Have a question? Need assistance? Use our online form to ask a librarian for help.
Mike Klein, Cartographic Reference Specialist, Geography and Map Division
Note: Many thanks are owed to Brigita Sebald, librarian in the Asian and Middle Eastern Division, for her invaluable assistance in translating maps in Armenian and Georgian. Also, Julie Stoner deserves a lion share of the credit for exercising her excellent editorial skills in making this guide a better product.
Created: October 8, 2020
Last Updated: February 17, 2021
Some twenty million years ago or so, two massive tectonic plates, the Arabian and Eurasian, collided to form the intersection of what were to become the great continents of Europe and Asia. Over time, a series of pressings, foldings, upliftings, subductions, and other titanic phenomena pertaining to mountain building formed the major geographical region we now call the Caucasus.
Two magnificent mountain ranges, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus, make up the Caucasus system. The Greater Caucasus stretches from the Taman to the Absheron Peninsula, and between the Black and Caspian seas. Its smaller coeval, the Lesser Caucasus, arises out of the Anatolian Plateau and terminates in the lowlands of Azerbaijan, but also blends into the highlands of northern Iran. The ranges run parallel in a west-northwest to east-southeast fashion for a combined length of about eleven hundred miles, and reach as high as 18,000 feet. A variegated system of ridges, peaks, table lands, glaciers, valleys, gorges, and rivers constitute both. Among them are two celebrated peaks, Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, and Mount Ararat, since antiquity regarded as the depository of the vessel that saved humans and creatures from a mythical flood.
Today the South Caucasus republics rest properly in Asia, but for many years the crest of the Great Caucasus was viewed as one of several potential boundaries between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, separating, as it does, two broadly different regions. To the north is the Eurasian Steppe, long thought to be part of Greater Tartary, to which a succession of peoples and nations have laid claim, the last being modern Russia. The southern slopes are captured by the rugged uplands of eastern Turkey and northern Iran, the Caspian plains between Iran and Azerbaijan, and the Armenian Highland: these regions more or less constitute the South Caucasus. Yet the divide is also east and west, with the watershed seeming to run in a north-south fashion. Both the Kuban River, arising from the hills girding the plains of the northern Caucasus slope, and the Rioni River, emanating from the western Georgian uplands, flow westerly towards the Black Sea; whereas the Terek River, rising in the Greater Caucasus, and Arax, and Kura rivers, coming from the northeastern highlands of Turkey, run towards the Caspian in the east.
To anyone who encounters the region for the first time, its most overwhelming feature is its landscape, a rugged assortment of mountains, plateaus, forests, deserts, and glaciers, the appearance of any one of which can startle a traveler whose position might shift by only a few feet of distance or elevation. Alpine peaks, covered in snow and ice, guard highland plateaus, which in the north give way to expansive prairies and hills. Deep craggy gorges, some circuited by narrow paths, eject waterfalls that empty into rushing rivers, whose waters are fed by high-altitude glaciers. Coniferous forests predominate at higher altitudes, but mix with deciduous forests as elevation declines. Semi-tropical foothills, lush with vegetation, contrast sharply with arid plans of Southwest Asia. Farming zones astride the lowland rivers support farming and livestock in the summer. Indeed, the impression of rapidly moving between landscapes often impressed travelers as an unexpected and abrupt exchange of one world for another.
We would expect that such a dramatic landscape has contributed to an similarly lively history. The many forces, at times violent, that molded the peoples of the Caucasus resonate today. As one example, the fractured nature of the past, combined with numerous instances of geographic isolation, have bequeathed the region with four major ethnolinguistic groups (indigenous Caucasian, Indo-European, Turkic-Altaic, and Semitic), which include more than fifty ethnic sub-groups speaking twenty-eight different languages and writing in four distinct alphabets. Yet the region's lingua franca, especially in the north, remains Russian, indicating that nation's long-standing influence in Caucasian affairs.
As expected, Caucasian politics have been equally fractious, and continue to be so today. Currently, four nations, one with a set of autonomous republics and federal regions, occupy Caucasus territory. Russia proper straddles the Northern Caucasus, whose territory comprises Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachy-Cherkessia, Krasnodor Krai, North Ossetia-Alania, and Stavropol Krai, all of them confined within the modern Russian Federation. On the other side of the crest lies Transcaucasus, consisting of the independent republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as an enclave of Armenians (Nagorno-Karabakh), an excalve of Azerbaijanis (Nakhichevan), and the partially recognized country of South Ossetia. The independence of two historical regions of Georgia, namely Adjaria and Abkhazia, currently is in dispute.
Besides the mountains, by and large the most prominent features appearing on maps of the Caucasus over the past two-hundred-or-so years have been the boundaries, most of them drawn, imposed, and amended by Imperial Russia, its successor state, the Soviet Union, and its most recent iteration, the Russian Federation. The maps described in this resource guide reflect the changes set in motion since the appearance of Russia in the region, which set about defining power relations vis-a-vis Ottoman Turkey, Persia, their numerous subordinate khanates, and numerous independent tribes. Most of the maps symbolize Soviet authority, and were issued as educational devices to identify and publicize the location of the region's valuable natural resources, which include oil and gas.
The maps described herein constitute a collection mostly unlisted in the Library of Congress online catalog, and is an attempt to fill that gap. Maps, as well as atlases, can be both primary sources of information and illustrative supplements to textual works. Consequently, significant maps can be found in most parts of the Library's massive collections. The majority of the Library's cartographic holdings are, however, preserved in the Geography and Map Division, and the purpose of this guide is to further promote the collections of this division.