Azerbaijan International

Winter 2000 (8.4)
Pages 18-19

The Kish Church
Digging Up History
Norwegians Help Restore Ancient Church

An interview with J. Bjornar Storfjell

Other articles by or related to Bjornar Storfjell:

Thor Heyerdahl's Final Projects - Bjornar Storfjell (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
Voices of the Ancients: Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Zaza Alexidze (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
Church in Kish: Carbon Dating Reveals Its True Age - Bjornar Storfjell (AI 11.1, Spring 2003)

Who would have guessed that a rather plain, small church, found in a remote part of northwest Azerbaijan, would excite so much international attention? What could be so fascinating about a building that hasn't even been in use for the past two centuries?

Norwegians have the answer. In the village of Kish, near the town of Shaki, which snuggles up to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, a team of Azerbaijani and Norwegian scholars is investigating a remarkable remnant of Caucasus Albanian Christianity. Based on their findings, they estimate that this local church may be nearly 1,500 years old.

How did the Norwegians even hear about the church? Some of the credit goes to Eyvind Skeie, a well-known Norwegian author and scriptwriter who has been involved in various cultural projects involving Norway and Azerbaijan. Skeie made a video of the church in Kish, which appeared on the TV news in Norway in December 1998 as a short, interesting religious feature for the first day of Christmas. The piece mentioned that this was an ancient church and that they were eager for scientists to explore and excavate it though, at present, there was no funding for such a project.

Norwegian-American archeologist J. Bjornar Storfjell chanced to hear the announcement, even though he wasn't paying much attention to the television playing in the background. It sparked his interest, since he has done a considerable amount of research on the Byzantine period and early churches in Jordan, Israel and the Middle East. Storfjell sent an e-mail to the Norwegian Broadcasting Company, which put him into contact with Skeie. What followed was a full-scale excavation that began in the summer of 2000 in Azerbaijan.

Left: Norwegian archeologists believe that the Kish Church found in the foothills of the Caucasus may be nearly 1,500 years old. It was built by Caucasian Albanian Christians who lived in the region.

Norwegians seem to have a particular - and some might even say, vested - interest in Azerbaijan's early history. At the forefront is the famous Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, 86, who is convinced that Norwegians and other Scandinavians can, in part, trace their roots back to Azerbaijan. Heyerdahl, who has been featured in several issues of Azerbaijan International, returned to Baku for the fourth time this past September to visit the archeological dig in progress at Kish. But Heyerdahl is not the only Norwegian to take a personal interest in this country's ancient history.

The Norwegian Ambassador, Olav Berstad, himself an archeologist by training, is convinced of the wealth of archeological sites in Azerbaijan. "There's more cultural remains beneath the surface of the ground in this country than is generally recognized," he insists, "and so little of it has been documented."

In the remote village of Kish, six hours northwest of Baku, Norwegian and Azerbaijani researchers are working together to learn more about the history of the ancient Caucasus Albanian Christian church. Oral tradition says that church was built in 78 AD, but the researchers place it a few centuries later.

Left: World-renowned Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, 86, visits the archeological dig at the Kish Church near Shaki, Azerbaijan in September 2000. Photo: Sanan.

Caucasus Albania, not to be confused with contemporary Balkan Albania in Europe, is the Roman designation for the northeastern Caucasus, roughly today's Azerbaijan. Caucasus Albania remained a cohesive, mostly Christian, political entity for about half a millennium, from the 3rd to the 8th centuries A.D.

Berstad explains why the Norwegian government decided to help Azerbaijan with this particular project: "We believe that it's important for Azerbaijan, as a young, developing state, to dig deeper into its past. Establishing direct links with the past will strengthen the nation's identity as a separate entity here in the Caucasus.

"Of course, this project is also very interesting from a professional point of view. The location is idyllic; Kish is a beautiful village situated in the foothills of the Caucasus. It's obviously a very old cultural site, and more needs to be known about it."

The project feeds the Ambassador's personal interests. "I've been fascinated with archeology ever since I was a child," he adds. "I remember reading about Egypt, Central America and the Indus Valley. I found early civilization to be so fascinating." Berstad then studied archeology in Oslo for a short period of time and received a scholarship to Leningrad in the mid-1970s before beginning a career as a diplomat.

Team Approach
Despite a strong interest on the part of the Norwegians, Berstad points out that the excavation and restoration of the Kish church is an Azerbaijani project, not a Norwegian one. "It would have come about sooner or later," he says. "But it's happening sooner, since we have these established contacts and have found some funds through Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We would also like to use this project to establish a closer professional relationship between Norwegian and Azerbaijani experts."

Various researchers based in both Norway and Azerbaijan are working on the project. In addition to Norwegian-American Storfjell and British Ms. Suseela C. Y. Storfjell, there's Dr. Vilayat Karimov from the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, who is the local director of the project's excavations. Ms. Aliya Garahmadova of the same institute is also involved. Archeologist Nasib Mukhtarov has been responsible for organizing the local workers for the dig.

Left: A very unusual grave with six skulls was found near the foundation of the Kish Church. Photo: Sanan.

Gulchohra Mammadova, Rector of Azerbaijan's University of Architecture and Construction, is supervising what will be the restoration of the church once the archeological project is completed. Mammadova has spent the last 20 years investigating early Christian architecture in Azerbaijan, a topic that has rarely been touched upon, even though there are several other Christian sites in the country.

She was born in Yerevan, speaks Armenian and therefore managed to read many of the Armenian historical books about early architecture. She wrote the first monograph on the subject, "Christian Architecture in Azerbaijan from the 4th to 14th Century". Davud Akhundov, who directed Mammadova's thesis and was the first scientist to claim that Azerbaijani architecture predated Islam, has also contributed greatly to making the Kish project a reality.

Storfjell observes that Azerbaijani scholars are not used to the Western multidisciplinary approach to fieldwork. "It's very interesting to exchange ideas with my Azerbaijani colleagues about methodology," says Storfjell. "They've been working in the Soviet tradition and have had very little contact with the West. Though there has been a common source and origin in our methodologies, they have been developing separately and independently for quite some time.

"In the West we are able to incorporate a number of scientists in the actual excavation process. For example, on our digs in Jordan, we bring along physicists, chemists, microbiologists, paleontologists, geologists, climatologists, geographers, physicians and even dentists. It's really a multidisciplinary team - like a whole university - working on the site."

Another difference is that Western archeologists today are much more focused on social elements and how ordinary people lived thousands of years ago. "Fifty or 100 years ago," Berstad explains, "archeologists were focused on learning about the upper class and royalty. But this is only part of the story. Today we have scientific tools and methods that make it possible for us to know more about how ordinary people lived, what they ate, and what kinds of diseases they suffered from. Modern science has completely opened new possibilities into such studies."

The Kish project is organized through Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise, an organization with ties to the Lutheran Church in Norway, which reaches out to the world through various humanitarian projects. Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise began working with refugees in Azerbaijan in January 1994. According to Director Tore Seierstad, the archeological project was brought to the attention of the organization by Bjorn Wegge, a special advisor when the humanitarian projects first started in Azerbaijan. "Wegge is really the father of the project.

He was very interested in the history of this area and very knowledgeable about the early Christian church. He started to look into the history, spoke to historians and scientists here in Baku, read books and soon found out that Christianity had early roots in Azerbaijan as well. We went through Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise in Norway and set up the project as a Norwegian-Azerbaijani project."

Layers of History
Storfjell was amazed at the correlation between the building that is standing today and similar structures in North Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey but felt this was not to be unexpected since those places were cradles of early Christianity. "The Kish church was right at home among those Byzantine structures in terms of both size and shape. In the Middle East, the Islamic conquest basically put an end to the Byzantine era in the middle of the 7th century - in 648 AD. But the architectural style suggests that the Kish church might be earlier than that."

Though tradition and legends hold that the church at Kish was built in the latter part of the 1st century AD, Storfjell says that there has never been any evidence of any church being built before the 4th century anywhere in the world. The oldest known church to date is in Aqaba, Jordan.

Left: After the excavations and archeological surveys are completed, plans are being made to restore the 1,500 year old church and convert it into a museum to tell the story of the Caucasian Albanian Christians and their religious faith. Photo: Sanan.

However, it seems clear that the site was in use long before the church was built there. "Possibly, it has been viewed as a holy place for millennia," observed Storfjell.

Archeologists have identified at least seven different layers of data at the Kish site and believe that the church was reconstructed at least four times. Each layer, or "stratum", represents a period of occupation at the settlement. The earliest stratum, naturally, is the layer on the bottom. Within the church building itself, the archeologists have dug deep enough to reach sterile clay, meaning that there are no cultural material remains lower than this level.

In the oldest layer inside the church, ceramics were found that date to the Early Bronze Age of the Kur-Araz culture, about 3000 BC. This calculation was based on the types of artifacts found there - in other words, comparing them with other ceramics that have been unearthed in Azerbaijan and determining if they were made on a potter's wheel or shaped by hand, and how the clay was worked and fired.

The next layer indicates that the area was used as a graveyard prior to the church's construction. Archeologists are not sure yet about the dating of the burials, but estimate that they may have occurred during the first few centuries AD. When Storfjell left Baku in September this year, he carried out the bones of four different people in his suitcases so that they could be dated using the carbon-14 Method.

"We found a lot of skeletal material," Storfjell recalls. "One grave was very unusual. It had one skeleton with all of its bones connected in the right places, but on top of it there were six skulls arranged in a sort of oval, right over the lower abdomen and pelvic area. I've never seen anything like it before. The skulls belonged to people who had already been dead for some time when the other person was buried. They were buried a second time with this person. It looked like most of their other bones were there because there were enough femurs (thigh bones) to account for the number of skulls that we had. But they were carefully arranged - the femurs were in one area, sort of grouped together. This grave predates the church."

Pieces of the Puzzle
Researchers are still trying to determine when the church was built and exactly how it was used as a religious site, so that they can place it within the larger context of Christian Caucasus Albania and in the process leading from pre-Christian times to the introduction of Islam. One piece in this puzzle is a coin found near the church's foundation. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Curator of Parthian and Sassanian Coins at the British Museum, dates the coin to a Sassanian king named Kavad I, in the 39th year of his reign, which corresponds to the year 526-527 AD. The coin depicts a Zoroastrian fire altar and was minted near Persepolis in what is now Iran. The inscription reads, "May the glory of Kavad increase!"

"It's premature to draw a conclusion and say that the church comes exactly from that same period," Storfjell cautions. "What it gives us is the earliest possible date - it's hard to imagine that it could have been earlier than that."

Evidence also seems to indicate that the building was a small country church, only used by the people who lived in the village. Kish is still a living village today. "We found very little jewelry except for a few bronze pieces. This tells us about the general economy of the area," Storfjell says. "There's no evidence of mosaics on the floor; it was probably made of stone or just plaster. Perhaps there was a monastery complex associated with the church, as was often the case with churches in the 5th to 7th centuries."

Albanian, Not Armenian
"We have clear evidence that this church was built as an Albanian Diophysite church," says Storfjell. While Armenians might beg to differ, he explains how the church's own architecture shows it was not originally a Monophysite church.

"In the 5th and 6th centuries there was an intense theological debate in the Eastern church regarding the nature of Christ, whether he was both human and divine, or only divine, overshadowing his human nature. At that time, the Caucasus Albanian church took the position of the Diophysites, the group that perceived Christ as having a dual nature - both human and divine. Today's Western church, both Protestant and Catholic, also holds the Diophysite position. The Armenian church, however, took the position of the Monophysites, who said that Christ's nature was altogether divine, even though he took on a human body.

"In a Diophysite church, the apse - the area where the altar is located - is much closer to the level of the church's floor, in order to symbolize the incarnation, or humanity, of Christ. In the earliest phase of the church in Kish, the difference in elevation is about 30-40 cm (1 foot, 4 inches), which shows that they believed that God had come closer to humanity in the person of Jesus. However, in the last three phases of this church, the difference between the church floor and the apse was 70-90 cm, which indicates a change in theology."

This doesn't necessarily mean that Armenians were actively using the church, Storfjell says, only that it was influenced by Monophysite theology. "The Armenians were not the only Monophysites. There were also some groups in North Syria and North Iraq in those early periods that held this belief as well."

"Armenians claim that any church on Azerbaijani territory was built by Armenians," Mammadova says, a notion that has contributed plenty of controversy to her own research on ancient Azerbaijani churches. She argues that an ancient text proves the Armenians wrong in this particular case: "In a 7th-century text, 'History of Albania,' historian Moses Kalankatui writes that 'the church in Kish is the mother of the Albanian churches.'

"Of course, there are also churches that were built by Armenians," she continues. "They built churches in Shusha, Karabakh and Shamakhi. We don't deny that. But the origins of most Christian churches on the territory of Azerbaijan are Albanian. In the 19th century, when Armenians were transplanted in Azerbaijan from Turkey and Iran, they found these ancient Albanian churches and monasteries that weren't being used. Instead of building new churches, they renovated the existing ones that had fallen into disrepair. Even though these churches now have Armenian signs, they were originally Albanian, not Armenian," she insists.

Telling the Story
Next year, the archeological team plans to excavate a 3 1/2-foot (120-cm) trench along the foundation of the church. "When we dig down through the soil," Storfjell says, "we are digging down through time, layer by layer. Right up against the wall and in the soil, we can piece together the story. If you can date that material, then you can identify a date to attach to the church.

"Archeology is a slow process," he says. "It requires a number of seasons of excavation. We generally use a trowel with a 4-inch blade. That's the one used by most American archeologists. Smaller tools are used when we discover items such as skeletons or jewelry."

The fieldwork is just one small part of the entire project, he points out. "There's a lot of work to be done in analyzing the finds and records that we have taken during the field portion of the dig. We now have to try to make sense out of them. It's like detective work.

"In the West, so little has been published about Caucasus Albania. That's why it's 'terra incognito' for us. We're exploring it for the first time. Obviously, this region was one of the major crossroads on international trade routes from the earliest civilizations. It's one of the richest archeological regions. Evidence of anthropoid settlement from the Caucasus goes back millions of years."

Although the church has not been actively used for religious purposes nearly 200 years now, it is treated with great respect in the community. There's a woman in the village, Ilaha, who has a key and has been taking care of the site. Previously her mother-in-law, Firangiz, did it. "They've done a wonderful job," remarks Storfjell. "There's no damage to the building - only natural deterioration."
Curiously, there is a folk tradition related to fertility that has long been associated with the site.

Women who are unable to conceive visit the church, pray and press a coin against the wall. Because of the humidity, the coin sticks to the plaster. The next day, they return to see if the coin is still adhering to the wall. If so, it's supposed to be a sure sign that the woman will have a baby. The practice still exists today, and villagers attest that even women from Baku come to test it.

After the excavations are completed, the next phase will focus on the restoration of the church by the University of Architecture in Baku, with local Azerbaijani architects supervising and guiding all aspects of the project. "Once the building has been restored," Storfjell says, "the plan is for it to be turned into a museum that will tell the story of the church from its very beginning. When we are finished, we should have enough evidence to be able to say something meaningful about the place from when it was first used right down to the present time."

For more information about other archeological sites in Azerbaijan, SEARCH for "Gobustan" and "samovar".

Azerbaijan International (8.4) Winter 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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