The Caucasus. For most people in Western world the word means very little. People might know that it is a mountain chain on the southern border of Russia. They likely have heard of the countries of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan but know very little about them other than that they used to be part of the Soviet Union. They may even know that Azerbaijan has large oil reserves that people in the United States and Europe are helping harvest. It is possible they have heard about ethnic conflicts, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But beyond that, few of us know much about the Caucasus region. It should not be a surprise. While the countries that comprise the Caucasus are truly ancient, they have had little immediate impact on the lives of most current Americans or Western Europeans.
The Caucasus Mountains mark a geological fault line where the continents of Asia and Europe grind against each other, creating some of the highest and most treacherous mountain ranges in the world. Throughout history, that fault line also has marked both a cultural and political line. The mountains offered a natural barrier for people from Iran and Turkey trying to reach Europe through Russia. Yet it was a barrier that traders and warriors alike, including Marco Polo and Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, wanted to explore because it offered a narrow land passage between the Caspian and Black Seas. As a result, the countries we now call Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan really started their lives as primitive highways, hosting traders on their way between Europe and Asia. Soon, people from all the different ethnic groups traveling through the areas realized that they could make a living catering to the caravans running through their lands, guiding them through mountain passes and, in the meantime, siphoning the latest goods from both Europe and Asia for their own people.
The word Caucasus derives from an Arabic phrase meaning, “mountain of many languages,” likely referring to the fact that the people who settled the area were from many different lands. The conquering nations left their marks, to be sure. All three countries have cultural traditions that bear resemblances to Turkish, Persian, and Russian culture. Yet all three also developed unique cultures strong enough to carry them through centuries of occupation by foreign people. Perhaps the most interesting fact is that these three countries, sitting virtually side by side for millennia, have not merged into one culture. They have developed cultural traditions and maintained ethnic roots that make each of them unique.
The people who settled in the region known as the Caucasus some 6,000 years ago had very pale skin. In the 1800s, several anthropologists thought that all people with pale white skin had originated in the area. As a result, the term Caucasian became accepted as the term for anyone with white skin. Since that time, however, the theory has been disproved. Although the United States continues to call white-skinned people Caucasians, Europe and the rest of the world simply call them white.
For centuries, the Caucasus, the mountainous region wedged between the Black and Caspian Seas, existed in relative obscurity. However, political and economic developments in the 21st century are thrusting the Caucasus into the international spotlight. Understanding the history and the culture of the three Caucasus states — Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia — is increasingly important. Events in the region have a greater potential than ever to affect global developments.
The Caucasus sits on the fault line between two of the world’s great religions—Christianity and Islam. Armenia and Georgia are both predominantly Christian nations, while the overwhelming majority of Azerbaijan’s population is Muslim. For the past 15 years, the Caucasus has proved to be an especially volatile region, in large part because of cultural differences among the region’s many national groups. Caucasus states are still searching for ways to settle long-lasting conflicts, including those in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia.
If the international community succeeds in promoting peace in the region, overall global stability could be significantly enhanced. The Caucasus, in effect, could prove to be a lab that can produce ways to ease existing tension between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Conversely, if the international community fails to address existing problems it could potentially result in a rise of Islamic radicalism. Besides the issues of peace and stability, the Caucasus is important for economic reasons. Large deposits of oil and gas have been discovered in the region, especially around the Caspian Sea. Efforts to develop those resources could have profound ramifications for the international economy. In particular, it could reduce American dependence on the Middle East as a supplier of oil and gas.
For about seven decades, from the early 1920s to the early 1990s, the three Caucasus countries were part of the Soviet Union. During that time, Communist authorities repressed local cultures and crushed any attempt to demonstrate individual initiative. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all three Caucasus countries have struggled to overcome the Communist legacy. In particular, the revival of long-repressed cultural yearnings was a major factor in starting the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as in provoking civil warfare in the Abkhaz region of Georgia. Also, the Communist legacy is partly responsible for the widespread corruption and crime that is frustrating economic development in all three Caucasus countries. Older people are finding it difficult to change their ways. Younger people, especially students, are better able to adapt to the new, post-Soviet conditions. It may be that permanent solutions to the current problems in the Caucasus will require time, allowing those who are kids today in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to grow up and assume positions of authority.