An Overview of Abkhazian Culture
Sports: Horseback riding, Wrestling, Football
Folklore: Narts Saga
Entertainment: Folk Singing, Dancing
Arts: Pottery, Woodwork
Musical Instruments: Aphyarsta, Ayumaa
Clothing: Cherkeska, Bashlyk
Writers: Fazil Iskander, Bagrat Shinkuba
Cuisine: Adjika, Psou Wine
Unique Factors: Folklore, Clothing
All Abkhazian relationships are guided by an ancient honor code called "apswara." Abkhazian etiquette emphasizes respect. The most popular greeting is translated as "Good health to you." An older person must always be the first to greet a younger one. In addition, a person riding on horseback must be the first to greet someone on foot, which is done by raising himself on his stirrups.
When men meet, they greet each other by raising their right hands, while handshakes are customary among the younger people. It is also important to ask about the other person's health, life, and family. Relatives usually greet each other with a gentle hug and a kiss above the heart on the left shoulder. It's necessary for Abkhazians to maintain a space of at least a foot and a half between them when they are facing each other in conversation. Apart from greetings, it is considered inappropriate for people to touch in most circumstances. Abkhazians strongly believe that guests bring wealth and good fortune, so they go to great lengths to please their company. A common saying is, "A guest brings seven pieces of good luck." Abkhazians are incredibly hospitable people, who enjoy showing their country and customs to those who visit.
In every day life Abkhazians choose to wear Western-style clothing. Women usually dress modestly. They tend to avoid wearing shorts and tops with low necklines, but they do wear swimming suits on the beach.
On special occasions such as weddings, feasts, and holidays, Abkhazian men wear the traditional sleeved cloak called the "cherkeska." The cherkeska is belted, and comes in black, red, and ivory. On the belt, elder men attach an Abkhazian dagger called the "Akama." On the chest, 4 to 8 "gazyri" are sewn into the cherkeska. Gazyri are small pockets in which thin capsules are stored, containing gunpowder and rifle cartridges. The cherkeska is worn over a plain long-sleeved shirt, often with the traditional headdress for men called the "bashlyk." It has a long strip of cloth hanging from either side of the head, ranging in length. In cold weather, this cloth can be wrapped around the face, while in the Summer the end pieces can be tied together at the back of the head. The bashlyk is usually black, but there are also red and ivory styles available. When a relative dies, Abkhazians will publicly show their grief by wearing black clothes. Widows typically remain wearing black for the rest of their lives.
Dance, Song & Literature
Song, music, and dance are extremely important parts of Abkhazian culture. Music varies from wedding songs, ritual songs, religious songs, lullabies, healing songs, and military songs. Drama and dance companies are found throughout Abkhazia, and are invited to perform at festivals during religious holidays. Dance is taught at school at an early age, because it is such a necessary part of Abkhazian culture. In dance, the movements of the women are smooth, flowing and gentle. The movements of the men are the opposite; their arms are rigid and high, which in some dances represent the mountains. Dances can happen anywhere, especially at weddings, festivals and feasts. Couples take it in turn to dance in the center of a circle formed by the other dancers. Poetry and literature are also highly valued in the culture. Stories and poems are often shared during feasts, when Abkhazians gather at each other's homes and spend whole evenings talking and eating. Young and old sit around a long table filled with traditional dishes and local wine. It is not uncommon for singing to take place at the table, especially amongst the male guests. Other forms of entertainment include chess and backgammon. Men habitually play the games in courtyards and parks until late at night.
Abkhazia has many folk tales and sagas, the oldest of which are about the Atzan midgets and the giant Narts. The Atzans were so small that they could walk on the stems of leaves! The Narts were one hundred giant sons of the same mother, "Sataney-Guasha." They were all warriors who fought, hunted, feasted, and engaged in military games. The "Nart Epic Poems" are shared by ethnicities throughout the North Caucasus. Read our selection of Nart Stories here. Another common folktale describes the making of Abkhazia. According to legend, when God was distributing land to all the people of earth, the Abkhazians were busy entertaining guests. Because it would have been rude to leave before their guests did, the Abkhazians arrived late. All that God had left was some rocks, and out of the rocks was created a land of mountains called Abkhazia.
Abkhazian wedding ceremonies can involve hundreds of guests. To begin the ceremony, there is a feast at the bride's father's house, with many guests dining on rich Abkhazian food and alcohol. Traditionally, the wedding would then take place in the groom's home, however it has also become normal to wed elsewhere. In the traditional Abkhazian ceremonies, the bride's family would not attend the wedding. Dancing, singing, and eating are all big parts of the wedding, with generation of families and friends celebrating the day in true Abkhazian style. As a general custom, the bride and the groom remain hidden from the guests in a separate room throughout the feast.
The average number of children per family is two to three. An Abkhazian baby belongs to the family as a whole; the aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, and sisters will all take care of the baby. In public, women enjoy fairly equal opportunities with men. In the home, the situation is slightly different. Men and male children do not cook or clean, and instead work outside. Boys are taught duties from a young age, which gives Abkhazian men a strong work ethic.
The most popular sports are soccer and horseback games, such as racing. Most boys in the rural areas learn to ride horses and play fast-moving ball games on horseback. During holidays and festivals, roads in rural areas are closed off, and groups of spectators flock to watch local men and boys compete in fast horse races. Horses have been a part of Abkhazian culture for centuries, with breeds native to Circassia, horsemen have learned to perform inspirational tricks on their horses.
Although Abkhazia does not compete as a country in the olympics, Abkhazia has had two Olympic champions under Russia; one in javelin and one in equestrian. Wrestling is also practiced among Abkhazians.