“I was not a witness to all that I would like to tell you, but in those long ago days and later, when we were already in exile, the people talked so often about Hamutbei Chachba’s visit that I will have to pull out the bits and pieces from the bottom of the dry well of my memory.
“My dear Sharakh, you must know everything that I remember; everything to the last word because that day the Ubykhs’ foster brother, Hamutbei Chachba, came to our land was, perhaps, the last day we had to change our minds...”
That evening Zaurkan scraped from the well of his memory everything that had remained on the bottom of it for seventy-five years, everything connected with Hamutbei Chachba’s visit to the land of the Ubykhs.
I already knew what an unusually good memory Zaurkan had for what he had seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears. But this time it was not so, and he had warned me about it. He did not actually remember the event he told me about, but only some of the hearsay about it and the legends and songs it had inspired. That is why this time I will not quote Zaurkan directly as I do elsewhere, but will describe everything I learned about this page in the history of the Abkhasians and the Ubykhs from various sources even before I met Zaurkan. I personally found this event one of the most interesting. And I will add just some of the details he told me, the ones I feel are most accurate. In conclusion, I will relate word-for-word the end of Zaurkan’s story, which, though it sounds more like a legend, is based totally on historical fact.
The trip by Abkhasia’s sovereign prince, Hamutbei Chachba, to the Ubykhs that Zaurkan recalled took place that same summer as the talks in which Hamutbei Chachba was such a failure in his attempts to mediate.
Now he was planning to go to the Ubykhs, and judging by whom he took with him and tried to take with him, he understood so well how important the trip was not only to the Ubykhs, but also to himself, to his own status in the eyes of the new vicegerent of the Caucasus—the Grand Prince Mikhail Nikolaevich.
The trip’s failure could undermine his already weak position, so Hamutbei Chachba decided to take with him people loyal to him, influential in-Abkhasia and, for one reason or another, capable of swaying the Ubykhs. He took with him Emkhaa Algyd of Samurzakano, Girgual Chachba of Abzhui, and 90-year-old Maan Kats of Bzyb, who, despite his age, remained the sovereign prince ‘s adviser on foreign affairs and, in general, on all of the most complicated matters.
On the one hand, taking Maan Kats to the Ubykhs could be a risk, because he, like the sovereign prince, had fought with the czar’s generals against the people of Tsebelda, the Sadz, and the Ubykhs, and now his presence could call up memories of those bloody times. On the other hand, the sovereign felt it was even more risky to go without him on his trip that was dangerous enough as it was: Maan Kats’ stepsister, born when he was nearly fifty years old, was married to Haji Kerantukh. The hope was that there fore the trip would be less dangerous and Kats could help in the talks.
Hamutbei Chachba wanted to pick up two others on the way, but he was unsuccessful. Almakhsit of Tsebelda prudently had gone hunting, and Prince Gechba Rashid of the land of the Sadz said he was ailing when the sovereign prince summoned him. It is not difficult to guess the cause of his illness: if the outcome were peaceful Gechba did not want to meddle, and if it were bloody he would obviously side with Haji Kerantukh.
The sovereign prince realized that if these two had come with him it would be easier to persuade the Ubykhs to make peace. This thought plagued him the whole way.
After crossing the Mzymta River the men on their fine steeds rode quickly to the north. They could see the sea to their left from time to time and at one point they noticed a felucca sailing rapidly away from shore.
The sovereign prince stopped his horse and asked the others to whom they thought the felucca belonged.
“It’s in a hurry to leave, so it’s not Russian,” answered Maan Kats standing in his stirrups to get a better look at the felucca.
“They’re probably Turkish merchants,” suggested Girgual Chachba. “As a matter of fact, Haji Kerantukh was right when he said the Ubykhs have to trade with someone.”
“They’ve brought more British weapons,” said the sovereign prince, no longer looking at the sea, but at the path winding over the hills and disappearing in the forest.
Around thirty pack horses loaded down with guns were trailing each other up the road. The sovereign prince stood there for a long time not moving until the last horse with weapons had vanished into the woods.
“That’s bad, very bad. I don’t know who put out the money for the guns, but the Ubykhs will pay with their blood. It’ll be a tragedy,” said Hamutbei Chachba.
His fellow travelers regarded those words as prophetic, or at any rate, that’s how they were recalled by the elders telling the story in the 1920s.
The sovereign prince of Abkhasia, Hamutbei Chachba, al ready had the rank of adjutant general in the Russian army and had been conferred several Russian military orders. He got both for helping the Russian generals subdue Caucasians who did not want to be either under the Russians, nor under the sovereign prince. The last thing he wanted to do when he set off to talk to the Ubykhs, of course, was remind them of this with his Russian general’s uniform and his decorations, so he dressed simply in a riding Circassian coat the way any other Caucasian would dress when visiting another. Witnesses provided this detail. They also said that he rode practically the whole way in silence and in the gloomiest possible mood; he was immersed in some disturbing thoughts.
What could he have thought about on his way to the Ubykhs? I will not try to speculate, but would like to point out some facts about the sovereign prince Hamutbei Chachba, circumstances that complicated his life in general and especially in the upcoming talks with the Ubykhs.
Whether he was thinking about all that precisely that day, I do not know, but he did have much to think about. Before the Crimean War he had resolutely taken sides with the Russian generals in their fight against the Caucasians and thereby expanded and consolidated his own sovereign power. Consequently, during the war Hamutbei Chachba was in a difficult position: the Russian troops left the Black Sea coast because the Russian generals felt it best for strategic reasons to temporarily abandon Abkhasia, to remove their military force. The sovereign prince, realizing the danger he was in, first went to Mingrelia to his wife’s relatives, the Dadiani princes, but then he decided, despite the risk involved, to return to his principality.
While he was on his way back to Sukhumi he saw what promised to bring him bad fortune: the masts of Turkish ships coming to shore. Soon after he arrived in his palace he was visited by one guest after another. The first visitor was not from Daghestan, but Istanbul, one of Shamil’s* Shamil (1799—1871) — the third imam of Daghestan and Chechna.—Ed. vicegerents—Muhammad Amin, and with him was the Circassian Prince Safarbei. They said quite frankly their aim was to spread the ideas of holy war among the people of the Western Caucasus. They came to the Abkhasian sovereign to persuade him to side with Turkey. The conversations dragged on for hours, the arguments were heated, but the sovereign prince did not shift to the Turks.
Just after those two left, the Turk Omer Pasha, in charge of Caucasian affairs in the Turkish government, arrived in Sukhumi. He wanted to hand deliver a letter to the sovereign prince of Abkhasia from the grand vizier appealing to the Caucasians to fight the infidels in a holy war. But Hamutbei Chachba refused to accept the letter saying that he was not a Muslim, but a Christian.
The next visitor called himself Mehmedbei. In reality he was known in Europe as the adventurist Bandia. He was one of those whose motto was the ancient slogan: Ubi bene, ibi patria.* Where it goes well with me, there is my fatherland.—Ed. His self-proclaimed title was commander-in- chief of the European army in the Caucasus.
This man and two other European adventurists supported by the British—Lapinsky and Brown—came to the sovereign prince of Abkhasia to persuade him there was no force in the world that could withstand the combined power of the British lion and the sultan’s crescent.
The sovereign prince was promised everything—from modern weapons to eternal glory throughout the ages. But he did not give in then, nor later when Turkish troops landed everywhere along the Abkhasian coast and many princes and noblemen, ready to switch over to the Turks, began accusing Hamutbei Chachba of being nearsighted, of refusing to see which side was stronger.
There were two main reasons why the Abkhasian sovereign so stubbornly stood his ground in the face of such difficulties: he understood better than many how strong the Russians really were and, despite all their failures in the Crimean War, he did not believe they had left Abkhasia forever. If his assessment was correct, he knew that after the war, because of his loyalty to the Russians, he would be able to keep his sovereign principality within the boundaries of the Russian Empire, and would retain his vast person al landholdings, and the annual 10,000 rubles in silver that he had been drawing from the imperial treasury and had grown accustomed to long ago.
But there was another reason for his obstinacy: he knew that there were many Abkhasians who disapproved of his Russian orientation, yet he also knew that after three centuries of Turkish domination many Abkhasians, and probably even the majority who had first-hand experience with Turkish rule, would not support him if he seemed ready to submit to the Turks. If these Abkhasians would rebel against him it was unlikely that the Turks would back up Hamutbei Chachba. Rather they would install someone else more to their liking.
When I was studying the history of those days I found a reference to the complicated situation the Abkhasian sovereign found himself in on the pages of the London Times. Here is the dispatch sent from the paper’s correspondent in Sukhumi:
“There is no doubt about the aversion the local Abkhasians have for the Turks... They not only are not helping us, but have destroyed several bridges to hinder our movement, and are mining roads everywhere they can. The upper classes do not conceal their sympathies with and attachment to Russia and are horrified by the prospect of a Turkish invasion.”
The steadfastness of the sovereign prince during the Crimean War was rewarded. The Russians returned to Abkhasia and, in the beginning, Hamutbei Chachba felt he was the real sovereign of Abkhasia.
However, the Caucasian War was coming to an end. Shamil had been defeated, fighting had ceased everywhere except in the Western Caucasus, and the czar’s government saw less and less reason to continue supporting the sovereign princes and khans that had in the old days sided with the Russians in the struggle against the Caucasians who were still resisting. By 1862 the Abkhasian sovereign principality was the last throughout the Caucasus. It probably would have been abolished then and there if the vicegerent of the Caucasus, Prince Bariatinsky, had not written directly to the czar in defense of Hamutbei Chachba: “Persecuting the prince will get us nowhere, in my opinion what’s more, it could work against us. His influence in Abkhasia and among neighboring tribes, as I under stand, is still quite important. Therefore, I think we stand to gain by keeping him well disposed to us...”
But in the two years since then the situation had deteriorated for Hamutbei Chachba as the new vicegerent of the Caucasus, the Grand Prince Mikhail Nikolaevich, feeling that the sovereign principality of Abkhasia would hardly bring any new benefit, was only thinking of getting rid of it as soon and as quietly as possible so that its very name would not remind people of its former independence.
Hamutbei Chachba had heard rumors of these plans as well as alarming reports of the peasant reform in Russia. He had no idea how or when, but he was positive that the reform would inevitably be carried out in Abkhasia and he was worried about his own future and that of his only son Georgy whom he expected to be the future sovereign of Abkhasia. He wanted to gain time; he hoped the whispered plans of the new vicegerent to do away with the principality would be postponed for several years at least.
Soberly calculating the strength of the Russians, the Abkhasian sovereign was sincere when he wanted to stop the Ubykhs from continuing- their bloody and futile struggle. Hamutbei Chachba was well aware that Haji Kerantukh’s determination to continue fighting was fed by the secret visits of one Turkish agent after another, and this realization weakened his sympathy for the Ubykhs whom he respected for their courage.
Haji Kerantukh was certainly brave, but lacked clever ness and foresight. Hamutbei Chachba, however, went to the talks with the Ubykhs not only because he was concerned about their future, but also because he was even more troubled by his own fate.
He had good reason to believe that the irreconcilability and obstinance of Haji Kerantukh also stirred up his own subjects, the Abkhasians, especially in Tsebelda and other areas close to the Ubykhs. He felt that if the Ubykhs would agree to a peace with the Russians it would also affect his own subjects, that is, those of them who were considered his subjects, but actually showed insubordination whenever they had a chance.
It seemed to him that if he were successful in talks with the Ubykhs it would help him take control of those rebellious Abkhasians. This would enhance his prestige in the eyes of the Russians and, possibly, force them to give up the idea of abolishing the sovereign principality. If during talks with the Ubykhs he could accomplish what the Russian general failed to do one month before, the success would make him look so good in the eyes of the Russian vicegerent that there would not be any more talk of doing away with his principality, at least for many years to come.
My digression from Zaurkan Zolak’s story has only one objective—on the basis of the relatively little I have so far been able to learn of the sovereign prince, Hamutbei Chachba, an important figure in the history of Abkhasia, I would like to define what his trip to the Ubykhs just before their tragedy meant to him, and why he went to these talks at great risk.
As to their outcome, and most important, the way the event was remembered by his contemporaries, that is best described in the last part of Zaurkan’s story. As I said be fore I recorded this most coherent part of his recollections word for word. Although it contains legendary details, the story is based on hard facts:
“You may or may not believe me, dear Sharakh, but people told me (and not one person, but many, and not once, but many times) that during the two days and two nights, that Hamutbei was on the road from his home to the land of the Ubykhs, he was silent like a mute; he never said a .single word.
“He only spoke when they were already in the land of the Ubykhs and he suddenly saw a tall snow-white steed quietly grazing in a forest glade. Prince Hamutbei was fascinated by its beauty. He turned around to the men following him to show them the steed, but when they caught up with the prince the white steed was gone. It vanished as though it had never existed.
“Then, standing in the middle of the glade with his companions, the prince spoke for the first time in those two days and two nights. He told them about the time when he was seven years old and traveled this same road, only in the opposite direction—not from the land of the Abkhasians to the land of the Ubykhs, but from the land of the Ubykhs to the land of the Abkhasians.
“He was just seven years old but he rode like an adult and on a tall snow-white stallion. He was dressed in a Circassian coat as white as the horse, wore a white Astrakhan hat, and over his shoulders was a white riding hood. Next to him on a grayish brown steed was his foster father, Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, and behind them were a hundred Ubykh horsemen who sang marching songs and, without dismounting, shot into the air the way soldiers do when returning home from war victorious.
“Everyone who saw these horsemen along the way could not take their eyes off them.
“Those who did not know asked, ‘Who are they?’
“And those who knew would answer, ‘That’s the son of Safarbei, the sovereign of Abkhasia; he was sent to be brought up in the land of the Ubykhs and is now returning home. May the young prince returning home be happy! May the day come when the people will praise his name!’
“Not to tire the small Hamutbei, Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, stopped twice along the way to spend the night, first at the Rydba princes’, then at the Inal-Ipa princes’. Each time the party feasted, and only on the third day they arrived in Lykhny, the home of the sovereign prince of Abkhasia, Safarbei. The feast lasted for three days and three nights, and the most expensive gifts were presented not only to the young prince’s foster father, Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, but to all the 100 Ubykh horsemen who accompanied him.
“But when the young Hamutbei was taken to his room in his father’s home he remembered his foster mother who had remained in the land of the Ubykhs and cried bitterly. No matter how much his own mother caressed him and tried to comfort him it was no use. When his foster father, Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, left with his horsemen the young Hamutbei darted after him trying to jump on the horse to go back to the land of the Ubykhs.
“And so after suddenly seeing the white steed that promptly disappeared, Hamutbei Chachba, saddened by this memory, told his fellow-travelers about his childhood.
“His companions decided to drive away this melancholy by trick riding in the glade: they fired their pistols at young green apples on wild apple trees; they made a hit every time, but not even that could cheer up the prince.
“He was silent again as he rode ahead of them until they came in sight of the large meadow with the seven oaks and the shrine of our Bytkha, where the Ubykhs had agreed to meet their foster brother.
“Prince Hamutbei rode to the edge of the forest and saw that the meadow was empty. Not one person waited for him under the huge oak trees.
“What happened? Why isn’t anyone here?’ asked prince Hamutbei looking over the meadow and without waiting for a reply rode on.
“He had not reached the middle of the meadow when he saw on the other side something strange and black moving toward him. He rode further, and a minute or two passed before he realized that coming toward him were women with their hair down and dressed in black from head to foot like mourners.
“Prince Hamutbei and his companions dismounted, and, handing their horses over to the bodyguards, walked toward the advancing black crowd of women. They walked toward the women and asked each other in alarm:
“Where are they going? Why are there so many? What happened? Who died?’
“But the women kept coming closer, and finally prince Hamutbei saw at the head of the procession a woman dressed like the rest, in black, and with gray hair hanging over her shoulders—she was the woman who had nursed him, the widow of Haji Berzek, son of Adagva.
“When he realized that the prince hastened toward her, but the old woman did not even look at him as he came near.
“She walked on and cried as though over the body of the deceased, and all the other women cried with her.
“She continued to ignore her foster son as she cried and wailed. When he listened and tried to make out the words he heard what it would have been best not to.
‘Have you heard, stranger, about my sorrow?
Have you heard how unhappy I am?
Have you heard that the one nursed by my breast,
My foster child, prince Hamutbei, has died?
He died a terrible death, one that the earth won’t accept.
He died in disgrace; he died unmourned.
The Ubykhs have lost their foster brother.
The Abkhasians have lost their prince...’
“Hamutbei’s foster sister walked out of the crowd of mourners behind the old woman. Her hair, which she usually wore in braids, hung loose, down to her feet, and striking her head with her fist she cried loud enough to drown out her mother’s wailing:
‘Oh, Hamutbei, tell me what to do?
Tell your unhappy foster sister what she should do?
Could it be that for the czar’s silver
You betrayed the land of the Ubykhs that fed you?
How terrible it is to think of the death you died!’
“The women wept louder and louder, and in their midst stood prince Hamutbei with his head hung low, and immobile like a rock. He had seen much sorrow in his time, but he had never experienced such shame and disgrace in his entire life.
“Haji Kerantukh, having agreed to the visit, arranged to have his foster brother met like a mortal enemy.
“Finally, Hamutbei came to his senses, rushed away from the crowd of women to his horse, and took a running jump into his saddle.
“Cry, my wet-nurse mother,’ he shouted through his tears. ‘Cry, my foster sisters: I, your foster child, cry with you. Cry, cry, cry now, because later you won’t have any time! Cry, because the land of the Ubykhs is dead. And you, Haji Kerantukh, you are probably laughing at me now as I cry. But remember that you, not I, will be damned by your people!’
“Shouting all this through his tears, not feeling ashamed of them, and not wiping his tear-stained face, prince Hamutbei lashed his horse, and rode like a madman through the meadow as though he wanted to leave behind him as quickly as possible the wailing and lamenting of the women. And his companions also galloped after him like madmen, each trying to outstrip the other.”