Archive for ‘Caucasus’


“But I say it’s only mountains and the sea…”

Nestled in the Caucasus like a goblet of leopard blood in Vladimir Putin’s mailed fist, Sochi is basking in worldwide attention. The Black Sea site of the Winter Olympics is just up the coast from the Georgian border, and the media is starting to ponder this umbrous and ungenteel land: Sky News offers a primer on the violent history of the Caucasus, al-Jazeera reports that a “forgotten insurgency” called the Caucasus Emirate is simmering, and the National Geographic website reminds readers that the Caucasus are a “cauldron and pretty unstable” and that “the games themselves are reigniting deep enmity.”

Dutiful and dull, these news reports fail to capture the sheer sheep-face stew of regional history. For that, you need to seek out one of the great, gonzo books about the Caucasus: W.E.D. Allen’s A History of the Georgian People.

Published in 1932, Allen’s tome was once the standard history of Georgia in English, but the author of a recent survey calls it “antiquated.” Perhaps he’s thinking of passages like this one:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

I’m kidding—but only a little. Here’s W.E.D. Allen’s take on the Caucasus in the 7th century B.C.:

And when the Swarming Time was over, and men began to rule in cities, and others to write again, these shifting peoples emerge into the light of history; with changed names, moulding languages and old traditions, borrowed from the word-of-mouth anthologies of conquerors and conquered, woven to the doubtful fabric of a common history.

Here’s Allen’s snappy summary of how a medieval quasi-state emerged in the Caucasus:

For two generations or more there were difficult manoeuvres, obscure dynastic skirmishes, ferocious little wars between the pushful princes of young mediaeval Georgia.

Here’s Allen’s description of the Georgian national character, which I think he considers flattering:

The Georgians retain in a remarkable degree, both individually and as a people, the clear and gentle outlook, the free and inquiring intelligence and the high amoral and untrammelled mind of primitive man. The generosity, the loving simplicity and the humanity, the animal love of life which characterizes the Homeric poems and the ancient literature of the Celts and Scandinavians lights the pages of the mediaeval Georgian epics and declares indeed the mind of the Georgian these days.

At the same time the climate is a mellow joyous climate and the wine is good, so that neither the air nor the diet are conducive to the worrying over principles and the gnawing over grievances.

And here—and oh, how I love this one—is Allen’s ode to the ancient city of Kutais:

In the last foothills of the Caucasus fineing to the Colchian plain, in the sparkling sunshine, the river gleaming past down from the mountains to the sea, the lovely city stretches lazy brave and laughing, like as it were to some free woman who has known so many grasping dirty masters, and remains fresh in all her shame.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find an affectionate city-as-whore simile in an overview of Georgian history. By that point, I was lost in a twisting maze of tribes, dynasties, and place-names—but I was also determined to find out what Allen, with his own strange sense of decorum, intended to swoon over next.

Who was W.E.D. Allen? Born in 1901 to Ulster Protestant stock, Allen was the Eton-educated scion of a printing-and-advertising family. In addition to A History of the Georgian People, which he wrote when he was 29, his scholarly work included the much-touted Caucasian Battlefields and the journal Georgica. Allen served as a war correspondent, worked for the Foreign Office in Beirut, Mosul, and Ankara, and endowed the National Gallery in Dublin with Orthodox icons and other treasures, many of which he had found being sold as “debris” in Istanbul bazaars. At the time of his death in 1972, his private library on Russia and the Caucasus was hailed as “probably one of the best on the subject outside the Soviet Union.” Allen also represented West Belfast in Parliament as an independent Unionist, and—although his scholarly biographer passes over the fact in silence—he was a behind-the-scenes Fascist who wrote for the periodical The Blackshirt under a pen name.

What Allen’s biography doesn’t tell you is that A History of the Georgian People is not a logical endeavor. No, it’s a glorious mess—a rhapsodic brain-dump by a scholar so sunk in his subject that he can no longer outline it for newcomers. Calling his own treatment of Georgia “horizontal rather than chronological,” Allen assumes his readers possess encyclopedic knowledge of Caucasian, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern history. His narrative, too detailed to convey the wider drama and too burdened by minutiae to be novelistic, often gets ahead of itself: Why herald the death of King Bagrat III—a would-be Charlemagne of the Caucasus—when you haven’t yet told us who he was?

I’ve found it impossible to get more than 100 pages into Allen’s history, but I confess that with the regret of a traveler who longs to return to some far-flung place. I’m beguiled by the promise of more florid musings like this:

Here are no serried ranks of causes and effect, no steady march of progress, no smug train of evolution. All the nations of the world have drifted through the Caucasus; all their leavings are to find—but little has been built. Here are the ways of God and men, most horrible and lovely, uncertain and not comprehensible. Such things we may contemplate, learn somewhat, understand a little, and wonder at the colour and the clouding and the sun upon it all.

A History of the Georgian People may be obsolete, but only as scholarship. As a love letter to the Caucasus, it’s remarkable—and, like a love letter, it’s worth digging out every now and again for the lingering whiff of a past that refuses to die.

“I focus on a face in Samarkand…”

Tom Shippey, Studies in Medievalism XIV (2005), p. 3:

“The issues, however, remain, and no modern reader can quite escape a sense, once again, that the medieval world with all its cruelty and fanaticism has not been entirely buried, is all too capable of returning to haunt us. Medievalisms remain dangerous, and dangerously vital: that is one reason why they require careful and dispassionate study, of the kind they too rarely receive inside or outside the academy.”

Eliza Shapiro, The Daily Beast, April 19, 2013:

Amir Temur, also known as Tamerlane, was a Central Asian ruler and warlord who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns throughout Central Asia, Africa, Europe, and the modern Middle East killed about 17 million people, or 5 percent of the world’s population at the time.

Identifying strongly with Mongol culture, Tamerlane wanted to restore the empire of Genghis Khan and conquered the modern nations of Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Syria, India, and southern regions of Russia. He was a devout Muslim who referred to himself as the “Sword of Islam,” even though he razed many of the Islamic world’s greatest cities at the time.

Although Tamerlane died six centuries ago, his legacy still carries enormous weight throughout Central Asia. The Tsarnaev brothers are Chechen, and Tamerlan, the older of the two, fled Chechnya with his family in the early 1990s to escape the bloodshed that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. He came to the United States with his family in either 2002 or 2003 under refugee status from Kyrgyzstan.

“To say Tamerlane evokes mixed reaction across Central Asia would be an understatement,” Justin Marozzi, author of Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the Worldtold the Daily Beast. “Respected as a national hero in Uzbekistan, site of his imperial capital of Samarkand, he is regarded with loathing—with good reason—by the country’s neighbors, who remember, more than 600 years after his death, the numerous outrages he committed against them.”

Tom Shippey, Studies in Medievalism XVII (2009), p. 52:

“There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Some are building monuments, others are jotting down notes…”

So the Ossetes, who straddle the Russia-Georgia border, claim descent from the Alans, the ancient warrior-nomads who helped forge the early medieval West. That connection, rooted as much in Caucasian history as in recent Ossetian political needs, makes for clever trivia—but what about medieval Georgia? Where does Georgian history begin, and what does a newcomer read first?

History buffs with a high threshold for whimsy might start with W.E.D. Allen’s A History of the Georgian People. Published in 1932, Allen’s book was once the standard history of Georgia in English, but the author of a more recent English-language survey calls it “antiquated.” Perhaps he’s thinking of passages like this one:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

I’m kidding—but only a little. Here’s W.E.D. Allen’s take on the Caucasus in the 7th century B.C.:

And when the Swarming Time was over, and men began to rule in cities, and others to write again, these shifting peoples emerge into the light of history; with changed names, moulding languages and old traditions, borrowed from the word-of-mouth anthologies of conquerors and conquered, woven to the doubtful fabric of a common history.

Here’s Allen’s snappy summary of how a medieval quasi-state emerged in the Caucasus:

For two generations or more there were difficult manoeuvres, obscure dynastic skirmishes, ferocious little wars between the pushful princes of young mediaeval Georgia.

Here’s Allen’s description of the Georgian national character, which I think he considers flattering:

The Georgians retain in a remarkable degree, both individually and as a people, the clear and gentle outlook, the free and inquiring intelligence and the high amoral and untrammelled mind of primitive man. The generosity, the loving simplicity and the humanity, the animal love of life which characterizes the Homeric poems and the ancient literature of the Celts and Scandinavians lights the pages of the mediaeval Georgian epics and declares indeed the mind of the Georgian these days.

At the same time the climate is a mellow joyous climate and the wine is good, so that neither the air nor the diet are conducive to the worrying over principles and the gnawing over grievances.

And here—and oh, how I love this one—is Allen’s ode to the ancient city of Kutais:

In the last foothills of the Caucasus fineing to the Colchian plain, in the sparkling sunshine, the river gleaming past down from the mountains to the sea, the lovely city stretches lazy brave and laughing, like as it were to some free woman who has known so many grasping dirty masters, and remains fresh in all her shame.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find an affectionate city-as-whore simile in an overview of Georgian history. By that point, I was lost in a twisting maze of tribes, dynasties, and place-names—but I was also determined to find out what Allen, with his own strange sense of decorum, intended to swoon over next.

Who was W.E.D. Allen? Born in 1901 to Ulster Protestant stock, Allen was the Eton-educated scion of a printing-and-advertising family. In addition to A History of the Georgian People, which he wrote when he was 29, his scholarly work included the much-touted Caucasian Battlefields and the journal Georgica. Allen served as a war correspondent, worked for the Foreign Office in Beirut, Mosul, and Ankara, and endowed the National Gallery in Dublin with Orthodox icons and other treasures, many of which he had found being sold as “debris” in Istanbul bazaars. At the time of his death in 1972, his private library on Russia and the Caucasus was hailed as “probably one of the best on the subject outside the Soviet Union.” Allen also represented West Belfast in Parliament as an independent Unionist, and—although his scholarly biographer passes over the fact in silence—he was a behind-the-scenes Fascist who wrote for the periodical The Blackshirt under a pen name.

What Allen’s biography doesn’t tell you is that A History of the Georgian People is not a logical endeavor. No, it’s a glorious mess—a rhapsodic brain-dump by a scholar so sunk in his subject that he can no longer outline it for newcomers. Calling his own treatment of Georgia “horizontal rather than chronological,” Allen assumes his readers possess encyclopedic knowledge of Caucasian, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern history. His narrative, too detailed to convey the wider drama and too burdened by minutiae to be novelistic, often gets ahead of itself: Why herald the death of King Bagrat III—a would-be Charlemagne of the Caucasus—when you haven’t yet told us who he was?

After a hundred pages, I stopped reading, but I’ll regret that. Allen beguiles me still with the promise of more florid musings like this one:

Here are no serried ranks of causes and effect, no steady march of progress, no smug train of evolution. All the nations of the world have drifted through the Caucasus; all their leavings are to find—but little has been built. Here are the ways of God and men, most horrible and lovely, uncertain and not comprehensible. Such things we may contemplate, learn somewhat, understand a little, and wonder at the colour and the clouding and the sun upon it all.

A History of the Georgian People may be obsolete, but only as scholarship. As a love letter to Georgia, it’s remarkable—and, like a love letter, it’s worth digging out every now and again, if only for that fleeting scent of the past, awakening as it does fond memories of youth and reckless adventure, regret over possibilities lost, and wistfulness that someone thought enough to write.

“Что кинул он в краю родном?”

On Friday, the world awoke to war in the Caucasus, a region not known for cultivating the neighborly arts. While reporters scramble to explain recent history, medievalists can offer deep background. The medieval pasts of Russia and Georgia are rich and complex in their own right, but look at where they’re fighting: Ossetia. History buffs will emit a happy “aha” when they learn who the Ossetes are: the descendants of those early medieval zeligs, the Alans.

Originally from Iran, the Alans were a nomadic confederation of elite mounted warriors who lived between the Black and Aral Seas. When the central Asian steppes began disgorging people, many Alans rode west, a cloud of lassos and spears just a few hoof-beats ahead of the Huns.

Recruited by Rome, Alans fought for emperors and claimants to the throne; in the late 2nd century, Maximinus the Thracian, whose mother was an Alan, became the first emperor with full barbarian roots, and other Alans rose through the ranks. Alans crossed the frozen Rhine with the Vandals in 406, they helped them lay siege to Hippo, and a 5th-century Alan mini-dynasty briefly ran Constantinople. Bernard S. Bachrach, author of A History of the Alans in the West, thinks the feigned retreat may have been the Alan contribution to Western military tactics. He also entertains a curious but unprovable notion: that if aspects of the Arthurian legend passed to Britain through Armorica, where Alans were known to have settled, then the sword-in-the-stone motif may be a distant echo of the Alan depiction of their war god, “a naked sword thrust into the bare earth.”

The Alans left no record of their language and little trace of their culture. We know they existed because others wrote about them, but you can find their old homes if you know where to look: in France, in place-names such as Alençon, Alaincourt, Alland’huy, and Allamont; Alagno, Alan d’Riano, Allegno, and Alano di Piave in northern Italy. Of course, the Alans who came west are no more, having long since been assimilated by other European peoples—but the Alans who stayed in the Caucasus are back in the news, partly because they rummaged through their medieval past.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, with North Ossetia as part of Russia and South Ossetia lumped in with Georgia, the Ossetians looked to historians, philologists, and archaeologists to tell them who they were. Was “Ossetia,” a Georgian term filtered through Russian, the name they should use? Shouldn’t they call themselves “Alans”? As Victor Shnirelman explains, speakers of the two Ossetian dialects, Digor and Iron, argued over whose speech was more pure; North Ossetia became North Ossetia-Alania; and the Alan name was slapped on everything from soccer teams to supermarkets. Never mind that “Alans” may have been a term used only by outsiders; or that the name “Ossetia” probably comes from *ās, which the Alans used to refer to themselves; or that the original Alans were famously inclined to assimilate and be assimilated. The Alanian nationalism of the 1990s soon took on moral and racial overtones, especially as neighboring enemies tried on the name for size. The Ossetes should have looked westward for precedent and warning: Once you buttress your national identity with medievalism, expect politicized folklore to beguile the public —and to take on a life of its own.

If you’ve paid attention to another conflict with medieval roots, then you saw this war coming. When Kosovo declared independence in February, the South Ossetia separatist leader insisted that his people had an even stronger case for autonomy, while Russia sent ominous signals that confirmed the earlier fears of EU foreign policy types. In the days to come, journalists will try to explain the matrix of grudges between Russia, Georgia, the two halves of Ossetia, and nearby Ingushetia and Chechnya. Chances are they’ll overlook this snippet from a 5th-century poem by Claudian about an Alan warlord

cui natura breves animis ingentibus artus
finxerat inmanique oculos infecerat ira;
vulneribus pars nulla vacat rescissaque contis
gloria foedati splendet iactantior oris.

whom nature had moulded with small limbs but great courage and dyed his eyes with a terrible anger. No part of his body was free of wounds and, torn by spears, the glory of his disfigured face shone more proudly.

Expect to see more anger, wounds, and disfigurement out of the Caucasus. And when you start to hear talk about glory and pride, don’t be surprised if it takes on a medieval tinge.