21 MayResearchAcademic studiesExile2010 | Karpat, Reflections on the Caucasus: 1864-2010

Kemal Karpat
The First Landing of the Cherkes in Turkey (Kefken-Kelken), "Reflections on the Caucasus: 1864-2010" CircassianWorld

A few years ago in 2004 the Cherkes Federation [KAFFED] in Ankara invited me to speak about the forced eviction of the Muslim peoples from their ancestral homes in the Caucasus. “Ancestral home” is a word that can cover any period of time extended from a few decades to thousands of years. In the case of the Caucasus it is impossible to quantify the length of time that its inhabitants inhabited the Caucasus Mountains. In fact, many scholars believe that the peoples of the Caucasus are the original inhabitants who lived there continuously for tens of thousands of years and even more. Strabo (b. 63BC) the Greek geographer-philosopher provides (based on older sources) a description of the Caucasian peoples which is similar with the information provided by the more recent, contemporary sources.

In sum, the Caucasians, divided into numerous groups and languages, are among the oldest peoples in the world to inhabit their original lands since time immemorial. That was the case until 1864 when the Czarist government after killing hundreds of thousands forced most of the remaining out of their lands. Their forced emigration, which is a typical case of ethnic cleansing, peaked out in 1868 but continued sporadically well into the 20th century. The ousting began after the Caucasian resistance to Russian occupation embodied in Sheik Shamil’s twenty five year rebellion ended in 1859. The Caucasians coming to the Ottoman lands were Muslims and the sole reason for eviction was their Islamic faith which in the eyes of the Czar made them susceptible to the religious-political-military instigation of the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul. There is no question that the Muslims of the Caucasus held the Sultan-Caliph in high esteem and that thousands had settled in the Ottoman lands in the previous centuries and occupied high social and political positions there. They maintained their ethnic and regional identity as seen in names such as Gurcu Ahmet, Cherkes Hasan, Abaza Selim etc. But there is no proof that Istanbul or Persia planned to use them or their kin in the Caucasus to incite a rebellion against the Czar. The purpose of my brief essay here is not to repeat the information I provided in the lengthy talk to the Cherkes Federation in Ankara which commemorated the first Cherkes landing in Turkey. My intention is to provide a brief description of the commemoration ceremony of the first Caucasian landing in Turkey. The commemoration was organized by the sons and grandsons of the original immigrants who had landed who gathered every year at Kefken one and half a century ago. The commemoration has become an annual event.

The experience was extraordinarily moving for me as I witnessed in person the landing sites, and the profound emotion of the participants. So the rest of this writing will in the form of personal reminiscence of the commemoration at Kefken.

I planned to spend the day after my speech in Ankara seeing old friends and visiting the universities where I had taught. However, in the morning, the driver of the car and his friend who had brought me to Ankara the previous day called to say goodbye before they drove back to Istanbul. They told me that they planned to stop at Kefken on the way back to attend the commemoration at the site of the landing of the first group of Cherkes refugees who had managed to survive the hazardous trip across the Black Sea. This was an excellent unique opportunity for me to visit Kefken, the landing site of the first Caucasian (known generally as Cherkes) refugees in 1864. The landing site is generally known as Kefken, a small ancient port on the southern shore of the Black Sea at about seventy miles east of Istanbul. The actual landing site is an isolated beach at about 10-15 miles north east of Kefken. To reach the beach, the driver left the main highway between Ankara and Istanbul at Izmit and drove north to Kandira a town in the Kocaeli peninsula that stretches for about 70 miles into Anatolia east of Istanbul. From Kandira we drove another 20-30 miles to Kefken and then a few miles more to the landing site. A large number of people had already gathered on the volcanic rocks overlooking the beach when we arrived. The emotions run high. Some prayed, others carried flowers and cried while a few engaged in mournful guesses as to where the ship bringing the Caucasian refugees had stopped and how the refugees managed to reach the shore. The crowd consisted mainly of Caucasian, men and women, who came from all over Turkey, a sure indication that the memory of the catastrophe of being evicted from the ancestral homes and the landing on a bare beach and facing an unknown future was till alive in the minds of the refugees’ descendents. The refugees who landed apparently stayed first in tents then built houses and lived in the area for a while before they settled permanently elsewhere. After seeing the landing site the entire gathering moved to the cemetery. The scene was sad and truly moving. The cemetery is located at some distance inland from the beach. Some of the tombs had inscriptions bearing the name of the defunct while other tombs were unmarked. I presume that the total number of the tombs amounted to more than one hundred. The district administrator (kaymakam) spoke at some length followed by the leaders of the Cherkes community who described the plight of the Caucasians in their original homeland some century and half ago, and expressed their thankfulness for being alive and well in their new home or vatan, Turkey. The sadness and the pain in the faces of the present were aggravated further by dark clouds that had descended on the peak of the surrounding mountains. The commemoration ended with the prayer of the imam and the loud salavat of everybody present. For me a long time student of the forced ousting of the Muslims from the Crimea, Caucasus and the Balkans, the commemorative experience at Kefken turned the theoretically studied tragedy suffered by the Caucasians since 1864 into a human, palpable and real experience that embodied the deep pain still living in the heart of the sons and great sons of the Caucasian refugees. The ceremony continued later with launching of a wreath of flowers into the Bosphorous in Istanbul and other speeches. For me the Kefken remembrance ceremony was an extraordinary and unforgettable experience.

Professor Kemal KARPAT
Emeritus Professor of History, University of Wisconsin Department of History, USA.