The Ottoman Shadow: Abkhazia Under Turkish Rule (16th-19th Centuries)

The narrative of Abkhazia takes a dramatic turn in the 16th century. As the Ottoman Empire flexed its military muscle, the region became entangled in the power struggles of the time. In the 1570s, the Ottoman navy seized the Abkhazian coastal fort of Tskhumi, transforming it into the formidable stronghold of Suhum-Kale (a name that echoes in the modern city of Sukhumi). This marked the beginning of a long period of Ottoman influence that would leave a lasting mark on Abkhazia.

Prior to this, in 1555, the Ottomans and their rivals, the Safavid Persians, had carved up Georgia and the South Caucasus, leaving Abkhazia, along with western Georgia, firmly within the Ottoman sphere. As a consequence, Abkhazia found itself increasingly drawn into the orbit of Turkey and Islam. This gradual shift chipped away at the cultural and religious ties that had previously bound Abkhazia to the rest of Georgia.

Soviet historians painted a bleak picture of Ottoman rule, portraying it as a period of cultural and religious suppression. They claimed the Ottomans aimed to obliterate Abkhazia’s unique identity, forcibly converting the population to Islam. This, according to Soviet narratives, sparked numerous rebellions throughout the 18th century, with Abkhazians rising up against Ottoman control in 1725, 1728, 1733, 1771, and 1806.

However, the historical picture is likely more nuanced. While Ottoman influence undoubtedly grew during this period, the Abkhazian principality retained a degree of autonomy under local rulers. The Shervashidze dynasty, for instance, continued to hold sway over Abkhazia.

The late 17th century witnessed a period of fragmentation within Abkhazia. The principality splintered into several fiefdoms, leading to a breakdown of centralized authority in many areas. This power vacuum created a fertile ground for two nefarious activities – widespread slave trade and piracy. Some Georgian scholars argue that this period also saw an influx of Adyghe clans from the North Caucasus mountains. These migrants integrated with the local population, significantly altering Abkhazia’s demographic makeup.

The mid-18th century brought renewed Abkhazian resistance to Ottoman control. A rebellion culminated in the capture of Suhum-Kale from the Ottomans. However, their victory was short-lived. The Turks swiftly regained control of the fortress and strategically returned it to a loyal prince from the Shervashidze family, ensuring continued Ottoman influence in the region.

The complex relationship between Abkhazia and the Ottomans would continue to shape the region’s destiny for over two centuries. The following sections will explore the rise of Russian influence, the escalating tensions between the two empires, and the eventual struggle for independence that would define Abkhazia’s path in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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