History of the Caucasus

For thousands of years, people have lived on the 1,000-mile span of mountains stretching, high and low, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, or in the numerous mountain valleys that delineate the Caucasus – an area where Asia and Europe meet. Throughout history, the indigenous peoples living in the northern and southern mountain ranges frequently fought among themselves and, over many centuries, encountered incursions from the east and the west by a variety of people, including Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Persians, Scythians, Turks, and Mongols.

The complexity of Caucasian history, culture, and religious diversity (even today, the region is home to Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Armenian Christians, among others), overlaid with a plethora of extremely diverse peoples who have rich and dazzling pasts and speak over 50 languages – Arab geographers called the Caucasus Jabal al-Alsun, ‘mountain of languages’ – all combine to make the writing of a history of the Caucasus a daunting, formidable, and near impossible task. It is perhaps ironic that, out of this ancient and complex turbulence, white people today are described as ‘Caucasian’, even though many have not the slightest idea what that nomenclature means or its region of origin.

Fortunately, Christoph Baumer is uniquely qualified to write a book that makes sense of this complexity. Qualified because his magnificent four-volume series The History of Central Asia did just that for an equally diverse and complex region.

In this first of a planned two volumes, Baumer takes us from Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in the north and south Caucasus through the Bronze and Iron Ages, the era of the Northern Horse People, Greek and Roman influences, and the Roman–Parthian Condominiums to the introduction of Christianity, on to the emergence of the Kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia, and finally to the chaotic clashes with militant Islam, ending the book at approximately AD 1000.

Image: Alexander Svirkin, 2014

Baumer’s text is full of tales that pay tribute to the survival instincts of the Caucasian peoples over the centuries, their ability to adapt, and their overall discipline in the face of great change. This huge sweep of history is handled deftly and intelligently through Baumer’s vivid and lucid prose and the accompaniment of magnificent photographs, many taken by the author, which amply illustrate the archaeological discoveries through the ages, from ruined fortifications to wondrous works of art. Indeed, the book is worth buying for the illustrations and photographs alone. There are also clear and concise maps featuring the different stages of development in the Caucasus, an addition of vital importance with books of this nature.

Three subjects touched on in this volume are of particular interest to this reviewer. First is the development of mining: situated 50 miles south of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi is the oldest gold mine in the world, dating back to c.5,000 years ago, where gold extraction took place over seven to eight centuries and where, at its peak, the annual gold production was 500kg to 1,000kg.

Second, the northern Caucasus and the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea boast the largest collection of archaic wagons and wagon parts in the world. Of the approximately 250 known wagon burials, almost half originate from the North Caucasus, which leads Baumer to speculate that the four-wheeled wagon originated in the Caucasus.

And third is the medieval Paulician Christians, who originated in today’s Armenia and held an astonishingly minimalist set of beliefs. They distinguished the benevolent God of the New Testament from the vengeful and strict creator God of the Old. They recognised the four Gospels but completely rejected as obsolete the Old Testament. They objected to the veneration of saints, the adoration of the Virgin Mary, the adoration of the Cross, fasting, and the belief in miracles. For them, Jesus Christ was an illusion and there were no sacraments. When you strip all the foregoing from Christianity, there is very little left. Little wonder they were persecuted by the Orthodox and Armenian churches.

This is a wonderful book, full of great scholarship. I cannot but recommend it highly. As for Baumer, I leave Oliver Goldsmith to pay the tribute: ‘And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,/That one small head could carry all he knew.’

Review by John Hare.
History of the Caucasus, Christoph Baumer, Bloomsbury, £30, ISBN 978-1788310079.