays settled earlier in the Kabard than the Cherkes (Adyghe). They have a legend that they had come from Bashan (Baksan).” (Şamanlanı 1987: 77)

G. Tokarev raised a serious problem by claiming that the language of the Karachays was related to Kipchak while they had nothing to do anthropologically with the Tatars, Noghays, Mongols. What is more, he also pointed out that the Karachays arrived in this area earlier than the Cherkes, hence they were the natives here.

During the 20th century existence of the Soviet Union, Soviet scholars pursued important research on ethnogenesis, that is, on the theme of the evolution of ethnic groups. It is also known that Turkish scholars, for example Zeki Velidi Togan, took the position that the theory of ethnogenesis was worked out by the Soviets to support the Soviet imperialist system, for the principle of ethnogenesis postulates that a people evolves on a linguistic and anthropological basis instead of ethnic grounds from a mixture of diverse groups. (Togan 1977: 22)

In the second half of the 20th century the Russian scholar L. Gumilev’s works related to pan-Turkic culture and history opened up new roads in ethnogenesis research. In Gumilev’s view the evolution of different peoples took place much earlier than the periods reported on in the written sources or observable in some other way (Gumilev 1991: 168).

It is not settled yet scientifically when and how the Karachay-Balkar Turkic ethnic group – an organic component in the array of Caucasian peoples – evolved. Nor is any other Turkic group’s evolution known conclusively.

It has intrigued scholarship how in the high mountains of the Central Caucasus a group of people speaking a Kipchak Turkic tongue could emerge in the company of people speaking the widely divergent Abkhaz, Adyghe-Kabard, Ossetian, Georgian-Svan etc. languages. Diverse political and scientific explanations have been proposed.

Some researchers think that the oldest populations of the Caucasus are the groups speaking Caucasian languages, and the Turkic-speaking Karachay-
Balkars and Kumyks arrived in the 10−13th centuries, and adopted the culture of the Caucasian people. This is, however, a political position without scientific bases, for the people of the Caucasus cannot be grouped into indigenous people and newcomers for historical and social considerations. As an ethnic entity, the Karachay-Balkars and Kumyks evolved through the times in the territory of the Caucasus in the course of ethnic and social-cultural processes. It is in vain to search for their ethnogenesis outside the Caucasus, as the historical data confirm that no group by these names had existed elsewhere.

In today’s anthropological typology, the native people of the Caucasus belong to the South Mediterranean branch of the Caucasoid race. Anthropological research subsumes contemporary Caucasian people into three anthropological groups:

West Caucasian Pontic type (of the Black Sea),

Caucasian type of the Central Caucasus

South Caucasian Caspian type.

The Pontic type is represented by the Adyghe and Abkhaz people living in the West Caucasus. To the Caspian type belong the Laz and Kaytak living in Daghestan in the South Caucasus, while the Karachay-Balkars, Ossetians, Chechen-Ingush, Avar, Lak, Dargin and Rutul people belong to the Caucasian type of the Central Caucasus. The Caucasian and Caspian anthropological features commingle in the Chechens-Ingushes, as well as Daghestan’s Avar, Dargin, Lak, etc. people but there the Caspian features still dominate (Betrozov 2009: 38).

Caucasian tribes

The Caucasian type is very old and morphologically unique, populating continuous areas in the middle of the Caucasus in large numbers, which has led some anthropologists to the conclusion that theirs is the most ancient human formation in the region. Thus, the Caucasian type might be the remains of the groups living perhaps from the Paleolithic age on the slopes of the central part of the Caucasian range (Betrozov 2009: 39). The Karachay-Balkars speaking a Turkic tongue in the area of the Middle Caucasus also display the same typical features.

While the Caucasian type has local Caucasian features, the Pontic (Ady­ghe-Abkhaz) and Caspian (Chechen-Daghestanian) types can be discerned in West Asia as well. This might imply that the roots of these two types can be traced to West Asia and Anatolia, and their representatives migrated along the shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea from the south to the Caucasus.

The old homeland of the Adyghe-Abkhaz and Chechen/Ingush-Dagestanian languages must have been West Asia and Anatolia. This is supported by the fact that the Adyghe-Abkhaz language group and the ancient Anatolian Hatti language derive from the same roots, and that the Chechen-Dagestanian language and the South Anatolian old Khurri-Urartu languages are closely related. The ethnic groups speaking these tongues came from West Asia to the Caucasus in the 4−3rd millennium BC, as scholarship has found (Betrozov 2009: 40-41).

In Tibor Halasi-Kun’s view, not a single group in the Caucasus is “native” in the strict sense of the word, having come from elsewhere to the Caucasus at different points of time: “It is generally conspicuous that the Caucasian tribes are not indigenous. To divide these tribes into natives and newcomers is erroneous.” (Halasi-Kun 1991: 45)

In the first millennium before Christ diverse groups representing the ancestors of the Abkhaz/Adyghe, Ossetian and Karachay-Balkar people lived in the Caucasus, who contributed to varying degrees to the emergence of these peoples. From the 7th century BC Kimmerian, Scythian, Sarmatian, Alan, Hun, Bulghar Turk, Avar, Khazar, Pecheneg, Kipchak, etc. groups invaded the Caucasus and settled there, causing a radical change in the ethnic map of the Central Caucasus.

By assimilating the local Caucasian people of Caucasid anthropological features who had brought to life the Koban culture of the Bronze Age, the Ossetians of a Iranian tongue and the Turkic-speaking Karachay-Balkars emerged in the Middle Caucasus. The Ossetian and Karachay-Balkar people and cultures were certainly fundamentally influenced by the Caucasian substratum belonging to the Koban culture (Betrozov 2009: 227).

Apparently, the lowermost stratum of the Karachay-Balkar people comprises the Caucasian tribes of the Caucasian type of the oldest local group of the Central Caucasus who had created the Koban culture.

The Koban culture acquires new facets when the Kimmerians, Sarmatians, Alans and other tribes of steppe nomads arrived in the Caucasus. These tribes mainly settled in the impassable narrow passes of the range where Karachay-Balkars and Ossetians were living and enriched the Koban culture with their nomadic culture of the steppe.

In diverse formations, the Kimmerians pushed into the Caucasus, the Cri­mea and the Dnieper valley in the 13−8th centuries BC. This expansion is connected to the great tribal merging affecting Central Asia up to the entire Black Sea (Tarhan 1979: 362). The kurgans in Bestav (Piatigorsk) in the Caucasus and some remains along the upper stretch of the Kuban from the years 1200−1000 BC survive from the Kimmerians (Grousset 1980: 22).

The Koban and Colchian cultures were representatives of the major branch of the Kimmerians penetrating the central Caucasus. Their impact on neighbouring cultures was momentous, just as they were also influenced by the local Caucasian traditions. The rich treasure troves found in the kurgans clearly reflect the martial character of these steppe groups. This group later played a great role in the migration of the Kimmerians and probably got superimposed on the basic layer while moving across the Caucasus.

Upon the raids of Scythians arriving from the east, the Kimmerians were forced to migrate south- and westward in the 7−5th centuries BC. In this period the concentration of people in the south Russian steppe caused by a major wave of migration from Central Asia generated tensions. In the 7th century BC the Huns progressing from the northwestern borders of China pushed the Scythians towards the south. The Kimmerian tribes moving westward upon Scythian pressure merged with diverse other tribes and disappeared, while the Kimmerians migrating southward crossed the Caucasus, leaving a considerable number of their kind behind in the mountain range.


The period between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC is a new era in Karachay-Balkar and Ossetian history in the Central Caucasus, with their culture and ethnic identity undergoing further changes. The period beginning with the Scythians brought about a second common stratum in the ethnogenesis of the Karachay-Balkar and Ossetian people.

The origins of the Scythians have been fiercely debated by western scholar. Ellis H. Minns notes that it was perhaps the origins of the Scythians that have elicited most polemics. Most scholars in the west take the position that the Scythians are of Iranian, i.e. Indo-European origin. Russian scholars, on the other side, regard this view unfounded and undemonstratable (Ayda 1987: 29).

The ancient Greeks called all the inhabitants along the Black Sea and in Central Asia Scythians (Ayda 1987: 29) for they had no chance to observe the anthropological differences among the people living north of them. The historians-travellers who could have a deeper insight into the region noted the ethnic differences among the tribes living here. Strabo, for instance, differentiated the Sarmatians of Iranian origin from the Scythians and Herodotus also writes that the language of the Sarmatians was different from that of the Scythians.

Contending this view, some western scholars claim on the basis of some personal names presumably of Scythian origin that the Scythians were of Iranian origin (Grousset 1980: 24). Some Turkish scholars believe that even if the Scythians were of Iranian origin, there must have been other, including Turkic groups among them, and therefore it is more appropriate to speak of them as an alliance of tribes of Iranian and Turkic origins. (Kurat 1972: 7)

In the years between 700 and 550 BC the centre of Scythian culture shifted from the southeast Russian steppe to the area of the Kuban River and the Taman peninsula of the Caucasus. In the 7th century BC the Scythians crossed the Caucasus, shifting from the Bronze to the Iron Age during their migrations in western Asia (Grousset 1980: 30).

There is information in Byzantine sources about some people regarding the Scythians of Turkic origin. Most important of them is the work of Menander in which he gives an account of the journey of Zemarkhos delegated by Byzantine Emperor Justin II to the Western Old Turkic Göktürk empire in 568 AD and of his reception there. This work contains sentences that clearly reveal that the Byzantines were clear about the Scythians and Turks belonging to the same ethnic family. Let me cite two such sentences.

1. Back in Byzantium, Zemarkhos says to Emperor Justin II: The people called Turk today used to be called Scythian earlier.

2. While showing the emperor the Turkic ruler’s letter written in Orkhon runic script, Zemarkhos said: this letter was written in Scythian script (Ayda 1987: 31).

The Scythian culture and beliefs resemble the Old Turkic and Iranian culture. Scythian legends claim that the father of the Scythians was a hero born of the union of the God of the Sky and the Goddess of the Earth. Later the God of the Sky sent his grandchildren useful presents including a golden plough (Ayda 1987: 200).

Traces of this myth can be found in the Karachay-Balkar culture to this day. In the Karachay-Balkar version of the common mythological Nart epic of the Caucasian people the blacksmith ancestor of the Narts, Debet, is also the offspring of the marriage of the God of the Sky and the Goddess of the Earth.

Herodotus, who had a reliable knowledge of Scythians and Scythian myths, narrates the story that the God of the Sky sent a golden plough for the soil of the Scythians, a golden yoke for the plowing oxen, a golden axe and a golden platter.

Legends and beliefs connected to the golden objects sent by the sky god live among the Karachay-Balkars to this day. In their astrology, four constellations bear the names of golden objects sent to the earth by the Sky God (Curtubayev 1997: 18). The Karachay-Balkar forefathers passing down the old Scythian myth created connections between the legendary objects and the constellations. The Karachay word to denote the Little Bear is Mirit ‘plough-iron’, the name of the Orion is Gida ‘double-bitted axe’. The Northern Crown constellation is given the name Chömüch ‘bowl/dish’, the Libra constellation is called Boyunsha ~ Boyunsa ‘oxen yoke’.

The Scythians were not an entity formed of proto-Turkic tribes but they were a tribal alliance also incorporating diverse Indo-European (Iranian) tribes. The beliefs of Scythians also fed on diverse sources, some traceable to Indian and Iranian foundations.

Herodotus writes that the Scythians worshipped the Goddess of the Hearth called Tabiti, ascribing her great significance. This name of this Scythian goddess has great resemblance to the Karachays’ Hearth Goddess called Tabu or Tabıt today, too (Laypanov-Miziyev 1993: 59).

Géza Kuun (1981: LIX) proposed an etymology for the Scythian name Tabiti, deriving it from the Turkic verb tapınmak ‘worship’.

The Karachay-Balkar scholars K. T. Laypanov and I. M. Miziyev try to derive the name of the Hearth goddess Tabu ~ Tabıt from the Turkic word tam ‘house’ and idi ‘owner’. They hypothesize that the word tabit came about from the composition of tam+idi, meaning ‘ruler of the house’ (Laypanov – Miziyev 1993: 59).

Herodotus reports that the Goddess Hestia of the Greek mythology is known by the name Tabiti among the Scythians. Hestia was Zeus’ oldest sister, known by the name Vesta in the Roman pantheon.

In the Indian culture, the name of the daughter of the Sun God Surya is Tapati. Obviously, the Scythian goddess Tabiti is related to Indian mythology and was culturally mediated from India into Scythian culture. In Sanskrit Tapati means ‘radiant’ derived from the Sanskrit word tapas ‘shine’ (Campbell 2003: 228).

To conclude, we may lay down that Tabiti, the name of the Scythian Goddess of the Hearth and the Family is not derived from the Turkic tam+idi (ruler of the house) compound but it can be traced to the Sanskrit word tapati ‘radiant’ and is connected to the goddess Tapati in Indian mythology.

In his work On Airs, Waters, Places Hippocrates (460−377 BC) revered as the father of medicine gives a thorough account of the habitat and way of life of the Scythians, the climate’s influence on their behaviour and their physique. In a chapter Hippocrates mentions that the Scythians make and eat a kind of cheese made of mare’s milk and called hippake [ἱππάκη]. The contemporary Karachay word huppegi ‘whey’ can presumably be traced to this word. From this whey or huppegi the Karachays make a kind of goat cheese called huppegi bishlak ‘cottage cheese’ (Tavkul 2000: 222). The Ossetian word huppag meaning ‘whey’ was probably borrowed from Karachay with semantic modification.

Another possibility to be considered is that the word hippake did not originate in Scythian but the old Greek hippos ‘horse’ as a cultural world migrated to the Scythian.

At any rate, the ethnic and cultural legacy of the Scythians is strongly palpable in the culture of the Karachay-Balkar people, which means that in the second phase of their ethnogenesis the Scythians played an important role.


The arrival from the North of the Hun Turks in the Caucasus from the 3rd century AD and the seizure of dominion over the region launched the third phase of the evolution of the Karachay-Balkar people. In this phase they adopted the Turkic identity and language differentiating them from the rest of the Caucasian groups. The Bulghar branch of the Huns ruling the strip along the Kuban river fundamentally influenced the ancestors of the Abkhaz-Adyghe and Ossetian people living in the area, actively contributing to the emergence of a Central Caucasian people with a Turkic tongue. This people was the “mountainous” tavlu people of the deep valleys in the Central Caucasus who identify themselves as Karachay-Balkars today.

From Central Asia the Huns crossed the Volga (Idil) on their way to the west and subjugated the Kuban Alans living north of the Caucasus (Grousset 1980: 88). In Fehér (1984: 5)’s view the Bulghar Turkic branch of the Huns settled along the Kuban in the 3−4th century.

Some historians are, however, of the opinion that the Bulghars’ presence in the Caucasus dates from far earlier times. The Syrian historian Mar Abas Katuni claims that there were already Bulghar Turks on the northern side of the Caucasus in the years 149−127 BC (Kurat 1972: 108). And indeed, research has revealed that the Bulghar Turks were already in the Caucasus before the invasion of the Huns – therefore, they could not have been a Hunnish tribe (Karatay 2003: 23).

As regards the Utrigur and Kutrigur tribes of the Bulghars, historical records demonstrate that they were living in the Caucasus prior to the Huns’ arrival. A historian who had a good overview of ethnic events in the steppe, Procopius wrote about the Utrigurs: “The people living north of the Sea of Azov were called Kimmerians earlier and Utrigurs today.” (Karatay 2003: 23)

It has been found that the Utrigur and Kutrigur groups were Bulghar tribes of the Kimmerian and Scythian fragments who remained in the Caucasus and came under Hun rule after 375 AD. After the crumbling of the Hun Empire, from 463 AD onwards, the Oghur, Onoghur and yellow Oghur tribes who began migrating westward from Central Asia and south Siberia crossed the Idil ‘Volga’ and united with the remnants of the Hunnish fragments to merge under the name Bulghar into what are known as Bulghar Turks (Karatay 2003: 23).

The Avar Turks who arrived in the Caucasus in 558 joined some Bulghar tribes and settled farther in the Balkans along the Danube. The Bulghar Turks migrating under the leadership of Asparuh in 671 to the Balkans and giving the name to today’s Bulgaria later disappeared, having been absorbed by the Slavic majority living in the area. The Kuban Bulghars remaining in the Caucasus went on coexisting with the Alan and Adyghe tribes (Avcıoğlu 11982: 720).

The deciphering of the language of the runic finds recovered in the Karachay-Balkar area in the Caucasus in recent years has promoted an answer to questions about the origins of the Karachay-Balkar people. At first the runic cave inscriptions were thought to have been written by the ancestors of the Adyghes or Ossetians, but since they could not be read in these tongues, the presumption arose that they were written in Turkic. The Karachay-Balkars exiled to Central Asia and Siberia in 1943−44 could return to the Caucasus in 1957; Karachay-Balkar scholars had then the opportunity to study the inscription which they found to be in the Hun Bulghar language.

Turkological investigations have found that the important role the Kuban Bulghars once living in the Caucasus played in the ethnic and socio-cultural development of the Karachay-Balkar people can be supported by diverse facts, for example, by the Kuban Bulghar loanwords in today’s Hungarian language.

The Hungarians moving from the Urals to the area along the Kuban lived next to the Bulghar Turks in the Caucasus for a long time, and borrowed several words during this coexistence from the culturally more advanced Bulghar Turks. Zoltán Gombocz found 231 words of the kind (Gombocz 1912).

The majority of words the Hungarians borrowed from the Bulghar Turks from the 4th century suggest highly advanced livestock breeding, agricultural practice, society and state administration. This also proves that the culture of the Bulghar Turks had a great impact on neighbouring peoples in different periods of time (Fehér 1943: 290). Many of these words still live in the Karachay-Balkar language today, others are being preserved by Adyghe and Ossetian (Tavkul 1993: 22).

Let us see a few word borrowed by both Hungarians and Karachay-Balkars from the Kuban Bulghar Turkic language: bürtük bertü =metal ball’, cegen ‘gyékény=bulrush’, çaga ‘csákány=pickaxe’, çavka ‘csóka=jackdaw’, çum ‘som=cornel’, eger ‘agár=greyhound’, geben ‘kepe=stook’, kavra ‘kóró=dry stalk’, kep ‘kép=picture’, kertme ‘körte=pear’, kübürçek ‘koporsó=coffin’, kürüç ‘kőris=ash’, purç ‘bors=pepper’, saskı ‘sáska=locust’, urçuk ‘orsó=reel’.

There are several archeological finds to demonstrate the ethnic relationship between the Karachay-Balkars and the Bulghar Turks. In the Karachay land along the source of the Indis river close to the village of Humara the remains of an old Bulghar town, the finds in Lower Chegem and Laskuta villages, the Bulghar kurgan-shaped graves found near Kasha Tav or the Bulghar cemeteries discovered in the area of the Ligit (Upper Chegem) all prove the ethnic and socio-cultural relations between the Bulghar Turks and the Karachay-Balkars.


In the years when the Hun Bulghars arrived in the Caucasus another mighty and bellicose group held sway in the area who had appeared after the domination of the Caucasus by the Scythians and Sarmatians.

The Alans arrived in the Caucasus from Central Asia in the first years of the first millennium and settled by the Lower Kuban (Kurat 1972: 15). Chinese sources refer to them as a Turkic tribe called Alang-ni (Eberhard 1942: 153), while they are called An-tsi by other Chinese sources, Alani by the Romans, Asioi by the Byzantines. In several historical sources they are called As.

In view of these research findings some European scholars presume that the Alans, an Iranian people of Indo-European origin, were the ancestors of the Ossetians speaking an Iranian tongue. Indeed, the Ossetians speak an Iranian tongue, but since no conclusive evidence has been found on the language of the historical Alans, nothing certain can be known of their language.

There is no consensus in scholarship about whether the Alans are Turkic or Iranian by origin. It is widely accepted that the Alans evolved from at least two components: an Iranian and a Turkic. By contrast, all Byzantine and Arabian historians and travellers designate the Alans as a Turkic-speaking group. More recent research appears to substantiate that the Turkic layer was the decisive among the groups constituting the Alans.

In his book The Jewish War written in the 1st century AD and translated into Russian under the title Ivdeyskaya Voyna, Josephus Flavius writes: “The language of the As and the Pechenegs is the same” (Mızı Ulu 1994: 43). The Arabian historian Bîrûnî also writes that the tongue of the Alans is a Turkic dialect, a mixture of the Pecheneg and Khwarezmian languages (Şeşen 1985: 197). As far as the ancient Arabian geographer Sa’id el Magribî knew, the land of the Alans was east of Georgia, and the Alans were Turkic tribes who converted to Christianity (Şeşen 1985: 203).

The churches of the Alans who embraced Christianity upon the influence of the Byzantine Empire and the Abkhaz and Georgian missionaries in the 7−10th centuries can still be seen in the land of the Karachays. On the hillsides by the Kuban River there is one at Chuvana, and there are two at Sinti on the slopes of the Teberdi river. There is also a church in the historical cemetery of the Alans on the shore of the Zelenchuk River in Arkhiz.

All this shows that the population living in the Caucasus in the 10−12th centuries and called by the travellers Alan, as well as the Alans who lived in the Caucasus prior to the 4th century Hunnish conquest were one and the same people. The Alans who lived together with diverse local people and mixed with a lot of them over the centuries were called Turks by the travellers of the period. One may conclude from this that the Turkic element of the Turk and Iranian tribes presumably constituting the original Alan group was later joined by Bulghar, Khazar, Kipchak and other Turkic tribes, and they may have developed a different ethnic identity, while the Iranian element of the Alans ­possibly developed a different awareness. That may be how today’s Karachay-Balkar people evolved from the Turkic element and today’s Ossetians from the Iranian groups of the Alans.

Yet it must not be forgotten that the Iranian layer of the Alans also took part in the ethnogenesis of the Karachay-Balkars. The old names of settlements in today’s Karachay-Balkar country whose meaning can be unraveled from modern Ossetians were not given by the Ossetians but by the Alan tribes of Indo-European (Iranian) roots within the Karachay-Balkar ethnic and cultural structure.

What is more, several words thought to be of Ossetian origin in the Karachay-Balkar language are not Ossetian loanwords but the legacy of the Alan tribes of Indo-European roots who took part in the Karachay-Balkar ethnogenesis. We may risk to conclude that the Alans who arrived in the Caucasus at the beginning of the first millennium and possibly spoke an Iranian tongue were among the common ancestors of the Karachay-Balkars and the Ossetians. This presumption is particularly supported by the close relations and cultural interaction of the Digor tribe and the Karachay-Balkars throughout history.

Today, the Karachays are called Alan by the Georgian-Mingrel people. The Ossetians call the Balkars As, the Balkar area Asiya, and the Karachay area Ustur Asiya (Greater As land). As is one of the names of the Alans.

The Karachay-Balkars call each other alan to this day. In the Karachay language alan means brother, friend, and in the Caucasus only the Karachay-Balkars address one another by this term.

It is thus obvious in the cultural heritage of the Karachays that the Alans have left deep imprints on the Karachay-Balkar ethnogenesis and culture.


After the Hun-Bulghars constituting the third stratum in the ethnogenesis and cultural development of the Karachay-Balkars, a new layer to be integrated was the Khazars.

The strongest and longest lived of the European Turkic Empires was the Khazar Empire surviving for 400 years. It can be seen as the continuation of the Western Old Turkic (Göktürk) Empire which comprised a number of Turkic tribes (Baştav 1987: 139).

In the early 7th century the Old Turks organized the Sabirs, Oghurs, Onoghurs, etc. and other Turkic tribes into the strong Khazar Empire. Thus the Caucasian force of the Old Turks relied on the Khazars whom the 8th century Chinese and Byzantine sources referred to as Turkic Khazars (Baştav 1987: 139-140).

The Khazars had highly advanced urban centres and having gradually settled from a nomadic, warring way of life they developed a society pursuing agriculture, livestock breeding, fishing, trade and handicrafts. Several archeological finds confirm the efflorescence of the advanced Khazar society (Koestler 1984: 15).

During their domination, the Khazars were the overlords to more than thirty peoples and tribes who paid tribute to them from the Caucasus to Lake Aral, from the Urals to the Ukrainian steppes. Their vassals included Caucasian tribes, Bulghar Turks, Magyars, Slavs and others (Koestler 1984: 17).

The Khazar traditions, art, costumes and the Khazar culture in general exerted their influence over a vast area. Stretching from the Caucasus to Middle Russia, the Khazar Empire brought about by a single people and displaying idiosyncratic features was influential on the culture of many groups even after its fall, helping their development. Scholars tried to find the descendants of the Khazar cultural features in the cultures of the Karachay-Balkars, Tats and other Caucasian peoples (Kuzgun 1985: 71).

The Khazar archeological finds unearthed around the village of Khumara in today’s Karachay-Cherkessia can be dated to the 8−10th centuries (Kuznetsov 2008: 76). Excavations have revealed that in Khumara there used to be a Khazar fortress with twenty towers and surrounded by strong fortifications.


The last group contributing to the third stratum of Karachay-Balkar ethnogenesis was the Kipchaks. The Kipchak Turks, the strongest political power on the northern side of the Caucasus were called Didi Kivchakti ‘great Kipchak people’ by 13th century Georgian historians, eastern sources called them Kipchaks, and western sources used the designation Koman (Cuman) (Tekelanı 1979: 305).

In the 11th century some of the Kipchaks who moved across the Urals from the shore of the Irtis in Central Asia reached the Volga (Idil) and began to mix with the Bulghars living there, then some of them moved on in the Caucasus up to the bank of the Kuban River.

Confronting the forces of Chinggis Khan in 1223, the Kipchaks wanted to form a league with the Alans, but the Mongol army first defeated the Alans before turning on the Kipchaks. The majority of them fled to the steppes in the north, while a smaller part united with the Kuban Bulghars and Alans who had lived here long and withdrew toward the Caucasus. This historical event put a decisive impact on the ethnogenesis of the Karachay-Balkars.

The Golden Horde founded by the grandchildren of Chinggis Khan in the 14th century and rapidly losing its Mongolian identity through Kipchakization declared the Turkic as its official language in place of Mongolian. This implies that the Mongolian population of the area was quickly assimilated (Jakubovski 1992: 34).

In the 14th century the Golden Horde split into two, the Blue Horde and the White Horde. The Blue Horde ruled the area west of the Idil River, the Crimean peninsula and the Caucasus. The Arab traveller Al-Omarî claims that the basic populace of the Blue Horde was Kipchak.

In 1395, the ruler of the Blue Horde Tohtamish and Timur engaged in a major battle on the shore of the Terek river of the Caucasus, which was won by Timur. The contemporary Arab historian Al Yezidi put down that having lost their leader, Tohtamish’ warriors and folk split into four fractions. At that time, some of the Kipchaks also found shelter in the deep gorges of the higher Caucasus. The Kipchaks thus merged into the ethnogenesis of the Karachay-Balkar people (Mokayev 1976: 88).

The archaeological finds, graves, statues once belonging to the Kipchaks and discovered in the Karachay-Balkar area in the Caucasus prove that the Kipchaks strongly influenced the ethnic and cultural map of the region.

In his travel account Rubruk, an envoy of the French king Louis IX sent to the ruler of the mongols Mengu Khan in 1253 writes the following of the funeral customs of the Kipchaks he calls Comanians: “Above the grave, the Comanians erect a large mound on which they place a small figure facing east and holding a drinking vessel around the abdomen. On the graves of the rich a pyramidal little house is erected. In some places I have seen pyramids of hewn stone in addition to the tall brick towers. I have not seen their like anywhere else in the country.” (Klaproth 1814: 149)

The artefacts the traveller referred to can be seen in Karachay-Balkar areas in our days, too. The statue of the warrior discovered in the Zelenchuk area of Karachay country closely resembles the one described by Rubruk in the 13th century. Holding the grip of his sable hanging from his belt with his left and a dinking vessel in his right, the statue of the Kipchak warrior conveys the following message: “The cup in my right is for my friends, the sword on my girth is for my enemies.” (Kuznetsov 2008: 154)

Statues like that frequently seen in the Upper Kuban and Zelenchuk areas of Karachay country cannot be come across in any other part of the Caucasus. It is known that such statues were not made in the Alanian period, and none has been found in the “Urheimat” of the Turkic tribes, the steppes and mountains of Northern Siberia.

The last layer to be contributed to the ethnogenesis of the Karachay-Balkars was that of the Kipchaks who played an important role in political, cultural and ethnic terms in the central regions of the Caucasus in the 10−13th centuries.

On the foundations prepared by the local tribes who created the Kuban culture around 3000 BC the layers of the Kimmerian, Scythian, Alanian tribes were deposited, then the wall rose with bricks laid by the Hun Bulghar and Khazar tribes and the edifice was completed by the roof placed by the Kipchaks from the 10th century.

All this information is necessary for the understanding of the Karachay-Balkar ethnogenesis and the present-day Karachay-Balkar social-cultural establishment. The above-said is supported by the Karacay-Balkar language, too, which is basically Kipchak in character but contains remains of the lexicon of Hun-Bulghar, Alanian, Khazar, Scythian and the old Caucasian tongues.

Modern-time history in brief

To have an idea of Karachay-Balkar history, it must be kept in mind that the area was strategically important for both the Russians and the Ottomans. This is where the highest peak of the Caucasus can be found, and the important passes to the south and to the Northern Caucasus all served as check-points.

Already in the 18th century the Russian began to occupy the upper stretches of the tributary valleys of the Terek. Part of the Karachay-Balkars fled and migrated to Turkey in 1885 and in 1905.

The revolution of 1917 that abolished tsarist Russia brought along the hope of independence for the Caucasian peoples. In March 1917 they formed the Provisional Caucasian Union stressing that despite the diversity of languages, the Caucasian groups share a common culture, traditions, view of life, and hence they must unite in a polity within which each group would have full autonomy. However, the Russian, Ukrainians and Kozaks took up cudgels against this independent formation.

In 1918 the Caucasian union asked Turkey for help to defend their independence. In May 1918 the United Caucasian Republic was declared, acknowledged by the Ottoman State. Turkey’s Enver Pasha promised military aid and protection of the new state in an agreement.

The Russians were sensitively affected by the establishment of the Transcaucasian confederation, as it implied the loss of control over the channels leading to the Caucasian “source of life”, the oil of Baku. From the direction of Daghestan Lenin despatched the Red Army while from the other side the white Russian and Armenian troops supported by the English attacked the South Caucasus, but the Ottomans pushed them back and occupied Southern Caucasus and Dagestan. In the meantime the Kozaks of Terek and Kuban caused tension in the local population of the West Caucasus, which brought along the Turkish military occupation of the area.

A loser of World War I, Turkey eventually was forced to withdraw from the occupied Caucasus and retreat behind its old frontiers. The people of the Caucasus were left alone in the teeth of Russia which soon subjugated the region.

The Soviets took control of the Balkars in 1920 and attached the Balkar district to the Mountainous Soviet Socialist Republic (Gorskaya A.S.S.R.) in 1921. Uniting the Balkars with the Kabards in September of the same year, the Kabard-Balkar Autonomous Area was created, followed by the Kabard-Balkar and Karachay-Cherkes Autonomous Republics in December.

In 1936 a new administrative subdivision came about: Adyghe A. A. (with Krasnodar centre), Karachay-Cherkess A.A. (Stavropol centre) and the Kabard-Balkar, Chechen, Ingush and Daghestanian Autonomous Republics. Thus, the Karachays and Balkars belonging together in terms of language, culture, history and ethnic roots were administratively separated. The same applies to the Cherkes, who were portioned out in three administrative units under the names Adyghe, Kabard and Cherkes. The Russification of the area began. From a population rate of 81%, the rate of Karachays in the Karachay-Cherkess A. A. dropped to 30%. The Russians did not colonize the Karachay-Balkars but created Kumyk, Ossetian and mountain Jewish settlements whose inhabitants gradually turned the pastures into arable land. This largely contributed to the Karachay-Balkars’ shift from nomadic life to sedentary land tillage, but they resisted kolkhozisation with arms. Stalin condemned them as “the cruel enemy of the Soviet people”.

In World War II the Karachay-Balkars fought against the Russians. The Germans namely promised the Karachay-Balkars who fought as volunteers on their side to have freedom of religion, to form agricultural cooperatives instead of kolkhozes and to facilitate the unification of the Karachay-Balkar people.

The North Caucasian people wanted to establish a United Caucasian Republic, but the area was meant to be a colony of the Germans. When around the end of 1942 the Germans withdrew, a volunteer army of some 15,000 Adyghes, Kabards, Karachay-Balkars and Ossetians went with them. As soon as the Germans had left, the Russians launched a major attack in January 1943 with tanks, bombers, cannons and destroyed all the Karachay villages.

After the war, in 1944−45 the Russians deported some 1.5 million, mostly Muslim people accused of collaborating with the Germans. In addition to Balkars and Karachays, the deported included Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingushes and Meshkets. They were gathered and transported in freight and cattle wagons to Uzbekistan, Khazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Siberia. When the evacuation took place, only the aged, the women and children were at home; the men still fighting on the front were sent after them. Some estimates put the deaths during deportation to two-fifths, others think about half the deported died on the way.

A part of their territory was attached to the Georgian S.S.R., the rest to the Kabard Autonomous S.S.R. They were not even recognized as a separate ethnicity for some time, and the names of their villages, lakes, rivers were replaced by Georgian names or Russified.

In 1956 Khrushchev partly rehabilitated the Karachay-Balkars, and in 1957 most of them could return to their homeland after 14 years in exile. Their arrival was not devoid of problems, though. The homecomers were in very poor physical condition, their villages were razed to the ground; several of them had to be abandoned. For instance, in Upper Teberdi, 145 out of the 860 houses remained intact, the figures being 200 out of 4000 in Uchkulan. Even some of their gravestones were put into the foundations of new houses, or used as shooting targets.

The Karachay-Cherkes A.A. was restored, bringing the ethnic tensions to the surface again. The Karachay-Balkars were not reinstated in their rights, and some thirty years after their expulsion they were still called traitors, villains. The press articles labelled them unreliable reactionaries, which enhanced the hostile feelings of the Cherkesses, Abkhazes. They were blamed for killing 150 pupils of a Russian school during WW II. This baseless accusation was only cancelled much later.

In 1989 they were rehabilitated, after which the Karachays and Balkars tried to fight out their independence as an ethnicity, without success. In 1990 they declared the Karachay Republic, but it was not recognized by the Russians. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Karachay-Cherkess A. A. could assume the status of Karachay-Cherkess Republic, which in turn hindered the unification of the Cherkeses.

From 1993, the Russians were gradually leaving the area for Russia. The depopulated villages were gradually occupied by Karachays descending from higher in the mountains, and soon the Karachay territory stretched from the Caucasus range up to the vicinity of the town of Cherkesk. In 1993 the exiled received compensation, and in 1994 Yeltsin declared the Karachays would get some support in their economic and cultural development so as to recompense them for the harm caused by the deportation.

In 1995 Yeltsin appointed an old communist V. Khubiev to lead the Karachay-Cherkess Republic and the ensuing parliamentary elections were also won by the communists. In 1996 a new constitution was drafted, and Karachay, Cherkes, Abkhaz, Noghay and Russian were enacted as official languages. Russian was to be the language of communication and the only accepted language of official documents.

The first independent elections were held in 1999, which leashed up passions among the ethnic groups of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, first of all the Karachays and Cherkesses (Adyghes) who amounted to 10% of the population, and caused bloody atrocities prior to the elections. Despite the Russians amounting to 40% of the population, and the Cherkess and Abkhaz voters, the Karachay candidate won 85:12. This in turned stirred an uproar among the Cherkesses who wished to divide the Karachay-Cherkess Republic. In the autumn of 1999 an armed conflict broke out. The losing candidate, the Chechen Derev did not comply with Putin’s encouragement to accept the position of vice president, making further efforts to establish an independent Cherkess Republic.

The main source of tension in the region is the fact that the Karachay-Balkars on the one hand and the Adyghes-Cherkesses-Kabards on the other hand are divided administratively despite their respective ethnic, cultural and linguistic coherence, and they would like to unite.

Picture 2. A mosque in the land of the Caucasian Karachays