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The history of the Caucasus

by Kaya Brown

published

With historical records acknowledging the region as far back as the 13th century BC, the Caucasus is one of the earliest known populated areas on the planet. Dating back thousands of years, the history of the Southern Caucasus - namely Georgia and Armenia - is one of great triumphs, unfortunate losses and many interesting figures.

Petroglyphs in Georgia

Ancient traditions

Bordered by Turkey and the Black Sea to the west, Iran to the south, the Caspian Sea to the east and Russia to the north, the Southern Caucasus is located at the crossroads of East and West. Despite these influences, the region has always maintained a strong sense of identity which is neither Middle Eastern or European, but something altogether separate.

Etchmiadzin - Church of Saint Gayane  in Armenia

As the world’s oldest Christian nation, Armenia first adopted the religion in the year 301 AD - with Georgia following shortly after. Ancient monasteries and forgotten cathedrals dot the landscapes of the two countries, with many tracing their origins back to 4th century. Notable sites include Echmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia and the Jvari Monastery in Georgia.

Jvari Monastery near Mtskheta, Georgia

As well as being the oldest Christian nations both countries have a strong tradition of winemaking, each trying to out-do the other as to who invented it first. During the excavation of a Neolithic village just outside of Tbilisi, archaeologists unearthed 8,000 year old clay pots containing wine residue, indicating that winemaking has been a prominent part of everyday life in the Caucasus since the Stone Age. Similarly, in Armenia, a wine-producing facility was uncovered in the Areni-1 cave which dates back to 6,100 years ago.

Clay pots for wine making in Georgia

Notable figures

The rich history of the Caucasus has lead to the emergence of many historical icons, several of whom are still revered and celebrated throughout the region today. King Tigranes II, also known as Tigranes the Great (140-55 BC), ruled over Armenia for 40 years in the 1st century BC and led the country to significant power and prosperity. Expanding the nation’s boundaries and winning multiple battles, Armenia became known as the most powerful kingdom east of Rome. His legacy is still acknowledged today and you can admire the statue erected in his honour in Yerevan.

Italian painting of Tigranes the Great

In Georgia, David the Builder (1089-1125) and his great-granddaughter Queen Tamar (1160-1213) are the most widely celebrated historical figures. Regarded as true creator of the Georgian Golden Age - the period during which the nation was at the height of its power in the 11th -13th centuries - David IV rose to historical significance after successfully driving the Turkic conquerors out of the kingdom.

Statue of Queen Tamar in Akhaltsikhe, Georgia

His descendant, Queen Tamar, is perhaps the country’s most famous ruler. Commonly referred to as King Tamar due to her perceived power, her story is legendary throughout Georgia and she is seen as a formidable warrior queen who built an empire that stretched across the Caucasus region. The subject of countless, songs, poems, tales, paintings, and with a stunning medieval arched bridge named for her, she has since been canonised by the Georgian Orthodox Church and an annual feast is held in her honour on the 14th May.

Bridge of Queen Tamar

Outside influences

Due to the Caucasus’ sought after resources, and its geographical position as the bridge between east and west, after the death of Queen Tamar the region fell repeatedly into the hands of various invaders. Beginning with the Turco-Mongol conquests lead by the infamous subjugator Timur, the region was then fought over by the Ottoman and Persian empires until its annexation by the Russian Empire.

Amir Timur

Because of this, the Caucasus has been shaped by many outside influences and this patchwork quilt of identities and traditions is exemplified in the many languages spoken throughout the region as well as the ethnic diversity of its population. Even Georgia’s name supposedly derives from the Persian word gurğān.

Russian soviet truck in Georgian highlands

Victims of tragedy

In the lead up to WWI, the Caucasus became the site for a great deal of conflict between the Ottoman and Russian Empires. This was particularly acute in Armenia, where many people were fighting on the side of the Russians despite still being under Ottoman rule. This greatly angered the Ottoman forces and led to the creation of the Tehcir Law, which supported the forced deportation of the Armenian population from the Ottoman Empire.

Monument on the War Road from Georgia to Russia

Over the course of the next few years nearly 1.5 million Armenians were brutally murdered by Ottoman forces, forced into labour camps or marched into the Syrian desert - the atrocities carried out were unimaginable.

In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, an eternal flame burns at the Tsitsernakaberd - the memorial site and museum dedicated to those who were killed. Although it makes for a sobering experience, we recommend taking a look around the complex if you’re planning a visit to the city.

Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide memorial complex,

Soviet legacies

Whilst the nations of the Caucasus have been independent states for the last 20-30 years, one only has to visit to understand the legacy that the Soviet Union has left on the region. Much of the area’s populace still speak fluent Russian and striking Soviet architecture is scattered across the landscape, dotted about between crumbling, ancient monasteries and modern, metallic structures. Formally part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic - or TSFSR for short - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were part of the USSR from the 1920s until its demise in the early 1990s.

Stalin's carriage in Gori, Georgia

Looking forward

Despite the periods of subjugation from outside forces, the Caucasus and its people have always maintained a strong sense of regional identity which has prevailed for thousands of years. From warrior queens to ancient religions, age-old traditions to Soviet influences, the tales of its eventful history are fascinating. Since the countries within the region have had their independence reinstated, they have further cultivated this unique culture which bridges the gap between western and eastern influences, and is quite unlike any other corner of the world.

Georgian flag flying in Tbilisi

Make it happen

If the rich and varied history of the Caucasus has piqued your interest, why not experience the ancient traditions and diverse cultures of Georgia and Armenia firsthand? Our trusted local experts are well versed in the region’s history and are perfectly equipped to organise a tailor-made tour of its cultural and historical sights. Get in touch with our Georgian or Armenian experts today, or to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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