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THE HISTORY OF THE KARACHAI-BALKARIAN PEOPLE

CHAPTER VI

ALANS AND ASSES AS THE ANCESTORS OF BALKARIANS AND KARACHAIS

Like Hun-Bulgarians, Alan-Asses were the ethnic offspring of Scythian-Sarmat tribes. Alans, calling themselves “Asses” and called so in some written sources too, were known in Northern Caucasus from the first centuries AD But their significant spreading there began only in IV century. Still, they did not play any important political role in that region in IV–VII centuries, when the tribes of Hun-Bulgarians and Khazars dominated.

Only after the complete decay of the Khazar Kahanat in the middle of IX century, the conditions became more favorable for Alans, and they entered the scene of history as a leading force in Northern Caucasus, beginning to play an active role in the international relations between Byzanth, Caucasus and the South of Russia (Fig. 9).

Alan population of Northern Caucasus

As we have already said, Alans were known in Northern Caucasus yet since the first centuries AD Their presence there has been indicated by Roman writers, poets and scientists. But the large-scale spreading of Alans on the territories of Northern Caucasus occurred in IV century, under the pressure of Hun tribes. Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, living in that time, wrote about the events of 353–378 that many tribes speaking different languages lived around the Asov Sea (Meotian Morass), including Yaksamats, Meotians, Yazigs, Roxalans, Alans, Melanhlens, Helons, Ahaphirs. Huns, gradually subduing all the tribes known in the European steppes in that time, finally reached the lands of “Alans, former Massagets ”, as he specifically noted. It is well established in science that Massagets were the ancestors of Turkmen. This is one of the indications that Alans originally were Turk-speaking.

The mass findings of Alan archeological monuments in Northern Caucasus refers to the period from VII to XII centuries, especially on the territory of Central Fore-Caucasus, though the Alan burials of earlier times are known in this region too. Ousting Alans from Kuban lands, the territory of modern Karachai, was caused by the increasing strength of Bulgarian and then Khazar tribes there. Alans were forced to concentrate in the upper reaches of Terek, and specifically at the Darial passage and in Digoria. From VII to IX centuries, the name of Alans almost disappeared from the pages of the old written sources, since the most active military and political events mainly concerned Arabs, Khazars and Byzantines. Some other tribes, originally inhabiting Northern Caucasus, got involved in these events too, including the descendants of Scythians, Bulgarians, Huns and others.

Archeological monuments of Alans are known on the territory of Karachai in the settlement Baital-Chapkan, near Kislovodsk, on the banks of Baksan, Chegem, near Nalchik, at the Elkhot gate, in the head of Terek, at the Darial passage, in Digoria, on the lower Terek, near Maisky and in other places.

Culture and life of Alan tribes

As the offspring of nomads (Scythians), Alans retained in their traditionally way of life and culture all the main elements of life and world outlook of their ancient ancestors, “pitters” and Sarmats. By the words of a contemporary to them ancient authors, Alans, as the true nomads, roamed over the huge spaces with all their belongings, families and so on. As Ammianus Marcellinus wrote, they had no shelter, no care for raising corn, they fed on meat and milk, lived in carriages with “bent covers of bark attached, drawing them in the boundless steppes”. “Almost all Alans are tall”, he continued, “and beautiful, with slightly fair hair. They are frightening by their well-composed and menacing look, being very mobile due to the lightness of their arms (bows, arrows, spears, etc.—aut.), and they are like Huns in every respect, save an easier and more cultural way of life… By the barbaric (i. e. Hun—aut.) custom, they stick a sword in the ground and worship it as Mars, the protector of the lands where they rove… They predict the future by the withes collected in a definite time. They do not know slavery, being all of equally noble birth, and, up to now, they elect the people, long distinguished in battles for their judges, chiefs and rulers”, Ammianus Marcellinus, one of the Roman experts in the history and culture of nomadic tribes, concludes.

This was the nomadic phase of Alan history. With their gradual “getting to the ground”, with the transition to settled life, their culture and household significantly changed. First, they began to dig earth fosses and ramparts around their permanent settlements, then they passed to stone architecture, beginning to build lodgings on the stone basement, make stone burials (crypts, graves etc.). Gradually, they got involved in cultivating grain, agriculture, gardening, cultivating cattle, processing the products of agriculture and cattle-breeding.

With the fall of the Khazar Kahanat under the blows from Arabs and Russes, the role of Alans in the international politics increased. Christianity began to penetrate to them from Byzanth. At Alans, this ecumenical religion got tightly interlaced with the relics of pagan notions. Thus, their culture knew a direct continuation of pagan rites and ideas, such as the Scythian worship of the godly sword and Huns’ sword worshipping as god’s gift to Attila, the Scythian-Hun habit of predicting the future by the withes, etc. Thus, Alans borrowed their way of life, household and cultural traditions from their ancient nomad ancestors.

With the decay of the Khazar Kahanat, the Alan tribes got consolidated in a powerful early medieval state, actively influencing the whole history of Caucasus, Crimea, Danube and Transcaucasus. In the 20s of X century, Alans adopted Christianity, and Christian culture began to flourish in Alania, with the construction of the oldest (older than in Novgorod) temples on river Arkhiz, on Zelenchuk, on the town site of Eski-Jurt (Upper Arkhiz) and other regions of Karachai and Balkaria and adjacent territories (Fig. 16).

Christianity spread and grew in Northern Caucasus up to the Golden Horde gain foot there. In XIV century, early Moslem mosques were built on the place of the former Christian churches, at the Elkhot gate, in the Tatar-tup area, on the town site of Lower Julat, near Maisky in Kabardino-Balkaria and other places. Christian churches functioned in Balkaria and Karachai up to the end of XVII century.

It should be held in mind, that in Alania, as well as in Balkaria and Karachai, Christianity was rather mixed with the relics of paganism.

In Alania, applied art was highly developed, depicting the contents of various myths and legends. Archeological findings speak that there was an unmatched flourish of stone-cutting, bone-cutting, tannery, woodworking and wool industry, mining, as well as making various things of precious stones and metals, manufacturing weapon (bows, arrows, spears, knifes, daggers and sabers).

Trade was highly developed in Alania too. They had business with Byzanth, Arabian countries, Georgia, Armenia, the countries of
Eastern Europe, Middle and Central Asia.

Alans as the ancestors of Balkarians and Karachais

According to Roman authors, Alans were “the former Massagets”; modern science has established complete identity of Massagets and Turkmen. Hence, Alans were a Turk tribe. This fact can also corroborated by that there is a separate tribal group called Alans has remained among the modern Turkmen up to now. The names of these Alan kins are interesting to recall: Mirshi-kar, Boluk-aul , Eshek, Aiak-Char, Kara-mogul, Tokuz, Ker, Belke etc. Alan tribal groups live also in Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan and Altai. Among the Altai tribes, there is a tribal group called “Alandan kelgen ”, i. e. “those who came from the plain”.

Moreover, the word “alan” conveys the idea of “plain” or “valley” in many Turk languages.
The nearest neighbors of Karachais, Megrelians, refer to Karachais as Alans up to now. No Caucasian nationality uses this ethnonym, except Balkarians and Karachais. The word “alan” is used by Balkarians and Karachais to address each other, in the sense of “kinsman”, “tribesman”. In addition to these facts, the identity of Alans and Karachai-Balkarians is asserted by the Byzantine written sources, which refer to the territory of Karachai as Alania. The tradition to call exactly this region Alania remained in the geographical maps of Caucasus up to XVIII–XIX centuries, even in the period of the construction of the Strategic Georgian Road through Vladikavkaz.

An irrefutable arguments for the hypothesis of Turk-speaking Alans and their leading role in the formation of Karachai-Balkarian people are provided by the so-called “Zelenchuk inscription”, dated by XII century, found in the Karachai settlement “Eski-Jurt” (Upper Arkhiz), and the “Alan salutation” quoted by Byzantine poet of XII century Iohannes Ceces. In the Zelenchuk inscription, there are quite discernible common Turk words and terms: “ata jurt”—native land, “belьnьb”—separating, “zil”—year; “de”—tell, “Teiri”—the supreme Turk deity Tenhri, “Tsakhirif”—calling, “alan ьrtlaga”—to the valley settlements, “bahatar”—hero and so on. In a few words, the inscription tells how a few tribes once gathered and, having called to the god, decided to move to the plain. The inscription points to the disintegration of the tribe union.

In “Alan salutation” as quoted by Iohannes Ceces, there are also easily read Karachai-Balkarian phrases not met at any other people (idiomatic expressions), such as “Oi ьiьnge!”, and such words as “kьn”—day, “hosh”—kind, “kaitif”—returning, “katin”—mistress and others. All the other attempts to read these documents, inserting letters absent in them, rearranging words and letters and forcing the text in other ways, did not give anything comforting, except senseless conglomerations of separate words or personal names. The available historical and ethnographic materials as well as linguistic data definitely tell that Alans were a Turk-speaking tribe, being one of the main components in the formation of Balkarians and Karachais.

Who were Asses

Word “as” means in Turk languages “to stray”, “to lose the road”, “to wander”, which is almost identical to the notion “nomadic way of life”. It is due to this meaning that Ancient Greeks used the name “Asia” for the Kuban steppes, where they first encountered ancient nomadic sheep breeders, the representatives of the pit (barrow) culture; later, with the migration of these nomads to various regions, the name “Asia” began to refer to Middle Asia, Fore-Asia and Asia Minor.

Word “as/az” was reflected in an ethnonym of the descendants of ancient barrowers, Scythians, as “As-kishi” (“Ashkuzi”). The name As-kishi was retained in some later names of Turk tribes in Crimea, Middle and Central Asia. Moreover, there are rather direct written indications that “Asses” were identical to Scythians and Sarmats (Ptolomaios, II century AD; Stephanos of Byzanth, VI century AD).

As one of the leading subdivisions, Asses were represented among the descendants of Scythians, early Bulgarians. One of the women of As-Bulgarians was married to Russian prince Andrey Bogolyubsky. The son of Andrey Bogolyubsky and “yasinya” (Bulgarian woman in old Russian), Yuri, married Georgian queen Tamar.

One of the leading and respectable Alan tribes were Asses called “Dagsas”, that is, “Mountain Asses”.

In XIV century the Turk tribes of Asses were known in the Darial canyon and in Crimea. Conqueror Timur fought with the As people in the mountains of Central Caucasus, on territory Balkaria and Karachai, in the end XIV century.

Balkarians are called Asses by their geographical and historical neighbors, Iranian-speaking Ossetians. Moreover, they call Balkaria by the word term “Assiag”, while Karachai is called “Stur-Assiag”, that is, Great Asia. Knowing these facts, it is difficult to believe that Asses were the ancestors of Ossetians. There were no people in the history that would call other people by their own name.

The facts described above are related to that Turks Asses are often mentioned in the old Turk inscriptions already in VIII century. Their name is often mentioned to refer to the tribes of Turgesh, Kirgiz and other Turks in the valley of river Chu. Also, Makhmud of Kashgar, the author of XI century, named Asses among the Turk peoples. An old Russian chronicler, well informed about Turk peoples of XII century, clearly wrote that Asses are akin to Pechenegs by their language. Some kinds of Asses are known among Nogai, Altai, Kirgiz, Kazakh and other Turk peoples up to now. All this indicates that the most ancient ethnonym associated with to the earliest nomadic sheep breeders more than 5000 years ago, through Scythians, Bulgarians and Alans came to our days in the name of Balkarians and Karachais. Asses were the direct ancestors of Karachai-Balkarians.

Military and political history of Alan-Asses, the ancestors of Karachai-Balkarians

Yet in the I century, Alans were known in Northern Caucasus, near Asov Sea and even in the Danubean steppes in Europe, and in Lower Pannonia, where once was situated Scythia Minor. In 378, Alans subordinate to Huns invaded, as a part of Hun hordes, the lands of the Roman empire. On 9 August, 378, under Andrianopolis, the joined army of Alans and Huns shattered the Roman army and thus put the end to the world domination of Romans. From this historical moment, Huns and Alans had complete dominion in the whole European politics, before the force of the Khazar Kahanat grew enough. Such names of Alan kahans (khans) as Goar, Buьrgur, Saros, Kandak and others are known. In the 50s of V century, Alan khan Kandak subdued Scythia Minor (Dobrugia). It is very important circumstance that the contemporary to these events historian Jordan used the name “Kerti Alan”, i. e. “True Alans”, for Kandak’s Alans. Historians studying Alans could not explain this term without resorting to Karachai-Balkarian. Alan leaders often helped Byzanth in its struggle with Iran and other barbaric tribes: Vandals, Goths etc. We have already said that Byzantines cunningly used Alans as a covering detachment against Asian nomads: Avars, Khazars, Polovets and others (Fig. 18).

The Caucasus region had always been a vast field of contest between Byzanth and Iran. Alans’ campaigns in Transcaucasus and on Near East started yet in I century and repeated with success up to X–XI centuries. Alans often helped Armenia and Georgia in their struggle with foreign aggressors: Arabs, Persians and others. It is remarkable, that Armenian written sources called these defenders Alans, and Georgians called them Ovs or Os. Thus, the two ethnonyms were put in one row and identified.
However one should not think that Alans and Asses did not pursue their own purposes in these campaigns. Like any other nomadic people, they, protecting settled farmers of Transcaucasus from the raids of Persian and Arabs, used to enrich themselves sponging those very peoples. The history of their interrelations is complete of bloody collisions and peaceful culture-economic contacts. The mutual relations of Alan-Asses with the peoples of Transcaucasus and Near East often assumed the character of kinship, enriched by cross-national dynastic marriages. Relations between Alan-Asses and Transcaucasus became especially active at the kings Durgul-el and Huddan. The daughter of Huddan, Burduhan, was a mother of Georgian queen Tamar. Burduhan’s sister Rusudan, the aunt of Tamar, was her governess. So, it can be definitely stated that there was close kinship between the ruling layers of Alan-Asses, the ancestors of Karachai-Balkarians, and Georgia.

The power of the Alan state significantly decreased with the heyday of Khazars, regaining its strength in the middle of X century, with the fall of Khazar Kahanat in 965, after the defeat from Russian troops.

Mongol-Tatar invasion to Alan-Asses

In the 20s of XIII century, the powerful Alan-As state underwent a terrible defeat from Mongol -Tatar hordes. Their army, subduing the countries of Fore-Asia and Transcaucasus, had, to realize the plans of seizing Eastern Europe, to finish first with the Alan-As kingdom spreading from the banks of Laba to Sunja, from Caucasian highlands to the lower reaches of Terek and its tributaries. Mongol-Tatars, having subdued the peoples of Daghestan, passed the Derbent gate in 1222 and encountered Alans, who allied with Kipchak (Polovets) living in the South-Russian steppes, adjacent to the Five Mountains and Kuban lands (Figs. 19,20).

The 30-thousand army of Mongol military leaders Jebe and Subudei entered the battle with the Alan-Kipchak troops. But no side could win in the severe fight. Then Mongols, using their well-tried method of breaking the alliances of their enemies by deceit, sent ambassadors to Kipchaks, saying: “We and you of the same kin, and those Alans of a different kin, and your faith is not like the faith of Alans. Leave Alan to us, and we shall give you as much goods as you want for that...” having been caught to this trick, Kipchaks went away to their lands, leaving Alans one to one against the terrible enemy. But, smashing Alans, Mongols not only forgot all their promises, but also overtook Kipchaks and took away twice as much as they gave them from them, routing them in their turn. Those of Kipchaks who escaped from this slaughter ran to Crimea, settling in its mountains or moving on to other countries by sea.

Northern Caucasus was assimilated into the Golden Horde, fertile valleys of Fore-Caucasus being turned into the rovings of the Golden-Horde khan. The Golden Horde strictly watched for the safety of these lands and their cattle. According to Gillom Rubruk (1254), every fifth of the Golden-Horde warriors had to guard the mouths of the canyons from Alan, in order that the mountaineers could not burn pastures and steal cattle. With the same purpose, Horde khans built fortresses in the foothills of Caucasus. On of such cities existed just before the Elkhot gate, Tatar-tup, near modern Maisky in Kabardino-Balkaria; similar posts were built near stanitsa Liachinskaya, on river Podkumok (Majari) etc. Nevertheless, Alan mountaineers fiercely fought against the separated groups of the conquerors, attacking them, stealing their cattle, burning crops and pastures. But the forces were unequal, and Northern Caucasus for a long time remained under the power of the Golden Horde, which, to bring the peoples subdued to obeisance, spread a new religion, Islam, among them, building Moslem mosques.

Timur’s campaigns and his conquering Asses

In the wars conducted by the Golden Horde, its khan Tokhtamish received support from Timur the Conqueror. But, getting stronger Tokhtamish repeatedly organized raids on the possessions of Timur, when the latter was busy with the wars in Asia and India. Timur’s patience finally came to an end and he undertook campaign against Tokhtamish, to give him a lesson for ingratitude.

In April 1395, the army of Timur passed Derbent and camped on the bank of Terek near modern Maisky, at the Golden-Horde city Julat, before the decisive battle. The neighborhood of Julat was the richest province of the Golden Horde in that time. Here, the huge army of Timur refilled its provisions and stored the forage for the cavalry.

A strongest battle occurred on Terek, and Tokhtamish, having been defeated, began to retreat into deep steppes, along river Kura and then along Volga. Sending special groups to run after Tokhtamish, Timur stayed near Beshtau. From this camp, he made a few raids against Russians and Cherkess on Kuban. Timur’s biographers told about what followed: “When Timur’s thoughts could be diverted from the Russian and Cherkess affairs, he, with all his haven-like army turned to the mountain Elburs… To subdue the unfaithful, the world-winning banner was directed against Buriberdi and Burikhan, who was the ruler of the As people. There were thick woods on this way. Cutting down the trees and building a road, Timur left emir Hadji Seif-ad-Din in the train and climb for jikhad the Elburs mountain. In the fortified and guarded mountain canyons, he had many encounters with the enemies of faith, but his victorious army won in all the battles, subjecting many of those unfaithful by the sword of jikhad, destroying their fortresses and seizing immeasurable wealth and uncountable loot…” When Timur returned to Beshtau, Hadji Seif-ad-Din gave a magnificent feast in honor of his victory. However, Timur had to once again fight against Asses, who rose on a new struggle with the invader: “Timur, leaving the train once again, went to the fortress of Kul and Taus, who also belonged to tribe of the inhabitants of Elburs. The inhabitants of those territories had fortresses and fortifications on the tops of the mountains, and it was most difficult to get there because of the height of the place, which was so high, that eye got dimmed at mere looking at them and the hat falls from the head; thus, fortress of Taus stood on the third terrace of a mountain, like the nest of a predatory bird, on such a height that an arrow could not reach there…” With extreme difficulties and much losses in the troops, Timur seized the fortress of Taus, took in captivity and killed Kul and Taus. “Therefrom Timur went to the fortress of Pulad, where Uturku found a refuge, one of higher emirs of Juchi Ulus. Timur wrote a letter to Pulad: “Give me Uturku whom you hide, or else I shall come with an uncountable army, which all consists of lions, defeating the enemies”. But Pulad answered, self-assured: “I have a fortress well fortified, and the means of defense are all ready. Uturku found a refuge at me, and while my soul is in my body I shall not give him away and shall guard and care for him…” The fortress stood in a place very difficult to reach, and its people stood in the mouth of the canyon and, sacrificing their lives, began to desperately fight. After many attempts, the victorious army won and seized the fortress. But Uturku managed to escape in a canyon on the Elburs mountain. Timur’s army ruined and burned the homes of Asses, taking uncountable loot. At that time, someone brought a message that three escaped groups of unfaithful, climbed on the slope of the mountain and stayed there. Timur went against them, won them, took many of them in captivity and burned those doomed for hell! From the right wing, mirza Miran-shah sent a message: “We are running after Uturku, and we have entered the Elburs country called Ayasa (Abasa?)”. So biographers describe the campaigns of Timur in the country of the As people.
In the Abasa (Ayasa) land, Timur caught Uturku and took him in captivity. Then he stayed near Beshtau for a few days.

Timur’s campaigns have completely locked Asses (Balkarians and Karachais) in the stone trap, significantly reducing their ethnic territory, which once spread over a major part of Northern Caucasus. To the time of Timur’s campaigns, Balkarians and Karachais were already quite formed people, retaining the name of their ancestors: Asses, Alans, Bulgarians.

Since toponyms and hydronyms are accepted for an “ethnic passport” of the ancient tribes in science, such Karachai-Balkarian names, as Koban (Kuban), Balik (Malka), Baksan, Chegem, Cherek, Terek (Terk), Azau, Kashkhatau, Mingi-tau, Kara-agach, Kizburun, Akbash, Kishpek (Kishi-beck), Julat (Jolty), or the place of confluence of five rivers near stanitsa Ekaterinodarskaya, “Besh-tamak” (five river mouths), Beshtau, Kizliar, Elkhot and many others confirm what has been said above about the ancient ethnic territory of Balkarians and Karachais. The events described in this chapter were the final stages of the process of the formation of Karachais and Balkarians in the course of many centuries.

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