History of Northern Caucasus


By V. Nabatchikov
State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

The Northern Caucasus, which is separated from the centers of the world civilizations by steep offshoots of the Caucasus Mountains, the vastenesses of the Caspian and Black Seas and the Great Steppe, already at the early stage of the human history became one of the brightest seats of ancient culture. Favorable climatic conditions, abundant natural resources and most fertile soils created all prerequisites for progressive development of primeval economy. The epoch of early metal started here beginning with the 6th millennia BC practically simultaneously with Mesopotamia and Northern Iran. The Maikop Culture of the Early Bronze Age, which received its name from the richest kurgan (burial mound) found in the city of Maikop (Republic of Adighe) in 1897 by professor Veselovsky N.I., spread over the major part of the Northern Caucasus - from the Taman peninsular in the North-West to Daghestan in the South-East. Arising, formation and development of this culture are primarily connected with penetration of individual groups of population from the Near Easter to the Trans-Kuban steppes and foothills, which were the ones that brought here the cultural and technological achievements of the Near East. The complex cultural interactions resulted in formation of unique culture, which represented one of the most outstanding phenomena of the Bronze Age of Europe and of the entire Eurasian border territories.

During the next period the Maikop Culture became the basis of development in this area of a Northern-Caucasus cultural and historical unity with a variety of local versions. Their development to a great extent was connected with a mass expansion to the Ciscaucasian steppes of northern cattle-breeding tribes, the bearers of catacomb and timber frame cultures.
At the decline of the Bronze Age, at the end of the 2nd millennia BC the Northern Caucasus became one of the largest centers of metal production. An original Koban Culture, which made itself famous by an outstanding art of manufacturing bronze pieces, arose on the slopes of the Great Caucasian Ridge and in the northern part of foothills. Among the diversity of local forms of weapons and metal utensils, one can clearly identify the Transcaucasian and Near Eastern models, which proves the close cultural and economic contacts of Koban tribes with the countries of Transcaucasus and Near East. Along the steppe trading ways the pieces of work of Northern Caucasus craftsmen went far beyond the boundaries of the Caucasus foothills: to Thracia, to Northern Black Sea Coastal region, to steppe interfluval area between Volga and Don.

The development of bronze casting during the Late Bronze period facilitated successful mastering of iron for making tools and weapons. The 8th century BC in Eastern Europe became the most important historical borderline, which ultimately separated the old epoch of primitive communal relationships from the era of establishment of powerful tribe unions and the first state formations in the south of European parts of Russia and Ukraine. Many peoples of the steppe changed over to nomadic ways of economic life, large-scope migrations and long-distance trips started. The unlimited stretches of steppe instead of being a separating factor became the uniting factor. For the first time the militant tribes of Cimmerians and Scythians appeared on the arena of the world history. Their powerful impacts shook the entire Near Eastern civilized world. Northern planes of Ciscaucasia became the bridgehead, wherefrom the military units of nomads, bringing along the local population, went on their predatory trips to the rich south. The historians identify four routes of Scythian trips through the Caucasus to the countries of the Near East: along the Meotian-Colchis road, through Mamison pass, via Derbent and Daryal cuts, while the latter is considered to be the main route. It is here, in the adjacent steppe regions of the Central Ciscaucasia, that the majority of most ancient archaeological monuments of Scythian Culture in the North Caucasus dated the second half of 7th - verge of 7th-6th centuries BC were found. In the North-Western Caucasus the local Proto-Meotian tribes were the first to establish close contacts with Cimmerians and then with Scythians. Undoubtedly the participation of individual groups of Proto-Meotian population in the Near Eastern campaigns, which is proved not only by the found Proto-Meotian weapons and harness dated the 8th-7th centuries BC and similar to Cimmerian-Scythian, but also by many pieces of work of Urarten and Assyrian craftsmen brought to the Kuban steppes as a military loot.

By the 6th century BC in the North-Western Caucasus the interaction of two different ethno-cultural units - Iranian-speaking nomadic Scythians and local tillers and cattle breeders - resulted in formation of Meotian Culture with its unique artistic traditions. Its bearers - the Meotian tribes of Dandar, Kerketians, Sindi, Psessi and Thatei known through ancient written sources - occupied vast territories, including the eastern coastal region of Azov Sea, Kuban and Trans-Kuban steppes. Close trading and political contacts with antique centers of Eastern Black Sea Coastal regions were established, especially the cultural and economic ties got stronger when the Kingdom of the Bosporus was formed (5th century BC). It is proved by many ancients imports in rich funeral complexes and cult sanctuaries.

In the 4th century BC a new wave of Iranian-speaking nomads stirred the Eurasian steppes. Sarmatians living in the Don delta, Trans-Don and lands along Volga, with the strong inflow of akin tribes from Ural regions, got united into powerful tribe unions. By 3rd-2nd centuries BC in the west they occupied the steppes of Northern Black Sea Coastal regions between the Dnieper and Don, while in the south - the steppe part of Ciscaucasia and Northern Caucasus up to the offshoots of the Caucasian Ridge. The settlement of Sarmatians over vast territories resulted in dispersion of Sarmatian culture and, most important, to "Sarmatization" of local population. By the 1st century BC the biggest tribe unions of Aorsi and Siraci represented in Europe a powerful political force, took part in intestine wars of Bosporus interfering its relationships with Rome and Pontus. In the 1st century AD in the Don regions and the Northern Caucasus a new big nomadic union appeared - the Alani, which included the majority of Sarmatian tribes. Up to 4th century AD they were the main population of the Ciscaucasian planes. Under the onslaught of militant neighbors the settled population was forced to leave for mountain and foothill regions, where the seats of local culture remained.

The thunderous events of the end of the 4th century AD connected with invasions of Huns brought an end to the Sarmatian dominion. This was the beginning of the epoch of "Great Peoples' Migration", which opened a new page in the history of Europe. Numberless Turkic tribes and peoples pouring from the depth of Asia brought along considerable changes in the ethnic composition of the Northern Caucasus population, which was reflected in further cultural and ethnic processes taking place on this territory.

The Early Middle Ages were a turbulent time for the Northern Caucasus. Khazars grew strength in the north-eastern part of Caspian Sea Coastal region, the Central Ciscaucasia was dominated by the Alani, which reappeared on the world arena as an independent force in connection with Iranian-Byzantine wars, in the north-east of Kuban steppes the Bulgarians were creating their own kingdom - the Great Bulgaria,the Early Adighe-Zikhi tribes were getting united in the Eastern Black Sea Coastal region. Formation of Khazar Khanate brought a strong impetus for restructuring of economic and social structure of the Northern Caucasus community. Common borders, centralized policies of Khazar khans resulted in successful development of integral common Khazar Culture, which was Alani-Bulgarian in its origin. The Great Silk Road, which connected Asia and Europe, facilitated incorporation of the Northern Caucasus in the international trade and economic turnover and became the champion of new cultural and ideological ideas. The Islam, Christianity, Judaism brought considerable changes in the traditional pagan mentality of various ethnoses of Khazaria population. The profound changes in the political and economic situation in the Northern Caucasus took place after the Khanate collapsed. The Pre-Mongolian period was the final stage of formation of the Caucasus basic ethnoses, the golden age of medieval culture. That was the time when the general image of the region material culture with a number of both common and specific local features was formed. This pertains to metallurgy, metal working, pottery and jewelry crafts, the nature of farming and housing construction, of the Caucasus national outfit. The Tatar-Mongolian invasion interrupted for a long period the development of peoples and states of the Northern Caucasus by undermining their economic base. The devastating punitive expeditions of Golden Horde khans and later the aggressive campaigns of Timur to the Northern Caucasus resulted in considerable ruin of Northern Caucasus territories, and as a consequence the ethnic borders established by the beginning of the 13th century changed. Most clearly this process is seen in the North-Eastern and Central Ciscaucasia, where upon the utter defeat of Alani union the Adigheians ousted the Alani population, moved far into the south-east and gradually occupied the territory of present-day Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. This was the golden age for the late Adighe medieval culture, which got the name "Belorechenskaya" due to richest finds in the Meotians near a village having this name. Various items of weapons, jewelry and belt sets, silver vessels and Venetian glass show the wealth of this culture, its expansive cultural and trading contacts with the Western and Oriental worlds.

Such is a short overview of historical processes, which took place in the Northern Caucasus during five millennia. Due to research of material culture monuments: Meotians, burial grounds, ancient camps and townsites, cult structures many pages of the history of Northern Caucasus peoples were opened. An individual science - the Caucasology - was created, multi-volume fundamental studies have been published, but every year new material appears, thus making the scientists to review, correct and expand scientific concepts. The rich land of the Northern Caucasus to the present moment conceals many mysteries, but as the time passes by the opportunity of revealing and resolving these mysteries gets lesser and lesser. Ploughing of fields, irrigation works, construction of water reservoirs and pipelines result in disappearance of many ancient and medieval monuments, therefore the performance of large-scale protection and preservation works in the areas of active land use has long become the top priority. Archaeologists of Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Krasnodar region, Stavropol, Adighe, Daghestan, Osetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Chechen Republic for the latest decades have been incessantly fighting to preserve the cultural heritage of this historically and culturally rich region. These are also the goals of the Caucasian Archaeological Expedition of the State Oriental Art Museum, which was established in 1981 under the leadership of Ph.D. Leskov A.M. During 17 field seasons the excavations gave the richest material of ancient and medieval history of population of the North-Western Caucasus and Central Ciscaucasia. The finds include unique pieces of work of local craftsmen, true masterpieces of oriental and antique art. They became the basis of archaeological collection of the State Oriental Art Museum, which was supplemented by interesting finds from the excavations of the expedition of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences under the leadership by Ph.D. Kozenkova V.I. and doctor Flerov V.S. in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol region, which were handed over to the funds of our Museum.

V. Nabatchikov, Professor

Source: Artefact Caucasica, Gold Of The North Caucasus, State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

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