From Chistianity to Independence, in a 1000 words: much too short, of course, but here is a very quick overview of some of the history of the South Caucasus. No pictures, yet, I am afraid…
Before we go on, it is perhaps useful to sketch the historical context of the South Caucasus. Many of us may be aware that Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as state religion, in 301 AD. Georgia, not much later, became the second, well before the Roman Empire did so. More striking is that these areas managed to retain their religion, despite falling out with each other within a few hundred years, over a theological dispute (the dual nature of Christ, Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, if you must know), from when the Georgians focused more on the Byzantine Empire, and the Armenians on the even older Middle Eastern churches. But where the surrounding co-religionists were swept away by the advancing Islam in the 7th Century and afterwards, the Georgian and the Armenian church maintained their existence, even though both countries didn’t exist as independent entities anymore, both having been split in a Byzantine- and a Persian-dominated part. Not so Azerbaijan, of course, which was conquered by the Arabs and converted lock, stock and barrel to Islam – and over time, under a thousand years of Persian rule, to the Shia version thereof.
Politically, the great empires of the Middle Ages, the Ottoman and the Persian Empires, strongly influenced the South Caucasus. Generations of Georgian princes converted to Islam in public, to maintain good relations with their colonisers, whilst they remained Christians at home. In fact, the last time the Georgians played any significant role was in the 11th and 12th Century, under King David the Builder and his great-granddaughter, Queen Tamar. Quite a few churches and cathedrals date from this time. And some even survived the onslaught of the Mongols and subsequently of Timurlane in the centuries afterwards. What remained of Georgia broke up in several smaller kingdoms, invariably dominated by either Ottoman Turkey or Persia.
Armenia didn’t fare much better. It was conquered by the Persians in the 5th Century, and by the Mamluk Turks, a precursor to the Ottomans, in the 14th Century. Many of the Armenians, traders, bankers and craftsmen, left, and today the Armenian diaspora is twice as big as the number of Armenians living inside the country. Azerbaijan has no national history to speak of: although it is now the biggest country in the South Caucasus, there has never before been a country of that name, only a Persian, Turkic-populated, province.
Things changed in the 19th Century. With the decline of Persian power, combined with increasing assertiveness of Tsarist Russia, the Transcaucasus, as the Russians called it, became part of the Russian Empire. Early forages into Georgia by Peter the Great and later by Catherina the Great, in the 18th C, didn’t last long. But it was Tsar Alexander I who declared in 1802 that all the land north of the Araxes River should be conquered – so defining the border of today’s Azerbaijan: as a result there are three times as many Azerbaijanis living in Northern Iran as there are in present day Azerbaijan. It took until 1828 for the conquest to be completed, but from then on Russia dominated the South Caucasus. By the way, for a while this also included a significant part of Armenia-bordering Eastern Turkey, as well. Where at the time lots of Armenians lived.
The Russians urbanised the Transcaucasus, more than ever before. Tbilisi, which had always been the largest city in the area, now became the colonial seat and was refurbished into a then-modern European town. Baku, where oil became commercially exploitable in the 1870s, turned into a ultra-rich city, for the oil barons. In the early 20th C, Baku produced about half of the world’s oil. The Russians also, quite successfully, tried to integrate the local population into the Great Russian Empire – mostly the Christian Georgians, and Armenians, less so the Azeris. Yet, they could not prevent the incubation of nationalistic feelings, and even before the Russian revolution, tension created unrest in the South Caucasus region. The First World War didn’t help, diminishing Russian influence even further, but the collapse of the Tsarist regime at the hand of the Bolsheviks did it for Transcaucasus: for the first time in hundreds of years Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries.
Only to be absorbed into the Soviet Empire shortly afterwards: the Red Army marched into Azerbaijan in 1920, and Armenia and Georgia followed shortly afterwards. An occupation that lasted until 1988, when this empire, too, collapsed. And the three South Caucasus countries finally did get their lasting independence, holding out at the fault lines of religion – Christianity vs Islam -, of geography – Europe vs Asia -, and of the various present-day power brokers in Russia, Iran and Turkey. Oh, and all of that flanked by an unstable Middle East.
Of course there is much more to the history of this area. There was something called Caucasian Albania, another early Christian kingdom that has disappeared from the earth. I haven’t talked about the Armenian genocide at the end of WW I, which warrants an entry onto itself, or other deadly wars which killed 10s of thousands of people. Neither have I yet mentioned the post-independence conflicts. Self-declared independent Nagorno Karabach which has been subject to years of fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces, seems to have been ethnically cleansed from its Azeri population and is now under defacto Armenian control. Or South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two mini-republics that have violently separated from Georgia with Russian support, in a short war in 2008.
So recent history is far from quiet in the South Caucasus. Which is curious, in an area where the people, whether Georgian, Armenian or Azeri, and despite religious differences, have for centuries managed to live together in peace. In 1899 there were more Armenians than Georgians living in Tbilisi; Georgians and Armenians have always been present in great numbers in Baku. Every traveller – travellers from every era – agrees that South Caucasians are amongst the most friendly and hospitable people in the world, and that fits well with our own experience in neighbouring South East Turkey and Iran. You wonder, sometimes, what independence does to people. Or would it just be to politicians?