An Overview of the Caucasus

Little Certainty in the Caucasus

The Caucasus, about half the size of my home province of Ontario (Canada), has such a wealth of landscapes and ecosystems (desserts, arid woodlands, lush forests, river rapids, snow bound mountain, tropical seasides, etc.), it represents one of the most biologically-rich areas of the world. With human settlements throughout the region dating to the late Stone Age, and its mountainous geography giving way to isolated inlets and hard to overcome mountain passes, it may be argued that the region’s dramatic topography also lends itself to one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the world. But such a diversity of people situated in a land where superpowers of the East and West historically vied for power has led to controversy and conflict over what constitutes the Caucasus. Despite today’s wealth of knowledge and state-of-the-art technology there remains an acute lack of verifiable information on the region. As a case in point, contemporary issues of ethnogenesis continue to  draw upon myths, folk legends, and questionable facts – some of which even present variable origins for the same people (see differing accounts for the origins of the Vainakh people in So what constitutes the Caucasus today, historically, and geopolitically is of ongoing debate.

The one thing that can be said with certainty is that the Caucasus physically represents two mountain ranges, the greater of which is Europe’s highest.

0 Map LanguageMap_Caucasus-01 Geocurrents

Linguistic Map of the Caucasus ( Click to enlarge.

The other thing to be said with certainty concerns the Caucasus’ ethnolinguistic complexity, which is more diverse than all of Western Europe and unequalled in Eurasia. The linguistic map on the right helps put things in perspective. The map is attributed to, which devoted a number of posts to the mapping of ethnolinguistic groups in the Caucasus, more of which you can read from the article (Pereltsvaig 2012a).


The People

The population of the Caucasus is estimated just under 35 million. Russians constitute the largest ethnic group (approximately 11 million), the majority of which are in the Northwest Caucasus. This survey of the music of the Caucasus does not address this group nor minorities like the Talysh, the Tats, Georgian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Tatars, Ukrainians, Greeks, Kurds, Germans, and others. Instead it focuses on the traditional musics of the people listed below. (Note populations listed are estimates, primarily from Coene (2010)).

The South Caucasus or Transcaucasia

  • Azeris (7.7 million) are a Turk0 Map South Caucasus 632px-Caucasus-political_en.svgic mix with indigenous Caucasians and speak a Turkic language.
  • Armenians (3 million) are indigenous Caucasians and speak an Indo-European language although some speculate the possibility that Armenians may be Indo-European migrants from the 2nd millennium BCE (Tuite 1996). Armenians often refer to their land as Hay, Hayastan, Hayasdan, etc.
  • Georgians (3.7 million) are indigenous Caucasians. Georgians call themselves Kartveli and their land Sakartvelo. Compared to Azerbaijan and Armenia, Georgia is known to have 17 distinct sub-ethnic groups – 15 in Georgia. They speak South Caucasian languages: Georgian, Megrelian (in region of Samegrelo), and Svan (in region of Svaneti). Megrels and Svans, as well as the Laz in Northeast Turkey (who I do not discuss) are often labelled as separate ethnicities.

The North Caucasus

0 Map North Caucasus 632px-Caucasus-political_en.svg

  • The Adyghe people (or more commonly known as Circassians), includes the Adyghe (129,000) in the Adyghea Republic, Cherkess (58,000) in the Karachai-Cherkessia Republic and the Kabardinians (511,000) in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. They are all considered mixed of indigenous Caucasians with Alans (Iranian people). They speak a Northwest Caucasian language.
  • The Karachai (187,000) are a mixture of North Caucasian Iranians and Turkic tribes. Because of their Iranian relations, they also identify with Alanian heritage. They speak a Turkic language but I group them with the Adyghe because stylistically their musics are comparable.
  • The Balkars (107,000) closely related to the Karachai, are a mixture of North Caucasian Iranians with Turkic tribes. They call themselves Malkarli. I do not discuss the Balkars since I have not located enough of their music.
  • The Abkhaz (100,000) who call themselves Apsu, are ethnic Caucasians. Their language is closely related to the Adyghes, a Northwest branch of the Caucasian language families.
  • the Ossetians (557,000) are known to themselves are Iron in the Northeast, Digoron in the Northwest, and Tuallag (which means moutnain men) in the South. They speak Oss, an Indo-European language, and claim to be descendants of the Alans.

Note: the Apkhaz and Ossetians are culturally related to the Adyghe but because of their geographic positioning in Georgia, also have some musical relationship with Georgians.

  • The Vainakh people are a people related ethnically, culturally and linguistically. They are represented by Chechens (1.3 million), Ingush (391,000), Kists (5,000) and Bats (2,500), the latter two living in the Pankisi Gorge of Eastern Georgia. They are indigenous to the region and speak the Nakh-branch of the Northeast Caucasian languages. The division of the Vainakh is believed to have taken place in the late middle ages with the Chechens converting to Islam far earlier than the Ingush (Jaimoukha 2004; 10). Chechens call themselves Nokhcha, and the Ingush call themselves Galgai. The differences between the Kists and Bats stem from the time of their migration into Eastern Georgia. The Bats, also known as Tsova-Tush by Georgians, are believed to have emigrated from the Northeast Caucasus in the 16th century and are the only Nakh people who have not converted to Islam. The Kists are reported to have migrated in the mid 1800s. While there are some differences in the musical dialects of the Vainakh, I will be discussing primarily what is reported and observed of the Chechen and Ingushetians.
  • Dagestan (2.5 million) with reports of up to 100 different nationalities speaking over 30 different languages in a Republic the size of Scotland, I limit my discussion to the following: the Avars (they call themselves Maarulal – 830,000), which often include the Dido and Andi people; the Laks (147,000); the Lezgis (672,000), which include the related Tabssarans and Rutuls; the Kumyks (396,000); and the Nogay (78,000). Except for the last two, these people are considered indigenous Caucasians, speak Northeast Caucasian languages, and form a rather large percentage of the Dagestani population. Both the Nogay and the Kumyks speak Turkic languages.

A history of Super Powers

It is rather important to recognize that many of these people, at some point and time in history, constituted something of a super power within the region, which may account for the strong and enduring sense of identity that manifests in their distinct musical traditions. Armenia’s might was established the earliest, between 189-63 BCE, covering a physical area 10 times the size of present-day Armenia (and included most of present-day Turkey). Georgia was a super power in the 11-13th century. Also significant is Armenia’s and Georgia’s early adoption of Christianity (4th century) followed by the formation of their own separate alphabets. This was crucial for the coalescing of their ethnic identities and development of their distinct sacred musical practices, which profoundly influenced secular musics, though in dramatically different ways for each country (for Armenia see Pahlevanian et al. (2014) and for Georgian see Kuzmich (2011)).

Present day Azerbaijan in its truncated state (South Azerbaijan belongs to Iran) is a result of a Russian-Iranian treaty of 1825. Azerbaijan’s Iranic influences (which spills over into their musics) stem from 1000 BCE when the region was fully embraced within the Acheminian empire. But its political positioning as the power centre of the Safavid Empire in the 16th century enabled all Azeri literate forms to flourish, with the ashiq poet-music tradition being the most highly regarded.

In the North Caucasus, the Alans (precursors to the Ossetians) were the superpower from the 9th to the 12 century. The Kumyks were powerful in the 15th-16th century; and the Avars in the 17-18th century. The Adyghe (Circassians) were also a large and unified group, and the current geographic separation of these people (into Adyghe, Cherkess and Kabardians) is a result of Russian divide-and-conquer strategy stemming from the 18th century.  “In 1864, after nearly fifty years of warfare, the Russians, aided by the Cossacks, expelled nearly all of these people into the Ottoman Empire. Only 20% remained behind” (Colarusso 1997; also see Andersen 2013). The harsh Russian policies against North Caucasians continued into the Soviet era, with more mass deportations and displaced peoples. In contrast to their once honourable and powerful state, it is clear why North Caucasians would harbour strong nationalist, anti-Russia sentiments. Perhaps, this in turn, fuels their need for the survival of their own authentic ethnic musical expressions.


As mentioned, at present I do not have the resources to deal with sacred music but I do feel the need to acknowledge the religious character even if it is superficially (hopefully I can expand on this topic in due course). The map below (from provides a bird’s eye view of the religious division within the Caucasus, where Armenia, Georgia and Ossetia practice Christianity and the rest of the subjects of this project practice Islam. Especially within the highlands of the Caucasus, these religions are mixed with an older layer of animist, shamanist, Zoroastrian, and/or other pagan beliefs.

Caucasus_Religion_Map Geocurrents

Past Music Scholarship (See Bibliography & Links for more sources)

This project has been a challenging one since music scholarship on the Caucasus is scarce. The subject of Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani music is only recently addressed in Western academia, and thankfully have entries in the two major music encyclopedias (Manukian 2001; Pahlevanian 2004; Djani-Zade 2001; Jordania 2000a; Chkhikvadze and Jordania 2014). With support from UNESCO, Georgia and Azerbaijan host websites dedicated to traditional musics of their respective countries, from which articles as well as audio or video samples of traditional musics can be accessed (, Unfortunately, far less is available on the musics of the North Caucasus. The Northwest Caucasus is more accessible than the Northeast. Abkhazia, Osettia and the Adyghe states, being part of or close to Georgia, was subject to ethnomusicological research by Georgians, who have published archived audio recordings from expeditions to these regions (e.g. Echoes from the Past Georgian Folk Music from Phonography Wax Cylinders) and the link above even hosts some papers on music from this region. The Adyghe, in the midst of a cultural renaissance, have made some English publications and music available via websites (e.g. In comparison, access to information on the musics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan is near impossible. At present, Joseph Jordania’s book Who Asked the First Question (2006) available for download and the CD liner note of Ay Lazzat (Pan2031 1995) are the only sources I found English written information on Dagestani music.

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