Book Review: History of the Caucasus: Volume 1: At the Crossroads of Empires by Christoph Baumer

Christoph Baumer is a distinguished historian and chronicler of events, full stop. The more of Baumer’s extensive and expansive works you read, the more you realise that very few rival him, not just for the breadth of subjects that he covers but the detail and clarity with which he espouses the narrative of these often hidden parts of the world.

In 2012, this publication reviewed the first of Baumer’s four-volume set on the History of Central Asia. This inaugural series was ambitious in itself, however as Baumer is now able to masterfully tackle huge swathes of historical time and geographical boundaries, it is no surprise that he has decided to take on the Caucasus. So, when this magazine got the chance to review his latest book, it was clear that another treat was in store.

The new series, The History of the Caucasus, covers 2 million years of human inhabitation in the Caucasus region, right up to today. Baumer tackles the swathe of empires that have risen and fallen in the Caucasus region. The first volume starts with the emergence of the first populations outside Africa until Seljuk conquests of 1050 AD. Eight beautifully written chapters take us on a quest covering not just the people but also the geology of the region. The origin of the Caucasus mountains and development of the Black and Caspian seas which shape the region today, is particularly interesting and new. Baumer covers pre-historic cultures from the Neolithic to the Iron Ages that simply have had so little air time in popular history and whose stories deserve to be told – both from a northern and southern Caucasus perspective. Baumer covers the usual Silk Road culprits such as the Scythians, the Romans, the Sassanids and the Seljuks but also liberates new folk such as the Kingdom of Kartali (Iberia) and how local Armenian Christianity and Armenian Kingdowms developed. With such eclectic history it is no wonder that it is claimed over 50 languages can be understood within the region’s borders today.

What sets Baumer apart from other history books on the region is the shear magnificence of the publication – just holding it you know this is a serious work that will enlighten you. Once you delve into its 386 pages, the beautiful illustrations and vivid photography captures your imagination even before you have begun to read. Of particular use are the detailed maps showing movements and positions of various empires throughout the course of the region’s history. This remains, however, more of an academic or reference book given its size and complexity. The difficulty with such books is that they don’t lend themselves to being read easily from an armchair or out and about and hence it is a feat in itself to read through cover to cover. That’s not to put the book down in any way, just to make readers aware that this is for the serious adventurer or scholar, much like Baumer himself! 

Christoph Baumer is a leading explorer and historian of Central Asia. He is President of the Society for the Exploration of EurAsia and is a member of the Explorers’ Club, New York, and of the Royal Asiatic Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London.

by Nick Rowan