The Circassian Colonies at Ammân and Jerash
By Dean A. Walker
The Biblical World, Vol. 4, No. 3. (Sep., 1894), pp. 202-204.
The University of Chicago
Ammân, the Rabbah, or Rabbath-Ammon of the Bible and the Philadelphia of the Grecian period, where Uriah the Hittite was treacherously exposed to death in accordance with David’s secret orders, is situated about a mile below the source of the river Jabbok, the modern Zerka, whose narrow valley at this point is filled with the ruins of the town of the Græco-Roman period. Among these ruins a colony of Circassians have lately established their homes. The word seems almost a mockery here. We think of a home as a place about which tender associations have had time to gather, till the place itself becomes as much an object of affection as the members of the family whose mutual affection makes the place a home. But the Circassians at Ammân have hardly had time to form such associations, and the place is to them more like a place of exile than a home.
When, by the treaty of Adrianople in 1829, Turkey, assuming an authority that did not belong to her, ceded to Russia the territory of the independent Circassians in the Caucasus, they refused to acknowledge the new authority, and waged a brave and often successful war for independence. And when at length in 1864, their resistance was broken, the entire nation to the number of 500,000, rather than submit to Russian rule, immigrated into Ottoman territory, leaving a wilderness behind them. The Ottoman government quartered them in various parts of its dominion and portions of them were located in Bulgaria. Here they had hardly had time to get settled, when the Russo-Turkish war of 1876-8 again drove them from their homes, enrolled the men in the Turkish army and sent their families as refugees to Constantinople. At the close of the war, they could not return to Bulgaria, now under Russian control, so they were again distributed and a portion of the were sent to people the ruins of Ammân, where they must hold their ground against the Bedouin Arabs as best they could. This was about the year 1878. Three years later, a second colony arrived in Moab and were located at Jerash, one day to the north of Ammân on a small brook tributary to the Zerka.
It is not strange that a people naturally brave and independent, inheriting the hardy physique of their mountaineer ancestors and now embittered by a second expatriation, should make themselves obnoxious to the people among whom they have come. Such is the case with the Circassians here. They have taken from the Bedouin a share of their business of providing safe conduct for travelers at a price, and in any quarrels that may arise, they have that ugly European habit of shooting to kill if they shoot at all, which the Bedouin considers a very ungentlemanly mode of warfare; too abrupt, and based on the mercenary idea that a man’s property is worth more than the life of the man who tries to take it away from him. The orthodox way to settle the little difficulties that arise between strangers in Bedouin etiquette is for the would-be robber and the reluctant robbee to compare notes as to their relative strength, taking into account both numbers and equipment of the respective parties, and then whichever party is found inferior should yield gracefully, the robber abandoning his purpose if they are evenly matched, and the robbee giving up his goods if the count is against him. Of course there will be times when the parties cannot agree on the count; but in any case, moral suasion should never be carried beyond a few flesh wounds. To kill entails the dreaded blood feud, which both parties are loath to originate.
But the Circassian’s disregard of such considerations, in which respect he is more reckless than most of his fellow Europeans, makes him a difficult fellow to deal with. In the first place, if a count is to be taken of numbers and equipment, he insists on throwing his personal courage also, like the sword of Brennus, into the scale, which often makes the price of the booty come higher than the robber cares to pay. And in the second place, he takes matters too seriously, and his gun is liable to go off prematurely, when your Bedouin is not intending to fight, but only to intimidate as a preliminary to negotiation. The superintendent of a liquorice factory at Alexandretta, for which the root is dug in the interior along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, sends the wages of the diggers, a bag of gold, by the hands of two Circassians, knowing that no ordinary robber will attempt to take it from them and that they will defend it with their last breath.
So these Circassians at Ammân and Jerash are not on good terms with their neighbors. The colonies are small; there are but few women and children. In occasional quarrels, their numbers are diminishing. They do not themselves hope that they can long hold their ground; yet they have gone to work to make for themselves homes, and poor though they are, they are realizing out there in the wilderness among the ruins of Ammân the true idea of home.
The word home is Teutonic; the Arabic language can come no nearer to it than the word house, and a house is not a home. But as we rode into Ammân, after seeing for days nothing of human habitations but the black hair-cloth tents of the Bedouin, or the bare mud-walled hovels, we seemed to have descended upon a bit of Europe transplanted into Asia. The most striking feature was the amount of wood-work; first seen in the neat wooden casements of doors and windows, then in a wooden hay-rick; next in a large wicker-work corn-crib, with sides sloping out and plastered with clay to keep the rats from climbing its sides; and finally, we came upon a two-wheeled cart, on which a movable wicker-work top could be adjusted to convert it into a hay cart, giving a slight suggestion of the traveling van of the ancient Celts and Germans. We seemed to have come upon a European farmyard, and this, with the decidedly European features of the people and the style of dress of the women, gave the traveler a home feeling, if not a home-sick one. The dress of the men, too, though characteristically Circassian with the skirted coat and the row of cartridge pockets across the breast, was European in color and texture. Along with the cart went also the cart-path, leading up into the juniper woods near the town, where trees had been felled and cord wood stacked and chips lay scattered about on the ground, rare sights in Moab and all suggestive of an enterprise and thrift so in contrast with the slow and shiftless life of the Bedouin as to call to mind the like:
‘‘Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.’’