by Sergei KORENEVSKY, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Institute of Archeology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Nestling by the austere peaks of the central Caucasus are the auls, or mountain villages, of the Balkars, who are part and parcel of Russia's big family of nations. The habitation area of this mountain tribe lies in the upper reaches of the rivers Baksan, Malka, Chegem, Cherek (Terek) and other streams deep in the heart of the Caucasus, and covers about a third of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic (total area, 12.3 thous. sq. km) in the south.
The natives call themselves the People of Taulu, which means mountaineers, or Highlanders. In old Russian documents they are mentioned as Balkaty, or Balkhary (Balkars, or Balkhars). This name is associated with the Malka, a tributary of the Terek, and is variant of the word Malkaret - a Malka denizen. However, the name may go back to the popular chief Malkar, hero of many a folk legend, who led his people from the legendary town of Madzhar on the river Kuma (in what is Stavropol Territory today) in the north to their land of promise in the south.
Today the Balkars number around 80 thousand, which is less than their next-door neighbors, the Karachais and the Kabardins (150,000 and 400,000, respectively). The Balkars arc real highlanders who live about 1,000 meters above sea level, not so much a comfortable habitat for people of the plains. Only highlanders have to learn to live with the ups and downs in the mountains, the thin air and pressure differentials. And they do learn it from the tender nail. That's why all their
men and women are slim and slender, robust and of nice build.
Genes, could they speak, would have told us lots of things. First, that the origins of the Balkar people are rooted in the dim and distant past. Even the know-all archeologists cannot answer all the questions about the birth and the earliest formative stage of this tribe. But what they know for certain now is that the present-day Balkars descend from the Polovtsi (Polovians. or Kypchaks), a populous nation driven in the 13th century A. D. towards Caucasia from the plains of the "wild field" of Eastern Europe's south by the Mongols who crashed into Europe at that time. In their turn, Ihe Polovian ancestors had trekked thither from the Altai mountains farther eastward. The Taulu people's native language is Turkic - the same spoken by the Karachais, their kindred and neighbors inhabiting the mountains of the North Caucasus.
Up until the 15th century the Polovtsi (Kypchaks) populated the plains and foothills north of the central Caucasus-they were nomads lending livestock. But they had to move further south into the mountains not only because of the bellicose Mongols: the hordes of the Central Asian warlord Timur (Tamerlane. 1336 - 1405) likewise forced them to do so. True, the Balkars offered a strong and spirited resistance to the mighty conqueror, Tamerlane: captained by their chiefs Tauss and Totut they prohibited his army from entering the mountain valleys of the Baksan and the Chegem. And so they settled there side by side with the aboriginal population that had been inhabiting these parts from the Bronze Age, and also together with the Bulgars. who had migrated thither in the 6th century, and with the Alans, a people related to the Iranians (descendants of the Sarmat tribes thought to have come from the Volga region in the first century A.D.). Taulu formed five small communes without any single ruler or chieftain.
With the departure of Tamerlane's troops from the territory north of the middle Caucasus in the 15th century another tribe entered the stage - the Kabardins, related to the Adygs*, who had trekked to the upper reaches of the Kuban and the Terek river valleys from the west after the Mongolian invasion. This people was ruled by a prince, which is an important factor militarily; it outnumbered the Balkars and, by dint of its sheer numbers and strength, laid Balkars under tribute, not burdensome, though: each family had to give away only one sheep a year. These two ethnic groups became good neighbors living in peace and amity, which served their common interests: both needed each other's produce. Besides-and this is most important - a side branch of the famous Great Silk Route led from the Kabarda plains through the Balkar (Tulu) land by the narrow mountain paths to Georgia and Transcaucasia. That's how deep in the Middle Ages the two peoples forged an alliance materialized in the present Kabardino-Balkar Republic established in 1991.
Both peoples stood together in forging ties with Russia, too. In 1557, threatened by the Turks, the Grand Prince of Kabarda Tcmriuk asked the czar of Muscovy Ivan FV (Ivan the Terrible) to take him "under H.M. wing". Nearly two hundred years later, in keeping with a peace treaty signed by Russia and Turkey in 1774, both Kabarda and Balkaria joined Russia as self-governing territories. The czarist administration in the Kabarda capital Nalchik did not meddle much in local affairs-it just saw to objective justice dispersed in lawsuits and litigations, and tried to temper the intestine rule of the princes.
As a military estate the local nobility kept its privileges on a par with the Russian nobles. The celebrities formed an elite, the Taubi; further down the pecking order came free com-
* Adygs - a coverall name for numerous tribes of the North Caucasus cognate in the past, the Kabardins and Circassians among them. - Ed.
moners (the Kamkishi), and at the lower rung of the ladder stood peasant bonds (the Chagari). The caste barriers were pretty tight: a commoner could never become a Taubi even on getting rich. However, slavery was not common with the exception of war prisoners turned into slaves now and then. The popular assembly. Tore, played an immense role in social life. It elected a council of elders that decided on many controversial issues in compliance with the Adat, the traditional code of folk laws.
From the 17th century on the Balkars embraced the Sunnite branch of Islam. Still and all, they adhered to many holdovers oflhc faith of their forefathers. According to one such myth, human beings were born of the egg laid by Mother Earth embodied in a turtle (which is quite in keeping with the Indo-European vision of the origins of living nature). By other legends, the heaven god manned the earth goddess who. nine days after their marriage, gave birth to the first man, the blacksmith Dcbet. His wife Batchabai, who bore nineteen sons, was pictured now as a werewolf, now a she-wolf.
Another legend says: the supreme deity Teity produced mountains, heaven, clouds and stars from different parts of his body; his bile begot one-eyed monsters (Cyclopes) who were followed by the Narts, the first humans settled on Mount Elbrus.
Yet another legend tells that human beings were born out of the wedlock of the sun god and moon goddess. So, the Taulu myths and legends took in the tales of such Caucasian nationalities as the Ossetians, Chechens, lngush.es, Circassians and other ethnic groups about the life and epic feats of the Nart people. Yet Balkar myths proper recount something else as well as the earlier abortive "attempts" of the Maker in the image of the Harm and Hur Dzhuri tribes, who were wiped from the face of the earth for their foul misdeeds.
The mountaineers paid special tribute to the thunder god ChoppuH the sun god Hardar, the fertility goddess Ummai as well as the protectors of beasts, and to single trees and rocks visualized as living creatures endowed with a soul. They believed in the cleansing power of mascots, amulets and protecting charms, and put faith in sooth- and fortune-telling.
Dense woods covered the territory north of the Caucasus in the Middle Ages. The animal kingdom teemed with boars, deer, wild goats, hares, cats, wolves and foxes, even oxen. Living higher in the mountains were mountain (boghorn) sheep and the lord of the cliffs, the snow leopard. Bears were also found there. The Balkars were brave huntsmen who defied danger and displayed astounding valor and perseverance. Legends tell the story of a youth who kept pursuing a deer for several days in a row until he gave out. The deer proved to be a magic animal that rewarded the stubborn highlanderwith a good wife. The firearms did much in decimating the forest fauna population but added to the skills of Balkar hunters who turned into excellent marksmen and sharpshooters. By the way, the very word-hunting-was a taboo, Balkars referred to this pursuit as "the iron yoke".
Animal husbandry and land-tilling, though, have always been their chief occupation. A hard, back-breaking job. Mowing and haymaking, known as "the Balkar hockey", is a good test of virile power: it takes a lot of strength, stamina and staying power to work all day long with one's scythe up and down a mountain meadow. And it involves top skills, too. In summertime mountain pastures are lush with succulent, juicy grass on which flocks of sheep fatten and which should
be cut down and stored up against winter. Cow and horse-breeding is also an old Balkar trade. A Balkar Dzhigit (horseman) is truly in love with his trusty steed; even a graybeard, no longer apt and agile in the saddle as before, will take good care of his racer, he will feed it good and take out... Even though hog-raising has been practiced in Balkaria ever since the 18th century, it is not encouraged for religious reasons. A devout Moslem is not supposed to partake of the foul pork.
Yet the Taulu mountains are not rich in fertile land. Mountaineers would compare jokingly their tiny plots to a burka, a felt coat worn in the Caucasus. Since ancient times they would carve out terraces on mountain slopes, haul soil there, plow it up with the help ofbulls, and grow barley, oats, wheat and-at a later date-potatoes, too - the Balkars borrowed this culture from their northern neighbors. Local artisans could also barter their handiwork for bread grown down in the plains. Metal-working handicrafts and smithies found fertile ground in Balkaria, for this land is rich in composite metals, iron and lead in particular, which came to be high in demand with the spread of firearms.
Cloth, furs and leather are an important part of local cottage industries. Balkars wear fur felt cloaks (burkas) and papakhas (Caucasian fur caps), along with leather clothes and footwear. Their women are deft in carpet-weaving. The dyes are extracted from walnut shells, onion and pomegranate skins, the bark of quince- and oak-trees and from other plants. This process requires great skills. Dyes are also obtained from soot, ashes, color clay, and the madder* and barberry juice. This adds a touch of color variety-different shades of orange, ocherous red, yellow, and auburn hues - to the natural palette of white, black and brown of the wool.
Balkar families were monogamous, that is one man married one woman. The husband enjoyed great respect as the lord of the household, though women are regarded with much reverence as well. True, they have never been welcome to male handicrafts and sports, though we know of some notable exceptions. The legend about the beautiful maiden Suuch-mez-keshene is alive among many generations of the Balkars.
... This happened at the end of the 17th century at the feast of the equestrian god Gollu celebrated on the glade Bum at the foot of Mt. Kashkatau. Every fall this festival brought young people from far and wide-Balkaria, Georgia, Ossetia, Kabarda and Karachai. Young men competed in wrestling, dancing, horsemanship and trick riding, where taie Dzhigits could show their equestrian skills. One set much store by the good manners of the traditional etiquette, and musical and singing talents. It was a proper occasion for youths to see and choose their prospective brides in the fold-rite known as the smotriny. The lovely maids competed for top honors-for M iss of the Mountains, if we might use the lingo of today. Apart from their natural beauty, they had to display practical household skills such as carpet making and cooking. In short, they had to show a deft touch in coping with household chores. But the girls did not take part in male contests.
... There came the climacteric point of the festival, the races. Everybody watched the outcome with bated breath. Slim Dzhigit's raced ahead in a mad gallop on their fast steeds. A swift-legged stallion lunged forward, it carried a slender youth who, his papakha cap pulled deep over the brow, clung to its mane. The finishing line was quite near at hand. But all of a sudden the steed stumbled and fell, throwing the rider out of the saddle. The horseman crashed backwards, his papakha tlew sideways. Lo and behold! The rider had long braids of girlish hair. A maiden! There she was, Suuchmez-keshene Atabieva, a Taubi daughter from the Cherek community, whose beauty was a legend throughout Balkaria. The other horsemen alighted and carried her in their arms to the finishing line. She had won, everyone agreed. But the pretty maiden did not see the light of the next day-probably because of the bad shock or the "evil eye" of those who envied her. The valiant maid of the mountains was buried with full honors in a mausoleum in the sacred "town of the dead", necropolis. She came to be revered as a national heroine. This is the legend of the lovely Suuchmez-keshene...
... Balkar children learn skills at an early age, on turning four. Already in theirteens they know quite well how to tend flocks and herds-sheep, goats, cows and horses, and how to treat animal diseases. The kids learn other knacks-how to make household utensils, say, plates and dishes of wood.
* Madder (Rubia) - a herbaceous climbing plant with panicles of small yellowish flowers, occurring in about 55 species (perennial grasses and shrubs), this plant contains dyes in its roots. - Ed.
Dancing is also an essential part of good social manners: to Highlanders dance has always been a rite and an eloquent pantomime.
The Balkar dress shows up Pan-Caucasian motifs. Still in the 19th century men wore a Circassian coat (a long, narrow collar-dress coal) supplied with twogazyrs (breast pockets for cartridges), shirts, papakha fur caps or felt hats. A narrow belt braced their waist; well-to-do highlanders embellished it with silver and semiprecious stones. Hanging from the belt was a saber or a dagger, just as ornate; both are still an obligatory item of a Dzhigit's apparel. The arms, a token of the master's prestige, were handed down from generation to generation. A rich Balkar's steed looked posh and dressed up as well. Balkar women wore wide trousers or knickerbockers and long dresses braced up by a wide belt, and top hats, a tribute to the venerable Turkic tradition. Their festive attire was embroidered with gold and silver, and adorned with fine lacework.
Although alcoholic beverages have always been in the national menu, drunkards are a great rarity in mountain auls. The most popular drinks are the buza (wine liquor, or booze, seasoned for a few years in the ground; it tastes like cognac), araka (homemade hooch) and beer-light or dark (ale), always good and frothy. Russian army officers of the 19th century preferred it to the best brands of French champagne.
With the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 some of the families of landless Balkars descended from the mountains into the valley where they got patches of land: the mountain auls were overpopulatcd. and cultivated land was but scarce. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries both Kabarda and Balkaria came to be drawn into Russia's agricultural market.
The Civil War that raged in Russia in 1918 to 1920 scorched both Baikal's and Kabardins. The sad mood of a Russian army officer prodded Konstantin Chkheidze, an
ethnographer, philosopher and prose writer, to put down his worries in the book The Land of Prometheus (he had it published in Prague much later, in the 1930s, and paid dearly for that by years spent in Soviet labor camps). By the Land of Prometheus he called the Caucasus where, by the well-known Greek myth, the angry Zeus punished Prometheus, a Titan who stole fire for mankind, by having him chained to a rock where his liver was daily gnawed by a vulture. Prometheus gave people fire in a bid to raise them against the Olympic gods and topple their rule, and avenge himself on Zeus the Thunderer for the defeat of his brethren. Alas, this exploit did not bring peace and happiness to mankind... Konstantin Chkheidze's novel, one of the best writings on the highlander's life in the early 20th century, was recently published in Nalchik, the capital city of our republic, with the support of the Institute of Archeology of the Caucasus based there, and doing a great deal for the protection and revival of Kabardino-Balkaria's historical legacy.
The industrial age came to the Land of Taulu in the 1920s. Rich in unique deposits of nonferrous metals, it became a major mining industry area. Mountain pathways were converted for automobile traffic, and tunnels were cut across mountain gorges. The Balkar alphabet developed from Cyrillic letters furnished a basis for a written language. The Great Patriotic War triggered by the German attack in 1941 reached the North Caucasus in 1942-fierce fighting was on there, at the approaches of Mt. Elbrus. Early in 1943 the Nazi troops were routed and had to retreat. Thereupon, in 1944, gross injustice was done to the Balkars and other ethnic groups of Caucasia-they were banished wholesale to Central Asia, and could return to their native parts only thirteen years later.
Today Balkaria is a mecca for mountain-skiing buffs, and Balkar health resorts and campings have attained world tame. Our land is also a paradise for lovers of virgin nature. Leaving our capital city Nalchik and driving up a highway cut across a mountain plateau, you come upon a line of steles put up in the Middle Ages, and monumental 10 meter-high burial mounds dating back from most ancient times. The North Caucasus boasts of many man-made mounds like that. But 1 have never seen giants like those two in the village of Urvan-17 and 25 meters high, and 50 and 60 meters across-I guess these are the largest ones in Europe. Their steep slopes clearly indicate masonry' beneath the turf to keep the structure of the earthen colossi from coming apart. These monuments were built about 6 thousand years ago (that is before the pyramids of Egypt and the first Sumerian states), and their builders were not the legendary Narts or the Harras, but the real people of the Maikop archeological culture.
The republic's local history museum in Nalchik has in its collection items recovered from a tribal chiefs stone tomb of those distant times. The tomb was within a mound 10 meters tall and 100 meters across. The sepulcher was in the shape of a rectangular room with walls made up of 24 stone plates of man's height (some had human figures and heads carved out); similar slabs served for roofing, too. To begin with, one kindled a fire inside the burial vault, to make it "clean". The dead chief was buried with full military honors, and many posthumous gifts were bestowed on him, such as bronze hatchets, chisels and other tools, alongside the richly ornamented daggers, decorations of electrum (gold-and-silver nuggets) and other precious pieces to emphasize his noble descent. A cauldron, about 60 cm high and 50 cm across, was placed within the crypt. We cannot help amazing at the art of ancient blacksmiths who were able lo make a large vessel like this from a solid 1 mm-thick sheet of bronze without any seam. Even for present-day smiths this is a formidable job which cannot be done without special tools and lathes.
From Nalchik the meandering road takes us deep into the Land of Taulu, diving into lunnels here and there. Vfe approach an aw/village at the foot of steep cliffs and above a swift, turbulent stream. It takes quite an effort for a plainsman to get here, for the mountain village lies 1,200m above sea level; besides, he has to adjust to the thin air of the mountains. The serried rows of house walls built of boulders form several streets. Boulders of different size were used for the purpose, some pretty large, and it is surprising indeed how human hands could lift such blocks and fit them in.
A team of experts under Biyaslan Atabiev (Institute of Archeology of the Caucasus) has unearthed one of the homes of ancient Balkars that has survived in good shape, and we can visit this abode. We can see stone plates supporting wooden props for the rafters of the roof. One of the corners of the rectangular living room had a hearth, or fireplace; once upon a time there hung a copper from a chain strung about a roof beam. The walls built of boulders have recesses for storing sundry household articles.
Battle towers are a conspicuous feature of Balkar auls. Such turrets, usually 5 to 7 meters high, were set up here in the 15th and 16th centuries. The ground floor of the embat-tlements provided refuge for flocks and herds, and the men took defense positions above, by the narrow embrasures and loop-holes. In the age of the crook and the bow a fortress like that gave good protection against a small enemy band, but its reliability declined with the appearance of firearms.
The battle towers and turrets served another purpose as well. They provided a good overview of the locality and suchlike structures in neighboring auls, and enabled an early warning alert against an imminent enemy attack. The alert signal spread like wildfire all through the gorge, and villages braced up for collective defense or else retreated higher into the mountains if the foe outnumbered them in strength.
Our mountain land crisscrossed by canyons and propping the skies with its peaks is scenic and picturesque beyond compare. And this is true of the miracle of miracles - the magic karst lake located just below the high-mountain village of Verkhnyaya Balkaria (Upper Balkaria); this is Goluboye (Blue) Lake, called so because of its wondrous, cerulean light. No one can tell even now how deep it is. And if we add the dainties of the delicious Caucasian cuisine and broad Caucasian hospitality to all the natural beauties, a trip to the Land of Taulu will be a truly memorable experience.