As Azeri drones pounded Armenian defenders of Stepanakert in the September 2020 war, “Armenian and Azerbaijani politicians and historians continue to discuss whether the Nagorno-Karabagh region [was] only annexed to Albania after the division of Armenia in 387 BC”, writes Christoph Baumer in his new History of the Caucasus. In this part of the world, the past is never dead, it isn’t even past. That persistence of the past is what lends the Caucasus its fascination while it creates many challenges for its modern citizens. To dwell in the shadow of fortresses repurposed since the Bronze Age by Persians, Romans and Arabs, is both an enriching legacy and a burden.
To perform a historical survey of such a long time span, from prehistory to the collapse of the Soviet Union, of a region containing several dozen nations and intersecting with so many of the great world empires would seem to be a foolhardy undertaking. It is hard to imagine a coherent narrative that includes Sargon the Great, Shah Abbas and Stalin. Christopher Baumer just about pulls this off through dogged erudition and enthusiasm for his subject, the unique, autochthonous peoples of the Caucasus and their lands.
This outcropping of perpetually snow capped mountains, resembles an hour glass squeezed between the Black Sea and the Caspian, with the Eurasian steppe to the north, and to the south the Mediterranean lands on the west and Iran on the east. The shape of the region has determined its history from ancient times up until today. The native Caucasian people have always had to deal with more powerful neighbors: from the steppes (Cimmerians, Scythians, Alans and Russians), from the Mediterranean (Lydians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans) and from Iran (Assyrians, Medes, Iranians). This makes even ancient history seem relevant today.
Many of the earlier cultural and ethnic evolutions Baumer ascribes to environmental factors: successive waves of wetter or drier weather changed the options available for human activities. The waning of the Ice Age forced the rugged Neanderthals to cede the land to the more polyvalent homo sapiens. Early villages were abandoned when water ran out. Scythians invaded the Caucasus when the steppe became too dry. It is a lesson that no way of life is forever. If we run out of petroleum or we overheat the planet with fossil fuels, we are unlikely to have done worse than the Neolithic farmers of Georgia. The only drawback to this historical approach is a lingering feeling of ex-post facto thinking, and the lack of agency on the part of the supposedly clever homo sapiens.
Baumer’s narrative of the succession of cultures, indigenous to the Caucasus like Urartu or invasive like Assyria, Iran or Russia, is brisk and easy to follow. The earliest populations seem to have survived in today’s Georgians, Chechens and Circassians. Later Iranic peoples like the Ossetes, descendants of the Scythians, the Armenians, perhaps the first Indo-European immigrants, and the Turkmen pastoralists who make their appearance in the Middle Ages all contributed to making the ethnic mosaic of the Caucasus dazzling and politically volatile.
The narrative slows down as more historical events intrude. The weft of history in the Caucasus is complicated by the fact that since earliest times, history has been used to advance political agendas. Each of the Christian nations insists that its church is apostolic, ie, it received the gospels directly from one of Christ’s apostles. These claims aimed to place their churches on par with rival Constantinople. Early church history was thus instrumentalized for politics in a rough and tumble environment where bishops struggled with kings and nobles for power and influence.
Baumer tries to untangle the political threads from ancient fake news to give a comprehensive account of these centuries, but this requires heavy slogging through the intrigues of the Roman and Iranian courts, the incursions by the Khazar Turks, Varangians from Scandinavia and the Caliphal civil wars as well as the conflicts between the autochthones themselves: Armenians, Kartlis (Georgians), Albanians (Udis) and others. And this is only Volume I. Confused readers can consult the useful appendix for all the dynasties and kings cited in the text, while the many large and clear maps are essential to following the narrative.
Many fascinating insights into the persistence of the past in the Caucasus reward the diligent reader. The Christian Ossetes preserve ancient Iranic worship practices. Armenian and Georgian personal names recall the heroes of the Iranian Shahnameh. The minor king of the city of Ani called himself the shahanshah. The Albanian/Udis lost all their written records in an ancient quarrel with the Armenians over the nature of the Christ, but still preserve their language orally. Russia’s recent war against Georgia maintains the independence of the ancient kingdom of Abkhazia. The past is not even past.
The text is admirably illustrated by wonderful photographs of places which are both hard to visit and difficult to photograph. I have to confess I visited some of these sites and got only an imperfect sense of their grandeur. Contributors have sat on some precarious perches with good cameras to show us just how formidable the churches, mosques, temples and fortresses of the region still appear.
Baumer’s earlier work on Central Asia was designed to show how our current lack of knowledge and interest in other parts of the world is in no way justified in light of their incredibly rich and eventful history. This latest work on the Caucasus demonstrates its essential role in the history of the Mediterranean world of Greece and Rome, of Iran, the steppes, of early Christianity and ultimately the spread of Islam to Constantinople. It should be consulted by travelers planning a trip to the region, or used as a reference upon return.
David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.