The Caucasus, a popular saying goes, is a ‘mountain of tongues’. Describing this region requires a strong constitution, determination and brilliance because, as Christoph Baumer writes in this magnificent book, ‘in many ways, the Caucasus region is a puzzle’.
That is something of an understatement. For one thing, the mountains usually referred to as the Caucasus are in fact part of two geologically distinct ranges: the Greater Caucasus that is around 100 kilometres wide and ten times the length, spans the land between the Black and Caspian Seas and acts as a climatic valve, blocking off like a plug cold Arctic air from passing south; and the Lesser Caucasus, that is considerably lower, easier to pass and about half the length of the range to the north.
That is just the start of it. Living within, between, on and near these mountain ranges are a range of peoples and cultures of such breathtaking diversity and such brilliant pasts that it is hard to know how best to explain their histories or where to begin. Two thousand years ago Pliny noted that 130 tribes lived in the Caucasus, and so to trade there one needed 130 interpreters. If you think he was joking then it is worth noting that the region is home to 60 languages today, drawn from six language families — South Caucasian; North-West Caucasian; North-East Caucasian; Indo-European; Altaic and Semitic.
Such complexity is a source of wonder. It also requires a narrative to explain why this region developed in the way that it is has, and why it has played such an important role in world history. Many examples can be given; but a casual and telling one is the fact that most white people in the world describe themselves (or are described) as being of Caucasian origin.