Roland Topchishvili, D.Sc. (Hist.), Professor at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (Tbilisi, Georgia).



This article reviews the ethnic processes in the Caucasus from the distant past to the present day.

The Caucasus, which is situated at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, has always drawn the attention of large empires. The frequent invasions of conquerors (Huns, Mongols, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and Persians) had a strong impact on the ethnic and demographic situation in the region: several of the local ethnic groups entirely disappeared, while other ethnicities, which eventually became Caucasians, settled in their place. During Russias two-hundred-year domination in the Caucasus, the ethnic situation underwent significant changes. The collapse of the Soviet Union also took its toll.

Recently, the history and ethnology of the Caucasus have been subjected to increasing distortion. The members of those ethnic groups that became Caucasians later than others were particularly good at this; cases of appropriating the cultural heritage of other ethnicities are also known.


The Caucasus, which is situated between the Black and the Caspian seas, has always been one of the most important hubs of the world. The Kumo-Manych Depression and lower reaches of the Don are usually considered its northern border, while the former Soviet Unions border with Iran and Turkey is regarded as its southern frontier. Of course, these boundaries are provisional. For example, the territories of present-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan belong to the Central Caucasus. However, from both the geographic and cultural-historical viewpoints, the extensive expanses to the south of these countries are an inalienable part of the Caucasian region. The Chorokhi Gorge and the sources and upper reaches of the Mtkvari (Kura) and Araks rivers are intrinsic parts of the Caucasus.

So the borders of the present-day Caucasus are determined by natural landscape (in the north) and political (in the south) factors. Within these boundaries, the area of the region (geographical and cultural-historical) covers approximately 400,000 sq. km. In this respect, it is worth thinking about a new model of geographical division of the Caucasus.1

It is logical to ask why the land that territorially belongs to Turkey and Iran is not included in the Caucasian region? This question deserves attention since applying the terms political and geographical to territorial formations gives them entirely different meanings. The definition of the Caucasuss southern borders according to the political principle began when the region was conquered by the Russian Empire: the imperial government regarded the basins of the Chorokhi, Kura, and Araks rivers, which joined its territory in the 19th century, as part of the Caucasus.2

We believe this to be a very serious problem. Scientific terminology is conventional, i.e. it is formed on the basis of a consensus among scientists. It is very possible that researchers and politicians today too will unanimously concede that the Caucasus should be divided into three geographical units (which indeed corresponds to reality): the Northern Caucasus, the Central Caucasus (which we now call the Southern Caucasus), and the Southern Caucasus (i.e. the territory of the Lesser Caucasus that belongs to Iran and Turkey).

The CaucasusAn Ethnically Diverse Region

From time immemorial, the Caucasus has been populated by numerous ethnic groups, large and small. In addition to the indigenous people, migrants who gradually became indigenous Caucasians (Ossetians, Balkars, and Karachays) have also lived in the region. So the Caucasus can be considered one of the polyethnic regions of the world. This is due to its geographical location, natural-climatic conditions, and foreign invasions.

Much has already been written about the ethnic history of the Caucasus, but the problem is still pertinent and requires further research, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and other political processes have given rise to new migration of ethnic groups in the region.

The Caucasus is also heterogenic in the religious-confessional respect. The conquerors tried to propagate their own religion there; it is enough to recall how the Sassanid Empire enforced Zoroastrianism in the region. The only exception were the Mongols: they did not try to underpin their conquests with religious and ideological precepts and so were able to blend in with the conquered people with relative ease.

Today, approximately 50 ethnicities live in the Caucasus, each of which has retained its own culture and language. This region, which is situated between Europe and Asia, has been populated by a large number of different ethnic groups from time immemorial.

Running ahead, the information that the Jikks (Abkhazian-Adyghe tribes) living on the Black Sea coast used to populate the valleys of Sarmatia is extremely important. This fact entirely coincides with the data of Georgian chronicler Juansher, who claimed that at that time, Pachaniketi bordered on Ovsetia, on the other side of the Ovset River, and Jikketi was also situated there. Much later, the Turks pushed out the Pachaniks and Jikks. The Pachaniks went west, while the Jikks settled at the edges of Abkhazia.3

According to Arabian author of the 10th century al-Masudi, Abkhazians and Circassians, who were related to the Jikks (Ubykhs), came to the Caucasus from other lands. On this basis, Agusti Alemany sums up that the various ethnic groups living in the Caucasian mountains came from Aru and are the descendants of Amur bin Tubal bin Yafith bin Nuh: Lesgis, Alans, Khazars, Abkhazians, Avars, and Circassians.4

The various processes and cataclysms that occurred in the world and particularly in the Eurasian expanse and Middle East had a strong impact on the processes going on in the Caucasus. The amalgamation of ethnicities led to the emergence of new ethnic groups, some ancient peoples disappeared; it is enough to recall the Caucasian Albanians.

Before analyzing the ethnic changes, let us take a look at the situation in the present-day Northern and Southern Caucasus as a whole (if we abide by the division of the Caucasus into Northern and Southern still customary today and not by the division that is more in keeping with reality mentioned above).

The Adyghe, Circassians, Kabardins, Abazins, Abkhazians, Chechens, and Ingush speak in languages that belong to the Caucasian linguistic family (previously called Iberian-Caucasian). The Daghestani ethnic groups (Avars, Akhvakhs, Andians, Baghulals, Botlikhs, Godoberins, Karatins, Tindals, Chamalals, Didois, Kapuchins, Khvarshins, Ginukhs, Gunzibs, Archins, Dargins, Kaitags, Kubachins, Laks, Lezghians, Aguls, Rutuls, Tabasarans, and Tsakhurs) also speak in the languages of that same family, as well as the Khinalugs, Gryzes, Bzhedugi, who live in the Shakhdag mountains of Azerbaijan, Udins of Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the Georgians.

The Ossetians, whose ancestors (the Alans) settled in the Caucasus in the relatively recent historical past, should be mentioned among the Iranian-speaking ethnic groups. As for the Tats and Talysh, they are the oldest residents of the Caucasus.

Turkic-speaking people settled in the Northern and Southern Caucasus at different times throughout history. The Azeris are the indigenous residents of the Southern Caucasus, while the Kumyks, Nogais, Balkars, and Karachays populate the North.

Armenians are Indo-Europeans by origin.

Mountain and Georgian Jews have lived in the Caucasus from time immemorial.

The Caucasus is the home of all the above-mentioned ethnic groups.5

Moreover, nationalities live in the Caucasus that are non-Caucasian by origin: Russians, Ukrainians, Kurds, Assyrians, Greeks, Tatars, and others. Strange as it may seem, Russians are the largest ethnic group in the Caucasus today (12 million); they mainly live in the Northern Caucasusby 1989 their numbers had reached 11,233,700 people,6 which constituted two thirds of the entire population.

The above ethno-demographic picture has formed in the Caucasus over the past two centuries.

Changes in the Ethnic Situation in the Caucasus at Different Times in History

We mentioned the Jikks (Adyghe ethnic group) above, who migrated to the Caucasus (to the Black Sea region) from the Sarmatian valleys at the beginning of the new era. At that time, migration processes also affected other ethnic groups of the Northern Caucasus: the nomadic tribes of the Iranian-speaking Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans encroached upon the extensive territory of Eurasia. Throughout the entire early Middle Ages, tribes of Alans and Khazars predominated in the valleys of the Northern Caucasus. Iranian-speaking Alans came from the Eastfrom Central Asia and from the territory of present-day Kazakhstan.7

The invasion of the Turkic-speaking Huns, who began their conquests from the territory of present-day Mongolia and formed a new conglomerate after merging with other ethnic groups, had a significant impact on the ethnic and demographic situation in the Caucasus.

While moving west through Eurasia, the Huns met resistance from the Alans in the Volga and Azov Sea regions. Some of the Alans, whom the Huns pressed back into the foothills of the Caucasus, took up a settled way of life; this is now the ancient ancestors of the Ossetians first became Caucasians. However, they also began to push out the indigenous tribes that populated the piedmont plains of the Caucasus. So the Nakh-Daghestani ethnic groups that resided there were forced to move to the mountains. At that time, a significant part of the population was assimilated by the Alans.

At the same time, Turkic-speaking tribes of Huns (Savirs) settled in the territory of present-day Balkaria; while an ethnic group of Kumyks formed in Daghestan.

The Khazars are also considered descendants of the Huns. The Khazar kingdom covered an extensive territory: its northern border passed along the northern coast of the Caspian Sea, while in the west it stretched to the Crimean Peninsula (including its eastern part).

The Khazar kingdom, which bordered with the Alans in the north, was destroyed by Kievan Rus in the 960s. But this did not mean that the Turkic ethnic groups disappeared from the valleys of the Northern Caucasus. It should be emphasized that the collapse of the Khazar state prompted the migration of different tribes (particularly Turkic) from east to west. Until a certain period of time, the Khazars essentially closed the corridor connecting Asia to Europe.

Thus, as the chroniclers of the 11th century rightly noted, the Khazars, just like the Huns, were a nationality from the distant past.8

The Huns, and then the Khazars, also left their mark in the Southern Caucasus. In 392-396, large Hun tribes infiltrated the Southern Caucasus and Southwest Asia. But neither the small number of Huns left in the territory of Caucasian Albania, nor the Khazars who arrived in the 7th century were able to change the ethnic situation that existed there: the first and the second were soon assimilated.

The Alans, who reside in the magnificent grass steppes between the Kuban and the Don,9 created a state formation that maintained close relations with the Georgian kingdom in the 11th-12th centuries.

Juanshers History testifies to the fact that during the time of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (the 5th century), the Alans (Ossetians), who tried to push out the Georgians (from the Southern Caucasus) and other ethnic groups (from the mountains of the Northern Caucasus), were the main political force in the Caucasus. The Georgian chronicler mentioned allies of the Ossetiansthe Khazars, meaning one of the tribal alliances of the Huns.

The Alans, Huns, and Khazars controlled the plains of the Northern Caucasus; the chroniclers first took note of them in the early Middle Ages, while mountain ethnic groups were rarely mentioned in the historical sources of that period.

Moreover, the ethnonym Alans often also referred to the local tribes living in the mountains and foothills of the Caucasus. The present-day Nakh-Daghestani and Abkhazian-Adyghe ethnic groups, which often mixed with each other, are considered the indigenous ethnic groups of the Northern Caucasus. Others were evidently assimilated by the Alan-Ossetians and Turkic-speaking Kipchaks (Cuman) who settled there later.

The Savirs resided close to the Caucasian mountains. But, as we know, they also lived in the mountainsparticularly in the territory of present-day Balkaria and West Ossetia (Digoria), which is confirmed by ethnographic studies.

First, the mountain-dwellers of western Georgia (the Svans) call the Balkars (and sometimes the Ossetians too) Saviars. Second, traces of the Savirs are obvious in the toponymy of Digoria: the Ossetians call the Digorian Gorge Savari-kom,10 which means gorge of the Savirs.

As Arabian historian of the 10th century Ibn Ruste writes, it was at least a ten-day walk from Daryal to the borders of the Alan domains.11

Another Arabian author, al-Masudi, mentions that the Daryal fortress was under the jurisdiction of the Georgian, and not the Alan, ruler.12

According to the Syrian chronicles (second half of the 6th century), the plains of the Northern Caucasus were populated by thirteen different ethnicities who resided in tents and mainly lived on the meat of domestic cattle, wild animals killed during hunting, and fish. This source also mentions the Alans among them.13

The Serir kingdom (in the territory of Daghestan) was also situated in the Caucasus during the existence of the Alan state formation, the indigenous population of which was the Avars.

A new stage in the ethnic history of the Caucasian peoples began with the invasion of the Mongols: their incursions prompted the migration of various Turkic-speaking and Iranian-speaking ethnic groups living in the expanses of Eurasia. The Mongols destroyed the political alliances of Alan-Ossetians and Kipchaks.14

As a result, the Ossetian steppe-dwellers ultimately moved to the mountains of the Central Caucasus and became mountain-dwellers, while some of the Kipchaks took refuge in the mountains of the Western Caucasus. Present-day ethnicitiesthe Balkars and Karachaysformed from the amalgamation between the Kipchaks and the local population.

After the Mongolian rule, the western part of the territory, where the Alans settled, was occupied by Kabardins who controlled the situation in the Caucasus until the Russians arrived. Turkic-speaking Nogais, who came from a mixture of representatives of the Europeanoid and Mongoloid races, predominated in the northern regions.

The fact that the Alan-Ossetians became mountain-dwellers had a significant effect on the ethnic situation in the Southern Caucasus and, particularly, in Georgia.

The Ossetians, the number of whom grew as a result of the high birth rate, strove to return to the valleys of the Northern Caucasus, to the land of their ancestors, but the Kabardins who had settled in their place would not allow them to do this. The Ossetians found a solution by occupying the time-honored historical-geographical regions of GeorgiaDvaleti and Shida Kartli. Based on numerous historical sources, it has been established that migration of the Ossetians to Dvaleti occurred in the 16th century, and to the foothills of Shida Kartli no earlier than the mid-17th century.15

The Mongol invasion changed the ethnic situation in the Southern Caucasus, but such changes also occurred there earlier. For example, in the early Middle Ages, a Christian Albanian ethnic group existed in the territory of present-day Azerbaijan (historical Caucasian Albania) that had its own written language. It has completely disappeared; now the Udins are considered to be its only ethnic successors. In the physical sense, the Albanians did not regenerate, but became a Turkic-speaking peopletodays Azeris.

In the 7th-8th centuries, Turkic-speaking Khazars moved to Albania (12,000 people); in 102540,000 families of Oghuz Turks; and in 1070, Seljuk Turks appeared there (at the time of Alp Arslans conquest).

Nevertheless, according to scientists, the physical descendants of the ancient Albanians, and not of the Turkic peoples, predominate numerically among todays Azeris.

Great changes took place in the Caucasus with the arrival of the Russians. According to the results of the last population census conducted during the Soviet era, their numbers amounted to 12 million people, whereas two centuries before they did not exist there at all.

The ongoing struggle of the Russian Empire to conquer the Caucasus led to a large part of the indigenous population leaving their homeland and moving to the Ottoman Empire. The once large ethnicities of Adyghe origin (700-750,000 people) found themselves in the minority.

Other North Caucasian ethnic groups also left their historical homeland. Among the muhajirun (emigrants) were many Abkhazians and Georgian Muslims. Eight thousand people moved to the Ottoman Empire from Ajaria (a historical-ethnographic territory of Georgia); there was also mass migration of Georgian Muslims from Samtskhe-Javakheti. The settlement area of Ossetians and Armenians who were loyal to the Russians extended into the liberated territories.

Ossetians settled in the Caucasian valley, on a small section of land of their ancestors. In the 19th-beginning of the 20th centuries, Armenians occupied the vast territories of the Northern and Southern Caucasus. The czarist government moved them from the Ottoman Empire to Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In addition to Armenians, other ethnic groups also moved to Georgiain particular, Greeks. They settled in Trialeti and called themselves Urum; their native language was Turkish and they confessed Christianity.

The Russian Empire tried to change the ethnic situation in all the regions of the Caucasus. The people of Adyghe origin who remained in the mountains of the Northern Caucasus were moved to the valleys where they found themselves in the midst of many Russian population settlements.

This policy was successfully continued in the Soviet period as well. Evidence of this is the migration of the North Caucasian mountain-dwellers (Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, and Karachays) to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The same lot befell the residents of Georgiathe Meskhetian Turks and Hemshinli (Armenian Muslims). At the same time, the Russian Empire did everything it could to settle the various ethnic groups of non-Caucasian origin in the Northern Caucasus; primarily Russians. It is worth noting that during the Soviet period they comprised the absolute majority of the population of the autonomous formations of the Northern Caucasus.

For example, whereas in 1867, the number of Chechens in Chechnia amounted to 31.7% and Russians to 30.1%, in 1874 their ratio was already 29.9% and 28.8%, respectively.16

In short, the arrival of the Russians radically changed the ethnic map of the Northern and the Southern Caucasus. What is more, there was unprecedented migration of Armenians, Germans, Greeks, and other nationalities to these regions. Colonization of the Northern Caucasus also had an impact on where the nomadic peoplesNogais, Turkmen, and Kalmykssettled.

The Black Sea region, Abkhazia in particular, has always been a target of the Russian authorities special attention; there was mass migration of Russians to that region. But the climatic factor interfered with this policymortality among the migrants was very high. For example, in 1809-1811, 7,315 migrants died in the Black Sea region of the Northern Caucasus, and in 1818, as the result of an epidemic, their numbers decreased by almost half. So in 1870-1890, there was mass settlement of Armenians on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus, in the districts of Tuapse, Sochi, Adler, Anapa, Novorossiysk, and Maikop. This process also took place in 1915-1916.

It is also worth mentioning the role of the large states situated to the south of the Caucasus. From this point of view, the Arabian conquerors had a strong impact on the ethnic situation (particularly in the Eastern Caucasus). The spread of Islam accelerated the ethnic changes there.

In southwest Georgia, the Ottoman Empire changed the ethnic situation. There is a document from 1595 that presents the results of a population census carried out in the Gurjistan vilayet; it describes the historical-ethnographic districts of GeorgiaSamtskhe, Javakheti, Kola, Artaani, Erusheti, and Tao Oltisi (Shavsheti, Klarjeti, and a large part of Tao were not included)and indicated several hundred settlements. There were 102 settlements in Javakheti alone. The Ottoman entirely ravaged Tori (now the Borzhomi region). Inculcation of Islam entailed de-ethnization and Turkization of the Georgians.17

Iran had a negative influence on the ethnic situation in Georgia during the late Middle Ages. The indigenous Georgian population was forced to leave its land, which became settled with Turkmen tribes. As a result of this, an emergency situation developed in several regions of Eastern Georgia. Eastern Kakhetia (now a region of Saingilo), Gagma Mkhari (the left-hand bank of the River Alazani), Shida (Inner) Kakhetia, and Ertso-Tianeti became essentially deserted. Kartli and Trialeti found themselves on the brink of a demographic disaster.

Some of the population of the province of Fereydan (the territory of present-day Iran) consists of the descendants of Georgians exiled by Shah Abbas in the 17th century. At the same time, Turkmen tribes migrated to Kakheti and Kvemo Kartli; they also migrated at a later time. The frequent inroads of the North Caucasian mountain-dwellers, known in eastern Georgia as lekianoba (Lezghian dominance, Lezghian incursions) and tkvis skidva (the sale of prisoners) also had a significant effect on the ethnic situation in Georgia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had a great impact on the ethnic and demographic situation in the Caucasus. The ethnic conflicts that flared up there under the instigation of the Russians prompted migration of the population. It is enough to remember the consequences of the war in Chechnia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and Shida Kartli (the Tskhinvali region); Chechens, Armenians (from Azerbaijan), Azeris (from Armenia and from the territory of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian armed forces), and Georgians migrated from the conflict zones; they essentially became refugees. Unfortunately, some of the Ossetians also left Georgia. Ethnic Greeks have practically disappeared from the Tsalk region.

Moreover, a large part of the indigenous population have left Georgia, particularly young people. The emigration of Georgians to Western countries has been instigated by economic difficulties.


So beginning from ancient times, the Caucasus has constantly undergone ethno-demographic changes. The events occurring in the Eurasian expanse and in Southwest Asia had an effect on the ethnic situation of the region. Over many centuries, a multitude of ethnic groups now disappeared, now settled there.

Conquering of the Caucasus by the Russian Empire forced many indigenous Caucasian ethnic groups to leave the land of their ancestors.

The ethnic diversity in this region arose as a result of Russias targeted policy; nevertheless, peace reigned for a certain time in the territory of the Caucasus it conquered. For example, relative peace and favorable conditions were created in the 19th-20th centuries conducive to the development of the Caucasian ethnic groups.

Russia always had its bastion there in the form of the regions privileged nationalities (the Armenians and Ossetians), on whom it counted and who to a certain extent helped to realize its imperial strivings.

1 See: E. Ismailov, V. Papava, The Central Caucasus: Essays on Geopolitical Economy, Tbilisi, 2007, pp. 34-39 (in Georgian). Back to text
2 Ibidem. Back to text
3 Kartlis tskhovreba (History of Georgia), ed.-in-chief R. Metreveli, Artanuji, Tbilisi, 2008, p. 82. Back to text
4 A. Aleman, Alany v drevnikh i srednevekovykh pismennykh istochnikakh, Menedzher, Moscow, 2003, p. 351 (see also: A. Alemany, Sources on the Alans: A Critical Compilation, Leiden, Boston, Köln, 2000). Back to text
5 See: N.G. Volkova, Etnonimy i plemennye nazvaniia Severnogo Kavkaza, Moscow, 1973; N.G. Volkova, Etnicheskiy sostav naseleniia Severnogo Kavkaza v XVIII-nachale XX veka, Moscow, 1974; R. Topchishvili, The Ethnography of the Caucasian Peoples: Ethnic History, Ethnic Culture, Tbilisi, 2007 (in Georgian). Back to text
6 See: V.S. Belozerov, Etnicheskaia karta Severnogo Kavkaza, OGI, Moscow, 2005, p. 13. Back to text
7 See: R. Topchishvili, Area of the First Settlement of the Ancestors of the Ossetian-Alans, TGU Publishers, Tbilisi, 2008 (in Georgian); idem, Osetiny v Gruzii, Universal, Tbilisi, 2009, pp. 171-216. Back to text
8 See: A.V. Gadlo, Etnicheskaia istoria Severnogo Kavkaza IV-X vv., Leningrad, 1979, p. 20. Back to text
9 L.H. Gumilev, Otkrytie Khazarii, Ayris-press, Moscow, 2003, p. 263. Back to text
10 See: A.Dz. Tsagaeva, Toponimiia Severnoi Osetii, Ordzhonikidze, 1971, Part 1, pp. 148, 188. Back to text
11 See: A. Aleman, op.cit., p. 347. Back to text
12 See: Ibidem. Back to text
13 See: A.V. Gadlo, op.cit., pp. 100-101. Back to text
14 See: Yu.D. Anchabadze, N.G. Volkova, Etnicheskaia istoria Severnogo Kavkaza XVI-XIX vv., Moscow, 1993. Back to text
15 See: R. Topchishvili, Migration of the Ossetians to Georgia and the Ethnic History of Shida Kartli, Tbilisi, 1997 (in Georgian); idem, Osetiny v Gruzii, pp. 7-16, 104-107. Back to text
16 See: V.S. Belozerov, Etnicheskaia karta Severnogo Kavkaza, OGI, Moscow, 2005, p. 23. Back to text
17 See: R. Topchishvili, Kuda delos gruzinskoe naselenie Javakheti, Tbilisi, 2000. Back to text

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