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The Centrality of the Caucasus

Submitted by on February 7, 2012 – 5:51 pm 5 Comments |  
London to Mumbai Great Circle Route, Passing Through the CaucasusFor the past month, GeoCurrents has focused on the Caucasus, exploring the region’s history, languages, cuisines, and more. Two additional posts will conclude the series. We will subsequently pause to introduce some new features of the blog, and then we will move on to examine a different part of the world.

The current series began by asking a seemingly banal question, “Where Is the Caucasus?” Although the region is easy to locate on a world map, its geographical categorization is tricky, as the Caucasus straddles the conventional divide between Europe and Asia and can plausibly be placed in different regions of the world. The initial post concluded by suggesting that the Caucasus might be regarded as a world region in its own right.

After inspecting the Caucasus for the past month, I am more convinced than ever that it merits such a designation. Despite its compact size, the Caucasus contains as much human diversity as most recognized world regions. Its role in world history has been profound—and deeply underrated. When we append the Caucasus to some other part of the world, its distinctiveness tends to fade away, leaving a vague peripheral zone of rugged landscapes and obscure peoples. In the process, the region’s larger significance is lost.

The seeming obscurity of the Caucasus is an artifact of our inherited and rarely questioned schemes of global division. Newer ideas about the geographical structures of the pre-industrial world, however, can help reposition this historically important region. In the traditional Western imagination, the Caucasus is situated between Europe and Asia: the two major divisions, along with Africa, of the Eastern Hemisphere. World historians posit instead an “Afro-Eurasian ecumene” of loosely linked civilizations that encompassed most of the so-called Old World. Within this mega-region, the primary divide is increasingly seen not as that separating Europe from Asia, but rather that marking off East Asia from everywhere else. Physical geography played a role here; the mountains between India and China are so formidable that travelers between them often detoured thousands of miles through the Silk Roads of Central Asia. In demographic terms, Europe and India were the twin anchors of this rump ecumene (without East Asia), constituting its major population centers.

Population Map of Eastern Hemisphere Circa 1648 by Colin McEvedyTo the extent that the area encompassing Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Peninsula formed a historically coherent sphere of interaction, the Caucasus served as its fulcrum. That centrality is evident on the first map posted here, made by  Jake Coolidge for GeoCurrents, which shows the most direct line, or great circle route, between London and Bombay (Mumbai). Such a pivotal location was an advantage, if a minor one, for the Armenian merchants* who helped knit together the Afro-Eurasian ecumenical societies.

*Although Tbilisi, situated near the mid-point of the London-Mumbai axis, is a Georgian city, its population was predominately Armenian until the second half of the nineteenth century.

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  • Maju

     “Within this mega-region, the primary divide is increasingly seen not as
    that separating Europe from Asia, but rather that marking off East Asia
    from everywhere else”.

    Really? And why East Asia without SE Asia? Wasn’t Chinese influence most important in at least SE Asia? What makes SE Asia (or even most of India before the Mughal Empire, which incidentally takes its name from an East Asian people: the Mongols) be part of the Western Oecumene? It’s a quite shocking and improbable map, like an ideological revision of history I’d dare say.

    I do not think that the Caucasus is any ‘fulcrum’ either. It is a centric but paradoxically marginal at the same time mountain area, region that has been mostly circumvented (by the Black Sea or Central Asia or at the most by its lowest coastal corridors) rather than crossed through. Of course it is not detached from the cultural-economic-political currents that surround it but it behaves more like an island in a river: it is not an island without the river but it is not the river either, which goes around it instead.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks, Maju, for your response. These are tricky issues, which is why I qualified my statements carefully (“increasingly seen as” and “to the extent that”). Also note that East Asia is placed within the “Afro-Eurasian Ecumene” on the map, although as somewhat distinctive sub-region within that broader formation. The argument is merely that the ecumenical linkages outside of East Asia were somewhat tighter than those with East Asia. The idea is also rooted in the concept of the “sinosphere” (Hànzì Wénhuà Quān; 汉字文化圈), the notion that the Chinese writing system (along with Confucian ideology) linked China proper, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam into a relatively coherent cultural maco-region. The same idea is also reflected in traditional ideas of Chinese statecraft. World historians tend to like the idea, I think, because it emphasizes the fact that China was not just the most powerful state for most of the past 2,000 years, but that it sat at the center of its own distinctive region, whereas Europe, even though it is classified as a separate continent, was much more historically intertwined with neighboring areas (consider the Ottoman Empire). Ties between the Chinese and the Mongols were tight, but in cultural terms the Mongols borrowed more from the Uyghurs (their script) and the Tibetans (their religion, ultimately). 

      In regard to Southeast Asia, Vietnam (which covered only the northern half of present-day vietnam until the modern period) was definitely part of the Sinosphere.  Chinese cultural influence in the rest of the region was relatively minor until the 1800s. Indian influence, however, was very important for the past 2,000 years, whereas Southwest Asian (Arabian, Persian) influence became very important with the spread of Islam in the insular area, starting around 1200. Indigenous Southeast Asian scripts, for example, (except Vietnamese) are all derived from Indian scripts, which ultimately derive from a Phoenician original. 

      “Fulcrum” is probably not the best metaphor. I used it merely to emphasize that the Caucasus was not a marginal area, as it is so often depicted.        

      • Maju

         Let’s assume for the moment that your definition of “Sinosphere” is correct (ignoring Singapore and all the Chinese communities in SE Asia and the Pacific, as well as Chinese influence in Mongolia and Central Asia), wouldn’t that be merely comparable to something like “Latinsphere”, defined maybe by the use of the Latin alphabet (i.e. excluding most of Eastern Europe and all that is beyond) or, being less nit-picky, something like the Greco-Roman cultural sphere, which is nearly as good as saying “Europe”.

        What I mean is how come can you consider that the differences between, say, Thailand and China are larger than between France and Bengal?, never mind Thailand itself. That’s totally absurd!

        Also I don’t see why China or even India would be any more integrated with the West than Guinea or Congo, or with the Muslim World than Zanzibar for example.

        While I have been for long a defender of the relative genetic and phenotype affinity of South Asians with West Eurasians (the “Caucasoid” phenotype), I understand that when it comes to culture and history, the link is weaker. There is some greater closeness between India (more like Pakistan in fact) and West Eurasia than between West Eurasia and East Asia but there are elements like Hinduism or Buddhism that actually link South Asia more tightly to East Asia and vice versa.

        In general I think that there are three regions in Eurasia: West (the classical Greco-Roman Oecumene), South and East. The Western one has been divided in two by religious sectarism since the 7th century (monotheism=dogmatism divides peoples, it seems) but that was not the case before, so I’d rather ignore that detail.

        • Martin W. Lewis

          You make some good points, and I have no objection to your alternative regionalization scheme. In general, I think that it is best to use multiple, over-lapping, non-congruent systems of regional division. 

          One thing to consider about the “Sinosphere,” however, is the fact that the historical use of a semi-ideographic system of writing allowed easy communication among literate people across linguistic boundaries. The Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese literati could thus read Chinese, even though they could seldom speak it.  As a result, texts circulated widely through the region for hundreds of years, influencing ideas and cultural patterns. The same was not the case for all the peoples using the Latin alphabet. But up to the 1600s, the use of Latin as a common scholarly language did create a kind on “Latinosphere” in Western and Central Europe. 

          I also did not mean to imply that the differences between Thailand and China are greater than those between Thailand and France, but only that the cultural gradient between East Asia and the rest of the ecumene is historically steeper than the gradients between other regions within the ecumene. But that is not a very important matter in the long run. 

          • Maju

            “The same was not the case for all the peoples using the Latin alphabet”.

            For centuries literate people knew Latin. It is an expression that is only gradually being lost but you can still hear the expression “sabe latín” (he/she knows Latin), meaning that this person is well educated or even wise.

            Similarly in the Muslim world, literacy is often first attained or approached via Arabic (and not the local language, which may remain forever unwritten).

            Also learning to write/read in Chinese characters (in the way you say) implies a hard effort, a challenge, comparable to learning to speak and write Latin or Arabic for a non native speaker. Young people in the countries where the Chinese script is still used are only considered literate at much older age than elsewhere, where alphabets and abjads are used instead.

            “I also did not mean to imply that the differences between Thailand and China are greater than those between Thailand and France”…

            I truly hope you didn’t really mean that but that is what seems to imply your map and what you wrote about it.

            “… the cultural gradient between East Asia and the rest of the ecumene is
            historically steeper than the gradients between other regions within the

            I do not think so. Not at all. Specially since your “East Asia” boundaries leave much of cultural East Asia out of it, as is the case of Thailand or Mongolia. East Asia is largely Buddhist/Hinduist, an Indian influence (even Islam in East Asia can be largely considered of Indian origin). Other traditions such as the monkey god worship, be it as Hanuman or as Sun Wukong, are also pan-Asian to the exclusion of the West (West Eurasia).

            I do not like at all the concept of a Sinosphere that is qualitatively distinct from, say, the Latinosphere or Arabosphere… for example. There could even be a Sanskritosphere most likely.