This is a subject that will certainly ruffle some feathers and potentially cost me more than a few subscribers. But I’m sitting home in quarantine with nothing better to do, so I thought to myself, it’s time for a good old fashioned digital controversy.
All joking aside though, if you thought the “dolma wars” were silly this one takes the cake. It’s impossible to talk about this subject without angering one or the other side (or both) of the argument. People seem so emotionally attached to their conclusions that it incites fiercest debates even among best friends.
But this subject is so intricately layered that it’s hard to unpack for anyone and me trying to do so here probably won’t do it enough justice either. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best attempting to explain it in its entirety. I’ve tried to ignore this subject for years now, but it seems it’s not going away. People are still debating it on various fora, Reddit, Facebook and even places such as Instagram now. Countless videos, article and even “scientific” publications have wasted their efforts trying to argue for one or the other. I’m fed up with it, and here is what I have to say about it.
First of all, before we go any further, let me clarify one thing. This is not about race and has nothing to do with skin color. Whether Armenians ought to be considered “white” or any other race is a different subject entirely, and no I’m not touching that one. 😉 The term “Caucasian” derives from a region and a mountain range between the Black and the Caspian seas. Early European anthropologists theorized that all “white people” must have originated from this region. That’s why in the US for example the term “Caucasian” has become synonymous with white people. But this post is not about race, it’s about the geographic Caucasus region that is home to many different people with countless unique languages. It’s arguable, the most linguistically diverse region in the world.
So why is it both so attractive and repulsive at the the same time to (different) people, to be identified as Caucasian?
During the Soviet-Union the word Caucasian (Kavkazets) was used both in a derogatory way and a way to show pride. It was usually conflated with being “wild” which could both mean uneducated/aggressive and/or assertive/strong/dominant at the same time. And perhaps there is some truth to both, people of the Caucasus were and probably still are disproportionately represented in Russian crime statistics. These proud and extremely diverse nations living on a small patch of mountainous land all have strong martial cultures and history of continuous warfare. It’s common to hear both praise and disdain for the Caucasian people. Whether it’s a privilege or a curse entirely depends on what someone associates with the peoples of these mountains. But more probably, how someone defines the Caucasus itself. Because, Caucasians aren’t an ethnicity, nor is Caucasus a country, instead it’s a geographic region, mountain ranges, language families, a common culture, shared history and related genetics. Basically it has every building block to form an ethnicity without being one. And in fact, back in 1918 several Southern Caucasian nations attempted to unify it into one state. Named Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, it only existed for a single month before Georgia decided to go solo, followed shortly by Azerbaijan and Armenia. It roughly consisted of what are now the modern-day countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, plus parts of Eastern Turkey as well as Russian border areas.
As much as these nations have in common, they have, perhaps even more, differences. Of course such a project was doomed from the start as the diversity of the peoples almost makes it impossible to unify everyone without any imperial force, which was eventually achieved by the Russians annexing it into the newly formed Soviet-Union.
Politics; will the real Caucasian please stand up?
If you’d ask me, I’d say this controversy is mostly fueled by regional politics. Most of you probably don’t know me, but I was born and raised in Abkhazia (a de facto sovereign state that is recognized by most countries as an autonomous republic of Georgia). I grew up among Armenians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Greeks, Jews, Russians, Kabardins and so on… and so on… People were usually quite friendly towards each other even if there was some (friendly and not so friendly) ethnic rivalry. Nothing nearly as aggressive as it is today though. I’m in my mid thirties now but I do remember the friendship back in Soviet time. The younger generations perhaps don’t even remember a time when it was considered an honor to take part in each others cultures, instead of calling it “cultural appropriation”. I remember how our Georgian neighbors always came to our weddings to show off their dancing skills, how mountain Jews gave us (weird) bread on Passover and Pontic Greeks taught us Greek cursewords that got us kids in trouble. I remember being taught Abkhazian songs about Elbrus (the mountain) and Russian poetry by Pushkin, Tolstoi and Lermontov.
Unfortunately, I also remember much darker times, when the war started after the fall of the Union. People became more nationalistic, ethnic conflicts erupted, new alliances were forged, religious fundamentalism crept into societies and today we have many unresolved conflicts in the region. These alliances and camps are also the driving force of the controversy at hand. Because, who is to be considered a “real Caucasian” also heavily depends on who you ask. Majority Muslims like Chechens or Ingush might favor their religious brethren like Azeris more than they might their geographic or even genetic relatives in Ossetia. But religion (although a factor) seems to be of much lesser importance than current geopolitical alliances. Armenians too have fallen victim to regional politics and those who dislike Armenians (either due to their alliance with Russia or war with their religious brethren the Azeris) will be quick to tell you that Armenians are definitely not Caucasian.
But here is the peculiar part, there are many Armenians who would actually wholeheartedly agree. Of course, for completely different reasons, or perhaps the same reasons but in reverse. While some Caucasians might be motivated to exclude Armenians due to geopolitical alliances and territorial disputes by questioning the Armenian ingenuousness, some Armenians too might not want to be associated with the Muslim Caucasians who are all too eagerly siding with the Turks and Azeris. An exception could be made for the Christian (Iranic) Ossetians, mixed religious Abkhazians, Lezgins, and the Christian Georgians, were it not for the Georgians to also have developed such cosy relations with Armenia’s regional rivals in recent decades. And perhaps they could argue the same regarding Armenian-Russian relations, either way, it certainly doesn’t help to bridge the divide. But there are other factors that influence the outcome of the question at hand. Let’s explore them further.
Geography; South Side is the out side
From a geographical point of view it should be a no-brainer. The Caucasus region is divided into two parts. The North Caucasus region is known as the Ciscaucasus, whereas the South Caucasus region is commonly known as the Transcaucasus. Armenia along with Georgia and Azerbaijan falls within Transcaucasus and that’s that. Much like Norway is within Northern Europe and Norwegians would (probably without any controversy) be considered Europeans even if they’r not in the EU…
Some would argue that these geographic divisions were invented by the Russians :O , and therefore… … I forgot… but it had something to do with Trump getting elected or something. Either way, it’s recognized internationally and no one actually contends the geography, irregardless of who invented the terms.
But Caucasus is also a toponym for several mountain ranges, and some would argue that only the countries/federations where these mountains are present are to be considered Caucasian. Well well well… what do we have here… The Republic of Armenia actually has Caucasian mountains within its territories. Case Closed!
Again, not quite. The Caucasus range that passes through Armenia is the lesser Caucasus range, and there are people (don’t ask me where I find them) that would actually argue that the lesser Caucasus range actually shouldn’t be counted. In that case, all Armenians have to do to become “Caucasian” is to conquer a few patches of dirt up north. I think we’re well on our way in Adler/Sochi. I’m joking, Putin. It’s a huge article I need to keep readers entertained. 😉
But there is another problem when it comes to Geography. Unlike all of the other countries/republics that fall within the Caucasus region, historic Armenia (which used to be much much much, did I mention much?… larger than the modern Republic of Armenia) actually falls within a territory known as the Armenian Highlands.
Armenians who dislike the “Caucasian” designation would almost always mention that:
“Armenians are not Caucasians, Armenians are Armenian HAYlanders”
Actually, I’ve invented the HAYlander term but don’t tell me it’s not creative. Either way, while it is true that Armenians trace roots from the Armenian Highlands, it doesn’t mean that one can’t have multiple geographic designations. Just like Spain and Portugal both belong to the Iberian Peninsula and Southern Europe. Or Serbia being considered to be both within to the Balkan Peninsula and Eastern Europe. There are many such examples with intersecting toponyms. Armenia can actually be both within the Caucasus, the Armenian Highlands, Eastern Anatolia, the Near East, the Middle East and Asia (or Europe depending who you ask). Fun fact; in the antiquity the Greeks refereed to Armenia and Anatolia with the term Asia. It had nothing to do with the far east we associate it today, but probably something with Amasya.
History; Brother from another mother
When it comes to history, well we could write thousand books on the history of the Caucasus. It has been recorded in ancient Greek myths from Prometheus getting chained on the Caucasian mountains to the Argonauts searching for their golden fleece in Abkhazia. There is so much history there that I don’t know where to start and to end. So I’m just going to skip everything and tell you about a lost underwater city on the shores of Sukhumi. Sukhumi is a capitol of Abkhazia where I grew up. There is actually an underwater Hellenic city named Dioscurias, stones of which are still visible on the beach today.
In the antiquity however, that part of the world was mostly famous for 4 kingdoms. The Armenian (being the largest and consisting of Lesser and Greater Armenia), Iberia (the precursor of Georgia), Colchis (the precursor of Abkhazia or as Georgians would argue also Georgia), and Albania (not the Albania of the Balkans, but the so called Caucasian Albania, a Christian kingdom that got wiped out by Arabs, Persians and Turks eventually replaced with Caucasian Tatars a.k.a. the Azeris).
Btw, just a side-note, I’m always baffled that Georgia is allowed to claim both the kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis, when the contemporary authors never mentioned any kinship between these two kingdoms, in fact they are always recited as separate neighboring nations.
Alright, now that we’ve got the last Georgian follower of this blog to unsubscribe, let’s continue to make the rest of my readership angry.
The antiquity might be too far in history for us to understand something useful about the Caucasian identity, but in the middle ages there certainly was an understanding among the Caucasian nations that they are in some way related to each other.
According to the 5th century historian’s Moses of Chorene’s History of Armenia and to Leonti Mroveli’s medieval Georgian Chronicles, Armenians, Georgians and other Caucasian nations were all related through one father “Thargamos” identified with the Biblical Togarmah. Thargamos (or Torgom) was said to have settled near mount Ararat and divided his land among his sons; Hayk (first son of Thargamos, inherited Mount Ararat and founded the Armenian nation), Kartlos (settled in north-east from Ararat, founder of Kartli and Sa’kartvelo the Georgian nation.), Bardos, Movakos (founder of the Movkans), Lekos, Heros (Settled in the eastern part of Ararat and founded the Herans), Caucas (settled beyond the Caucasus Range and founded the Kavkasos), Egros (settled between the Black Sea and Likhi Range founded the Egers).
Even though the Caucas were understood to be the people of the North Caucasus, the South Caucasians considers themselves to be close relatives of these people.
Now, there are several papers (published mostly by Georgian Universities) that would actually contend the validity of such a genealogy showing diagrams of several “other” possible genealogies. Like the one you see bellow:
The problem with such nonsensical analyses is that no one is actually claiming that these semi-religious founder myths and genenlogies are historically true. But what these stories tell us most of all, is that there was a time since at least the middle ages, where both the Armenians and the Georgians (and perhaps even others) considered each other to actually be related. They considered each other brothers from the same father Thargamos.
P.S. I bet with such an epic name you’re guaranteed to have that many children.
Language; A mountain is worth a thousand languages
When it comes to languages there’s much less unity among the Caucasian nations. As I have previously mentioned the Caucasus is famous for its linguistic diversity. Over 40 languages are still being spoken in that small part of the world that holds countless ethnolinguistic groups such as Circassians, Kartvelians, Slavics, Greeks, Armenians, Iranics, Turkics, to Mongolics, Jews, Dagestanis, Abkhazians and Vainakh. Some of the languages are unrelated to any modern language families, but many large language families, be it Semitic, Indo-European or Turkic, are all well represented there.
Most people would argue that only the Northwest Caucasian (a.k.a. Abkhazo-Adyghian languages), the Northeast Caucasian (a.k.a Nakho-Dagestanian languages) and the South Caucasian (a.k.a. Kartvelian languages) are the native Caucasian languages, even if unrelated to one another.
While it’s true that one could make the argument that language families such as Greek, Slavic, Turkic, Hebrew and Iranic are intrusive to the region, it’s far less obvious how intrusive the Armenian is to the region. It’s actually quite obvious that it’s not intrusive at all. Saying the Armenian is intrusive is like saying Navajo is an intrusive language in North America.
The Armenian language holds a unique position in this regard. While technically part of the Indo-European language family, the Armenian language is still considered a language isolate. It’s a completely isolated branch of the Indo-European that broke off from its mother tongue some 7000 years ago and prior to the Armenian genocide was only spoken in the Armenian Highlands and off-course the Caucasus as these geographies intersect.
Let me put it this way; in order for someone to be “intrusive”, one has to come from somewhere and go to somewhere. But there is nowhere else in the world that Armenian language exists natively. Whether it’s part of a different language family or not, it emerged either in or in the very vicinity of the Caucasian mountains. In fact, there is plenty of reason to argue that the entire Indo-European language family emerged from the Armenian Plateau. But that’s a topic for another project I’m working on (you’ll see soon enough).
Culture; Monkey see monkey dance
And then there is culture. I’ll avoid reciting all the cultural similarities and differences. Instead let’s focus on the two cultural components that arguably everyone is obsessed with in the Caucasus. The traditional garment generally known in the USSR as the Cherkesska and the eagle dance know as the Lezginka. It has become so important to the Caucasian identity that it’s apparently impossible to be one without having (a variant) of these cultural elements.
If you ever encounter a pro-Caucasian Armenian on the internet, you’ll might get spammed with photographs of 20th century Armenians wearing these traditional clothes and/or dancing the Lezgninka (or a variant of it) as evidence of a shared culture with the other Caucasian nations. And you know what? They actually won’t be too far off. Sure to a degree, but let’s unpack some of it.
I’m not going to lie, it’s certainly a beautiful acrobatic dance. Those who can dance it (like myself) love showing it off, and those who can’t love to watch people do so. But it’s almost as if people forget that both the dance and the garment aren’t particularly that ancient. In fact there are no traces of it prior to the 19th century. Sure let’s give it the benefit of the doubt, let’s say it was invented a few centuries prior to that (even-though I really can’t find any evidence for it). Heck, I’m in good mood, let’s give it a thousand years. Now just for the fun of it let’s have a look at Yarkhushta. 😉
No, I’m not hating, just making a point. A dance and a coat should not define what it means to be a Caucasian. If it does, then no one was a Caucasian before its invention. Either way, it’s a beautiful part of the Caucasian culture, and all of the North and the South Caucasian nations (from Armenians, Circassians, Georgians, Slavic Cossacks, Iranic Ossetians or Turkic Azeris) have several variants of this dance.
Armenians too have quite a few variants of this mountain dance. For example, one is called “Artsvapar” (meaning dance of the eagle), and another “Lernayin-par” (dance of the mountains). Some elements and even rhythm are equally present in “Bert” (Fortress dance), and “Hovineri-par” (dance of the Shepherd).
(See bellow a few examples, but for more pls. click the above links, you won’t regret it).
The same fast past rhythms can be heard in many Armenian traditional songs. I especially can appreciate a good Armenian Dhol virtuoso and the song and dances of the joyful Kinto Armenian community of Tiflis.
Interestingly enough it was an Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian who brought lezginka into the realm of popular classical music.
As for the Cherkesska garment, well similar arguments can be made here. Everyone has a variant or two, it’s not that old, and it probably originated with the Persian royalty who had a huge influence in the region during the late middle ages. To be honest not much credible evidence can be found on the history of this garment beyond the 19th century either, but the English wikipedia page (obviously written from a Georgian perspective) claims it was invented in Georgia in the 9th century AD. Of course they show zero evidence for that, the only so called piece of evidence present there is a 19th century monastery mural depicting Georgian monarch (of Bagratid dynasty 😉 ) who lived in the early 17th century. And what do you know, he’s fully clad like a Persian shah of his era. From the feathers in his crown to the curved dagger and the saber. In fact it were the Persians who actually secured his throne (according to his Wikipedia article).
And if this wasn’t enough the Georgian word for this coat “Chokha” is actually a Persian loanword literally meaning “fabric”. I know I know it’s another subject of great contention among the Caucasian nations. I guess it’s because we all love it so much. So again, not hating just being honest.
Armenians also have their own variants of this garment. But like I’ve mentioned before, Armenians have a diverse pallet of regional garments, as is seen bellow from a small sample of old Armenian districts.
But perhaps the Persians weren’t the first to invent such a coat after all. Here is a possible much older candidate. A few murals from the Hittite kingdom 1600 BC. Hittites were one of the oldest Indo-European speaking people, inhabiting the western regions of the Armenian Highlands.
Notice their hats and even the boots. They are strikingly similar. Perhaps history repeats or the climate and the terrain themselves demand such an outfit, or perhaps it has something to do with genetic memory? No? Just a coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences. These are our ancestors, I mean look at their noses. Do I need to say more? 😀
PS: If you’re still reading this, it’s your own fault. :p
Genetics; Blood is thicker than Borjomi
As often the case, genetics is another big elephant in the room. I’ll refrain from discussing regional genetics too deeply, but I do want to say that so far it seems quite certain that the people of Caucasus are genetic relatives. Sure some are closer to each other than others, some have more or less foreign admixtures but the overal similarities are strong despite the linguistic diversity. Now this could mean a few things, it could mean recent intermarriage, but it could also (more probably) mean that the people of the Caucasus had close ancestry long time ago and became diversified through cultural and linguistic drifts later on. Probably due to invading empires and diverging religious affiliations. I hope this section won’t be too technical, but feel free to skip ahead to the last 2 paragraphs of this chapter.
Looking at the genetic data it’s absolutely clear that Armenians are native. So much so that every study into Armenian DNA concludes that they can’t find any traces of foreign admixture for at least the last 4000 years.
Another DNA study (Haber et. al. 2015) published in the journal Nature confirmed these findings by showing that Armenians have remained a genetic isolated for the past 4000 years. I quote:
“Our tests suggest that Armenians had no significant mixture with other populations in their recent history and have thus been genetically isolated since the end of the Bronze Age.”
“The position of the Armenians within the global genetic diversity is unique and appears to mirror the geographical location of Anatolia. Armenians’ adoption of a distinctive culture early in their history resulted in their genetic isolation from their surroundings.”
If you’re interested in knowing more about this topic, you should read the following article: Why Armenians are a “Living Fossil” to Geneticists?!
This is however not always the case for most Caucasian populations. They aren’t as genetically isolated as Armenians are. North Caucasians for example have clear Central Asian components. For example the Dagestanis, especially the low land Dagestanis show significant amounts of Asian drift.
Y-chromosomal haplogroup diversity was reduced among highland Daghestani populations when compared to other populations and to highland Daghestani mitochondrial DNA haplogroup diversity. Lowland Daghestani populations showed Turkish and Central Asian affinities for both mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal data sets. Autosomal population histories are strongly correlated to the pattern observed for the mitochondrial DNA data set.Blue, Elizabeth & Watkins, W & Bulayeva, Kazima & Harpending, Henry & Jorde, Lynn. (2008). Culture creates genetic structure in the Caucasus: Autosomal, mitochondrial, and Y-chromosomal variation in Daghestan. BMC genetics. 9. 47. 10.1186/1471-2156-9-47.
In addition their male lineage seems to be less archaic than that of the Armenians. This means that at some point people (perhaps even Armenians) from the south migrated into the North Caucasian mountain range. We can see this clearly from the following plot. Here we see that the frequency of the Y-DNA J2 being much higher in the Northern Caucasus, but the variance is higher in Armenia and the middle east. Variance indicates age in genetics. After all, if you carry a marker long enough it will start to mutate and split into other variants. Thus the more mutations the older the markers. So the same haplotype is much older in Armenians than North Caucasian.
Georgians, Adigey and Ossetians are in a similar situation. Their dominant Y-chromosomal haplogroup is G. And while Armenians show less frequency of G, here again, the variants of G that Armenians are carrying are of older extraction.
“Haplogroup G, together with J2 clades, has been associated with the spread of agriculture, especially in the European context. The homeland of this haplogroup has been estimated to be somewhere nearby eastern Anatolia, Armenia or western Iran, the only areas characterized by the co-presence of deep basal branches as well as the occurrence of high sub-haplogroup diversity.
Haplogroup diversity spanned from a low of 0.21 in Adyghes, to highs of 0.88 in Azeris (Iran) and 0.89 in eastern Anatolia and 0.90 in Armenia. We estimate that the geographic origin of hg G plausibly locates somewhere nearby eastern Anatolia, Armenia or western Iran.
Concerning the presence of hg G in the Caucasus, one of its distinguishing features is lower haplogroup diversity in numerous populations (Supplementary Table S1) compared with Anatolia and Armenia, implying that hg G is intrusive in the Caucasus rather than autochthonous.”S. Rootsi et al. (2012) Distinguishing the co-ancestries of haplogroup G Y-chromosomes in the populations of Europe and the Caucasus.
That said, all of the modern people of the Caucasus are genetically much closer to each other than to more geographically distant populations. And yes Azeris for example are closer to Armenians than to their Turkic progenitors and linguistic kin in Central Asia. These facts can be a little unsettling to rivaling factions, but it’s true.
Perhaps there are slight exception. For example a small group of Africans living high up in Caucasian villages. These people are known as the African Caucasians and were probably brought there by (or escaped from) the Ottoman slavers.
After all of this you might be asking yourself. Oh great PeopleOfAr what say you in your infinite wisdom (and known for being humble)? Are Armenians really Caucasians or not?
Well my dear reader, first of all, thank you for the complement, didn’t expect it, but appreciate your sincerity. Well let me tell you exactly what I think. Armenians are geographically and historically native, culturally somewhat similar, linguistically distinct and genetically related to other Caucasians. Does that answer the question?
But humor aside, the truth is we’re similar in some and distinct in other ways. It doesn’t mean we’re not unique though, we’re not Georgians, we’re not Circassians, we’re not Osssetians, Cossacks or Azeris, we’re Armenians, a native people to both the Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands. If you exclusively want to identify with our ethnonym, that’s great, but if other Armenians also identify themselves with being Caucasian (or any other region of the Armenian Highlands) that’s fine too, they aren’t wrong. I think the answer should be; we’re not ONLY Caucasians, we’re ALSO Caucasians. Armenian people have always kept fair amounts of regional pride. No one can tell Trabzontsi or Artsakhtsi they are not real Armenians even if their customs might differ significantly. The glue that binds us isn’t geography, history, culture, language, religion or genealogy alone, it’s all of the above (and many other) elements combined in various degrees.
And to the non-Armenian haters I say; Prove to me first that you’re Caucasian. Prove to me that your roots in the region are older than mine, prove to me that the garments and the dances are yours. Prove to me that your language is native and mine isn’t, that we’re not related and show me your DNA test and I’ll show you mine. No one in the Caucasus is identical, so what makes you even think you’re to define what’s really Caucasian? Or are you implying Caucasian nations aren’t unique after all? Are you not unique? On second thought… never mind, I honestly couldn’t care less what you think of my people, because the people of Ar already know who they are!
Now congratulations! You have made it to the very end. Here is your 🏆, you are now officially an expert on the most nonsensical controversy in the Armenian community. Thanks for your attention and my sincerest apologies for taking up real-estate in your brain.
Till the next one 😉