Peoples of the Caucasus

(1997, b)  "Peoples of the Caucasus (overview article)," in Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life.  Pepper Pike, Ohio: Eastword Publications.

1. Introduction

Between the Back and Caspian Seas rise the Caucasus Mountains. These stretch in a line 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) long from the northeast corner of the Black Sea, near the Sea of Azov, southeastwards down to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, near northwestern Iran. This region has traditionally been considered to be the southeast corner of Europe. As such, it has the highest mountains in that continent: Mount Elbruz, whose twin peaks rise to heights of 18,441 feet/5,621 meters and 18,510 feet/5,642 meters, and Mount Kazbek at 16,512 feet/5,047 meters, all being higher than Mount Blanc in the Alps (15,781 feet/4,810 meters). In the north the region grades over into the plains of southern Russia and is bordered by the Kuban and Terek rivers. In the south it runs into the highlands of eastern Turkey and northern Iran where it may be thought of as ending at the borders of these two nations, which largely follow the Aras River. The region is a meeting place for European, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern civilizations, and shows a mixture of features from these cultures as well as many that are strictly its own.

There are fifty languages indigenous to this region. The ethnic complexity of the Caucasus is unequalled in Eurasia, with nearly sixty distinct peoples, including Russians and Ukrainians. While there are a two regions (Papua-New Guinea and the Horn of Africa) which exceed the Caucasus in the absolute diversity of their ethnic makeup, their cultural levels are neolithic. Only in the Caucasus is such diversity coupled to a cultural level typical of European peasants. The Trans or South Caucasus is home to three new nations which formed at the break up of the Soviet Union: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The first has an ancient history dating back to the second century AD. It was annexed by Russia in 1801. The second is the sole surviving fragment of the Armenian nation, which at one time occupied most of eastern Anatolia (Turkey). It was annexed to Russia in 1828. The third was once the part of Iran called ‘Aran’. It has arisen as a mixture of Turkic peoples who have mixed with and assimilated the earlier Caucasian Albanians or Alwanians, and was annexed to Russia also in 1828. The Cis or North Caucasus has seven republics, all part of the Soviet legacy. From west to east they are: Adygheya, Karachay - Cherkessia, Kabardino - Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnia (Ichkeria), and Daghestan. In addition, the southern portion of Krasnodar kray (district), extends south of the Kuban. The central region of the North Caucasus traditionally looked to Moscow for protection against raids from the Krim Khans (Crimean Tatars) and formed political links early, in the case of Ossetia in 1796. The Northwest region traditionally turned to the Ottoman Empire for trade and hence saw Russia as an enemy. It was only annexed in 1864 after prolonged and bitter war. The Northeastern region traditionally turned south to the Middle East and hence also saw Russia as an enemy. It was annexed in 1859 after prolonged resistance led by the famed Imam Shamyl. To some extent this threefold west to east division crosses over into the south as well and in many ways rivals the customary north - south division in its social and political importance.

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