As so often, some background information makes traveling so much more enjoyable. Here a few books to consider – or not – when traveling in the South Caucasus.
1. There is perhaps no better introduction to the Caucasus than reading the fictional “Ali and Nino” (1937), by Kurban Said (pseudonym for Lev Nussimbaum). Part touching love story, part description of the contrasting cultures in this part of the world, set against the outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and its effects on Azerbaijan. Ali Khan is a Muslim Azerbaijani of Persian origin, Nino a Georgian, thus European, and Christian, but their love for each other seems to overcome the cultural differences, and their parents are modern enough to ultimately accept this. Yet, their live together becomes increasingly difficult because of a treacherous Armenian (of course, in an Azerbijani book), and modernity-opposing habits as blood honour and broader family values rooted in religion. And is ultimately undone by Azarbaijani nationalism. Read this book!
2. Tom Reiss was so taken by “Ali and Nino” that he embarked on a journey to discover more about its author, Kurban Said alias Lev Nussimbaum, a Baku-born Jew who fled from the Russians to Iran, and then moved to pre-war Berlin. This resulted in “The Orientalist” (2005). Perhaps more about the European Interbellum than about the Caucasus? Still to read.
3. The more scholarly introduction to the area is aptly called “The Caucasus: an Introduction” (2019), written by Thomas de Waal. Unlike many introductions, this book is less than 300 pages thick, and covers the main issues about the area thematically – so by skipping a chapter, you can skip the energy issues, for example, or the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The first few chapters cover the history until Persian and Ottoman domination, then the Russians and then the Soviets; after this, individual countries and their conflicts are being discussed. Mr de Waal is eminently well-placed to explain all this, which he does with – for me – just the right amount of detail, although occasionally he jumps backwards and forth a little too often. Nevertheless, this is the book to read before embarking on a trip to the Caucasus, or just to understand the many conflicts and their sometimes unexpected historical context, something often lost in the occasional newspaper articles on breakaway Abkazia or South Ossetia.
4. “Van Bakou tot Batoumi” (2014) – only in Dutch, I am afraid – is een serie reisverhalen van Jelle Brandt Corstius, geschreven als correspondent in Rusland. Ik had gedacht, vanwege de titel, dat dit over Georgie en Azerbaijan zou gaan, maar de meeste verhalen gaan over Russische deel republieken in de Kaukasus; sommige verhalen zijn duidelijk beter dan anderen. Mr. Brandt Corstius heeft de neiging snel af te dwalen, naar eerdere ervaringen die niet noodzakelijkerwijs relevant zijn voor het thema van het boek, en dat stoort regelmatig. En daar waar hij iets interessants tegen komt, gaat hij vaak niet verder dan alleen de observatie, zonder er dieper op in te gaan, of de persoon in kwestie verder te bevragen. Dat gezegd hebbende, is wat hij te vertellen heeft best interessant, en een aantal van zijn ervaringen ronduit ongelofelijk – maar ik geloof hem wel. Een aardig tussendoortje, geen hoogdravende beschrijving van de Kaukasus.
5. Somebody who does travel the three South Caucasus countries is Stephen Powell, who wrote about it in “The First Toast is to Peace” (2018). Unfortunately, Mr Powell is not a very gifted writer. He does admit that his book is a reworking of his blogs, and there is simply not enough in it to really stand apart. The book is a mix of own experiences and guide book texts, and none of them really explore the issues of these countries; they are mostly stuck in superficial observations. Still, as one of the few travel books on the area, there is the pleasure of recognition, if you read it during or after your trip, which is what I did.
6. In Azerbaijan I found “Oil Boom and Football” (2013), written by Chingz Abdullayev, written for the 150th anniversary of the FA, the English Football Association, because “since it was the English who brought football to Azerbaijan in 1911, the Azerbaijani referee dutifully returned the favour” – a reference to the Azerbaijani linesman who approved the controversial goal in the 1966 Worldcup final. Really! But the book mostly deals with the oil industry in Azerbaijan, and its effects on the country at large. To read.
7. An classic is “Georgia in the Mountains of Poetry” (1998, and updated since), by Peter Naysmith. Travelogue and history book in one, still unread on the shelf.
The travel guides:
We carried the following:
The Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azarbaijan (2016) provides the usual mundane information good for planning, as well as during the travels. Maps, and short descriptions of the sights, all useful information – although detailed hotel and restaurant lists are somewhat superfluous in the age of internet.
Bradt Travel Guide for Georgia (2018), by Tim Burford, a solid Bradt Guide, with more details on history and sights than the three-country Lonely Planet – but if you carry the LP, this one is somewhat superfluous. If you only go to Georgia, buy this one, though.