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Jean Hannoyer
Seteney Shami

Quatrième partie. Les espaces communautaires dans la ville

The Circassians of Amman: Historical Narratives, Urban Dwelling and the Construction of Identity

Les Circassiens de Amman : Récits, pratiques urbaines et identité

Seteney Shami


L’histoire de Amman au xixe siècle est étroitement mêlée à celle de l’installation des Circassiens en Jordanie. Amman est souvent décrite à l’origine comme une « ville circassienne ». Il s’agit de débattre de cette affirmation à la fois du point de vue du groupe et de celui de la ville. Le récit de leur installation et leur mémoire de Amman, leurs relations avec les autres groupes circassiens en Jordanie, la transformation de leurs voisinages et la création d’associations à base ethnique, tous ces éléments permettent de questionner les dimensions de l’identité ethnique des Circassiens et la manière dont elle est liée à leur séjour et à leur expérience dans la ville de Amman. L’ethnicité étant souvent considérée comme un phénomène urbain, cette étude de cas permet d’illustrer les facteurs qui renforcent ou affaiblissent la cohésion ethnique dans la ville. Elle montre également comment les identités, nationale et ethnique, s’associent à travers une identité urbaine.

Texte intégral


1Ethnic identity is often represented as being primarily an urban phenomenon. It is in the urban environment that groups of different cultural origins are described as interacting most intensely and competing over resources, thus giving rise to political and social mobilization along ethnic lines. This is a view that has, for example, prevailed in the literature on Middle Eastern cities that are seen as traditionally segmented along ethnic lines (Chevallier 1979, Elisséeff 1980, Hourani 1970). Some studies further argue convincingly that groups may actively construct and perpetuate cultural distinctiveness as a means of competing over resources in the urban context (Cohen 1974, Despres 1975). Whether one takes an ontological approach to ethnic identity, or a situational one, ethnicity and urbanism appear as strongly associated phenomena.

  • 1 My concern here is with the articulation of ethnic and national identities within the political and (...)

2Yet at the same time, in a different set of writings, cities and especially capital cities, are presented as the locus of civic consciousness and identity based on citizenship, and hence a source of national identity in contemporary times (see Cohen 1993). The contradiction between these two manifestations of urbanism is not simply a function, as some would have it, of an evolution from historical forms of segmentation to contemporary moulds of integration. The persistence of ethnicity, whether in Third World or First World cities, cannot be seen as incomplete modernity, as posited by assimilationist, “melting pot” approaches (Glazer and Moynihan 1975). If ethnic groups and expressions of ethnicity are examined in context, if ethnicity is seen, at least partially, as a construct of the modern nation-state, then the seemingly contradictory co-existence of ethnic diversity and nationalist discourse assumes a distinct logic1.

  • 2 I am using the term “foundation narrative” with conscious reference to the anthropological concept (...)

3This paper attempts to show how, for the Circassians in Jordan, ethnic consciousness and civic consciousness are intertwined through a re-construction of the past which simultaneously provides a “foundation narrative” for the Circassians as an ethnic group in Jordan and for Amman as a capital city2. This foundation narrative of synchronous ethnogenesis and state-formation illustrates well the dual nature of ethnicity: its assertion of cultural specificity and at the same time its implication of context. The prominence and predominance of this narrative among the Circassians asserts their distinctiveness as a group within Jordan, and at the same time their inseparability from Jordanian society due to their integral historical role.

4Also revealed in Circassian narratives of Amman are aspects of the relationship between urban space and ethnic identity. Ethnic groups circumscribed in “urban enclavements” are usually assumed to be cohesive and politically mobilized. “Enclavement”, and its strong spatial overtones, suggests that people who live in proximity to one another share a closer identity than those who are spatially dispersed. Although spatial distributions are extremely important in the reproduction of ethnic identity, this example from Amman shows that there is not a simple congruence between contiguous urban settlement and ethnic identity. How the construction of identity among Circassians in Amman shapes, and is shaped by, urban dwelling is, therefore, another focus of this paper.


  • 3 See articles by Rogan and by Hmoud in this volume, and Wilson (1987). The words “village” and “town (...)

5Amman is often described in the early 1920’s, at the time of the foundation of the Transjordanian state, as a “Circassian village”, or a “Circassian town”. This description is usually invoked in discussions of the choice and attributes of Amman over Salt as the capital of the new state3. How Circassians at the time perceived their settlement, and conceived of relations within it, is not part of this discussion. This is understandable in the sense that the events of that period had already outstripped any meanings that Circassians might have ascribed to Amman, and (as shown by Rogan in this volume) Amman, as the capital, quickly began to acquire new meanings. Consequently, the Circassian settlement is relegated to a “phase”, the first stage, or the pre-history of Amman. However, it remains true that there are also Circassian narratives and Circassian experiences of Amman. Furthermore, these narratives and experiences are integral to the constitution of Circassian identity in Jordan at the present. This paper, therefore, does not aim at giving a history of Circassian settlement in Amman and Jordan, nor to show how the Circassian presence may have affected the future history of Amman and Jordan. But rather it will show how this history, and subsequent urban dwelling, helped mould Circassian identity in Jordan, as well as how it is represented by Circassians in retrospect.

  • 4 The general facts of the late 19th century Circassian immigration into the Ottoman Empire and into (...)
  • 5 Circassians, who call themselves Adyge, comprise different dialect groups, who lived in contiguous (...)
  • 6 The New Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary (1984 ed.) gives the meaning of mahallet as: street, qu (...)

6Amman was settled by the Circassians in several main waves of migration starting from c.1878, along with the other sites of Wadi Seer (c. 1880), Naour (c. 1901), Sweileh (c. 1906), Jerash (c. 1884), and Rusaifa (c. 1902-4) (Lewis 1987)4. It is important to note that Amman was the earliest of those Circassian settlements that subsequently became part of Jordan. The first migration to Amman was by a group of Shapsoug who settled initially in the caves and ruins around the Roman Amphitheatre and later built their houses on the lower slopes of Jabal Qal‘a and Jabal Jofeh, and in the area called until today Shâri‘al-shapsoug5. The second group were Kabartay and Abzakh, and came in two waves about 1880-1892 and settled to the west and south in the centre of the valley and near the lower flanks of Jabal Webdeh, on one side, and Jabal Amman on the other. The official name of Lower Jabal Amman is still Shâri‘ Kabartay, although the everyday usage of this name has passed. In 1890-91, Ottoman documents give the official names of the quarters of Amman as: Mahallet-il Shapsoug, Mahallet-il Kabartay and Mahallet-il Abzakh (Hmoud, this volume)6.

  • 7 Yerlija and yerlij’a are composite Circassian-Turkish words. Yerli comes from Turkish and means “lo (...)

7These quarters soon formed a loosely-integrated settlement in the area that we today call downtown Amman. However, they did represent different waves of settlement, and they were inhabited by those originating from different areas in the Caucasus and speaking different dialects of the Adyge language: Shapsoug, Abzakh and Kabartay. While Ottoman documents inscribe three mahallet-s congruent with Circassian cultural classifications of the three dialect groups, a new categorization appeared among Circassians reflecting the sequence of settlement in Amman as well as the resulting spatial arrangements. Elderly people talking about early Amman consistently refer to two groups that are also locations: al-shapsoug and ahl ‘Ammân, meaning “the Shapsoug” and “the people of Amman” respectively. Furthermore, two Circassian terms common at that time, and that are still occasionally used, categorized the settlers of “Amman” into Yerlija (meaning old inhabitants) and Yerlij’a (meaning new inhabitants)7. Thus the “old” and “new” settlers, within ahl-‘Ammân, distinguished themselves by their history of settlement. In other words, living in Amman had already affected the sense of identity and the types of distinctions made among the Circassian settlers in “non-traditional” ways.

  • 8 Hmoud, this volume, mentions that some land grants in this location had been given to members of th (...)

8A third group of Circassian immigrants came much later, around 1902 (Lewis 1987, Hmoud, this volume). They were also Kabartay, but a substantial number of the families belonged to a distinct group within the Kabartay called Jilikhstanay. After some adventures (see below), they eventually settled around the source of the Amman stream and formed a mahalle that was officially registered as Mahallet Ra’s ‘Ammân or Ra’s al-‘Ain (Hmoud, this volume) but became known, and is still known, as the Muhâjirîn (the immigrants). This was also the name by which the new group began to refer to themselves and were called by their compatriots who were now the “natives” of Amman. Some of the land on which the Muhâjirîn eventually built their houses were the irrigated orchards of ahl ‘Ammân8. However, Ra’s al-‘Ain continued to be seen for a long time as being outside the balad (town) and of “Amman”.

9Circassians who recall the early part of the century talk about going from the balad to Ra’s al-‘Ain as somewhat of a journey and mention “forests” that needed to be crossed. Haghandoqa, for example, writes that “On each bank of the stream were dense forests in which lived animals and predatory beasts” (1982: 33). A look at period maps and photographs does not show forests exactly, however there were thick rushes and trees by the stream (the Seil) and also Jabal Malfouf (Jabal Amman today) juts out between the two settlements and creates a physical barrier. It is also important to note that the lands farmed by the inhabitants of the three quarters lay in different directions: The Shapsoug farmed lands that today comprise Jabal Jofeh, Taj, Hussein, Nuzha, the Sport City and Shmeisani, whereas ahl ‘Ammân had what comprises Jabal Webdeh, Ashrafiyya and Jabal Amman till Bayadir Wadi Seer, and the Muhâjirîn had scattered lands to the south and south-west, in Abdoun and towards Marj al-Hamam.

10It could be said, therefore, that these different settlements were not seen as one “village” or “town” called Amman in the eyes of their inhabitants. It is interesting to note that a list of Circassian families in Amman, compiled in a recent publication, groups those families in three lists: Amman, Amman/Shapsoug St., Amman/Muhajirin (Haghandoqa 1982). The madâfa-s (guest-houses) of prominent families are also divided into the same locations, showing twelve in Amman, four in Shapsoug and four in Muhajirin. This classification supports the idea that these three quarters formed fairly distinct groups, based on location within Wadi Amman, on cultural distinctions based on dialect and region of origin, but also based on the period and sequence of settlement.


  • 9 See, for example, Bașbakanlik Archives: irade 93990 dated 1308H/1883AD; Ayniyat Defteri 1139 dated (...)

11The settlement of immigrants into the Ottoman Empire was organized after 1860 by the Muhacirin Komisyonu, or Immigrants’ Commission (Eren 1966). Ottoman documents show that even though the Commission was in place and the policy for the settlement of Circassians in Bilâd ash-shâm might have been clear, the actual process of settlement was often disorganized. In the abundant correspondence concerning the affairs of the immigrants, kept in the Basbakanlik (Prime Ministry) Archives in Istanbul, provincial officials complain of the inability of their provinces to absorb the numbers that were being sent, of the unwillingness of native populations to accommodate the newcomers and of the immigrants’ own dissatisfaction with conditions and arrangements9.

  • 10 There is, however, a 14-page pamphlet by Kuba Sha’ban published in 1952 recounting the story of Cir (...)
  • 11 In conformity with anthropological practice, I do not mention the real names of my informants. This (...)

12Contemporary accounts by Circassians themselves for the early migrations are, unfortunately, not available10. However in 1979-80, I interviewed a number of elderly Circassian men and women who had come as children in the last wave of 1901-2 which settled in Muhajirin. Here is part of the account by one man, well into his eighties when I interviewed him, and whom I shall call Abu Said11. I visited him in 1979 in his house in Muhajirin and asked him about the history of settlement and his memories of Amman. Abu Said spoke mainly in Circassian, especially at the beginning when relating the tale of the settlement, however he mixed in Arabic words as given below.

13“They came, the first who came was the hârat al Shapsoug. Then after a while came ahl ‘Ammân in one wave, half came here and half settled in Jerash. Then came the third wave of ahl ‘Ammân also. They call them Yerlij, Yerlij’a meaning the first wave, the second wave. The last wave, we the Muhâjîrin came.

  • 12 He is referring to the Muhajirin quarter.
  • 13 According to secondary sources, Khusrov Pasha, a Circassian, was the chief of the Gendarmerie in Da (...)
  • 14 The reference is to the military insignia on the epaulettes of the uniform.
  • 15 Thereby, Abu G. secured the release of the ahl ‘Ammân (apparently young men) who participated in mo (...)

14“Now I will tell you the story of our Muhâjirîn. They settled in Yajouz, by the water of Yajouz. This place12 was the lands of ahl ‘Ammân. These lands and gardens were for ahl ‘Ammân. Ahl ‘Ammân did not want them [the new immigrants] here and so they took them to Yajouz. Those who went there started building houses and mosques – the old ones, the men. Then Khusrov came13. He said “where are the people of muhâjirîn? They told him, “they took them to Yajouz.” He said “who took them there?” and he collected all those who participated in this and sent them to jail in Salt... A man called Abu G. – you will not know who he is – ... he put on his Circassian gun and his Circassian dagger ... he went walking till Jubeiha. There was a road to Jerash there. He went and with him were horsemen and they went to Khusrov. They said “Khusrov, if these on your shoulders14 you got for your service to the Turks then we do not blame you, but if you got them for your service to the Circassians, then let them set free our boys”. He [Khusrov] said “I will surely have them let go”15.

  • 16 Elderly Circassians consistently refer to the Caucasus as “Moscof” in reference to the Russian rule (...)
  • 17 This is apparently for fear of bedouin raids.

15“The poor people of Muhâjirîn remained cut off, not knowing Arabic, and not knowing where to go. Forty people, my father among them, walking they went to Damascus, they went to Damascus and arrived and they wanted to go to the Wali. They were standing in line – the Wali came in and when he saw them he asked the doorman. He said “From where did these come?”. He [the doorman] said “These came from Amman, the Muhâjirîn who have come from Moscof”16. Someone told them “Come, two of you and tell your story to the Wali”. They pushed him and said “Get away from here” and all of them went in. The Wali said to them “You have broken my heart and made me sad”. He said to them “You come from Amman to here walking, you have very very much broken my heart”. They said, “We are coming to the Ottoman state and to the Islamic land and we have followed the others [who came before] and in spite of this they are not giving us land and that which was given to us, they are taking away”. He said “Inshallah, mashallah, we will look into your case”. And he gave each one a mejidi from his pocket and he let them go. At that time a mejîdi was worth something. And he said “I will make them give each family a quarter of a dunum and for two families a half dunum – and also place for you to build a house”. He sent with them the clerk [baș kâtip] for the distribution [of land]. He was going to give them from the Malhas watermill until there, there. The Circassians did not accept. Let us stay in this place. We don’t want to be near the Arabs17. He sent them to Salt and they brought seeds, wheat and barley. Somebody called Majid Effendi, the baș kâtip, distributed the grain, 30 sag. They brought the grain and distributed to all the young men so that they will work. They settled them and gave one quarter of a dunum, from my house till up up, till Ra’s al-‘Ain. We were two [families] so we got half a dunum. They gave them to the people of the Muhajirin. But the poor people who came from the Caucasus, the old ones died. The area they gave was not big. Those who died suffered a lot – God forgive them”.

16This account makes it clear that the settlement of the Muhajirin, or Ra’s al-‘Ain, was a contentious matter and not very well organized, even at this late date of the settlement process. It raised some conflict among the Circassians themselves, between Circassians and the local Ottoman government, and also between Circassians and the local bedouin tribes. As mentioned above, Ra’s al-‘Ain is seen at this time as being outside the previous settlements in Wadi Amman. In addition, the “journey” there is always described as having been a risky one, where one might “get killed by Bedouins”. Circassians recounting the settlement of Amman stress the hardships endured by the early settlers and the conflict with neighbouring bedouin tribes over land, water and agricultural crops.

17The two major accounts of conflicts between Circassians and Arab tribes both involve the area of Ra’s al-‘Ain, although in different ways. The first conflict was between the Amman Circassians and Bani Sakhr before the arrival of the Muhâjirîn. Constant harassment of the Circassian settlers, especially around harvest-time reportedly came to a climax with a message sent from the Bani Sakhr telling the Circassians to leave the area. According to Haghandoqa “The Circassians sent back the reply that they would leave, but they needed transportation. They requested that the beduins send over their camels to the Circassians to enable them to move out” (1982:44). Haghandoqa states that the bedouins interpreted this as a trick of the Circassians to seize their camels. An elderly man recounting the same story to me said that the message indicated the readiness of the Circassians to fight and that the Bani Sakhr would need all their camels to carry their dead. Soon after, negotiations ensued and a pact of friendship was forged between the Bani Sakhr and the Amman Circassians and “Tribal leaders held a grand banquet at Ra’s el-’Ain during which Circassians tasted the Jordanian mansaf dish for the first time” (Haghandoqa 1982:45, emphasis in the original). This culinary metaphor indeed indicates that Circassians had their first taste of local systems of negotiation and accommodation and obtained a footing in the structure of tribal alliances and factions that surrounded them.

  • 18 The reference to the kidnapped maiden may be an attempt to justify the scale of the ensuing conflic (...)

18It is worth noting that since the Bani Sakhr feast was held at Ra’s al-‘Ain, that would be considered their territory and perhaps even the newly negotiated boundary of the Circassian settlement. It may, therefore, not be surprising that the second narrative of conflict which recounts a more significant battle should be after the settlement of the Muhâjirîn in Ra’s al-‘Ain. This time the conflict broke out with the Balqawiyah tribal federation. Mufti (1962) reports that the conflict resulted from the kidnapping of “a Circassian maiden” (1962: 275) from Ra’s al-‘Ain, while Haghandoqa and the oral accounts I collected attribute it to an attack by a bedouin on a Circassian and his two young children while working in their fields. The man was wounded and the children kidnapped18. Although the attacked family was from the Muhâjirîn, all the Circassians of Wadi Amman came to the defence of the new settlers and the serious battle that followed became known to Circassians as the Balqawi-zawa or Balqa war. The Bani Sakhr are reported to have either helped (Mufti 1962) or remained neutral and mediated the peace treaty that followed the Circassian victory (Haghandoqa 1982).

  • 19 There are accounts of conflict during the post-WWI withdrawal of the Ottoman state from the region, (...)
  • 20 See Rogan (1991) for conflict over the settlement of Madaba also involving the Bani Sakhr and secti (...)

19The conflict with the Bani Sakhr over the earlier settlement of Amman did not seem to have resulted in a similar pitched battle. Nor are there similar reports concerning the other Circassian settlements in Jordan. Why this focus on Amman? and why the focus on Ra’s al-‘Ain? It is possible that earlier conflicts have been erased from the historical memory19. However, it may also be the case that the settlement of the Muhâjirîn was significant in many ways. It is a historical question to be investigated that if the settlement of Amman in itself was an extension of the administrative power of the Ottoman state to the south (Rogan 1991), then was the settlement of Ra’s al-‘Ain an important part of the consolidation of this extension? Since the lands close to Amman were already being farmed by the earlier settlers, the new immigrants were given land in the area south of Amman (in a westerly direction towards Naour). This may have represented a more significant encroachment on bedouin territory than the previous settlements whose lands lay in the “pacified” area between Amman and Salt. This is supported by Abu Said’s above account of the attempts to settle in Yajouz to the far north of Amman instead of Ra’s al-‘Ain and the insistence of the authorities in Damascus that they settle in the latter area. In addition, it may be that the competition over land had escalated by the turn of the century. This is attested to by accounts of contestation over lands in the immediate south and further south of Amman20.

20What is more pertinent to my focus is that any narrative by Circassians of their arrival and settlement in Jordan (and not just Amman) follows the preceding pattern: the waves of migration, the hardships of travel and first settlement and the two conflicts over Amman and their outcomes. Is it because of the importance of Amman at that time that no other accounts of conflict over settlement predominate in the narratives? Or is it because of the importance of Amman now?

  • 21 Haghandoqa (1982) lists 233 families in Amman and only 64 families in Wadi Seer. However, since his (...)

21There are no clear indications that Amman was more important than the other Circassian settlements until the first decade of the century. It may not even have been the numerically largest settlement, although estimating how many Circassians settled in Jordan and in Amman is difficult and figures are contradictory. An Ottoman census from 1901 shows 400 hanes, or about 2 000 people, in Amman at the time (Salname: Suriye 1317 H.). Hacker estimates the Amman population in the 1920’s as being between 3 000-5 000 (Hacker 1960). Wilson (1987:56) on the other hand, favours a much lower estimate from the same period of 2 400 in Amman. Interestingly, Wilson gives the much higher figure of 3 200 for the village of Wadi Seer which would make Wadi Seer the largest settlement of Circassians, especially given that Amman at the time had already begun to draw towards it merchants and other Arabs, whereas Wadi Seer was purely Circassian (Lees 1909)21. In terms of trade activity also, Wadi Seer and Jerash appear quite as active as Amman, trading with north Palestine and the Golan heights.

22The coming of the railway to Amman in the early 1900’s, however, definitely upgraded the status of Amman and constituted a crucial turning point in its history. It brought with it increased traffic in people and goods and encouraged merchants from Damascus and Palestine to settle with their families in Amman, as opposed to their earlier itinerant visits. The importance of the merchants in transforming Amman and eventually consolidating the Transjordanian state cannot be over-emphasized (see Amawi in this volume).

23Oral and published accounts by Circassians also recognize the importance of the railway in the future development of Amman and emphasize that Circassians were hired to help build and guard the line. Economically, as well, the railway was a boon to the Circassians, especially to the poorer Muhâjirîn. As Abu Said described it:

  • 22 This is a Circassian name.

24“Then the tracks came. The railway came. Allah, the railway was very useful for the Muhâjirîn. Two brothers, one buys a feddan and farms it, the other is on the tracks. If three brothers, then two on the tracks and one is at home here. So, Allah, the railway was very very useful. The engineer was Shahmirza Muhammad22. He employed Circassians, workers and guards. Every month [they were paid] 2 uthmanli and 2 mejîdi. They would spend 2 mejîdi and send the uthmanli to their families. And so, and so, until today”.

25The Circassian authors who have written about the Ra’s al-‘Ain conflicts (Haghandoqa 1982, Mufti 1962) state with great emphasis that, after the “Balqa War”, peace was finally established and the area became safe for merchants and railways. Mufti writes:

26“The result of that clash, was to the benefit of Jordan generally, for it opened a long period of peace and security. It also consolidated the bases of the developing city of Amman and laid the foundation stone for the new civilization of the coming generations in Jordan. Among the results of that victory was that a number of Arabs from Damascus, Nablus, and elsewhere moved into Trans-Jordan to settle permanently in order to work and trade. Similarly, the inhabitants of a number of Christian villages such as Madaba were encouraged to remain and stand against bedouin aggressions ” (1962: 276).

27Ethno-history thus stresses that it was Circassian hardiness and steadfastness that enabled Amman to become an urban centre, a base for merchants, an example for other new centres, as opposed to a loose configuration of outpost settlements. The same process transformed the Circassians themselves such that all the settlements or quarters of Wadi Amman became unified in action, coming to each other’s defence, after the initial competition and friction over the Muhâjirîn settlement.


28After these crucial changes, and the choice of Amman as the capital of the Transjordanian state, certainly by the 1930’s, an Ammani Circassian identity emerged, although the Muhâjirîn Circassians still retained something of an externality to this identity. While Amman was not inaccessible to the other settlements (the furthest settlement being Jerash at a one-day donkey ride), and there was intermarriage between the settlements, the Circassians of Amman came to consider themselves, and be considered as distinctive from, and superior to, other Circassians.

29This new identity was intimately tied to differences in life-style resulting from the urbanization of Amman as well as access to education and government position. Thus one elderly Ammani said that he had always been advised not to take a bride from Wadi Seer because then he would have in-laws who would bring their donkeys and tie them up in front of his house. In this way, gender practices emerge as an important marker of urban-rural difference. From a rural perspective, one of the differences between them and the Amman Circassians was that Amman women did not work in agriculture. Veils, an indicator of urbanization, began to be worn in Amman, including face veils, which was not previously a practice among Circassians. Even some unmarried women were veiled, especially the daughters of prominent families, which was quite contrary to Circassian tradition. Although not all observed such practices, its spread was attributed, by the women I interviewed, to the growing Damascene presence and influence in the town. Amman’s Circassians were also seen as inter-marrying with Arabs much more than the other communities. In this way, differences resulted from living in a heterogenous environment with more interaction between different groups. Thus Ammani Circassian women veiled their faces when going out in the street, but not when they were at Circassian weddings and dances, that is in the “private” space of the ethnic group, however public and unsegregated by gender the occasion. There were also continuities, of course, in cultural practices between the various settlements, one of which was that weddings marked a main boundary between Circassians and non-Circassians. This is illustrated by one elderly woman from Naour who married into Amman saying, “Even in Amman, they would not allow Arabs into the weddings”.

  • 23 While the Kabartey in Turkey also state the same sentiments, in fieldwork among Circassians of Duzc (...)

30This hierarchy between settlements, which was one of life-style and wealth, was reinforced by cultural perceptions of the Kabartey as the elite group among Circassians, with their dialect and etiquette as the most refined23. It is clear that these two factors, urban living and Kabartey identity mutually reinforced each other. The distinction is mainly drawn between the refined Kabartey of Amman and the unpolished rural Bjedug of Wadi Seer. Of course this opposition glosses many distinctions; that almost half of the families of Amman are Shapsoug and not Kabartey; that there are Abzakh in Wadi Seer as well as Bjedug; that the village of Jerash was inhabited by Kabartey. What I am suggesting is that the rural/urban distinction that developed in the Jordanian context was interpreted and filtered through cultural categories of “historical” distinctions between the component groups of the Adyge.

31Finally, a major difference between Amman and the villages was in the realm of politics, where Circassians in Amman were much more involved in the politics of the breaking up of the Ottoman state and the making of the new Hashemite state. While other settlements were involved, for example the Wadi Seer and Naour Circassians were involved in several battles against the British, it does not appear that individuals were involved in the political machinations of the time. On the other hand, there were Circassians from Amman on different ends of the political spectrum and pursuing different strategies. While a young Circassian from a prominent family in Amman, Said al-Mufti, went to Ma‘an with the constituency which welcomed Prince Abdullah in 1920, and a elderly woman from the Muhâjirîn could recount to me in some detail the sight of Prince Abdullah entering Amman, the words of a man from Jerash illustrates his great distance from these events; “I did not hear about Said al-Mufti going to Ma‘an , I was in Jerash”.


  • 24 The phrase is used by Taleb Rifai (this volume).

32The social, cultural and political divide between Amman and its hinterland villages is not a comment on Circassians only, but indicates that by the second decade of the century Amman was indeed a city in the making, an urban settlement with trade and politics placing it at the centre and out of the hinterland. The continuing urbanization of Amman soon had its impact on reconfiguring the spatial distribution of the Circassians. As described above, the Circassians of Amman initially lived in three areas that eventually became neighbourhoods of central Amman. With urban growth in the thirties and forties, there was a gradual moving of the residential areas from what became the downtown towards the Jabals of Jofeh, Taj, Ashrafiyya, Amman and Webdeh. These were all new elite areas of the time and “the climb up the mountains”24 involved infrastructural investment (especially for the stairs) and architectural ingenuity (and cost) in adjusting to the topography. Basically, Circassian families built houses on land they owned and which gradually was being converted from agricultural to urban land. There was therefore some continuity in “neighbourliness”, since those who lived together in the old quarters owned contiguous land in the new quarters.

33In the transformation of Amman, especially after the 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugee influxes, patterns of residential mobility among Circassians are largely, though not universally, congruent with the class to which individuals and families belonged. This was the period of the erosion of the Circassian neighbourhoods as the East/West division of Amman began to take shape and as Wadi Amman gradually lost most of its residential character, although until today, we find Circassian and other families tucked in its nooks and crannies. Young people often describe with amusement and chagrin their grandparents’ refusal to move out of the old neighbourhood or to build a new house, in spite of the wealth in land that they owned.

34The break-up of the old neighbourhoods and the dispersal of Circassian households to low-density, wide-flung residential areas had particular implications for interaction, communication and cohesiveness. As everyday relationships became less dense and repetitive, ethnic associations appeared as new arenas of interaction.

  • 25 In a seminar organized by Anna Ohanessian-Charpin at CERMOC on ethnic associations in Jordan, it wa (...)

35The first ethnic association was established in 1932 and was called the Circassian Charity Association. Two sports and cultural clubs, the Ahli and the Jeel, were established in the forties and the fifties respectively. The Charity Association is still operating and is claimed by the Circassians to be the oldest association in Jordan25. It is clear that its establishment is related to the growth of the city in the first place, to the integration of the Circassian neighbourhoods into the wider and more complex urban fabric secondly, and to the socio-economic position of the Amman Circassians in the third place.

36With the rapid growth of the city of Amman and the state apparatus, the Circassians were on their way to becoming a numerical minority as more and more Arabs were drawn to the newly established capital from different regions of Jordan as well as from Syria and Palestine. The initiative for the Association was certainly an urban one, and it is significant that the founding members were not agriculturalists, but bureaucrats and men with commercial interests in the town. They may have been the first to feel that new forms of community were necessary. The actual charity function of the Association never became a major one. Rather, what the Charity Association did was to establish another boundary that differentiated the Circassians from the rest of the population, and a framework that drew the different sectors of the community closer.

37The initial responses among Circassians to the initiative were not uniformly enthusiastic. The Muhâjirîn Circassians sent a letter stating that they were too poor to join the Association. They also objected that the decision of establishing the association was taken during harvest-time and therefore the meetings could not be attended by all. The Association committee decided not to pursue the matter, while recording their regrets in the minutes (CCA Minutes, 27 November 1932). In spite of these initial difficulties, the Association quickly began to gather members including the residents of Muhajirin. Soon the first administrative board, composed of nine members, was elected. Most of their energy was spent in collecting new memberships. Within two months, there were 161 members. Although this does not sound large, it represented the heads of most of the extended families in Amman as well as one or two of the prominent leaders from the villages. Significantly all the top-ranking Circassian government officials also joined, and encouraged others to join. One high-level executive at the Iraqi Petroleum Company, which was one of the biggest employers at that time, is on record as sending the subscriptions of all Circassian employees at the company. People recalled that this gentleman would automatically dock their pay by the amount of the subscription every month. The Circassian officers of the Transjordanian Frontier Force also sent in their subscriptions en masse.

38It is clear from the above, that there were different life-styles within Amman and that agriculture and a peasant way of life was very much present in Muhajirin in the thirties. Those Circassians still engaged in agriculture paid their subscriptions and donations to the Charity Association in kind – in grain or animal skins that then would be sold.

39In 1940, the Association built its first headquarters on land that had been the threshing grounds of the Muhajirin neighbourhood. The location can be seen as a condensed symbol, such that land where Circassians used to cooperate in production now served in the reproduction of identity. It also marks the incorporation of the Muhâjirîn into the Ammani community, perhaps associated with the decreasing importance of agriculture that eliminated the necessity for threshing grounds so close to the city. Finally, according to an oral source, this actual site was a contested plot of land between the Circassians, neighbouring Arabs and the municipality. By donating it to the Association, the Muhâjirîn Circassians put it beyond the reach of confiscation. Once again, Ra’s al-‘Ain witnessed a ceremony accommodating the Circassian presence (they might say their dominance) in Amman. On the opening day of the Association building the army band was brought to play, notables were assembled and the event was patronized by Prince Abdullah himself.

  • 26 The Muhajirin maintained its cohesion well into the early eighties, although the houses themselves (...)

40How, then, did the ethnic spaces for Circassians in Amman change over time? By “ethnic space” I mean physically or socially demarcated spaces which allow for activities vital to the reproduction of ethnic identity. These included the homes, the madâfa-s, the neighbourhoods (gradually being eroded)26, and the Associations (which eventually became the most important communal space). The sports clubs also created innovative types of ethnic spaces, such as football fields. For example, the “Kuban playing grounds”, named for the plains along the Kuban river in the North Caucasus, were located in Jabal Amman (between the first and second circles today) on the threshing grounds of ahl-‘Ammân.

41Starting with the mid-seventies, a new type of residential pattern emerged in Amman. Three areas developed which witnessed the coalescence of city and village: Bayadir stretching between Amman and Wadi Seer, Jubeiha stretching between Amman and Sweileh, and Yajouz between Amman and Rusaifa-Zarqa. Of these three areas, the Bayadir, which used to be the threshing grounds of Wadi Seer, has emerged as the new, and the main, Circassian “neighbourhood”, again a case of space changing its function from production to reproduction! While the earlier decade had witnessed the beginnings of a significant migration from the villages to Amman, these urban-rural corridors began to form the new focus of settlement drawing people in from both ends. Less wealthy Circassians of what was quickly becoming East Amman, as well as from the Muhajirin, began to buy land and rent housing, primarily in the Bayadir area. This new development not only meant a merging of residence and life-style between previous urbanites and ruralites, but also signified the new wealth of rural Circassians whose lands now experienced the same boom in value that Amman’s Circassians had enjoyed in the earlier decades.

42The physical location of the Association and the clubs also changed with the growth of the city. In the sixties, the Association was still in Ra’s al-‘Ain with one of its rooms and its facilities being used also by the Ahli Club, while the Jeel were in a small downtown office. In the seventies, the Association moved to a rented house in the first circle while the Ahli and Jeel remained in their previous locations. At this point, however, the Association had branches in all the villages and there were activities which brought the Circassians of these different communities together. The Clubs, however, were largely a Ammani phenomenon with rivalries between those who supported one or the other.

43In the eighties, the Jeel Club and the Association built two large adjoining buildings at the seventh circle. The Ahli built an equally large base with extensive sports facilities between the seventh and eighth circle. The school established by the Ladies’ Branch of the Charity Association was built between Naour and the eighth circle.

44The weight of the ethnic associations has therefore moved far from the original centre of the town, which also was the centre of Circassian residence. This move is reflected in the membership of these organizations. Many of the most active members in the Associations are now the Wadi Seer Circassians, and many of the students at the Circassian School are also from Wadi Seer.


45This overview of the evolution of urban dwelling for the Circassian community in Amman firstly points to the dangers of retrospective projection. While the areas that the Circassians resettled in Wadi Amman constitute today the downtown area and the core of “old Amman”, the Circassian immigration did not establish this core of the present city as a unified settlement. Furthermore, it was the coming of the railway and the merchants which created the urban centre. The formation of this new urban centre in turn forged an identity for the Ammani Circassians (however internally differentiated), as distinct from the Circassians of the other settlements and especially in contrast to the numerically competing Wadi Seer Circassians. This distinction was not just by class, wealth or life-style, or by the traditional ranking of Adyge groups, but also by history of settlement and hence involvement in the making of Amman, and by implication, of Jordan.

46On the other hand, in terms of the reproduction of ethnic identity today, the weight of Circassian activities and involvement in ethnic organizations has moved to the previously rural areas which are recently being incorporated into urban life. Wadi Seer, and the Bayadir area which links it to Amman, has emerged as the only Circassian “neighbourhood”. Circassians of Wadi Seer assert that any Circassian who thinks of building a house first thinks of Wadi Seer. In the opinion of one person, “in Amman when someone dies they bring him to Wadi Seer for burial”, as it is only in Wadi Seer that the body receives the proper attention and Circassian burial practices are followed. So it is in Wadi Seer today that one can live and die as a Circassian.

47The Circassian narrative of the establishment of Amman, however, goes beyond a simple re-construction of their early history in Jordan. Rather, their identification with Amman is perceived by them as the greatest proof of their inalienable right to contemporary citizenship in the state. This is quite a different interpretation of their role than the usual representation which sees the Circassians as a minority that seeks its place in Jordanian society through providing a mainstay of the monarchy. The Circassian reaction to the word “minority” is always to reject the label, with the following explanation: “We have participated fully in the building of this balad [city/state] and so we are not a minority”. The Circassian narrative of building the balad privileges the Ottoman period. However, their role in establishing law and security is not stressed as an identification with the Ottoman state, but rather as making possible “the new civilization of the coming generations in Jordan” (Mufti 1962: 276). One Circassian stated that “there is a saying around Amman that under every stone lies the head of a Circassian”. Circassians see themselves metaphorically as the foundation stone of the city, and (since this city became the capital) of the country.



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COHEN, A. P. 1993, “Introduction” Pp. 1-18 in A.P. Cohen and K. Fukui, eds., Humanising the City: Social Contexts of Urban Life at the Turn of the Millennium. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

DESPRES, L. ed. 1975, Ethnicity and Resource Competition in Plural Societies. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

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HOURANI, A.H. 1970, “Introduction” Pp. 9-24 in A.H. Hourani and S.M. Stern, eds., The Islamic City: A Colloquium. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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1 My concern here is with the articulation of ethnic and national identities within the political and discursive space of the state. Transnational aspects of identity also warrant attention but cannot be dealt with given the length limitations of this paper.

2 I am using the term “foundation narrative” with conscious reference to the anthropological concept of “foundation myth”. It is not truths or untruths that are implicated, but rather how charters for the present are drawn out of the past. While myths, however, search for these charters in times immemorial, it seems to me that Circassians resolutely frame their charter within recent historical times and events, thus “narrative” appears a more suitable term in this case.

3 See articles by Rogan and by Hmoud in this volume, and Wilson (1987). The words “village” and “town” also tend to be used indiscriminately in many accounts of this period without investigating which of these different types of settlements Amman constituted in its early history. This may seem to be splitting hairs but I believe it is indicative of the lack of precision, or lack of interest, in establishing the character of Amman previous to that crucial turning point of its history.

4 The general facts of the late 19th century Circassian immigration into the Ottoman Empire and into the area that became Jordan are fairly well known. Driven out of the Caucasus in the 1980’s, the Circassians, as many other peoples of the Caucasus (Chechen, Daghestanians, Moslem Georgians, etc.) and of the Balkans after 1878 (Bosnians, Albanians, Bulgarians, etc.) became part of Ottoman policies aimed at consolidating the empire as well as extending agriculture and settled life into the hinterland regions of the Empire (see Abu-Jaber 1989, Lewis 1987, Rogan 1991 and Shami 1982, 1992).

5 Circassians, who call themselves Adyge, comprise different dialect groups, who lived in contiguous regions of the North-West Caucasus. These include, in Jordan, the Kabartay, Bjedug, Shapsoug and Abzakh. The pre-emigration war-time conditions, the emigration itself and settlement brought the groups closer together and certain families merged from one group to another. The categories, however, are still used and recognized as identities wihin the larger common identity of Adyge

6 The New Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary (1984 ed.) gives the meaning of mahallet as: street, quarter, district; or ward in a city or town. The Ottoman-Turkish dictionary (M. Ozon, Osmanhca-Türkge Sozluk, 1979 ed.) describes a mahalle as an administrative division of a city (sehir) or a small town (kasaba) and which generally includes one imam, two mukhtar-s and a mosque.

7 Yerlija and yerlij’a are composite Circassian-Turkish words. Yerli comes from Turkish and means “local, indigenous, native resident, fixed, settled, rooted” (Redhouse), where as ja and j’a come from Circassian and mean “old” and “new” respectively.

8 Hmoud, this volume, mentions that some land grants in this location had been given to members of the Mahallet-il Abzakh in return for their military service in the Gendarmes.

9 See, for example, Bașbakanlik Archives: irade 93990 dated 1308H/1883AD; Ayniyat Defteri 1139 dated 1290H/1873AD.

10 There is, however, a 14-page pamphlet by Kuba Sha’ban published in 1952 recounting the story of Circassian settlement in Amman in the form of a poem. Sha’ban was a Circassian who came to Jordan from the Caucasus after WWM and re-emigrated to the United States. While in Amman, he was instrumental in organizing language classes and literary activities for young Circassians. The account he presents in this publication is based on his interviews.

11 In conformity with anthropological practice, I do not mention the real names of my informants. This interview was tape-recorded and therefore, the selected quotations are verbatim.

12 He is referring to the Muhajirin quarter.

13 According to secondary sources, Khusrov Pasha, a Circassian, was the chief of the Gendarmerie in Damascus and responsible for some aspects of the settlement of the Circassians (Mufti 1962).

14 The reference is to the military insignia on the epaulettes of the uniform.

15 Thereby, Abu G. secured the release of the ahl ‘Ammân (apparently young men) who participated in moving the new immigrants to Yajouz. He did not do anything, however, for the predicament of the immigrants. This account of problems over the location of the new settlement is not mentioned in the published accounts by Mufti (1962) or Haghandoqa (1982) although the latter mentions a stop-over in Yajouz by some immigrants before the final settlement in Muhajirin.

16 Elderly Circassians consistently refer to the Caucasus as “Moscof” in reference to the Russian rule there.

17 This is apparently for fear of bedouin raids.

18 The reference to the kidnapped maiden may be an attempt to justify the scale of the ensuing conflict since ethnic conflicts cross-culturally are often legitimized by similar references to assaults on group honour. The latter account is somewhat vague on the exact involvement of the children who are consistently reported to be a boy and a girl. Some accounts had it that the children were not kidnapped and not hurt because the tent they were in collapsed on them and they remained hidden.

19 There are accounts of conflict during the post-WWI withdrawal of the Ottoman state from the region, with Arabs in Sweileh and with the British in Wadi Seer and Naour. However these belong to a later phase, of the consolidation of the settlements and ensuring their post-Ottoman survival rather than of their establishment.

20 See Rogan (1991) for conflict over the settlement of Madaba also involving the Bani Sakhr and sections of the Balqawiya confederation. Also see Lewis (1987) and Wilson (1987) for settlement of lands immediately south of Amman.

21 Haghandoqa (1982) lists 233 families in Amman and only 64 families in Wadi Seer. However, since his definition of family is unclear and the components of extended families unspecified, this may not contradict the idea of a larger settlement in Wadi Seer. His lists for Amman contain more families with the same surname, indicating households of brothers or cousins, than his list for Wadi Seer.

22 This is a Circassian name.

23 While the Kabartey in Turkey also state the same sentiments, in fieldwork among Circassians of Duzce who are mostly Abzekh and Abaza, I heard reverse sentiments that the Kabartey are less refined and their dialect more rough. It is unclear to me whether this is simply a self-defence or whether indeed mutual stereotypes invoking exactly the same characteristics co-exist.

24 The phrase is used by Taleb Rifai (this volume).

25 In a seminar organized by Anna Ohanessian-Charpin at CERMOC on ethnic associations in Jordan, it was interesting to hear the Armenian participants make a similar claim for having established the oldest club (rather than association) in Jordan. Obviously, claims to forms of organized community are seen as signs of cohesiveness and vitality as well as embeddedness in the city and the state.

26 The Muhajirin maintained its cohesion well into the early eighties, although the houses themselves were transformed. Since then, however, the quarter has been subjected to several appropriations by the Municipality and the lower section has been completely bulldozed and a large municipality complex is planned on the site.

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