The lack of written documents on the economic development of Balkaria and Karachai of that time puts archeological and ethnographic data on the first place in this problem.

The basis of the economy of Balkarians and Karachais was constituted of agriculture, cattle breeding, arts and crafts, trade and exchange, hunting and so on.

The tradition of agriculture was characteristic of the ancestors of Balkarians and Karachais from the most ancient times. This is confirmed by the archeological findings of copper-bronze sickles of the Kimmerian epoch in Karachai, the remainders of iron ploughshares in the Bulgarian-Alan settlements, and also massively terraced mountain slopes in the upper reaches of Cherek, Chegem, Baksan, Kuban and Zelenchuk, serving as the terrace fields of medieval agriculture.

However, agriculture could not play the leading role in the economy of Balkarians and Karachais because of the extremely meager soil. Though every spot of fertile land was intensively cultivated in Karachai and Balkaria, with tremendous efforts spent on it, and irrigation channels built, their own yield of grain was almost never enough. Bread had to be bought from the neighboring peoples, or exchanged on the abundant products of cattle-breeding, such as oil, milk, meat, cheeses, skin, leather, fur and others.

The deep reflection of agriculture in the culture of Balkarians and Karachais is indicated by the ritual agricultural games and fiests, such as Saban-toi, Erirei, as well as such toponyms as Saban-kosh and many others. On the Saban-toi fiests, Balkarians cooked a thick porridge “gezhe” of seven kinds of grain, played water games like “Su oьn” and so on.
Farming and gardening appeared in Balkaria and Karachai in the end of XVII – beginning of XVIII century.

Cattle breeding

The leading branch of Balkarian and Karachai economy was cattle breeding, which was their main occupation from the most ancient times. Judging by the bones found by archeologists, their herds originally included sheep, rams, pigs, goats, bulls, cows, horses etc. This collection has been kept almost without change up to the adoption of Islam, when pigs get excluded.

An important finding of archeologists near medieval settlements in Balkaria and Karachai was large “kosharas” (sheep-folds), where up to 1500 sheep could be held. The findings of shearing scissors, parts of kihizes, leather boots etc. indicate a significant role of cattle breeding in the economy and life of Karachai-Balkarians, in the development of their crafts, and traditional kitchen consisting mainly of meat and milk products.

The cattle-breeding orientation of Karachai-Balkarian economy found reflection in the spiritual culture and folklore of these peoples. Siyrigin was the protector of big cattle, while Aimush was the deity protecting small cattle. The first lamb of a new issue was always sacrificed to the gods, to make the increase high. Thus sacrificial lamb was called “Tцlь bash”, i. e. “increase head”. Balkarians and Karachais used a ram blade to tell fortunes and predict the future of the community, approaching changes and so on. It should be noted that this way of fortune-telling was characteristic of Balkarians and Karachais yet in XIV century BC, i. e. since the time of the so-called “Koban archeological culture”, which left a deep trace in the culture of Karachai-Balkarians.

Many scientists and travelers of XVII–XVIII centuries noted: “sheep-breeding is the main occupation of Balkarians and Karachais”. Academician Yu. Klaprot wrote: “In the winter, Balkarians drive their herds to Kabardin pastures; they have many sheep, donkeys, mules and horses, which are rather low but strong and quick in riding in the mountains”. By the words of academicians Gьldenstedt, Pallas and others, Balkarians annually paid Kabardins one sheep from every family for using their winter pastures. Klaprot makes the following specification: “However, when the crop is abundant, and pastures rich, they hold their cattle at themselves all the winter of that year and not only do not go to Kabardins, but forbid these latter to come to them, which leads to frequent controversy…”

The storage of hay and other forage for the cattle for winter was always considered as one of the main jobs in the economy of Balkarians and Karachais. According to the ethnographic data, as well as the information from historical and folklore materials, haymaking was one of the most important works and its beginning was always marked with particular solemnity: fiests, games, sacrifices etc. were made.

With the appearance of the first nomadic sheep-breeders of III millennium BC in Caucasus, a new economic form was adopted, yailag cattle breeding, when the cattle was driven to special summer pastures, “yailag”, or “zhailik”, for the summer, while being driven to the winter pastures “kishlik” in the winter, whence the word “kishlak” has come.

Poultry breeding was also a significant help. The findings of hen eggshells in the medieval settlements in Balkaria and Karachai indicate that.

Cattle breeding was the main source of wealth in Karachai and Balkaria, cattle dressed and fed Balkarians and Karachais. According to the statistical data of 1886–1887, these regions were the richest in Northern Caucasus, and the well-being of all the other peoples was defined in relation to them. For example, in 1866, in Balkaria there were: 3289 horses, 1424 donkeys, 15747 head of cattle, 118273 sheep. By the beginning of XX century, these figures have sharply increased. Thus, in the Baksan canyon, there were 10775 heads of big cattle, 62012 sheep (in the average, 25 heads of cattle and 144 sheep per family); the figures were 14780 and 65432 respectively (27,7 and 100,3 per family) in Chegem, 6919 and 23407 (23,9 and 80,7 per family) in Kholam, 4150 and 15648 (20,5 and 77,5 per family) in Bezengi; 9941 and 57286 (14 and 82 per family) in the Balkarian community.

By the end of that period, the total for Balkaria was 46558 heads of big cattle and 223788 sheep. The Chegem community was the richest. Comparing the livestock of Balkaria and other parts of Terek region, the authors of the so-called “Abramov committee” for agricultural problems of the Mountain band of Northern Caucasus wrote that Balkarian had 1.7 times more cattle than Grozny region, 3.4 times more than in Vladikavkaz region, 1.9 times more than Khasavьrt region, 1.3 times more than Kabarda. As for sheep, the figures respectively were: 8.3 times, 6.6 times, 3.3 times and 3.5 times. By 1913, there were 130 heads of cattle per every person of its population in Karachai, the total of more than 700 thousand heads of cattle by the end of XIX century.
The abundance and diversity of the animal world of Balkaria and Karachai promoted the development of hunting, which was a significant branch of Karachai and Balkarian economy. Archeological findings tell that they hunted bears, wolves, foxes, hares, dears, boars, mountain goats (aurochs) and many others.

A good hunter was always considered as a respectable person of great value for the society. Folk songs were composed in honor of such hunters, which indicates that hunting was deeply rooted in the system of the traditional economy of Balkarians and Karachais. Also, it is indicated by the cult of Absati, the deity of hunting and hunters.

In Absati’s honor, Balkarians and Karachais mounted various monuments (stellas) of stone or other materials. One of such monuments, a 4-meter stone block in the form of a wild animal, was found by archeologists in 1959, in the thick forests of the Chegem canyon. Now, the residuals of this rock are exhibited in the yard of the museum of local lore in Nalchik.
Before going to hunting, Balkarians and Karachais made a sacrifice to Absati, leaving him one arrow or bullet, and after successful hunting he was given a defined part of the game.

Crafts and trade

Like the already mentioned fields of activity, crafts and trade played an important role in the economic system of Karachai and Balkaria. Since they are located high in the mountains, mining has been widely developed there since long ago. The ancestors of Balkarians and Karachais, as later they too, knew how to extract and process mountain ores. Numerous archeological findings of copper, bronze, iron, leaden, silver and golden articles eloquently speak about that. This also is confirmed by numerous ancient mines for copper, iron, lead and silver near villages Kart-Jurt, Upper Chegem, Upper Balkaria, Upper Baksan etc. The traces of metal instruments (planes, saws, scrapers etc.) on the wooden things can be an additional argument in favor of the high level of metal-working industry.

“Their mountains give them saltpeter and sulfur,” wrote Klaprot, “and they do not need to leach, like Cherkess, the litter of sheep stalls and enclosures. Their gunpowder is fine and especially strong”.
Various decorations, such as earrings, finger-rings, diadems, the unique toplets of female hats, speaks about a high level of jewelry skills at Balkarians and Karachais.

Numerous towers, crypts and mausoleums show the high level of stone-cutting and construction skill. There are direct indications that the construction industry became a separate branch of industry in Balkaria and Karachai.

There is no doubt that felt industry was a separate branch as well, producing kihizes, burkas, bashliks, hats etc. By the words of academician I. Gildenstadt, Balkarians exchanged all what they needed for wool, thick cloth of home manufacturing, felts, foxes and martens etc.

In Balkaria and Karachai of XIV–XVIII centuries, there existed mostly barter, rather than trade for money, as E. Kempfer wrote. De La Motrais wrote: “money is so little known or so rare in this country that trade is done by exchange”. Also, archeological findings tell that money were not yet usual in trade. For instance, coins yet served as decoration in Balkaria in XVIII century, being worn together with necklaces by the girls from rich families.

In XIX century, Balkarians and Karachais brought to the weekly markets in Oni and Racha many home manufactured goods, such as felt carpets, cloth, bashliks, cheeses, milk and meat products. Turkish coins found near village Tashli-tala, Arabian coins near villages Upper Balkaria, Upper Chegem, Billim etc. speak of the presence of wide-scale trade there.

Many things of precious stones etc. found there also indicate an active trade. Thsu, the Great Silk Way from Khoresm to Byzanth passed the territory of Karachai, which also promoted trade. Genuese merchants held very active trade in Karachai too.

According to the estimates of the authors of XIX century, Balkarians and Karachais received huge income for the cloth sold on the markets of Caucasus and other regions. Thus, for example, the Chegem community produced 114500 arshin of cloth, with 108500 in Baksan, 100000 in the Balkarian community, 41000 in Kholam; that is, there were about 170 arshin of cloth per every house in average. The authors say that, if sold even for 50 kopecks per arshin, this cloth would bring Balkarians the total returns of more than 195000 roubles. When augmented by the profit from the other goods, this sum obtainable for cloth only would then significantly increase. One could also sum up the cost of burkas, bashliks, meat and milk and other products. For example, 16075 burkas and 3470 rolls of cloth were exported from only three Karachai auls in 1878.
The species of sheep bred by Karachais, called Karachai, was famous for the high quality of meat and wool. This breed of sheep was many times awarded gold medals and diplomas of various exhibitions of XIX century in London and Moscow, the fairs of Nizhni-Novgorod and Warsaw etc.
That was, in general, the economic basis of Balkaria and Karachai.

Settlements and dwellings of Balkarians and Karachais

Balkaria and Karachai are almost entirely situated in the mountain array of Central Caucasus, and their settlements therefore are of a mountain type. Some of them were built in Alpine regions, on the mountain slopes and plateaus, others were in the plain or in the canyons. Early settlements were of the one-family communal type, being protected by the common fortifications, towers etc.

Despite the unfavorable layout of Karachai-Balkarian settlements, archeologists find there well planned and paved streets and lanes between the rows of dwellings already in XIV–XVII centuries.

In the mountain conditions of Balkaria and Karachai, the dominant construction material of the dwellings was stone. But, along with the stone dwellings, there could also be met specific log frame houses in Karachai.

The excavations in El-Jurt and the scorched logs found, as well as the information from the travelers of XVII–XVIII centuries, allow to conclude that frame houses were a typical feature of Karachai life. The Eastern boundary of their spreading lied in the Baksan canyon, where both stone and frame houses could be met.

In all the other canyons of Balkaria, houses were built of stone, like at the neighboring peoples of Central Caucasus.
Architectural peculiarities and specific details of a Balkarian dwelling of XVI century, such as in the houses of Tamuk Kuliyev in Bulungu, Hadjimurat Kuliyev in Upper Chegem (El tьbь), Bulla Zabakov in Kьnlьm, Musarbi Malkarov in Upper Balkaria and many others, almost reproduce the architectural details of the world-wide known monuments of Mikenes, Egypt, the Hnemkhotep burial in Beni-Hasan, constructed 3000 years before the dwellings of Balkarians. “The acquaintance with some elements of Balkarian national architecture” architects write, “enables one most clearly visualize the origin of the architectural culture and construction industry in general, which is especially easy because these rudimentary forms exist here not as archeological antiquities, but rather as the functional elements of houses yet inhabited.”

Clothes and decorations

Karachais and Balkarians made clothes of home-made cloths, curried leather, Morocco, furs and others materials. With the development of trade and exchange, either whole clothes or some e elements of it began to be made from factory fabrics. Archeological findings tell that silk was brought there from China, India, Persia and European countries. Archeology gives the most complete idea of women’s clothes, which consisted of fur and felt hats with metal toplets decorated with precious stones, silk shirts, close home-cloth or factory-fabric dresses, Morocco boots, various capes and shawls and so on. Women’s clothing could include many decorations: rings, earrings, fancy-bags etc. One of the most full collections of Balkarian women’s clothes of XIV century can be seen in Nalchik’s museum of local lore.

Man’s clothes consisted of caftans, fur coats, leggings, mountaineer chaburs and chariks made of curried leather. The attention can be attracted to the term “gen-charik”, where “gen” ascends to the ancient Turk word for curried leather, and “charik” is the common Turk for footwear.

The main decoration of a man’s costume were dagger, belt and “khazir”, known in the literature as “gazyri”. As widely spread in Caucasus was an original man’s hat, “bashlik”, i. e. “headwear”, characteristic of Karachai-Balkarians since the Scythian times. In general, many elements of women’s and man’s costume of Karachais and Balkarians show clear resemblance to the clothes of their ancestors: Scythians, Bulgarians, Alans.

In the end of this brief description of Karachai-Balkarian national clothes, it should be noted that it significantly influenced the clothes of the neighboring peoples. This is a well-known fact many names get adopted by the people together with the thing designated by this word, for example, such Russian words as “galiphe”, “furazhka”, “costyum”, “bilet” and others. Hence, word “bashlik” common at all the peoples of Caucasus could not receive such a wide spreading without the thing itself. If this element of clothes were invented by some other people, there could hardly be no word for “head” to construct the word “headwear” in its own language. The same with the word “arkalik” (“back-cloth”), or the word “gazyri” (khazir), meaning “ready”. The latter is due to the well-known ethnographic fact that originally khazir was just a collection of beforehand prepared gun charges.

Food and utensils

As it has already been noted, the food of Karachai-Balkarians was mainly meat and milk, like that of their ancestors: Scythians, Bulgarians, Alans and others. Due to the lack of grain, starchy food was much less represented in the kitchen of these peoples.
Karachai-Balkarians enriched the kitchen of their neighbors with the universally known airan and various kinds of cheese. A special place among their meat dishes belongs to “zhцrme”, existing in at many Turk peoples of Altai, Middle Asia, Kazakhstan, Volga, Caucasus. A distinctive feature of Karachai-Balkarian kitchen were koumiss, horse-flesh, foal shashlik “kazi” etc. These elements essentially stress the continuous genetic connection of Karachai-Balkarians with Scythians, Sarmats, Bulgarians, Alans.
The historical, archeological and ethnographic data presented above give an idea about the economic development of Karachai-Balkarians, as well as the formation of their spiritual culture, mythology, religion and the world outlook as a whole.


Balkarians and Karachais are two of the most ancient peoples of Caucasus. Yet before the Mongol-Tatar and Timur invasions, they were a uniform ethnos, with one language and common territory. Their territorial divergence began in XIV–XV centuries, with common language, culture, psychology and traditions preserved.

Their ancient pra-Turk ancestors were the representatives of the so-called barrow (pit) archeological culture of the earliest nomadic tribes living on sheep breeding. They left such traces as the barrows and tumuli in Nalchik, near settlements Ak-bash, Kishpek, Shalushka, Billim, near stanitsas Mekenskaya in Checheno-Ingushetiya, Tiflisskaya, Kazanskaya, Novo-Nbnarevskaya in Krasnodar region, near village Ust-Jegut in Karachai etc.

The symbiosis of Caucasian and nomadic ancestors of Karachai-Balkarians is especially clear in the features of the famous Maikop culture, named after a barrow near Maikop.

In the Maikop time, the ancestors of Karachai-Balkarians had close ethnocultural and linguistic contacts with the well-known Shumer civilization in Mesopotamia.

The successors of the pit culture, Scythians, Sarmats and, later, Bulgarians and Alans, were the last links in the centuries-long chain of the formation of the Karachai-Balkarian people.

The scientific material available proves that Balkarians and Karachais have been living in Northern Caucasus for already more than 5000 years. Before the Mongol-Tatar invasion, their ethnohistorical territory was in the mountains and foothills of Northern Caucasus between rivers Laba and Terek.



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