The deportation of the Circassians from their homeland in the mid-19th century is one of the most tragic events in human history. During the long war of resistance against the Tsarist invasion that started in the 18th century, the Circassians gradually withdrawn towards the highlands, and a large number of them had been forced to migrate to the Ottoman lands.
Following the Crimean War in 1856 and the fall of the North-eastern Caucasus in 1859, the Russian army concentrated its forces in Circassia for the final conquest. The 21 of May 1864 marks the genocide and exodus of the Circassians.
Having failed to subdue the Circassians in a century-long warfare, the Russian Tsar decided to enforce their mass migration to other regions of the empire or to the Ottoman Empire. General Yevdokimov was entrusted with the execution of this policy. The Russian soldiers systematically burned the Circassian villages. As a result of a systematic policy of clearing the Circassia of its indigenous peoples, most of the Circassians (about 90 percent of the population at that time) were expelled from the Caucasus in a short time period under horrendous conditions.
The Circassians were settled in Rumeli (the European part of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans) and Anatolia. However, those who were located in Rumeli (about 200,000 Circassians) experienced a new exodus following the Russian-Ottoman War of 1877-78, and were resettled in Anatolia, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
The Circassians in Anatolia were settled in the Southern Marmara region, from Istanbul to Izmit, Adapazari, Duzce, Bursa, Balikesir and Canakkale. Another line of settlement extends from Sinop-Samsun on the Blacks Sea coast down till Amman, with sizeable concentrations in Samsun, Amasya, Tokat, Yozgat, Çorum, Sivas, Kayseri, Maraş, Adana and Hatay.
The number of Circassians deported to the Ottoman Empire is not known, but the estimates vary from 500 thousands to 2 million. The most reliable studies based on archival material indicate that the number of people deported is about 1.5 million, but a large number of them (about one third of the people) had lost their lives during exodus and as a result of poor living conditions and diseases in new settlements.
The Ottoman population, after the retreat following the 1877-78 war, was about 17.4 million in 1893. The share of Muslim population was about 70 percent (12.6 million), and the rest included Greeks (2.3 million), Armenians (1 million), and others. Thus, the Circassians, about 1 million survived, accounted for almost 10 percent of the Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century.
The horrors and tragedy of deportation were never forgotten by the Circassians. The lament, Yistambilak’ue (Going to Istanbul), still song by the diaspora Circassians almost 150 years after the deportation, is a vivid remainder for their sufferings.