The physical map of the Caucasus. Wikimedia

The Caucasus has become a fixed description for the region between the Black and Caspian Seas, including the Republic of Armenia. Media, international organizations, and local people frequently refer to the Caucasus to include the complex mix of cultures between Russia, Turkey and Iran. But while this area includes ancient cultures, the use of the term ‘Caucasus’ to describe it is a fairly recent invention of the Russian colonial administration.

For most of history, the term Caucasus referred to the region’s main mountain range – what is now known as the Greater Caucasus range – rather than the entire area between the two seas. The range divided ancient states of the Near East to the south from steppes to the north. The term first surfaces in ancient Greek in works by Aeschylus and Herodotus about 2,500 years ago. As described by the former, Prometheus is banished to the Caucasus by the Gods after empowering humans with the skill to make fire. Herodotus places the Caucasus at the edge of the known world. There is no consensus about the etymology of the term, but theories tie it to various characteristics (‘high’, ‘snow-covered’, etc.) of the mountains.

In 1785, after its borders extended to the Caucasus Mountains, Russia established the office of the “Viceroy for the Caucasus” (“Кавказское Наместничество”) to encompass the area south of Don and Volga rivers and north of the Caucasus mountains. Office of the viceroy was abolished in 1796 only to be reestablished almost 50 years later, this time to include the Georgian, Armenian and Caspian oblasts, all located south of the Caucasus Mountains and then recently acquired from the Persians and the Ottomans. At the same time, Russian officials introduced the term Trans-Caucasus (“Закавказье”) to refer to these areas as lying beyond the Caucasus (from Russia’s point of view), and North Caucasus for areas north of the mountain range.

Emblem of the Soviet Transcaucasus with the sun rising north of the Caucasus mountains. Wikimedia

Following the collapse of the Russian empire, the Trans-Caucasus Democratic Federative Republic was proclaimed in April 1918 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), only to fall apart less than five weeks later into separate republics. The Trans-Caucasus Social Federative Soviet Republic, soon made a constituent part of the USSR, lasted longer, from 1922 to 1936.

Throughout the Russian and Soviet period the Caucasus identity, as pertaining to Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis,  began to take root as the three groups shared in the experience of colonization and development. In the independence period, the Russian-centric Trans-Caucasus was abandoned in favor of the ‘South Caucasus.‘ This novelty can not negate the fact that the term Caucasus itself, as pertaining to the region rather than just the mountains, was a Russian colonial invention.

To recap, the term Caucasus first ‘migrated’ north of the mountain range to refer to the newly established Russian province in what is now North Caucasus and then moved south across the mountain range as Russia expanded into those territories.

Similarly, the term ‘Karabakh’ originally referred to the Kura-Arax valley, but expanded into the mountainous areas to the west, eventually mutating into ‘Nagorno Karabakh.’