Circassia, the homeland of the Circassian people, borders the northwestern Caucasus mountain range. The land possesses a coastline along the northeastern portion of the Black Sea. Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is located within Circassia’s historical borders. Circassia has been home to a variety of Circassian clans alongside nearby peoples (including Abkhazians and Tatars). Today, Circassian lands have been divided into modern Russian federal subjects. The Republic of Adygea, Krasnodar, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkar Republic are federal subjects with large and/or influential Circassian populations.
The Circassians were exposed to cross-road cultures and a variety of historical events within and adjacent to their homeland. They interacted with Russians, Turks, Tatars, Arabs, Persians, Jewish peoples, ancient and medieval European empire subjects, and post-medieval western Europeans, among others. As a result of such interactions, the Circassians adopted elements of Byzantine Christianity between the 10th and 13th centuries. Subsequently, due to influences by Islamic Empires (i.e Mameluke, Umayyad Caliphate, Seljuk, Safavid, Ottoman, etc.), most Circassians converted to Islam. Like many indigenous peoples, the Circassians combined aspects of their indigenous religious principles with Islamic principles, yielding distinctive perspectives on Islam relative to other Islamic cultures.
There are millions of Circassians in Turkey (Atatürk commanded and fought alongside Turkish Circassian soldiers), and hundreds of thousands of them in the Arab World (notably in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel). Notable Circassian figures include King Farouk’s wife Farida (Farida of Egypt), Alexey Mikhailovich Cherkassky (Chancellor of the Russian Empire), Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri (Mameluke Sultan), and the numerous body guards of King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The presence of the Circassians in the Middle East is a result of the Circassian Diaspora, a tragic event in which large numbers of Circassians were forced out of their lands due to losses against the Russian Empire in the Russian-Circassian War. The war essentially lasted for 100 years, starting at around 1763 and ending in May 21, 1864, for the Circassians were said to be effective against reinforcements from the Tsarist Russian Army. May 21 is a day of remembrance and, for some, a day of mourning, for it was the day the Circassians lost control of their lands to the Russians. Here’s a tip for one to remember: do not categorize Circassians as Russians. Circassians are not Russian in all regards; it’s simply a fact.
Upon expulsion from Circassian lands, Circassians boarded Ottoman vessels on the Black Sea and sailed to the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul was a primary destination for Circassian refugees, and the Circassians had already built a respectable reputation in the Ottoman capital prior to the Circassian diaspora. Circassians also traveled to the Arab World, a world also under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire. Many settled under Syrian Vilayets (i.e. Vilayet of Aleppo, Vilayet of Damascus [Şam]). My mother’s side of the family, which is 100% Circassian by blood, migrated from Circassia to the Golan Heights and Damascus. Following the Six-Day War between Arabs and Israelis, Circassians in the Golan Heights moved further into Syria and Israel. Today, my mother’s Circassian relatives reside in Damascus.
Circassians have assimilated to their respective communities. Today, my mother, although a proud Circassian, proclaims herself an Arab and a Syrian. The Circassians are one of many diverse minorities to call themselves Arab and the Arab World home.