The Russian Imperial Academy and Western Transcaucasia (late-eighteenth century to the 1850s), George Hewitt

Research and Identity: non-Russian Peoples in the Russian Empire, 1800-1855

Kymenlaakso Summer University, 14-17 June 2006

George Hewitt
School of Oriental and African Studies, London

The Russian Imperial Academy and Western Transcaucasia
(late-eighteenth century to the 1850s)

Historical Sketch

Known to western civilisations since the eighth century BC when the Ancient Greeks (specifically, the Ionians of Miletus) established colonies (e.g. ¡ låca| pisto’|, today’s Pitsunda, in northern Abkhazia) along the eastern shores of the Black Sea (Pontic Euxine), the Western (Trans-)Caucasus has always been distinguished for its multi-ethnicity. At the start of the Christian era, for instance, the geographer Strabo observed how Dioskuria (later called Seb/vastopolis, designations for what is today’s capital of Abkhazia, namely Aqw’a, more commonly known as Sukhum) served as the commercial centre for the peoples living in the mountains above it and for the surrounding neighbourhood, whilst Pliny Secundus in the second half of the first century AD speaks of it as a depopulated Colchidian town previously famed for the fact that up to 300 representatives of peoples speaking different languages would gather there, for the purpose of carrying on trade with whom the Romans needed 130 interpreters (see Inal-Ipa 1965.109).

Colchis was, of course, the fabled land of the Golden Fleece in the popular myth of Jason. And in recent years this myth has become a common theme in a tiresome nationalist debate as to which Caucasian people might have been the ‘original’ denizens of this realm —one frequently has the impression that certain commentators are incapable of recognising the difference between legends and historical data. In reality, it is most likely that the area was always cosmopolitan in makeup and, as the Mingrelian scholar Simon Dzhanashia observed (1988.295), Colchis was for the ancients a rather loosely defined entity, employed as ‘more a geographical than political term, and even then with uncertain boundaries,’ though for Strabo it extended roughly from Pitsunda (northern Abkhazia) to Trabzon (Turkey). In later Roman times the state of Lazica was located here. Lazica entered a state of vassalage to Byzantium, and, with Byzantium’s power on the wane in the late eighth century, Leon II, potentate of the Abkhazians, took his opportunity and ‘seized [in Georgian da-i-p’q’r-a] Abkhazia and Egrisi [sc. the modern province of Mingrelia] as far as the Likhi [Mountains] and took the title “King of the Abkhazians”’ (Georgian Chronicles known as kartlis tskhovreba I, p.251 of Simon Q’aukhchishvili’s 1955 edition). The resultingKingdom of Abkhazia, comprising the whole of what now is generally regarded as western Georgia, lasted for roughly 200 years until the accession of Bagrat’ III in 975 produced the first king of a united Georgia. Thus, it was natural that from c.780 to 975 toponyms synonymous with the land we know in English as ‘Abkhazia’ (e.g. Abkhaz Apsny, Georgian apxaz-et-i) applied to the whole of western Georgia. During the period when Georgia remained united (up to c.1245) the translation-equivalents of ‘Abkhazia’ were synonymous with the native Georgian sa-kart-v-el-o ‘Georgia’, after which time they resumed their original, restricted sense, referring to the territory we designate as ‘Abkhazia’.

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