Metamorphoses of the Abkhazian Toponymy

Numerous issues concerning the history of present-day Abkhazia, the north-west province of Georgia, have not been thoroughly studied yet. There is no consensus among the scholars regarding such questions as ethnic composition of Abkhazian population in various historical epochs, original homeland of the Abkhazians (the Apsua) and their ethnogenesis.

From the beginning of the 19th century in Georgia being  first in the grip of tsarist Russia and then of the soviet empire, the scholars (with few exceptions) due to various reasons reflected the political, ethocultural and psychological changes in this region throughout the centuries with half-truth to put it mildly.  Falsification of the history of Georgian nation at the expense of limitation of the rights of local Georgians, political concessions to separatist-minded Abkhazians challenged the Georgian statehood, which eventually ended with one-sided recognition of Abkhazian independence from Russia's side.

In such circumstances both Abkhazian and Russian historians and politologists make active attempts to promote a distorted reality in the world as if this territory had been settled only by the Apsua, the indigenous population from the time immemorial while Georgians had never lived there.

Georgian scholars time and again responded to such claims, but due to various reasons proper assessment was not given.  It is of topical importance (if not too late) to make final objective conclusions based on careful analysis of data from different branches of science and familiarize both "dual"  Georgian   scholars and international society with these materials.

Critical analysis of the works of foreign authors (since ancient times till now), the records of old Georgian chronicles, as well as researches conducted by the historians and linguists in the recent period testify to the fact that in the mentioned region "Before proper Abkhazians most of their modern territory was inhabited by Kartvelian population presented, on the one hand, by the Svan branch and, on the other, by Chan-Megrelian" [Janashia, 1958:15]. All data evidence that the original homeland of contemporary Abkhazians was to the north of the Caucasian ridge, in the mouth of the river Kuban, "and modern Abkhazians later in subsequent centuries are the Apsua migrated from the northern Caucasus" [Lortkipanidze ,1990].

Naturally the question arises as to what factors led to the migration of the tribes residing beyond the Caucasian ridge to the south Caucasus.

From the 15th century the strife of administrative units for separation becomes stronger which was accompanied by systematic intrusions of foreign enemies (Persians, Ottomans, north Caucasian tribes...). As a result of this a formerly strong monarchical state appeared to be disintegrated, followed by physical destruction of the population and foreign tribes settled on their place. This process developed more quickly than usual in distant parts of the country, including Abkhazia, where strong ethnic flow from northern Caucasus rushed in the 16th century.

It is from this period of   "creeping colonization" that the first settlements of the Abkhazians (the Apsua ) in the environs of  Bichvinta ,the north-western part of present-day Abkhazia, are recorded; from this time on an increase of  the Apsua population in the direction of the river Inguri occurred in several stages:

1)    From the 20-30s of the 16th century up to the fifties of the 17th century the Apsua tribes occupied the territory up to the river Kodori. This bloody aggression to Georgian native land of Abkhazia was followed by massacre of the part of the population, distortion of  religion, destruction and trouble, which is well seen in the records by foreign missionaries and travelers in Georgia, who witnessed all these events;

2)    The conquest of Abkhazia by Apsua occurred in the second half of the 17th century too when they expanded their territory up to the river Ghalidzga. Clearly, the occupation of  Kodori-Ghalidzga was also performed with the same brutality as in the first case;

3)    The third period is dated by the end of the 17th century, when the Apsua transferred their border from the river Ghalidzga up to the river Inguri, which along with other factors was also favored by the death of the Odishi ruler,  Levan  II  Dadiani [Gvantseladze, 2000:44].

         Thus, the Abkhazian princes, with the assistance of either hired or volunteer northern Caucasians occupied the vast territory from the river Ghalidzga up to the Inguri and started raids beyond the Inguri too, which is evidenced from the letter sent to Italy by Patri Dzampi: "Levan Dadiani's death put an end to Megrelians welfare. Almost every year Megrelia was subjected to raids" [Tamarashvili, 1902:203].

An objective picture of the history of present-day Abkhazia is recorded not only by European travelers, the chronicles of catholic missionaries and Georgian sources but by the Abkhazian scholars too. In 1630 Italian missionary Jovani Juliani and Luka arrived to Abkhazia write that the "Abaca" tribe that was termed "Absne" came from the northern Caucasus; Arkanjelo Lamberti while travelling to Abkhazia-Samegrelo remarked: "The Abkhazians residing beyond the Kodori,  with their peculiar language... under the name of Kolkheti is meant the country which is located between the Phazis and Kodori and which is termed Samegrelo today [Lamberti,1938].  In the document of the 16th century it is indicated that after Gurieli's country up to Sokhumi there is the Dadianis domain [Abuladze, 1983:5]. 

The fact of the Abkhazs (Apsua) settlement is mentioned in Russian sources too. Thus, V.Tatischev recognized as the father of Russian history (1686-1750) wrote: "The northern part of  Mingrelia  which is called Abkhazos by the Turks and Kabardians, our ancients called it obezi ... Now thereof, most of the territory is populated by Kubans" [Tatishchev, 1967]. Another scholar A.Diachkov-Tarasov stated: "Abkhazians not always lived there, where now live ... They came from the north and pushed the Kartvelian tribes unless they stopped by the Inguri "[Diyachkov-Tarasov, 1905: 65].

 On Italian maps of the 15th century at the mouth of the river Kelasuri, Megerelian port is indicated and on the map drawn up by an Italian Jacopo Gastaldi in 1561 Abkhazia, district of Apsua and the city of "Aqva" (the name of the present-day Sokhumi) is indicated in the northern Caucasus in the middle of the Kubani and contemporary Abkhazia is a part of Samegrelo [ Gvantseladze, 2008:49]. The same conclusion is made from the records by foreign travelers and missionaries (Jovani Luka, Makari Antiokeli, Jan Sharden, Jacques Gamba, etc).

The river of Kodori as the border line of Abkhazia- Samegrelo up to the 17th century was not disputed by well known Abkhazian historian Z. Anchabadze: "The border line of the Principality of Abkhazia was the river Kodori. Abkhazian feudals struggled with the Dadianis in order to expand the borders of their principality, tried to occupy the land of Samegrelo on the left side of the river Kodori. The struggle proceeded with changeable success. Finally, at the end of 16th century the Shervashidzes moved the frontier of the principality to the south-east up to the river Inguri [Anchabadze, 1959].

The above mentioned and other sources clearly show the autochthony of Georgian tribes on the territory of the modern Abkhazia in opposition to the statements expressed by the Abkhazian separatist-mined researchers, who presented the history of the their own people as if Georgians lived in Abkhazia from the 19th century and the only aborigine and autochthon population is considered to be Abkhazians.

The falsification of the history of Abkhazia was especially stimulated in the soviet period. The Abkhazian historians distinguished with fixed ideas and biased way of thinking and the researchers from the Miklukho Maklai Institute of Ethnography in Moscow falsified the objective reality on purpose. It was disputed by Georgian scholars with half-truth due to various reasons; such approach stimulated the above mentioned scholars to consider the Abkhazians (Apsua) the only indigenous population but they tried to present the area of their settlement Samegrelo-Imereti, Guria and other adjacent territories. The object of their  special concern was   Samurzaqano for which they "based" on the so-called linguistic data; according to S. Inal-Ipa  the density and well-expressed  ethnic composition  of the Abkhazian topo- and hydronimics from the mouth of the river  Mdzimta...(Abkhazian uttermost northern part) almost up to the river Inguri... evidences that  Abkhazian tribes represented main population of this territory [Inal-Ipa, 1976:381] and the weakening of Abkhazian toponyms in Samurzaqano is explained by the lateness of Georgian toponymic vocabulary (as middle ages), which was caused by the existence of the united Georgian feudal and monarchic state. This fact was also linked with mass migration of the Megrelian peasants escaped from the oppression and landlessness which in his view was caused by the change of geographical nomenclature as if the result of this was "comparatively late Georgian elements" in the Black Sea coast line. [Inal-Ipa, 1976:382].

Against the background of such historical reality the change of geographical names occurred and is occurring now in Abkhazia which has been paid less attention until recent years because each scientific argument caused acute response in Abkhazians; that is why by the backing of some Russian "scholars" and direct participation in the historiography of Abkhazia the falsification and ignorance of reality took place on the basis of unacceptable methods of research.

The purpose of the present paper is to determine the time of Abkhazians (Apsua) migration to Abkhazia on the basis of linguistic (in this case toponymic) data and show how purposeful change of geographical names in different time periods occurred.

In Georgian studies there is only one or two works dealing with historical change of toponyms in Abkhazia; in this respect of particular attention is O.Mikiashvili's work [Mikiashvili, 2000]. In his view the intentional change of the toponyms started in the forties of the 20th century and the second stage of this process is considered the period after Stalin's death, i.e.  the period of  Khrushov's rule). It is also important to mention professor T.Gvantseladze's work in which five periods of toponym's change from 1864 to 1990 are distinguished [Gvantseladze, 2000].

In our view at the stages of change of Abkhazian toponyms the discourse must be started from the beginning of the 16th century, the period when in present-day uttermost north-west part of Abkhazia, in the environs of Bichvinta where the first cases of the Abkhazs settlement have been evidenced, there is also the first mentioning of two geographical names formed in accordance with the norms of the Abkhazian language - aitarn-e and arukh-a[1]. Proceeding from historical sources and linguistic analysis of cartographical data, we consider that from this time on the seven stages should be singled out in historical change of toponyms in Abkhazia:

The first stage must be defined from the 16th century up to the first half of the sixties of the 19th century (till 1864 before the annulment of the principality of Abkhazia). This is spontaneous unplanned change of toponyms, which excluded the purposeful interference of other country;

The second stage covers the years between 1864 and 1918. As a result of exile the most part of the territory of Abkhazia was abandoned from population. To fill the gap the empire started to create the Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Greek, German, Bulgarian, Estonian settlements which led to the disappearance of Georgian and Abkhazian toponyms and their substitution with Russian geographical names proceeding in three directions:

a)     As it is typical of  the empire of any epoch, the majority of the names of geographical points was changed into the names of family members of the royal dynasty (in this case that of  the Romanovs)

b)     The second part was substituted by the surnames of  the Russian  generals, high officials or landlords;

c)      A small group of toponyms reflected the names of religious representatives, the birth place of the settled colonists and etc. E.g:

1)    In the place of the Abkhazians exiled in 1869 (modern part of the village Bagmarani of Gulripshi region ) the settlement of Anatolian Greeks Aleksandrovskoe//Aleksandrovka was formed (to celebrate  prince Aleksander's  birth).To mark the birth of  the son of  Nikolos II  Aleksi, the territory of the village Akhalsopeli of the region of Sokhumi was named Alekseevka. In honor of empire's grand on Andrei Abkhazian village Apra was named Andreevka.  To mark the marriage of the princess Olga the daughter of Tevdore Romanova to the Greek prince the Abkhazian village Barial settled with newcomers Greeks was named Olginskoe [Kvarchelia, 1985:39-41].

2)    To perpetuate the surnames of the generals of the Russian army the following names appeared:

Pilenkovo instead of Tsandripshi (in honor of general Pilenko);

Evdokimovka (in honor of General Evdokimov);

The names of the villages Ermolovka, Ermolovski appeared to perpetuate the surname of General Ermolov;

Of the same type are Vladimirovka, Vorontsovka, Zakharovka, etc.

3)    Russian names of other type: Bogiavlenskoe, Troitskoe, Spasskoe, Vesioloe, Otradnoe, Grebeshok, Chernigovka, Poltavskoe, etc.

4)  The names indicating the native place of the settled colonists: Estonka// Estonskoe, Naa-Armianskoe, Esheri-Armianskoe, Naidorp.

In the list of the settlement points of Sokhumi district composed in 1914 of 213 large village names 33 villages were renamed into Russian or Russianized names. They are:

Baklanovka, Belorechensk, Vesioli, Petrovskoe, Aleksandrevskoe, Aleksandrevskoe Pervoe, Aleksandrovskoe Vtoroe, Andreevskoe, Vasilevka, Vorontsovka, Ivanovka, Mariinskoe, Matosskaia Sloboda, Mikhailovskoe, Naa-Armianskoe, Nikolaevo-Anastasievskoe, Novochernigovka, Olginskoe, Vladimirovka, Georgiovskoe, Dmitrovskoe, Ekaterinskoe, Konstantinovskoe, Pavlovskoe, Petrovskoe, Poltavskoe, Rojdestvenskoe, Spasovskoe, Starochernigovka, Estonskoe, Eshera-Armianskoe, Eshera-Abkhazskoe, Iurievskoe [Gvantseladze, 2000: 44-51].

        The third stage of mass change of toponyms covers the period between the twenties and thirties of the 20th century and is of communist ideological character. In this period instead of historical names  and toponyms established by czarism, mass appearance of artificial names associated with the surnames of the leaders of the Communist party and revolutionary concepts is observed all over the soviet union. Of course, Abkhazia was not exclusion in this respect. In this period the following toponyms were established: Oktiabrskoe Psirdzkha// instead of Psirdzkha, Shumianovskoe//Shaumianovka - (Tskubunarkhireiskoe), Kultuchastok -(Asabulei), Konsovzokh(Kacikta), Lenino(Reper), Kominternskoe (Kesianovka), Miasnikovo//Miasnikovka (Dali), Svoboda (Iashtkhva), Treti Internatsional, Karl Marx and Lakoba separated from the composition the village Eshera. In the forties the names of czarist period were substituted into Georgian as follows:  Olginskoe =Oktomberi, Troitkoe=Tsodniskari, Anastasievka=Ganakhleba, Mikhailovskoe= Shroma, etc. The analysis shows that of the toponyms introduced by the communists in the twenties and forties only one is Abkhazian - Lakoba. As to the ideological Georgian names none of them has replaced any Abkhazian toponyms, whereas the toponyms introduced in the czarist period as well as those Abkhazian names that survived from imperial linguistic policy (Psirckha, Asabulei, Kacikta, Iashtkhva) were changed [Gvantseladze, 2000:48].

        The Kremlin was so enthusiastic with the policy of Russification that in spite of the acrimony to the dynasty of the Romanovs and army officials numerous names from the time of czarism were not annulled (the names of king's family members and generals of Russian army) in which their Russian background played its role.

        The fourth stage of toponymic change comprises the period of forties and first half of the fifties of the 20th century. This period is distinguished with anti Georgian accusations from the side of separatists in relation to Georgian government as if its politics   was directed to Georgianization of Abkhazian toponyms in order to wipe out the trace of Abkhazians. Moreover, Abkazian separatist literature put forward groundless accusations of Georgians in forced Georgianaziation of Abkhazians, in oppression of Abkhazian language and culture.

       It is true much has been changed in 1940-1952 in Abkhazian toponyms as well as entire country, but it was not directed against the interests of Abkhazian population. However, Georgian government had done nothing to annul the accusation of the Abkhaz, on the contrary, this accusation was actually recognized.

In the 1943-1952 there were changed 109 toponyms in Abkhazia, of which only 10 geographycal points are substituted with Georgian names [Mikiashvili, 2000:5-9]. They are: Pishta, Ashitsra,  Kalmuti, Mekhadiri, Abgaborta, Aguaa, Atishadu, Laganiaatkhu, Aradukva and Tsalamuri. However, professor T.Gvantseladze considers that only 6 toponyms   of 10 of the named are definitely of Abkhazian origin, which etymology in Abkhazian language can be easily found due to their transparence. They are: Ashitsra, (Abkh. "willow stand"),a-bga-bar-ta (a spot  to watch wolf, fox"), Atishadu ("big ravine"), Laganiaarkhu ("the hill of Laganian"), Aradukva ("big nut trees") but to find out the  Abkhazian origin of the rest four is difficult. They might be of quite different origin [Gvantseladze, 2000:49].

         Proceeding from the above mentioned, a conclusion is made in scholarly literature, that the change of ten out of 109 Abkhazian toponyms into Georgian in Abkhazia between the years 1940-1954 cannot testify to the fact of abasement of Abkazian people, moreover, the former Abkhazian communist government strongly avoided to change Abkhazian toponyms. This is caused by the fact that main change occurred in Russian toponyms introduced during czarism and earlier toponyms in other languages.

               Under the fifth stage of toponymic change we imply the period from the second half of the fifties up to the eighties of the 20th century. At that period a majority of Georgian toponyms was annulled and substituted with Abkhazian and Russian toponyms. The authorities with well expressed anti- Georgian policy even changed Georgian names of the epoch of czarism (!) for example:

           " The village of Russian colonists Chernigovka established in the 19th century in the forties of the 20th century was renamed into Kazbegi, but in the fifties it was again renamed into Chernigovka and its Abkhazian name Adzin(a) was not restored;

        The village of colonists Alekseevka in the forties of the 20th century was named Bagratistsikhe and in the fifties instead of Abkhazian Agva was again named Alekseevka.

          The village Alpiskoe established in the 20th century was named Alpuri, and in the fifties again Alpiiskoe.

      The same changes occurred in other cases too:

          Armianskoe uschelie =Somkhuri uschelie= Armenianskoe uschelie;

          Gruzinskoe uschelie= Sakartvelos uschelie= Gruzinskoe uschelie;

          Serebriani= Silver=Serebriani;

          Metelevka= Korianteli=Metelevka;

          Vladimirovka= Kodori=Vladimirovka;




          Poltavo=Aleksandrevskoe= Kvemo Akhuti= Poltavo-Aleksandrevskoe... [Kvarchelia, 1985:39]. 

        In the 1953-1967 the tendency of changing of Georgian toponyms in Abkhazian and especially in Russian increased. Among them there is none of suppressed Abkhazian toponyms. The reason is simple: they just did not exist. That is why to neutralize Georgian position the Abkhazians used Russian toponyms.

       In the mentioned period they restored 20 toponyms at the expense of Georgian:

      In Gagra -6: Alpiskoe, Otradnoe, Kholodnaia Rechka, Pitsunda, Orekhovo, Gruzinskoe Ushelie;

 In Gudauta-7 : Vesiolovka, Armianskoe uschelie, Verkhni Mtsara, Anukhva Armianskaia, Nijni Mtsara, Vtoroi Arasadzikh, Atara Aemianskaia;

   In Sokhumi- 7: Estonka, Serebrianoe, Verkhni Eshera, Verkhni Iashtkhva, Verkhni Apianchi, Vladimirovka, Niijni Iashtkhva.

  Two Armenian toponyms were restored: one in Gagra (Psouskhevi// Demerchenc) and one in Ochamchire (Didi Agaraki//Arakich).

The four Russian toponyms were changed into Georgian: one in Gudauta (Novy Afon// Akhali Atoni) and three in Ochamchire (Vtoroi Arasadzikh// Meore Arasadzikhi, Vtoroi Kopit// Meore Kopit, Pervi Kopit// Pirveli Kopiti). Thus there were lost 4 Russian toponyms. Three Abkhazian toponyms were changed into Abkhazian. In Gagra: Ldzaani// Lidzava, in Ochamchire: Achandara// Gup-Agu, Akhutsa// Gvada Akhutsa . One Georgian toponym was changed with the same Georgian in Gulripshi: Kvemo Gulripshi was named Gulripshi.

      In Gali region the toponyms were not changed in the mentioned period.

The sixth stage of toponymic change is characterized with peculiarities, which cover the period from the eighties of the 20th century up to 1992 (Abkhazian war). The rise of national movement in Georgia was confronted with Abkhazian separatism inspired by Russian empire which was also expressed in the fight against Georgian toponyms. The latter was always the subject of dispute between Abkhazians and Georgians. This is evidenced from germination of Abkhazian separatism during the rise of national movement in the country as far back as in the soviet period in the eighties of the past century in which the leaked information on mass change of Georgian toponyms played great role. Namely, the Abkhazian commission of the establishment of Abkhazian toponyms at the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet planned the toponymic war on the entire territory of Abkhazia which implied the remaking of the names of Georgian origin in correspondence with phonetic norms of Abkhazian language or establishment of Abkhazian names instead of them. However, the political developments in the country temporally stopped the intention of this commission and it assumed only the form of recommendations sent to the leaders of the regions of Abkhazia. Particularly, the circulation sent from Sokhumi to Gali region the village Mziuri (the former Tskhirogali) must be renamed  Shashikvara, Chuburkhinji// Akvalia; the name of the village Subeishi, which was given to Achigvara in 18th century, by the recommendation of the commission must have been changed into  Achguara; Gali with Alekumkhara, Rep-Shesheleti with Akvarikea, the village Chkhortoli with Chkhuartal, Ghumurishi with Gumrish, etc. In Samurdzaqano which historically has never been populated with Abkhazians (except for several Abkhazian families settled by the Sharvashidzes in medieval period), if such mass change   was intended it is easy to imagine how things would have been in Ochamchire, Sokhumi, Gudauta, Tkvarcheli or Gagra zone. However, in Abkhazia they did not hesitate to change and annul Georgian names in this period too. The first step was taken in Sokhumi when the seaside street - Rustaveli avenue was divided and named Koghonia (cf., the fate was not favored to the great poet in other towns of Abkhazia too; namely, the main road in Gagra named after Shota Rustaveli was renamed into Demirj-Ipa  the Komsomol member) by Abkhazian separatists.

         The final seventh stage of mass change of Georgian names, started after the 1992-1993 war inspired by Moscow and has continued till now. The changes were mainly directed in two ways: a) Georgian toponyms were renamed with other language toponyms; b) old names remained with certain transcriptional changes.  The Sokhumi separatist regime tried by all means to erase the trace of Georgians settlement on the Abkhazian land. The anti-Georgian separatists have annulled not only Georgian toponyms but totally changed the Georgian toponyms of streets, rest houses, squares, different establishments, named after Georgian public men. They were substituted with Russian-Abkhazian toponyms, denoting the birth place of north Caucasian confederation participants of Georgian genocide, names in different languages. However, it should be mentioned that the interests of Abkhazian people proper are less taken into account in new toponyms.

As an example we take the resolution of May, 1994 adopted by the Supreme council of the so-called Abkhazian republic on renaming of settlement points in Gali region and transcriptional changes which is explained by the desire of "restoration of historical justice":

Gali= Gal, the village Agvavera= Aguaiuara, Akvareika=Akuareikua, Achigvara= Achguara, Gudava=Gudaa, Akvaga=Akuaga, Bargebi=Biargiap, Gumurishi=Gumrish, Lekumkhara=Alamkumkhara, Okumi=Uakum, Tsarche=Tsarcha, Tkhortoli=Tkhuartal, Shashikvara=Shashikuara... in parallel with this the names of those streets which carry Georgian names: Sakartvelos street was renamed by Absni street, Baratashvili=Kecba, Tsalenjikha= Arshba, Rustaveli= Leoni...

The mentioned changes also took place in Gali region where the absolute majority of people are Georgians even today. It is not difficult to imagine what situation is like in the depths of Abkhazia (which is not controlled even by international structures) where one or two preserved Georgian have to hide their Georgian background not to say about Georgian conversation. Currently the names of the streets in Abkhazian towns named after Georgian writers, artists, public men, irrespective of great merit of the majority of them have been totally changed. New names are of special attention in many aspects. Russian names or those denoting the origin of fighters of confederation against Georgia dominated there.  To demonstrate the situation we present before war and after war names of Sokhumi streets:

Gumista=Slavs, Pilia=Alans, Orakhelashvili=Confederants, Tarkhnishvili= Imam=Shamil,Gelovani=Kabardo,Kukhaleishvili=Dagestan,  Kdzidzaria=Adighians, The first turn of citrus = G.Ribinski, Adamia=Bashkireti, Bagrationi=Bigua, Baratashvili=Gumi, Gulia=Shotlandia  Kazbegi=Chochua, Kvaratskhelia=Vavilov, Leselidze=Abazins, Marks= Inal-Ipa; Mataradze= Pate-Ipa; Miminoshvili= Ubikhs, Nagornaia= Artsakhi, Ninoshvili= Cherniavski,; Olimpiskaia=Karachaev; Orjonikidze=Voronov; Rustaveli= Mujahiri Sanapiro  Svanidze=Soloviov, Tavadze= Ashkhvatsava; Tbilisi road=Kodori road; Prunze=Aidgilara; Tsereteli=Zvanba; Chavchavadze=Gulia; Shukura=Kazachia and etc... [Nachkebia, 2009:110].

Complex political process taking place in present-day Abkhazia which is mainly expressed in an attempt to eradicate the trace of Georgians settlement requires multifaceted observation, analysis and study because the goal and future intentions of  the separatist government and its supporters are evident.

[1]  These names are mentioned in "Bichvinta Iadgar" compiled under the name of Odishi ruler Mamia III Dadiani (1512-1573).


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