It is home to the Caucasus Mountains, which contain Europe's highest mountain, Mount Elbrus, 5,642 metres (18,510 ft). Politically, the Caucasus region is separated between northern and southern parts. The southern parts consist of independent sovereign states, and the northern parts are under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.
Throughout Persian history, particularly Sassanid Persia, the Caucasus region was the furthest point of Iranian expansion, with areas to the north of Northern Caucasus practically impregnable. Therefore, the mythical mountain of Cafcuh, the highest mountain in the world, was said to be situated in this region, making the Caucasus the limit of the world. Therefore, the Caucasus was the name given to this area for its association with the legendary mountain. The modern name of the region in local languages are all similar to the mountain name, with the main difference being that f has been replaced with a softer w and the last letter being replaced with z.
- Abkhaz: Кавказ Kawkáz
- Adyghe: КъавкъазХэку Qawqaz
- Azerbaijani: Qafqaz
- Arabic: القوقاز al-Qawqāz
- Armenian: Կովկաս Kovkas
- Avar: Кавказ – كافكاز Kawkaz
- Chechen: Кавказ Kawkáz
- Georgian: კავკასია K'avk'asia
- Greek: Καύκασος Kávkasos
- Ingush: Кавказ Kawkaz
- Kabardian: Къавкъаз Qawqaz
- Karachay-Balkar: Кавказ Kawkaz
- Kurdish: QefqasyaQefqas
- Lezgian: Къавкъаз K'awk'az
- Lak: Ккавкказ Kkawkkaz
- Ossetian: Кавказ Kavkaz
- Persian: قفقاز Qafqaz
- Russian: Кавказ Kavkaz
- Turkish: KafkaslarKafkasya
- Ukrainian: Кавказ Kaukaz
The Ciscaucasus contains the larger majority of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range, also known as the Major Caucasus mountains. It includes Southwestern Russia and northern parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The Transcaucasus is bordered on the north by Russia, on the west by the Black Sea and Turkey, on the east by the Caspian Sea, and on the south by Iran. It includes the Caucasus Mountains and surrounding lowlands. All of Armenia, Azerbaijan (excluding the northern parts) and Georgia (excluding the northern parts) are in South Caucasus.
The main Greater Caucasus range is generally perceived to be the dividing line between Asia and Europe. The highest peak in the Caucasus is Mount Elbrus (5,642 m) in the western Ciscaucasus in Russia, and is generally considered as the highest point in Europe.
The Caucasus is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions on Earth. The nation states that comprise the Caucasus today are the post-Soviet states Georgia (including Adjara), Armenia, and Azerbaijan (including Nakhchivan). Three territories in the region claim independence but are recognized as such by only a handful or by no independent states: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognised by the majority of independent states as part of Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh is recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The Russian divisions include Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, and the autonomous republics of Adygea, Karachay–Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.
The region has many different languages and language families. There are more than 50 ethnic groups living in the region. No fewer than three language families are unique to the area, but also Indo-European languages, such as Armenian and Ossetic, and Turkic languages, such Azerbaijani and Karachay-Balkar, are spoken in the area. Russian is used as a common language.
Today the peoples of the Northern and Southern Caucasus tend to be either Eastern Orthodox Christians, Oriental Orthodox Christians, or Sunni Muslims. Shia Islam has had many adherents historically in Azerbaijan, located in the eastern part of the region.
Located on the peripheries of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, the region has been an arena for political, military, religious, and cultural rivalries and expansionism for centuries. Throughout its history, the Caucasus was usually incorporated into the Iranian world. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian Empire conquered the territory from Iran.
The territory of the Transcaucasus region was inhabited by Homo erectus since the Paleolithic Era. In 1991, early human (that is, hominin) fossils of 1.8 million years age were found at the Dmanisi archaeological site, in Georgia, in the southern Caucasus. Scientists now classify the assemblage of fossil skeletons as the subspecies Homo erectus georgicus.
The site yields the earliest unequivocal evidence for presence of early humans outside the African continent; and the Dmanisi skulls are the five oldest hominins ever found outside Africa, thereby doubling the presumed age of the human migration outside the continent.
Under Ashurbanipal (669–627 BC) the boundaries of the Assyrian Empire reached as far as the Caucasus Mountains. Later ancient kingdoms of the region included Armenia, Albania, Colchis and Iberia, among others. These kingdoms were later incorporated into various Iranian empires, including Media, the Achaemenid Empire, Parthia, and the Sassanid Empire, who would altogether rule the Caucasus for many hundreds of years. In 95–55 BC under the reign of Armenian king of kings Tigranes the Great, the Kingdom of Armenia became an empire, growing to include: Kingdom of Armenia, vassals Iberia, Albania, Parthia, Atropatene, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Syria, Nabataean kingdom, and Judea. By the time of the first century BC, Zoroastrianism had become the dominant religion of the region; however, the region would go through two other religious transformations. Owing to the strong rivalry between Persia and Rome, and later Byzantium, the latter would invade the region several times, although it was never able to hold the region.
As the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia (an eponymous branch of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia) was the first nation to adopt Christianity as state religion (in 301 AD), and Caucasian Albania and Georgia had become Christian entities, Christianity began to overtake Zoroastrianism. With the Muslim conquest of Persia, the region came under the rule of the Arabs. In the 10th century, the Alans (proto-Ossetians) founded the Kingdom of Alania, that flourished in the Northern Caucasus, roughly in the location of latter-day Circassia and modern North Ossetia–Alania, until its destruction by the Mongol invasion in 1238–39. In the 12th century, the Georgian king David the Builder drove the Muslims out from Caucasus and made the Kingdom of Georgia a strong regional power. In 1194–1204 Georgian Queen Tamar's armies crushed new Seljuk Turkish invasions from the south-east and south and launched several successful campaigns into Seljuk Turkish-controlled Southern Armenia. The Georgian Kingdom continued military campaigns in the Caucasus region. As a result of her military campaigns and the temporary fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, Georgia became the strongest Christian state in the whole Near East area, encompassing most of the Caucasus stretching from Northern Iran and Northeastern Turkey to the North Caucasus. The Caucasus region would later be conquered by the Ottomans, Mongols, local kingdoms and khanates, as well as, once again, Iran.
Up to including the early 19th century, the Southern Caucasus and a part of the Northern Caucasus (Dagestan) all formed part of the Persian Empire. In 1813 and 1828 by the Treaty of Gulistan and the Treaty of Turkmenchay respectively, the Persians were forced to irrevocably cede the Southern Caucasus and Dagestan to Imperial Russia. Russia conquered and annexed the rest of the Northern Caucasus in the course of the 19th century in the Caucasian Wars (1817–1864). In the aftermath of the war, an ethnic cleansing of Circassians was performed by Russia in which the indigenous peoples of this region, mostly Circassians, were expelled from their homeland and forced to move primarily to the Ottoman Empire and to a lesser extent to Qajar Persia.
The region was unified as a single political entity twice – during the Russian Civil War (Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic) from 9 April 1918 to 26 May 1918, and under the Soviet rule (Transcaucasian SFSR) from 12 March 1922 to 5 December 1936.
In the 1940s, around 480,000 Chechens and Ingush, 120,000 Balkars, Karachays, and Meskhetian Turks, and 200,000 Kurds and Caucasus Germans were deported en masse to Central Asia and Siberia. About a quarter of them died.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia became independent nations. The Caucasus region has been subject to various territorial disputes since the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988–1994), the Ossetian-Ingush conflict (1989–1991), the War in Abkhazia (1992–93), the First Chechen War (1994–1996), the Second Chechen War (1999–2009), and the 2008 South Ossetia War.
In Greek mythology the Caucasus, or Kaukasos, was one of the pillars supporting the world. After presenting man with the gift of fire, Prometheus (or Amirani in Georgian version) was chained there by Zeus, to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle as punishment for defying Zeus' wish to keep the "secret of fire" from humans.
The Roman poet Ovid placed Caucasus in Scythia and depicted it as a cold and stony mountain which was the abode of personified hunger. The Greek hero Jason sailed to the west coast of the Caucasus in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, and there met Medea, a daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis.
In Persian mythology the Caucasus is sometimes identified with the mythic Cafcuh or Mount Qaf which is believed to surround the known world. It is the battlefield of Saoshyant and the nest of the Simurgh.
The Caucasus is an area of great ecological importance. The region is included in the list of 34 world biodiversity hotspots. It harbors some 6400 species of higher plants, 1600 of which are endemic to the region. Its wildlife includes Persian leopards, brown bears, wolves, bison, marals, golden eagles and hooded crows. Among invertebrates, some 1000 spider species are recorded in the Caucasus. Most of Arthropod biodiversity is concentrated on Great and Lesser Caucasus ranges. The region has a high level of endemism and a number of relict animals and plants, the fact reflecting presence of refugial forests, which survived the Ice Age in the Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus forest refugium is the largest throughout the Western Asian (near Eastern) region. The area has multiple representatives of disjunct relict groups of plants with the closest relatives in Eastern Asia, southern Europe, and even North America. Over 70 species of forest snails of the region are endemic. Some relict species of vertebrates are Caucasian parsley frog, Caucasian salamander, Robert's snow vole, and Caucasian grouse, and there are almost entirely endemic groups of animals such as lizards of genus Darevskia. In general, species composition of this refugium is quite distinct and differs from that of the other Western Eurasian refugia. The natural landscape is one of mixed forest, with substantial areas of rocky ground above the treeline. The Caucasus Mountains are also noted for a dog breed, the Caucasian Shepherd Dog (Rus. Kavkazskaya Ovcharka, Geo. Nagazi). Vincent Evans noted that Minke Whales have been recorded from the Black Sea.