The Caucasus – its peoples and geography

The area of the Caucasus is what traditionally divides Europe from Asia and the Middle East, and has been criss-crossed by different tribes for millennia, all of which have left their mark on their descendants.

Because the region is at a geographical crossroads, languages, faiths, ethnicities and allegiances mingle to such an extent that modern concepts of countries, boundaries and borders are almost meaningless.


The lands of the Middle East and Caucasus are characterised by deserts interspersed with areas of good rainfall and rivers and high mountains with plateau areas. A range of high mountains, the Greater Caucasus Mountains, separates Russia in the north from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the south. Winters can be harsh yet summers are fruitful in the region. The entire area – from the Greater Caucaus Mountains down to Iran – can be struck by seismic activity as the Eurasian, Arabian and African tectonic plates meet at this point.

To the north of Turkey and west of Georgia lies the Black Sea, an almost landlocked body of water fed by many European rivers. Several major ports lie along its coast, such as Odessa, Sochi, Sevastopol, Istanbul and Novorossiysk. To the south of Turkey lies the eastern stretch of the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and reducing the sea distance from the South Atlantic to the southern Indian Oceans by some 7,000km.

To the east of Turkey lie Georgia, Armenia (a landlocked country) and Iran. Further east lies Azerbaijan, whose capital, Baku, is a significant port on the coast of the Caspian Sea, the largest enclosed inland body of water on Earth. Another significant port is the Iranian city of Enzeli – Bandar-e-Anzali – almost due south from Baku.


The entire east of the region is dominated by oil and gas deposits – the world’s first oil well was drilled south of Baku in 1848. It is also rich in minerals such as zinc, gold, tungsten, iron and mercury. In the mountainous areas, farmers tend to sheep and goats; whereas lower areas are subtropical and suitable for tobacco, fruits and tea


The countries of the first years of the 20th Century were very different from now. The Ottoman Empire covered what is now Syria, Turkey and Iraq; the Russian Empire controlled what is now Georgia and Azerbaijan; Persia covered what is now Iran. The countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey are more or less modern constructs; it is important to remember the many, many groups of peoples who have been migrating around this whole area for two millennia. Sometimes the migration was expansion, sometimes contraction, sometimes through domination by other groups – today, more than 50 separate ethnic groups live in the area. Nowadays, each country contains groups who feel that territories belonging to one should belong to another and there is much dispute and accusation of propaganda on each side.

Religion also defines and separates the various groups, with Islam (of both Shia and Sunni type) and Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian churches) being the dominant faiths; Yazidism, Judaism and Baha’i Faith also feature as small but significant populations.

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