A few years before French inventor Louis Daguerre ushered in the age of photography in Paris, a talented young artist and explorer called Frederic Dubois arrived in the Caucasus in 1831 with a sketch pad and an epic mission ahead of him.
Dubois, a Swiss-Prussian nobleman, had received the blessing of the Russian Tsar Nicholas I to explore and draw the mountainous southern frontier of the Russian Empire. That region is today’s Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
Little is known about most of Dubois’s life. But during the three years he spent traveling the Caucasus -- sometimes accused of being a spy -- he was so prolific with his pencil and sketch pads that he returned to Europe with enough material for a travelogue that filled 11 volumes. That included five giant “atlases” full of illustrations.
Dubois’s books today are extremely rare and closely guarded. In 2017, a full collection of his Caucasus travelogue sold at auction for more than $154,000. Three volumes of the atlases are reported to be held in Russian museums, and one volume, with a mysterious backstory, is held in a small library in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia.
After several dead ends, RFE/RL was able to acquire scans of three of the atlases from the National Parliamentary Library Of Georgia. Thanks to the staff there, these fascinating images of the Caucasus as it looked nearly 200 years ago can be published in crystal-clear quality.
*Locations are given according to current borders in the Caucasus.
Maghakyan speculates that even the tireless Dubois may have been overwhelmed with the amount of detail he would need to sketch if he included more of the intricately carved cross-stones, known as khachkars.
“What the artist has done is to show only one khachkar out of several thousand, in order to help the viewer appreciate it most,” Maghakyan says. “It must have been an exhausting experience to stand in the middle of the world’s largest forest of khachkars and attempt sketching it.”
Dubois describes the cathedral as “a mixture of Byzantine and Armenian [styles].”
In a summary that may irk some Georgian readers, the artist claimed: “The Byzantine style was adopted for the interior, while the exterior decorations were rather an imitation of the Armenian style.”
Dubois seems to have been highly taken by the sturdy bridge, describing its “two balconies suspended over the river” making it possible to “enjoy the freshness of the current.”
“Before, there was a village set up there by the king so travelers could find food,” the explorer wrote. "Today, nothing stands, no village, no caravanserai. The bridge alone remains. Its length is 400 feet, its width 14 feet.”
“I close the series of Armenian-style monuments with the Armenian church, which was built at the top of the city of Akhaltsikhe, on the point which was most strongly defended by the Turks during the capture of the city in 1828," Dubois wrote. "The holes that can be seen in the cornices and walls were made by cannonballs during the siege of the city.”
Dubois returned to Europe in 1834. After his books on the region were published, he received a gold medal of the French Geographical Society and the Order of St. Stanislaus. He was also gifted a large sum of money from the Russian tsar. His final years were spent on archaeological research in Europe. He died in 1850, aged 51.