Bloody Kanzhal. Causes and course of the battle


View of Elbrus from the Kanzhal plateau

In official historiography, it is generally accepted that the battle took place in 1708, when the territory of Kabarda was subordinate to the Crimean Khanate. The Crimean khans and the Ottoman Empire considered Kabarda only as a supplier of slaves and slaves, and this was a very large source of income for both the khanate and the Ports. The presence of beautiful Circassian women in the harem was considered a sign of the high status of the owner. In those days, the title of prince-valia (i.e., senior prince) of all Kabarda was carried by the eldest son of Hatokshoko (Atazhuko) Kaziev – Kurgoko Atazhukin. Now this prince is a national hero of the Kabardians who challenged the Turkish-Tatar hordes.

From the very beginning of his reign, Kurgoko witnessed how Crimean Tatars and the Nogais who joined them ravaged its region year after year. Supported by the almighty Porta, the united Khan’s troops met practically no resistance, although uprisings against the invaders arose in Kabarda at constant intervals. This is exactly how in 1699, in the Besleneev lands of the Kalga of the Crimean Khanate, Shahbaz Girey was killed by local Circassians because of an attempt to take a beautiful girl from a noble family as a concubine in excess of the specified number of people.

Punisher Kaplan I Girey

According to one of the versions, part of the Beslenei who killed the Kalga took refuge in Kabarda, which became the reason for the Crimean Khanate’s campaign against the Kabardians. However, there were many reasons to refuse to issue tribute and fugitives to the insatiable khans. For example, each new khan and his kalga traditionally began their reign with robbing the Kabardians. And since from the end of the 17th century the Crimean khans rarely sat on the throne for more than two years, Kabarda fell into decay.

The punitive expedition for the murder and, in fact, the riot was postponed for several years for a variety of reasons – from internal strife in the khanate to the plague. As a result, the sultan brought to power the son of one of the most respected rulers in the khanate Selim Girey – Kaplan I Girey.

Bloody Kanzhal.  Causes and course of the battle
Nogai and Crimean Tatar horsemen (from left to right)

The new Khan Kaplan I Girey instantly demanded from the Kabardians three thousand ransom souls and complete obedience. Having received a refusal, he informed his higher “superiors” in the Port of the fact of disobedience. The Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III, who ascended the throne of the empire during the period of its stagnation, when Porta was losing its positions and was torn by intrigues at court, did not want to lose influence in the North Caucasus. Therefore, he ordered Kaplan to personally lead the punitive expedition, to destroy the Kabardians and burn their sakli. According to various sources, obeying the will of the Sultan, Kaplan gathered an army of 30 to 40 thousand soldiers. The army was motley in composition, it consisted of Crimean Tatars, Turks, and Nogais. Also, some sources mention the presence of the Circassians directly in the ranks of the army, or rather, the Kemirgoys (Western Adyghe tribe). This would later cause a lot of controversy, although at that time the practice of raiding even against related tribes was common.

In the spring of 1708, a real horde of the Khan set out for the Caucasus. At the beginning of the summer of the same year, the troops of Kaplan I Giray broke into the territory of Kabarda, when most of the highlanders gathered their belongings and took their cattle high into the mountains, already expecting the usual ruin. The haughty khan, completely confident in his strength, settled down in the Kanzhal plateau, which is teeming with rivers and rich pastures necessary for his army of many thousands.

Desperate decisions, desperate measures

Kurgoko Atazhukin, when deciding to give the enemy a battle, was in the most difficult, even desperate situation. From the time of the first Kabardian embassy in 1565, headed by Mamstryuk Temryukovich Cherkassky, the Kabardian princes could count on the help of Russian troops to the court of John IV Vasilyevich. But after Peter the Great signed the Peace Treaty of Constantinople, the northern ally simply had no right to provide assistance, since the 7th article of the treaty secured the Nogai and Circassians as peoples conquered by the Ottomans. Thus, any help from Moscow to the rebellious Kabardian prince Valiy would be interpreted as a declaration of war on Constantinople, and Peter I was already waging a difficult Northern War.


Kurgoko Atajukin

Prince Atazhukin had no allies in front of an outnumbered enemy, whose army was better armed and trained. A total mobilization was carried out starting with youths of 14 years old. A special role was assigned to the cavalry, which consisted of the Warks, i.e. Circassian aristocracy. They were “armor” riders who wore relatively light chain mail in the form of a “shirt” with short sleeves above the elbows. This Circassian cavalry lasted until the second half of the 19th century.

But the total number of soldiers that Kurgoko could have fielded did not exceed 20-30 thousand people. Therefore, an extremely competent and cunning plan for conducting combat operations in the created conditions was required. According to legend, the author of this plan was the legendary Zhabagi Kazanoko, who later went down in history as an outstanding diplomat, poet, educator, personal adviser to the Kabardian princes and a supporter of the inevitable rapprochement of Kabarda and Russia.


Kabardian nobleman, “armor” rider

Kazanoko proposed to lull the attention of the khan and his troops by expressing the submission of a part of the Kabardians, in order to upset the unity of the Crimean forces, so that the khan would send a part of the cavalry to punish the small rebels. This cavalry, according to this version, was lured into the gorge and shot by Kabardian archers. And at night, the main forces of the Kabardians with a surprise attack defeated the Khan’s troops remaining in the camp.

The more versions, the louder the argument

However, this is only one of the many versions of the Battle of Kanzhal. Here, for example, what version is put forward by the first Adyghe historian, scientist and educator Shora Nogmov (“History of the Adyghe people”):

“Warned during the arrival of the khan for the Kuban, the Kabardians sent all their property, wives and children to the mountains and themselves awaited the approach of the enemy in the Urda gorge. The Khan, learning about this, changed his path and camped on the Kanzhal hillock.

On the same day, Khaleliy, an infiltrator from the Tatars, who had previously lived with Prince Kurgoko, came to the Kabardian camp. He informed the prince in detail about the khan’s intention, mentioning at the same time that if the Kabardians did not attack the Crimeans the next night, then on the next or third night they would certainly be attacked. Kurgoko at once ordered to collect about 300 donkeys and tie two bundles of hay to each.

Night fell, he went to the enemy and, approaching him, ordered all the donkeys to light hay and drive them to the enemy camp, with several shots. The donkeys with their terrible cry frightened the enemy to such an extent that in unconsciousness and confusion he began to chop each other; at dawn the Kabardians rushed at them and completely defeated them. “


Battle of Kanzhal. Fragment of a painting by Mukhadin Kishev, Soviet and Russian artist

The last phrase “completely defeated them” in itself speaks of the end of hostilities. But Pshi (junior prince) Tatarkhan Bekmurzin, the future prince-Valiy and supporter of the alliance with Russia, who is credited with directly participating in the battles at Kanzhal, later wrote that the battles with the “Crimeans” lasted almost two months. Thus, the Battle of Kanzhal, although not denied, is becoming one of the stages of a kind of mountain guerrilla war against the Turkish-Tatar invaders. And this is quite justified, since in a general battle the Kabardians would inevitably be defeated.

However, another historical source assigns an important role to Kanzhal – Dmitry Konstantinovich Kantemir, the ruler of Moldova, the Most Serene Prince of Russia, a senator and historian. He somewhat echoes Shora Nogmov, pointing out that there really was a night attack, but the bundles of brushwood were tied not to donkeys, but to a herd of 300 horses. So, the flaming herd, as if from the sky, descended on the enemy’s camp, bringing a monstrous confusion. As soon as panic reigned, the Kabardians fell upon the khan’s camp, surrounding and massacring most of the invaders.

In general, references to the Battle of Kanzhal can be found in many authors: Abri de la Motre in the work “The Journey of Mr. A. de la Motre to Europe, Asia and Africa”, Xaverio Glavani in the work “Description of Circassia”, Seyid Muhammad Riza (Turkish historian and a writer of the 18th century), Mihailo Rakovita (ruler of Moldova) and others.

If we summarize the basic information, then the picture appears as follows. As Shora Nogmov pointed out, the Kanzhal battle took place in two places, so to speak, in two stages. At first, either by diplomatic cunning, or by deceitful maneuver, part of the khan’s army was lured into a gorge suitable for an ambush, where Kabardian archers killed the invaders. Most often, it is assumed that the place of the ambush was now the tourist and extremely picturesque Tyzyl Gorge, in which, according to superstitions, djinn live.


Tyzyl Gorge, presumably the grave for thousands of soldiers of the Crimean Khanate

The final stage of the battle took place precisely in the area of ​​the Kanzhal plateau in the khan’s camp. Since the night sorties for the mountaineers were not something out of the ordinary, it was at night that the Kabardians surrounded the enemy and, letting the red rooster through the horses, defeated the main forces of Kaplan Girey. And the fact that the fighting lasted up to two months is quite understandable. First, maneuvering in mountainous terrain with small skirmishes with small groups of troops could take weeks. Secondly, as you know, the khan survived, although he was wounded in his arm, and retreated with the surviving soldiers through hostile territory, and the passion to pursue the retreating enemy, inflicting quick horse strikes, is generally characteristic of the highlanders.

Strange as it may seem, but the bloody battle that took place near the plateau lost in the Caucasus Mountains will affect the international politics of the most powerful states of its time. In addition to the wounded Crimean Khanate, which received a severe blow to its reputation, the Battle of Kanzhal will reduce the degree of influence of the powerful Ottoman Empire and will unwittingly become a help to Peter the Great himself. The most surprising thing is that even now the dispute over the Kanzhal battle can result in negative political consequences or, even worse, in a paramilitary confrontation, since the view on this landmark historical event in the Caucasus is more than ambiguous.

To be continued…

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