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Book Review Page after page of wondrous revelation

The largely unknown and historically neglected Caucasus emerges as a land of never-ending fascination, writes STEVE ANDREW

History of the Caucasus Vol 1
At the Crossroads of Empire
by Christoph Baumer
IB Tauris £27

BY any standard, the Caucasus is a vast geographical area, dominated by beautiful landscapes of snow-capped mountains and steep-sided valleys, its often unique ecosystems harbour a multitude of fascinating animal and plant species.

Its human population is likewise just as interesting, composed as it is of a complex and ever-changing plethora of nations, languages, and cultures.

Although the term “cultural hearth” has fallen out of favour in anthropological circles, if ever it could be applied to an area, then the Caucasus would definitely fit the remit, antecedents to many a civilisation having their origins there.

Acting as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, defining it geographically has troubled countless writers, and in many respects its best treated as an area in its own right irrespective of the fact that this hardly a watertight concept in that what constitutes the northern and southern Caucasus is just as contested.

Site of umpteen invasions and armed conflicts stretching from, say, the invasions of ancient history right up to more contemporary conflicts in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh, it’s obviously an area marked by immense geopolitical significance.

Skimming through this monumental work also made me reflect on how narrow and possibly Eurocentric our knowledge of ancient civilisation very often is.

Most of us can possibly reference some details from the cultures of Rome, Greece, Egypt and possibly Persia, but Scythia and Circassia?

Likewise, the historic tendency to treat Byzantium as a later afternote to the greater Roman civilisation is easily overturned by the longevity of Christian churches in Armenia and Georgia, Orthodoxies whose emergence challenges the narrative that the present-day “centres” of Christendom are the product of some inevitable process.

This is writing on a vast historical scale.

Filled with awe-inspiring photography, clear and relevant maps, useful timelines and pictures of hundreds of artefacts, it might on a first glance seem to be a pleasant, albeit stunning, book for the coffee table.

However, the depth, detail and quality of writing about an often ignored and neglected part of the world that most of us will only have encountered in the occasional travelogue places it in a different league altogether.

The complicated  story of the region can at times become difficult if not overwhelming but don’t let that put you off, as Christopher Baumer acts as superb guide throughout.

Spanning a time that falls well short of what we might define as contemporary, this is the first of two planned volumes and judging by Baumer’s seminal contribution to date, the next is going to be well worth waiting for.

It is probably fair to say that this account is by no means a Marxist  one. It is, however, undeniably materialist in its approach.

Baumer charts the rise and fall of various empires and how they are often toppled by the unlikeliest of insurgents. Similarly, a key theme of the work is the manner in which climate change fosters environmental degradation and in turn social collapse. Historical parallels with today, anyone?

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