Muslim Exodus and Ottoman Connections in the 19th Century

Hijra encompasses the types of migrations that rarely come together. Most muhajirs fled to the Ottoman Empire to escape ethnic cleansing or the loss of land and forcible resettlement in the lowlands.

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During the Ottoman Empire: life in 1890s Constantinople [File Photo]

The following excerpts adapted from Empire of Refugees: North Caucasian Muslims and the Late Ottoman State published in Stanford University Press

Between the 1850s and World War I, about one million North Caucasian Muslims sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire. This resettlement of Muslim refugees from Russia changed the Ottoman state. Circassians, Chechens, Dagestanis, and others established hundreds of refugee villages throughout the Ottoman Balkans, Anatolia, and the Levant. Most villages still exist today, including what is now the city of Amman. Muslim refugee resettlement reinvigorated regional economies, but also intensified competition over land and, at times, precipitated sectarian tensions, setting in motion fundamental shifts in the borderlands of the Russian and Ottoman empires. Empire of Refugees reframes late Ottoman history through mass displacement and reveals the origins of refugee resettlement in the modern Middle East. Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky offers a historiographical corrective: the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire created a refugee regime, predating refugee systems set up by the League of Nations and the United Nations. Grounded in archival research in over twenty public and private archives across ten countries, this book contests the boundaries typically assumed between forced and voluntary migration, and refugees and immigrants, rewriting the history of Muslim migration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In 1910, Ahmed bin Saltmurad bin Tambulat, a Chechen living in the Russian Empire’s Dagestan Province, wrote a letter in Arabic to his cousin Kerim-Sultan. Kerim-Sultan had emigrated to the Ottoman Empire a few years earlier, and his family in Russia grew worried after not having heard from him. Ahmed wrote that he had searched for news from his beloved cousin “for weeks, months, years, for some time, and always” and implored him to get in touch with his relatives in the Caucasus. “Does one forget about the loved ones, and can one’s spirit rest before the family reunites again,” Ahmed rhetorically asked Kerim-Sultan. He sealed the letter but did not know where to send it. He entrusted the letter, with no address on it, to a caravan of Chechen pilgrims going on the hajj, instructing them to ask around if anyone in the Ottoman Empire knew of Kerim-Sultan from the village of Keshen-Evla.

Ahmed’s plan might seem far-fetched, but within a few months the pilgrims found Kerim-Sultan. Pilgrims traveled through many North Caucasian refugee villages on their way to Mecca. At their last stop in the Chechen village of Zarqaʾ in Ottoman Transjordan, Kerim-Sultan came out to greet them and recognized that the letter was meant for him. From then on, Kerim-Sultan and his family in the Caucasus used the hajj to send letters to each other. Chechen pilgrims would deliver letters from the Caucasus on their way to Mecca and collect Kerim-Sultan’s responses on their way back. The following year, Kerim-Sultan received a letter from his brother, Hajj Janʿaq. His brother wished to conduct what he called a “white hijra” (Ar., al-hijra al-bayḍāʾ). His village elders, however, cautioned against emigration, as it was unlikely that those leaving Russia could ever return. Hajj Janʿaq’s fatherin-law refused to let his daughter follow her husband and become a refugee. Hajj Janʿaq considered the “honorable hijra” (Ar., al-hijra al-gharrāʾ) to be his religious duty and sought to join his brother in the Ottoman Empire. Kerim-Sultan encouraged his brother to emigrate and to urge others to leave the Caucasus and become muhajirs. He offered to write to those who were hesitant about conducting hijra and promised that muhajirs would be content and taken care of in exile. This chapter examines what led Kerim-Sultan and other North Caucasians to move to the Ottoman Empire between the 1850s and World War I.

Approximately a million North Caucasians, including Circassians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Chechens, Ingush, and Avars, left Russia for the Ottoman Empire. This displacement came as a result of Russia’s military strategy during the Caucasus War, which ended in 1864, and civil reforms in the ensuing decades. Russia adjusted its migration policies to consolidate its authority in the Caucasus. Between 1862 and 1864, the Russian military carried out ethnic cleansing in the Northwest Caucasus, expelling up to half a million western Circassians. The government encouraged and sponsored the mass relocation of Circassians to lowlands and then to the Ottoman Empire. After 1867, tsarist authorities changed course and sought to prevent Muslim emigration, creating administrative obstacles to their departure. Concurrently, the government banned the return of North Caucasians from the Ottoman Empire, aspiring to establish better control over migration across the RussoOttoman border.

Many displaced Muslims regarded their emigration to the Ottoman Empire as hijra. Hijra constitutes a distinct type of international migration that was specific to the Muslim world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hijra drew on venerated accounts of refugee migration throughout Islamic history but was also a decidedly modern, late imperial phenomenon.

Hijra encompasses the types of migrations that rarely come together. Most muhajirs fled to the Ottoman Empire to escape ethnic cleansing or the loss of land and forcible resettlement in the lowlands. Some were taken to the Ottoman Empire against their will in continued enslavement to their masters. Others undertook hijra to preserve their faith and ways of life, considering it to be their religious obligation. Muslim migrations from Russia, although drawing on a rich tapestry of reasons to leave the Caucasus, were never voluntary. Voluntary migration is hardly possible in wartime, let alone amid targeted expulsion or under foreign rule, which many perceive as occupation.


The displacement of Muslims from the North Caucasus was not inevitable. Starting in the sixteenth century, Russia had been expanding southward and eastward and absorbed many Muslim communities in the Volga region, the Ural Mountains, and western Siberia. In the late eighteenth century, Catherine the Great presented herself as a protector of Islam. Her male successors upheld the claim that the Russian sovereign guaranteed freedoms of his Muslim subjects. Yet the conquest of the North Caucasus ended in an ethnic cleansing of Muslim communities. Russia’s violent counterinsurgency and postwar reforms sparked mass Muslim migrations to the Ottoman Empire.

Russia’s drive toward the warm Black and Caspian Seas started with Muscovy’s conquest of the khanates of Kazan in 1552 and Astrakhan in 1556. The annexation of the khanates placed Muscovy close to the Ottoman borders, foreshadowing the Russo-Ottoman rivalry that would span twelve wars over almost 350 years. These wars took place in 1568–70 (Astrakhan Campaign), 1677–81, 1686–1700 (Wars of the Holy League), 1710–11 (Prut River Campaign), 1735–39, 1768–74, 1787–91, 1806–12, 1828–29, 1853–56 (Crimean War), 1877–78, and 1914–17/18 (World War I). The war of 1768–74 ended with the Ottoman defeat, commencing the “Eastern Question,” which was a euphemism for a series of decisions that the European Powers would make about the future of Ottoman territories. It also accelerated Russia’s expansion into the Caucasus. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca of 1774 ended the Ottomans’ protectorate over the Crimean Khanate, one of the last vestiges of the Mongol Empire. In 1783, Russia annexed Crimea, Taman, and the right-bank Kuban region, extending its southern border in the Northwest Caucasus to the

Kuban River, beyond which lay western Circassian territories. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca also affirmed Russia’s sovereignty over Kabarda, an eastern Circassian region in the Northcentral Caucasus. The Kabarda plateaus provided the Russian army a way into the Darial Gorge, a critical pass through the mighty Caucasus Mountains into Georgia and, from there, via the Armenian and Kurdish highlands, to the Ottoman and Qajar domains. The only other land routes from Russia to the Middle East were around the mountains, down the Circassian and Abkhazian coast on the Black Sea or the Dagestani coast near Derbent on the Caspian Sea, neither of which were territories that Russia controlled then.

Shortly after Küçük Kaynarca, Russia expanded beyond the Caucasus Mountains into a region that had been historically contested between the Ottoman and Iranian empires. By the late eighteenth century, the Qajars claimed sovereignty over all Christian principalities and Muslim khanates on the southern slopes of the mountains. The Russians first established a protectorate over the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti in 1783 and then annexed it in 1801. In the following decade, Russia occupied the western Georgian kingdom of Imereti and the principalities of Guria, Megrelia, and Abkhazia, as well as the Muslim khanates of Ganja, Karabakh, Shaki, Shirvan, Quba, Baku, and Derbent farther east. The Qajars grudgingly acknowledged Russian suzerainty over these territories in the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813. The next war with Iran ended in Russia’s annexation of the khanates of Erivan, Nakhichevan, and Talysh, which was confirmed in the Treaty of Turkmenchay of 1828. Russia then reimagined these heterogeneous territories as a single region, Transcaucasia, which later became the South Caucasus. Over the twentieth century, these lands would be homogenized into Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Following the consolidation of tsarist rule in the South Caucasus, the Russian government focused on the mountainous areas to the north that remained outside its control. By then, Russia had erected a line of fortresses and settlements cutting deep into the North Caucasus, but most Muslim communities living around these colonial outposts retained their autonomy. The Russian government demanded their submission after branding some of them as rebels who had previously claimed and then denounced Russian subjecthood, or in retaliation after some mountaineers attacked Russian settlements.

A series of Russian military operations against the last independent Muslim communities in the mountains entered Russian and western historical literature as the Caucasus War (1817–64) and is occasionally described, especially within the North Caucasian diaspora, as the Russo-Circassian War (1763–1864). The Russian expansion prompted the formation of two new Muslim states in the North Caucasus. The first one was the Caucasus Imamate, between 1828 and 1859, which comprised territories in Chechnya and northern Dagestan. The establishment of the Imamate marked a milestone in the political history of the Caucasus. Muslim khanates and village confederations had previously based their legitimacy on dynastic genealogy and often sought patronage of nearby Iran or the Ottoman Empire. The Imamate was a centralized state that rooted its legitimacy in an anticolonial struggle against Russia and strict adherence to shariʿa law, forming part of the global Muslim reaction against European imperialism. It drew its vocabulary and inspiration from early Islamic conquests and relied heavily on Sufi and messianic movements, similar to Mahdist uprisings in Sudan and northern Nigeria against Britain and in northern Cameroon against Germany, the Dipanagara revolt in Java against the Netherlands, and the revolts of the Sufi orders, the Qadiriyya in Algeria against France and the Senusiyya in Libya against Italy in the long nineteenth century. The imams declared a ghaza and a jihād, both of which could be interpreted as “holy war” against non-Muslims, and for several decades fought Russia. The third imam, Shamil (r. 1834–59), styled himself an amīr al-muʾminīn, or “commander of the faithful,” a term previously reserved for caliphs, and sent deputies throughout the mountains to foster anti-Russian alliances.13 Shamil surrendered to the tsarist troops in 1859, which put an end to the most serious challenge to Russia’s expansion in the Caucasus or elsewhere in its Muslim borderlands….

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Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky

Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky, Assistant Professor of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializes in the history of global migration and forced displacement, focusing on the Ottoman and Russian empires. His book "Empire of Refugees," published in 2024, explores the resettlement of a million Russian refugees in Ottoman Anatolia, the Levant, and the Balkans, shedding light on the origins of modern Middle Eastern refugee resettlement. Additionally, his ongoing project, "Global Hijra," delves into the modern history of Muslim displacement in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, supported by extensive archival research and multiple research fellowships.

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