Who Were the First Inhabitants of the Upper Kodor Valley?


George Hewitt


When the bulk of the Abkhazians migrated to Ottoman lands after the end of the Great Caucasian War (1864), the Upper Kodor Valley was abandoned by its indigenous residents and Svans moved in from the neighbouring region of Georgia to occupy the homesteads, reportedly promising to look after the Abkhazians’ wells for the day the native population would return. That return is still awaited, and in the meantime there has been much (essentially needless) debate as to who were the original settlers of Abkhazia – North West Caucasian speaking Abkhazians or Kartvelians of some description.


It requires a good deal of sophistry not to see the source for the Graeco-Roman world’s ‘‘oi Apsilioi’/‘gens Absilae’ in the Abkhazians’ self- designation (‘Aps-wa’ vs ‘Aps-w-aa’ in the plural); unfortunately, a good deal of sophistry is precisely what the Georgian side has produced over the years of this debate.


Abkhazia in general has been much in the news of late, but, specifically, attention has been paid to the Upper Kodor Valley. This is a significant part of the territory of Abkhazia over which the Abkhazians deemed it not worth the effort to reestablish control at the end of the Georgian-Abkhazian War (1992-93). As long as its only residents were the descendants of the Svans mentioned above, no-one was overly exercised by this lack of formal control. However, in the spring of 2006 the Georgian president Mikheil Saak’ashvili introduced troops into the valley in flagrant transgression of the peace-accords signed in Moscow in 1994. His excuse was that these individuals were not ‘troops’ but ‘policemen’, needed in the gorge to guard against insurrection and smuggling. In the wake of Saak’ashvili’s murderous assault on sleepy Tskhinval (S. Ossetia) on 7th August 2008, the Abkhazians determined that this was the moment to rid themselves of this contagion and finally to assert their control over all their territory. After two days of bombing, Abkhazian ground-troops moved in on Tuesday 12th August to find (to their amazement and considerable relief) that the troops [sic] had fled, leaving an unconscionable amount of weaponry behind, a fact which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that Saak’ashvili had been lying for two years and that this accumulation of munitions was part of a preparation to launch a similar assault on Abkhazia. How NATO leaders can square any thought of receiving a country run by such a mendacious and treacherous regime into its circle with the noble ideals that lay behind the establishment of this organisation is a question to tax their consciences in the coming days, weeks, months and even years of discussion. But it provides us with an opportunity to ask: Who were the Upper Kodor Valley’s historical denizens?


The 6th-century Greek writer Agathias (536-582) refers to a people named ‘‘hoi Misimianoi’ living above the town of Tibelos or Tsibilium (Ts’abal in modern-day Abkhazia; Ts’ebelda in Georgian). Is their genetic/linguistics affiliation clear in Agathias’ text?


Agathias’ text was published in volume III of his charming series georgik’a, which contains Greek writers’ reports on Georgia, by Q’aukhchishvili in 1936. All texts in this 8-volume series are given a parallel translation into Georgian. The relevant passage occurs on page 86. If we translate the Georgian into English, we obtain: “Sot’erike went (down) into the country of the so-called Missimians, who are subjects, like the Apsilians, of the king of the Colchians, but they speak in a different language and also pursue different laws.” Now both the English and Georgian versions are rather ambiguous as to which two of the three peoples mentioned are being contrasted in terms of their languages and customs -- is it the Missimians and the Apsilians (as Lortkipanidze argues), or is it the Missimians and the Colchians (as Voronov interprets the sentence)? Neither the Georgian nor the English can resolve the matter, but, of course, we can refer (and in all conscience must do so) to the Greek original. In the Greek there is no ambiguity of any sort for the simple reason that the language possesses a pair of clitics (μεν...δε) whose job is to accompany and thereby indicate each component of a contrasting pair. The relative clause here has the Missimians as its head; within the clause our clitics appear, the former following the complement ‘subjects’ (κατηκοοι), the latter coming after the noun for ‘language’ (γλωττηι, which is the Dative singular form). The interpretation is clear -- the Missimians, while they are subjects of the Colchians differ from them in language and customs. The phrase ‘like the Apsilians’ (καθαπου και ‘οι ’Αψιλιοι) is an appendage to the first qualifying remark about the Missimians and is to be understood as stating that both the Missimians and the Apsilians were subjects of the Colchians.


Taking the passage on page 86 with the statement on page 162 that the Apsilians were a “common (i.e. related) and neighbouring people” to the Missimians (’Αψιλιους γε ’οντας ‘ομοδιαιτους και ’αγχιτερμονας), we see that Voronov is perfectly correct in stressing the cultural and linguistic genetic relatedness of the Apsilians and the Missimians, which latter word in Greek must again derive from the Abkhazian surname Maran, the princely holders of which traditionally lived around Ts’ebelda (Tibelos of Agathias’ Greek text), as the Abkhazian historian Anchabadze proposed (1959.14) and have nothing to do with the Svans’ self-designation mı-wæn, on the basis of which suggestion Q’aukhchishvili hypothesised that the Missimians, like the Apsars, were a Kartvelian tribe occupying areas of present-day Abkhazia.


Anchabadze, Z.B. (1959) Iz istorii srednevekovoj Abxazii (VI-XVIIvv.) [From the History of Mediaeval Abkhazia]. Sukhum: State Press.

Q’aukhchishvili, S. (1936) georgik’a III. T’pilisi: University Press.

Voronov, Y. (1992) Review-article of Mariam Lordkipanidze ‘The Abkhazians and Abkhazia’ (Tbilisi, Ganatleba, 1990, 75pp.), in Caucasian Perspectives (ed. B.G. Hewitt), 259-264.