Review of Charles King's 'The Ghost of Freedom: a history of the Caucasus'

Review of Charles King's 'The Ghost of Freedom: a history of the Caucasus', to appear in BSOAS

The Caucasus is Europe's most complex region in terms of its ethno-linguistic makeup; even if one draws the line between Europe and Asia along the ridge of the main chain, this statement would remain true. On this basis alone, then, there is wide scope. The 'Father of History', Herodotus, knew that the Caucasus extended to the Caspian Sea, noting (Book I, section 203): 'Along the west of it [the Caspian] stretches the chain of the Caucasus, the longest and loftiest of all mountain-ranges, inhabited by many different tribes.' He speculated on the Egyptian origins of the Colchians of western Caucasia (which is reflected in the folk-history of one of the races, the Abkhazians, who are indigenous to what was northern Colchis), basing his opinion in part 'on the fact that the Colchians, the Egyptians, and the Ethiopians are the only races which from ancient times have practised circumcision' (Book II, section 104). One might, thus, conclude that there is also much to say on the vertical axis of time. But the Caucasus rather slipped off history's highways (at least as far as Europe was concerned). Writing of late 18th-century Russian knowledge about the contemporary western Georgian kingdom, Isobel de Madariaga noted in her Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (2001.369): 'So little was known about the area that when an emissary of King Solomon of Imeretia asked to be received in St Petersburg in 1768, Catherine called for maps, and found that according to some of them Tiflis was on the Black Sea, according to others, on the Caspian)', whereas the Georgian capital in fact lies somewhere in the middle of the isthmus formed by these seas.

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