The Abkhaz living in Abkhazia since ancient times have created their distinctive culture. The warm and mild climate and rich vegetation have determined the life of the Abkhaz people. Their main occupations were farming, cattle breeding, hunting, fishing and handicraft. Protecting themselves from invasions or participating in wars the Abkhaz have been developed their military art and skills for creation of arms.
The core part of the Abkhaz culture is a traditional ethic code “apsuara”, literally meaning “abkhazship”. According to the definition of the famous Abkhaz ethnologist, professor Sh.D. Inal-ipa, “apsuara” is a historically established form of manifestation of national identity and and self-assertion of the Abkhaz people, an unwritten code of traditional knowledge and values, including the whole range of customs, concepts and principles.
Stories and legends of the Abkhaz people represent their ancient ideas of the creation of the world and the role of the gods. The Abkhaz Nart sagas recount the life and great deeds of one hundred Nart brothers and their mother Sataney Guasha.
The Abkhaz Language and Literature
Abkhaz is the official language of the Republic of Abkhazia and one of the most ancient languages of the world. Together with its kindred languages (Abazin, Adyghe, Circassian and Kabardian) it forms the Abkhaz-Adyghe group, which is represented today by several million people.
The feudal division of the country in the time of establishment of common language of the Abkhaz people led to emergence of territorial dialects.
In 1862 a linguistic researcher of the Caucasus, P.K. Uslar, published the grammar book of the Abkhaz language and also created the Abkhaz alphabet on the basis of the Russian script. D.I. Guliya became the founder of the Abkhaz fiction and the literary language and published the first lyric poem in the Abkhaz language in 1913.
During the Soviet period the Abkhaz literary language was rapidly developing and the national language was formed. In a rather short period of time the vocabulary of the literary language became more comprehensive supplemented by the dialect words, both native and adopted.
After some time the Abkhaz literary language became more widely used. Different styles were formed such as official and business style, scientific style, informational style and especially the language of the belletristic literature. Abkhaz poetic folklore and works of intellectuals, especially such writers, poets and playwriters as Dmitry Guliya, Samson Chanba, Iua Kogoniya, Bagrat Shinkuba, Ivan Papaskiri and Aleksey Gogua played a very important role in the development of the Abkhaz literary language.
Folklore, songs and epos
National Abkhaz culture is rich with poetic folklore folk music and dances.
Abkhaz folk songs represent a synthesis of vocal melody and recitative. Some relict songs relating to the ancient pagan cult such as labor and magic songs, fairytales, myths, legends and proverbs have remained to this day.
Abkhaz folk songs are commonly polyphonic. One of the singers with a high voice usually starts the song and others sing the second part in lower voices in an improvised manner. It is interesting that there are no women’s songs except for lullabies and laments. The most ancient songs are related to hunter’s and shepherd’s folklore and later songs were devoted to specific folk heroes – Hajarat Kyakhba, Saluman Bgazhba and others. There is a widely-known cycle of songs “About wound” sung to ease the pain of the injured. Mourning songs and songs sung in a ring are very colourful and wedding ceremonies are accompanied by a dramatized show with dances and songs.
Archaic legends about the Narts and theomachist hero Abraskil, the Abkhaz Prometheus are the most significant monument of the epic genre.
The Narts epos is common for the whole Abkhaz-Adygean group of peoples and also for the Ossetians. According to some researchers the Abkhaz version of epos is the most archaic. The epos narrates about the life of one hundred brothers and their beautiful sister Gunda who are ruled over by their mother, wise and ever young Sataney Guasha. The main character of the epos is the youngest brother Sasrykua and the epos mostly narrates about his numerous heroic deeds. Epos about Abraskil which is related to a later period is based on mythological motif and narrates about hero named Abraskil who was chained to a post in the deepest part of Otap cave for his disobedience to god. Now it is the Cave of Abraskil in the Ochamchira District.
Music and dances
Music instruments of the Abkhaz people which consist of stringed (including the ones played by plucking), wind and percussion instruments are very distinctive. The most popular stringed instrument is aphiartsa, which has two strings, a bow and a narrow fusiform body made of alder. Aiumaa is a triangular harp with 14 strings made of horsehair. Its name can be translated as “two-handed” because musicians would put this instrument on their knees and elicit sounds by touching the strings by both hands.
The common wind instrument was acharpyn – a lengthwise single-pipe flute with three or more rarely six holes. It was made of a herbaceous plant cow-parsnip (“acharpyn” in Abkhaz) and was decorated with a linear ornament. Another popular instrument was abyk’, a horn made of the bark of the wing nut and a single reed, placed inside its head. Akabak xtsvy or «squash rod” - a kind of a pipe with three holes in the body – was made from the stem of a pumpkin.
Percussion instruments included drums and different sorts of rattles which were also used for frightening the birds off the cornfields. Rattles – akyapkyap – represented a thick handle with lath connected to it. When rotating it with both hands it was loudly crackling. Drum –adaul- was very popular and it still often serves as accompaniment especially for dances.
Abkhaz folk dances is the most popular performing art. There are several professional dance groups and children’s choreography schools in Abkhazia. Repertoire of the groups include folk dances, ritual dances with felt cloaks and daggers, as well as dances of the peoples of the Caucasus.
Clothing is an important element of the material culture of the Abkhaz people. It corresponded to the occupation of a person and was divided into everyday, festive and ritual clothes. Circassian coat is the most ancient and widespread kind of a national clothing for men. Trousers and a shirt with a tightly fastened collar were worn under the Circassian coat. The footwear included postoly made of rawhide and morocco home-made shoes worn when going out. Calves of the legs were covered with nogovitsy and knees were covered with knee-pads. Men wore a hat which had a special form – bashlyk.
Felt cloak (auapa) – a coat made of shaggy felt – was a mandatory attribute of an Abkhaz horseman. Elevated shoulders of the shaggy felt impart majestic bearing to the body of the horseman.
Women’s wear consisted of several main parts: a dress, a long or a short caftan, a shirt, two underskirts, pants and a hat or a headscarf. All dresses were tightened in the waist with a belt which served as a decorations and often represented a real artwork. Short caftan was sewn of a homespun cloth or velvet. It outlined breast and was bell-shaped lower the waist.
Alabasha – a crook made of a hard wood with tag and and naturally branched hook – was a special element of the traditional folk culture. Alabasha was used as a simple weapon, a support during a walk and a “tribune” for speakers: when an old man would stick his crook into the ground it meant he was ready to deliver a speech.