The Caucasus: A crossroads of civilisations

Friday, 14 May 2021 07:09

Stunning and varied landscapes, a region diverse in languages, home to numerous cultural traditions: all that and more are the Caucasus bridging Western Asia and Eastern Europe. The Caucasus and its republics have been the subject of extensive research by Faculty of Arts’ Associate Professor Petra Košťálová and Armenia especially has provided inspiration for a lifetime and her life's work. In an interview for the Faculty of Arts she discussed numerous aspects of life and culture in this extremely diverse region.


The Caucasus republics often make the headlines in connection with geopolitical strife and Petra Košťálová says the region is still waiting for a new generation of researchers interested in launching interdisciplinary projects exploring local folklore and literature.

To that end, in 2019, she and colleagues at the Institute of Slavonic and East European Studies created a new module for those continuing onto a Masters in Caucasus Studies, which should attract new experts. Subjects within the module focus on local languages, history, but also offer insight into life in the area and local cultures as well as a small ethnographic excursion or overview of local traditions and norms.

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A lot of your work has focused on Armenia (as a student you did Armenology) – what sparked your interest in that country in the first place?

Sheer chance. Originally I had intended to study ethnology but that the time there was only an opening in combination with Armenian studies, so ahead of entrance exams I took out two books about the country and was mesmerised. It was a fascinating and ancient country which adopted Christianity early on in history, and geographically it is a beautiful country. In my thesis I focused on “Troubadour” poetry of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, born in Georgia, who served in the court of a Georgian king in the 18th century. As a result, I got an opportunity to complete a combined doctorate in Prague and Montpellier in France, where I was able to explore other medieval topics and was able to translate older Armenian chronicles.

Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani are the main languages spoken in the region of the Caucasus: do they share anything in common?

With the exception of long-term historical contact, of coming up against each other, they do not. Georgian is part of the Kartvelian family of languages which is unique, with no known relation to any other language family; Armenian is an Indo-European language belonging to an independent branch in which it is the only member (the same is true of Greek and Albanian); and Azerbaijani is a Turkic language and part of the Altai language family. The study of languages in the Caucasus is fairly complex: at least three from the northern Caucasus all belong to their independent language families and, for example, the extinct Ubykh language had an inventory of some 80 consonants and only one phonemic vowel.

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A plethora of spices on sale at a local market in Yerevan. 

Would anyone other than a linguist be able to distinguish between them by ear?

To a layperson, north-western Caucasian languages will appear similar because they use two or three times more consonants than we are used to in Slavic languages. Every state has a standardised version of its language but then there are various dialects; some of the Caucasian languages also have their own alphabets: Armenian and Georgian characters are related to early Christianity at the start of the 4th century A. D. Both boast rich literary traditions from the 5th century to the present. The region in the past also saw the use of the Arabic alphabet, while Cyrillic caught on in the North Caucasus and the Latin alphabet is used in Azerbaijani.

One cultural crossover comes to mind when considering the three main Caucasian languages and that is the Troubadour tradition there. The most famous proponent, Sayat-Nova, was able to improvise in all three. All three shared a certain mix of words within the romantic style or romantic lyricism which beautified the text and were understandable to speakers of each. The famous novel Ali and Nino is also a Caucasian masterpiece.

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It’s impossible then for speakers of the individual languages to understand each other?

The commonly-shared language in the region is Turkish followed by Russian. To this day Russian is taught very well in Armenia and locals are almost bilingual. Armenia’s ties to Russia are strong compared to neighbouring Georgia where the relationship is different, not least due to the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. Generally-speaking, you can get by very well anywhere in the Caucasus if you speak Russian.

You mentioned the new Caucasian studies module: in it, will you be focusing mostly on languages or will you offer students more?

Along with Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian students will be able to take history classes of the Caucasian countries from the Middle Ages to the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as to get primers in Caucasian studies, folklore and Caucasian literature. The introduction will include a mix of topics from history, ethnology, religious studies, musicology, comparative studies, where students will learn more about local traditions such as rules of hospitality but also for example marriage ceremonies, annual family rites, traditional family life but also revenge killings. Students also have the opportunity to study abroad: the institute maintains contacts and has international agreements with foreign faculties which can help.

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Traveling in the Caucasus is an adventure in and of itself, a chance to meet others and see incredible places not just in the mountains. 

Is studying in Yerevan or Tbilisi safe?

Based on my own experience, I can say yes. Capital cities aren’t usually sites of strife or uncertainty but of course it’s important to always consult the situation with the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs because things can change – we saw the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Out students travel regularly to the Caucasus and we never registered any bad experiences. Of course, it’s good to keep in mind that you’re not at home and that different values are important for them: honour, personal reputation and family honour are considered more important there.

To them we are too liberal a society, although the view in neighbouring Iran when it comes to apparel or to women covering their hair is stricter still. The Caucasian mentality is similar to ours and interpersonal contacts are similar to our own society in earlier times, where members of the family visit each other in higher numbers and more often, care for seniors in a household is guaranteed, a married woman is expected to dedicate herself to her family rather than her career. That shouldn’t pose any problem for students, however. When you are immersed in a new culture, you quickly learn how things work and what is acceptable and what is not.

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The Caucasus are rich in different ethnic groups, religions, and cultures, but also in conflicts and tragedy – the Armenian genocide. Is there anything that connects the different countries?

The first thing I think is the mentality which I spoke about. To a large degree it is reflected in Russian literature: the rich Caucasian who acts gently towards women but also responds to any insult. It’s of course a literary stereotype, but one rooted in something that was noticed by authors 200 years ago such as Lermontov or Tolstoy and which made it into their work. That local mentality still exists to a degree even today.

Male and female attitudes are similar, for example, to those in the Middle East or in Central Asia, the Maghreb or elsewhere. Forming personal identity also depends in part on how you are seen by others. Who you are depends a lot on opinions of others in the community and if you bring dishonour upon someone, it draws a quick response.

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But it is difficult to find more in common. The Caucasus are home to different types of terrain and landscapes. Its peoples, Christians, Muslims, Mountain Jews, Yazidis, live side by side. The Caucasus also used to home to various cults that kept themselves apart. There are many potentially very interesting areas of study for ethnologists, historians, linguists, political scientists, religious studies experts as well as archaeologists.

Not much study has been done into the Caucasus’ pagan past, other topics are Caucasian dances, Georgian Polyphonic singing, and Armenian solo singing accompanied by the traditional duduk flute, protected by UNESCO. Then there is horseracing, traditional archery, cognac manufacture, Georgian wine production and much more, all part of the Caucuses’ rich cultural heritage.

What is something we should all know about the Caucasus?

Most people will remember the war from 1991 above all else which is too bad even though it is very important in terms of international relations. In short, the Caucasus are very important strategically and it is a region where a lot of regional and interregional players clash. The region has been heavily affected by the conflict with Turkey and Syria where the Turks are running anti-Kurd operations in an area where tens of thousands of Armenians lived after the Armenian Genocide. But all left either for Yerevan, or further abroad, moving to France, Belgium, Canada and the United States.

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The eternal flame commemorates the victims of genocide at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex. 

Is it true that the Institute of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies is preparing a new book for publication? What’s all ahead?

Together with colleagues we are putting the finishing touches on a new monograph on the history of Armenia which will come out as part of a history series published by Czech daily Lidové noviny. We are also preparing the latest issue of our faculty magazine Oriens Aliter, dedicated to Caucasian Studies. We will also be putting out a new anthology of traditional Caucasian poetry and ballads of war clans. It is especially interesting to compare motifs from the stories of Caucasian and forgotten Armenian kings with those of the Arthurian cycles because they are the same: the Holy Grail, the Fisher King, the Lady of the Lake, and the sword shimmering below the water in the lake’s depths.

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May things in Armenia are named after Ararat, including a locally-produced cognac.

Associate Professor Petra Košťálová
Petra Košťálová teaches at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University. She studied Armenology and Ethnology. Her research topics include collective memory and stereotypes and she is an expert on Armenian culture and history. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and monographs ands the co-author of Katastrofa křesťanů: likvidace Arménů, Asyřanů a Řeků v Osmanské říši v letech 1914–1923  (Catastrophe: The mass murder of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire in the years 1914-1923).
Author: Tereza Šindelářová
Photo: CU archive, Martin Rychlík

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