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Conundrum Over Caucasian Albania – OpEd

Gandzasar Monastery, seat of Albanian (Aghvank) Catolicasate in Karabakh, until 1836 Photo Credit: Bursteam, Wikipedia Commons

Since the beginning of the modern conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, interest in the history of Caucasian Albania has grown rapidly along with the politicization of the subject matter. Caucasian Albania is an ancient state, termed in historical records Agvank or Aluank, that existed on the territory of the South Caucasus between the third and seventh centuries. According to ancient sources such as Strabo, it was a conglomerate of twenty-six tribes, among them the Udi, a surviving ethnic group of a few thousand people, professing Christianity, that today resides in the Republic of Azerbaijan. 

Recently, interest in the issue of Caucasian Albania was sparked by the problem of Christian churches on the territory of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, some Western experts have made superficial judgments, particularly decrying the major Azerbaijani theory of Caucasian Albania “bogus” or “pseudoscientific.” Yet, these experts lack any specific knowledge of the history of Caucasian Albania, which requires the mastery of Armenian (Grabar), Arabic and even the now-extinct Albanian language (modern Udi is closest to it); or even lack a PhD degree in history.

Tom de Waal, the author of Black Garden, on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, opined that, “Nobody believes the Caucasian Albanian theory outside Azerbaijan.” He previously also attacked Azerbaijani academician Ziya Buniyadov, who developed the Azerbaijani theory on Caucasian Albania. Buniyadov was a trailblazer who opened not only a new chapter in the history of Caucasian Albania, but also embarked on the translation of the Quran into the Azerbaijani language and was murdered by Islamic fundamentalists allegedly trained in Iran. Laurence Broers in his book Anatomy of Rivalry, has treated historical data more cautiously but, in the end, jettisoned the Azerbaijani version. The problem with such a description is that only a handful of experts in the West know the history of Caucasian Albania, while the rest mostly recycle or repeat the arguments of scholars from Armenia or of Armenian origin. 

For Armenian nationalists, the theory on Caucasian Albania is absolutely unacceptable, as it destroys the edifice built over the last three hundred years about Great Armenia, which, according to them, included Karabakh and other territories in the South Caucasus, overlapping with Caucasian Albania. In the Armenian version, Caucasian Albania was a Christian state that was an offshoot of the Armenian one from both political and religious perspectives. Frequently, Armenian scholars point to Armenian churches as evidence of their historical presence. American scholars Gerard Toal and John Loughlin point out in this regard that 

the Armenian Church has a long and complicated geographical footprint across the Middle East, Anatolia and Caucasus… churches, graveyards and religious stones are taken as evidence of original ownership of territories under dispute and the basis for making claims to territories that may not otherwise be under dispute. Such discourses seek to imagine territory as sacred space, sacred not simply for its religious meaning but more broadly as the ancient patrimony of the modern nation.

For Azerbaijani historians (after Ziya Buniyadov, the most prolific writer was his student, Farida Mamedova), Caucasian Albania was a fully independent state that rivaled Armenia. In my view, both theories have been to a certain degree politicized owing to the modern conflict. Azerbaijani historians, often writing on conflict-related matters, indulge in emotive language, which is also present among Armenian scholars, but absent in Western-educated diasporic scholars. This, along with other geopolitical and religious factors, facilitates the Armenian influence on the Western expert community. Moreover, many studies in the West are sponsored by Armenian diaspora groups such as the Tavitian Foundation, which funds a Carnegie Endowment and is known for its anti-Azerbaijani stance. In contrast, on the Azerbaijani side, such research is mostly a state-sponsored activity, which is negatively perceived by Western scholars. In the United States, there are around 22 Armenian studies chairs, but no equivalent for Azerbaijan. Sponsorship by the government of Azerbaijan becomes the subject of ostracism, and a recent example occurred in Germany. The irony is that many of Germany’s own foundations are largely state-sponsored, for example, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, whose Tbilisi Head of Office, Stephan Meister, called for cutting any academic links with Azerbaijan. This anti-Azerbaijani position of many Western scholars can in part be explained by the critical perceptions of current governments, partly influenced by Orientalist (in the Saidian sense), anti-Islamic and Turcophobic sentiments. 

Another problem is that the history of Caucasian Albania continues to be studied mostly through Armenian sources, as the Albanian alphabet based texts completely disappeared for many centuries and was only rediscovered relatively recently in Egypt’s Mount Sinai Monastery thanks to Georgian scholar Zaza Alexidze. Indeed, it is quite a strange phenomenon that Albanian religious texts have not survived in the South Caucasus, especially taking into account that, by edict of the Russian Tsar in 1836, the independent Albanian Catholicasate with a center in Gandzasar in Karabakh was abolished and fully subordinated to the Armenian one in Echmiadzin. Therein lies the confluence of history, religion, drama, and conspiracy. 

As mentioned, Caucasian Albania ceased to exist as an independent entity in the seventh century and fell under the Arab caliphate. After the Arab conquest, the majority of the Albanian population was converted to Islam. Those who adhered to Christianity gradually synergized with the Armenian church, which tried to completely control the Albanian church and, according to Azerbaijani historians, destroyed many historical documents and forged others in an attempt to erase any traces of an independent Albania. Albanian palimpsests manifest the evidence that religious texts were erased and written over. This is no conspiracy theory; it is a proven fact, and the Albanian palimpsests have been studied by various scholars, including Zaza Alexidze, Jost Gippert and Wolfang Schulze, and Timur Maisak. As Maisak noted:

Worship in Albanian churches was completely passed into the Armenian language, and the use of non-Armenian liturgical books was suppressed. Books in Caucasian Albanian ceased to be copied, and the language itself was forgotten; manuscripts created in the V-VII centuries were destroyed or embroidered, while text on their pages was washed out in order to write on them again in other languages. 

Armenian scholar Joseph Orbeli in his research, made in 1909-1919, mentioned Albanian inscriptions in Gandzasar monastery, which disappeared over the course of history. 

It seems that Albanian Christians in the Muslim environment had close interactions with Christian Armenians but tried to maintain their independence. The independence of the Albanian Catholicasate in Ganzdasar, located in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, is confirmed by many medieval sources. Nevertheless, over the centuries, many Albanians were gradually Armenized. The U.S. scholar of Armenian origin, Ronald Suny, also supports the opinion that “the Albanians in the mountainous area of Karabagh up to historic Armenia remained largely Christian and eventually merged with the Armenians.” Russian imperial policy-makers also knew of the existence of Albania: Prince Grigory Potemkin (1739-1791), in his Eastern Plan, envisaged the creation of Armenia and Albania as two separate vassal entities. (For interesting research on this issue, see Sean Pollock, Empire by Invitation.) 

The whole situation with regard to the Caucasian Albanian religious heritage should be dealt with by professional historians with knowledge of relevant languages and scholarly qualifications. Moreover, the subject should be freed from the vicious attacks of nationalists of any kind.

*Farid Shafiyev is Chairman of the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations and Adjunct Lecturer at ADA University, Azerbaijan. He holds a Ph.D. from Carleton University and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School of Government, as well as a Bachelor of Law and Diploma in History from Baku State University. He is the author of “Resettling the Borderlands: State Relocations and Ethnic Conflict in the South Caucasus” by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2018), numerous articles, and op-eds. 

Disclaimer: The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the affiliated institutions. 

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