Following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 2020 Second Karabakh War, the country has seen a large-scale revival of attention to an obscure, extinct group once prominent in the region: the Caucasian Albanians.
In particular, the Azerbaijani government and associated scholars have been heavily promoting a theory that Azerbaijan is the descendant of Albania (not related to the country of the same name in the Balkans) and that what appear to be Armenian churches and monasteries are in fact Albanian. The theory has gained new relevance following Azerbaijan’s retaking of territory that includes several such monuments, raising questions about Baku’s intentions toward the heritage sites.
Since the war ended in November, the Azerbaijan government has moved quickly to brand several medieval Armenian sites as Albanian. It has enlisted a small minority group in Azerbaijan, the Udis, to attempt to revive the church. And it has sought help from other Orthodox churches in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Israel, and Ukraine for support in bolstering its claims.
But this is based on a distorted understanding of who the Albanians really were.
Albania was an ancient kingdom composed of several tribes (at least 26, according to first-century Greek historian Strabo) whose territory corresponded roughly to that of today’s Azerbaijan. Its people spoke a language in the Northeast Caucasian family and it was one of the first Christian states, adopting the religion officially in the 4th century – roughly the same time that neighboring Armenia and Georgia did. But it didn’t last much longer. Its last king, Varaz Tiridates II, was assassinated in 822 and the state gradually declined as Arab invaders moved in.
There are multiple competing theories about what happened to the Albanians, whether they were absorbed into the region’s Armenian, Turkic, Georgian, or even Iranian population. But the lack of genetic and linguistic data has made it impossible thus far to say much definitively.
One small group did not assimilate, however, and were the ancestors of a small minority group that today numbers around 10,000 people: the Udis.
The Azerbaijani government has a very particular take on this history. According to its theory, anything that appears to be an Armenian church in Karabakh (with the exception of some 19th-century and later structures) is in fact originally Albanian.
As this theory goes, when Russia took control of the South Caucasus in the 19th century from Qajar Iran and encouraged large-scale Armenian migration into the area, Armenian clergy took over these churches, added inscriptions and altered architectural features in order to hide their “true” Albanian origin.
As such, the theory not only denies Armenians’ prior existence in the region – a presence that is in fact well-attested – but frames them as Russian puppets in the tsars’ attempts to Christianize the territory.
The theory was first proposed by historian Ziya Bunyadov beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s. The theory, then expanded upon by later scholars, was a response to Moscow’s national identity policy that encouraged titular groups like the Azerbaijanis to make a case for their centuries-old presence as a people on the territory of their respective Soviet socialist republics.
Scholars like Nora Dudwick and Harun Yilmaz have argued that as nationalist historical narratives gained popularity among many of the non-Russian people around the Soviet Union, the Albanian thesis allowed Azerbaijan to compete on an equal footing with Armenians and Georgians, who could point to ancient kingdoms and monuments proving their long existence in the territory. The Albanian theory framed Azerbaijanis’ history as natives to the land, not as an “invader” as previous histories, centered around Azerbaijanis’ origins as Turkic nomads, had explained it.
One of its key foundations is an 1836 tsarist decree abolishing the Albanian Catholicosate. Official Azerbaijani historiography regards this as the moment when the Albanian church was absorbed into the Armenian one.
President Ilham Aliyev cited that decree in a speech on November 25, just two weeks after the end of the war. He said it proved that “Armenian historians and forgers falsified the ancient Albanian churches, added their own writings and appropriated these churches.”
But the decree was not what Aliyev and other proponents of the Albanian theory claim. It was in fact far less consequential: by that point, the “Albanian” catholicosate was merely a name, a vestige of the Albanian church that had in fact practically disappeared in the 8th century when the last Albanian catholicos, Nerses Bakur, was deposed by the Arab Caliph Abdul Malik I (with the aid of the Armenian Catholicos Elias). The tsarist decree was simply an attempt to streamline the complex structure of the Armenian church hierarchy inside Russia.
Further, if this theory were true, then there should be evidence of Albanian inscriptions that Armenians covered up or destroyed in the 19th century. But no such evidence exists in the many records of writers, religious figures and travelers who visited the churches before the Russian conquest of the South Caucasus.
The theory does not claim only Armenian churches as Albanian. Azerbaijani historiography claims the Georgian Davit Gareja monastery, on the border between the two countries, as Albanian. And in December, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture produced a promotional video presenting the Three Saints Orthodox Church in Shaki, which was built for the Russian garrison there in 1853, as an Albanian temple from the 5th or 6th century.
Most of what the world knows about the Albanians comes, in fact, from old Armenian sources, like Mkhitar Gosh’s 12th-century “Albanian Chronicle,” Kirakos of Ganja’s 13th-century “Concise History,” and the “History of Aghwan,” attributed to Movses Kalankatuatsi.
Nevertheless, current-day Armenian historians have, in response to Azerbaijani misrepresentations, also distorted Albanian history for their own ends.
For example Babken Harutyunyan, a corresponding member of Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences, wrote in 2010 that the Albanians were not “indigenous” to the Caucasus because they were forced into the region by Ossetians. (The fact that this migration took place in the first century speaks to the high standard for indigeneity in the Caucasus.) Harutyunyan further argued that the Albanians were ultimately assimilated by Armenians: “And who is to say that the Armenians didn’t have the right to assimilate those races among them?”
More often, Armenian historians simply ignore the Albanians. Prominent archeologist Hamlet Petrosyan has argued that contemporary Armenian historians’ neglect of that part of Caucasian history has created the space for Azerbaijan to propagate its version.
While the theory that supposedly Armenian churches are in fact Albanian has been widespread throughout Azerbaijan’s post-independence period, it has gained new energy following last year’s war, in which Azerbaijan retook control of many of the territories it lost in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s.
Immediately following the end of the war, Azerbaijan’s culture minister tweeted about one monastery in the Kelbajar region, Dadivank, which he referred to by another name and claimed that it was built by the wife of an Albanian prince.
On November 25, just two weeks after the ceasefire statement was signed, Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences held a meeting to announce the creation of a new Scientific Center for Albanian Studies.
At the meeting, the country’s former chief ideologue and the academy’s head Ramiz Mehdiyev said that the center would be dedicated to “discovering the exact historical facts proving that the Albanian monuments, which the Armenians want to take for themselves, belong to us.”
Jamil Hasanli, a leading Azerbaijani historian and political opposition figure, wrote on Facebook following the announcement that the center represented a degradation of the quality research that had been done into Caucasian Albania in Soviet Azerbaijan. “The ignorance that intensified after the collapse of the Soviet Union created a lot of undesirable tendencies in scholarship into pre-Islamic culture and Christianity in Azerbaijan,” he wrote. “All this has led to very unfortunate results, the neglect of the [true] historical, cultural and political heritage of Caucasian Albania.”
Caught up in all of this are the Udis, the closest living descendants of the Albanians. Their ties to the Albanians were not well known until relatively recently, when 238 folios of manuscripts in Albanian were discovered in 1975 in a forgotten library at the Saint Catherine Monastery in the Sinai. The documents allowed scholars to decipher the Albanian language and link it definitively to Udi.
In the early post-Soviet period, the Udis did not easily fit into the Turkic-dominated identity that the newly independent Azerbaijan promoted. They were barred from military service and their main city, Vartashen, had its name changed to Oğuz, honoring a famous Turkic tribe with no connection to the Udis or the area.
But following the coming to power of Ilham Aliyev, the state’s views toward the Udis began to change, and they have come to be seen as worthy assets in the international information war against Armenia.
The first step was the 2003 establishment of the “Albanian-Udi Christian Religious Community” under the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Since there is no official church institute for them like the Catholics or the Orthodox, this community serves as an official representative of the Udis.
In 2005, a church in the town of Nij was renovated jointly by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and an NGO, Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise, with help from Udi organizations. It gained international attention when it was reported that Armenian inscriptions in the church were erased and the Norwegian ambassador refused to attend the opening ceremony.
Meanwhile, the community began to build ties with churches outside Azerbaijan with the aim of reestablishing an Albanian Church. In particular, they affiliated themselves with the Syriac Orthodox Church and its bishopric in Mardin, Turkey. Two prominent Azerbaijani Udi community leaders, Robert Mobili and his deputy Rafik Danakari, began undergoing training to become religious leaders in twice-a-year sessions at the Mor Hananyo Monastery in Mardin. In January, the bishop of the Mardin Syriac Orthodox Church, Saliba Özmen, attended an online conference dedicated to “Azerbaijan’s Albanian Christian heritage.”
Mobili has consistently echoed the government’s rhetoric about the region’s Albanian heritage. In an October interview with the National Academy of Azerbaijan, while the war was underway, he said: “The restoration of the Albanian Apostolic Church will be the biggest blow to the Armenians.”
Since the end of the war, Mobili and Danakari have been repeatedly visiting the churches claimed as Albanian in the territories that Azerbaijan retook during the war, including Dadivank, St. Hovhannes in Togh, and Tsitsernavank. Danakari was even appointed as “preacher” at Dadivank.
On May 15, Aliyev visited another church in Nij, which had newly undergone restoration, accompanied by Mobili. The president went so far as to promote the restoration of the ancient Albanian alphabet for the modern Udi language (which currently uses the Latin alphabet in Azerbaijan, and the Cyrillic alphabet in other countries).
This is not the first time in the Udis’ history that their identity has been threatened by the competing interests of Armenians and Muslims in the Caucasus.
When the region was part of Safavid Iran, in 1724 Udi leaders appealed to Russian Tsar Peter the Great with a long list of grievances against their Muslim overlords, including forced conversions to Islam and destroying their churches.
Before that, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Udis set up a rival catholicosate in Vartashen in apparent opposition to the Armenian catholicosate in Gandzasar (in today’s Nagorno-Karabakh). On other occasions, Udis protested to Armenian church leaders that services were in Armenian, which they didn’t understand. In one letter they complained that the church saw them only as a “useless, rotting, and damaging element to the Armenian nation.”
The story of one late tsarist-era Udi family, the Silikovs, exemplifies the competing pressures that the people have faced. The family bore at least three generals in the Russian army. One, Movses Silikyan, later became a general in the army of the First Armenian Republic and took part in World War I. Another, Zinobi Silikashvili, led several residents of the city of Vartashen into what is today Georgia, and founded the village Zinobiani, still the main Udi population center in Georgia. A third relative, Pyotr Silikov, remained in Vartashen and founded a church there. The fate of this one family, divided between three nations, prefigured the fate of the Udis today.
It’s not clear what the results will be of this effort to reclaim an Albanian church. But whatever happens, it is clear that the enmity between the Armenian and Azerbaijani states is endangering our accurate understanding of the Udis’ heritage and history.
Javid Agha is an Ankara-based writer and social media commentator focusing on Armenia and Azerbaijan.