CIRCASSIANS IN JORDAN
A community disrupted by seismic shifts in Russia successfully relocated to Jordan in the tail end of the Ottoman era.
The Circassians, a predominantly Muslim and non-Arab ethnic group, hail from the northeast coast of the Black Sea and the mountains of the Caucasus.
Khakuzh, as the homeland is known to Circassians, occupied an area of roughly 100,000sqkm. And at a quarter of the entire Caucasus, it was the region’s largest country.
Yet the writing was on the wall for the largely feudal Circassian society as the Russian expansionism of the 19th century gathered pace.
What followed was forced dispersal to Ottoman lands, including Turkey, Syria, Israel, Iraq, and Jordan. Today in the latter nation about 125,000 of the world’s 3.7 million Circassians may be found, representing the second largest community after the one in Turkey.
The Circassians became woven into the fabric of Jordanian society through their agricultural innovation, social integrity, and military prowess. The first Circassian immigrants, predominantly of Shapsugh background, settled in Jordan in 1878 in the old quarter of Amman. Other tribes followed, bringing the Circassian community to a total of around 3,500 people.
Initially these were mostly engaged in agriculture, and in fact introduced large-wheeled carts to the mix, enhancing trade and transportation. What’s more, the Circassians demonstrated the benefits of settled agriculture on pasture land.
In these ways, they came to be seen not as colonizers, but as brothers and co-religionists, displaced by Russian expansion.
The Jordanian experience
The Emirate of Transjordan, its capital Amman, was declared in March 1921. And once the Turks withdrew amid the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Circassians chose, as one, to remain in Jordan, being among the first to pledge allegiance to the Emir.
Jordan’s political arena, then, has been the preserve of the Circassian minority, as a prestigious history of participation unfolded over subsequent years. This has included the first prime minister in 1923, and first female lawmaker in 1993.
To these may be added senior civil positions such as mayors, and deputies, as well as the top brass of the army, air force, and intelligence community. In Jordan’s bicameral parliament a quota of three deputies in the Lower House and two senators in the Upper House is reserved. It is also traditional for a minister to be appointed from among Circassian deputies.
A reputation for security
The self-disciplined Circassian community established an administrative structure enforced by a gendarmerie. So successful was this tribal structure that for many years it was Jordan’s sole police force. The Circassians were instrumental in the early 20th century extension of the Hijaz Railway, engaged both on related projects, and in defending it against Bedouin assault.
In 1921, Circassian cavalry stood by King Abdullah I, the first of Jordan’s first Hashemite dynasty. Indeed, it may be said that despite diverse conflicts, the kingdom was built upon a lasting alliance of the Hashemites, Circassians, and Arab tribes.
The population of Amman soared once it became the capital city and its economy diversified away from agriculture. Today, Circassians stand at around just 5%.
Under Jordan’s constitution Circassians enjoy full citizens’ rights and freedom of cultural expression. Yet in a pattern observed the world over among minorities, successful integration into society has meant that today only an estimated 17% of Circassian youth speak their mother tongue.
Mechanisms have sought to stem this tendency, and as early as 1932, The Circassian Charity Association—Jordan’s oldest—was set up to help the less fortunate, and provide educational scholarships at Circassian universities in Kabardino-Balkaria and the Adyghey Republic. Then there’s the Al-Ahli Club, one of the oldest in Jordan, dating back to 1944, and fostering Circassian participation in social, cultural, and sporting life, locally and abroad. 1993 saw the establishment of a new Folklore Committee, whose function is to preserve traditional dance and song.
Meanwhile, in tribute to the Circassians’ military contribution, the ceremonial guard of the royal family at the Basman and Raghadan palaces to this day is made up of Circassian guards. They notably bear two ceremonial swords; a long seshweh engraved with ‘If God helps you, no one can defeat you,’ and a short qama blade, known poignantly in Arabic as the scent of death.
Having played such a unique role as a bulwark of Jordanian self-determination, the Circassians occupy a pivotal position in the nation. Understanding their story is therefore critical to understanding the country at large.