The Caucasus region is a relatively compact area centered on the Caucasus Mountains. The foothills to the north and some of the steppe connected to them form a northern border, while the southern border can be defined by the extent of the Armenian plateau. The Black Sea in the west and the Caspian Sea in the east form natural boundaries in those directions. It is a territory of immense ethnic, linguistic, and national diversity, and it is currently spread over the territory of four sovereign nations.
The Caucasus region has long been known for the diversity of its peoples. Pliny the Younger in the first century, writing in his Natural History (Book VI.4.16), cited an earlier observer, Timosthenes, to the effect that three hundred different tribes with their own languages lived in the Caucasus area, and that Romans in the city of Dioscurias, encompassing land now in the Abkhaz city of Sukhumi, had employed a staff of 130 translators in order for business to be carried out.
The relative remoteness of the Caucasus from the Greek and Romans lands led to erroneous ideas concerning its location, not to mention exotic claims for its people. Some thought that the mountains extended far enough to the east that they joined with the Himalayas in India. The Caucasus was the scene of the legendary Prometheus' captivity, the goal of Jason's Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece, and the homeland of the famous and fantastic fighting women known as Amazons. When Pompey invaded the region, he was said to have wanted to see the mountain where Prometheus had been chained.
The main Caucasus range is often considered part of the boundary that separates the state of mind that is Europe from that of Asia, despite aspirations of people to the south to be a part of Europe. The highest peak is Mount Elbrus at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters), making it the highest in Europe; other prominent summits include Kazbek (Qazbegi) in Georgia at 16,558 feet (5,047 meters). The lands to the south are protected by the barrier they form against the cold northern winds, to the point that lands along the Black Sea coast, although at latitudes above 40º N, possess a subtropical climate.
To the north of the Caucasus range is the Eurasian steppe, which stretches far to the east and west; it has been the route of countless invasions. To the south are a variety of lesser mountain ranges, plateaus, and plains—an area that has also been a crossroads of military and economic inter-course—Persians from the east, various Greco-Roman states from the west, and Semitic cultures from the south have interacted with the peoples of the South Caucasus.
There are a variety of climates in this region due to the steep gradient in elevation from sea level to mountain peak. Glaciers are nestled at the tops of the mountains only a couple hundred miles from citrus and tea plantations. Fast-moving rivers course along this gradient. By and large, the mountain rivers, cutting steep gorges, for example, the Pankisi in eastern Georgia and the Kodori in Abkhazia, are not navigable, but there are rivers to the south and north—such as the Mtkvari (Kura), which starts in Turkey and flows through Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea, and the Terek to the north, which flows also to the Caspian—that have been important water highways throughout human history. The mountains hold mineral resources such as coal and manganese. The Caucasus is near the oil resources of the Caspian Sea and pipelines run to, or are planned for, the north and south of the mountains.
There is great potential for promoting a prosperous tourist industry. Alpine skiing, pristine mountain lakes, white-water rafting, and the breathtaking scenery of snow-capped mountains juxtaposed with fertile plains are all available to the visitor, and the hospitality of the many peoples of the region, when they are not fighting among themselves, is the stuff of story and legend.
The region, formerly contained within the boundaries of the Soviet Union, is in the early twenty-first century spread over four nations: the Russian Federation to the north; and the three republics of the South Caucasus, also known as Transcaucasia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The Russian part of this area is divided into several ethnic jurisdictions: Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.
Balkar-Karachay is a Turkic language, as is Kumyk of Dagestan. These languages were left behind as Turkic peoples moved along the steppes from Central Asia.
The Ossetes speak an Iranian language, as do the Judeo-Tats of Dagestan. The Tats have the added distinction of being Jews in the midst of a predominantly Muslim territory; many of them reside in Israel.
The Ingush and Chechen languages are fairly closely related and are collectively known as Vainakh languages. They might have been considered one language, but Soviet-era language policy often encouraged a fragmentation in linguistic definition. At the same time, languages that had little or no written expression before the twentieth century were given alphabets and encouraged—principally, of course, to be instruments of communist propaganda. Such was the case with many of the languages of the Caucasus, the two major exceptions being Armenian and Georgian with alphabets dating from the fifth century.
The languages of Dagestan to the southeast are divided into a long list of small groups, including Aghul, Akhvakh, Andi, Archi, Avar, Bagvalal, Bezhta, Botlikh, Chamalal, Dargwa, Dido, Ghodoberi, Hinukh, Hunzib, Karata, Khvarshi, Lak, Lezgi, Rutul, Tabassaran, Tindi, and Tsakhur.
Georgia is also divided by the ethnic autonomies of Abkhazia, Ajra, and South Ossetia; and a number of Georgian and other ethnicities reside in the mountainous regions: the Svanetians to the west, speaking a Kartvelian language related to Georgian; the Khevsurs to the west, speaking a dialect of Georgian; Bats, a small group speaking a Vainakh tongue related to Chechen and Ingush; and the Khists, who are related to the Chechens and who occupy the Pankisi Gorge.
The ethnic and linguistic diversity described by Timosthenes and Pliny in antiquity, continues to be a fact of life in the Caucasus. It is a source of wonder, but also of conflict, as boundaries have continued slowly to shift back and forth over the millennia, but with a greater frequency in the past two centuries, as the Russian Empire appeared to claim this territory as its own. The spread of Russia southward was not always by military means, and in the case of the Caucasus, the military was preceded by the gradual migration of Cossacks, except along the Caspian coast, where Peter the Great led incursion early in the eighteenth century. Their collective societies lived at the edge of Russian territory and its legalities; in the eighteenth century they began to come into closer contact with the peoples of the Caucasus. Occasional violent conflict turned eventually into organized warfare.
The wars in the Caucasus throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to defy any logical reference to a benefit that the Russians may have gained from holding on to the land. The great authors of nineteenth-century Russia have left a vast collection of poetry, short stories, and novels that have the ambiguous heroics of war in the Caucasus as part of their plot. One of the most famous is Leo Tolstoy's novella Hadji Murad, set in the central Caucasus. Its prologue, in which the narrator utterly destroys a beautiful yellow flower while attempting to pick it, should be required reading for any who study the Caucasus.
Some of the conflict between Russia and the natives of the Caucasus has traditionally been defined across confessional lines. The North Caucasian peoples were converted to Islam, although some, such as the Abkhaz, have been less intense in their assimilation of that faith. The wars in the nineteenth century came to have religious meaning for both sides, especially with the leadership of the Imam Shamil, from the Avar people of Daghestan, who led the Chechens and others until his capture in 1856. His defeat, and Russia's eventual "pacification" of the region, was followed by a massive migration, not altogether voluntary, of North Caucasian peoples to the Ottoman Empire. Slavs, Georgians, and others often filled the "empty spaces" left behind, adding to the potential for ethnic conflict in later times.
The chaos of Revolution in 1917 was greatly felt in the Caucasus, with Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan all experiencing short periods of independence. The North Caucasus peoples attempted to form a Confederation of Mountain Peoples. All of these, pressed by foreign intervention, as well as White and Red Russian Armies, fell to the Bolsheviks. The shifting realities of ethnic jurisdictions in the Caucasus region is its own study of nationalities policy in the Soviet Union, with the most tragic chapter being written toward the end of World War II when entire groups were forced into exile, including Ingush and Chechens, and several smaller groups. Although allowed back in the 1950s, these deportations are part of the fuel that has fed the fire of revolt and conflict in the Caucasus during the post-Soviet period.
Baddeley, John. (1969). The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. New York: Russell and Russell.
Braund, David. (1994). Georgia in Antiquity: A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia, 550 BC–AD 562. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
Ethnologue Web site: <www.ethnologue.com>.
Greppin, John A. C., ed. (1989). The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus. Delmar, NY: Caravan Books.
CAUCASUS , mountainous region between the Black and Caspian Seas, in the south of the former Soviet Union. For over 2,000 years this inaccessible region served as a refuge for a variety of nations, tribes, and adherents of different religions, including Jews, who thus preserved their cultures and languages. Russia began conquest of the area at the end of the 18th century. The northern part was incorporated in the Russian Soviet Republic, while the southern was divided between the Soviet republics of Azerbaijan (whose inhabitants are mostly Turks-Azerbaijanis), Georgia, and Armenia. It is uncertain when Jews first arrived in the area. Jewish as well as non-Jewish traditions of the Caucasus, as also the ancient historical literature of *Armenia and *Georgia, relate that the Jews there originated from the exiled Ten Tribes or the exiles from Judah. Aristocratic Christian families in Armenia and Georgia regarded themselves as descendants of these exiles. Other traditions, for which there is some vague support in the Talmud, trace the beginning of Jewish settlement in the Caucasus to the Second Temple era and following its destruction. Yet other traditions found in the works of the Armenian historians Moses of Chorene (fifth to sixth centuries) and Faustus Byzantinus (fourth century) mention a large Jewish settlement in Armenia, from which Jews emigrated to Babylonia and Persia.
With the Muslim conquest in the eighth century, many Jews in the Caucasus were compelled to convert to Islam. The Karaite *Al-Kirkisānī and the Muslim historian al-Masʿudi tell of many Jews living in the Caucasus. The *Khazar state, which incorporated the northern part of the Caucasus, served as a haven for Jews who fled from the persecutions of the Christians and Muslims even before the conversion of its rulers to Judaism, and some maintain that the Jews of the Caucasus played a role in this conversion.
With the decline of the Khazar kingdom in the tenth century, the situation of the Jews deteriorated. *Benjamin of Tudela mentions, among the communities which were subordinated in the late 12th century to the *exilarch in Baghdad, the Jews living in the Ararat mountains, in the land of Alanyia "which is surrounded by mountains" and the land of Gurga (Georgia). Their existence is also reported by the non-Jewish traveler Guillaume Rubruquis (13th century).
After the Mongolian conquest of the Caucasus contacts between this area and Europe were severed. Information on the Jews there is interrupted over a lengthy period. The Caucasian Jews themselves preserved no record of their history during their many centuries of settlement before the coming of the Russians. European travelers passing through the Caucasus during the 18th century reported on the difficult position of the Jews living in the areas of Muslim and Christian rule. They had to pay special taxes; in Muslim regions in particular, onerous and humiliating public tasks were imposed on them. In many places they were considered serfs of the country's rulers. With the beginning of the Russian conquest, Muslim fanaticism intensified. Jews suffered much in particular at the hands of the Murids, a fast-spreading Muslim sect, who regarded the war with Russia as a Jihād (holy war) for uniting all the Caucasians within Islam. Consequently large numbers of Jews fled to the regions conquered by the Russians or to the towns, while many Jewish villages were abandoned or their inhabitants converted to Islam.
With the gradual conquest of the region by Russia during the first half of the 19th century, the question of the rights according to Russian law of the Jews living there arose under the rabidly anti-Jewish Czar *Nicholasi. The central government intended to expel the Jews from the Caucasus, and an expulsion decree was sent to the local authorities. These, however, pointed out that the Jews – numbering over 12,000 – had been living in the area for many generations and were integrated in the life of the region. Most of them were farmers or craftsmen while some were serfs over whom the local landlords would not consent to waive their rights. In 1837 the right of residence within the borders of the Caucasus of locally born Jews was ratified by law, but their residence in other parts of Russia was not authorized. On the other hand residence in the Caucasus was prohibited to the Jews of Russia, whom the local Jews knew as "Ashkenazim." It was only during the 1860s that some Jews then permitted to live beyond the *Pale of Settlement began to settle in the Caucasus. Jewish entrepreneurs played an important role in the development of the petroleum fields of *Baku region. During the second half of the 19th century, contacts were made between the *Mountain Jews and Georgian Jews and those of other parts of Russia. The Jewish press published reports on the Caucasian Jews, including letters and articles by the traveler Joseph Judah *Chorny and the Mountain Jew Ilya *Anisimov. A few Caucasian Jews also studied in the Lithuanian yeshivot and later returned to serve as rabbis in their communities. *Zionism soon occupied an important place in the life of the local Jews as well as the "Russian" Jews there.
The number of Jews in the Caucasus was recorded as 56,773 in 1897 (0.5% of the total population of the region), of whom 7,038 belonged to the Mountain Jews, 6,034 to the Georgian community (a figure apparently below the actual number), and 43,390 were "Ashkenazi" Jews, almost all of them originally from the Pale of Settlement (about 10% of these served in the army stationed along the Turkish and Persian borders); 93% of the "Ashkenazi" Jews declared Yiddish as their spoken language. During the 1917 Revolution and civil war (1918–21), the Jews in the Caucasus suffered with the other inhabitants of the region. Many of the Mountain Jews were compelled to abandon their villages and concentrate in the towns. During this period the Caucasus served as a transit route for the pioneers who left Russia for Ereẓ Israel. After the establishment of Soviet rule over the Caucasus in 1920–21, conditions for the Jews there were similar to those of the Jews in Russia; however, the government was compelled to take into consideration the special character of this frontier region, and attempted to avoid offending the national-religious feelings of its inhabitants, and the Jews also benefited from this policy. Thus the local Jews maintained their patriarchal society, their strong family ties, and their deep attachment to the national and religious tradition. Soviet ethnographers continued to study the lives and customs of the Caucasian Jews. During World War ii the Germans only reached the northern extremity of the Caucasus and the number of Jewish communities annihilated in the Holocaust was thus relatively small. In those years the towns of the Caucasus served as a refuge for many Jews of Western Russia.
In 1959, 125,000 Jews (approximately 1% of the total population) were recorded in the Caucasus (including those in the republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, and the autonomous republics of Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkar, North Ossetia, and Chechen-Ingush). Of these approximately 35,000 were registered as belonging to the Georgian community, and over 25,000 to the community of Mountain Jews, while the remainder were mostly of Russian origin. The two largest Jewish centers were Baku (26,623 Jewish inhabitants) and Tbilisi (17,311). Later information from the Caucasus indicated that a warm national Jewish feeling existed among Georgian and Mountain Jews, observance of religion within a patriarchal family framework, the existence of synagogues and rabbis (ḥakhamim), and a yearning for the land of Israel. When in the 1960s a yeshivah was established in the Moscow synagogue, the majority of its few students came from Georgia. Massive emigration to Israel and the West from the late 1980s on reduced the Jewish population considerably by the early years of the 21st century, to around 7,500 in Azerbaijan, 4,700 in Georgia, 500–1,000 in the Republic of Armenia, and barely 3,000 in the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation.
J.J. Chorny, Sefer ha-Massa'ot (1884); S. Anisimov, Kadmoniyyot Yehudei he-Harim (1894: Rus. orig. I.S. Anisimov, Kavkazskiye yevrei-gortsy, 1888); A. Katz, Die Juden im Kaukasus (1894); Bage, Les Juifs des montagnes et les Juifs géorgiens (1902); R. Lowenthal, in: hj, 14 (1952), 61–82; D. Maggid, in: A.I. Braudo et al. (eds.), Istoriya yevreyskogo naroda, 12 (1921); U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, Institute of Ethnography, Narody Kavkaza, 1 (1960), 554–61; A. Eliav, Between Hammer and Sickle (1967), 189–230; M. Neishtat, Yehudei Gruzyah (1970).