Skip to Main Content

The Caucasus: Cartographic Resources in the Library of Congress

An Abbreviated History of Maps of the Caucasus

It has taken roughly two-and-a-half millennia to draw a reasonably accurate picture of the geography of the Caucasus. Whether owing perhaps to deficiencies in mapping techniques, or rather the difficulty of comprehending the region's topographic complexity, dynamic geology, ethno-linguistic diversity, fractious politics, or even some combination of the above, the Caucasus have resisted until only relatively recently attempts at devising correct cartographic assessments, either overall or in part.

That noted, it is not feasible within the confines of this resource guide to include a comprehensive history of the mapping of the Caucasus. On the other hand, it would not be inappropriate to put forth some thoughts on how geographers have envisioned the region since antiquity. For brevity we will restrict our comments, which span two millennia, to four main periods, each of which witnessed some advance in our understanding of its landscape and environment, even its existence as a distinct geographic element.

Felix Oswald, cartographer. A Geological Map of Armenia and its Border Ranges. 1914. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.


We begin in the sixth century B.C., with a clay tablet that has come to be known as the Babylonian World Map -- indeed, our very first ever map of the known world. The tablet was inscribed with the earliest geographical reference to the Caucasus, or at least a fragment of it, and that is the name “Armenia.” Known as Urartu to the ancients, Armenia is among the map's few schematic features, and is situated between the city-state of Babylon, the Kingdom of Assyria, and an unidentified city. True to his geography of southwest Asia, our anonymous initial cartographer has the Euphrates River arising out of Urartu, in the years prior to its capture by the Iranian Medes. A century later the Thessalonian historian, Herodotus, records a few more facts about the Caucasus in his classic narrative, The Histories, but our overall knowledge of the region remains obscure for about six hundred more years.

In the second century A.D. we enter the second phase of our increasing geographical knowledge of the Caucasus. It comes in a bold leap with the appearance of the Geographia, one of the major works by the great mathematician, astronomer, and geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, who compiled a list of names and geographical coordinates of places throughout the Roman world. Over the centuries Ptolemy's works circulated in limited manuscript editions, some of which contained rudimentary world maps based upon his findings, but his knowledge of the Caucasus and the world at large remained restricted to a literate minority. When his Geographia began to be printed in the latter half of the fifteenth century, with the European Renaissance underway, editions included additional maps engraved on wood.

Claudius Ptolemy, geographer.Armenia Maior. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The Ptolemaic map pictured above is dated 1482 and appears in a rare first edition of the Geographia printed north of the Alps. It illustrates Transcaucasia, which Ptolemy has divided into four nations, namely Colchis (western Georgia), Iberia (eastern Georgia), Albania (Azerbaijan), and Armenia Major (Anatolia and Armenia). The most complete edition of the Geographia includes over 170 geographic feature names and their coordinates for this region alone.

Despite Ptolemy's rigorous cataloging, the map essentially denotes a rudimentary understanding of the region, one that remained in place for about fourteen hundred years. We no longer recognize many of the names, which primarily are in Greek, owing perhaps to Ptolemy's Greek intellectual heritage, as well as to a number of Greek settlements established along the eastern shore of the Black Sea. The unknown cartographer, using Ptolemy's data, has presented us with a grossly inaccurate conception of its topography, primarily by rendering his mountains into single chains of elongated worms that crawl over the landscape at improbable angles. Yet, vestiges of Ptolemaic influence remain: the names Iberia and Albania, both now associated with other parts of the former Greco-Roman world; ancient Armenia, more or less in its correct location; and Colhi, or Colchis, the Greco-Roman exonym for the early polity of Egrisi, whose inhabitants spoke a Kartvelian language at the root of modern Georgian. Ptolemy's influence in the region, as well as that of Greece and Rome, persists, like a shadow across the centuries.

The Renaissance

Ptolemy was introduced to a wider world during the Renaissance, a period that inspired the creation of maps, yet not necessarily an improvement in their contents. Without the advantage of information derived from direct observation and the systematic recording of geographical features, much, but not all, of the material on world maps consisted of fanciful phenomena and historical hearsay, combined with the inconsistent spelling and erroneous identification of place names, all an imperfect inheritance from the Middle Ages.

Martin Waldseemüller, cartographer. Carta Marina. 1516. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Consider this detail of plate 3 from Martin Waldseemüller's Carta Marina of 1516, a good indicator of the state of European knowledge of the known World during the Renaissance. Waldseemüller, of course, was the first map maker to recognize that there was a western hemisphere – the fourth part of the world – and a new continent that he named “America.” His depiction of the Caucasus, however, was not exactly progressive, as it blended mythology, fact, and fiction, and relied somewhat on Ptolemy for its topography. It also employed antiquated stylistic devices apposite of the era to depict cultural features and prominent personages.

In this detail the local elite are represented by the King of Georgia and the Patriarch of all eastern schismatic Christians, i.e., Armenian Catholic Church, while between them Noah's Ark can be seen stranded on Mount Ararat. The two figures are situated among – the Patriarch perhaps even perched upon – strangely arranged chains of mountains garnished by a few recognizable names and some very obscure Latin phraseology. A few Greek crosses here and there further denote the region as Orthodox Christian rather than Roman Catholic or Muslim. Though clumsy and bigoted by today's standards, Waldseemüller's depiction of the Caucasus on the Carta Marina is slightly more accurate and more complete than the rendition appearing on his justifiably more revolutionary and famous world map of 1507.

Abraham Ortelius, publisher. Turcici Imperii Descriptio. 1570. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Early Modern Europe

A slight advance in mapping the Caucasus occurs later in the sixteenth century with the appearance of Abraham Ortelius' justly famous atlas, Theatrum orbis terrarum, published in 1570. This detail of the Caucasus is from a plate that illustrates the Turkish Empire. If nothing else, the region's political situation is more adequately addressed for the first time on a map. The Caucasus are depicted as being subdivided among Turkey, Persia, and Tartary (Russia), which somewhat reflects the arrangement fixed by a mid-sixteenth century treaty between Turkey and Persia, both of whom divided and ruled Armenia. The mixing of Turkish and Persian influences remains especially marked among modern-day Azerbaijanis, who speak a Turkish language but practice Shia Islam, like most Iranians. And, today, the largest population of Azeris reside not in Azerbaijan but in northwestern Iran.

The era of Western European exploration has been identified as a catalyst for the Enlightenment, which brings about our third era of geographic knowledge of the Caucasus. By this point European map makers had been imbuing their products with greater geographic accuracy and cartographic precision, employing first-hand accounts of expeditions to foreign lands, imperial-driven surveys and wider reconnaissance, and comparisons of recently published sources.

Anville, Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d', cartographer. Premiere partie de la carte d'Asie : contenant la Turquie, l'Arabie, la Perse, l'Indie en deca du Gange et de la Tartarie ce qui est limitrophe de la Perse et de l'Inde. [1751]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Preeminent among them was the 18th century geographer, John Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville (1697-1782), whose work was respected among his colleagues for his attention to detail and his commitment to accuracy, which he achieved through constant revision of his maps. This section from his 1751 map titled Premiere partie de la carte d'Asie : contenant la Turquie, l'Arabie, la Perse, l'Indie en deca du Gange et de la Tartarie ce qui est limitrophe de la Perse et de l'Inde, indicates a definite improvement in the representation of the Caucasus since the Renaissance. We are able to recognize the actual names of the prominent rivers, i.e. the Kuban, the Terki (Terek), and the Aras, with their courses being somewhat correctly aligned; we see numerous additional geographic feature names especially in the interior, with many of them approximating modern renditions; and we note an overall density of content; while gone are the cartoonish depictions of prominent locals, the mythical inscriptions, and mountain ranges resembling nematodes.

Yet, inaccuracies remain, chief among them being the saturation of the Caucasus with unconsolidated ranges of mountains that crisscross it in all directions, thus indicating an ignorance of the region’s most distinguishing feature, its great system of mountains stretching between the Black and Caspian seas. The region’s topographical complexity seems to defeat the cartographer, who manages to convey only an impression of its imposing nature.

Era of Scientific Mapping

Our fourth and final phase of mapping the Caucasus arises out of the late eighteenth and nearly nineteenth centuries, sometimes referred to as the dawn of the era of scientific mapping, by which time large-scale national surveys of homelands and imperial territories had become the de facto element in their definition, possession, and protection. Science may have been a catalyst in the improvement of maps, but it is also true that war generates a tremendous increase in their quality, as well, specifically of the battlefield and more generally the theater. Both factors certainly inspired Imperial Russia to shed some clarity on the Caucasus, which had experienced Russian encroachment for centuries.

The annexation of Georgia in 1800 eventually enabled Russia to drive Turkey and Persia from the Caucasus, and either absorb or defeat the various kingdoms in between. By 1813 Russia possessed most of Transcaucasia, and that same year signed the Treaty of Gulistan with Persia, which devised a new border between the two empires and added several Turkic khanates to Russia’s southern Caucasus holdings.

Author unknown. General'naia Karta zemel mezhdu Cher'niim' i Kaspiinskim' moriami lezhashchikh' s oznageniem' novoii granitsi Roccii s' Percieiu. 1819. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

This accurate and detailed map was drawn, engraved, and printed in 1819 in St. Petersburg to illustrate Russia’s imperial boundary with Persia and also to obtain international recognition of its conquests. It represents the first modern map of the Caucasus. In comparison with its predecessors it connotes an intimate familiarity with the landscape, in that it depicts the Caucasus as comprising two separate mountain chains running northwest to southeast. Indeed, its rendering, by hachured relief, of the mountains as solitary chains emulates the topographic style exemplified by Lewis & Clark in their famous map of the American West published only five years previously. Just as importantly the map is densely populated with towns and villages (many of them highland communities), place names, roads, many small rivers, churches, and, of course, Russian fortifications.

Following over a century of conflict, Russia was finally able to establish administrative and judicial control over the Caucasus by the 1870s-80s. Shortly thereafter the Military-Topographic Directorate of the Caucasian Military District began issuing a series of maps of the Caucasus, in addition to parts of eastern Turkey and northern Iran, at scale of ca. 1:210,000 (5 versts to one inch). Essentially the first large-scale topographic mapping of the Caucasus, it covered the entire region in eighty-two sheets. Sheets were variously revised and updated until 1917, after which its publication was taken up by the Red Army, which continued to produce editions as late as the Second World War. Topographic coverage of the Caucasus was also issued at 1:42,000 scale (1 verst to 1 inch) and 1:84,000 scale (2 versts to 1 inch) by the Russian Army's Military Cartographic Corps in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with Soviet reprints issued by the Red Army until World War II.

H. F. B. Lynch & F. Oswald, cartographers. Map of Armenia and Adjacent Countries. 1901. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

A cartographic aftershock appears a little over eighty years later, when this truly magnificent view of most of Transcaucasia was published, outside of Russia, in 1901. Titled Map of Armenia and Adjacent Countries, it was drawn by British traveler and parliamentarian, H.F.B. Lynch, and geologist, F. Oswald, who based their map on earlier Russian surveys and Lynch’s surveys and field notes. The map accompanied Lynch’s two-volume description of the region. While Lynch’s publication was received with tepid reviews, his map revealed for the first time to the world the remarkable complexity of the Caucasian landscape.

His fellow cartographer, Dr. Felix Oswald, accompanied Lynch on his second journey through Turkey and Armenia, producing a geological treatise on Armenia in 1906, which was followed a year later by a visually striking geological map of that country (see above). Oswald then compiled and published the map below, his Geological Map of the Caucasus from the latest sources, in 1914, essentially the first accurate and comprehensive geological map of the region, which revealed for the first time its Alpine and Hercynian orogenies, and variegated lithology.

Felix Oswald, Cartographer. A Geological Map of the Caucasus Compiled from the Latest Sources by Felix Oswald. 1914. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

With regard to the Caucasus, recent political reordering has certainly proved more dynamic than geological change, which moves at the speed of rock. Thus, following short-lived experiments in federation and independence, the three nations of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia were inexorably bound within the Soviet orbit by 1921. Like other political entities constituting the former Soviet Union, they experienced intense moments of secularization, industrialization, and collectivization. In 1937-39 the Soviets sought to publicize the success of those initiatives in a major publishing project known as the Great Soviet World Atlas. A major achievement derailed by World War II, the two completed volumes of a projected three-volume work employed innovative methodology in illustrating topography and emphasizing the purported success of the first five year plans. The vibrant nature of the cartography is apparent in the economic map of Azerbaijan, whose Apsheron Peninsula is decorated with rings celebrating its wealth in oil, fish, lumber, and minerals.

Glavnoe upravlenie geodezii i kartografii SSSR. Bolʹshogo sovetskogo atlasa mira, vol. 2 1937-39. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Of note are the soft color combinations, the depiction of relief by shading, sets of uniform symbols and graphs for identifying cultural and environmental features, a formal legend, and an emphasis on economic, industrial, and agricultural advantages. That cartographic template used in producing the maps for the Great Soviet World Atlas was exploited by the Soviet Union over the next five decades to produce series of school maps issued in a larger format to cover the country at the national, regional, republic, and oblast levels. Those maps also illustrated several themes germane to the Soviet experience, such as the country's radical form of government, its administration, its drive for large-scale industrialization, and its agricultural potential by way of its natural resources, climate, and soils.  For the most part, the maps were compiled and published by the Soviet Union's Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography (abbreviated in Russian as GUGK). Coverage includes the Caucasus at just about every level, which is represented in the division's collections. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, that same agency issued smaller-scale tourist maps for driving and hiking throughout the region.

In the 1960s the Soviet military began issuing topographic coverage of the entire country at 1:200,000 scale and of the separate republics and autonomous oblasts at 1:100,000 scale. Those materials are among the most detailed and accurate mapping of the Caucasus in the second half of the twentieth century, and are held by the division.

Since the creation of the Russian Federation and the opening, more or less, of Russia, there has been an explosion of commercial mapping of the Caucasus, primarily for travel and tourism, but also for documenting its changing political environment, economic development, and oil and gas exploration. The maps come in a variety of scales and sizes, and with sundry layers of information, but tend to be of uniform style and presentation. Though they represent the end of the era of scientific mapping, they may also point to a potentially newer phase of mapping by bits and bytes.