The Caucasus is a mountainous, California-size region located where Europe, the Middle East and Asia meet. Situated between the Black and Caspian Seas, Iran and the southern Russian steppe, it embraces the Caucasus mountains, the southern flank of Russia, the countries of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the feisty Russian republics like Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Abkhazia and Ossetia.
For the ancient Greeks the Caucasus mountains marked the end of the known world. For centuries they formed a barrier, keeping the people from Asia and Europe apart. With the exception of some tropical areas in the west, deserts in the northeast and flat lands here and there, the Caucasus is a largely mountainous region, with some very high mountains and lush, fruit-filled valleys.
The Caucasus is a fractured and isolated region. At least 50 different ethnic groups and nationalities make their homes in the region's isolated valleys and have managed to hold on their identities despite incursions by the Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires. Many were not conquered by the Russians until the 19th century and some, like the Chechens, have been involved in armed struggles with Russia in recent years.
The Caucasus region is divided into 1) the northern Caucasus, which is in Russia and an encompasses the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains and the area immediately to the north; and 2) the southern Caucasus, which is not in Russia and an encompasses the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains and the area immediately to the south
The feisty, mostly Muslim, ethnic Russian regions of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia are in the northern Caucasus as are the other ethnic regions of Karachayevo-Cherkessi, Kabardinno-Balkaria and Adygeya and predominately Christian North Ossetia. The mostly Christian Russian states of Krasnodar and Stavropol lie a little further north.
The former Soviet republics and countries of Georgia (mostly Christian), Armenia (mostly Christian), Azerbaijan (mostly Muslim) are in the southern Caucasus as are the ethnic regions of South Ossetia (mostly Christian) and Abkhazia, which are in Georgia.
The region of Russia adjoining the north slope of the Caucasus range includes eight republics--Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia. The North Caucasus retains its historical reputation as a trouble spot, although the majority of the region's republics are relatively peaceful and undeveloped. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Caucasus Mountains are the highest mountains in Europe. Stretching between the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, forming an almost impassible natural barrier between Russia and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus range is regarded, along with the Urals, as a dividing line between Asia and Europe. The name Caucasus comes from the Greek word Kaukasos, derived perhaps from Karkaz, the Hittite name for people living along the Black Sea.
The Caucasus are beautiful mountains filled with forests, snow-capped peaks and Alpine lakes. It boasts eight mountains higher than the highest mountains in the Alps. A member of a British expedition that explored the mountains in 1874 wrote that in "in appearance and inaccessibility and in boldness of form they are beyond the Alps, and probably, when they are better known, they will be thought grander and more majestic than the Alps."
The Caucasus Mountains are rugged, of volcanic origin and young. They are believed to be about 25 million years old. The range is relatively small in term of area it covers but in terms if relief they are one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. Mt. Elbrus—the highest mountain in the Caucasus and the highest mountain in Europe— rises up 18,481 feet from near sea-level. In contrast, 29,028-foot-high Mt. Everest rises 17,000 feet from the 12,000 foot Tibetan Plateau.
The are two main chains, separated by a broad valley: 1) The Northern, or Greater, Caucasus range is situated between the north side of the valley and the Russian plain to the north. 2) The Southern, or Lesser, Caucasus, are located on between the south side of the valley and the borders of Turkey and Iran. The northern range is about 750 miles long and 30 too 110 miles wide. Near the middle is Mount Elbus. Low mountains cross the valley between the ranges. The Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the Armenian capital of Yerevan and the Azerbaijani capital of Baku are all located in the central valley.
The northern side and southern side of the Caucasus are very different. The northern, Russian, side is composed of mostly shale and rises gradually and contains the most of the glaciers. The Georgian, Azerbaijani and Armenian southern side rises more abruptly. The east and west sides are also different. The Black Sea side gets 10 times as much rain as the Caspian Sea side. The eastern Black Sea side is much more popular with hikers. Most of the Caucasus's 2,000 or so glaciers are here. The jagged mountains are snow capped most of the year.
The highest mountains are mostly in the middle of the range. The highest peaks on the Russian side include (from west to east) are: 4046-meter high Dombay-Ulgen, 5,624-meter high Elbrus, and 5,204-meter-high Dykhtan. The highest peaks on the Georgian side include (from west to east) are: 4700-meter-high Ushba, 5,068-meter-high Shkara, 5,145-meter-high Koshatu, 5033-meter-high Kazbek. Further east are 4493-meter-high Tebulosmta and 4466-meter-high Bazardyuzyu.
Mt. Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe. Located on a northern spur of the Caucasus range, it is 18,510 feet high, almost 3,000 feet higher than Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Caucasus people refer to the mountain as a queen, calm and shrouded in white glaciers on the outside but fiery and unpredictable on the inside.
Unlike most of the Caucasus Range Mr. Elbrus is an active volcano. It is has two glacier shrouded cones—the western one with a 18,510-foot-high summit and the eastern one with a slightly lower 18,444-foot-high summit. The eastern cone was active 1,500 years ago. Sulfuric gases leak out from fumaroles on the eastern face. Coniferous forests cover the slopes. The ice on the summit is said to be 200 meters thick. The Balkar people live in the high altitude valleys below the slopes. They tend sheep and regard the mountain as sacred and call it Mingi-Tau ("Thousands Mountains").
The ancient Greeks knew of Elbrus. It appears several times in Greek mythology. Some believe it was the mountain to which Prometheus was eternally chained. The name "Elbrus" was given to the mountain in the 2nd century B.C. by ancient Iranians. It was the name of mythical chain of mountains and the name means "two heads.". The slightly lower eastern summit was first reached in 1829 by Circassian hunter Killar Khashirov, as a member of Russian scientific expedition. The west summit was reached in 1874 by a British expedition led by the Balkar Akihiya Sottayev. Sottayev is regarded as a hero to the Balkar people. This means his name never should never be spoken aloud.
Elbrus's status as the highest mountain in Europe has not been lost on European leaders. In the 1930, a Soviet team erected a bust of Stalin on the Summit (it is now gone). During the German invasion of Russia in World War II, Hitler sent a team of commandos to the Caucasus to capture the mountain. In the Soviet era groups of 400 workers reached the summit as part of a struggle expedition. People have landed light crafts on the summit and descended from it on hang gliders, skis and motorcycles.
Climbing Mt. Elbrus
Climbing Mt. Elbrus requires relatively little mountaineering skill even though the though the top of the mountain is covered in glaciers. The route follows relatively gentle slopes and fit hikers with crampons and an ice ax and a guide to show the way around crevasses have a good chance to make the summit. Russian climbers traditionally used the mountain as warm up before tackling the big peaks in the Pamirs and Tien Shen in Central Asia and the Himalayas.
The biggest obstacle is altitude sickness. It is advisable to give yourself as much time as possible to get acclimated to the height before setting off for the summit. The second major obstacle is severe weather. Fierce storms can whip up very quickly and trap climbers in white out conditions.
Most ascents of Mt. Elbrus are organized through tour groups. Hikers generally ride a cable car to Mir Bar (3,470 meters) or the chair lift to Garabashi (3800 meters and often not working) to Camp 11 (4,127 meters), which serves as both a ski and hiking center. Most hikers rest here for a couple of days and get acclimated to the thin air and make for the lower 18,441-foot summit rather than the higher 18,510 foot one, which takes several hours more to reach and has more treacherous ice conditions.
The final assault is usually done in a single day: 8 hours there and 8 hours return. Hikers are advised to start early and give themselves plenty of time. Most hikers begin the hike to the summit around 4:30am and trudge steadily along with slow, small, steps. Around 8:00am they reach a group of boulders, known as the Pastukhov rocks, at 15,700 feet (those with enough money can be chauffeured in a snow cat to this point).
The final assault begins at a 17,500-foot-high saddle. Describing the hike from here Maura Reynolds wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "I never thought my lungs could work so hard and accomplish so little. I am taking three or four breaths per step. I try hard to find a rhythm but can't. I keep stopping. Just to breath. Just to feel the heaving of my chest subside a little."
Rivers, Passes and Steppes of the Caucasus Region
River valleys are cut deep into the mountains creating deep gorges and canyons, the majority of which are highly eroded. Avalanches and mountain torrents follow the courses or channels of these formations. The vegetation zones change from strips of forest and yellow rhododendron to conifers as the elevation increases then subalpine meadows with thickets of Caucasian rhododendron and low-lying alpine grasses, which then change to scree with lichens.
The northern slope of the main range is the source of the Kuban River, which flows into the Black Sea, and the Kuma and Terek Rivers which flow into the Caspian Sea. The Kura flows throw Tbilisi and is joined by the Araks river near the mouth into the Caspian Sea. Many people live in the canyons. The canyons provide some protection from the cold northern winds in the winter and are high enough to offer relief from the heat in the summer.
A few high difficult passes cross the mountains. The Ossetian and Georgian military roads cross the northern range through Mamison Pass and Pass of the Cross. Two short railroads cross the western mountains to Black Sea. The railway in he east loops around the main range and runs along the Caspian Sea coast.
Kuban Steppe refers to a large are of cultivated steppe situated roughly between the Caucasus mountains, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Volga and Don Rivers. It is a rich agricultural area and the traditional home of a Cossack group. Many people died here during the forced collectivization in the 1920s and 1930s.
Ecology and Climate of the Caucasus
Animals include tur (a kind of mountain goat), bezoar (wild goat), mouflon (wild sheep), chamois (an antelope), a variety of mountain goats brown bear, lammergeier (bearded vulture), imperial eagle, peregrine falcon, goshawk, snowcock, wolves, wild boars and maybe a few lynx and leopards. European bison have been reintroduced to the Caucasus.
Over 6,000 kinds of plants and wild flowers are found in the Caucasus. Some 1,600 plant species are unique to the Caucasus.The Caucasus has been designated a biological hot spot because it is rich in unique wildlife and plant life but also is threatened by the encroachment of people.
The Caucasus is being hurt by poaching, illegal logging, firewood cutting, overgrazing and diminished government resources for protection. Glaciers in the Caucasus are melting at an accelerated rate. Global warming is believed to be a factor. Half of all glaciers n the Caucasus have disappeared in the last 100 years.
The climate in the Caucasus is among the most pleasant in Russia. The area the around the Black Sea is the warmest spot in Russia. The summers here are warm and humid and the weather is pleasant in the spring and autumn. The temperatures decrease with elevation. The tops of the mountains are permanently covered in snow. The Black Sea side is considerably wetter than the Caspian Sea side.
Travel in the Caucasus
The Caucasus region draws visitors with its hiking, mountaineering and skiing opportunities and it hot and cold mineral springs. Unfortunately separatist violence in the area keeps many people away.
The main approach to the Caucasus are from the Don, Krasnodar on the slowly rising Kuban Steppe or Sochi on the Black Sea. The main highway in the regions runs from Rostov-on-Don to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, via Mineralnye, Vody, Nalchok, Vladikavkaz and the awesome Georgian military highway over the Caucasus.
The Caucasus has only been open to Westerners since 1989. The primary destination for hikers and mountaineers are the Baksan Valley, famed for its wide canyon and waterfalls; the Zelenya Gostina area which has views of the two of the range's most spectacular glaciers; the mountain village of Mestia, near Mt. Elbrus; and Dombay, Nalchik and Vladikavkaz. The main destination for those seeking some rest and relaxation are the spa towns of Pyatigorsk, Kislovodsk, Yessentuki, and Zhelznovodsk.
Most people get around by bus, minibus or hired tax. Trains and planes do not service many destinations. In some mountainous areas people use cable cars to get from place to place. There are few passes below 7000 feet and the main highway is often closed by avalanches. Most north-south routes run along the Black Sea and Caspian Sea coasts.
Travel Warning: Keep in mind there is a lot of trouble in the region—especially around Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Ossetia, where bandits considers kidnaping foreigners a lucrative source if income. Roads in trouble areas are often closed and foreigners are not allowed in and arrested if they are discovered.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016