The Adjarans (Georgian: აჭარლები, ach’arlebi) are an ethinic subgroup of Georgians who live in Adjara, a region in southwest Georgia. They are distinguished from other Georgians by their dialect and by being (at least historically) Sunni Muslims instead of Orthodox Christians.
Adjara shares a border with Turkey. This is important because it was conquered by the Ottomans in the seventeenth century, at which point the Adjarans were cut off from other Georgians and converted to Islam.
Adjara was ceded to the then-still-expanding Russian Empire in 1878 as a result of the Russo-Turkish Wars. Administratively, the region was called the Batum Oblast, after Batumi, its capital. Under Tsarist rule, Islam in Adjara was lightly persecuted.
Towards the end of World War I, Batumi was briefly occupied by the Turks. They occupied it again in 1921, during the Soviet invasion of Georgia. Turkish claims to Adjara were given up conclusively with the Treaty of Kars, under which the Soviets also gave up claims to several territories in northeast Turkey.
Fearing for the safety of Adjaran Muslims (or perhaps wishing to ensure a Muslim buffer zone between Turkey and the Soviet Union), the Turks negotiated for the inclusion of the following in the Treaty (emphasis added):
Article VI. Turkey agrees to cede to Georgia suzerainty over the town and port of Batum, with the territory to the north of the frontier, indicated in Article IV of the present Treaty, which formed part of the district of Batum, on condition [that] the population of the localities specified in the present Article shall enjoy a greater measure of local administrative autonomy, that each community is guaranteed its cultural and religious rights, and that this population may introduce in the above-mentioned places an agrarian system in conformity with its own wishes…
This condition was realized with the promotion of Adjara to the status of Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Georgian SSR (Abkhazia too would eventually become an ASSR within Georgia, while South Ossetia was merely an Autonomous Oblast (AO)). This didn’t do much to help Adjaran Muslims though, since Islam was persecuted more under Soviet rule than it was under the Tsars.
Around the end of the Soviet Union, Georgia saw a surge of nationalism which was unmatched in the other union republics. Accompanying this, of course, was a surge of violent xenophobia, as well as an attempt to define who was and wasn’t Georgian. One widely-accepted criterion was that a Georgian must be an Orthodox Christian. This excluded Muslim Adjarans, who feared not only that they would lose their autonomy, but also that they would have to face the looting and riots that had wracked Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Azeri-inhabited areas of Kartli. So the Adjarans entrusted their safety to Aslan Abashidze, a former Party functionary who happened to head a well-armed paramilitary organization. He was able to stave off chaos and keep Adjara more stable and more prosperous than the rest of Georgia.
Then again, some argue that the threat of nationalist violence was a phantasm, exaggerated or made up entirely by Abashidze in order for him to seize power. They say that he was a warlord who turned Adjara into his personal fiefdom, ripping off tens of millions of dollars from Georgia’s weak central government in the process. He may have also shot a man dead.
Under Abashidze, Adjara was de facto independent from the rest of Georgia (though Abashidze wisely avoided rhetoric to that effect), and Adjarans remained somewhat cut off from other Georgians. This situation came to an end with the Rose Revolution of 2004, after which the newly-elected Mikheil Saakashvili forced him (without bloodshed) to abdicate and flee to Russia.
Q: You say that the Adjarans are an “ethnic subgroup of Georgians.” Is there any historical precedent for this?
A: Yes. In the first union-wide Soviet census of 1926, Adjaran was listed as an ethnic group separate from Georgian. This category was dropped from subsequent censuses, in part because of a revolt of rural Muslim Adjarans in 1929.
Q: How many Adjarans are Muslims today?
A: The general estimate seems to be that Adjarans are about 30% Muslim and 60% Christian, with Christianity on the rise. As with many Georgian Christians, Georgian Muslims often are not very devout. One English teacher told me that it was months before he found out his family was Muslim and that he didn’t believe it when he was told, since they drank frequently and ate pork.
Q: How does the Adjaran dialect differ from standard Georgian?
A: It has a lot more words of Turkish origin, for obvious reasons. Other than that, I don’t know. Perhaps a reader will have something to add?
Q: What about ultimately unimportant cultural trappings like food?
A: A popular food throughout Georgia is khachapuri (ხაჭაპური), which literally means “cheese bread.” It’s hot bread with cheese in it. Different regions are associated with different kinds of khachapuri, and Adjaran khachapuri (or acharuli) is far and away the best among them. It’s cheesy and buttery and greasy and delicious. I don’t know if Adjaran khachapuri is really from Adjara, since you can buy it anywhere in Georgia. You can read more about it on any of the many boring Georgian food blogs that inexplicably exist.
Besides this, I’ve noticed from my own travels that shawarmas (Georgian: შაურმა, shaurma) in Batumi are made with chicken, as opposed to Tbilisi, where the shawarmas are made with red meat of unspecified origin. Tbilisi shawarmas are much better than Batumi shawarmas. (For readers unacquainted with shawarmas, imagine a burrito with a Middle Eastern taste. For readers acquainted with neither shawarmas nor burritos, I can’t help you.)
Q: Is georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever going to turn into a boring food blog?
A: Absolutely not. With the possible exception of posts about fruit, I will probably never discuss food again.
Note on spelling
The region I’m calling “Adjara” is called აჭარა in Georgian, which we might transliterate as ach’ara. But the English name doesn’t came straight from the Georgian. As often happens, it comes from Russian, in which the region is called Аджария. Here’s where problems arise. д is the Russian letter for d, but ж doesn’t correspond to one letter in English. It makes a sound like the s in pleasure, and often gets transliterated as zh (the voiced version of sh). So it is sometimes called Adzharia. But ж can also be transliterated as j, apparently under the influence of French, where j is pronounced that way. This gives Adjaria. But while ж doesn’t correspond to any letter in English, the combination дж does — it’s nothing more than the plain old English j, as in the door being ajar. This gives Ajaria.
(This transliteration problem afflicts many Georgian names. Stalin’s surname at birth, Jughashvili (ჯუღაშვილი), is sometimes spelled Dzhughashvili, and similar for names like Japaridze / Dzhaparidze. I once saw a reporter stupidly refer to “Jughashvili” as the “Western spelling”. He probably said this because “Dzhughashvili” looks more exotic and mysterious.)
Some drop the i from these names, giving Adzhara, etc. Further, the inhabitants of the region are sometimes given the old-fashioned names Adzhars instead of Adzharans (and analogously for the other cases). So there is an enormous range of minute variations in spelling. This makes using search engines a pain in the ass.
I have decided to go with Adjara and Adjaran not because they are historically, linguistically, typographically, or in any other way intrinsically better than the alternatives, but because that’s how it’s spelled by the Georgian gambling website adjarabet.com. The Adjarabet logo is everywhere in Georgia, and it will probably become the standard spelling among Georgians. So I figure I’ll go with it.
- The Geography of Ethnic Violence: a comparison of Adjara and Abkhazia
- Warlords: an analysis of Abashidze’s relationship with Tbilisi
- Ajar entry in One Europe, Many Nations