The Caucasus

April 18th, 2007

Our journey from Tehran to Kars has been exhausting. An overnight train from Tehran to Tabriz, a taxi, a bus, another taxi and an execrable border crossing to Turkey followed by three more buses has left us in need of a few days on the beach to unwind. We are now, however, in the Caucasus, which has almost nothing in common with a beach. For a start, it’s snowing.

This region has played host to a wide series of conficts over the last two hundred years. One of many was explained to us on the bus, when our neigbour went through our guide book’s maps of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey patiently enumerating all the towns (“Qamishie: Kurd… Diyarbakır: Kurd… Mosul: Kurd…”) which would form Kurdistan had he been in command of Sykes and Picot’s magic pencil.

Our guide to the ancient Armenian town of Ani proceeded to give us an exhaustive history of the last two hundred years of Caucasus history during the hour long drive. This also turned out to be the history of his family, who have spent the last two hundred years on the run from the various conflicts that have sent waves of people chaotically backwards and forwards across the region.

The Caucasus is an incredibly diverse region, with more than forty languages spoken by the various ethnic groups. Our guide was keen to blame most of the region’s problems on Russia. Certainly the first disaster to befall the Caucasus in modern times was the Russian empire’s expansionism, which saw it annexe Georgia in 1801. By the end of the 19th Century Russia had won a series of battles with Persia and the Ottoman empire (including the Siege of Kars) which saw them control the entire region. The region’s Christians were pretty happy about this – the Muslims less so.

When the Russian Empire was dissolved in 1917, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan seceded, but were rapidly beset by war with Turkey and civil war, following which they were absorbed into the Soviet Union. The region was invaded by the Nazis during world war II for their oil reserves, but the Soviet Union prevailed.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan became independent states – but Russia still interferes heavily in their politics, mainly in order to control their oil resources. Indeed until recently, the Russian flag was visible next to the Armenian flag in the army bases visible from Ani. The Russians are not keen on attempts by Turkey to normalise relations with Armenia, which may help explain why the border between Turkey and Armenia is still closed.

Ten regions of the North Caucasus are still part of the Russian federation – including the republics of Ingushetia and North Ossetia (in which the town of Beslan is to be found), which border Chechnya and are currently facing significant unrest.

The small part of the Caucasus we saw was beautiful, both bleak and haunting in the snow. However the region, trapped between Turkey, Iran and Russia, cursed by oil, seems likely to be troubled by conflict for some time to come.

  • anonymous

    I am a Turkish native living in US and working as a software developer. I admire your enthusiasm to travel to middle East countries. Most of my american friends are too afraid to go and see those areas. In fact, they are asking me all these weird questions about would they be murdered if they land on one of these countries. Not I will shouw your blog and prove my case. You have been very helpful:)

    One other thing is that Diyarbakir is a Turkish city. Yes there is Kurd population may be they are the majority. But I do not see it becoming a city in Kurdistan if there will ever be such a country. Turkish and Kurdish people peacefully lived side by side for all these years. I hate to see that the image getting disturbed.

    Again many thanks for sharing your travel notes. When you get to Istanbul, drink a cup of tea for me while viewing the incredible vista of Bosphorus.

  • jez

    Thanks for your comment. My experience is that the people we have met in Iran and Turkey have been incredibly friendly, hospitable and welcoming. We didn’t once feel any danger – in fact quite the opposite. It really demonstrates the incredible brainwashing job that Western governments and the media have done to make people feel these countries are unsafe. In terms of getting murdered, you’re in considerably more danger living a big city in the US or UK than in the Middle East. Having travelled in the Middle East and the USA, I would be far more afraid of going to Washington DC than of going to Tehran.

    On the issue of Kurdistan – I am all in favour of Turks and Kurds living side by side in peace. I am simply relating my experience, which is that the Kurds I met are very proud of their identity, and many of them would in an ideal world have liked to have their own nation. However many of them also say that things have improved considerably for them over the last few years.

  • Ekta

    hey hope you guys are doing good…I chk your Flickr album religiously everyday for new pics :)

    Enjoyed reading this post more so cuz these days am reading ‘Snow’ :: Orhan Pamuk ..enjoy maddi!! & tc