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Circassians' Special Niche in Jordan : 'Cossacks' Seem out of Place in Arab Palace

May 17, 1987|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — Of all the examples of foreign culture that have been transplanted to the Arab world, few present a more arresting sight than the warriors in Cossack uniform who stride through the corridors of King Hussein's palace.

With black astrakhan hats, fierce mustaches, silver swords and chests covered with brass cartridges, the members of the king's guard look as if they have marched out of the pages of a Tolstoy novel rather than being at the center of a modern Arab capital.

Actually, the guards are not Cossacks but Circassians, whose forebears were among the most fearsome fighters of the Caucasus. Although the Circassian Guards these days have become as ceremonial as their Swiss counterparts at the Vatican, Circassians have retained a special niche in the inner sanctums of the Jordanian kingdom that belies their tiny numbers here.

Layered in Hierarchy

Earlier this year, a Circassian named Mohammed Ali Amin was appointed governor of Amman, joining a government minister, army generals and top intelligence officials who are among the Circassians in the top layers of Jordan's bureaucracy. The last four directors of Jordanian security have been Circassians.

The regular guard for the ruling Hashemite family wears olive drab and green berets these days, and while its composition is a state secret, Circassians proudly assert that they still constitute a majority of its members.

"It's a matter of trust," said Mohammed Haghandouqa, author of a local history of the Circassians. "Whenever there is money or security involved, they put a Circassian in charge. There's never been a Circassian convicted of embezzlement or treason. For us, it's a religious conviction."

It was religious beliefs that brought hundreds of thousands of Circassians pouring into the Middle East in the late 19th Century from their home villages in the northern Russian Caucasus.

Sword-Point Converts

The Circassians, who have been known variously as Ants or Narts, thrived in the rugged mountain terrain of the northern Caucasus as Orthodox Christians but were converted to Islam at the point of a sword in 1717 by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire.

A century and a half later, the Circassians were defeated by the Russian Czar, who had annexed their land, and nearly 2 million Circassians fled into Turkey rather than stay under Russian, and Christian, rule.

Prized for their equestrian and military prowess by the Turks, the Circassians saw duty throughout the Ottoman Empire. A large detachment of them was dispatched into Syria and present-day Jordan to guard the Hijaz Railway that carried Muslim pilgrims from Istanbul to the holy city of Mecca.

When they first arrived in the Arab world, the Circassians spoke no Arabic and found the customs completely alien. One account states that upon hearing they had reached the "Holy Land" of Palestine and seeing barefoot Bedouin shepherds, the Circassians removed their shoes, believing that the Bedouins were following some sort of obscure religious rite.

Settled in Amman

The Turks settled a sizable Circassian contingent in Amman in the 1870s, at a time when the site consisted of barely more than a few Roman ruins. The town remained a Circassian village for several decades.

It was the arrival in the area of the Hashemite King Abdallah from what is today Saudi Arabia that ensured the success of the Circassians in Jordan.

Abdallah, like the Circassians, was more or less a refugee from his homeland after a military defeat there. As a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, he commanded the great respect of the Circassians, who had become devout Muslims.

The loyalty of the Circassians was demonstrated in 1923, when a mutiny against Abdallah by local tribes in Kerak was suppressed by a Circassian battalion, paving the way for the formation of the Emirate of Transjordan, predecessor of today's Jordan.

The Circassian historian Mohammed Haghandouqa estimates that there are about 65,000 Circassians in Jordan today, compared to more than 1 million in Turkey and more than 100,000 in Syria. Yet they prosper in Jordan as nowhere else.

Many Still Use Own Tongue

After 100 years here, the process of assimilation is well advanced, although Circassians still tend to live in the same areas in which their ancestors settled. In such areas, it is still not uncommon to hear Circassian spoken.

"I speak Circassian, but not all the new generation speaks the language," said Walid Tash, a former secretary general of Jordan's Foreign Ministry. "I suppose in 100 years, the language will disappear here."

While Circassians in Jordan now tend to enter the professions, such as law or medicine, they are still known primarily as a military people.

"Circassians are a martial people," said Capt. Arslan Ramadan, a former captain of the royal guard unit. "They are a tough but handsome people," he added.

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