Fire Land, Earth Wine, Sulfur Water and Godly Air in the Caucasus

Angela Dansby

The Caucasus is a region between the Black and Caspian Seas where the Caucasus Mountains divide Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The Greater Caucasus Mountains in Eastern Europe is mainly occupied by part of southern Russia, collectively known as the North Caucasus. It includes Europe’s highest mountain, Mount Elbrus. The South Caucasus in Western Asia includes the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, part of northeastern Turkey, northern Iran and the internationally unrecognized, break-away Artsakh Republic (also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic).

The term Caucasus is derived from Caucas, the son of a Biblical descendant of Noah and forefather of native ancestors of the Caucasus. The word Caucasian is derived from their Vainakh language. In the 18th century, European scholars believed humankind originated in the Caucasus because it’s where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed. (Here’s a tongue-twister: Caucas of the Caucasus was a Caucasian!)

Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia all became their own states in 1918 but they did not receive independence until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. When my friend Lauren and I visited these countries in April 2014, tensions with Russia over territory still existed, especially in northern Georgia. In addition, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia forced us to travel counter-clockwise (Azerbaijan-Georgia-Armenia), not going directly from one country to the other.

The conflict was over ownership of the region Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, which is largely inhabited by ethnic Armenians. It began in the early 20th century and intensified in 1988, when Armenians demanded that Karabakh be transferred from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. The conflict escalated into war in the early 1990s. A ceasefire in 1994 brought stability until 2016, when a new conflict broke out. The fighting intensified until another ceasefire agreement was signed in November 2020, which returned territories lost by Azerbaijan during the first war. (Azerbaijan declared the conflict over … time will tell.)

The 100,000-year-old Azeri capital of Baku is an unusual mix of ancient buildings in its Old City (including the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Ateshgah Fire Temple) adjacent to uber modern architecture. Baku has been dubbed the next Dubai with its architectural displays of wealth from oil and natural gas, including a triumvirate of flame towers (a Fairmont hotel) representing the city’s Zoroastrian history of fire worship; Heydar Aliyev Center designed by the late Zaha Hadid; and Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum.

By night, Baku was just as modern. I remember speaking French and English to locals at a swanky, U.S.-style nightclub. The first Azeri we met had even visited my hometown of Chicago!

Azerbaijan also boasts the most mud volcanos of any country in the world. These strange, bubbling mounds gurgle and blow mud instead of lava. We visited the ones in Gobustan (Qobustan in Azerbaijani) about an hour’s drive from Baku. You can walk right up to and on top of them at risk of a mud facial. Note rich oil and gas fields come with mud volcano territories, an indication of Azerbaijan’s extensive natural resources. We also visited the UNESCO-listed Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape with 6,000 drawings dating back 40,000 years and stunning Bibi-Heybat Mosque.

Azerbaijan was aptly nick-named the Land of Fire due to a cite called Yanar Dag, meaning “burning mountain side.” Moses, step aside. The burning bush doesn’t hold a flame to this continuously burning hill fueled by natural gas. Wind nor rain has ever put out this landscape fireplace in 4,000 years!

We went from the Land of Fire to “a warm place” in Tbilisi, Georgia (that’s what the capitol name means). We enjoyed wine in this ancient, modern city from its original source: giant clay pots. Call qvevri, these egg-shaped pots are lined with beeswax, buried in earth to the mouth and filled with wine for natural fermentation. This winemaking heritage dates back 8,000 years but was put on a 70-year hiatus under Soviet rule until 1991. Since then, qvevri wine has slowly recovered and regained fame. In 2013, it was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. (Normally produced wine, especially red, is also outstanding in Georgia.) Labeled with the hieroglyphic-like Georgian script, qvevri wine bottles are something to behold.

A few months before our trip, Russia committed another “Crimea” against humanity by annexing the Ukraine’s holiday peninsula following the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity. This instilled fear in Georgians, who already witnessed Russian creep into its northern parts, particularly Stalin’s birthplace city of Gori. (In 2008, Russia invaded Gori and the northern border of Georgia, destroying half the city and killing many people. This Russo-Georgian War is considered the first European war of the 21st century.)

We hired a driver to take us Gori to see the Stalin Museum, a ramshackle building that was a shadow of its presumed former glory. Unfortunately, he got into a minor car accident as we were pulling up to the museum. He told us to go inside while he dealt with Russian police. We remember looking out of antique windows at the ruckus of police arguing with our driver, who was fined for negligence. The irony of this scene outside the Stalin museum was uncanny.

Our visit was followed by a torrential rainstorm, but it did not stop our determined driver from navigating us out of Gori. In a moment of pathetic fallacy, once we were out of this Russian-occupied city, the rain eased up and a miracle appeared: complete, double rainbows. It was the first time in my life that I saw such a visual masterpiece.

“Please stop the car!” Lauren and I said at once. We jumped out in awe, doing our best to photograph the two rainbows under umbrellas. It made our dejected driver smile.

Gergeti Trinity Church, north Georgia, Caucasus

Hours later, we went from a rainstorm to a mud bath as we rode with another driver, who had a van, up a winding, steep, muddy road to see a famous Georgian church in Kazbegi National Park. We got stuck numerous times, jolting to and fro in the mud, but our skilled driver managed to get us there. Thankfully, the majestic Gergeti Trinity Church on a hilltop with snow-capped mountains behind it was well worth the harrowing transportation.

After our eventful excursions, we returned to Tbilisi, enjoyed delicious Georgian cuisine and went to one of five sulfur baths in the ancient district of Abanotubani. We stumbled upon Bathhouse No. 5, which was intimidating with large, male Russian “greeters.” We were about to leave when a woman appeared, assuring us that the baths were private and individual with a woman assigned to female guests. We ended up in what looked like a prison cell, with a lightbulb hanging over a dank bathtub. We were scrubbed into oblivion under scalding, rotten egg-smelling water then slapped by the attendant in a so-called massage. It was apparent why it wasn’t named Bathhouse No. 1.

Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, Azerbaijan

Our “cleansing” continued by car at several monasteries between Tbilisi and Yerevan. The first, UNESCO-recognized David Gareji Monasteries and Hermitage in southeastern Georgia, was the site of a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Lauren and I witnessed this first-hand when we hiked up a large mountain near the monastery to see 8th-13th century cave frescoes. When we reached the top, we were greeted by a large dog and young Azeri soldiers with machine guns.

“Salam” (“hello” in Azerbaijani), we said with quivering smiles. Hearing our foreign accents, the soldiers burst into friendliness and directed us to the holy caves.

We continued our spiritual path, visiting Georgia’s Historical Monuments of Mtshketa, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Then we crossed the Armenian border via a passport checkpoint. We walked back in time through Haghpat Monastery, Temple of Garni and Geghardavank Monastery just in time for an Easter procession.

Making our way across the Caucasus, Russian police, qvevri wine and bathhouses were replaced by monks, incense and Indiana Jones-esque churches. We imagined what Noah felt like when his ark survived the mythical flood.

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