LONDON, October 2, 2009 – When Europeans discovered Caucasian rugs in the 19th century, they often assumed they were woven by a once-famous people who today are barely remembered.
Those people are the Circassians. At the time, their domain was the Northwest Caucasus along the Black Sea (in modern Russia) and for a number of reasons they captivated the West’s imagination.
And so, even though the Circassians were not great rug weavers themselves, many rugs woven by other peoples in the Caucasus were attributed to them.
Rug experts Murray L. Eiland, Jr and Murray Eiland III write in their book ‘Oriental Carpets’ (2005) that “much has been written in old rug books” about the Tcherkess, the Turkish term for the Circassians.
“During the early 20th C, it was common to label many Kazak or Karabagh rugs as Tcherkess work, and even now one will occasionally run across a “sunburst” Karabagh with that label. However, the Tcherkess are not from the area that produced Kazak and Karabagh carpets, although they have been associated with the production of several types of kilim.”
What was it about the Circassians that once made them so much a part of Europe’s image of the Caucasus? And why are they almost totally forgotten today?
The story begins far back in history, probably with the Circassian’s own reputation as fierce warriors. In times gone by, there was much money to be made marketing able fighters to imperial armies and the Circassians developed an internationally famous brand-name.
Circassian and other youths from the Black Sea region and Central Asia were both purchased and recruited by Arab rulers as “Mamlukes,” or slave-troops. When the Mamlukes later usurped Egypt and Syria for themselves, several of their sultans were Circassians. The Circassian sultans, who reigned from 1422 to 1517, presided over the Mamluke empire during one of its highest points of power and artistic achievement.
Hundreds of years later, the Circassians continued to find ready employment as fighters in the Ottoman and Persian empires and their brand-name remained as strong as ever. It was powerful enough to attract the attention of Orientalist painters, who fanned out from Europe in the 19th century to rediscover the East both as it was and as the West imagined it to be.
One of those painters was William Allan, born in 1782, who apprenticed as a carriage painter but later studied fine arts at the Royal Academy of Edinburgh. Initially unsuccessful in the art world of London, he opted for travel instead. And for nine years, he journeyed deep into the Russian and Turkish empires.
He sketched what he saw and after he returned painted scenes such as these. It is titled “Circassian Chief Preparing his Stallion,” painted much later in the painter’s life, in 1843.
There is no doubt that Allan painted what he saw – his own collections of artifacts that he picked up during his travels attested to that.
And there is no doubt he was particularly passionate about the Circassians and their remote, mountainous homeland.
When, after his return to London in 1814, the London art world continued to reject him, he told friends he would retire to Circassia forever.
At times, Allan donned Circassian armor himself. Here he is in Circassian costume in 1815, shortly after returning from his travels.
Eventually, Allan’s friends persuaded him to give up Orientalism and focus on painting scenes from Scottish and English literature and history instead. He illustrated scenes from the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the creator of Ivanhoe. And, in the end, he was knighted, as Sir William Allan, before he died in 1850.
But if Allen had little success with his paintings of Circassians – he also painted works like “The Sale of Circassian Captives to a Turkish Bashaw (Pasha)” in 1816 -- others had more. And that success came as European artists traveling in the East portrayed Circassians in a quite different role: this time as women in Turkish harems.
The new fascination was with Circassians -- who are fair-skinned – as white sex slaves and concubines kept by Eastern masters.
This painting featuring likely Circassian women is “Choosing the Favorite,” by Giulio Rosati (1858 to 1917).
The fascination was frankly erotic and commercial and it connected with images that dated back in Europe to at least as far as Voltaire, a century earlier.
Here is what Voltaire wrote about Circassian women in 1734, in his “Letters on the English:”
"The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish with those beauties the seraglios of the Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all of those who are wealthy enough to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise. These maidens are very honorably and virtuously instructed how to fondle and caress men; are taught dances of a very polite and effeminate kind; and how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed."
The idea of female Circassian beauty got a further boost in the early 19th century as early European physiologists and anthropologists took on the task of classifying humans.
The most influential was the German Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 to1840), who taught comparative anatomy at the University of Göttingen. He used the school’s collection of skulls from around the world to divide the human species into races.
Blumenbach came up with five races and had to designate names for them. He chose the word “Caucasian” to denominate the white race, apparently with the view that the region’s inhabitants were uncommonly attractive and thus were archetypes for his grouping. The world Caucasian later passed into English as a synonym for white.
All this helped to create a brand-name for Circassian women as beauties that became easily as well-known as the earlier brand-name for Circassian men as warriors.
One result in England was several beauty and health products purporting to be from Circassia. Here is an advertisement for "Circassian hair dye" in the 1840s which promises “a rich dark lustrous effect.”
What the Circassians themselves thought of their market image in Europe is not recorded. And that may be because, throughout this period, they were busy fighting for their lives in the northwest Caucasus.
The threat was the Russian Empire’s moving south in the 18th and 19th centuries. In much of the Caucasus, Moscow’s aim was limited to sovereignty over the region. But in the northwest Caucasus, along the Black Sea, the drive for land came from Russian settlers, creating a situation not unlike that of the American West.
The Circassians fought against Russian conquest for over a century, from 1763 to 1864 – longer than any other people of the Caucasus. But the end was inevitable. Their final defeat in the 1860s led to massacre and forced deportation, mainly across the Black Sea to Turkey, during which a large proportion of them perished.
Here is a photo of a Circassian fighter in the Russian-Circassian wars by an unknown artist.
One Circassian leader described his people’s defeat this way in a conversation with the English writer, Frederick Burnaby (1842 - 1885), who traveled through Turkey around the time:
"We once thought that England was going to help us to drive the Russians out of our country. However, you did not come; they outnumbered us, and they had artillery opposed to our flint guns. What could we do? We resisted as long as possible, and then, sooner than be slaves, came here."
Burnaby describes the speaker, Osman Bey, as “the chief of a large band which had emigrated from the Caucasus a few years previous. He was dressed in the Circassian style, with a sheepskin coat, tightly buckled round his waist, embroidered leather trousers and high boots; a black Astrakhan cap surmounted his bronzed features.”
This final view of the Circassians, which appears in Burnaby’s book “On Horseback through Asia Minor,” was not as fascinating as the previous images of them had been. With time, the Circassians slipped out of the West’s memory.
Today, only a few hundred thousand Circassians remain in the Caucasus while the majority are scattered over the globe, particularly through Anatolia and the Levant.
For decades, carpet books were one of the last refuges where memories of the Circassians remained alive. The mention of them is still there, but now only to correct the record on Caucasian weavers.
(Photos from top to bottom: “Veiled Circassian Beauty,” by Jean-Leon Jerome, 1876; “Conference of Circassian Princes, G. Gagarin, 1839-40; “Circassian Chief Preparing his Stallion,” William Allan, 1843; William Allan in Circassian costume, 1815; Choosing the Favorite,” Giulio Rosati, 19th C; Portrait of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach; Advertisement “Circassian Hair Dye,” 19th C; “Circassian Fighter” 19th C.)
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