The Kabardians





Amjad Jaimoukha



Capsule Summary


Location: Central North Caucasus, mainly in the Kabardino-Balkarian and Karachay-Cherkess republics of the Russian Federation.

Total population: Approximately 1 million.

Religion: Native religion and beliefs (98%), Orthodox Christianity (2%).




Ethnically, the Kabardians form one of the main tribal divisions of the Circassians. Presently, they occupy the middle and northern regions of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (12,500 sq. km; ~ 1 million) making 55.3% of the population (according to 2002 Russian population census; but estimated now to make up almost 60% of the population of the Republic), form the majority of the Cherkess population of 100,000 in the Karachai-Cherkess Republic (14,100 sq. km; ~ 450,000), and are found in a few villages in Adigea and the Krasnodar and Stavropol krais. A significant Christian community is found in the area of the town of Mozdok in North Ossetia. There are about 750,000 Kabardians in the Caucasus, forming almost three-quarters of the Circassian population and almost 0.5% of total population in Russia. There are Kabardian diaspora communities scattered in the Middle East, especially in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan, with a total number estimated at 300,000. This diaspora formed mainly as a result of the Russian-Circassian War of the 19th century.

Linguistically, Kabardian, together with the closely related Beslanay, forms the eastern branch of Circassian. It has the status of an official and literary language in both Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia. Cyrillic orthography is used, although Arabic and later Latin adaptations had been used until 1923 and 1937, respectively. Kabardian in Kabardino-Balkaria is divided into four sub-dialects named after the main rivers in the republic: Balhq (Malka), Bax’sen (Bakhsan), Terch (Terek), and Shejem (Chegem). Some authorities divide the language into Greater and Lesser Kabardian, the dialects spoken in Kabarda to the west and east of the Terch (Terek), respectively. Lesser Kabardian is also informally called Jilax’steney. Outside the nominal republic there are two more dialects, one spoken by the Christian community in Mozdok in
North Ossetia, and Kuban Kabardian in Adigea, spoken in a few villages. The status of Kabardian has been slowly improving since the collapse of the Soviet Union . It is not thought that the language is under threat of extinction.



The earliest recorded instance of Kabardian differentiation from the rest of the Circassian nation was in The Book of Administration of the Empire, written in the 10th century by Emperor Constantine VII, Porphyrogenitus (905-959), according to which the Zikhis, or Western Circassians , occupied the eastern Black Sea littoral and the Kasakhs (Kassogs), modern-day Kabardians, lived in the hinterland. To the east of the Kasakhs lived the Alans, ancestors of the Ossetes.

In the 11th century, the Russians under Mtislav took part in routing the Khazar army in the
Crimea. They then crossed the Taman Strait and defeated the Kassogs, or Kabardians, under their legendary leader Idar. Mtislav then subjugated the Iron, or Ossetes. He founded a small principality, Tamtarkan, or Tmoutarkan, under the suzerainty of Russia, with the Kabardians and Ossetes as subjects. This state lasted for a few centuries, but with diminishing influence in Kabarda.

During this period some Circassian tribes abandoned their mountainous abodes and resettled in the plains around the
Sea of Azov, and in the Crimea. The majority of migrants hailed from Kabarda, who settled among the Tatars between the rivers Katch and Belbek. To this day, the area of the upper reaches of the Belbek is called ‘Kabarda’, and the land between the two rivers ‘Tcherkess-Tuss’, ‘Plain of the Circassians’ in Tatar.

The Kabardians had to suffer Georgian rule until 1424. In the early 13th century, the Kabardians left their original homeland in the
Kuban region and, after wandering for some time, headed towards the Crimean Peninsula and occupied it in 1237 AD. At the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th century, the Crimean Kabardians were ruled by Abdun-Khan. They resettled in the middle of the North Caucasus between the rivers Psif in the east and Nefil in the west. This move was only possible after the demise of the Golden Horde, when a power vacuum was created by the defeat of Tokhtamish.

The establishment of Little Kabarda goes back to the middle of the 16th century, when a
Kabardian prince, who wanted a large principality to rule, crossed the Terch (Terek), accompanied by his share of subjects, and established a principality to the east of Kabarda proper, or Greater Kabarda.

The Kabardians established a strong state in the 16th and 17th centuries. They built the town of
Chantchir, which became the centre of their country. At the time, Kabarda had an area exceeding 40,000 sq km. It extended from the Kuban (Psizch) in the west to river Sunzha in the east, and from the plains north of Pyatigorsk and river Terch (Terek) in the north to Georgia in the south. An earlier instance of Circassian re-establishment in the middle plains of the Northern Caucasus was recorded as far back as 1250 AD.

Prince Inal Teghen (Tighwen), one of the descendants of Abdun-Khan, assumed the reins of power in Kabarda in the 15th century. He was brave, prudent and generous. During his reign many people submitted to his rule and chose to become part of his state. He managed to unite the Circassians and Abkhazians into one empire, which he ruled for a long time. In 1509, he invaded Imeretia and subsequently routed an army of
Western Georgians. It is most probable that Tzandia Inal Daphita, desecrated in the Georgian Chronicles, was this self-same prince. However, after his demise Kabarda was riven into several rival principalities by his several sons. Civil war ensued in which the Kiakh (Ch’axe=Western Circassians) were instrumental in installing Prince Idar as sole potentate. It was during this chaotic period that Prince Qanoqwe son of Beslan left Kabarda to establish the Beslanay tribe.

Peace and stability prevailed for long years, allowing the Circassians to go on with their lives. As had become the usual scheme of things, a fresh wave of invaders broke on Circassian shores. A combined force of the Turghwt (ancestors of the
Kalmyk) and Tatars of Tarki engaged the Kabardians at the confluence of the Balhq (Malka) and Terch (Terek). The first encounter went the way of the former party, the Circassians retreating to the Psigwensu River (in Kabarda). [1] The Turghwt overwhelmed the entrenched Circassians, who were forced to take refuge in the mountains. At the third meeting, the Circassian forces were on the verge of total rout when a contingent of 2,000 warriors came to the rescue, turning the tide of the battle. The Turghwt were driven out and all Circassian lands were restored. The battle scene was named ‘Qereqeschqetaw’, which means ‘fleeing to the mountains’ in Tatar. [2]     

The feudal princes of Kabarda dominated the
North Caucasus up to the start of the 18th century. By the end of the Middle Ages, Kabarda had become a formidable state. It spread its hegemony over the whole of central North Caucasus , reducing the Ossetes and various Turkic peoples, remnants of the Kipchaks, to vassalage. At times its power extended to the shores of the Caspian. Alliances were struck with the Shamkhals of Daghestan. These achievements would have supposed some degree of co-ordination and co-operation between the plethora of princes, the occasional civil strife notwithstanding. The main princely dynasties were Yidar (Idar), Qazi, Telhusten, Zhilax’sten, Mudar, Zhambolet.

At its zenith, Kabarda was so dominant that all powers with vested interests in the area, namely Moscovy and the
Ottoman Port, sought to court and bestow honours upon its princes in order to further their interests. This culminated in the betrothal of Tsar Ivan IV (1530-1584), nicknamed the Terrible, to Prince Temriuk Idarov’s (Yidar Teimriqwe) daughter, Gwascheney (Gwaschene, in some sources; later baptized Princess Maria), in 1561 AD. This marriage of alliance served to cement the so-called ‘Union’ between Russia and Kabarda. In Soviet times, a bronze statue of Princess Maria was erected in the centre of Nalchik to mark the event. In this period, the Cherkasskys, Kabardian princes in the Russian court, as an aristocratic family formed whose descendants played a significant role in the Russian military and politics.   

The date of the fictitious unification is reckoned by Russians to have occurred in 1557. However, as will be explained later, the authority of Temriuk over the other Kabardian princes was very tenuous and many of these declined to ‘ratify’ the alliance, which was at best symbolic. In 1705 (or 1708), the Tatar Khan, Qaplan-Gery, at the head of 100,000 men, marched against the Circassians of the
Five Mountains. The Adiga, sensing the inferiority of their forces, decided to invoke ruse. They retreated into the mountains and built stone fortifications across the forbidding passes. Remains of these ramparts, called the ‘Walls of the Crimea’, can still be seen in Qenzhalischhe, in the environs of Pyatigorsk. In the absence of any resistance, the Tatars went into a rampage. The Circassians sent deputies to offer their submission to the Khan, who imposed stiff conditions. He demanded, among other things, 4,000 maids and boys as hostages. The Adiga pretended to accept the terms and sent provisions, including intoxicating liquors. The Tatars revelled in their ‘victory’. One night, while they were in deep slumber induced by the strong drink, the Circassians rolled heavy stones on the tents below, and fell on the Khan’s camp, massacring a great number of his men and putting the rest to flight. The Khan lost a brother and son. Thenceforth, the Kabardians were rid of the Tatars forever.

In 1736, a war broke out between
Russia and the Ottoman Empire due to the latter’s intervention in Kabarda. In the Treaty of Belgrade of 18 September 1739, the independence of Kabarda was formally guaranteed. The first military outpost of the Caucasian Military Line, Mozdok (Mezdegw=Deaf-Forest), was established in Kabarda in 1763 on the left bank of the Terch (Terek) at a distance of 250 km west of Kizliar.² After this development, the Kabardians entered into negotiations with the Turks. In the summer of 1771, the Kabardian princes expressed their dissatisfaction with the policy of the imperial administration in the Caucasus and the construction of the military line between Mozdok and Kizliar. This hastened the first open battle between the Kabardians and Russians, which took place near the Balhq (Malka) River on 29 September 1771. The Russians under General Jacoby won the day.

In 1779 Empress Catherine instructed the Governor General of
Astrakhan, Prince Potemkin, to pacify Kabarda by fair means or foul. General Jacoby was given his marching orders. He conducted an offensive in Kabarda, which lasted all summer. After the arrival of fresh enforcements from Russia, the expedition succeeded in penetrating deep into Kabardian lands. At the end of September 1779, a fierce battle was fought in which the Kabardian force, taken unawares, was massacred. About fifty princes and more than 350 noblemen were killed, a huge toll by the reckoning of those days. Dubbed ‘Qeberdey Zheschteiwe’ (‘Kabardian Night Assault’), the battle marked one of the bleakest days in Kabardian history. [3] By December, the Kabardian princes were defeated and the northern frontier of Kabarda retracted to the rivers Balhq (Malka) and Terch (Terek).

In 1810, the Russians conducted a campaign in which many Circassians were killed and about 200 villages burnt. The Kabardians sent a delegation to
St. Petersburg to petition for peace and to request that the rights and privileges granted by Empress Catherine II in the early 1790s be restored. Tsar Alexander I concurred with these demands. Some Kabardians, today’s Cherkess, dubbed ‘ Hejeret’ – immigrant or fugitive Circassians – refused to accept Russian hegemony, and moved west to the land between the upper Kuban (Psizch) and Zelenchuk (Yinzhij) rivers. The war in Kabarda was localized and badly organized. The Circassian princes failed to present a united front, the Russians taking advantage of principal rivalries. When General Yarmolov (Ermolov), military commander of the southern Tsarist forces, arrived on the scene in 1816, Kabarda was on her knees. Four decades of open conflict had demoralized the people and left the land in ruins. The Kabardians suffered heavy losses. By 1818, their number had fallen from 350,000 before the war to a mere 50,000.

In 1821, Yarmolov demanded that the Kabardians living in mountainous areas move to the plains to facilitate their control. The mountaineers refused to obey, causing the General to move against them in 1822. He laid the foundations for several forts and imposed harsh punishments on the population. The Caucasian Military Line was pushed further into Kabardian territory and many massacres were committed against the populace, which had been ravaged by the plague for close to fourteen years. The intensity of conflict subsided in 1825. No serious disturbances occurred until 1846.

Many Kabardians were forced to leave their native lands during the exodus years 1862-64. During the tsarist years, Kabarda was subsumed under the
Stavropol Province. Cossack and Slav settlers found a new home in the north-eastern parts of Kabarda.  In September 1921, the Kabardian Autonomous Oblast (AO) was formed, and in January 1922, the Balkar Okrug was attached to the Kabardian AO to form the Kabardino-Balkarian AO. In December 1936, the status of Kabardino-Balkaria was elevated to autonomous republic within the Russian SSR. In 1991, it became a constituent republic of the Russian Federation with no right of secession.


Present Political Situation

The Kabardian nationalists are mainly represented by the Adige Xase (Circassian Association), which is a member of the International Circassian Association. The nationalists’ principal demand is restoration of historical Kabarda as a first step towards re-establishment of Greater Circassia, with the concomitant repatriation of the diaspora. The nationalists rode on a wave of popularity that almost managed to wash away the old apparachiks, but by 1996, the people had become more concerned with the economic woes that had gripped all Russia. President Vladimir Kokov, effective leader of the Republic from 1990 to 2005, won the 1997 and 2002 presidential elections, putting more pressure on the already beleaguered nationalists. The Kabardians and Balkars have been at loggerheads since the latter were rehabilitated after their banishment. The Cossacks also aspire to secession. There is a small chance of open conflict, which could involve other kindred people.

In September 2005, Arsein Kanokov (Qanoqwe), a Kabardian businessman based in
Moscow and president of the Sindika Company, replaced the ailing Kokov as president of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (Kokov died on 29 October 2005 ). The new president is considered by many to be the right person to lift the Republic out of the myriad crises gripping it. Others have criticized him for being week.


Kabardian Society

The Kabardians are part of the wider Circassian society, having the same traditions and customs with slight regional variations. The social structure was more elaborate and the Xabze, the code of conduct, was more developed. Despite feudalism, there was enough social cohesion to allow the formation of a huge empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and enough clout to dominate the central northern Caucasus until the middle of the 18th.

The Kabardian Pantheon consisted of some
three score deities that regulated the cosmos. Pagan and animistic beliefs, some of which are enshrined in the Nart legends, are still prevalent. Soviet propaganda and isolation have resulted in a superficial knowledge of Islam. The Kabardians of Mozdok are nominal Orthodox Christians, but they are almost indistinguishable from their pagan/Muslim kin culturally.


Further Reading

Bell, James Stanislaus, Journal of Residence in Circassia during the Years 1837, 1838 and 1839, London: Edward Moxon, 1840 (2 vols).

Jaimoukha, Amjad, The Circassians: A Handbook, London and New York: Routledge; New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Khan-Girey, Sultan, Zapiski o Cherkesii [Studies on the Circassians], St Petersburg, 1836; reprinted: Nalchik: Elbrus Book Press, 1978.

Longworth, John Augustus, A Year among the Circassians, London: Henry Colburn, 1840 (2 vols).

Nogmov, Sh. B., Istoriya adikheiskogo [adigeiskogo] naroda [History of the Circassian Nation], Tiflis (Tbilisi): Kavkazkikalendar [Caucasian Calendar], 1861; republished: Nalchik, 1947; Nalchik: Kabardino-Balkarian Book Press, 1958 (in Circassian and Russian); Nalchik: Elbrus Book Press, 1982, 1994. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 15 February 2008); Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 23 March 2008). [Compiled in accordance with the legends and oral traditions of the Kabardians]

Traho, Ramazan, ‘Literature on Circassia and the Circassians’, in Caucasian Review, Munich, no. 1, 1955, pp 145-62.

Varoqua, K., A Study of the Circassian Culture as reflected in Literature and Oral History, Dissertation (Doctorate of Education), Graduate School of Education of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey, February 1981.



 Related article: The Circassians


[1] Psigwensu is a right tributary of the Sherej (Cherek), which is a right tributary of the Bax’sen (Bakhsan), which in turn is a right tributary of the Balhq (Malka), a left tributary of the Terch (Terek).


[2] The epic battle was immortalized in song. A recording of ‘Qereqeschqetaw Zawem yi Wered’ (‘The Song of the Qereqeschqetaw Battle’) is included in the accompanying CD of Amjad Jaimoukha's book Circassian Culture and Folklore: Hospitality Traditions, Cuisine, Festivals & Music (Kabardian, Cherkess, Adigean, Shapsugh & Diaspora), Bennett and Bloom, 2008.


[3] The memory of this battle has been preserved in the song ‘Qeberdey Zheschteiwem yi Wered’ (‘The Song of the Kabardian Night Assault’), found in the ‘Heroic/Historical Chants & Ballads’ section on the accompanying CD (song no. 11) of Amjad Jaimoukha's book Circassian Culture and Folklore: Hospitality Traditions, Cuisine, Festivals & Music (Kabardian, Cherkess, Adigean, Shapsugh & Diaspora), Bennett and Bloom, 2008.