Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Other Albania

Everyone knows about "Albania", the one in the Balkans, sandwiched between Greece and the former Yugoslavia.

But there was also an "Albania" in the Caucasus. No relation, by the way. This "Albania" roughly corresponded with the area where Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan in Russia now is. Its people were pagans, neighbours to the Armenians as the Azeris are today . This Albanian kingdom existed for around a thousand years; from around the times of Alexander the Great, until they were defeated and dispersed by the Arabs in the ninth century AD.
More interestingly, they were amongst the world's first nations to convert to Christianity (in the 2nd century AD), before the Armenians. Over the centuries, they built many churches; a lot of them are still standing or in states of ruin around Azerbaijan. Many of the names of famous towns in Azerbaijan are in fact Albanian: Gabala was the capital of ancient Albania; other cities included Sheki, Kish, Agdam, to name just a few.
The Albanian language no longer exists as such, As I said, after the Arab invasions of the Caucasus, the Albanian kingdom was defeated and its people dispersed. But that is not the end of the story. The "Albanians" did not disappear. Many of them chose to convert to Islam. Of those that didn't, they maintained their faith as part of the Armenian Orthodox church.

There are a number of ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan today.
One of them are the Lezgin; with a distinct language unrelated to Azeri or Russian, they also look very different from Azeris, often with round faces, large, oval eyes and round, healthy-looking cheeks. They are also Muslims. Some Azeris mistake them for ethnic Russians as Lezgins also exist in the mountains of southern Dagestan as well as across the north of Azerbaijan.
Another, much smaller and specific ethnic group in Azerbaiijan are the Udin. They speak a language related to Lezgin (though how similar, I can't say for sure). They live in a district between Gabala and Sheki (also where the ruins of ancient Albanian "Gabala" are), mainly in the towns of Nidj and Oguz. Unusually, they are Orthodox Christians.

These two groups are related because they are, in all likelyhood, the same people: the Albanians. The Udins were simply able to hold on to their faith somehow, while the Lezgin were those who chose to submit to Islam.

This story has an oddly poetic feel to it; the idea that these ancient people were able to survive as an ethnic group and maintain their identity after centuries of invasion after invasion. The idea that in this land between the Caspian and the Caucasus mountains, there was an ancient Christia kingdom, and the descendents of those people still exist in the land formerly known as "Albania" today.

The most famous of the Albanian churches is in the town of Kish (known as "Gis" in Albanian times), close to Sheki. It has been expertly restored. Excavations there discovered that the church's foundations dated back almost two thousand years. They also found pagan objects from the Bronze Age in the same location.

There is a personal touch to this story: my wife's paternal grandmother was a Lezgin. In fact, after seeing photos of Lala's grandmother, the resemblance is noticable. It's nice to think that you're married to a woman who can say her genes have been in this part of the world for two thousand years.

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