The Circassians of Palestine
By Adeeb Asfoura
On a recent visit to Abu Ghosh, I met a guy from a large family who showed me around the village. When I looked at his deep blue eyes, I knew something was a little different about this man even though he spoke perfect Palestinian Arabic.
After sitting down in a restaurant, we started to talk about Abu Ghosh, and he told me something that was new to me: “We’re from a Circassian family.” At the time, I thought, “What is a Circassian?” I had obviously heard of various groups of Jews • Orthodox, Sephardic, Ashekenazi, Reformed • and Karaites, Samaritans, Druze, Christians of all backgrounds, and Baha’is, but this was a first for me. So I thought I would do a little research on the Circassians of Palestine.
Circassians • Some general information
The word “Circassian” generally refers to a group of people who lived near the foot of the Caucuses Mountains on the shore of the Black Sea in what is today southern Russia. It is from the word “Caucuses” that the English word “Caucasian” has its roots.
Circassians are known for their light complexion and Caucasian features, including blonde hair and blue eyes. The Circassian people refer to themselves as the Adyghe people. Circassians in general are also referred to as Abkhas and Ubykh peoples. These three sub-groups, however, excluding the Chechens and the people of Dagestan, form the group of people from which modern Circassians trace their heritage. Today we find Circassian communities in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Romania, Syria, Russia, the United States, Canada (more than 100,000 persons), and Australia.
The Circassians lived in the southern Russian Federation for many hundreds of years. Generally speaking, they adhered to the Muslim faith. Starting in the year 1763, Russia began a campaign to move these people south, out of their home country. The years between 1763 and 1864 became known as the period of the Russian•Circassian wars. The wars ended in 1864, but not before a brutal campaign against the people that saw a considerable number of Circassians move south into the Ottoman Empire.
Circassians in the Fertile Crescent
The movement of the Circassians into the Fertile Crescent in the late 1870s provided some much-needed revitalization for many communities. For example, one neighbourhood in Damascus is still known as Al Tcharkassiyya. Following this period, the Syrian town of Al Quneitra in the northern Golan Heights was predominantly Circassian, and the population even attempted, without success, to convince the French government to help them build a Circassian homeland there.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, they withdrew further into Syria, specifically to Damascus. Many Circassians were unsatisfied with their situation and, in the mid-1970s, petitioned the United States for asylum. As a consequence, many were allowed to immigrate to America, where they settled in New Jersey and New York City. The Circassians who remained in Syria live in villages near Aleppo, Hama, Humus, and the Golan Heights.
In Jordan today, Circassians make up approximately one percent of the population. According to the UNHCR, Circassians hold 2 of the 80 seats in the House of Representatives. Circassians first arrived en masse in Jordan in 1878, where they settled in Amman, Wadi Seer, and Na’ur. Today Circassian populations can be found also in Jerash, Sweileh, Zarqa, Azraq, and other parts of northern Jordan. Estimates of the Circassian population vary from 20,000 to 80,000.
The Ottomans managed the resettlement of the Circassians to some extent, recruiting them into the police force and governmental structures. Until the 1940s, they continued to overwhelmingly prefer service in the army or government, but now they are represented in a diverse assortment of sectors and professions. Circassian Jordanians are a well-educated people who continue to play a significant role in Jordan’s political, economic, and social life, more than their numbers would indicate. In fact, King Hussein’s ceremonial guard was made up of Jordanian Circassians.
The Circassians of the Holy Land
In the Holy Land, the Circassian presence began in a significant way with the arrival of a group of people who were part of Circassian communities in the Golan Heights. They arrived in the Holy Land in 1880 and settled in two villages in particular: Kfar Kama, west of the Sea of Galilee, and Rahania, in the northern Golan Heights.
Originally, the Circassians came to Palestine to serve the Ottoman Sultan. In Kfar Kama today, there are approximately 2,000 inhabitants and, in Rahania, there are approximately 1,000. The population of Kfar Kama is oriented more to Israeli culture and language than that of Rahania, where the people tend to have a closer connection with Arabic culture and language. Circassians also live in other parts of the Holy Land; hence the earlier reference to Abu Ghosh, where one of the town’s larger families has Circassian relatives in its family tree.
Circassians are recognized for being moderate in their religious observance and holding to some old customs that tend to strengthen the family, reduce the divorce rate, and foster conflict resolution through utilizing traditional Circassian law to settle differences among themselves. Circassian culture places strong emphasis on respect for the elderly and closely knit extended families. Marriage with anyone who shares the same surname of either parent is strictly forbidden. Circassians are also well known for their honesty.
In general, Circassians in the Holy Land are well-educated. They normally speak four languages fluently: Hebrew, Arabic, English and, of course, Circassian. The Circassian language is spoken by the vast majority of the community and cultural aspects such as music, clothing, jewellery, and other cultural heritage traits are common to all members of the community. In Rahania, there even exists a Circassian museum that has chronicled and documented the Circassian presence in the Holy Land over the past 130 years.