Karachay-Balkars as seen by European
and Russian travellers

The collective name all Karachay-Balkars use to refer to themselves is tavlu ‘mountaineer, highlander’. Their more specific names come from the valleys they live in, thus they have Karachay, Bashan, Chegem, Kholam, Bizingi and Balkar groups. In tsarist Russia this tribal alliance of people of identical ethnic roots, culture and language living in five different valleys was referred to as piat gorskih obshchestv ‘five mountainous peoples’ (Kudashev 1991: 155). By uniting the mountain dwellers living in the Basham, Chegem, Holam, Bizingi and Balkar valleys under the name Balkar, the Soviet power created an artificial ethnicity. What is more, they forced the mountain people into one autonomous republic with the Kabards.

The earliest European source on the Karachays is Johannes de Galonifontibus’ note who visited the Caucasus in 1404. He called them Kara Cherkes (Tardy 1978: 105). Italian A. Lamberti, a missionary in the Caucasus in 1635−
1653 also writes about them as Kara Cherkes or
karachioli (Šamanlani 1987: 180).

The commander of a Russian corps detached to the Terek area in 1643, M. I. Volinskiy wrote in a report about Balkar villages and about Karachay Cherkesses around Bestaw (Piatigorsk) (Mızı Ulu 1994: 29).

In 1806 J. C. Adelung, who classified the Turkic groups and languages, designated the Balkars as Basiyan (Arat 1987: 74).

Klaproth noted in 1807 that the Crimean Tatars also called the Karachays Kara Cherkess (Byhan 1936: 241), and in his work Asia Polyglotta published in Paris in 1823 he wrote that the Turkic-speaking people living west of the Ossetians in the Caucasus were called Basiyan (Klaproth 1823:82).

Adriano Balbi also introduced the Karachay-Balkars in his work Atlas ethnographique du globe published in Paris in 1826 by the name Basiyan, dividing them into three groups: original Basiyans or Balkars, Karachays and Chegems (Arat 1987:78).

In his Geographische und Statistische Ephemeniden of 1927 W. F. Palmblad ranges the Karachay-Balkars called by him Basiyan or kushha Tatar in three groups: Karachay, Cherige and Basiyan or Balkar (Arat 1987:79).

In Volksgesange von Völkern Russlands (Wien, Rohrer:1952) Robert Lach refers to the Karachays as tscherkessisch-tatarische ‘Cherkes-Tatars’.

The Kabards refer to the Karachay-Balkars as Kushha ‘mountainous’ in their tongue, preceding it with the name of the respective valley: Karshaga Kushha, Chegem (Shechem) Kushha, Balkar Kushha. Klaproth also remarked that the Kabards called the Karachay-Balkars by the name Tatar Kushha, too.

In late 19th century Russian research literature the designations Gorskiy Tatar ‘mountain tatar’, Gortsi ‘mountaineer’, and Dagli Kabardey ‘mountain Kabard’ can also be found with reference to the Karachay-Balkars (Tavkul 1993:51). Since they lived on the side of Mount Elbrus, they were also called Elbrus Tatars.

Different Caucasian groups name the Karachay-Balkars differently. The names of the Karachays include: Karashey and Kushha (Adyghe-Kabard), Akarach (Abkhaz), Karcha (Abaza), Mukrchay (Svan), Asi (Ossetian), Alani (Mingrel), Karachioli (Georgian). Names of the Balkars in the Caucasus: Balkar and Kushha (Adyghe-Kabard), Azuho (Abkhaz), Asson (Ossetian), Sabir (Svan), Basiyani (Georgian) (Miziev 1991:135).

19th century Ottoman Turkish maps written in Arabic show the Karachay-Balkars as Dag Cherkes ‘mountain Cherkes’ and Kara Cherkes ‘black Cherkes’ between the Kuh-i Elbruz ‘Mount Elbrus’ as the peak of the Caucasus and Georgia, the land of the Svans.

The earliest detailed account of the Caucasus and the Karachay-Balkars is to the credit of Klaproth, who toured the Caucasus and Georgia in the early 19th century. He wrote of their history, language, culture and social stratification. Before setting out on his Caucasian expedition, he was advised by A. A. Lehrberg in writing, as his note of 28 August 1807 confirms that he should not miss visiting the idolater Tatars (Karachays) under Cherkes (Adyghe) and Abkhaz influence and living in areas behind these groups. A. C. Lehrberg added that this people, the direct descendants of the Scythians described by Herodotus, was worthy of attention for their customs, language and augural skills (Klaproth 1814:5)

Klaproth set out in September 1807. In his book Travelling in the Caucasus and Georgia the following passages can be read about the Karachays:

“The Cherkesses call them Karshaga Kushha, but the Mingrels and Imeretjalis name them Karachioli. The Tatars call them Kara Cherkes as they are subordinated to the Cherkesses. [The Karachays] claim they had come to their current area from Magyar1 before the Cherkesses came to Kabardia and they adopted the name of their ruler Karcha bey. They live on the shores of the Kuban, Khurzuk and Teberdi Rivers on the northern slopes of Mount Elbrus they call Mingi Taw. To the west of them one finds the Abkhaz tribes called Tram, Loo and Kard. One of their two major settlements is Karachay of 250 houses on the bank of the Khurzuk river. The other one is on the shore of the Teberdi west of the Kuban and consists of 50 houses. It was founded recently by refugees from Karachay who fled from Kabard attacks. Until most recently the Karachays were idolaters like the Balkars and Chegems, but by now Islam has spread among them and they have even come to loathe pork that they liked so much. It is nearly 30 years now that the Kabard religious leader Ishak Efendi disseminated Islam among them (in 1782).

The Karachays are some of the most beautiful people in the Caucasus. Their skin is white, their eyes are black they have finely cut features and excellent physique. The flat face and oblique eyes typical of nomadic Turks and Noghays are unknown among them. They did not mix with the Mongoloids but rather resemble the Georgians.

Unlike the neighbouring Cherkesses (Adyghes) and Abkhazes, the Karachays do not rob or plunder. Stealing and cheating are rare words among them. They are generous and industrious.

It can certainly be declared in general that they are the most highly cultured people among the Caucasian groups. They adhere to their lords with unconditional loyalty and are generous to those in poverty. The rich do not despise the poor and even lend their oxen to them.

The weapons they use now include the rifle, pistol, sword and dagger. Earlier they also used a shield and a bayonet in the muzzle of the rifle, as well as a lance called muzhura.

The Orusbiy tribe, who wandered from the Baksan (Baskhan) to the top of the Djalpak Mountain are also Karachays. The tribe of 150 families is controlled by the Kabard prince Misost. In addition to descendants of families who had lived in Karachay for a long time, a family or two from Derbend also settled in that village. Their ancestors used to live somewhere around Endrey.2

The Chegem group of the Cherkesses call Chegem Kushha ‘Chegem mountain people’ consists of 400 families. They live above the highest snow-capped mountains along the upper stretches of the Chegem and Savdan rivers.

Their society consists of princes biy, freemen özden and servants chagar. The freemen are not obliged to serve the princes, but they are all subordinated to the Kabard princes to whom they pay tribute. But whenever they have a chance, they refuse to obey these overlords. They have innumerable herds of sheep and small horses that are ill suited to carry large load but perfectly fit for mountain paths. They usually sell their horses to the Imeretyalis3 and Mingrels. The area they use jointly with the Balkars is called Bassiya by the Georgians.

Seeing their old stone churches and ruins in the mountains one can’t help imagining that once they were far more numerous. They have their village called Ullu El on top of a high mountain by the Chegem river; its church used to be built on a huge rock. The path cut into the cliffs winds its way to the village with a rail fastened to the rock with iron clamps. Pallas had come across sheets of ancient holy books here. On one the New Testament could be read in old Greek, the rest were orthodox ecclesiastic books. At feasts the place is usually teeming with sacrificial animals; pregnant women offer up sacrifices so that their delivery will be felicitous.

The people called Balkar Kushha ‘mountain Balkars’ by the Cherkesses and Bassiyani by the Georgians use the name Malkar to identify themselves. They are over 1200 families and live above the Cherek – Psigansu – Aruan – Argudan Rivers. The areas around Bizingi above the Upper Mishchik emptying into the Chegem River on the left also belong to them. The Bassiyats, the princely families of the Balkars, are equal in rank to the Kabard nobles vork and are of Ossetian origin according to a Georgian legend; this statement however needs further verification.

The village Holam above the river Kholam springing amidst high mountains and flowing into the Chegem from the west is still populated by Svans4 who dress like the Imeretyalis. Not only here but also in Kasha Taw the Svans live subjected to Kabard rule and engage with them in trade, exchanging their products and slaves for salt and cereals.” (Klaproth 1814: 284-294)

The Russian officer sent to Karachay in the 1850s, V. Shevtsov put down the following:

“The Karachays live in great heights on the side of Mount Elbrus. Though they aren’t many, they are great champions, never being defeated by the enemy. Their hostile neighbours on the other side of the Kuban River are the Basilbiy, Tatar, Mangurat, Imanzor, Abzeh, Shapsig, Essen, Tamli, Shergay, Barakay, Ibesan, Dohshuk, Murza, Temirgoy, Bissa, Getikoy, Zhane, Mahosh, Bzhedug, Natuhay, Besleney, Ubih, Abkhaz, and the Kabards on the left.

The Karachays are also a Turkic people. They are closely related to their neighbours, but they have reserved their own language pure. Unlike the rest of the mountain folk, they keep their clothes and dwelling clean. They speak nicely and keep their word. The men are medium high, spectacularly built, most of them with radiant eyes. The respect they pay the elderly cannot be experienced anywhere else. Their milk drinks, the ayran and boza are extraordinary. They all but fly as they dance their fast dances. Their instruments are the three-stringed kil kobuz, the davul ‘big drum’ and the 12-stringed harp.” (Šamanlani 1987:84–85)

G. Petrov, a Russian governor appointed to Karachay in 1870, put down the following:

“Most Karachays are of medium stature, with a healthy build, creole skin and broad shoulders. Their life-affirming glance distinguishes them from all the rest of the mountain people.

Their costume is of Asian pattern. Their perseverance is a match to all Caucasian groups. The Karachays move excellently in the mountains on both horseback and on foot. They know the Elbrus paths like the palm of their hand. You meet many who have ascended to the peaks of the Elbrus.

They speak a tongue of their own, which resembles Tatar, Noghay. They love talking, it’s second nature to them. They are ready to explain new things.

They stick to their family. The husband, wife and children share the chores among them. A young person does not sit down next to the elderly, does not utter a word or eat with them. Guests are held in great respect. The head of the family assigns the best dishes, the best resting-place for the guest. While the guest consumes the meal, the most deeply respected elderly people sit next to him. The host does not sit by the table but waits on the guest.

When the Karachays are far from their home, they feel homesick, they are like wilting flowers. They find the plain ugly.” (Šamanlani 1987: 127–131)

N. Alexandrovich Stof, who visited Karachay in 1890, wrote about the Karachays’ conversion to Islam:

“Until the hostilities that broke out in the early 17th century, the Karachays lived in deep valleys and worshipped idols. The Crimean khan sent troops to the Caucasus to disseminate Islam. They converted the Adyghe (Cherkes) villages on the bank of the Zelenchuk River. But along the Kuban, they came across Karachays who had never succumbed to anyone. These Karachays appealed to an idol called Marzha for strength, they prayed that they might be able to defend their homeland and freedom, and they faced up to the conquerors. The soldiers of the Crimean khan failed to spread Islam among them, so they retreated without success. Eventually Islam was embraced by the Karachays in the late 18th century.” (Šamanlani 1987: 166)

Byhan writes the following of the Karachays:

“The Karachays are famous for their white skin and fair features. Indeed, you can hardly find an ugly Mongoloid type among them. They most closely resemble the Georgians. Their hair and eyes are black, most men wear a beard.

They mainly engage in breeding small livestock. In winter they drive their herds to the Kabard lowlands, and in summer to the alpine pastures. With the help of their homecrafts they weave shawls, kilims, rugs, make felt cloaks, hats, saddles, boots. They are all good hunters. They prey on bears, wolves, foxes, pumas and chamois.

Their staples are milk, cheese, butter, mutton and horsemeat. They are fond of spicy dishes.

Similarly to the Cherkesses, the Karachays distinguish three social groups: princes, freemen and peasants. Separately from all three are the mollas or priests and the serfs.

The Karachay women beat themselves when mourning for their deceased, the men keep slapping each other in the forehead with their swords and pierce their earlobes with jack-knives.

They surround their cemeteries with stone walls. Around Teberdi, they erect stones on the graves in pyramidal or circular shapes. Islam began to spread among them after 1782, but they still believe in supernatural powers. They have their own mountain deities, Eliya being the most important, at the feast of whose honour they dance and offer sacrificial animals. Similarly to other Caucasian people, they have sacred trees and sacred sources.” (Byhan 1936: 240)

In 1886 a Russian alpinist researcher set out for the peaks of the Elbrus. Of the Orusbiys of Karachay-Balkar origin living upward from the valley of the Bashan he wrote, calling them Kabards:

“The language and customs of mountain Kabards are perfectly different from those of the Kabards in the lowlands. This nation can be taken for the paragon of open-heartedness, sharp wit and efforts made for the unity of their kind. These sons of nature constitute a marvelously healthy and beautiful nation.” (Šamanlani 1987: 212)

1 One of the leading towns of the Golden Horde Empire was Magyar in the Caucasus. The famous Arab traveller Ibn Battuta describes the town of Magyar near the Beshtaw ‘Five Mountains’ in appreciative terms in his account. On the basis of archeological finds form around the town of Magyar Soviet scholars claim that they display Central Asian features and influenced the local Caucasian traditions (Kobičev 1986: 83). They established that objects similar to baking tins unearthed during excavations in Magyar were also used by the Karachay-Balkars and the Digors of the Ossetians living in the Caucasus (Kobičev 1986: 83).

2 Derbend and Endrey are names of two towns in Daghestan.

3 The Imeretyalis and Mingrels are Georgian tribes beyond the Caucasus.

4 The Svans are an old Georgian group neighbouring the Karachay-Balkars living beyond the Caucasus.