10 June 2003, 17:00

The Caucasian Culture of Conduct at War (Traditions and Modernity)

The Caucasian isthmus since distant past has been at the crossroads of military, political, commercial and cultural contacts which at some periods had universal significance. This factor prompted here the creation of tribal associations first and then full-fledged polities which competed for the military hegemony and control of trade routes. While the developed statehood existed in the lowland (principally southern) Caucasus, its highland areas till the 19th centuries served home to communities with strong rudiments of military democracy. Internecine strife was a common phenomenon for both the highland and lowland Caucasus. Of far greater scale were the wars with foreign invaders who came to the Caucasus from both the south (Iranian Plateau, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor) and the north (Eurasian steppes and East Europe). Long bloody wars with foreign enemies occupy an important place in the history of each Caucasian people and have played a significant role in the formation of the Caucasian mentality. Weapons have become an attribute of the Caucasian national costume, and even peasants carried them when they went to farm their fields. In many areas of the Caucasus one could very rarely see an unarmed man outside his house. The English traveler James Bell who visited Circassia in the 1830s recorded the words of an astonished Circassian boy who saw an unarmed European riding his horse, "I have never seen a man on horseback without arms"(1).

The life in such conditions encouraged the local population to develop a military culture which included military ethic and knightly moral alongside methods of waging war.

This article proposes an analysis of the traditional Caucasian norms of behavior at war and some parallels with modern times. It uses materials from the history of the peoples of Georgia and the Northern Caucasus.

The historical sources which describe the traditional military culture of the Caucasus are both written and oral. The first group includes chronicles, stories, legal acts and letters, the second, epic songs, historical songs, legends and social customs.

These sources show that the Caucasians? attitude to internecine conflicts within "their own" (Caucasian) world was different from their attitude to the struggle against foreign invaders. While written and oral sources describe the resistance to invaders as absolutely legitimate and necessary, they often speak in negative terms of raids organized by the Caucasian nobility. For example, in the 16th-18th centuries, Transcaucasian countries, especially Georgia and Azerbaijan, were frequently plundered by Daghestani raiders who sometimes reached as far as Armenia (around Kars and Yerevan), Western Georgia and Southern Azerbaijan. They captured property, cattle and prisoners and laid entire neighborhoods waste. Daghestani folklore shows that the people of Daghestan as a whole disapproved of such acts. The significant fact is that parables, proverbs and sayings which condemned the plundering raids became popular with the Daghestanis: "It is not known whether a raider departing for Georgia will return,? ?Spoils brought from a raid will be taken away by a raid," etc. (2). The same idea is expressed in a number of historical songs and ballads, such as Musalav or Raiders Have Left for Tsor where djigits who perished in senseless military expeditions are lamented.

On the other hand, Daghestani popular poetry glorifies heroes of the struggle against foreign invaders in numerous historical songs such as Partu Patima, Stone Boy, Battle with Nadir Shah, Song of the Hero Murtazali, Shaban from Dzhar, Salty Bridge and others. Even if the hero dies, such songs usually have an elated ending, like the Lesginian song of a boy who refused to obey the terrible Tamerlane:

Enemies shall never kill,
Shall never extinguish the living heart?s flame;
Enemies shall never subjugate
The boy who has become a stone.
If you are tied to your native land,
Become a rock when you die in battle!(3)

Quite naturally, the frequent wars and feuds gave birth to the hostile community?s "enemy image" but, unlike the contemporary ideologists of wars and conflicts who characterize the enemy solely in negative terms (perfidious, cowardly, cruel, greedy, etc.), commendable features were also seen in the foe in the past.

For example, it has already been said that the feudal Georgia during two or three centuries suffered from Daghestani raids. Georgian folklore includes many songs which describe the Daghestanis as brave, strong and dangerous enemies. One of them says:

Dzharians(4) handle their guns
And their powder flasks with skill,
They can find their way in the mountains
And use their daggers.

Another Georgian (Khevsurian) song is as respectful about the military prowess of the highland Chechens (Kistians):

Give beer in big bowls
To the young men who leave (on raid) for Maysty(5).
The mount Maysty is high,
Cowards do not go there,
Not women but hat-wearing (men) live there,
Kistians are going along the road,
They are good shots (6).

An important episode of relations between the Georgians and the Abkhazians in the 18th century was the battle at the fortress Rukhi (near the town of Zugdidi) in 1780 where the feudal militia headed by the Imeretian king Solomon I defeated the Abkhazians and their North Caucasian allies (Adyghs, Karachays, etc.) Resemblance with the recent Georgian-Abkhazian war (1992-93) is remarkable, though social, economic and political causes of these two wars were different, as the historical epochs were different. For this reason the image of the "Abkhazian enemy" in the Rukhi Battle in the eyes of the Georgians of the 18th - early 20th centuries was quite different from the stereotypes of our post-war time.

For example, the famous Georgian poet Besiki (1750-1791), contemporary of the Rukhi Battle, though he was an ally of Solomon I, in his poem about the battle calls the princes Shervashidze (Chachba) who stood at the head of the Abkhazian army, "victorious" and one of them, Bekirbey,"valiant" and " chivalrous"(7).

Memory of the Rukhi Battle in which many aristocratic families of Western Georgia took part lived long among their descendants. One of them, the prominent Georgian writer N. Lortkipanidze (1880-1944), in 1924 described it in his short story Knights based to a great extent on legends which were transmitted from generation to generation.

The Rukhi Battle as a typical episode in the feudal society?s history had the form of single combats. According to Lortkipanidze?s story, adversaries treated each other with esteem and did not wish each other?s death. For example, the Imeretian general Agiashvili who severely wounded the Abkhazian prince Astamur Inalip told the Abkhazians to give him medical help. The Imeretian prince Archil who struck the old prince Anchabadze with his saber reproached himself for fighting contrary to the knightly code (8).

Such an attitude to enemies may be explained to a certain extent by the fact that both the Georgian and Abkhazian nobility and the North Caucasian (Kabardinian, Ossetian, Vainakh and other) chiefs belonged to the same civilization. However, facts of respectful (and even magnanimous) treatment of valiant enemies are met rather often in the history of medieval knighthood from West Europe to Japan. Sometimes they even took place in the course of fighting foreign invaders.

An anonymous Georgian chronicle of the 14th century which describes the Mongol rule in Georgia tells how the Mongols on discovering a Georgian plot in 1247 arrested its participants and brought them to the Armenian city Ani where the Mongol noyon held his headquarters. The prisoners were led to the central square where they stayed for many days under the scorching sun rays expecting their execution. One of the conspirators who escaped arrest, Tsotne Dadiani, when he heard what had happened, went of his own will to Ani and joined his comrades to share their destiny. According to the chronicler, the Mongols were so impressed by Tsotne?s lofty spirit that they pardoned and released all the prisoners.

The classic of Georgian literature, Ilya Chavchavadze (1837-1907), wrote a short story Nikolooz Gostashabishvili describing an episode of 1688, when the Georgian king George XI rebelled against the Shah of Iran.

"...When the battle between the Georgians and the Iranians was raging, one kyzylbash (9) horseman, challenging Georgians for single combat, killed five young men one by one. To take revenge for them, the Georgians persuaded Nikolooz Gostashabishvili, a renowned though elderly warrior, to accept the challenge. He attacked the kyzylbash and knocked him off his horse. Though the stunned Iranian was lying helpless, Gostashabishvili helped him rise to his feet instead of killing him, saying, "I will not cut your head off, I will allow you to live due to your gallantry, go with peace." The kyzylbash bowed and said, "I could accept my life in gift only from a man like you"(10).

The knightly moral required enemies always to observe dignity. According to an Abkhazian saying, the enemy should be treated so that he could thank you. However embittered a battle may be, the custom demanded that at least one enemy should be left alive and let go back to his land as the "messenger of grief" (11). During the Russian-Caucasian War, when distinguished Russian officers died, Adyghs (Circassians) sent their representatives to take part in the funeral, declared three days? truce and organized a feast in honor of the dead (12).

However, an impression that the behavior in the Caucasian wars and military conflicts have always been chivalrous would be wrong. Sometimes it was different, and atrocities were perpetrated, especially when wars became protracted and embittered. Judging by the written sources, such facts became frequent after the Mongol invasion of Transcaucasia began. The Arab historian Ibn al Asir relates that the Muslims considered the Georgians to be the "better enemies", because they in the event of a successful raid were content with taking tribute; however, when a Georgian army in 1222 attacked the Muslim city Baylakan, it was plundered and its population was slaughtered after the manner of the Mongols (13).

Internecine strife was also very cruel sometimes. For example, in the 17th century West Georgia was caught in long feuds which were devastating the country. The king-cum-poet Archil II of East Georgia who visited the western part of the country was dismayed by the bitterness with which the local lords were fighting each other. He wrote in one of his poems:

Enmity raged between them, cruel as never before,
They attacked each other ceaselessly, striking with blades instead of hilts (14).

This means that the enemies killed each other without scruples, which contradicted the classical norms of behavior during internal wars. The military etiquette of the feudal Caucasus demanded that the enemy should be spared. It is significant that Tariel, one of the protagonists in Shota Rustaveli?s immortal poem The Knight in the Panther?s Skin, says:

If you defeated your enemy, do not kill him; this is the true valor, remember my words.

According to the Caucasian etiquette, when enemies were in a prince?s house or in the presence of women, they should have behaved as if nothing had happened between them and in some events even do each other favors (15). The Kabardinian ethnographer B. Bgazhnokov notes that when two Adyghs were going to have a duel it was usual to ask the enemy to strike first. Typical arguments given in such cases were "you are older and have the right of the first strike", "I accepted the challenge first, so you start", "you are guest in our land, strike first", etc. (16).

Amazing cases of knightly behavior took place in the Caucasian mountains even recently. The author has heard of an event which happened in Chechnya in the 1950s or early 60s, when two enemies met of whom only one was armed with a dagger. They threw lots to decide who was to start, and began fighting, taking the weapon in turns. It should be noted that according to the Chechen custom daggers in fight may be used solely for slashing. Stabs which are much more dangerous for life are prohibited. Death caused by them is classified as an intentional murder, and the murderer?s family may not hope for reconciliation in the resulting blood feud.

The Khevsurian duel with broadswords, which admitted bloody wounds, disallowed one of the duelers? death. The fencer who after wounding his enemy continued to fight solely to protect himself was considered the better master.

The traditional military ethic of the Caucasus encouraged the respectful treatment of the dead enemy?s body. In Georgia which had an ancient culture of writing this was laid down in written laws. The Book of Laws of king Vakhtang VI, composed in 1705-08, says that it is permitted to take jewels, arms, cuirass, helmet and overcoat from the dead enemy, but not shirt or breeches. Generals were instructed to enforce the compliance with this prohibition (17).

In the Kumyk popular ballad Aygazi which symbolically shows the Caucasian highlander?s system of values, the young hero, who upon shooting his father?s murderer was going to leave to rescue his fiancee abducted by a prince, heard his dying enemy?s voice:

"...If you leave me, you will be dishonored for ever.

I am mortally wounded. Life will presently
Be torn in me, like a thin thread.
You can not either quit or kill me,
You have to observe the custom.

Put me with my head to the south
Where the shroud of mist hangs,
Sit down at my side, as if you were my friend,
And read a prayer from the Qur?an.

When my soul departs, take your saber,
Grind it on a cold stone,
Pierce my lip, cut off my head,
Fasten it to your saddle.
Then you will return home
Like a warrior who has won a battle..."

Aygazi does read a prayer over the dying enemy and behead him after he dies (18).

The barbarian custom of cutting dead enemies` heads and hands as military trophies was widespread among the Caucasians, like many other warlike peoples of the world. The cited ballad shows that for a long time nothing extraordinary was seen in it. However, as time went, its ferocity and senselessness began to be understood. To this theme is dedicated one of the best poems of the prominent Georgian author Vazha Pshavela (1861-1915), Aluda Ketelauri. Its protagonist, Khevsurian Aluda, kills an Ingush in a fight but, impressed by the enemy?s courage, does not cut his right hand, contrary to the age-long tradition. This sparks a conflict between Aluda and his fellow villagers who eventually expel him from the community.

Finally, when the culture of military conflict in the Caucasus is discussed, the role of women as piece-makers should be mentioned. They traditionally performed this function. For example, a woman could stop a fight by throwing her headscarf between the fighting men, or a blood feud between two clans could be stopped if a woman from one of them suckled a baby from the opposing clan. It could happen either according to the warring parties` agreement or without it. In either case enemies had to reconcile in order not to "mix blood with milk", i.e. not to desecrate the new kinship with bloodshed.

Cases of mass reconciliation with mothers? participation are known in the Western Caucasus. One of such stories is related by the Abkhazian scholar A. Guazhba. "Strife arose between the Ubykhians (19) and the Abkhazians. There was no end to mutual raids... But the very wise people `who could reconcile fire with water` decided to stop the feud. Revered elders from both parties and all the parties in the Western Caucasus gathered and made their decision. There lies a wide plain to the right of the mouth of the river Psou. 500 young Abkhazian women and 500 young Ubykhian women with their babies came there and stood opposite each other. After they were blindfolded, they exchanged their babies and went back to their native auls. This was done in order that the Abkhazians and the Ubykhians who now knew that their relatives were on both sides would stop their raids... The reconciliation was celebrated with a feast, races, shooting competitions and other games..."(20). Though this is a legend, it had to be inspired by some real facts.

Events are known in the history of Georgia when women were entrusted with peace missions. For example, in 1031 the dowager Georgian queen Mariam (daughter of Armenian king Senekerim II Arcruni) headed a big Georgian embassy to Byzantium where she had negotiations with Emperor Romanos III about peace between the Kingdom of Georgia and the Eastern Roman Empire. The mission was a success; the peace was sealed with the marriage between Georgian king Bagrat IV (Mariam?s son) and the Emperor?s niece (21).

Women also had their role to play in appeasing Georgia?s domestic conflicts. For example, in the beginning of the reign of the famed Georgian queen Thamar (middle of the 1180s), a bitter conflict arose between the royal authority and a group of feudal lords. Rebels who controlled a large part of the capital were preparing an attack on the royal palace. Then Thamar sent two noble ladies for talks, who managed to find compromise and prevent the attack (22).

* * *

Now, many centuries after these events, despite social and political changes, wars continue to be waged and blood continues to be shed in the Caucasus. The concentration of both actual and potential conflict hotbeds here may be the world?s highest. For this reason, people of the Caucasus should be the most interested in finding means of neutralizing conflicts and solving political problems peacefully. The Caucasian traditions of peace-making may be used in this connection, for example, the "women diplomacy" mentioned in this article. It is essential to prevent crimes against humanity which, along with courage, nobility and heroism, have always accompanied military conflicts. Though military crimes will be perpetrated as long as war violence exists, any country which would like to be considered civilized should prevent them by all means. We believe that education of the youth using the traditional moral code may be one of the mechanisms in this work. Finally, one of the key tasks of the peace-making movement is the deconstruction of the "enemy image" in the public opinion of the belligerent parties. The traditional culture of conflict suggesting positive alongside negative traits in the enemy may be of use here. An active counter-propaganda should be carried on against the propaganda of terror and lie used by the forces behind the conflicts. Usually, effects of aggressive propaganda are felt long after military operations cease; without its neutralization, conflicts may smolder on indefinitely.


1. James Bell. Diary of the Visit to Circassia in 1837, 1838 and 1839. Cited in M. Bartsits. Abkhazian Cultural and Psychological Traditions and Conflict. In Aspects of the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict - 2. Irvayn, 2000. P. 46.

2. History of Daghestan. Vol. 1. M., 1967. P. 276.

3. Poetry of the Peoples of Daghestan. Vol. 1. M., 1960. P. 54.

4. Dzharians are inhabitants of the Avarian community Dzhar on the southern slope of the Main Caucasian Ridge, springboard for many Daghestani incursions into Georgia.

5. Maysty is a highland Kistian community neighboring on the Georgian tribe of the Khevsurians.

6. Georgian Folk Poetry. Vol. 2. Heroic Songs. Book One. Tbilisi, 1974. P. 93 (in Georgian).

7. Besiki. Collected Works. Ed. by A. Baramidze and V. Topuria. Tbilisi, 1962. P. 123, 126 (in Georgian).

8. N. Lortkipanidze. Collected Works in One Book. Tbilisi, 1981. P. 21-23 (in Georgian).

9. Kizilbashes (?red heads? in Turkic): Iranian soldiers of the Safavid age (16th-18th centuries) were called so because of their head dress with 12 purple strips in commemoration of 12 Shiite imams.

10. I. Chavchavadze. Selected Works in Five Volumes. Vol. 2. Tbilisi, 1985. P. 222-224 (in Georgian).

11. Sh.D. Inal-ipa. Essays in Abkhazian Etiquette. Sukhumi, 1984. P. 24.

12. A. Guazhba. People?s Diplomacy and Rhetoric in the Caucasus (Abkhazians and Adyghs). In Aspects of the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict - 2. Irvayn, 2000. P. 76.

13. B. Silagadze. Some Issues in the History of Georgia in the Age of Rustaveli according to Ibn al Asir. In Georgia in the Age of Rustaveli. Tbilisi, 1966. P. 157 (in Georgian).

14. Archil. Collected Works. Vol. 2. Tbilisi, 1937. P. 118 (in Georgian).

15. Khan Girey. Memoirs of Circassia. Prepared with Introduction by V.K. Gardanov and G.Kh. Mambetov. Nalchik, 1978. P. 296-297.

16. B.Kh. Bgazhnokov. Essays in the Adygh Ethnography of Communication. Nalchik, 1983. P. 99.

17. Laws of King Vakhtang VI. Ed. by T. Yenukidze. Tbilisi, 1955. P. 94 (in Georgian).

18. Poetry of the Peoples of Daghestan. Vol. 1. P. 134.

19. Ubykhians, a tribe close to the Abkhazians and Adyghs, lived in the area of the present-day resort town of Sochi. In 1864, after a 25 years? war with Russia, almost all of them migrated to the Ottoman Empire.

20. A. Guazhba. Common Law of the Abkhazians as a Possible Source of Methods for People?s Diplomacy. In Role of Non-official Diplomacy in Peace-making. Irvayn, 1999. P. 70.

21. Kartlis Cxovreba. Georgian Text. Ed. by S. Kaukhchishvili. Vol. 1. Tbilisi, 1955. P. 294.

22. Kartlis Cxovreba. Georgian Text. Ed. by S. Kaukhchishvili. Vol. 2. Tbilisi, 1959. P. 31-32.

Author: Georgy Anchabadze, Institute of History and Ethnology, Georgian Academy of Sciences;

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