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Based on your point of view, the Caucasus is either Russia’s southern anchor point, Turkey’s eastern borderland, or Persia’s northern territory. The competition among the three regional powers (and their predecessors) has determined the fate of the Caucasus peoples since antiquity.

The Caucasus, however, is an incredibly diverse region. The Greater (Northern) Caucasus is sharp and high, modifying regional weather but emptying to the vast flatlands of the Eurasian steppe. The Southern Caucasus is far wider, shorter, and more riddled with passes, and largely merges without distinction with the highlands of Persia and Anatolia. Between the two mountain ranges are the flatlands of the Mtkvari River, which flows through a subtropical zone west to the Black Sea, and the Kura River, which streams the opposite direction through starkly arid Azerbaijan to the Caspian. The low saddle of land where these two valleys meet is the home of Tbilisi, the capital of contemporary Georgia.

Tbilisi’s location is no accident. Sitting at the merger of the Mtkvari and Kura systems, it by default also occupies a very narrow crunch of land between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus – making it the most strategic location in the broader region. For peoples within the inter-Caucasus zone, Tbilisi either is the first line of defense against an invader or the final redoubt once all other lands have fallen. For powers beyond the Caucasus, it is an anchor point to resist – or attack – their rivals on the other side of the mountains.

Positioned at the narrowest point of the city between the two mountain ranges and the two river valleys is one of the world’s oldest fortifications: Narikala. Since it was built in the 4th century, it has been the site of resistance to, or headquarters of, invading armies, controlled by a who’s-who of powers, including the Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Turks, Persians, Arabs and Mongols.

For more on the rising competition for the Caucasus, see The Accidental Superpower, Chapter 10.


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