The Caucasus (Caucasia) is a region located between the Black and Caspian Seas. It consists of Southern Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Known for its alpine terrain, the Caucasus is home to Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain peak in Europe, located near the Russia-Georgia border. The region is considered part of the natural boundary between Europe and Asia.
Caucasus is a compact and diverse region. Its residents come from disparate ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. In part due to this great diversity, historically the region has been embroiled in numerous ethnic and political conflicts, some of which remain unresolved to this day. Despite this difficult history, the Caucasus is for the most part safe for travel and increasingly ranks among popular emerging tourist destinations.
Countries and regions
This region's reputation as a resort area on the Black Sea is being rebuilt after the 2008 war.
An ancient, millennia-old civilization amidst stark mountain landscapes and remote canyons. Home to amazing world heritage sites, forgotten monasteries and boasting a wonderfully laid back and friendly culture.
The richest state of the Caucasus, its capital awash in oil wealth and international business, wonderful old palaces of the Shirvan Shahs in Baku and Sheki, Zoroastrian fire temples, barren landscapes—oil and salt spreading across the surface, and world-class hikes in the lush, heavily forested, mountainous north and south.
The lush green heart of the Caucasus, with fabulous cuisine and culture, incredibly diverse landscapes, and an exceptional wealth of ancient churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and cave cities
Ethnic Armenian upland slice of Azerbaijan that broke loose in 1994.
|South Ossetia |
Involved in the same war as Abkhazia, this mountainous area has yet to reach a similar level of stability. It remains remote and accessible, only to the determined, via Russia.
|Russia's North Caucasus |
Largely inaccessible from the independent Southern Caucasus states, this beautiful region of extraordinary mountains and river gorges, delicious food, stunning stone mountaintop villages, legendary hospitality, and a seemingly endless cycle of violence is covered in its own article.
- 1 Baku — the region's largest city, international oil hub, and ancient capital of Azerbaijan
- 2 Stepanakert — Nagorno-Karabakh's main town makes a base to explore this undeveloped upland area
- 3 Sukhumi — Abkhazia's sub-tropical beach resort capital makes a change from the mountains
- 4 Tbilisi — Georgia's vibrant capital, surrounded by mountains, and filled with good food and wine
- 5 Tskhinvali — The capital of South Ossetia is the most accessible part of the remote and isolated region
- 6 Yerevan — Armenia's capital is the region's most laid-back, with great places to eat, and within easy striking distance of the country's principal attractions
- 1 Echmiadzin — the home of the Armenian Apostolic Church contains a cathedral, churches, and museums
- 2 Khor Virap — the most photographed place in Armenia, a spectacular monastery atop a huge rock, right at the border, at the foot of Mount Ararat
- 3 Davit Gareja Monastery — a cave monastery in the Georgian desert, full of beautiful old cave frescoes, and overlooking the vast empty expanse to the south in Azerbaijan
- 4 Lake Sevan — big, beautiful mountain lake in Armenia
- 5 Petroglyphs at Qobustan — ancient petroglyphs, south of Baku
- 6 Mount Kazbeg — home to Georgia's breathtaking Tsminda Sameba Monastery
- 7 Sheki — a beautiful Azerbaijani city in a forest mountain setting
- 8 Vardzia — one of Georgia's impressive cave cities, hewn from the rock of a river gorge
The Caucasus contains two eponymous mountain ranges: the Greater Caucasus, which runs between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, largely following Russia's border with Georgia; and the Lesser Caucasus range, which runs in the south around the borders of Georgia, Turkey and Armenia. Geographically, the Caucasus and its mountain ranges are considered part of the natural boundary between Europe and Asia. The exact definitions of this boundary vary; however, due to cultural and socio-political factors, the region as a whole is generally viewed as part of modern Europe.
This region has seen the ebb and flow of empires throughout the ages. The three traditional states south of the Caucasus — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — have been united and independent twice in their history. Tigranes the Great held a large kingdom here in the 1st century BC; and for a few months in 1918, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic briefly saw the three countries united. Between these two periods, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans, Imperial Russians and Soviets have all held sway in different parts and at different times.
Early modern history
- See also: Russian Empire
Nineteenth century imperial Russian expansion laid the foundations for the region's current look. While for centuries the Ottoman Empire held parts of Armenia and Georgia and the Persians nominally controlled Azerbaijan, neither fully subjugated or integrated the native peoples.
- See also: Soviet Union
The Soviet successors to the Russian Empire briefly lost control of the region in 1918, but by the 1920s the three states had been folded into the USSR. Soviet rule attempted to galvanize a united Soviet identity but the different groups held on to their customs, religions and loyalties.
As the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, fierce nationalism took the region. The cosmopolitan mixes of peoples that the Soviets cultivated proved immiscible as people migrated, often forced, to their ethnic homelands. The arbitrary boundaries of the Soviet republics, and hence those of the new independent states, ensured lasting hostility within and between the three states.
In 1994, the ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan waged war against the Azeris. With Armenian backing, a new republic was created. However, no established nation - not even Armenia - officially recognizes it. Diplomatic arguments over the region continue to mar relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In 2008, Georgian efforts to bring to heel its autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back-fired when they declared full independence. The ensuing war was brief and one-sided as Russian troops backed the separatists and overran much of Georgia proper. A ceasefire was agreed and Russia withdrew its troops to the boundaries of the new republics, which it diplomatically recognizes.
Hostilities have largely cooled, though South Ossetia remains internally unstable, and the three states are left trying to find a place in the new world. Georgia has looked west, though its hopes of joining NATO were not realized soon enough to prevent the Russian invasion. Armenia remains loyal to Russia, which supports it economically and in its spats with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, perhaps because of its cultural and linguistic ties to Turkey and other Turkic speaking central Asian countries, has more political links in those directions.
This is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the world.
While travelling here expect to meet friendly locals, eat food like none other on earth and witness breathtaking mountain vistas. The arcane, expensive and bureaucratic visa procedures are becoming gradually less of a burden, as are crooked police. However, sufficient blights remain to make this far from the easiest region to navigate.
Armenia and Georgia are suffering from economic recession due to an economic blockade of Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey and of Georgia by Russia. Oil-rich Azerbaijan is essentially an old-fashioned dictatorship where the oil wealth is still not flowing to the entire population but only to a small elite.
The old ways of the Soviet Union are never far away when dealing with any kind of official, including immigration officers and police. And be very, very careful before you enter an area which is controlled by the Russian-backed local militia or Russian border troops of the separatist regions in Georgia and by the Armenian-backed local militia of the separatist region in Azerbaijan.
The Caucasus region is one of the most complex linguistic regions in the world, containing more than 60 languages from five distinct language families. While this is great for cultural diversity, it can be confusing to travellers.
If you're only going to take one phrasebook for the whole region, make it Russian. The former Soviet states were united through its use as a common second language. English is becoming more prevalent in the main cities but its penetration is insufficient to be relied upon. However, many people in Georgia are unwilling to speak Russian due to military tensions with Russia, and English has largely supplanted Russian as the foreign language of choice among younger Georgians, so you should try English before trying Russian when in Georgia.
Independence has meant massive migration, often forced, and ethno-linguistic segregation has become much more pronounced. There is therefore much less inter-ethnic interaction and so much less incentive for young people to learn a second language. National languages are becoming ever more important to travellers, but Russian remains very useful.
The three capitals each have airports that are well connected to east and west Europe and the Middle East. There are even a few flights to Ürümqi in China. The disputed territories are not served by passenger flights.
- Baku - Heydar Aliyev International Airport (GYD IATA)
- Tbilisi - Tbilisi International Airport (TBS IATA)
- Yerevan - Zvartnots International Airport (EVN IATA)
The countries' secondary airports tend to serve mainly Russia, with also a few connections to Turkey, Ukraine and Iran. Kutaisi Airport is perhaps an exception; Hungarian airline Wizz Air operates a fair few cheap passages to several European countries.
Politics have severed many of the rail routes into the region.
Taking the train between Russia and Abkhazia is generally unproblematic but onward travel into Georgia proper is not generally possible. Trains from Russia to Azerbaijan are frequent enough but the border is closed to westerners.
There are no passenger rail connections with Turkey still open.
Border crossing is generally difficult throughout the Caucasus. The Russian-Georgian border (Verkhniy Lars) near Kazbegi can now (since 2011) be crossed by any nationality, given the visas are in order. The Russia-Azerbaijan border are only open for citizens of CIS countries. There is also a border crossing from Russia to Abkazia, however it is not allowed to transit through Abkhazia from Russia to Georgia or vice versa. For non-CIS citizens, the only way of entering/exiting Russia through the Caucasus is on the Georgian Military Highway between Vladikavkaz und Tbilisi. Aside from flying, there are ferries between Sochi, Russia & Trabzon, Turkey (near Georgia) and Baku, Azerbaijan & Aktau, Kazakhstan (near Russia).
The Armenian-Azerbaijani border is closed because both countries remain at war. The Armenian-Turkish border is also closed due to tensions between both countries. To travel overland between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Armenia and Turkey, it is necessary to go through either Georgia or Iran.
Georgia's borders with Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are all open, making the country somewhat of a regional transit hub for the Caucasus. Since 2003's Rose Revolution in Georgia, bribes are absolutely not necessary for foreign travellers entering Georgia. However this cannot be guaranteed for Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Entering Azerbaijan with a used Armenian visa or vice versa could likely cause problems (suspicion) with border guards, but shouldn't prohibit entry. Nevertheless, it is recommended to visit Azerbaijan first and then Armenia, to avoid potential problems and a refusal of entry to Azerbaijan. However, you will not be allowed entry to Azerbaijan with a Nagorno-Karabakh visa (you can ask to get the NKR visa on a separate piece of paper, though), otherwise it would result in a permanent entry ban to Azerbaijan. If you have an Armenian name, surname or of Armenian ethnicity, you will be banned from entering Azerbaijan regardless of your country of birth or citizenship.
Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) can be entered from Turkey and Iran.
Overnight trains travel between Tbilisi-Yerevan and Tbilisi-Baku. When travelling by rail, you have the option of carriages with 4 beds (coupe, pronounced koo-peh') or 2 beds (SV, pronounced es veh). SV is a bit more expensive, but more comfortable and generally considered more safe from pickpockets.
There are direct bus services between Tbilisi-Yerevan and Tbilisi-Baku. If taking the air-conditioned bus between Tbilisi-Baku, bring a jacket. Buses also operate across the Russian-Georgian border, but are not an option for non-CIS country nationals.
If you would prefer a more social mode of transport, minivans (marshrutkas) operate across all open borders and throughout the Caucasus region.
There are direct flights between Tbilisi to Baku, Tbilisi to Yerevan. Expect no trouble at the airports: they are small and efficient.
You can cross the border between Georgia and Armenia in a rented car. Rental cars are insured in both countries and may be driven one-way and dropped off in the other country.
The Georgian "Khinkali" and "Khachapuri"!
The drinks of note in the Caucasus are Georgian wines, Armenian cognac (brandy), and Russian vodkas.
Local beers throughout the Caucasus are excellent values.
Especially tasty Georgian wines:
- Red: Saperavi, Mukuzani, Khvanchkara (semi-sweet), Kindzmarauli (semi-sweet)
- White: Tsinandali, Kakheti, Tbilisuri
The Caucasus is a tinderbox of age-old rivalries, some frozen, some very hot indeed. Much of the Russian North Caucasus is an active war zone, and the rest suffers from extremely high crime rates. Fragile ceasefires are more or less holding in Georgia's disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (which are both quite dangerous), as well as the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, still officially at war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
However safety is not a serious issue to worry in Armenia and Azerbaijan if you are not too close to the border between the two countries. It is safe to visit even Nagorno-Karabakh from the Armenian side. Georgia is trickier with regards to personal safety, with higher violent crime and car-jacking rates in some of the bigger cities, and occasional kidnappings in some of the wilder off the beaten path locales.