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Book review: History of the Caucasus, Volumes 1 and 2 by Christoph Baumer

14 June 2024

John Binns reads about the Caucasus as seen by an explorer-historian

THE Caucasus is dominated by a thousand-kilometre mountain range connecting the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is both a barrier, with its huge peaks, several more than 5000 metres high, and a doorway, with narrow passes enabling trade, communication, and warfare. It is part of the rather unclear boundary between Europe, at the eastern end, and Asia, both south and north. It is a place of meeting.

An Armenian tradition tells how, on the sixth day of creation, God had a handful of pebbles left unused and tossed them over the Caucasus to make the Armenian highlands. More conventional evidence locates the early pre-history in the movement of the human race out of Africa into the wider world with the discovery of the oldest human fossils outside Africa at the Dmanisi site in Georgia, dating from 1.8 million years ago.

The history since then has been shaped by the collision that has often been violent between rival political powers: from the west came Romans, then Byzantines, Ottomans, and Turks; from the east, there were successive dynasties in Persia, which became Iran; and, from the north, there were first Turkic and Mongol horsemen and then the Russian and Soviet empires.

Its character as a point of contact has led to a rich mix of peoples and cultures. To the south of the mountains are the three nations of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and to the north is a mosaic of places and peoples. The diversity is demonstrated in the small nation in the north-east of the area, Dagestan, where within a population of fewer than three million, there are 34 ethnic groups speaking 14 recognised official languages.

Christoph BaumerThe Orthodox Cathedral of St Mary Magdalene, Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria, Russian Federation. From the book

It has also welcomed Christian missionaries from the earliest times. While the tradition of missionary journeys by the apostle Thaddeus cannot be historically substantiated, the literary sources show that among the earliest nations to become Christian were Armenia — with its King Trdat (Tiridates) IV, converted by Gregory the Illuminator — and Georgia — with King Mirian, evangelised by Nino, supposedly the niece of a Patriarch of Jerusalem. Both kingdoms became Christian before AD 340. In the course of later councils, Georgia affirmed the Chalcedonian two-natures Christology, while Armenia, with Syria and Egypt, taught the one nature of Christ and so became one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Today, the two branches of the Church live alongside rigidly Shiite Azerbaijan.

These two volumes tell the rich and complex story of the region, from the prehistoric beginnings to the contemporary situation. It is a thorough and exhaustive account. In addition to a full and detailed text, there are tables with lists of kings and nationalities, brief articles on topics such as languages and literary sources, and also separate indexes for concepts, people, and places. This enables the reader either to follow the broad panorama of the story of the region from beginning to end or to trace the account of a specific period or a movement.

The author is an explorer as well as a historian, and this huge work was written after ten journeys of exploration. There are 375 of his photographs, which share with us the beauty of the landscape and richness of the architecture and culture which he discovers. It is an absorbing record of the history and life of this extraordinary and important part of the world.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.

History of the Caucasus, Volume 1: At the crossroads
Christoph Baumer
I B Tauris £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

History of the Caucasus, Volume 2: In the shadow of the great powers
Christoph Baumer
I B Tauris £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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