The Pankisi Gorge and the Alazani Valley are an integral part of Kakheti (eastern Georgia). All the most important events that have taken place in this part of the country have left its mark on all the Alazani Valley, Pankisi included.
One of the greatest periods in the gorge’s along with all Georgia’s history was the reign of Queen Tamara (12th-13th century). In the gorge there was a rich duchy called Torgwa Pankeli, named after a Georgian aristocrat, a regular visitor to the court. The duchy was at that time inhabited mainly by Kakheti people as well as Georgian highlanders, gradually coming down from the mountains (the Tush and Pshav). The duchy was surrounded with massive walls, fortifications as well as signal and fortified turrets. Within these fortifications the Georgians built many Christian churches, whose ruins are still visible. One can come across them in every corner of Pankisi.
The end of Georgia's greatness in the 13th century, in the final years of the reign of Queen Tamara's son, caused among other things by Mongol incursions into Georgia, and later a regional disintegration, dynastic disputes and the war between Turkey and Iran for the division of the areas of influence in Georgia (13th – 15th century), have lead to the demise of Torgwa Pankeli. The Pankisi Gorge, enfeebled by incursions, wars and epidemic diseases became deserted, and its arable land overgrew with forests. A settlement campaign began in Pankisi in the 16th century. King Levan of Kakheti offered land to be used as pastures to Georgian highlanders (the Tush and Pshav) for their military service on the frontiers. The Ossetians and highlanders from the neighbouring Dagestan, as well as Laz and Avar people settle down in the gorge too. In the 17th century after conquering Kakheti by Persians, the Shah of Iran placed Muslim Turkmen tribes in the area of Pankisi. As a result of migrations and settlement campaigns, the people of Kakheti (the region of Akhmeta, to which belongs the Pankisi Gorge in particular) became multiethnic. In addition to the aforementioned groups Jews, Armenians, Azeris, Greeks, Russians, and above all the ancestors of today’s Kists present in the Pankisi region: the Vainakhs – Ingushetians and Chechens – all settle in the Akhmeta region in the course of the next two centuries. Firs large groups of the ancestors of today’s Kists turn up in Pankisi by the end of 17th century. The biggest Chechen clans from the borderland between Chechnya and Ingushetia (the proud Mayst and Melkh clans) also come there at that time.
According to a Kist legend, around 200 years ago a few Chechen boys from upper Chechnya went after lost sheep and got lost in the Caucasus Mountains. After a few days the boys' fathers set out to look for them and finally got to the other side of the mountains. They found themselves in Georgia’s thick and impenetrable forests. Exhausted by the journey, they stuck in their sticks and took a nap. It turned out they slept through the night, and in the morning they saw a spring spurting water in the place where their sticks touched the ground. In addition, swallows had built a nest in the spot where the sticks touched one another. Thinking the incident was a sign from God, the men abandoned their quest and decided to settle there for good, with their children and grandchildren. And this is what the legend says. Historical sources and old people’s tales talk about an intensive settlement campaign which started in the early 19th century. Newcomers were bringing their families from Chechnya and all settled in Georgia. Georgian dukes, to whom the valley belonged, readily leased their land to the Mayst family. They needed valiant highlanders to protect the frontiers from the plundering attacks of highwaymen from Dagestan and Azerbaijani khanates.
With time, in addition to the Mayst clan other Chechen and Ingushetian clans would flood into Pankisi throughout the 19th century. Most of them were mainly escaping from tsarist soldiers, who at that time were conquering the North Caucasus and suppressing Chechen uprisings. Among the fugitives there were those who had been accused of causing “bloodshed” (commonly known as a “bloody revenge”) or criminals banished to the periphery of society. The founder of the village of Jokolo in the Pankisi valley, was a Jokola – the leader of Caucasian highwaymen. Eventually, the Georgian army surrounded the house situated in the valley in which Jokola was hiding. After long negotiations, Jokola agreed to accept the conditions proposed by the Georgians. He surrendered, returned all the stolen valuables and settled with his brothers in Pankisi. Like many others, he turned over a new leaf. Chechens and Ingushetians – tired of islamization, the missionary action of Imam Shamil, a famous leader of the uprising against Russia, and his land stewards, as well as living according to the Shariah – also wanted to change their luck. Many of them wanted to preserve local cults and worship their ancestors; Ingushetians, on the other hand, wanted to remain faithful to their own combination of Christian-pagan beliefs. Even though formally Christianised, the Pshav and Tush living in the region adjacent to Pankisi still worshiped local gods, for example White, Georgi or Tushola (the goddess of nature and hunting), and so they willingly received refugees from the North Caucasus. They befriended them or entered into family relations with them, marrying them or incorporating their clans into their own. The Georgian church would not give up, however. It would send its missionaries to Georgian highlanders and Chechens. In 1866 a Georgian Orthodox mission managed to build an Orthodox Church in the village of Jokolo, to which both Georgian highlanders and Chechens later went. Islamic missionaries from the neighbouring Chechnya and Dagestan never forgot about the valley, however. In 1902 they set up a mosque in Duisi, and it soon became the centre of Sufi brethren, very popular in the North Caucasus. The brethren of Kunta Haji Kishiev (opposing Imam Shamil and his military fight against tsarist soldiers), belonging to the tarika of Kadiriya became the most popular. New brethren, including female ones, which was quite unusual, would mushroom across the valley. “Haji” followers, as they are called here, still celebrate all major religious festivals to perform an ecstatic prayer as a group. They pray in Arabic, Chechen and Georgian, and quite often in a peculiar combination of Chechen and Georgian – the so-called Kist dialect, used by most Georgian Chechens.
Although the Kists have picked up a great number of typically Georgian elements of culture during their 200-year-old stay in Pankisi, there are certain things which have not changed. In addition to the religion and the language (up to a degree) they have also preserved certain family principles, for example: any form of touch between a male and female in public is considered taboo; courtship takes place by means of gestures or facial expressions, but never in the presence of others. a woman, especially one who got married at an early age, mustn’t sit in the presence of her in-laws, or initiate conversation with them; no members of the family are allowed to call other members of the family by their first names. Other Kist customs, such as family celebrations, cuisine or wedding receptions have been altered by the influence of Georgian culture. The Kists, just like the Georgians, grow wine and drink it from a glass or a buffalo horn.
Georgian authorities have accepted displaced Chechens and fugitives, and when the independent Republic of Georgia was established (1918-1921), they granted them citizenship. The Chechens received Georgian names and surnames. As a result, even today many Chechens use double names, Chechen and Georgian. Owing to this peculiar “Georgian mask” the Kists avoided deportation to Central Asia, initiated by Stalin, which unfortunately became the fate of their fellow men from Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan in 1944.
During the Soviet era, the Kists, just like any other nation of believers, were sovietised and secularized. “Associations of Godless Persons”, whose objective was to fight Christianity and Islam, were set up across Georgia in the 1930’s. Soviet authorities would shut down churches, mosques and other temples, among them the Duisi mosque. Soviet forces persecuted and arrested religious leaders. Many Sufi masters and other clerics were arrested, exiled in Siberia or murdered. Religion, Islam included, vanished from public life. Among the Kists, however, it remained in the centre of family life, and prayers were said in secret. After Stalin’s death a thaw began. In the 1960’s the authorities gave a permission to re-open the mosque in Duisi.
Later history of the Pankisi Gorge is the history of Soviet Georgia and the Georgia which declared independence in 1991, enfeebled by civil wars in Abkhazia and southern Ossetia. Except for the Ossetian exodus during the war in Ossetia (the early 1990's) Pankisi was not part of the turbulences, more and more isolated and forgotten by the Georgian authorities. The crisis spreading throughout the country increased poverty in the region. Many Kists would make for Russia in search of work. Large migration waves consisting mainly of men started to leave also for Chechnya, which had declared independence in 1991. When the 1st Russian-Chechen War broke out in 1994 most migrants returned to Pankisi. Along with them came Chechen refugees from southern Chechnya. The war over, in 1996 most refugees came back to Chechnya. Young Kists left too. In Chechnya, contrary to the situation in Georgia, there was work, and the country was being rebuilt. After 3 years had passed the 2nd Russian-Chechen War broke out – it greatly altered the situation in the gorge, and its consequences are still felt.
Since the beginning of the war in 1999 over 10 000 refugees from Chechnya came to the valley. The burden of supporting the newcomers was on their closest relatives, the Kists. In houses, schools, health centres and other public buildings, sick people lived, without any belongings whatsoever. Some refugees bred sheep, set up apiaries and sent their sons to martial arts centres, popular throughout the Caucasus. It would not suffice, however. Soon conflicts between the Kists and refugees started. Chechens from Chechnya began to throw their weight around. They appointed the Council of Elders, operating independently from the Kist council. They ridiculed the Kist variation of the Chechen language. Islam and rituals of Kist Sufi brethren were considered contaminated with pagan ways and thus heretic. The Chechens tried to impose on the Kists a radical form of Islam, announcing a return to the Prophet's “purest” religion, gaining more and more recognition in Chechnya. In response to all this, the Kists shut the most raving Muslims away from the Duisi mosque. The “new” Chechens, with the help of Saudi Arabian missionaries built their mosques in Duisi, Omalo and Birkiani, however. Today they're called “Vainakh” mosques. Only “genuine” Chechens, “genuine” Muslims come there. Despite the resistance against the neophyte refugees, the Kists have gradually stopped attending the service with the Georgians. The Orthodox Church in Jokolo empties out. Less and less often they accept invitations from Georgian highlanders to baptisms and weddings.
With time the troubles amount. In 2001-2002 numerous gangs of weapon smugglers, white slave traders and drug dealers operated in the valley. The valley was closed to all but the permanent residents of Pankisi. The Georgian army and civil-defence units set up checkpoints at the entrance roads. The blockade of Pankisi ended at the end of 2002 when the Kists with the assistance of the Georgian military forces crushed the criminals in the valley. In 2003 most groups of Chechen fighters, hiding in Georgia, left the gorge. In 2004 the domestic situation calmed down and the region became fully secure again.
Nonetheless, four thousand Chechen refugees remained the Kists’ guests. Most of them, without any social help or life prospects, not wanting to be a burden for their relatives in Georgia, dreamt about making for Western Europe or North America. Some of them were transferred to Western Europe and Canada, where they obtained asylum.
In 2005 there only 200 to 300 Chechen refugees remained in the valley. Some of them returned to Chechnya as part of the so-called voluntary repatriation, others went to Western Europe and North America, where they obtained asylum.
Only the Kists and Kist refugees from Chechnya remained in the valley (they were the Kists who left for Chechnya in search of work in the early 1990’s and later escaped when the 2nd Russian-Chechen War broke out).
Currently the Pankisi Gorge is inhabited mainly by the Kists (eight thousand), living predominantly in villages: Duisi, Jokolo, Birkiani, Dzibakhevi, Dumasturi, Khalatsani (Zemo, Shua, Kvemo) and Omalo. The Kists also live in Akhmeta, and some of them live in mixed families across the whole Akhmeta region. The Kists live in Tbilisi too.
In addition to the Kists in the gorge there are the Pshav, the Tush and Georgian Ingushetians, as well as some Khevsurs and Ossetians.
Written by: Patrycja Prześlakiewicz