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The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

Let’s return once more to the Caucasus region and explore the region’s tumultuous political history—this time through the opulent window of crown jewels.  Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by crowns—which are constantly being crafted for the whims of various sovereigns and then stolen/usurped/destroyed as nations fight for political hegemony.  The Caucasus, which lies between East and West–and at the crossroads of multiple religions and empires—has been particularly susceptible to dynastic turnover.  The Kingdom of Georgia was created in the 10th century AD and burgeoned during the 11th–12th centuries but disintegrated completely at the end of the 15th century due to Turco-Mongol incursions.  In the late eighteenth century two of the smaller kingdoms left over from the wreck of old Georgia came together to form the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti.

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

The kings of the new kingdom aspired to create a powerful European state of the modern style, but the new realm soon came under attack from the marauding Qajar Dynasty of Persia (lead by the insatiable Shah Agha Muḥammad Khān Qājār.  The ancient crowns of old Georgia vanished in 1795 (apparently looted by the Persians).  King George XII of Georgia ordered a new crown of suitable modern design for his 1798 coronation.  The crown was crafted in Russia and was encrusted in cut jewels (including 145 diamonds, 58 rubies, 24 emeralds and 16 amethysts). The crown was a circlet surmounted by eight arches which supported a globe (with a red cross on top).  Ironically George XII had little time to enjoy his new crown: he petitioned the czar for assistance in squelching internal strife and Persian invasions—Czar Paul I acceded to his request by annexing Georgia as part of the Russian Empire.

As Explained in this Simple Map...

As Explained in this Simple Map…

In 1800, following the death of George XII, the crown was sent to Moscow and deposited in the Kremlin among Russian imperial crowns. In 1923 the Bolsheviks presented the crown to the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, but the communists could not keep their hands off the monarchist relic. In 1930 the crown of George XII was again sent to Moscow where it was broken apart and plundered—much like Georgia itself.

Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

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