“But I say it’s only mountains and the sea…”

Nestled in the Caucasus like a goblet of leopard blood in Vladimir Putin’s mailed fist, Sochi is basking in worldwide attention. The Black Sea site of the Winter Olympics is just up the coast from the Georgian border, and the media is starting to ponder this umbrous and ungenteel land: Sky News offers a primer on the violent history of the Caucasus, al-Jazeera reports that a “forgotten insurgency” called the Caucasus Emirate is simmering, and the National Geographic website reminds readers that the Caucasus are a “cauldron and pretty unstable” and that “the games themselves are reigniting deep enmity.”

Dutiful and dull, these news reports fail to capture the sheer sheep-face stew of regional history. For that, you need to seek out one of the great, gonzo books about the Caucasus: W.E.D. Allen’s A History of the Georgian People.

Published in 1932, Allen’s tome was once the standard history of Georgia in English, but the author of a recent survey calls it “antiquated.” Perhaps he’s thinking of passages like this one:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

I’m kidding—but only a little. Here’s W.E.D. Allen’s take on the Caucasus in the 7th century B.C.:

And when the Swarming Time was over, and men began to rule in cities, and others to write again, these shifting peoples emerge into the light of history; with changed names, moulding languages and old traditions, borrowed from the word-of-mouth anthologies of conquerors and conquered, woven to the doubtful fabric of a common history.

Here’s Allen’s snappy summary of how a medieval quasi-state emerged in the Caucasus:

For two generations or more there were difficult manoeuvres, obscure dynastic skirmishes, ferocious little wars between the pushful princes of young mediaeval Georgia.

Here’s Allen’s description of the Georgian national character, which I think he considers flattering:

The Georgians retain in a remarkable degree, both individually and as a people, the clear and gentle outlook, the free and inquiring intelligence and the high amoral and untrammelled mind of primitive man. The generosity, the loving simplicity and the humanity, the animal love of life which characterizes the Homeric poems and the ancient literature of the Celts and Scandinavians lights the pages of the mediaeval Georgian epics and declares indeed the mind of the Georgian these days.

At the same time the climate is a mellow joyous climate and the wine is good, so that neither the air nor the diet are conducive to the worrying over principles and the gnawing over grievances.

And here—and oh, how I love this one—is Allen’s ode to the ancient city of Kutais:

In the last foothills of the Caucasus fineing to the Colchian plain, in the sparkling sunshine, the river gleaming past down from the mountains to the sea, the lovely city stretches lazy brave and laughing, like as it were to some free woman who has known so many grasping dirty masters, and remains fresh in all her shame.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find an affectionate city-as-whore simile in an overview of Georgian history. By that point, I was lost in a twisting maze of tribes, dynasties, and place-names—but I was also determined to find out what Allen, with his own strange sense of decorum, intended to swoon over next.

Who was W.E.D. Allen? Born in 1901 to Ulster Protestant stock, Allen was the Eton-educated scion of a printing-and-advertising family. In addition to A History of the Georgian People, which he wrote when he was 29, his scholarly work included the much-touted Caucasian Battlefields and the journal Georgica. Allen served as a war correspondent, worked for the Foreign Office in Beirut, Mosul, and Ankara, and endowed the National Gallery in Dublin with Orthodox icons and other treasures, many of which he had found being sold as “debris” in Istanbul bazaars. At the time of his death in 1972, his private library on Russia and the Caucasus was hailed as “probably one of the best on the subject outside the Soviet Union.” Allen also represented West Belfast in Parliament as an independent Unionist, and—although his scholarly biographer passes over the fact in silence—he was a behind-the-scenes Fascist who wrote for the periodical The Blackshirt under a pen name.

What Allen’s biography doesn’t tell you is that A History of the Georgian People is not a logical endeavor. No, it’s a glorious mess—a rhapsodic brain-dump by a scholar so sunk in his subject that he can no longer outline it for newcomers. Calling his own treatment of Georgia “horizontal rather than chronological,” Allen assumes his readers possess encyclopedic knowledge of Caucasian, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern history. His narrative, too detailed to convey the wider drama and too burdened by minutiae to be novelistic, often gets ahead of itself: Why herald the death of King Bagrat III—a would-be Charlemagne of the Caucasus—when you haven’t yet told us who he was?

I’ve found it impossible to get more than 100 pages into Allen’s history, but I confess that with the regret of a traveler who longs to return to some far-flung place. I’m beguiled by the promise of more florid musings like this:

Here are no serried ranks of causes and effect, no steady march of progress, no smug train of evolution. All the nations of the world have drifted through the Caucasus; all their leavings are to find—but little has been built. Here are the ways of God and men, most horrible and lovely, uncertain and not comprehensible. Such things we may contemplate, learn somewhat, understand a little, and wonder at the colour and the clouding and the sun upon it all.

A History of the Georgian People may be obsolete, but only as scholarship. As a love letter to the Caucasus, it’s remarkable—and, like a love letter, it’s worth digging out every now and again for the lingering whiff of a past that refuses to die.

6 thoughts on ““But I say it’s only mountains and the sea…”

  1. Learning that Sochi is in the Caucasus prompted me to start re-reading In Wonderland, Knut Hamsun’s idiosyncratic travelogue of his 1899 journey through the Caucasus. (The book was published in 1903 but didn’t appear in English translation until this century.) I didn’t review it the first time I read it, but I hope to share some thoughts on the book on Goodreads this time around.

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  2. Pete: That book sounds interesting! I wonder if Hamsun found the region as bewildering as most of us do today?

    Marly: Thanks! Yeah, Allen loved his subject, and it sure does show.

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  3. That bit about the last foothills of the Caucasus fineing to the Colchian plain sounds like something out of Lord Dunsany’s writing — who was, as it happens, also Irish.

    I find the name ‘Bagrat’ splendid.

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