The New Silk Road

The New Silk Road

A railroad through the southern Caucasus will soon connect Europe and Asia, fueling dreams and discord in the region.


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Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies

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In late 2017, work was completed on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway. The new railroad line is known as the "Iron Silk Road." It connects the oil-rich Caspian Sea region to Turkey — and beyond to Europe.

The 1200 kilometer (750-mile) stretch of land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea is known as the Caucasus. Before the region got swallowed up by the Russian Empire in the 1800s, the Caucasus served as a transit point between Europe and Asia. The old Silk Road passed through it. Yet, transport between West and East has never been easy. For centuries, to get from one sea to the other, you first had to paddle north up the Don River from the Sea of Azov, which is linked by a narrow straight to the Black Sea. Next, you had to travel across vast grasslands to the Volga River. From there, you slowly drifted down to the Caspian. Only when the Russians began building railroads over the Caucasus in the 19th century could you travel more directly across the region.

The Iron Silk Road will launch a new chapter in the history of the Caucasus. After the Russian-dominated Soviet Union split apart in 1991, the republics of the southern Caucasus — Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — became independent nations. They also became vitally important to the U.S. and Western Europe's efforts to meet their energy needs. Vast quantities of oil and natural gas lie beneath and along the Caspian Sea. During the Soviet years, those resources were controlled by Russia. Now they were up for grabs.

After 1991, a scramble began to lay pipelines across the southern Caucasus to bring oil and gas to the European market. Today these pipelines are heavily used. The BTK was built to help transport European goods east and oil and gas west across the southern Caucasus. The new railway begins at the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. It travels through the Georgian city of Tbilisi, and ends in Kars, a Turkish town on the southwestern edge of the Caucasus region near Turkey's borders with Georgia and Armenia.

Armenia Is Not Part Of The Railroad Project

The new railway is the result of cooperation between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Turkey's participation signals a new set of alliances in a region often viewed as Russia's backyard. The new railway provides an alternative to going through Russia.

One country in the southern Caucasus was shut out of the railroad project, however: Armenia. Turkey has had a long and difficult relationship with Armenia. Between 1915 and 1917, around 1.5 million Armenians living in the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire were killed by Turkish soldiers and citizens. Turkey has never admitted full responsibility for these terrible mass killings. Turkey says they were deaths that happened during the fighting of World War I. Armenia insists it was genocide. A genocide is an attempt to wipe out an entire people. In recent years Turkey has made some attempts to improve relations with Armenia. So far, it hasn't succeeded.

Turkey also has a complicated relationship with Europe. Turkey straddles the border of Europe and Asia. While parts of Turkey are in Europe, it has never been seen as fully European. For many years, Turkey has been trying unsuccessfully to gain admittance to the European Union (EU). Much poorer and less well-governed countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, have already been accepted into the EU. Turkey, meanwhile, waits for an invitation that may never come. Yet Turkey was a strong ally of the U.S. and Western Europe against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

This "raises questions of fairness, at least," says N. Ahmet Kuşhanoğlu, the Turkish deputy director of transport in charge of railways. "Turkey's face is turned westward since two centuries." Now Turkey is looking east in order to make itself indispensable to the West. Once Turkey completes construction of the Marmaray rail tunnel beneath the Bosporus, trains from Baku will reach all the way to London. "It is easy to see that this railway shall serve Europe also," says Kuşhanoğlu.

Kars, a small Turkish city, is the new railway's endpoint. It lies 67 kilometers (42 miles) south of the Turkish border with Georgia. Today, Kars is fairly poor. However, that could change now that the BTK links it to Baku, the wealthy Azerbaijani capital on the Caspian Sea. The governor of Kars, Ahmet Kara, talks of how the railroad will transform Kars into a city "important in the world's eyes."

Azerbaijan's Wealth Is Growing

Georgia may not benefit as much from the BTK as Turkey and Azerbaijan likely will. Indeed, the new Iron Silk Road may actually hurt Georgia. The Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti have been the country's strongest economic centers. Many goods are shipped to western Europe and elsewhere from the two cities' docks. Now that freight can be sent on to Turkey instead, there will probably be significant job losses in these ports.

In Azerbaijan, meanwhile, the city of Baku is booming. Azerbaijan's wealth has grown enormously since 2005, when the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline began pumping oil out of the Caspian. Fancy stores line the boulevard Neftchiler Prospekti. A Four Seasons Hotel houses businessmen drawn to Baku by the city's oil wealth.

The BTK railway is not a new idea. The idea of building such a railway was first brought up in the 1990s, by Turkey's former president, Süleyman Demirel. However, for years it was almost impossible to raise money for the project. International bankers wouldn't lend money away because Armenia wanted the railway to run through it. However, all that changed in 2005 after the BTC pipeline opened and oil began to flow. Azerbaijan became so rich it was able to pay for its own portion of the railroad. It also loaned Georgia a few hundred million dollars for its section.

Today the BTC is still the only pipeline that delivers non-Russian, non-Arabic oil to Mediterranean tankers. With the global oil supply shrinking, Azerbaijani influence has only risen.

Right now, most Azerbaijanis consider oil much more important than trains. Musa Panahov, Azerbaijan's deputy minister of transport, doesn't agree. "Oil and gas will end someday," he says. "The railroad will live always."

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Brett Forrest, National Geographic
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 23, 2024

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