World Abaza Congress

19 May 2024
Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux:
a perspective of a foreigner on the Caucasus
Recommended for widescreen format viewing for full display of Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux's sketches about Abkhazia*

The works of the Swiss traveler of French origin Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux, who in the early 1930s made his famous "journey around the Caucasus", including Abkhazia, are still interesting not only with a detailed description of the Caucasus and Caucasians of those times, but also with the wonderful drawings made by Dubois himself during this three-year voyage.
De Montpéreux
Frédéric Dubois was born on May 28, 1798 in the French-speaking canton (territorial-administrative unit in some countries - ed.) Neuchâtel in western Switzerland. The prefix "de Montpéreux", which Frédéric later added to his surname, meant the name of a small village where the noble family (later impoverished - ed.), to which Dubois belonged, had settled. That is, Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux should be interpreted as Frédéric Dubois from Montpéreux.
In Neuchâtel
Frédéric's father Charles Dubois was engaged in trade. His mother is known to have been named Marie-Anne Lardy de Auvergne. Dubois spent his childhood and youth in the Lake Neuchâtel ("French-speaking" part of the country, west of Switzerland - ed.). After graduating from college in Neuchâtel, for some time Frédéric worked as a teacher of French in the Swiss city of St. Galena, after he left for Courland (now the territory of Latvia - ed.), worked there as a tutor. In 1829, Frédéric Dubois entered Berlin University, where he had the good fortune to learn from the luminaries of the then science: geographer Karl Ritter and geologist Leopold von Buch. Dubois was particularly influenced by Ritter, a German scientist, the founder of geographical science, a specialist in Iran. It was he who inspired Frédéric to travel.
Dubois' atlas
Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux arrived in the Caucasus for the first time in 1831. All of his impressions, detailed descriptions of what he saw, stories collected over several years, he captured in a six-volume essay "Journey around the Caucasus, to the Circassians and Abkhaz, to Georgia, Armenia and the Crimea." The appendix to this work was an atlas, most of the drawings of which was made by Dubois himself.

Dubois' atlas has become a bibliographic rarity. It is known only about its three copies, all of them are museum exhibits. They are located in the Russian State Library in Moscow, the Russian State Geographical Society of St. Petersburg and the local history museum of the city of Gelendzhik. The atlas of Dubois de Montpéreux contains detailed maps of the Caucasus of those times, more than 70 drawings of landscapes and views of the Caucasus, it contains a lot of information about the architectural monuments of those times, as well as geological data of the lands.
In Caucasus
Dubois arrived in Russia in the spring of 1831 and almost immediately went to the Crimea, and from there to the North Caucasus. He traveled in a Russian military ship along the entire Black Sea coast of the Caucasus, and then traveled from Western Transcaucasia to Tiflis inclusive. He published his work on the basis of the journey in Paris, for which he subsequently received the gold medal of the French Geographical Society. This, in turn, gave him the right to become the head of the Department of Archeology of the Neuchâtel Academy of Sciences in Switzerland.
Romantic and poet
All the texts of Frédéric Dubois about Abkhazia: facts, descriptions of the locality, recordings with impressions and stories are amazingly interesting. His journey to Abkhazia began with Gagra. He observed this place from the sea, talked about the fate of the Russian Decembrists, who were actually sent there after the uprising on Senate Square in 1825. His lines about this convey sympathy, and yet they are thoroughly poetic:

"At such moments, the heart is filled with feelings. Without melancholy and sadness, the gaze follows the line of the mountain chains and stops on the terraces, which are piled on top of each other, crowning with snowy peaks; these ancient forests seem to be cool, covering with their veil the foot of the mountains (the foot of the mountains is covered with beeches, hornbeams, oaks with the most magnificent green foliage, while pine forests crown their peaks) and further enhance the impression of wildness and magnificence of nature, as if it were first day of creation; to look at this landscape, when, after a hot day, the sun sinks into Thetis's arms and light fresh marshmallows, reviving feelings, wakes up a fallen asleep, when the light of a ruddy sunset, casting off its reflection, draws long shadows, like mysteries, into which a person seeks to penetrate rising on the other edge of the horizon, it reduces the silence and the hour of dreaming to twilight, so abruptly bordering on its pale light, to see it all, leaning over the side of a vessel swaying in time with the escaping and sparkling waves - this is a magic dream! .. O poor exile! Great is your happiness, if you can see Gagra and their gray walls running away in front of you, getting lost in the distance and turning into a small spot at the foot of the Caucasus. Keep on running before you find yourself in the circle of your loved ones!"
Wildlife temple
Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux is already off the coast of Pitsunda. There he is interested in looking for an ancient temple, about which he had heard. The traveler gives an interesting description of the Pitsunda temple the way he saw it:

"We pass through a dilapidated gate of a crack-covered wall built in the form of a quadrangle, and here I am in the face of one of the grandest, most picturesque ruins I have ever known. I was told about this building with admiration, but the impression it makes exceeded my expectations - this style, noble and brave, is amazing among the wild nature of Abkhazia".

Dubois de Montpéreux describes the temple in detail, concludes that this is a Byzantine style, which is often called Roman, compares it with some European cathedrals and writes:

"The condition of the temple when I was in Pitsunda fully allowed the possibility of restoration; a large crack and a hole in the dome from a lightning strike, as well as a collapsed arch of the upper vestibule were the only gaps in the building; otherwise the temple was unhurt."
At Baslata
A little later, the tireless traveler is already off the coast of Sukhum. The Sukhum bay at that time is a rather pitiful sight, and Dubois is not one of those who are inclined to choose careful words and expressions. Sometimes it is not easy to read to someone who is looking only for praise and admiration of the lush nature and beauty, but Dubois style is more merciless truthfulness than noble curtsy.

"Once this whole small plain, 1 1/2 miles wide, stretching east from the fortress to the foot of the hills and to the modern quarantine, was covered with houses and bazaars. Sukhum then had a population of 6 thousand people. On the stone-lined canals, water from the Baslata spread over all quarters; a small brick-lined canal was constructed at its mouth for the convenience of small Turkish ships. Nothing remained of this ancient Sukhum except traces of houses and streets overgrown with prickly bushes and tall grass; the wall that protected the city from the sea was preserved only as separate segments; the sea constantly sharpens and gnaws them with its waves; water does not flow through clogged channels; the ditch surrounding the fortress is sometimes filled to the brim with earth; The Baslata, detained in its course, is lost in the marshes, in the middle of summer, so inflating the air with its evaporations, so much so that after Poti and the fortresses of St. Nikolai Sukhum can be considered the most unhealthy terrain of all Russian possessions on this coast. The garrison, consisting of one hundred people, is exhausted, languishing from disease. Meanwhile, it would be enough to clear these channels of the Baslata, to drain the artificially created swamps, and, undoubtedly, Sukhum would become as healthy as any other on the coast. But who will undertake the implementation of such a task".
In search of Dioskuria
Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux also tried to figure out where the legendary ancient city of Dioskuria, founded by the Greek colonialists as early as the 6th century BC, was located in Abkhazia. He assumed that it was east of Sukhum-Kale, which he visited. Here is how Dubois talked about this:

"It may seem strange why the residents of the city of Miletus, the founders of Dioskuria, chose not the banks of the Kodor, the largest river of Abkhazia, but a small river which sources originated not far inside the country. Locals call this river indifferently Iskus, Tskhuzameli and Marmar. There, precisely, we see the ruins hidden by magnificent forests, in the shadow of which several Abkhaz villages are scattered. These beech trees, these oaks and elms, it seems, the ancient offspring of the earth. Why should we be so particularly surprised that it was here that the Greeks chose to establish their rich colony and surrounded this space with a wall? But now the man seems to have left these places, or perhaps the providence comes with the kingdoms in the same way as the farmer with the fields, when he gives them a rest under the steam. When you see these dense eternal forests covering plains and mountains, you watch the desert coast running away into the distance, do you think that you are at one of the cradles of history, in the ancient land of fairy tales and myths, in the starting point of many civilizations, at the gates of great cities ... Where is the population that found its pleasures in this paradise?"
Dubois finished his journey around Abkhazia in those times in Samurzakan (now the Gal district of Abkhazia - ed.). There he describes a quarrel that occurred between the Abkhaz prince Anchabadze and the Georgian prince Dadian:

"During 1832 and 1833 Samurzakan represented the arena of continuous robbery. That is the reason that caused this robbery. Once Levan Dadian, the modern sovereign prince of Mingrelia, a little bit heated with wine, wanted to force Prince Anchabadze, who was at that time with him, to do one thing, which he refused, referring to the fact that it would not correspond to his dignity, as an officer of the Russian service. Dadian, beside himself with this refusal, grabbed a stick to strike the prince, but the latter defended himself with a dagger. This led Dadian to even greater rage. Also heated Anchabadze threw his dagger at Dadian, which, fortunately, did not touch him. Dadian then called his people; Prince Anchabadze was seized, and Dadian ordered him to be locked in one of his fortresses; having fled from this fortress, Anchabadze hid in Samurzakan and turned it into the arena of his revenge against Dadian. Incessantly attacking Mingrelia, robbing, devastating it, calling for help from the Tsebeldins, he brought Prince Dadian to the utmost inability to fight with him. Then Dadian turned to the Russians with an urgent request to come to his aid and protect the borders of Samurzakan with their army against the Anchabadze raids."
"Caucasus - their lair"
Reading Dubois's work, one often comes across the most derogatory reviews about the Abkhaz princes, their unbridled temper, their "wildness", and the author often reflects on how life would be adjusted in this beautiful corner of the world if Tsarist Russia could bring order to it. Here is what a traveler writes in the 1930s:

"When a short and reliable trade route opens with the east of Russia, Abkhazia will be embraced by an impulse for rapid development. Peace will come in this miserable country if these mountaineers, Tsebelda's robbers, always ready to attack, like the birds of prey, curb Abkhazia or Mingrelia and expose them to devastation. Only having short and convenient ways, Russia will be able to subjugate the Caucasus and radically suppress the perfidy of the princes of Abkhazia, who feel strong, knowing full well that the entire Caucasus is their den, and the Circassians are their friends who can be called upon to help at any time."
About morals
Quite interesting are the observations of Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux about local life and customs. The more important the guest, the bigger the bull slaughtered for him, says a foreigner. The traveler was told that the guest was met not only with a feast, but also he was prepared for entertainment, the most common of which was dancing:

"To stop dancing and step out of the circle is a great shame. I had to see more than once what incredible efforts the dancer had to hold onto the battlefield. The general asked one lady who was there to also take part in the dance; For about an hour, she performed in a dance for two with a young Abkhaz, showing all her grace and wanting to tire the dancer, but he in turn did not want to give up. Wrapped up instead of a veil with her large white cloth scarf covering her face, she gasped; her knees were buckling; she was already close to swooning. The general had to intercede for her in front of the young man and persuade him to admit himself defeated."
Caucasus traveler
Dubois the traveler left the most valuable historical, geographical, topographical information about Abkhazia of those times. His opinions and judgments are often harsh, sometimes biased, but nonetheless of great interest to all who are interested in Abkhazia of that period.

Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux traveled the Caucasus until 1834. After the publication of his works, he became a professor at the academy in Neuchâtel. When this academy closed in 1848, Dubois engaged in archeology, conducted archaeological excavations in the vicinity of Neuchâtel in the town of Cressier and in the French commune of Colombier. He also studied the cathedral church of Neuchâtel, and donated his works and collections to the library of the city of Zurich. On the personal life of Dubois, there is little information. It is known that he died at the age of 51 in the town of Peze in Neuchâtel.

Text by - Arifa Kapba, photo editor - Naala Avidzba, editor – Olga Soldatenkova, editor-in-chief – Amina Lazba