Travel literature review: The Caucasus

The Caucasus: An Introduction by Thomas de Waal

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Will Gourlay

The roaming Arab armies of the 7th century were so baffled by the profusion of dialects and overlapping cultures they found in the Caucasus that they called the region the 'Mountain of Languages'. At the beginning of the 21st century, the situation appears no less complicated. In The Caucasus: An Introduction Thomas de Waal focuses on the recent history of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the three sovereign nations of the Caucasus, which have wriggled free of Soviet overlordship. However, independence has not brought clarity; de Waal comments that the continuing political complexities and ethnic rivalries of the region make 'the Balkans look simple by comparison'.

Lying between the Black and Caspian seas, the mountainous Caucasus has always been a realm of the legendary and the mythical, where Noah, Prometheus and Jason and the Argonauts had a moment in the spotlight. But this region at the blurred borderline between Europe and Asia has seen the comings and goings of a laundry list of empires. Persian shahs, Ottoman sultans, Russians tsars and Soviet commissars have all left imprints on local people and politics. As well as Biblical heroes and Classical adventurers, the region has also produced dictators and tyrants, including Georgian-born Stalin.

This has led to a history of conflict and tragedy but has also created incredible cultural diversity. De Waal tells that the modern Georgian capital, Tbilisi, had an Armenian majority throughout the medieval era, while the Armenian capital, Yerevan, was for centuries a centre of Persian influence. The book includes break-out texts on many of the cultural quirks of the region including Georgia’s history of wine making and Baku’s thriving jazz scene.

Despite a troubled political history, the Caucasus has long been noted for its beauty. Russian writers from Tolstoy to Lermontov wrote ecstatically of the mountains 'as fantastic as dreams' and the people as 'free as eagles'. During the Communist era the Caucasus, and the Black Sea coast in particular, became known as the Soviet Florida, a holiday destination for workers from across the entire Soviet Union.

One thing that all the people of the Caucasus share is a tradition of overwhelming hospitality. In this region, where infrastructure is underdeveloped, the scenery is spectacular and the people are welcoming, travel is still an adventure. De Waal’s book doesn’t contain practical information or travel description, but it does a brilliant job of explaining the cultural richness and the political intricacies of the three sovereign Caucasus nations: background information for anyone wanting to explore this rewarding and challenging corner of Europe.

Long-term Turkophile and inveterate traveller, Will Gourlay seemed to be skirting the Caucasus, from Trabzon to Tabriz, for ages. He finally made it to Georgia and Armenia a while back and he’s been fixated with all things Caucasian ever since. When not writing and editing in his native Melbourne he plots a return to Tbilisi, the sooner the better.

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