ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Where Europe Meets Asia

A photographic journey through the Caucasus

The Caucasus is a place of imprecise boundaries and identities. The borders dividing its land and its people vary from indiscernible to impenetrable. Diaspora and migration further complicate matters. Its strategic location and valuable resources have made the Caucasus the object of desire for several empires. Accordingly, its many ethnic and linguistic groups have developed strong identities by adapting to change while adhering to tradition.

Broadly speaking, the Caucasus is the size of Spain. Anchored by the Caucasus mountain range, it lies between the Black and Caspian seas, with Russia to the north and Turkey and Iran to the south. Its mountains feature Mount Elbrus, which is located on the Russian side of the Georgian border. It was there that, according to Greek mythology, the gods exiled and chained Prometheus as a punishment for stealing fire. On that mountain, he was tortured every night by an eagle that pecked at his liver. Indigenous Georgian mythology features a similar tale. Mount Ararat, sacred to the Armenians but located across the border in Turkey, lies in the far south of the Caucasus. According to tradition, Noah’s ark rested on its slopes after the great flood. These myths and traditions have helped perpetuate the allure and significance of the Caucasus.

Geographers often divide the region by north and south. Today, the North Caucasus usually refers to the republics of the Russian Federation. These include Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Krasnodar Krai and North Ossetia. The independent nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are often referred to as the South Caucasus. Distinctions between east and west persist, too. There is a more Persian flavor in the east than the Turkish-influenced west.

The Caucasus, however, is neither east nor west, neither Asian nor European. For hundreds of years, invaders and conquerors have drawn and redrawn these lines of distinction. Subsequent migration and forced displacement of its peoples have obscured the lines even further.

The region’s strategic location and natural resources have made it a prize for the Sassanid, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires. Struggles over sovereignty and control continue today. These conflicts are often described as “age old,” “tribal” or “clan-based.” Such terminology, however, belies an intricate political and ethnic landscape. While the Caucasus is remote and often marked by a history of conflict, the global economy and its politics contribute to the complexities there.

Vast fields of oil and natural gas in the Caspian Sea region, as well as fears of a rekindled Cold War, fuel the current struggle for dominance of this region. Georgia’s role in the transportation of oil played a major role in its war with Russia in 2008.

Militant Islam is also an ingredient in current conflicts, notably in Chechnya, where the struggle for independence from Russia has attracted radical Muslim fighters from throughout the world. For the United States and its allies, the geographic proximity of the Caucasus to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf commands attention.

While the Armenians, Georgians and Chechens may be most familiar, there are countless other peoples in the Caucasus who staunchly retain their own ethnic identities. Geographic names usually reflect a portion of an area’s ethnic population, but by no means can a geographic name be mistaken for ethnic homogeneity. Linguistic and religious differences also occur within a seemingly distinct ethnicity. Refugee and emigrant populations further confound the picture.

Abkhazians, Chechens and Ossetians are present in both Georgia and Russia; each group is struggling to gain some degree of autonomy. Abkhazians and Ossetians, which are distinct ethnic groups with their own languages, are largely Orthodox Christians.

Most Chechens are Sunni Muslims. There is a large Sufi minority. Chechens have been seeking independence from Russia since the 19th century. A significant diaspora fuels the ongoing conflict. Chechens also share cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties to the predominantly Sufi Kist in Georgia and Ingush in Ingushetia (a Russian republic bordering Chechnya).

Armenia and Georgia each are home to ethnic groups from which the republics take their name. Both are dominated by two distinct forms of Eastern Christianity that reflect the conflicting sociopolitical realities of late antiquity. Each has considerable ethnic and religious minorities.

To the east, even more ethnic groups occupy the independent republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. The Avars represent a sizable majority in Dagestan, with Dargins, Kumyks and the Lezgins present as well. In Azerbaijan, the Azeris, who are mostly Shiite Muslims and speak a language similar to Turkish, dominate. The Nagorno-Karabakh region lies within Azerbaijan and hosts a major Armenian population. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the Armenian enclave. An uneasy cease-fire has held for more than a decade.

The almost incomprehensible diversity of the Caucasus contributes to its persistent allure and mystery. Historically, the location of the Caucasus at the nexus of Asia and Europe has generated imaginative mythology and romantic exoticism. The struggle of its people to define their distinct identities reveals the complex syncretism that continues to shape these populations and this region.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz received France’s prestigious Canon Female Photojournalist Award in September. Archivist Annie Grunow is the photograph indexer for ONE.

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