The information below is from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge: An Ethnographic Survey by Shorena Kurtsikidze and Vakhtang Chikovani (Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies).
Shorena Kurtsikidze has a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the Institute of History and Ethnology, Tbilisi, Academy of Sciences of Georgia. Vakhtang Chikovani has a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Erevan, Academy of Sciences of Armenia.
Click on the headings opposite to go to the topics listed underneath.
The Kist people are a distinct ethnic group living in rural village settlements in the Pankisi Valley in north-eastern Georgia. Kists are descendants of ethnic Chechens and Ingush. Together they share the common ethnonym “Vainakh” meaning “our people”. The majority of the population in the valley are Kists, which are estimated to be around 10,000 today.
The Pankisi Valley (Gorge)
The Pankisi Valley (or Gorge as it is often called) is about 10 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. It is located south of the Georgian-Chechen border in the mountainous Kakheti region of Georgia. It is situated along the south-eastern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains where the headwaters of the Alazani River flow down though the woody mountains and foothills of the gorge. The Alazani flows 351 kilometres south into Kakheti’s famous wine region and eastwards into Azerbaijan before joining the Caspian Sea.
One of the biggest migrations of Vainakhs to the territories of Georgia and the southern slopes of the Caucasus took place in the 13th century after the Mongol Golden Horde occupied the steppes of the North Caucasus and turned the steppes into nomad territories.
A number of factors combined to force the Vainakhs to permanently leave their traditional lands during the 18th and 19th centuries to seek refuge in Tusheti, Pshavi, Khevsureti, Khevi and Pankisi in Georgia. Foremost was the economic hardship brought on by fifty years of military operations by Russia to conquer the Caucasus and secondly the tradition of blood feuds which formed a major part of criminal justice among Caucasian highlanders. The tradition of sharing pastureland (baytalvaakkhar) and strict Islamic influence under Shamil during the long resistance to Russian rule and constant invasions from Dagestani chiefs, further encouraged migration among Vainakhs. This highland region of north-east Georgia was marked by constant warfare and its habitants endured considerable economic hardships.
The Kists migrated from remote mountainous villages in northern Caucasus and settled in the valley between 1830 and 1870. It was around this time the new settlers became known as “Kists” to their Georgian hosts. Today’s Kists are Sunni Muslims. Despite assimilating to Georgian culture Kists have proudly kept their own customs and traditions refusing to assimilate with other north Caucasian nationalities such as Chechens and Ingush. They are typically bi-lingual in Georgian and Chechen, but also adept in Russian, and for official purposes declare themselves of Georgian nationality.
Many centuries ago the inhabitants of high mountain districts in north-east Georgia came into contact with Vainakh people who had left their homeland and found shelter in Georgia. The communities of Tusheti, Pshavi, Khevsureti and Khevi provided them with land and livelihood. In time the Kists established five village settlements in Pankisi Valley namely Duisi, Jokolo, Omolo, Dzibakhevi and Shua Khalatsani.
In more recent times since the departure of other ethnic groups such as the Ossets, Tush and Pshavs, the Kists have settled in Birkiani, Dumasturi, Khvemo Khalatsani and Zemo Khalatsani. Outside the valley smaller communities of Kists live in Shatili in the Khevsureti region, Akhmeta, Telavi and Tbilisi.
In the 1880s the Kists of the Pankisi Gorge appeared in the Georgian press. A Kist from Pankisi called Albutashvili wrote many letters which were published in the Iberia newspaper. He published his work in journals and produced a detailed historical and ethnographic survey of the region. In 1893 Albutashvili began working as a priest in the Saint George Church in Jokolo village after graduating from the Tbilisi seminary of clergy. He knew the Kists extremely well and made great efforts to raise their level of education.
Usup Margoshvili, another prominent Kist also from Pankisi, succeeded Albutashvili as a school director. Margoshvili founded the school in Duisi and wrote an unpublished manuscript on the Pankisi Gorge which later his daughter Leila Margoshvili, an ethnographer, used along with Albutashvili’s writings to write about the traditional and contemporary life among the Pankisi Kists.
The 9th century Georgian historian Leonti Mroveli gives an interesting account of the Vainakh or Dzudzuks peoples in his “Georgian Chronicles”, in which he mythologizes a common origin for the peoples of the Caucasus. According to historical sources, the Georgian and Dzurdzuk noblemen were linked by blood. Relations between the two were not always friendly and they fought numerous battles.
During the middle ages the Vainakhs came under the political and cultural influence of Georgia and Christianity. According to historical sources the Vainakhs and other North Caucasus tribes spoke the Georgian language and actively participated in Georgian-led military operations against foreign invaders and internal enemies, for which they were granted spoils.
The settlement structures differed for each ethnic group. The Kist migrants who descended from the same clan (teyp in Chechen language) would settle together in one district or neighbourhood (ubani in Georgian). Kists in the Duisi village started settling around the Baltagora Mountains but gradually moved closer to the banks of the Alazani River due to rapid growth in population. Today, all the Kist villages are situated next to the river.
Traditional form of group settlement was difficult where settlements tend to be scattered geographically in the valley. Therefore, Kist villages were divided into residential quarters where representatives of the same teyp lived closely together.
Since the teyp indicates a blood relationship, intermarriage within the teyps is strictly forbidden even today. It was important among the Kists, Chechens and Ingush to have lots of men as guardians of the teyp because of the tradition of blood feud.
After migrating to Georgia the Kists starting adding the suffix shvili meaning “child” in Georgian, or the suffix dze meaning “son” in Georgian, or suffix uli meaning “belonging to” or “descending from”, to establish Kist family names. Typical names for inhabitants of Kist villages are Khangoshvili, Margoshvili, Baghakashvili, Dakishvili, Turkoshvili, Andalashvili and Pareulidze.
Traditionally, the married sons lived together with their parents, though they would build separate rooms attached to their father’s residence. Individual houses were built only if the husband had two or three wives. However, it is extremely rare for a Kist man to have more than one wife or for a Kist woman to be married more than once.
Every member of the family worked together on the paternal land. They shared the crops, cattle and property. Large family structures consisted of a father, mother, their sons, unmarried daughters, daughter-in-laws, grandchildren and great-grandchildren living together.
In the traditional Kist family, the father was regarded as the patriarch and the wife and children had to obey his rules and show him their support. Children could not cry in front of their father or argue with elder members of the family. If the father died, the eldest son would become the head of the household.
Strict divisions of responsibilities between the male and female members existed and still do. The mother of the family was regarded as khusam naan meaning “mother of the house”. The housewife’s duties consisted of preparing meals, providing family members with clothing, cleaning the house, weeding the garden, harvesting, hoeing the maize, and taking care of the cattle and birds.
Kist etiquette required strict respect toward elders not only in the family but also in society. An elder’s word was regarded as law. The elders were consulted first before any family business was conducted.
Kist tradition required that men and women of the family eat separately.
Treatment of Guests
A family’s guest was treated with great respect. Men, usually the eldest man of the family, would greet the guest and would seat them in the most honourable place. This tradition is strictly maintained even today.
Tradition of Sworn Brotherhood
The custom of sworn brotherhood was strictly observed among Georgian highlanders. Sworn brothers (or sisters) participated in each other’s lives, helping each other work, weddings, and even obliged to avenge the other’s blood if one of them was killed.
Traditionally, the Kists could only marry once. However, if a family was childless, the man could marry another woman after receiving his first wife’s and her parents’ approval.
The Kists of Pankisi have several forms of marriage which includes arrange marriage; the secret departure of a young woman from her parents’ home after an agreement with her groom and his middlemen; kidnapping (a practice which was earlier considered brave and praiseworthy); and betrothal in the cradle, which is very rare. New forms of marriage were betrothal by touching the hand and betrothal by giving money or gifts for the bride to her closest relatives.
The bride’s family would prepare a dowry and the groom’s family would organise the wedding ceremony. Typically, coals were placed in the middle of the room and the bride would be guided around the coals three times and blessed. The groom was usually not present at the marriage feast. Men and women would be seated separately. The wedding banquet in the groom’s house continued for several days. On the third or fourth day of the wedding, the bride’s relatives would be invited to join in. After a week of wedding celebrations the bride would be returned by her husband and his close relatives to stay with her father’s family for a week. After the marriage, a Kist woman changed her last name and accepted her husband’s family name.
Newlyweds observed a ritual of silence, which meant being silent around the husband’s relatives. The bride had to be silent with her father-in-law. The longer her silence lasted, the greater the respect she gained. Sometimes she was silent for years.
Today, Kist wedding ceremonies resemble those of Georgians in which the toastmaster (tamada in Georgian) makes his toasts in Georgian
Before the arrival of Islam, funerals were performed on the third or fourth day after death, but today Kists bury their dead on the same day. They depart from Muslim custom by not wearing mourning clothing. According to tradition, only men accompanied the deceased to the burial site, singing the dirge en route. Today, it is not unusual for women to accompany men. Kists also never drank alcohol during the traditional funeral repast. The traditional funeral meal consisted of bread and meat.
The societies of the Central Caucasian highlanders were largely defined by their customary law which was widespread up until the early 1920s. The class structure was unusual for the region. Social differentiation was divided into the wealthy, middle-income and poor families, and their social level was almost equal.
Council of Elders
Political authority resided in the Council of Elders in Pankisi though in later periods each village elected their own heads. The elected men were the most knowledgeable concerning the traditions and customs. The functions of the village head included keeping order in the village, negotiating between family disputes, choosing mediators, calling village meetings, distributing land to newcomers, accepting members of other families into the teyp and controlling the bridges and water reservoirs.
Over time the system of customary law began to break down. The Kists lacked spaces where they could regularly gather to discuss important matters and make collective decisions. Under Russian rule, the traditional Kist mediating court (kkhiel) continued to meet secretly and make rulings, despite being banned by Russian law.
The frightful tradition of blood revenge (tsii ietsar) among North Caucasian and Georgian highlanders was essential. It was a means of self-defence. It was obligatory for family members to defend their families. Among the Kists, blood revenge would not arise if the original killing was committed inside the family, clan or members of the same kin or descent. Matters were resolved with the help of mediators and where different communities were involved both sides were expected to apply reconciliation.
According to tradition the killer had to be killed either according to the custom of blood revenge or reconciliation had to be made by oath (dui baar).Before pursuing revenge, the victim’s side would send representatives drawn from neutral families who would officially declare the blood hostility to the other side. The suspect’s side could either accept or dispute the charge. In the case of disputation, the suspect’s side could demand that the kkhiel (or traditional court) discuss the matter. The Kist kkhiel always consisted of an odd number. Sometimes, if the plaintiff’s side agreed, the kkhiel would offer the side of the accused the opportunity for absolution through an oath sworn on the Koran. If the kkhiel found the suspect guilty, they would allow the victim’s side the right to seek blood revenge. The guilty side would then send a group of elders drawn from neutral families to request that the aggrieved side shed only the blood of the killer. Usually, the victim’s side would agree to this request, but if the killer died before revenge was taken, the blood revenge would be passed on to his closest relatives.
Custom of Payment
The custom of payment for someone’s blood differed in some aspects among Kist villages in Pankisi. For example, in the village of Jokolo the fine for killing a man was 70 cows. It was 63 cows in the village of Duisi.
According to ethnographic sources, the religious practices of the Vainakhs (Chechens and Ingush) and East Georgian highlanders were very similar to each other. The religious system of the highlanders of East Georgia-the Tush, Pshavs, and Khevsurs is a complex admixture of pre-Christian cults and Christianity a so-called folk religion. Some scholars characterize it as a mixture of paganism and Christianity.
Surviving sacred buildings from those times consisting mainly of sanctuaries in present-day Khevsureti, Pshavi, Tusheti, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Ossetia are proof that the Central Caucasian tribes once had similar religious beliefs.
The ruins of some pre-Christian sanctuaries still exist in the Pankisi Gorge. These sacred buildings of the Tush, Pshavs, and Khevsurs were later considered sacred by the Kists as well. Although today the Kists pray in the mosque, they also pray at the sites of old, now-ruined sanctuaries. They also pray in Saint George church in the village of Joqolo and attend the religious celebration Alaverdoba in the Alaverdi church of Kakheti.
Christianity & Islam
Christian missionaries played an important role in disseminating Georgian culture among the Vainakhs. Without a doubt, Christianity was one of the important factors in establishing closer links between the Vainakhs and Georgians in the 16th to 17th centuries. This was also the period in which Islam came from Daghestan and began to spread throughout Chechnya and Ingushetia, however. It is interesting to note that fanaticism about any religion seems to have been absent among the Kists.
With time Islam began to take hold in the region and during its infancy in the valley the Kists did not allow their children to study Arabic. In 1898, a group of Duisi Muslims began building a mosque without permission. However, the local Christians opposed the new mosque and the Muslims filed a complaint with the authorities. A mullah called Abdul Bakanaghli from the village Belakani of the Zakatala region of neighbouring Azerbaijan succeeded in intervening and finally permission to build the mosque was granted and it was completed in 1902.
With the decline of Christianity, many Islamic preachers from Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Azerbaijan began forming different sects in Pankisi. For example, the Kist Machig Machalikashvili disseminated the teachings of the Kunta Hajji sect. Kunta Hajji was from the village Eliskhan-Iurt. He taught that God does not like war, that all believers are brothers, and that they must trust their fates to Allah. The Kunta Hajji sect differed from that of the Nakshbandi in its ritual practices. In Chechnya and Ingushetia the Naqshbandi sect considered themselves Murids and did not perform ziarat (honoring of sacred places) and zikr (a religious ritual in which members of the sect would gather and similar to the Whirling Devishes of Turkey danced themselves into an ecstatic state). The Kists performed this ritual in their own language because they did not know Arabic. The majority of mullahs strongly opposed this teaching as heretical.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, members of the Nakshbandi sect were still gathering on Fridays in the room where their teacher, Is-Efendi, had lived until 1920. The members of Kunta Hajji continued performing their religious rituals. Both sects still had their tkhaamd (head/ leader) and turakh (deputy). Apart from these two sects, new ones were also emerging.
From 1996 to 2001, four new mosques were built in the Kist villages of Pankisi. The financing came from Arabia. The biggest mosque stands in the village of Duisi near the middle school bearing the name of its founder and prominent Kist educator, Usup Margoshvili. Additionally, an Islamic college and an Arabic school were opened in Duisi. With the help of the school.s director and a locally-based NGO, fifty children have been sent from Pankisi to Arabic countries to be educated. Today, there are classes in Arabic in every Kist village of the Pankisi Gorge.
Other Ethnic Groups
The ethnic background of the population of Kakheti province in general.and of the Akhmeta district in particular.is very colorful. Its inhabitants are descendants of ethnic Georgians, Jews, Armenians, Vainakhs, Ossets, Daghestanis, Azeris, Greeks, and Russians, among others. Extensive intermarriage and intensive economic and cultural relations influenced the ethnic identity of the regions non-Georgian groups.
Ossets and various Eastern Georgian highlanders (including the Pshavs and Tush) lived alongside the Kists. The others also came to this region from different places at different times. Before migrating to Pankisi, all of them had experience living with other ethnicities.
After the Bakhtrioni rebellion, a sub-group of the Tush, the Tsova Tush, migrated from the mountains. They were the first to settle in the territories across the Alazani River: Pankisi, Bakhtrioni, Lopoti, Kistauri, Dumasturi, Khorbalo, Birkiani, Pichkhovani, Koreti etc. Extensive intermarriage and intensive economic and cultural relations influenced the ethnic identity of the regions non-Georgian groups. Today, the native language of most of the population is Georgian. They have Georgian last names and consider themselves Georgians, in spite of the fact that many are aware of their ancestor’s non-Georgian origin. A minority of the population is bilingual and bicultural, living in mono-ethnic villages of the region. The Kists and Ossets are good examples.
The inhabitants of the southern slopes of Caucasian mountain range were under the direct protection of the Georgian kings. They were free of any taxes. The major duties of these societies were protecting Georgia.s northern borders from invasion and participating in the military operations of the Georgian king. In return they had administrative and religious autonomy.
The population of these regions was never large, not more than 2,300 to 4,500 inhabitants in any one district. Despite their small numbers, these village communities were important northern shields for Georgia throughout its history. The highlanders considered the Georgian king a modzme or .comrade. of local deities. In return for their military service, the Georgian king granted the highlanders land in the lowlands of Kakheti province. In some ways, then, these highland societies, which were organized around local religious sanctuaries, resembled the feudal structures of medieval Europe.
Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, interethnic relations in this region were quite stable. Later, conflicts in Georgia and the Caucasus influenced the situation of the local population in the Pankisi Gorge and the Akhmeta district as a whole. Relationships between the Ossets and Georgians and between the Kists and Ossets became tense.
The Osset inhabitants were sympathetic to the Chechen refugees fleeing Chechyna during the Russo-Chechen conflicts. They saw them as protecting them against oppression by the Kists. The Ossets felt pressured by the Kists and started leaving their villages in the Pankisi Gorge to resettle in Northern Ossetia. Because they were often unable to sell their properties, they left behind cultivated lands and houses built over many generations. Kists and Chechen refugees settled in these abandoned houses. In this manner, the Osset villages of Dumasturi, Kvemo Khalatsani, and Tsinubani were vacated from 1998 to 2002.
The present-day inhabitants of the Pankisi Gorge faced some major social and political problems following the Russo-Chechen wars. In December 1994, when war broke out between Chechen resistance fighters and the Russian-supported central government in Chechnya, Pankisi witnessed an influx of refugees from Chechnya. Among them were many families of the Pankisi Kists, who after the disintegration of the Soviet Union left for Chechnya. The tide of refugees picked up considerably after the collapse of the 1995 Russian-Chechen cease-fire agreement and the new round of violence that broke out in late 1999. Between September and December 1999, refugees began pouring into Chechnya’s southern highland areas from northern parts of the republic.
Social, Political & Religious Concerns
In the valley local Kists ended up sheltering some 85 percent of the refugees. The inflow of refugees in 1999 and 2000 aggravated an already difficult economic and social environment in the Pankisi region. Crime worsened and by late 1999, Georgia’s central government, which also suffered from a reputation for corruption, had effectively lost control of the region.
The events of September 11, 2001 brought about a radical change of course for Georgia. As political tensions in the region rose, the Georgian government declared Pankisi closed to journalists. Meanwhile, relations between the Kists and ethnic Georgians and Ossets in neighbouring villages were worsening, to the point where ethnic Georgians began organizing protests. A so-called people’s army of armed groups of ethnic Georgian villagers began to block access to the Gorge.
The Pankisi Gorge became the focus of international attention in 2002 when the U.S. government asserted that Islamic radicals fleeing Afghanistan were moving into the region. To help Georgian authorities re-establish control of the region, the U.S. government announced that it would send some 100-150 Special Forces advisors to Georgia to train the country’s counterinsurgency troops.
Exodus of Other Ethnic Groups
The crisis of criminality which emerged in Pankisi in the late 1990s and early 2000s made Ossets, Georgians and Kists feel unsafe. In the last few years, there have been several clashes between rival criminal groups, who tend to be organized ethnically. Consequently, the Georgian population of remote villages in the Gorge started moving to the other parts of the Akhmeta district. The Pshavs left the village of Zemo Khalatsani and sold their houses to Kists in around this time. The Kists are now the only inhabitants of villages on the left bank of the Alazani River.
The situation in the valley was peacefully resolved through negotiations and the departure of various groups from the region. Gradually most of the Chechen refugees left the valley too and went to seek refuge in other countries across Europe with a few hundred remaining behind. Since 2004 the local inhabitants have worked hard to restore peace and stability back to the valley.
The majority of Pankisi Kists have no jobs or productive activities to engage in. Nearly all families subsist off their land which provides for most of their food needs. Younger generations who have graduated or are still in higher education face tough prospects in finding employment from which they can gain a good income to support the families needs. Fortunately, their education is subsidized or free, owing to their low income. This situation forces some to work abroad and for others to continue in education. Education is highly valued among the Kists. The older generation were schooled in the Soviet era, they look upon today’s difficult times as a product of the failure by authorities to create and administer economic and development plans for the region and its inhabitants.
Agrotourism offers one of the best opportunities for the Kist community, especially it’s younger members, to develop small income generating initiatives. There has been a trickle of visitors over the passed 5-6 years though this is very small compared to its northerly neighbor Tusheti. As many people are discovering Pankisi Valley through our website we hope to receive more visitors.
Nazy's Guest House
Republic of Georgia