History of Abkhazia (antiquity, the Abkhaz kingdom and the present)
Over the past decades, Abkhazia has been on the sidelines of turbulent tourist routes. The reason for this was the events of the early 90’s, when it seemed to be burning again, long extinguished, the bonfire of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. For many years, this beautiful Caucasian country has not seen any tourists. But time is passing, the blast holes and scars in people’s hearts are healed, resorts are being built, tourist services are developing. We again go to Gagra, Sukhum, Pitsunda, Lake Ritza. And we are surprised what we see – picturesque landscapes, ancient fortresses, beautiful botanical gardens, monasteries and temples, caves. We are surprised, and we realize that we know nothing about this small country, which is recognized as a country by only a few countries in the world. Let’s fill in this gap in our knowledge and take a short excursion into the history of Abkhazia.
The beginning of the history of Abkhazia is hidden behind the fog of millennia. First people appeared on its fertile land 35 thousand years ago, during the late Paleolithic period. Well-studied sites of the Mesolithic period originated in the 12th-7th millennium BC. People lived in caves near rivers, fished and gathered. This is evidenced by fish bones and bone harpoons, found in large quantities around their dwellings.
In the 6th- 4th millennium BC, during the Neolithic Age, pottery made of clay appeared. At the same time, man emerges from the caves and begins to build their own dwellings. The development of agriculture: tilling the land and the domestication of wild animals begins. At the boundary of the IV-III centuries BC the inhabitants of Abkhazia learned to smelt metal – copper and bronze. A millennium later appeared dolmen culture. Its traces – dolmens (stone tombs) – are found everywhere in modern Abkhazia. Their greatest concentration is noted in Gudauta district, near the village of Otkhara (there were fixed 15 dolmens weighing from 60 to 110 tons). In the dolmens of the Late Bronze Age researchers found spearheads, bronze axes, pottery and all kinds of jewelry.
The First Cities
The first large settlement-cities appeared in the history of Abkhazia in the VIII century BC, when Greek sailors-colonists started to explore the Black Sea coast. In the VI-I centuries B.C. they founded cities Pitiunt (now Pitsunda), Gyuenos (Ochamchira), Triglit (Gagra), Dioscuria (Sukhum) and others in quiet and convenient for navigation bays. These towns of the colony grew rapidly, becoming the cultural and historical centers of the Black Sea coast. Trade, barter and crafts flourished in them.
The territory on which the Hellenes founded the Dioscurias was called Akua in Abkhazian. The antiquity of the name is shown by the inscription “Akoy” (Akua) on the gold coins, minted in the I century BC. In addition, located near modern Sukhum, the castle, named Bagrat castle by researchers in the beginning of the last century, was formerly called the castle of Agua (Akua). In V-IV centuries BC local and Greek settlements on this area were connected only with economic interests. A century later, during the Hellenistic era, their inhabitants mutually integrated, and the composition of the population of Dioscuria became mixed, Greek-Abkhazian.
In the first century AD the Romans appeared on the shores of the Black Sea and began to dominate. It was the era of Emperor Octavian Augustus. It was the beginning of the new, Roman-Byzantine period of the history of Abkhazia, which lasted until VII century. In the I century Diakurias received a new, Roman name – Sebastopolis.
Early Christianity in the history of Abkhazia
According to church legends, in 55 BC Apostles Andrew and Simon the Zealot, pupils of Christ from the Bible came to the Abkhazian land to preach their faith. For Simon the Cananite Abkhazia was his last place of residence – he died here in the vicinity of the river Psyrtskha. Later on the place of his grave they erected a church in his name, and the grotto in which he spent his last days, became one of the most worshiped religious shrines of Abkhazia.
The murder of the Apostle Simon the Zealot did not stop the spreading of the new faith in the Caucasus. Christianity penetrated here with the Roman soldiers garrisoned in Zignis (today – the village of Gudava, Ochamchira district), Sebastopolis and Pitiunt. By the beginning of the IV century, Pitiunt had the oldest Christian community in the Caucasus. The bishop of Pitiunt Stratophilus represented it in Nicaea at the 1st Ecumenical Council in 325.
In the first years of the VI century Abkhazia found itself in subjection to the Byzantine Empire. During this period in the history of Abkhazia Misimian, Abazgia-Apsil formed a union of tribes and feudalism began to arise in social relations. Development of these processes contributed to the adoption of Christianity in 548. In the 7th century Apsilia, Myssinia and Abasgia were still dependent on Byzantium as one of its provinces. At the beginning of VII century the largest fortification on the Black Sea coast of Caucasus – Anakopia Fortress was erected.
At the end of VII century Western Transcaucasia faced a new enemy – the Arabs invaded its shores. They swiftly marched to Apsilia and stopped there, deploying their garrisons. In 738 the Arab armies, led by Mervan Crewe, invaded Transcaucasia, destroyed Sukhum and reached Anakopia (modern-day New Athos). The city was defended by two thousand Abasgians and one thousand Kartlians, who had fled here with kings Archil and Mir. The ruler of Abasgos Leon I was not among the defenders: he went to the Alans for help.
According to chroniclers, the Arab army was “a dark cloud of mosquitoes and locusts” – it outnumbered the defenders of Anakopia by several times. However, this disparity was compensated by the mighty walls of Anakopia fortress. Its southern side was 450 m long and was equipped with 7 towers, 30-50 m apart. From the towers and walls the defenders of the city pelted the enemy with arrows and stones from catapults and other throwing tools. Behind the many-tiered round tower on the corner there was a gate with carefully defended approaches. Through wickets between the towers, the Anacopians made forays into the enemy camp.
The bloody battle was not fated to happen that year: the “army of Saracens” was attacked by cholera, and most of the Arabs died of the disease. Anakopia’s defenders withstood the siege with fortitude and Merwan had to lead his troops away with nothing.
The Kingdom of Abkhazia
By the end of the VIII century an early feudal state – Abkhazian Kingdom was formed on the territory of modern Abkhazia. It was inhabited by Abkhaz, Adygean and Georgian tribes. Its borders stretched from the Surami Pass to the modern Tuapse. Formation of the Abkhaz kingdom was facilitated by the weakening of Greek and Byzantine positions in the Caucasus. Prince Leon of Abkhazia, the grandson of the Khazar king, took advantage of it. Renouncing “the Greeks,” he called himself King Leon II of Abkhazia, and the kingdom headed by him immediately received “international recognition. The new king moved the capital of the kingdom from Anakopia to Kutaisi.
The Abkhazian kingdom lasted for about 200 years. During these years the culture and economy of Abkhazia were thriving, temples, palaces and architectural ensembles were built. Decline began after the death of King Theodosius the Blind, who had no children. Abkhazia was part of the Georgian state, until in the XIII century, it began to break up into separate principalities.
The Italians in Abkhazia.
In the second half of the XIII century the Italian language resounded on the shores of Abkhazia. A merchant fleet of the Genoese appeared in its coastal waters. Genoese factories – trading settlements appeared everywhere: Petsonda (Pitsunda), Kakari (Gagra), Nikoffa (New Athos), Cavo di Buxo (Gudauta), San Sebastian or Sevastopolis (Sukhumi), San Tommaso (Tamish), Cavo Zizibar (near modern Adzyubzhi). The center of all Genoese settlements was Sevastopolis. It was the residence of the head of all the Genoese settlements in the Caucasus. The main occupation of the Italians was the silk trade. Through Abkhazia went three branches of the famous Silk Road, connecting the Golden Horde with Genoa.
The Principality of Abkhazia and the Ottoman Empire
XV century, the second half. Near the coast of Abkhazia appeared Turkish fleet. The Genoese hurriedly leave the Black Sea coast. By this time there were difficult political battles in the country: representatives of Abkhazian kin Chachba (Shevarshidze) who were at that time rulers of Abkhazia were trying their best to free themselves from dependence on Mingrelian kings. For 30 years there was internecine war between feudal lords of both principalities. It ended with the establishment of the border between the Kartvelians and Abkhazians along the river Enguri, which remains to this day.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Turks laid siege to Sevastopol from the sea. The Abkhaz were forced to pay tribute. In 1634 the Turkish landing party, which landed near Kondor cape, looted and devastated the territory adjacent to the sea. The Turks also imposed tribute on the local lords. In 1724 the Turks built a fortress on the coast near Sevastopolis, which was named Sukhum-Kale. The city was given the same name. The Turkish yoke influenced not only economic and political life of the country, but also religion: with the Turks Islam penetrated into Abkhazia and began to spread.
At the end of the XVIII century the Abkhazian ruler Kelashbei Chachba managed to strengthen the state. With the help of his own fleet, Abkhazia began to control the Black Sea coast from Batum to Anapa.
Abkhazia and the Russian Empire
In the 19th century, Turkey and Russia fought, trying to wrest territories from each other along the Black Sea. In the midsummer of 1810, a Russian squadron seized the fortress of Sukhum-Kale. Abkhazia was annexed to the Russian Empire (except for a few free settlements in the mountains). 1810 is considered the year of the beginning of the patronage of Russia over Abkhazia. In the same year about 5 thousand Abkhazians migrated to Turkey – it was the first wave of migration of the XIX century.
The distinctive feature of the Principality of Abkhazia was the fact that it, unlike neighboring Georgia, did not lose its independence as a result of its joining to Russia. From 1810 to 1864 the principality had autonomous governance in the Russian Empire and lasted longer than any other in the Caucasus.
From June 1864 abolished Abkhazian Principality was renamed into Sukhumi Military Department of the Russian Empire. On the eve of elimination of the Principality Prince Mikhail Romanov who was a governor in the Caucasus presented a plan of colonization of the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus to the emperor. Alexander II approved this plan (it was proposed to settle the territory from the Enguri to the mouth of the Kuban with Cossack settlements). At that time 45 thousand Ubykhs and 20 thousand Sadzi left Abkhazia and migrated to Turkey.
Ubykh and Mukhadjirstvo
In 1866 a rebellion broke out in Abkhazia and its wave swept from the village Likhny to Sukhum. The reason for the revolt was the preparation of the Russian authorities to carry out peasant reforms. Officials overlooked the fact that unlike Georgia there was no serfdom in Abkhazia. After the suppression of the uprising, repression began in Abkhazia and the people were unconditionally disarmed (even daggers were taken away). Participants of the uprising were exiled to the Far North and Siberia. In the summer of 1867 another 20 thousand Abkhazians became muhajirs – immigrants to Turkey.
During the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878, Abkhazians took the side of the Turks. At the end of the war this caused mass political repression. The Abkhazians were considered “guilty” population and they were sent to hard labour or in exile in remote Russian provinces. In 1877 Mukhajirstvo reached its peak – about 50 thousand Abkhazians left the country. Its towns and cities were practically deserted. To somehow solve the problem, Abkhazia began to be settled by other peoples, primarily Georgians (Mingrelians), but also Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Estonians, Bulgarians and Germans. By the end of the XIX century Abkhazians made up only 55% of the total population of the country.
The Role of Soviet Power in the History of Abkhazia
In the second half of the century before last, Abkhazia was between the democratic communities of the free mountaineers of the Caucasus and the Georgian feudal system. However, its social structure clearly had a spiritual connection to the Circassian-Ubykh community.
When the Russian Empire collapsed, Abkhazia found itself in the Union of United Highlanders of the Caucasus and the South-Eastern Union. In November 1917 there was a congress of the Abkhaz people, which elected the first parliament – the People’s Council of Abkhazia, which adopted the Declaration and Constitution of the Abkhaz people. In March 1921 the Bolsheviks declared Abkhazia a Soviet Socialist Republic and established Soviet power in it. In February 1931 the VI All-Georgian Congress was held in Tbilisi, which decided to transform the Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia into an autonomous republic, part of the Georgian SSR.
National liberation movement
Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the national liberation movement began to intensify in many republics of the Soviet Union. Abkhazia also began to struggle to increase its own administrative status. The Georgian Parliament unilaterally began to make decisions and resolutions (1989-1990) ignoring the interstate relations between Georgia and Abkhazia and clearly supporting a course towards abolition of Abkhazian statehood. In order to overcome legal irregularities between the countries in July 1992 the Supreme Council of Abkhazia by its decision restored the effect of the 1925 Constitution and adopted a new flag and coat of arms of the Republic of Abkhazia in the territory of the republic.
The Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1992-1993
Trouble occurred on 14 August 1992. Georgia, which had just joined the UN, started a war against Abkhazia. Its troops supported by armored vehicles, aircraft and artillery invaded and occupied Abkhazia.
The massacre of local residents and cultural genocide began: cultural and historical monuments, valuable documents, rare manuscripts and books were destroyed… On September 30, 1993 Abkhazia was liberated. Around 3 thousand people gave their lives for freedom and independence of the country.
In November 1994 a new Constitution of the country was adopted by Abkhazian Parliament. The first President – V. Ardzinba was elected. From that time till the autumn of 1999 Abkhazia was under information, economic and political blockade.
Nevertheless, Abkhazia had means and strength to overcome difficulties of the post-war period, to revive culture, science, economy, education and health resorts. In October 1999, in a nationwide referendum, Abkhazians voted for independence, fixing it in a state act. In 2008, independence of Abkhazia was recognized by Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua, in 2009 – Nauru, and in 2011 – Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
That is the story of Abkhazia: old, proud and sad. I want to believe with all my heart that the people of this small mountainous country which is on the stage of formation again, will gain real freedom, recognition and peaceful life. Traveling around Abkhazia you constantly meet hospitable and cheerful people, beautiful places and buildings that were destroyed during the “last” war. And it is happy to see that every year there are less and less of these buildings – “witnesses of the 90s”: new roofs appear over them, there are new windows in the openings, and in the evenings a peaceful light is shining in these windows. And then you realize: the history of Abkhazia is still going on!