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A Unique View of the Georgian Military Road

Few journeys offer the prospect of so pleasant a destination or more luxurious accommodations than the Stairway to Heaven. Those of us not lucky enough to secure a ticket on that ride will have to settle for more mundane adventures, perhaps something with less delicate transportation facilities and sparser lodgings. With meagre options at hand these days, many are reduced to mitigating their Wanderlust by perusing old road maps and prints, which can offer an ephemeral, albeit still enjoyable, substitute.

One item that recently piqued my interest to venture to the far side of the world is this unusual Russian map of the old Georgian Military Road, which is among the many unlisted and uncataloged maps in the Library’s collections. Although undated, it appears to be a chromolithograph produced in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The map illustrates a single feature, but from two perspectives:  one a longitudinal profile and the other a topographic plan. Nevertheless, both show the same stretch of historical road that extends about 132 miles across the crest of the Greater Caucasus from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Russian Republic of North Ossetia-Alania.

The longitudinal profile at top, indicating the verticality of the road, identifies altitudes at various points if one were to crest the range at Krestovi (Jvari) Pass between Vladikavkaz and Tbilisi. The profile includes a number of features, such as the heights of towns, bridges, and passes in feet; a legend of distances between post stations, as well as distance markers, noted in versts (an antiquated Russian unit of length equivalent to about 1.07 kilometers); the locations of iron, stone, and wooden bridges, as well as barriers and parapets — all elements germane to following the road in an era before automated travel – in addition to a vivid, panoramic view of the mountain range.

A topographic plan occupies the bottom half of the sheet.  Covering the route and its immediate environs to about ten miles on either side, this map emphasizes adjacent physical and cultural features likely to affect travel.  The plan includes many elements, among them improved and unimproved segments of the highway itself, place names, towns and villages, the Terek and Aragvi rivers and their tributaries, bridges, seasonal snow obstructions, vegetation pictorially, and relief by land form drawings. It also identifies eight major snow obstructions keyed to the map by number.

Geographically speaking, a trip along the road would take us across continents, from Europe to Asia.  Historically, we could travel back centuries, as, indeed, the road has roots in antiquity. That intrepid voyager, Strabo, in his Geographica, refers to the great central pass of the Caucasus as Porta Caucasica and Porta Cumana, today the granite walls of the Darial Gorge that define a small portion of the border between Georgia and Russia.  Somewhat later the less-traveled but otherwise worldly Ptolemy, in his own treatise on geography, identifies it as Porta Sarmatica, which implies it to have been a gateway between ancient Iberia and Armenia Major. Whatever its name, Darial Gorge, lying on the northeastern flank of Mount Kazbek, seemed the ideal place to maintain a fortress, as affirmed in the late nineteenth century print below.

[Military road. Fortress in the Dariel Ravine, Caucasus, Russia].  Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division. 

[Military road. Fortress in the Dariel Ravine, Caucasus, Russia].  Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division. 

Over the centuries this fortified gate has protected the successive interests of Romans, Persians, Greeks, Turkic Khans, Arabs, Georgians, and, finally, Russians.

Following its annexation of Georgia in 1801, Imperial Russia undertook the road’s improvement to facilitate its inexorable drive into the Caucasus. Prior to that, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), the Russian Army had surveyed and upgraded a route along the major rivers for the transport of troops and arms, in the process establishing a military outpost and jumping off point at Vladikavkaz. Soon after, the Caucasus became a place of exile for poetic young dreamers who chafed under imperial authority — my favorite kind of people! — and, by early nineteenth century, the combined beauty and savagery of the region began to attract more than just soldiers.

[Mikhail IUr’evich Lermontov, half-length portrait, facing front].  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 

[Mikhail IUr’evich Lermontov, half-length portrait, facing front].  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 

Among the Russians captivated by the romance of the Caucasus and the Georgian Military Road was Mikhail Lermontov, twice exiled to the region, and who immortalized it in poetry and verse before being killed at age twenty-seven in a duel, that most Russian means of settling a quarrel in the early part of the nineteenth century. The cartes de visite to the left was issued many years after Lermontov’s death. A difficult and passionate young man, he instigated the duel that led to his being shot near Pyatigorsk. His psyche seems to have been representative of the region’s terrain and vice versa.

Over the years travel writers and publishers have found it impossible to resist effusing over the road’s scenic virtues. One of the most prominent of them, Karl Baedeker, in his 1914 travel guide to Russia, called it “one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world,” as he recounted in detail the route from Tiflis (Tbilisi) to Vladikavkaz.

[The road, near Passanaur, Groussie, (i.e., Georgia), Russia, taken between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900].   Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division

[The road, near Passanaur, Groussie, (i.e., Georgia), Russia, taken between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900].   Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division.

Venturing northwards out of Tbilisi, our writer passed the former Georgian capital city of Mtskheta, and ascended to the 13th century fortress of Ananuri before heading up to the small town of Pasanauri at the confluence of the Black and White Aragvi Rivers. Could his view have possibly seemed any different from the almost contemporaneous one directly above?

At the “gigantic ice pyramid” of Mount Kazbek, the writer extols on the magnificent scene to be had from the Church of Tzminda-Sameba (Holy Trinity), as it must have appeared over a century ago.

[Military road. Fortress in the Dariel Ravine, Caucasus, Russia].  Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division. 

[The road, the kasbeck and the church, Groussie, (i.e., Georgia), Russia, taken ca. 1890 and ca. 1900].   Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division. 

As he continues his journey beyond Kazbek, our writer notes that the road crosses the Terek by an iron bridge, and then “proceeds in windings along the margin of a wide bulge made by the Terek Valley,” and, after falling, is “hewn in the rocks” sometimes at a height of more than 300 feet above a deep abyss. We can only wonder if he occupied the same vantage point as the one captured below.

[The road, the first bridge, Groussie, (i.e., Georgia), Russia, taken between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900].   Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division. 

[The road, the first bridge, Groussie, (i.e., Georgia), Russia, taken between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900].   Detroit Publishing Company Archives, Prints and Photographs Division. 

Moving onwards the road curls and ascends towards Gudauri, near the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, a Georgian-designed, semi-circular mosaic erected in 1982 to celebrate the bicentennial of a treaty by which Georgia became a protectorate of Russia. By the time it reaches Jvari Pass, one has risen to the road’s highest point at 7,800 feet, which reveals the Greater Caucasus in all its majesty.

Neither a map of the Georgian Military Road nor my tepid description can convey the sheer magic of following it for the first time. Nevertheless, having crested the range, if only in our imaginations, it will probably be the closest any of us ever really get to Heaven, either at the end of this life or on an old road map.

[Tipy Dagestana].  Though Dagestani, fierce and noble “savages” like this dignified couple in traditional dress were among the phenomena that enticed travelers along the Georgian Military Road in the early twentieth century. Prokudin-Gorski photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 

[Tipy Dagestana].  Though Dagestani, this dignified couple in traditional dress were among the phenomena that over the years have enticed travelers to the trek the road.  Given their formality and dignified appearance, one can only wonder if this was the first and only time they were ever photographed.  Prokudin-Gorski photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

3 Comments

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    February 18, 2021 at 8:01 pm

    Thanks for the fascinating story. Terrific to see those wonderful Detroit Publishing chromolithographs play a helpful role in a new context! And Prokudin-Gorski photo. All connecting dots with the nifty maps!

  2. Paul Crego
    February 22, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    From where does the description of the Dagestani couple come? I would not use the word “savage,” as this plays into to the imperial Russian idea that the North Caucasus people are somehow in need of the civilizing benefaction of the Russian people. The latter have proved, and continue to prove under Putin, that the civilizing effects of Russia are something to be avoided.

    • Mike Klein
      February 22, 2021 at 3:00 pm

      The wording is mine, and it was meant with irony. “Savage” is in quotes to offset imperial Russian’s condescending attitude toward peoples of the Caucasus. And, I agree, Russian influence in the Caucasus has been anything but civilizing, which is why I noted it. In the following sentence I pointed out the couple’s stately appearance and dignity, thinking that would lessen the sting.

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