The Caucasian Borderland
(Excerpts from A lecture by W. E. D. Allen delivered at the meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, London, on May 4th, 1942)


  Throughout history Caucasia has been a borderland. The main chain of the Caucasus mountains, stretching from the Taman peninsula on the Azov Sea to the Apsheron peninsula on the Caspian Sea, is the natural limit of the mountain zone of the Middle East comprising the Armenian and Iranian highlands, themselves a westerly extension of the Himalayan system. Right across Asia this vast mountain complex forms the watershed of the rivers flowing north to the Arctic and south to the Indian Ocean and divides two worlds opposed in all natural and human phenomena. Where the mountain barrier narrows, along the line of the Kopet Dagh (North East Persia) where the Iranian plateau falls to the sandy steppe of Central Asia and in the region of the Caucasus, the two worlds come into close contact and both areas have always been the scene of constant friction and interplay of forces and influences. In the past, from the middle eastern world Iranian and Islamic cultural influences and armies have overflowed into Central Asia as far as the Dzungarian Gap and the borderlands of China. Conversely, Northern Asiatic elements: Turkish, Mongol, and, finally, Russian, have burst or filtered over the mountain barriers of the Caucasus and Kopet Dagh to the west and east of the Caspian Sea.

  In the north the slopes of the main chain of the Caucasus descend to the North Caucasian steppe. This steppe is in its westward part a projection of the grasslands which are fed by the rivers flowing to the Black Sea. The Kuban, like the Don, belongs essentially to the Pontine river system. The low hills of the Stavropol ridge, stretching north to Manych, form the divide between the western and eastern steppes. Eastward, the North Caucasian steppe disappears in the sandy flats stretching to the Volga and forming part of the old bed of the Caspian Sea; an extension of the arid zone of the Aralo-Caspian depression. This steppe is typical of the desiccated desert lands of Asia north of the Mountain Heart and, appropriately enough, is inhabited by the nomad Mongol-speaking Kalmycks.

  In Transcaucasia, south of the main chain, the same diagonal division is reproduced. The Little Caucasus (Suram mountains), thrown off at right-angles from the main chain, form a ridge 1525-1830 m. (5000-6000 feet) linking the Great Caucasus with the Armenian highlands. To the west of the Suram mountains, the Rion basin is an emerged part of the bed of the Black Sea and belongs to the climatic and natural world of the Pontus. East of the Suram mountains the valleys of the rivers Kura and Araks, coming down from the high plateau of Armenia, flow through the arid steppe of Azerbaijan which forms, as does the Kalmyck steppe to the north of the main chain, a part of the Aralo-Caspian depression.

  The ranges forming "the peripheral rim" [H. F. B. Lynch, 'Armenia: travels and studies,' 1901] of the Armenian plateau run parallel with the main chain of the Caucasus in a general direction north-west-south-east. These ranges form extensive upland plateaux averaging 2135-2435 m. (7000-8000 feet). Rising above the level of the plateaux are isolated massifs, like Alagez (4095 m.) and Ararat (5165 m.). This peripheral rim of the Armenian plateau is cut through by the valleys of the Kura and Araks, flowing into the Caspian, and the valley of the Coruh falling to the Black Sea. These valleys, and their affluents like the Oltu-cay and the Arpa-cay, form natural transverse ways into Asia Minor and they connect, by relatively easy passes, with the great river valleys flowing west and south-west as, for instance, the affluents of the Euphrates and the Kelkit-su.

  The main chain of the Caucasus mountains consists of a series of parallel ridges. These ridges are linked by necks forming cols which give access from north to south of the main chain. The connecting ridges often form wide upland glens, sometimes at a great elevation. A typical example is Upper Svanetia and the Tush and Khevsur glens in the Eastern Caucasus. Here communities have lived in almost complete isolation for many centuries.

  The main granitic backbone of the Caucasus range runs as a single wall right across the Caucasian isthmus, from sea to sea, and separates the basins of the rivers of the northern slope from those of the southern slope. It thus represents the main transverse water-divide of Caucasia. The overlapping parallel ranges are all shorter in length than the main chain, but the principal parallel range of Bokovoy (which means in Russian "flanking") is higher than the main chain and gives rise to some of the most notable peaks of the Caucasian system, namely, Mounts Elbruz (5630 m.), Koshtan-tau (5198 m.), Kazbek (5043 m.), and Adai-khokh (4410 m.) [Tau (tor) and Khokh (hoch) are Indo-European (Ossetin) toponyms]. The peaks of the Bokovoy generally exceed in height those of the main chain, namely, Ushba (4697 m.), Tetnuld (4858 m.), and Shkara (5182 m.).

  The Western Caucasus, under the influence of the moist climate of the Black Sea basin, is heavily forested, and the snow-line is considerably lower than in the eastern mountains which come under the desiccating influences of the Aralo-Caspian depression.

  There are three main lines of access over the main chain from north to south. First, the Black Sea coast road. This is an artificial route which has only been developed during the last century. A motor-road and a railway have been built by the Russians along the line of the Black Sea coast from Novorossiysk to Kutaisi in Georgia.

  The second is the Georgian Military Road from Ordjonikidze (formerly Vladikavkas), in the Northern Caucasus, to Tbilisi (Tiflis). This route follows up the valley of the Terek, crosses the main ridge by the col of Krestvoy (2381 m.), now known under the Georgian form Juari ("Cross"), and runs down the valley of the Aragva to its junction with the Kura above Tbilisi. It passes through the gorge of Daryal [Dar-i-al=Persian dar-I-alan=The Alan's Gate. The mediaeval Alans are to be identified with the modern Ossetins, who call themselves As or Iron; they gave their name also to the Azov Sea=As-ov=Sea of the As; cf. Also the Arab name for the Caspian: Bahr-ul-khazar=Sea of the Khazars], as celebrated in the history of the Middle East as the famous Cilician Gates through the Taurus. It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that the Georgian Military Road became a practical highway, when General Todleben, the conqueror of Berlin, crossed the pass with two battalions and four guns. The Caspian coast route has always been the historic highway along which armies have marched from north to south or south to north.

  The third route follows the sandy foreshore of the Caspian between the foothills of the Dagistan mountains and the sea. The narrowest point between the mountains and the sea is at Derbent [=Persian dar-band; Arab bab-al-abwab=gate of gates] where the gap is about 10 kilometres in width.

  There are other passes over the Caucasus, the best-known of which are the Mamison (Ossetian Military Road) which connects the upper valley of the Ardon, a tributary of the Terek, with the valley of the Rion, and the Klukhor pass (2816 m.) connecting the valley of the Kuban with that of the Kodor. There are at least seventy other tracks and paths across the main chain, some of which are only suitable for men marching in single file and others for pack transport. In many cases they are blocked by snow except for three or four months a year. [Baddeley, 'The rugged flanks of the Caucasus,' vol. I, pp. 125 et seq., notes two practicable routes in the area between the Mamison and Daryal passes: R. Fiag-don via Khiliak and Rok passes to upper valley of Liakhva; R. Ghizel-don, Resi pass (12,533 feet), Upper Liakhva. East of the Georgian Military Road, animal transport can by-pass the Daryal by the difficult route up the R. Assa and over the Arkhotis pass (op. Cit., pp. 168 et seq.).



  The Caucasus, historically, was the outer edge of the world of the old cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Kingsley has well imagined the ancient conception of the Caucasus in 'The Argonauts': "And at day-dawn they looked eastward, and midway between the sea and the sky they saw white snow-peaks hanging, glittering sharp and bright above the clouds. And they knew that they were come to the Caucasus, at the end of all the earth: Caucasus the highest of all mountains, the father of the rivers of the east. On his peak is chained the Titan, while the vulture tears his heart, and at his feet are piled dark forests round the magic Colchian land."

  The Caucasus mountains constituted a formidable barrier to armies and to travellers. At the same time, the two marine basins, the Black Sea and the Caspian, gave access to the unknown hinterland beyond the Caucasus. From the seventh century B.C. the Greeks were developing a colonial empire round the shores of the Black Sea. The Greeks themselves were probably the heirs of an earlier Minoan thalassocracy in the Black Sea basin, and there is much evidence that an advanced Bronze Age culture flourished in the valley of the Kuban, and probably also in the Transcaucasian valleys. [See the author's 'History of the Georgian People,' and various articles in Eurasia Septentrionalis Antiqua, vol. VII. This early Caucasian culture may well have belonged to the same cultural world as Anau (Transcaspia) and the Sumerian and Indus civilizations. This Caucasian culture was doubtless devastated by the Volkerwanderung at the end of the twelfth century B.C.]. In the time of Herodotus the Aorsi had already become wealthy as the tribe controlling the porterage between the Volga and the Don and they seem to have been the first predecessors of the Khazars and later Volga powers. But it was only with the rise of the Caliphate that the Arabs developed a great transit trade from south to north across the Caspian, comparable in extent and influence with the Black Sea trade of the Greeks.

  The Khazar and Bulgar states, which arose along the Volga and the Kama from the eighth century onwards under the influence of the Arab world, are comparable in character with the Russian river states which were rising along the Dnepr and W. Dvina at the same period under Byzantine and Scandinavian influences. Everywhere civilization was penetrating from the inland seas by way of the great waterways across the vast Eurasian plain. The Khazar state, on the Lower Volga, was the first of a series of Volga powers. The Khazars were replaced by the Kipchaks, and the Kipchaks by the Mongol Golden Horde. Finally, Muscovite Russia appeared as the latest and greatest of the Volga powers.

  Muscovite Russia, which emerged in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries in the area between the Upper Don and the Volga, was a synthesis of the two old and passing worlds of orthodox Byzantium and the Islamized Tartar-Mongols. Muscovy, a state and civilization arising out of the riverlands of the Eurasian plain, was an entirely new historical phenomenon which was destined to modify and transform neighbouring and older societies. [This rise of Russia as a trans-continental power is comparable to the rise of America in the following centuries. The emergence of these two vast and new powers transformed the old world of "local" European and Asiatic relationships].

  Before they became a European power (on the Black Sea and the Baltic) the Muscovites mastered the great Eurasian rivers: northern rivers like the Pechora flowing to the Arctic, and the Volga, along which the older Asiatic powers had established themselves as the overlords of the whole Eurasian plain, and down which the Russians were destined to advance towards all the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia. Chief instrument in this Russian advance from the region of the Upper Don and the Middle Volga to the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus, and in the west down the Dnepr to the Black Sea, were the Cossacks: communities of men with many purely anarchic tendencies but serving military and colonial ends, a peculiarly original manifestation of the Russian genius.

  By the end of the sixteenth century the Russians had finally established their power on the Volga and defeated the great Turkish attempt to fight off their progress to the south (1570). During the following century the Don Cossacks were challenging Turkish control of the Azov Sea, and on the Caspian shore the Terek (Tersky) Cossacks had set up forts along the Terek and the Sunja where they came into conflict with the formidable Muslim tribes of Dagistan.

  In 1722, the state of civil war in Persia encouraged the Emperor Peter to attempt the conquest of the Caspian coasts. The first regular army trained on modern European lines to operate in Caucasia was transported by sea from the mouth of the Volga to the Terek, and Peter, with no great difficulty, occupied all the country as far as the Khanate of Kuba to the north of Baku. Russian troops were also landed on the southern coasts of the Caspian in the Persian provinces of Gilan and Mazanderan. Unfavourable weather conditions on the Caspian and the outbreaks of epidemics checked further progress, and the death of Peter, followed by changes in Russian policy, and later the rise of a powerful military dictatorship in Persia under Nadir Shah, delayed Russian expansion round the Caspian coasts for half a century.

  The campaign of 1722 had however demonstrated the practicability of a relatively rapid advance along the Caspian flank of the main chain of the Caucasus, particularly when this operation was carried out by combined sea and land manoeuvres. The Russians eventually achieved their conquest of Caucasia by a great flanking movement directed from the Lower Volga across the Caspian to the basins of the Kura and Araks. They thus in effect turned the main chain of the Caucasus, and it was only after their conquest of Transcaucasia that they turned to the pacification of the tribes inhabiting the main mountain massif.



  Caucasia has always been both a refuge of nations in flight before new conquerors and a reservoir from which human elements have emerged to mingle with the populations of neighbouring lands. Many remnants of the old Asianic cultures of the Middle East are to be found in Caucasia.

  The Cherkess, or Circassians, of the Black Sea coast represent a stock formerly much more widely distributed. Cherkess place-names are found in many parts of the Ukraine in such forms as Psiol and Kremenchug. The Cherkess remained an important element in the population of the Crimea until the eighteenth century, and they occupied most of the north-western Caucasus and the basin of the Kuban until the Russian conquest in the middle of the nineteenth century. Old Russian documents frequently refer to the Cossacks as Cherkess, and there was obviously a substantial substratum of Cherkess blood in the very mixed population of the Northern Caucasus and the Black Sea coast lands as far west as the Dnepr. But this is only one aspect of the remarkable dispersion of these people. Professor Zakharov and Professor H. R. Hall have produced evidence for the belief that Caucasian elements were represented among the "Peoples of the Sea" who swarmed into the Mediterranean basin at the end of the twelfth century B.C. and threatened Egypt. [See Hall, "Caucasian relations of the peoples of the sea," in Klio, Band XXII, Heft 3, pp. 335-44; cf. Also Eisler, "Seevolker Namen in altorientalischen Quellen," Caucasica, Fasc. V, pp. 73-130].

  In the classic world and the Middle Ages the slave trade was the normal mechanism for supplying the labour market of the civilized world. It was obviously at the same time an instrument for imposing a continual process of redistribution of population. As slaves and soldiers the Cherkess were celebrated in the Byzantine and Islamic worlds, and they finally rose to fame in the celebrated Mamluk Corps which dominated Egypt until the time of Napoleon. The Mamluk Corps was in fact a sort of Foreign Legion which was recruited largely from the Western Caucasus and the Don steppe. It was the Mamluks who first defeated the Mongols at Ain Jalut (1259), one of the decisive battles of history. The Mamluks still maintained themselves in the Sudan after Mehemet Ali's massacre of the Cairo garrison, and one of the principal reasons for Mehemet Ali's conquest of the Sudan was his fear that the Mamluks might re-form and succeed in building a rival state on the Upper Nile. The last remnants of the Mamluks scattered to Darfur and beyond to Wadai, and I am told that their descendants are still to be met with occasionally in those parts.

  The Ossetes (Russ. Ossetiny) [The Ossetes call themselves Os, As, or Iron. The form Ossetes derives from the Georgian locational termination: Os-eti (=Os-land)], who occupied the Central Caucasus on both sides of the watershed, are an interesting people, anthropologically very mixed but speaking a language which is definitely Indo-European. Their language probably represents the survival of elements from the Germanic wanderings in the South Russian steppe during the first centuries A.D.

  The Georgians are the most numerous and at the same time most civilized group in Transcaucasia. These peculiarly gifted people, who produced a brilliant mediaeval culture, have inherited an original culture and a rich art. Georgia is divided by the Suram range into Western Georgia, represented by the basin of the Rion and the surrounding mountain ranges, and Eastern Georgia covering the middle valley of the Kura and its affluents.

  The Western Georgians speak the distinctive Mingrelian dialect of Georgian and they are generally described as the Svano-Colchian group. They include the Svans of the main chain, the Mingrelians and Imeretians of the Rion basin, and the Adjars and Lazes of the Pontic Alps [For the Lazes, see the author's "March-lands of Georgia," in Geogr. J. 74, 1929, pp. 135-56. For general ethnography of Georgia, see articles by A. Gugushvili and A. Javakhishvili, in Georgica, I, Nos. 2 and 3, 1936]. The svano-Colchians probably include elements of the original population of the Caucasian isthmus. There is a long-headed element along the Black Sea coast and negrito types have been observed [Cf. Herodotus's story of "black Colchians" and the ancient confusion between Colchis and Ethiopia].

  The Eastern Georgians (Kartlians and Meskhians) represent an early movement into the Kura valley from Asia Minor, which probably took place between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C. Place-names in Pontus and Cappadocia indicate that the Kartlo-Meskhian group at one period occupied a much wider area than they do to-day. I think it is generally recognized that the biblical Tubal and Meshech, and the classical Meskhoi and Tibarenoi, can be identified with the Meskhians and Iberians of mediaeval Georgia.

  The tribes of Dagistan have, like the Cherkess, had a wide dispersion throughout the Middle East.

  When the Mongols established their hegemony in Asia Minor and the Caucasus, the Georgians and Armenians played an important role both as intermediaries and mercenaries. Large Georgian contingents fought under the Mongol banners at Bagdad, against the Assassins at Alamut, and the Mamluks at Ain Jalut; and it is interesting fact that in the great battle between Erzincan and Erzurum, when the Muslims defeated the Sultans of Konya, a corps of three thousand Georgians fought in the Mongol ranks, while a Georgian prince commanded the Seljuk army. Again, in the seventeenth century, in Persia under the later easy-going Safavid Shahs, both Georgian and Dagistani nobles dominated politics at the court of Isfahan; and Georgian and Dagistani factions, supported by their ladies in the royal harems, carried on a continuous struggle for power. At one period there were Georgian garrisons at Kandahar and other Persian forts in Afghanistan.


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