Monday, April 22, 2013

Medieval Chechnya

Recent events in Boston have underscored what Americans do not know about world geography. The news that the alleged bombers were Chechen, from Chechnya, led many to link them erroneously to Czechoslovakia. Chechnya, in the North Caucasus (north of Georgia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea), has a long and varied history.
A Vainakh military tower,
one of many set up during
the Mongol invasions.

The first time that the history of the area would overlap with topics dealt with by DailyMedieval is in the 13th and 14th centuries, when Mongols launched a prolonged effort to expand into Chechnya. At the time, however, it was not called "Chechnya" and was not Muslim; it was the region occupied by the Vainakh kingdom. The Vainakh were a branch of people who spoke one of the Nakh family of languages. The Nakh language is still spoken by Chechens, Ingush and Georgian Kist peoples.

Prior to the Mongol invasions, the region was influenced by Georgian Christian missionaries, although conversions were rare. They also traded with other areas cultures: Mesopotamian coins have been found, and a cache of 200 Arabian silver drahims from the 9th century. One of the effects of the Mongol invasions was the severing of easy communication with Georgia, after which Vainakh paganism re-asserted itself.

The Vainakh religion has similarities to Celtic beliefs, and some* think the Celtic Alans/Alauni might have come from the Vainakh region. Among the similarities that support a connection are veneration of trees, particularly the pine tree on the Winter Solstice, festivals at the time of Beltane and Halloween, and a wide range of gods.

Tamerlane (1336-1405) also led invasions into the region while attempting to restore the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. He devastated the North Caucasus. In the 15th century, while Russia began to encroach onto the territory, the local peoples converted to Sunni Islam in order to gain an ally in the Ottoman Empire and stave off Russia. There is a tradition that the word "Chechen" to refer to the inhabitants of the area comes from the village of Chechen-Aul where Russian forces were defeated in 1732. The term had been used in Russian sources 40 years earlier, however. It is likely that the name comes from Arabic sources and became common after the conversion to Islam: the term "Chechen" for these people appears in Arabic sources as far back as the 8th century.

*Jaimoukha, Amjad. The Chechens.

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