At some point before the seventh century CE, the Adyge-Abkhaz peoples separated into two large groups: the Abkhazians and the Adyges, known to the world as the Circassians. A third group, the Abazas, were Abkhazians who gradually migrated to the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, particularly after the devastation of the populations of the central North Caucasus in the 14th Century.[i] Finally, there were the Ubykhs, who lived in the region around Sochi, who spoke a language distinct from Circassian, Abkhazian and Abaza. Despite the linguistic differences, the Circassians have always considered the Ubykhs a Circassian tribe. I never saw any debate about any of these issues until Sochi was selected as the site of 2014 Winter Olympic Games. A strange thing happened at that time. A debate ensued over who the true “indigenous” residents of Sochi were, with some parties making claims that simply have no historical or linguistic foundation. In this post I’ll try to present the data that exists. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward: the Ubykhs lived in Sochi, and the Ubykhs considered themselves Circassians.
First is the linguistic issue. Some people, such as Asya Pereltsvag, claim that Ubykh is a branch of the Abkhazian subfamily. However, according to John Colarusso, specialist in the Adyge-Abkhaz languages, author of An Ubykh Sampler, and one of the few people in the world who can communicate in Ubykh, “Ubykh is not a branch of Abkhaz, nor is it closer to Abkhaz than it is to Circassian . . . Ubykh is fairly well split between the two main branches, as well as being its own thing.” Particularly noteworthy is his observation that Ubykh has “a vocabulary with a semantic structure like that of Circassian.” Ubykh does share some features with Abkhazian and possesses some unique features as well.[ii]
However, this doesn’t mean the Ubykhs considered themselves a separate nation. The Mingrelians of Georgia, for example, spoke (and some continue to speak) a language distinct from the modern Georgian language, but nevertheless consider themselves part of the Georgian nation. As for the Ubykhs, they “considered themselves adyghe, with the /a-/ actually an old prefix. They did not refer to themselves as /apswa/ ‘mortals’, which is the Abkhazian self-designation.”[iii] The Ubykhs also frequently intermarried with the Circassian Abzakh tribe.
As a historian, I find the behaviors of the various subgroups of the Adyge-Abkhaz peoples during the Caucasus wars to be the most telling aspect of this question. As early as the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, the Ubykhs fought on the side of the Circassians against the Russians, even though their territory wasn’t under any threat. They also worked in unison with other Circassian tribes (particularly the Shapsugs and Natuhays) against Ottoman aggression. However, the Ubykhs don’t seem to have gotten involved with the Abkhazians’ struggles against the Ottomans in the eighteenth century, or their efforts to resist Russian conquest in the nineteenth century.[iv] Likewise, in all the thousands of pages I’ve read about the Russo-Circassian War, both published and archival, the first mention of Abkhazian participation is in the final battle of Qbaada Meadow, modern Krasnaya Polyana. I’ll write more about this battle in a later post.
The question of who precisely has the best claim to being the “indigenous” people of Sochi is a bit more complex. James Bell’s map of 1840 shows the Abazas living toward the coast, near Sochi, while it locates “Ubukh” farther up the mountain, closer to Qbaada. According to Bell, a small mountain range running just north of the Gagra River separates the “Azras” (Abkhazians) from the Ubykhs and Abazas. In his field notes, however, Russian Field Commander Nikolai Evdokimov calls Qbaada the home of the Aibga, an Abkhazian tribe. All of this is hard to square with the fact that Qbaada is an Ubykh word meaning “fortified ravine,”[v] while Sochi is actually a distortion of the Ubykh word “swacha,” which means “seaside.”[vi] One old Russian map of the Battle of Qbaada does show an aul (village) marked “Aibga” near Qbaada, but lists Qbaada as a separate aul. However, the coast is clearly marked as Ubykh territory.[vii] Farther south an area is marked as the territory of the Jigets, another Abkhazian tribe. Another old map also shows the coast around Sochi as Ubykh territory, with the Abazas to the south around the modern city of Adler and Abkhazians farther south, beyond the Bzyb River, with no mention of the Jigets or Aibga.[viii] Tsarist historian Semyon Esadze makes it clear that the bulk of the land was Ubykh territory, but that the Russians did encounter the Jigets and ran the Aibga off their land, although he notes that the entire military force they encountered at Qbaada was just the “petty remains of the mountaineers.” He even notes that “the war was over” before Russian forces moved into Qbaada.[ix]
So it does appear that in 1864 the area around Sochi was home to the Ubykhs, with the Aibga and perhaps the Abazas and Jigets living nearby. The actual location of Sochi is consistently identified as Ubykh territory, with the exception of Bell’s 1840 map. However, Bell is contradicted by Russian General Milenty Olshevsky, who claims that when his forces established the Navaginskaya and Holy Spirit Forts, both right on the site of Sochi, it was the Ubykhs who attacked them.[x]
As for who lived there first, it really does depend on what you consider “first.” When exactly did the Adyge-Abkhaz separate into distinct groups? When did the Ubykhs settle along the coast, and did they drive another tribe out when they did so? Why did the Aibga live relatively separately from the bulk of the Abkhazian people? By the 19th Century all the Circassian tribes were highly mobile; to what extent did that affect their own concept of “territory,” if indeed they actually had one?
From what I know about Circassian society, it’s my opinion that the area around Sochi had been Ubykh territory for a long time, but that the Ubykhs and Abkhazians were good enough neighbors that small numbers of Abkhazians (most likely the Aibga) were welcome to live side by side. The Jigets lived to the south, but not around the Sochi area, and very well could have been newcomers.