Safavid

On “Parskahayeren”, or the Language of Iranian Armenians

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. Part of this narrative stems from the author’s visits to Armenia and the Tehrani Armenian community between 2014-5. The goal of this article is to familiarize the reader with the Christian Armenian community of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a focus on its culture and language in a historical and modern setting. 
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Christmas festivities in an Armenian kindergarten, Isfahan, Iran (1989) | Ձմեռ Պապ, Մանկապարտեզի հանդես, Նոր Ջուղա (1989)

INTRODUCTION

Armenian (self-designated Հայերեն Hayeren) is an eccentric, satem member of Indo-European and occupies its own clade within that family. Of note, it does not belong to Indo-Iranian or Balto-Slavic. Without any immediate sisters, Armenian is joined by Greek and Albanian as an extant isolate within the Indo-European family.

Modern Armenian constitutes a pluricentric language with two standardized forms. The main typological split is between Eastern Armenian (Արևելահայերեն Arevelahayeren)derived from the language of the 18th century Russified Armenian intelligentsia (Հայ մտավորականություն Hay mtavorakanut’yun) centered in Tiflis—and Western Armenian (Արևմտահայերեն Arevmtahayeren), the contemporaneous language of the Ottoman Armenian elite centered in Constantinople. These two standardized forms represent poles in a spectrum comprised of various intergrading dialects that once spanned a putative homeland from Sivas to Baku, disregarding the historical Armenian diaspora (Սփյուռք Sp’yurrk’) which at its height reached as far as London and Java. Until the 19th century, Armenian constituted a diglossia whereby literature was composed in the archaic, otherwise unintelligible Classical Armenian language (Գրաբար Grabar)—now limited to liturgy—while the spoken languages (Աշխարհաբար Ashkharhabar) belonged to the Eastern and Western varieties detailed above. The two spoken varieties are only moderately mutually intelligible without training.

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Distribution of Western (orange hue) and Eastern (green hue) Armenian varieties, prior to the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Today Eastern Armenian is the official language of post-Soviet Armenia (green, #1); Western Armenian holds no official status and is classified as a “definitely endangered language.”

The Armenian varieties encountered in Iran belong to the Eastern subgroup, as do the dialects of Georgia, Nagorno-Karabagh, and Russia. However Parskahayeren is unique within the Eastern group in that it rejected the reformed Abeghian orthographical conventions of Soviet Armenia in 1922, and is thus confederate with its distant Western Armenian cousin in retention of the archaic Mashtotsian orthography originally used to write Classical Armenian (Grabar). Following the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Western subgroup is now centered in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and abroad, but was once native to the highlands dotting modern-day Turkey.

English Mashtotsian Orthography (Iran) Abeghian Orthography (Armenia, Russia, Georgia, since 1922) Eastern Armenian Pronunciation (Iran & former U.S.S.R.)
“Resurrection” յարութիւն
yarowt’iwn
հարություն
harout’youn
harut’yun
“Hope” յոյս
yoys
հույս
houys
huys
Europe” Եւրոպայ
Ewropay
Եվրոպա
‘Evropa
Yevropa
In the morning” առաւօտեան
arrawōtean
առավոտյան
arravotyan
arravotyan

In 1749-1769 the two volumes of the Barrgirk‘ Haykazian Lezvi, a dictionary of the Armenian language, were published by Mkhit’ar Sebastats’i and his Armenian Catholic congregation in Venice, Italy—making Armenian the sixth world language to have such a complete dictionary (after Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish; the first English dictionary appeared in 1755.)

Armenians refer to themselves as Հայ Hay, and to Iran as Պարսկաստան Parskastan “Persia”, from Պարսիկ Parsik “a Persian”, and hence the root of the terms Պարսկական Parskakan “Persian (non-human adjective)”, Պարսկահայություն Parskahayut’yun “Iranian Armenian community”, Պարսկերեն Parskeren “Persian language”, and Պարսկահայերեն Parskahayeren “Language of the Iranian Armenians”.

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AcloseviewofSt.StephanosMonasteryՍուրբՍտեփանոսվանքJolfaIran
Monastery of St. Stephen the Protomartyr (Սուրբ Ստեփանոս վանք, Մաղարդավանք Surb Step’anos vank’, Maghardavank’; كليساى استفانوس مقدس Kelisā-ye Estefānūs-e Moghaddas) East Azerbaijan province, Iran (1330 A.D.)

ARMENIAN HISTORY IN IRAN

The link between Armenia and Persia is about as old as the foundation of the Persian Empire in the 3rd century B.C., but the modern Armenian-Iranian yoke has its genesis in the late medieval period. It should be noted that no pre-genocide Armenian colony (Գաղութ Gaghut’) has enjoyed the extent of affluence, relevance, and repute in its host society as the Armenian diaspora of Persia. Iran has served as a stage for momentous developments in Armenian matters, in certain contexts even eclipsing the territories considered to be at the core of Historical Armenia (Մեձ Հայք Medz Hayk’) in power and consequence.

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Khoja Petros Velijaniants’ (left) financed the St. Bethlehem Church (Սուրբ Բետղեմ Surb Betghem; كليساى بيت اللحم Kelisā-ye Bayt ol-Lahm) in Isfahan, Iran in 1628. His family opposed the rule of the Shafraz family in New Julfa, but they lost and left for Surat, India in 1638. 

In a strategic move against the Ottomans that was meant to evacuate Nakhchivan, in 1604-5 Shah ʿAbbās I transplanted over 60,000 Armenian families (Բռնագաղթ Brrnagaght’), many of whom perished, into the inner regions of Iran. But the Shah had a unique vision for a cohort of exceptionally skilled businessmen from the prosperous Armenian town of Julfa (Ջուղա Jugha; جلفا Jolfā) on the river Araks. Indeed among his most intriguing and rewarding schemes in statecraft was the establishment of a world-class commercial district headed by a semi-autonomous Armenian merchant oligarchy of Julfan extraction in his new capital city, Isfahan, wherefrom Iranian silk was traded for European silver. In this exclusive, custom-built trading colony called New Julfa, the Armenians lived in symbiosis with the Safavid state insofar as they were sanctioned by royal decree (فرمان farmān) to preserve their distinct cultural, linguistic and religious identity (Հայկականություն Haykakanut’yun “Armenianness”), while melding harmoniously with the sovereign Persislamic socio-political infrastructure.

Under the patronage of Shah ʿAbbās I and his successors, who appreciated the Armenians’ talents and expertise, New Julfa soon transformed into a thriving center of craftsmanship and international trade replete with 24 churches. Contemporary French traveler Jean Chardin wrote that, in 1673– just two generations after the Julfan Armenians’ exodus from the Caucasus to Iran– Agha Piri, the head of the Armenian Community of Isfahan and one of its richest merchants, owned a fortune greater than 2,000,000 livres tournois (the equivalent of 1,500 kg of gold). Contrast with the textile merchants Beauvais and Amiens (the wealthiest merchants in France in the same period), the wealth of these two inventoried at their deaths amounted to 60,000 and 163,000 livres tournois respectively—a figure then considered astronomical. Yet these two figures combined amounted to barely a tenth of Agha Piri’s fortune.

For more on the history of New Julfan Armenians by the same author, click here (Part I) and here (Part II)

Armenian Orthodox Church ceiling
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(Top) Interior of Vank Cathedral (Սուրբ Ամենափրկիչ վանք Surb Amenap’rkich’ Vank’; کلیسای وانک Kelisā-ye Vānk) completed 1664 A.D., New Julfa, Isfahan, Iran; (Bottom) New Julfa Armenian district, clocktower and museum (17th century), Isfahan, Iran.

Throughout the Safavid and Qajar periods, Armenian-Iranians served as brokers on behalf of Persia in both commercial and political contexts due to their common faith with Christian Europe and familiarity with the languages and traditions of the peoples of both East and the West. The provost of New Julfa (Persian: كلانتر Kalāntar “Provost”; Armenian: Հայոց Թագավոր Hayots’ T’ak’avor, literally “King of the Armenians”) was chosen to hold official receptions of foreign embassies to Isfahan on the Allahverdi Khan bridge (later renamed Si-o-Se Pol), and the Armenians acted as a welcoming committee often introducing foreign visitors to the Safavid court. Hovhannes Vardapet, a native of New Julfa, introduced the first printing press into Persia from Italy (Գրահրատարակչություն Grahratarakch’ut’yun; چاپخانه Chāpkhāne), and the first book printed in Iran was the Armenian Saghmos (Սաղմոս “Psalms”) in 1638. In 1715, the last Safavid monarch Sultān Husayn sent an embassy consisting almost exclusively of Armenians to King Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, which resulted in the establishment of a permanent Persian consulate at the port of Marseille staffed by the Armenian “Hagopdjan de Deritchan.” Armenians continued to participate in national transformations through the Qajar period, and in 1850, Naser al-Din Shah’s chancellor Amir Kabir dispatched an Armenian, Mirza Davud, to Austria and Prussia to select six instructors in different fields for the modern polytechnic school that the chancellor was constructing, the Dār ul-Funūn (دار الفنون “House of the Arts”).

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Bishop Papken Tcharian, prelate of Isfahan (Սպահանի Հայոց Թեմի Առաջնորդ Spahani Hayots’ T’emi Arrachnord), leads ceremony in Surb Amenap’rkich Cathedral, New Julfa, Isfahan, Iran.

The Armenian contribution to the overall configuration of the 20th-century Iranian society, both culturally and economically, is significant. Armenians were pioneers in photography, theater, and the film industry. The first movie theater to open in Iran (Tabriz, 1916) belonged to Alex Sahinyan, an Armenian who used the hall in the French mission of Tabriz as “Cinéma Soleil,” in which Russian and European films were shown to an enthusiastic audience. They were among the first to introduce Western music and dance to the Iranian public. The popularity of modern fast-food establishments in Iran also owes much of its original success to the daring enterprise and perseverance of the Armenian businessmen who first introduced them in the Muslim society of Iran several decades ago. Armenian athletes have represented Iran in international tournaments, particularly boxing, weightlifting, soccer, and volleyball.

Orumiyeh
St_Thaddeus_Monastery_04
St. Thaddeus Monastery (Սուրբ Թադեոսի վանք Surb T’adevosi Vank’; قره كليسا  Ghara Kelisā), Māku, Iran (1329 A.D.) In the past six centuries, more than 100 Armenian ecclesiastical structures have been commissioned in Iranian Azerbaijan, a few dozen of which are still standing today.

THE ARMENIAN PRESENCE IN MODERN-DAY IRAN

Today Tehran is the center of gravity for Iran’s ~150,000 Armenians, although this is a fairly recent transformation. The traditional centers of Azerbaijan and Isfahan (since the 17th century) have been overshadowed in recent years by the tremendous growth of the Armenian population in Tehran, where more than 60 percent of the entire community resides (meaning approximately 80,000-100,000 souls). Large-scale migration from Azerbaijan, particularly following the Turkish invasion of that province in World War I, and emigration from Armenia proper following the Russian revolution, rapidly turned Tehran into a haven. The Armenians are designated two seats in the Iranian Parliament (مجلس Majles, Խորհրդարան Khorhrdaran), whereas Jews, Zoroastrians, and Assyrian-Chaldeans are each designated only one. Three prelates with jurisdiction over the three district areas of Azerbaijan, Isfahan (including southern Iran and India), and Tehran (including central and eastern Iran) head the community. They were traditionally subject to the catholicos of Echmiadzin in Soviet Armenia, but for political reasons aligned themselves with the catholicos of Cilicia in Lebanon in the 1950’s.

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St. Sarkis Cathedral (Սուրբ Սարգիս մայր տաճար Surb Sark’is mayr tachch’ar; كليساى سركيس مقدس Kelisā-ye Sarkis-e Moghaddas), Tehran, Iran.

The privileged status of Armenian is unusual in the context of the Islamic Republic, although Armenians have enjoyed unprecedented favor in a variety of contexts since their arrival to Iran in the 17th century. Quite paradoxically, Persian and Armenian are the only two languages with any official currency in today’s pluralistic Iran. Approximately 53% of Iran identifies Persian as its mother tongue, while only 0.2% speaks Armenian as a first language. The official language of education, media, and legislation is Persian, but Armenians are lawfully entitled to their own private kindergarten-12th grade schools wherein Armenian is a primary language of instruction alongside Persian (before the 20th century reforms under Reza Shah, Persian was taught as a foreign language alongside French and English; and Russian in Azerbaijan). There are approximately fifty Armenian private schools scattered throughout Iran today, whence Armenian students seeking higher education must pass a standardized national competency exam (كنكور Konkūr; Կոնկուրսի քննությունը Konkursi k’nnutyunё)—which includes Persian literature and Islamic theology—in order to integrate into national Islamic universities.

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Surb Amenap’rkich Cathedral’s Choire led by Movses Panoian, New Julfa, Isfahan, Iran (1976) |  Նոր Ջուղայի Սուրբ Ամենափրկիչ Վանք-ի Երգչախումբ; Ղեկավար : Մովսես Փանոսյան (1976)

Armenians run their own churches, schools, philanthropic organizations, sports clubs, night clubs, cultural associations and Armenian language publications including a daily newspaper based in Tehran, Alik’ Ōrat’ert’ (Ալիք Օրաթերթ “Wave Daily Newspaper”). In Tehran’s northern Vanak neighborhood, the Ararat Complex (Արարատ Միություն Ararat Miut’yun; باشگاه آرارات Bāshgāh-e Ārārāt) is a barbed-wire walled and gated, 20-acre cultural and sports complex that only Armenians are allowed to enter (by government order), and wherein patrons are exempt from the Islamic guidelines governing inter-gender public interaction, including dress code (hejāb), and alcohol is legally consumed on the premise. Nationalist factions among Iran’s Azeris (16%), Kurds (10%), Arabs (2%), Turkmen (2%) and other ethnolinguistic minorities toil vigorously with the issues of language policy and cultural oppression, but they seem wholeheartedly unaware of the status of Armenian. Perhaps this is due to their geographic location at the periphery of Iran and subsequent disconnect from the happenings of Armenian-inhabited urban centers (except in the case of Azerbaijan), or retained traditionalism in the long-standing belief that Christians can never be truly Iranian and thus constitute a quasi-foreign element in Iranian society.

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Private Armenian night club, 2015 New Year’s celebration, Tehran, Iran (Photo by Afsheen Sharifzadeh) | 2015 Ամանորի դիմավորում, Թեհրան, Պարսկաստան


ON THE ISSUE OF IRANIAN BORROWINGS IN ARMENIAN (HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS)


Armenian shares two kinds of linkages with Persian. The first is ancestral, inasmuch as the two share a quite distant common ancestor in the form of the Proto-Indo-European language. Proto-Armenian probably split from the southwestern dialects of Proto-Indo-European around 3000 B.C., while Proto-Indo-Iranian split from the northeastern dialects around 2500-2300 B.C. For more on the Kurgan Hypothesis and PIE linguistics by the same author, click here

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Persian and Armenian are genetically related languages. Pre-Armenian, Pre-Albanian, Pre-Phrygian, and Pre-Greek split off with PIE transhumance into the Balkans (and thence Anatolia, in the case of Armenian), but their origins are conflicting and their affinities with each other are problematic for a number of reasons that are outside the scope of this article (such as incongruities in Satemization and Centum superstrate; see Middle Dnieper multi-ethnic “vortex” culture for more reading).

The second link is cultural, as manifested in the form of several hundred loanwords borrowed from Old Iranian (Old Persian, Median, Avestan), Middle Iranian (Parthian, Middle Persian, Manichaean Parthian) into Classical Armenian, and to a far lesser extent, Modern Persian into Modern Eastern Armenian . The degree of Iranian borrowing throughout all registers of the language is so profuse that in the mid-19th century experts both in Armenian and in Iranian, foremost among whom were Paul de Lagarde and F. Müller, concluded that Armenian belongs to the Iranian group of Indo-European languages. That opinion prevailed until 1875, when H. Hübschmann pioneered a methodological principle whereby Iranian borrowings were separated in chronological layers from an Armenian core. That is to say, Old and Middle Iranian borrowings have effectively entered the ‘core’ of the Armenian language from the ‘periphery’, in that they have long since ceased to be perceived as loanwords and have become nativized phonologically. Analogously, the vast majority of loans are not readily recognizable to speakers of Modern Persian—in essence rendering this second linkage inoperative in the joint social memory of Iranians and Armenians.

Although Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion among Armenians for nearly 800 years before Christianization, conditions favorable to a fruitful cultural interchange between Armenians and Iranians existed almost exclusively during the rule of the Parthian (Iranian) Arsacids over Armenia (Արշակունիների արքայատոհմ Arshakunineri ark’ayatohm; سلسله اشكانيان Selsele-ye Ashkāniān). During that period the culture of the Parthian feudal aristocracy, being superior to that of the Armenians, exerted profound influence on the highlands. Accordingly, most of the linguistic borrowings came into Armenian from the Northwest Iranian language of the Parthians in a way comparable to the overwhelming French influence on English after the Norman conquest, although there are significant contributions from Southwest Iranian during the Sassanian period.

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The Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar (Աղթամարի Սուրբ Խաչ եկեղեցի Aght’amari Surb Khach yekeghets’i), Lake Van, is based on ideas of 7th century Armenian architecture but the sculpture program is novel. The southwest façade (Top) features a sculpted scene of Jonah and the Whale in which the whale looks conspicuously like the Iranian mythological bird Simorgh (Middle Persian: senmurw → Armenian սիրամարգ siramarg “peacock”). The cross-legged figure on cushions draws from Islamic tradition. On the western façade (bottom right), Prince Gagik, commissioner of the Church, is depicted presenting a 3-dimensional model of the Aghtamar Church to Christ; Gagik is depicted taller than Christ and wearing a silk cloak with birds in randles—reminiscent of Sassanian silks (bottom left). As late as the 11th century, Aghtamar draws on Iranian signs of kingship and authority.

Nevertheless, the breadth of Iranian contributions to the Armenian stock has not been paid adequate attention in Armenian historiography. The reluctance of Armenians to acknowledge the contributions of the pre-Islamic but still inextricably Iranian world to their language, traditions, and material productions, and subsequent preference for the blanket term “pagan” (հեթանոսություն het’anosut’yun) in dealing with pre-Christian matters, has three causes. First, traditionalist and secular but still Armenochristian intelligentsia remain sensitive to the long standing history of massacre and subjugation, often but not always in the context of being a Christian minority in a Muslim society. The popularization of the term “pagan” in place of “Zoroastrian”, “Parthian”, “Persian”, “Iranian” or “Mithraist” accomplishes the goal of distancing the Republic of Armenia’s national heritage from the cultural property claimed by the neighboring Persislamic political apparatus. Second, the term “pagan” is reinforced by its currency in Christian doctrine and clerical texts; notwithstanding, the Iranianisms in the Armenian stock seem to be selectively trivialized, even vis-à-vis the more remote Urartian or Ancient Greek contributions. Finally, there exists a pervasive essentialist attitude among intellectuals and laypeople alike that any non-Christian agent in the Armenian national narrative cannot be truly “Armenian”—as according to prevalent social ideals—and thus constitutes a quasi-foreign element in the otherwise continuous chronicle of a supposedly homogeneous people.

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According to Armenia’s folk conversion story, Gregory the Illuminator (top left; Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ Grigor Lusavorich) was a Parthian (Iranian) Christian priest responsible for converting the Parthian (Iranian) king of Armenia, Tiridates III (top right; Տրդատ Արշակունի Trdat Arshakuni), to Christianity. Khor Virap monastery (bottom) in Ararat province, Armenia, marks the setting of these developments.

Despite an appreciable Iranian imprint, Armenian should not be viewed as a derivative language, but can be valued academically as a window to the historical linguistics of the Old and Middle Iranian worlds. Moreover the study of the Armenian loans from Iranian is of vital importance for solving problems of Old, Middle, and New Iranian linguistics, in that they:

1. Help determine the exact phonetic shape of the (Middle) Iranian words, which in the Iranian texts is often obscured by the consonantal writing systems. The Armenian alphabet, however, is fully vocalized, though it does not show the original vowel quantity.
2. Enable us to establish the exact meaning of the Iranian words.
3. Shed light on the phonetic developments that took place in the Iranian languages and thus aid in reconstructing linguistic stages not known or not sufficiently known from the Iranian evidence itself.
4. Provide evidence relating to Iranian, and especially Middle Iranian dialectological problems.
5. Finally, the Armenian language is also an important source for Iranian lexicology and lexicography as it contains many words, some of which survive right down to the present day, not attested in the Iranian languages themselves. Thus Armenian serves as a sort of fossil record to linguists for exploring Iranian paradigms that are often abstract and even innovative.

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Dzordzor Chapel (Ծոր Ծորի Սուրբ Աստվածածնի մատուռ Dzor Dzori Surb Astvatsatsin maturr), the only standing remnant of a 9th century monastic complex, West Azerbaijan Province, Iran

Iranian borrowings span all registers of the language. It should be emphasized that these borrowings were not limited to the vocabulary but also involve derivational suffixes, phraseology, and all kinds of names, and that they are from the beginning of the Armenian literary tradition inextricably mixed with the inherited vocabulary of Proto-Armenian stock. A few are detailed in the table below (composed by Afsheen Sharifzadeh):

Modern Armenian

Iranian root

English

օրինակ

ōrinak

from Parthian *awδēnak.

“Example”

շնորք, շնորհակալություն,
շնորհավորել
shnork’, shnorhakalut’yun, shnorhavorel

from Middle Persian šnwhl ‎(šnōhr, “gratitude, contentment”). Compare Manichaean Parthian ʿšnwhr ‎(išnōhr, “grace; gratitude”), Avestan ‎(xšnaoϑra-, “satisfaction”).

“Gratitude, thanks, to congratulate”

կատակ

katak

from early Parthian *kātak; compare Middle Persian kʾtk’‎(*kāyag, “game; joke”)

“Joke”

ժամանակ, ժամ

zhamanak, zham

from Parthian *žamānak ‎(“time”), from jmʾn ‎(žamān). Cognate with Middle Persian ẕmʾnk’ ‎(zamānag)

“Time; hour”

ճանապարհ, ճամփա, ճանապարհորդ

ch’anaparh, ch’amp’a, ch’anaparhord

from Iranian *čarana-parθ, composed of *čarana- ‎(“to go”) and *parθ ‎(“passage”). For the first part compare Avestan ‎(kar-), ‎(čara-), ‎(čaraya-, “to move, to go”)

“Path, road; traveller, wayfarer”

-յան

-ian

from Iranian *-yān, a postvocalic variant of the pluralization suffix *-ān, whence -ան ‎(-an).

(forming adjectives, common in Armenian surnames)

դժվար

dzhvar

from Iranian; Compare Middle Persian dwšʾwl ‎(*dušwār, “difficult, disagreeable”), Persian دشوار ‎(dušvār).

“Hard, difficult”

պատասխան

pataskhan

from Iranian *pati-saxwan-iya, from Proto-Iranian *sanh-“to declare, explain”

“Answer, response”

վտանգավար

vtangavor

from Middle Persian *vitang, from Old Persian *vitanka-‎(“hardship, peril, misfortune”), composed of the preverb *vi- ‎(“down”) and the root *tanč- ‎(“to twist (together), become narrow, dense, constrict”).

“Dangerous, perilous”

հրեշտակ

hreshtak

A Middle Iranian borrowing; Compare Manichaean Parthian fryštg ‎(frēštag, “apostle; angel”), Middle Persian plystk’ ‎(frēstag, “apostle; angel”), Persian فرشته ‎(ferešte, “angel”)

“Angel”

ճաշ
ch’ash

from Middle Iranian *čāš. Compare Middle Persian ‎(čāšt, “breakfast”), Persian چاشت ‎(čāšt, “breakfast, early dinner”)

“dinner, late meal, feast”

պատրաստ

patrast

from Middle Iranian *patrāst, from Old Iranian *patirāsta-, composed of the Proto-Iranian preverb *pati- ‎(“against, towards”) + *rāsta- ‎(“prepared”). Related to Persian پیراستن‎(perāstan, “to adorn”) and آراستن ‎(ārāstan, “to adorn”)

“Ready”

աշխարհ

ashkharh

With metathesis from Middle Median *axšahr, from Proto-Iranian *xšaθra- ‎(“power, authority, dominance”). Compare Old Persian ‎xšaça-, “kingdom, realm”

“World, cosmos”

աշխատանք

ashkhatank’

An Iranian borrowing, probably Middle Median because of the prothetic a-. Compare Middle Persian ʾxšʾd‎(“depressed, troubled”)

“Work, labor” (originally fatigue, toil, trouble)

դպրոց

dprots’

from Middle Persian ‎(dipīr, “secretary, scribe”) +  -ոց ‎(-ocʿ)

“school”

փառք

p’arrk’

from Middle Iranian *farr +‎ -ք ‎(-kʿ). Compare Old Persian ‎(farnā, “glory”), Persian فر ‎(farr), Avestan ‎(xvarənah-)

“Glory, fame, renown, esteem”

–երեն

–eren

from Middle Iranian *āδēn

Forms names of languages when appended to roots denoting names of nations or regions

նկար

nkar

from Iranian *nikar. Compare Manichaean Middle Persian ngʾr ‎(nigār, “painting, picture”), Persian نگار ‎(nigār).

“Picture, image, painting”

ճշմարիտ, ճշմարտություն

ch’shmarit, ch’shmartut’yun

An Iranian borrowing. Compare Middle Persian cšm dyt’‎(čašmdīd, “visible, obvious”, literally “seen with (one’s own) eyes”).

“True, real; truth”

Տիգրան

Tigran

from Old Persian *Tigrāna, derived through haplology from *tigrarāna ‎(“fighting with arrows”), composed of ‎(tigra, “arrow”) (compare Persian تیر ‎(tir)) + *rāna-‎(“fighting”)

A male given name

Վահագն, Վահան, Վահրամ

Vahagn, Vahan, Vahram

from Parthian *Varhraγn; ultimately from Avestan ‎(Vərəθraγna, “Verethragna”, literally “smiting of resistance, breaking of defence; victory”). Related to Avestan (vərəθra, “shield, obstacle, defensive power”). All ultimately stemming from Proto-Indo-Iranian *Hurtra-‎(“cover”).

Male given names

Գովել

govel

Borrowed from a Middle Iranian descendant of Proto-Iranian *gaub-;

“To praise”

օգնություն, օգուտ, օգտակար

ōk’nutyun, ōk’ut, ōk’takar

from Parthian *abigūt, *abi-gūna-.

“Help, helpful, benefit”

-պես

-pes

from Middle Iranian *pēs. Ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *peyḱ-.

“As, like”

-նման

-nman

from Iranian *nimān, composed of the prefix ni- and the root mān-. Compare, Persian مانا ‎(mānā, “alike, equal, resembling”).

“Like, resembling”

Գույն: սև, սպիտակ, կապույտ, կարմիր, մանուշակ

Guyn: sev, spitak, kapuyt, karmir, manushak

from Middle Persian gwn’ ‎(gōn, “colour; kind, sort”); From Parthian syʾw ‎(syāw, “black”); From Middle Iranian *kapōt“grey-blue, pigeon”; From Middle Persian klmyr ‎(*karmīr, “red, crimson”); from Middle Persian *manafšak, a by-form of wnpšk’ ‎(wanafšag);

“Color, black, white, blue, red, purple”

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The Temple of Garni (Գառնիի հեթանոսական տաճար Garrni het’anosakan tachch’ar), Kotayk Province, Armenia. Commissioned by the Parthian (Iranian) king of Armenia, Tiridates I, some scholars ascribe this Greco-Roman colonnaded structure to the Iranian deity Mithra (Միհր Mihr), who was a member of the Irano-Zoroastrian pantheon of pre-Christian Armenia (the Trinity: 1. Aramazd < from Ahura Mazda; 2. Mihr < from Mithra; 3. Anahit < from Anahita). (August 2015, Photo by Afsheen Sharifzadeh).

IRANIAN-ARMENIAN LANGUAGE

As in the case of Québécois French in Montreal, Armenian-Iranians within a single city seem to speak a variety of dialects that differ appreciably from each other in lexicon, pronunciation and sometimes morphology. This can be attributed to the diverse provenance of Armenians inhabiting Iran’s major urban centers—some tracing their roots to Iranian Azerbaijan (Ատրպատական Atrpatakan) particularly Tabriz (Դավրեժ Davrezh or Թավրիզ T’avriz), Urmia, Salmas, Khoy, and Maragha and its surroundings; Kermanshah and Hamedan; Ardebil and Rasht; New Julfa (Նոր Ջուղա Nor Jugha) in Isfahan (Սպահան Spahan) and Arak; Shiraz; Abadan and Ahwaz; or to a number of Armenian villages scattered throughout central Iran, including Fereydan region (Փերիա P’eria) and Bourvari. Yet wholesale emigration of some Iranian Armenian villages to Russia in the late 1940s after the catholicos of Soviet Armenia pleaded to all the faithful to repopulate the ancestral homeland devastated by World War II, famine, and the post-revolutionary atrocities in Russia, still greatly reduced their diversity and numbers. Dialect in Tehran is also delineated along socio-economic lines—although this might be a residual geographic feature—as well as the extent of an individual’s exposure to the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia. Nonetheless, there are a few overarching features of Parskahayeren as encountered in Tehran that have been selected for discussion below.


An Armenian delegation visits the Armenian diaspora community of New Julfa, Isfahan, Iran.

Due to bilingualism and areal features, Iranian Armenian dialects bare typological resemblances to modern Persian, but still markedly less so than other languages spoken in the country (except perhaps the Georgian dialect of Fereydan). Pronunciation is a highly distinguishing feature of Iranian Armenian vis-à-vis the Eastern Armenian dialects encountered in the former U.S.S.R. In general, intonation, rhythm and cadence tend to echo Modern Persian—in turn constituting a major deviation from the Caucasian variety, which parallels those features of Russian. For example, the final syllable of interrogative clauses are elongated in the exaggerated manner of Persian and Azeri. The vowel ա “a is pronounced like Persian آ “â”, whereas in Yerevan the same vowel is rounded in the manner of Russian “ä. In general, prosody is used to convey emotions according to the Persian canons; a phenomenon which accounts for the alleged “sing-songy” feel of Parskahayeren according to Caucasian speakers. However, there are still a number of distinct prosodic paradigms in Persian and Parskahayeren that in turn afford the languages quite unique aesthetic qualities. Notably, speakers of Parkshayeren tend to employ creaky voice

Additionally, Iranian Armenian has preserved the Classical alveolar approximant pronunciation of Ր “r”, (which corresponds to the Standard American English pronunciation of “r”); whereas other Eastern and Western Armenian dialects have shifted to alveolar flap [ɾ] (corresponding to the Scottish English pronunciation of “r”). In perfective constructions wherein the verb is not followed by a modifier, the infinitive final -լ -l is dropped: Tehran Vortegh es tsnvé? for Yerevan Ur es tsnvel? “Where were you born?” When the verb is followed by a modifier, Tehran often has -r- final: Tehran eker er for Yerevan yekel er “S/he had come.” In this sense Parskahayeren pronunciation is both archaic and innovative.

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The “Father of Iranian pop music”, Vigen Derderian (Վիգեն Դերդերյան, ويگن دردريان), and his daughter, singer and songwriter Jaklin. Vigen was born into the Armenian community of Hamedan; Jaklin was born and raised in the Armenian community of Tehran. 

The Iranian-Armenians are bilingual, although the Tabriz and Urmia communities (Թավրիզ ու Ուրմիայի Հայ համայնքը T’avriz u Urmiayi Hay hamaynk’ёseem to be operationally trilingual in Armenian, Azeri, and Persian. Bilingualism in the case of fast-paced, trendy Tehran has paved the way for a great deal of language-mixing—primarily whereby an Armenian-speaking informant substitutes Persian words in place of their Armenian equivalents. However, the degree of this phenomenon is dependent on the informant and by no means approaches the threshold of creolization. Wholesale substitution takes precedence over calques in the case of Tehrani Persian slang and in registers for which Armenian has no equivalent. Wholesale substitution of Armenian words is present in the vernaculars of both Tehran and Yerevan, however markedly more so in the latter.

English Standard Eastern Armenian Colloquial Yerevan (from Russian) Colloquial Tehran (from Persian)
“Generally” ёndhanrapes
ընդհանրապես
voobshe
вообше
kollan
كلا
 “OK; here you go” hamets’ek’
համեցեք
davai
давай
“Just; just because” ughghaki
ուղղակի
prosto
просто
“Because” vorovhetev
որովհետև
tak kak
так как
chon
چون
“OK; That’s it” vsyo
всё
For example; like…” ōrinak
օրինակ
masalan –> “masan”
مثلا
“So; that is to say; it means; like…; [filter]” uremn, aysink’n
ուրեմն, այսինքն
to, est’
то есть
yani
يعنى
“Already” arden
արդեն
uzhe
уже

Otherwise, the Tehran vernacular is more conservative in her lexicon compared to the Yerevan vernacular, save a few idiosyncrasies: Tehran esi and eti, etikё for Standard սա sa “this” դա da “that”; Tehran sté, stegh and ёndé, ёndegh for Standard այստեղ aystegh “here” and այնտեղ ayntegh “there”; Tehran bidi for Standard պետք ե petk’e “must, should”; Tehran esents‘ for Yerevan stents’, nents’ and Standard այսպես ayspes “this way, like this”; Tehran որտեղ vortegh for Yerevan ուր ur “where”; Tehran ira, iran, irank’, irants’ for Yerevan nra, nran, nrank’, nrants’ “his/her, to him/her, they, their”. The issue of Parskahayeren mähät/mät “one; a piece; a little; a moment; a bit; etc.” is discussed below.

For some lexemes, parallel native forms are in use in a manner similar to American English vs. British English, i.e. Tehran: լվացարան lvats’aran for Yerevan լողարան logharan “restroom, washroom”; Tehran: կներեք knerek’ for Yerevan ներողություն neroghut’yun “Pardon me; I’m sorry.”


Iranian-Armenian artist Helen (née Matevosian) sings Garun Yekav (Գարուն Եկավ “Spring Came”), a winner at the 2007 Armenian Golden Star Awards.

Calques from Persian are also pervasive: i.e. վերջացավ գնաց verchats’av gnats’, from تمام شد و رفت  tamām shod o raft “It’s over; done for”; կարմրացնել karmrats’nel “to fry” (literally: “to redden”) from سرخ كردن sorkh kardan “to fry (redden)”; պատճառ ելնել patch’arr elnel from باعث شدن bāes shodan “to result in; to cause”; նեղություն քաշել neghut’yun k’ashel from  زحمت كشيدن zahmat keshidan “to bare a burden; perform an act of generosity or civility according to local ideals”; Թագավորի ժամանակ T’ak’avori zhamanak from زمان شاه zamāne Shāh “the Pahlavi period; reign of the 20th century Pahlavi monarchs”; մեձ մամ medz-mam and մեձ պապ medz-pap from مامان بزرگ māmān bozorg “grandmother” and بابا بزرگ bābā bozorg “grandfather.”  A few calques from Persian phraseology are listed below:

English Parskahayeren (colloquial) Persian (colloquial)
“What’s up?/What’s new?” Inch khabar?
Ինչ խաբար?
Che khabar?
چه خبر؟
“Thank you for your service” (literally: “may your hand not hurt”) Dzerrk’ёt ch’ts’ava
Ձեռքտ չցավա
Dastet dard nakone
دستت درد نكنه
“Thank you for your exertion” (literally: “may you not be tired”) Hok’nats chelnes
Հոգնած չելնես
Khaste nabāshi
خسته نباشى

“I wouldn’t be so sure” (literally: “my eye doesn’t drink water”)

Achkёs jur chi khmum
Աչքս ջուր չի խմում
Cheshmam āb nemikhore
چشمم آب نمیخوره

One morphological innovation is addition of a pronominal suffix at the end of the verbal construction to indicate either the object or indirect object of the verb, and this likely developed under the influence of Persian. This is unusual for Armenian, which employs a stringent case system. Nonetheless it is prevalent in generation Y’s vernacular and is only used when the 2nd person is the object or direct object of a clause:

English Tehran (contracted form) Yerevan (invariable)
“I’ve missed you” karotelemët karotel em k’ez
“I am waiting for you” spasumemët spasum em k’ez
“Let me tell you something…” me ban asemët mi ban k’ez asem…

Sometimes parallels are encountered to Persian compound verb construction: i.e. [Persian/Armenian gerund] + [Armenian helping verb]; the latter is usually անել anel (for كردن kardan) “to do”, խփել khp’el (for زدن zadan) “to hit”, վերցնել verts’nel (for گرفتن gereftan) “to get”, բռնել brrnel (for گرفتن gereftan “to hold”). Such as chort khp’el (from چرت زدن chort zadan) for Yerevan նիրհել nirhel “to take a nap”; pakhsh anel (from پخش كردن pakhsh kardanfor Yerevan հաղորդել haghordel “to broadcast”; պտույտ խփել ptuyt khp’el (from چرخ زدن charkh zadan) for զբոսնել zbosnel “to take a stroll”; դուշ բռնել dush brrnel (from دوش گرفتن dush gereftan) for Yerevan լողանալ loghanal “to take a shower.”

Tehran կարողանալ karoghanalconj. subjunctive verb (parallel to Western Persian construction) for Yerevan karoghanal + infinite verb “to be able to do [something]”; Չեմ կարող ասեմ Chem karogh asem for Yerevan Չեմ կարող ասել Chem karogh asel “I cannot say”, among many other examples.


Armenian-Iranian Bible study talk show, “Good News” (Բարի Լուր), produced by the Armenian-Iranian diaspora in California

Parskahayeren shares a number of core lexical paradigms with Western Armenian, her distant cousin, vis-à-vis the Eastern varieties found in the former U.S.S.R. Most notably, Tehran has երթալ ertal for Yerevan գնալ gnal “to go”; իմանալ imanal for Yerevan գիտել gitel “to know”; ելնել elnel for Yerevan լինել linel “to be”; հէր her for Yerevan խի khi/ինչու inchu “why”. Parskahayeren sometimes also shares the added -ի -i ending encountered in the Western Armenian pronomial dative construction: Tehran ինձի indzi, քեզի k’ezi, etc. for Yerevan ինձ indz քեզ k’ez “to me, to you”. Some of these lexical differences are illustrated below:

English Tehran Yerevan
“I don’t know” չեմ իմանում
Chem imanum
չգիտեմ
Ch’gitem
“What’s happened?” Ինչ ա ելե?
Inch a elé?
Ինչ ե եղել?
Inch e yeghel?
“Why didn’t he give you an apple?” Հեր քեզի խնձոր չտվավ?
Her k’ezi khndzor ch’tvav?
Ինչու քեզ խնձոր չտվեց?
Inchu k’ez khndzor ch’tvets’?

A multitude of -եց ets’-class verbs are -ավ av-class in Tehran, which resembles the pattern in Western Armenian. In this paradigm, Tehran has -ամ -am for the 1st person register, which likely developed under influence of Persian, whereas Yerevan has -ա –a; i.e. Tehran տեսամ tesam for Yerevan տեսա tesa “I saw.” Sometimes -ել –el infinitives are ալ –al in the perfective future construction, i.e. khosâlu en “they will speak” for Yerevan խոսելու են khoselu (y)en. For example, ասել asel “to say” and տալ tal “to give”:

English Tehran (spoken) Yerevan
I said, gave asam, tvam
ասամ, տվամ
asets’i, tvets’i
ասեցի, տվեցի
You said, gave asar, tvar
ասար, տվար
asests’ir, tvets’ir
ասեցիր, տվեցիր
S/he said, gave asav, tvav
ասավ, տվավ
asests’, tvets’
ասեց, տվեց
We said, gave asank’, tvank’
ասանք, տվանք
asests’ink’, tvets’ink’
ասեցինք, տվեցինք
You (pl.) said, gave asak’, tvak’
ասաք, տվաք
asests’ik’, tvets’ik’
ասեցիք, տվեցիք
They said, gave asan, tvan
ասան, տվան
asests’in, tvets’in
ասեցին, տվեցին

The 1st person -մ -m ending is also encountered in the past imperfective construction composed of [elnel (to be) + present participle]. This is also distinct to Parskahayeren in the Eastern group:

English Tehran (spoken) Yerevan
“I couldn’t understand it” Chim karogh haskanam  Chei karogh haskanal
“I was walking in the street, when suddenly someone called out to me from afar and approached” K’aylum im p’oghots’um erb hankarts mekё herrvits’ indzi kanchav u motets’av Kaylum ei p’oghots’um yerb hankarts mekё indz herrvits’  kanchets’ u motets’av

The issue of “mähät” or “mät” (from մի հատ mi hat one piece) in Parskahayeren is particularly unusual in that this lexeme has introduced a new vowel phoneme to the Iranian Armenian system (namely, ä). The contexts for its use are ambiguous and abstract:

Iranian Armenian English
Mät ari ste “Come here for a moment
Mät hangstats’ru senyakumët “Rest for a while in your room
Mät indzi tur “Give me one [piece]
Vaghë kertam khanut’its’ mät khaghalik’ verts’nem ira zavakneri hamar “Tomorrow I’m going to go pick up a toy for his children from the store”
Mät mtats’ir myusi zgats’munk’neri masin “Think a little bit about the other person’s feelings”

Longing for Circassia–A Land Without Her People

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. The goal of this article is to familiarize the reader with the looks and feels of Circassia, its people and language in a historical and modern setting. 

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Descendants of Circassian deportees in Istanbul, Turkey (2011) commemorate the banishment of their ancestors from their homeland in the Northwest Caucasus by Imperial Russia in 1864.


Introduction
By an irony of history, the 2014 Olympic games marked the 150th anniversary of the Russian defeat of the Circassians in 1864, and therein the annihilation of a civilization whose last independent capital, Sochi, rested at the center of a polity stretching from the Sea of Azov to the gates of North Ossetia-Alania. After the Georgians and the Armenians, the Circassians came closest of all the Caucasian peoples to developing the prerequisites for nationhood. But their efforts were cut short by the Russian Empire’s merciless onslaught and translocation of ninety percent of their population to Anatolia and the Near East in the early 1800s—nearly half a century before the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire. As a share of total population, the Circassian diaspora is the largest in the world, a fact that is underscored by nearly seven centuries of foreign slaving expeditions which kept the Circassian core volatile and precluded the establishment of large permanent settlements around which an urban society could evolve. In addition to the psychological and economic repercussions of en masse deportation, forced population translocation on this scale can have dire consequences for the continuity of a people and culture. This article aims to better characterize the Circassians and promote understanding of their culture and language, in an effort, however modest, to keep this vibrant chapter of humanity alive and prolific.

Circassian4
A Circassian holding a sign at the 2014 Olympics games in Sochi, which reads in Russian: “Why have you killed and obliterated my beautiful, noble people?”

Circassian as a Northwest Caucasian Language

Circassian does not refer to a single language inasmuch as it refers to an overarching sprachbund of dialects associated with pastoralist tribes inhabiting the riverbeds of the northwestern Caucasian piedmont, which together exhibit varying degrees of mutual intelligibility (although this remains poorly characterized). The main typological split is between two literary standards that were first written in a modified Perso-Arabic script, followed by Latin and later Cyrillic: Adyghe (Western Circassian, Lower Circassian) and Kabardian (Eastern Circassian, Upper Circassian), which, taken with the Middle Eastern diaspora, compose a speaking community of around 2 million individuals today. Each tribe and clan has its own distinct dialect—the Shapsug, Natukhai, Besleney, Cherkess, Abadzekh, Zhane, among others—but all invariably refer to themselves as Адыгэ (Adyghe) and to their language as Адыгэбзэ (Adyghäbze).


A Circassian dance group performing a tale from the Nart Saga according to the “Qafe” dance repertoire. The Nart saga is shared among the folklore of the Adygheans, Cherkess, Kabardians, Abkhaz, Abaza, Chechens, Ingush, and Ossetians in the North Caucasus.

2048
A glacier and valley in Karachay-Cherkessia, Russian Federation. The alpine terrain of historical Circassia impeded contact between the various Northwest Caucasian languages and dialectically distinct groups for thousands of years. It remains unclear when and wherefrom the speakers of Proto-Northwest-Caucasian arrived in historical Circassia, as this language family cannot be linked genetically to any other attested macrofamily on the Eurasian landmass even at the magnitude of 15,000 years (save a few moderately convincing attempts at a remote link with Northeast Caucasian, but remains by no means clear).

Together with Abkhazian, Abaza, and Ubykh (extinct in 1992), Circassian belongs to a rare linguistic macrofamily, Northwest Caucasian (NWC), to which there are no known relatives elsewhere on Earth. These unique languages share a common ancestor, the hypothesized Proto-Northwest-Caucasian language, whose speaking community underwent splitting events some six thousand years ago, after which the daughter languages differentiated in close geographic proximity but remarkable isolation from each other for many thousands of years to the present. It is not difficult to suppose a paradigm in which contact between NWC languages and other groups was impeded by the difficulty of communication and travel from one canyon to the next (the main passes through the Caucasus are located at the central and eastern part, explaining why Circassian is comparatively free from foreign influences), as well as the mere toils of life in the valleys of the North Caucasus. Any genetic link between NWC and other macrofamilies in Eurasia remains excruciatingly dubious if not outright nonexistent, such that the family is never included in the Nostratic Hypothesis, which postulates an exquisitely remote common ancestral tongue to Indo-European, Uralic, Afroasiatic, Altaic, Kartvelian and Dravidian spoken by bands of foragers near the end of the last glacial period nearly 15,000 years ago. In general the NWC languages feature rich consonantal systems and a paucity of vowel phonemes. Notably, with around 80 consonants and only two phonemically distinct vowels, the Ubykh language featured one of the largest inventories of consonants in the world.

Un court documentaire sur Tevfik Esenc, l’ultime locuteur natif de Ubykh, une langue qu’il a appris à maîtriser de ses grand-parents—eux-mêmes déportés du Caucase pendant le Génocide Circassien. Il est mort en Turquie en 1992, et avec lui, la langue Ubykh. Ubykh comme une langue Abkhazo-Adygienne était liée à la langue Abkhazienne et plus lointainement à la langue Circassienne, bien que les deux proto-langues ont divergées il y a environ 5 mil ans. 

The Pre-Hittite, non-Indo-European language of Anatolia, known as Hattic, is now widely believed to be a remote relative of Proto-Northwest-Caucasian, perhaps becoming established there as a result of migration from Transcaucasia some time predating six thousand years ago. Beginning in the 4th millennium BCE the Hattic language was gradually displaced by archaic Indo-European languages, most likely Luwian and Hittite, and the Hattians were ultimately absorbed and assimilated into Indo-European-speaking society after nearly two thousand years of coexistence by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. However, the latter adopted the former’s self-designation (<Hatti; which in the opinion of this author, is likely also the root of the Armenian self-designation Հայ Hay).

Picture of The Lion Gate - Hittite Capital Hattusa 6
The Lion Gates at the ruins of Hattusha, Turkey. Hattusha was once the capital city of the Hattians, who are now believed to be remote relatives of Northwest Caucasian peoples. Their language was probably a cousin of Proto-NWC, but was eventually displaced by the advent of archaic Proto-Indo-European speakers and the diffusion of the Luwian, Palaic and Hittite languages.  

 Circassian Culture, Religion and Society

Due to the sheer frequency of foreign invasions, raids, slaving expeditions, and internecine warfare, the Circassians emerged as a semi-nomadic pastoralist people whose primary administrative unit, the hamlet (aul), was necessarily constructed hastily and with little care only to be abandoned at a moment’s notice. Nevertheless, individuals auls generally maintained a stable and fairly sizable population in spite of their mobile nature. Circassians rarely built fortified villages with stone towers in the style of the Eastern Caucasians (Chechens, Ingush, and Daghestani peoples), as defensive structures were considered signs of weakness according to the age-old code of chivalry. Instead, they lived in isolated farmsteads surrounded by orchards and groves of walnut trees. In periods of external danger, clusters of forty to sixty houses were constructed in the form of a circle or square with only one gate for ingress and egress.

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The Circassian dance repertoire is sizable and viewed as a core social custom, even in light of the arrival of Islam in the 19th century (except for the Middle Eastern diaspora, which is currently trying to revive this custom). Initially a pagan religious rite, the custom transformed from a kind of spirited prayer into a form of festive ceremony (“Zhegw”) and display of martial fitness and grace devoid of religious meaning. The “Wij” and “Zef’ak’we” dances are performed by couples going through ancient ritual motions. “Qafe” is a stately slow dance, probably of princely provenance, performed with pride touching on aloofness and with a great measure of self-control, while “Yislhemey” is energetic and can feature dizzying footwork.  

Circassians placed enormous value in practicing what were considered dignified customs and style of life, and paid great attention to cultivating their beauty in the form of rigorous training regimens and use of growth-arresting artifices during the formative years. As per custom, Circassians wore elegantly embroidered costumes (tsey) tied at the waist with a belt (s’ch’i’wbgirpx) designed to highlight their slender, V-shaped and symmetrical body physique according to prevalent ideals. The pervasive code of etqiuette, adat, was an unwritten compendium of laws and responsibilities that bound the genders, classes, and tribes together in some form of feudal harmony in the otherwise glaring absence of centralized authority and hard currency. For example, we can imagine that the sacrosanct nature of the guest developed as a means of assuring safe travel in a perilous terrain otherwise devoid of policing or any formal semblance of civil order. The threat of blood revenge, which often escalated into generations-long feuds, was an attempt to deter murder by threat of sure retaliation against the killer’s entire bloodline.

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Circassians in traditional attire. According to Amjad Jaimoukha, the Circassians were “the fashion trend-setters in the Caucasus”, especially for the Russian Cossacks, Georgians and Ossetians. Men and women’s costumes were designed to accentuate the good form of the body, but also for convenience and comfort. Indeed their historical reputation for beauty and elegance was captured in the famous phrases, “Circassian beauty” and “dressed like a Kabardian.”

The social structure of Circassian society was highly complex and based on hierarchical feudalism, except for a few egalitarian tribes. The coexistence of two opposing tribal paradigms in Circassia—feudal and democratic—is unusual and reflective of a fragmented perception of ethnic continuity among dialectically distinct groups, at least at an early stage. Each feudal tribe was divided into princedoms (Pshi), which were effectively independent, although there was a council of princes (Khase), which met at times of national crises. At the apex of each principality stood the Prince (Pshi-t’khamade) who wielded almost absolute power over his subjects. Land and serfs were owned collectively.

Of note, the Circassian clan was not divided into nuclear families but rather into extended households consisting of a father and his married sons (Winezëxës). Thus, inheritance was not devolved from father to son but rather from brother to brother. Avoidance customs entailed the prohibition of fraternizing of siblings in private and public. If a person approached a group of people and he saw one of his brothers in the group, then, according to seniority of age, he either walked away from the group, or joined it, whilst the junior bid his leave. This custom was sanctioned to lessen sibling rivalry.

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Conference of Circassian Princes (called Khase) in 1839.

Next to the prince came the nobles (tlfoqotl’), who were divided into the proper and lesser nobility, and the vassals who were given a free hand in their fiefdoms in return for their allegiance. A peculiar custom, the atalyk, whereby the children of the princes were entrusted at an early age to the vassals to be raised and trained in a military fashion, played a pivotal role in strengthening the relationship between the prince and his nobles. Below the nobility came the freemen and free peasants, then the bond peasants and finally the slaves and villeins who performed the menial tasks and were mainly war captives in stock.

The behavioral and social norms of adat were regulated by an orally transmitted codex called Adygha Khabze, or “Circassian Etiquette”, which was exceptionally rigid and complex and its contravention was severely punished. It had evolved to ensure that strict militaristic discipline was maintained at all times to defend the region against the many invaders who coveted Circassian lands and human capital.


The Lezginka dance among Circassians in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkar Republic, Russian Federation. This dance repertoire originated with the Lezgin people of Daghestan, but is now shared by the peoples of the North Caucasus.

The Slave Trade

Toward the end of the 11th century, Genoese colonies began to appear in rapid succession along the Black Sea coast in which Italians, Tatars, Circassians, Abkhazians, Armenians, Greeks, Georgians, Jews and Slavs lived and engaged in extensive trade. The center of the Genoese community was Caffa (modern Feodosia, Crimea), which at its height had a library, school, and other municipal services, although it remains unclear which group’s language served as the lingua franca of these settlements. The city-states of Matrega, Mara and Kopa were jointly ruled by Circassian and Genoese sovereigns, and in the mid-fiftheenth century Matrega was ruled by Prince Zakkaria Gizolfi, the son of Vincenzo di Gizolfi and a Circassian princess.

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Circassia at her greatest extent, from the Sea of Azov to the Caspian Sea (1700 A.D.)

It thus followed that for a period of nearly 700 years, the pressures imposed by the slave trade impeded any prospect for the development of Circassian society. First, the sheer number of able young men and women removed from the local population crippled population growth, and constant raids by the Genoese, Mongol and Tatar slave expeditions created an atmosphere of perpetual warfare in the region. This precluded the establishment of large permanent settlements around which an urban society could evolve. Instead, the Circassians emerged as a mobile, militaristic civilization, which, in contrast to the mercantile societies of the Black Sea coast, isolated themselves in the valleys of Transcaucasia, viewed outsiders with suspicion and equated defeat with slavery.

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Tsar Ivan IV “The Terrible” (left) and his Circassian wife, Maria Temryukovna (right; née Kuchenei). In 1557 the Russian-Kabardian treaty was formalized between the Kabarda tribe and the Tsar. The Kabardian Prince Temryuk Indarko sent his sent his son to Moscow, where the latter adopted Christianity and became and influential boyar. Three years later, relations grew closer and Temryuk married his daughter Kuchenei to Tsar Ivan IV. 

The Genoese vigorously traded slaves from the North Caucasus to markets throughout the Middle East and particularly Egypt. When the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty formed a military caste known as the Mamluk Guards around 1200 A.D., the slave trade in Crimea and the Northwest Caucasus accelerated as the Genoese exploited the new demand for young men. Interestingly, in the 14th century a Circassian Mamluk slave named Barquq founded the Mamluk Burji dynasty in Egypt, which remained in power until the Ottoman Empire’s annexation of the realm in 1517. Meanwhile in Persia, the Safavid monarchs institutionalized a scheme whereby young Circassian, Georgian, and Armenian men were kidnapped, converted to Islam, and trained as royal pages (Ghulaman-i Khassa or Qapi Qullari) in an effort to generate a new courtly caste unconditionally bound to the Shah and one therefore capable of undermining the power of the Turkic Qizilbash nobility.

Circassian women were likewise exploited for their renowned beauty (“Circassian beauties”) in the royal harems of both the Ottoman Empire and Persia, where they competed ferociously to promote their own sons to the throne. A notably clever Circassian princess, Pari-Khan Khanum, became an influential figure in the Safavid court in Persia, and she even acted as a king-maker in two instances in the middle of the 16th century. Having detested the Georgian mother of Haydar Mirza, who had been a favorite son of Shah Tahmasp and regarded as heir apparent, she plotted a coup in which she gave the keys of the royal palace to her maternal uncle, who then immediately filled it with 300 Circassians tasked with murdering Haydar Mirza. Shah Abbas II’s Circassian mother, Anna Khanum, received revenue and Christmas gifts from the most opulent sector of Isfahan— the Armenian suburb of New Julfa.

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Shah Abbas II (1632-1666) was the seventh Shah of the Safavid dynasty in Persia. He was the eldest son of Shah Safi I and a Circassian, Anna Khanum.

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(Left) Portrait of Teresia Sampsonia (1589-1668), a Christian Circassian noblewoman born in Isfahan, Persia to Ismail Khan, who was reportedly a relative of one of Shah Abbas I’s Circassian wives. Teresia married the Elizabethan English adventurer Robert Shirley (right) and accompanied him on his embassies throughout Europe. Following their return to Persia and her husband’s death, Lady Shirley retired to a convent in Rome attached to the Santa Maria della Scala church, where she passed the remaining years of her life. Having brought Robert’s remains from Isfahan to Rome, they are buried together beneath an epitaph etched with the Latin inscription: “Teresia Sampsonia, native of the region of the Amazons, daughter of Samphuffus, prince of Circassia.”

The Ethnic Cleansing of the Circassians

Even before their final victory over the Circassians in 1864, the Russian government had decided to deport the majority to the Ottoman Empire and settle their land with Slavic-speaking Cossacks. As Russian General Rostislav Fadeev noted, re-educating the Circassians so that they might “live correctly” was too slow a process, so the Russian chose to eliminate them. The Abadzekhs, Shapsugs and Ubykhs, still naively expecting international assistance after consistent failures on the part of Western European powers to recognize an independent Circassia, desperately petitioned to the Russian general in Tiflis to spare their annihilation in exchange for accepting Russian suzerainty—but to no avail.

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The mass deportation of various Northwest Caucasian peoples into the Ottoman Empire, following the defeat of the Circassians by Imperial Russia in 1864.

The actual deportation was conducted with no concern for the welfare of the deportees. According to Fadeev, the needs of the Russian state superseded any humanitarian concerns and necessitated the elimination of the Circassians. Starvation and disease raged among those waiting for transport, and ships were overloaded with 400% of their carrying capacity. Once at sea, many ships sank. The number of Circassians, Abazas and Ubykhs displaced could be as high at 1.2 million, although nearly half of them died en route or shortly after arriving in Turkey. Of note, the entire Ubykh nation was expelled from its homeland, which culminated in the death of the Ubykh language roughly a century thereafter.

 “On the road our eyes were met with a staggering image: corpses of women, children, elderly persons, torn to pieces and half-eaten by dogs; deportees emaciated by hunger and disease, almost too weak to move their legs, collapsing from exhaustion and becoming prey to dogs while still alive….The Turkish skippers, out of greed, overloaded their boats with Circassians they received payment for like cargo to the shores of Asia Minor, and like cargo threw anyone who showed the slightest sign of illness overboard. The waves threw the corpses of these unfortunate souls onto the shores of Anatolia….Scarcely half of those who set out made it to their goal.” –Drozdov, “Posledn’aya Bor’ba s Gorstami na Zapodnom Kavkaze,” Kavkazskii Sbornik, 1877.

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“The mountaineers leave the aul (village)”, by P.N. Gruzinsky, 1872.

What proves problematic in the United Nation’s definition of genocide is the question of “calculation” of destruction. In the case of the Circassians, Abazas and Ubykhs there is no evidence that the intention of the Russian Empire was to destroy them as an ethnic group but rather to rid the empire of their presence. St. Petersburg was uninterested in the fate of the deported peoples but certainly did not wish to annihilate them, as it had the opportunity to kill all the Circassians outright. Judging from documents of the period, Walter Richmond concludes that the Russians would have been equally content if every deported person made it successfully to Anatolia and proceeded to create a new homeland for themselves. On the other hand, there is a conspicuous absence of details of the horrific conditions faced by the deportees in the reports of 1864, written by Commander Yevdokimov and the military personnel involved in the deportation. At the very least, these officials could be considered guilty of genocide as defined under Point (C) of the United Nations Convention, in that their reports could theoretically have caused the administration in St. Petersburg to take steps to minimize the catastrophe.

Nevertheless, the deportations could still be viewed not as a genocide but as “a case of ethnic cleansing carried out with brutal disregard for human suffering”, as Stephen D. Shenfield suggests in his analysis of the question. General Veliaminov certainly treated the mountaineers as little more than animals; at one point he offered a reward to his soldiers for the heads of the mountaineers, which he sent to the Department of Anthropology of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg for study. While the case of the Ubykhs presents the strongest evidence for the charge of genocide against the Russian administration, if one applies the U.N. definition it could still be argued that since the Russians did not “intend” to destroy the Ubykhs but simply deport them, this action was not “genocidal” either. Ultimately, the Russian actions in the 1860s officially sanctioned by Tsar Alexander II set the precedent for future ethnic cleansings, and thus constituted a unique crime against humanity, regardless of what term one wishes to attach to it.


Documentary account of the Circassian ethnic cleansing (in Arabic)

Circassia Today: A Land Divided

Historical Circassia (Xekwzch “Old Country”), once deprived of the majority of its indigenous population following 1864, underwent a number of land and legal reforms (Raionavanie) under Imperial Russia and later the Bolsheviks. The region emerged as a new home for hundreds of thousands of Cossack (Slavic), German, and Greek immigrants who repopulated the desolate foothills and coast. By 1960 Russians were the majority in the region, but the Soviets had established three autonomous, landlocked enclave republics for the Circassians: Adyghea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkar Republic; two of which were dvukhtitul’niy (dual-titled) administrative units in which there was not one but two titular nationalities (*note the Karachay and Balkars are Turkic peoples who were deported en masse to Central Asia by the Soviets and later repatriated themselves via a mass exodus to the North Caucasus. They are unrelated to the autochthonous Northwest Caucasian peoples).

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Karachay patriarchs in the 19th century. The Karachay are a Turkic people whose language (belonging to the Kipchak branch of Turkic along with Tatar, Nogai, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Bashkir and the Karakalpak language of Uzbekistan) is identical to that of the Balkars of neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria and the Kumyks of Daghestan. The Soviets granted the Karachais and Balkars titulary status alongside the Circassians in two of the three autonomous republics carved out of historical Circassia: Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The third republic, Adygea, is only nominally mono-titulary, for Russians and Ukrainians together form a slight majority. 

This policy served a dual purpose: first, to establish Russian as a lingua franca among traditionally noncompliant communities by exploiting the necessity of inter-ethnic communication, and second to hinder nationalistic ambitions by incurring a state of perpetual competition for limited resources among unrelated groups. Moreover, the Bolsheviks sought to foment intraregional unrest in an effort to deter any hope of solidarity for the Circassian separatists. As a result, relations between the various titular nationalities and other smaller minorities such as the Mongolic Nogais, Slavic Cossacks, Armenians and Abazins quickly assumed an antagonistic character. The present situation remains bleak in the three autonomous republics carved out of historical Circassia in the Russian Federation. Distrustful of one another, ethnic groups vote in blocs based upon nationality rather than issues, and the winners spend their time in pointless conflicts over limited resources.


Interview with Sati Kazanova, a Circassian Russian pop star born and raised in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkar Republic (in Russian).

The Circassian diaspora (Sherjes Xexesxer) includes some 4-6 million souls which together display varying degrees of cultural preservation in their host societies. Balkan and Greek Circassians, scattered there at the time of their expulsion from the Caucasus in 1864, have disappeared except for a pocket in Albania. Iranian Circassians were coercively relocated to the Iranian plateau in the Safavid period and have since assimilated; although de Morgan reports a small, tight-knit community of Circassians in the village of Dez-e Kord near Aspas, Fars Province as late as the early 20th century. The Circassians of Iraq are now indistinguishable from other North Caucasian peoples there (Chechens, Ingush, Avars, Abkhazians, Lezgins, Kumyks) as none of these groups have retained their distinct languages or customs. However, Caucasian origins remain operative in the social memory in the form of surnames: al-Shishāni (literally “Chechen”), al-Kurji (“Georgian”), al-Sharkasi (“Circassian”), al-Dāghestāni (“Dagestanian”), etc. Libyan Circassians, primarily centered in Benghazi, have by and large lost their language and traditions, although their numbers could be as high as 100,000.

Circassian youth dance troupes, from the diaspora communities of Jordan (left) and Turkey (right).

13256085_638524226312994_196156917099516847_nA young Circassian in Maykop, capital of the Republic of Adyghea, Russia. In recent years the republic has experienced a deepening interest in the descendants of Circassian deportees abroad, often pleading to the diaspora to repopulate their historic homeland in light of upheavals in the Near East.

In Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Israel, the Circassian community is prolific; the youth participate actively in language and art schools where they are trained in Circassian music and dance. The first wave of Circassians in Jordan were mainly of Shapsug extraction, and took refuge in the old ruins of Amman in 1878; they were followed by Kabardians, Abzakh and Bzhedug, whose numbers today range between 20,000 and 100,000. The Prince Hamza Ibn al-Hussein Secondary School, a new Circassian school in Amman established with the support of the late King Hussein of Jordan, enrolls around 750 Jordanian Circassian students with the aim of preserving Circassian traditions while employing the Adyghe language (East Circassian) as a primary language of instruction alongside Arabic. The Syrian community could be as large as 130,000, while Turkey’s community of 130,000-2 million still does not hold the right to education and broadcasting in Circassian, but are currently following the Kurdish lead in these demands.


National Circassian Language day among the descendants of the Russian deportees in Kfar Kama, Israel (in Circassian and Arabic).

Sources

Jaimoukha, Amjad. The Circassians: A Handbook. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London Vol. 65, No. 1 (2002). Published by: Cambridge University Press.

Manz, Beatrice; Haneda, Masashi. Čarkas. Encyclopedia Iranica. 1990.

Richmond, Walter. The Northwest Caucasus: Past, Present, Future. Central Asian Studies. Routledge, 2008.