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Updated: 17.11.2003

Russian Zakavkazye, a small but densely populated region to the south of the Caucasus Mountains. It includes three independent states: Georgia in the northwest, Azerbaijan in the east, and Armenia, situated largely on a high mountainous plateau south of Georgia and west of Azerbaijan. Together these countries have an area of about 71,850 square miles (186,100 square kilometres). Transcaucasia, also known as Southern Caucasia, is bounded on the north by Russia, on the east by the Caspian Sea, on the south by Iran and Turkey, and on the west by the Black Sea.

The great historic barrier of the Caucasus Mountains rises up across the wide isthmus separating the Black and Caspian seas where Europe and Asia converge. Caucasia, the region including the mountain ranges of the Caucasus, comprises both Transcaucasia and the land north of the Caucasus, known as Ciscaucasia or Northern Caucasus.

The name Caucasus is a Latinised form of Kaukasos, which the ancient Greek geographers and historians used; the Russian Kavkaz is of the same origin. The ultimate derivation is thought to be from Kaz-kaz, the Hittite name for a people living on the southern shore of the Black Sea. This ancient nomenclature reflects the historical importance of the region: the Greeks made the mysterious range the scene of the mythical sufferings of Prometheus, and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece in the land of Colchis (modern Kolkhida), nestling against the range on the Black Sea coast. The ranges also became a major land route for cultural diffusion from south to north of the Middle Eastern Fertile Crescent civilisations.

The peoples of the region have exhibited an extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity since early times: the Colchians, for example, as described in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus, were black-skinned Egyptians, though their true origin remains unclear.

In subsequent centuries, successive waves of peoples migrating across Eurasia added to and were molded by the more established groups in the region. Not surprisingly, a greater variety of different languages are spoken in Caucasia than in any other area of similar size in the world. Ethnic and cultural diversity in Transcaucasia was preserved by the geographic isolation of the many small ethnic groups that settled in the region's inhospitable mountainous terrain.

During the 18th century Russia occupied the northern Caucasus, annexing part of Georgia in 1801. Throughout the 19th century Russia extended its occupation to much of Caucasia; western Armenia, however, was subject to Turkish rule. Nationalist movements emerged in the region at the end of the 19th century.

With the collapse of the Russian Empire, a short-lived independent Transcaucasian federation was declared; after its collapse, independent states emerged in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. By 1922 these nations had been absorbed into the Soviet Union and became part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic; they were designated distinct union republics in 1936.

Nationalist sentiment reemerged in the late 1980s after the liberalising reforms implemented by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia achieved full independence in 1991.

The post-independence period in Transcaucasia, however, was marked by instability, economic decline, ethnic violence, and war, as the government of Georgia battled separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

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