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The Republic of Abkhazia covers 3,300 square miles between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the crestline of the main Caucasus range; from the rivers Psou (in the North) and Ingur (In the south). To the north, Abkhazia is bordered by Russia and to the south by the Georgian provinces of Svanetia and Mingrelia. Around 74% of the territory is mountains or mountain approaches. The coastal valleys are humid and subtropical. At higher altitudes the weather ranges from moderately cold to such freezing temperatures that the snow never melts. The relatively small distance between seashore and mountains lends Abkhazia a strikingly contrasting landscape.

The area was best known by non-Abkhazia for its prime resorts for vacationers from all over the Soviet Union, as well as well as for its major cash crops of tea, tobacco and citrus fruits. There are two cities: the capital Sukhum, with a population of more than 100,000, and Tkwarchal, an industrial center. There are three urban resorts; Gagra, Gudauta, and Ochamchira; two rural spas : Pitsunda, and Novy Afon; and 575 villages.

The Abkhazian language belongs to the northwest Caucasian family spoken by only a few other people in the world: the Abazins (or Abaza), Adyghey, Kabardians and Circassians, all of whom live in the north Caucasus. Historically these people and other related groups in the North Caucasus maintained close ties until they were divided by Soviet colonial policy.

The closest neighbors of the Abkhazians (unrelated linguistically or ethnically) were the Mingrelians, Svans and Georgians. After Abkhazia was incorporated into Russia in 1810, large numbers of migrants came from other parts of the empire: primarily Russians, Armenians and Jews. These settlers were also joined by Greeks fleeing religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire and Iran.

The Abkhazians are a West Caucasian people numbering about 100,000 in 1989 (Soviet census data), living chiefly on territory known under Soviet government as the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Union Republic of Georgia. Abkhazian culture is distinctly different from that of Georgians, their nearest neighbors and related only to the other peoples in the language group- the Abazins (or Abaza), Shapsugs, Adyghey, Kabardians and Cherkess who live in the North Caucasus and belong to the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus, along with other North Caucasuans, who do not have related languages, but share cultural and historical similarities. Such groups are the Ossetians, Ingush, Chechen, Balkars, Karachais, Avars, Laks, Lezghins and other Daghestani peoples.

According to Abkhazian legends, the people originated in prehistoric times on the territory they now occupy. Archeological evidence of proto-Abkhazian tribes in the Western Caucasus dates back to 4,000-3,000 BC. These tribes also lived along the Black Sea Coast when this area was under Greek, the Roman rule (Inal-Ipa 1965). Under Byzantine. s Justinian I (ca. 550) the early Abkhazians adopted Christianity. Between the 8th and 10th centuries the Kingdom of Abkhazia marked the unification of the Abkhazians and Georgians into a strong state (Lakoba 1990). In the 16th century the area came under the Ottoman Empire and bringing about the spread of Islam. In the middle of the 19th century the Abkhazians, along with other Caucasian mountain peoples, waged fierce and unequaled warfare against the Russian czarist forces. Abkhazia was ultimately annexed in 1864. As a result, around sixty per cent (60%) if the Abkhazian population emigrated to Turkey leaving whole villages and vast areas of Abkhazia vacant.

This mass exodus was of enormous consequence to the Abkhazian and other recalcitrant mountain peoples forced out of their homelands. The vacated territories were settled by Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other ethnic groups, thus dramatically reducing the Abkhazians to a minority in their country. This had made them culturally and politically vulnerable.

The Russian Revolution brought Abkhazians a degree of political autonomy and cultural resurrection. This was short-lived however, because during the Stalin period Abkhazia was incorporated into Georgia as a so-called "autonomous" republic. Thousands of Abkhazians were executed in the purges and school instruction in their own language was forbidden. The Georgian language was introduced instead. Abkhazian geographic names were substituted by Georgian ones. The Krushchev Thaw brought the Abkhazians new opportunities for reviving their own culture, albeit no significant political autonomy. The immigration of Georgian ethnic groups further dwindled their percentage of the total population down the current seventeen percent (17%) (1989 census data).


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