Azerbaijan International

Summer 2002 (10.2)

Voices of the Ancients
Heyerdahl Intrigued by Rare Caucasus Albanian Text

by Dr. Zaza Alexidze




Other articles related to Thor Heyerdahl:

(1) Thor Heyerdahl in Azerbaijan:
KON-TIKI Man by Betty Blair (AI 3:1, Spring 1995)
(2) The Azerbaijan Connection:
Challenging Euro-Centric Theories of Migration by Heyerdahl (AI 3:1, Spring 1995)
Azerbaijan's Primal Music Norwegians Find 'The Land We Come From' by Steinar Opheim (AI 5.4, Winter 1997)
Thor Heyerdahl in Baku (AI 7:3, Autumn 1999)
Scandinavian Ancestry: Tracing Roots to Azerbaijan - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.2, Summer 2000)
Quote: Earlier Civilizations - More Advanced - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.3, Autumn 2000)
The Kish Church - Digging Up History - An Interview with J. Bjornar Storfjel (AI 8.4, Winter 2000)
Adventurer's Death Touches Russia's Soul - Constantine Pleshakov (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(9) Reflections on Life - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(10) First Encounters in the Soviet Union - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(11) Thor Heyerdahl's Final Projects - Bjornar Storfjell (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)


Much of the territory of modern Azerbaijan was once known as Caucasus Albania - not to be confused with the modern country of Albania found in the Balkans. Caucasus Albania remained a cohesive, mostly Christian, political entity in the area from the third to eighth centuries A.D. But even though the ancient Albanians were highly advanced and had their own writing system, very few remnants are left from their civilization. A few Albanian inscriptions were found in Azerbaijan in 1948-49 during an archeological excavation, but until recently, no one could figure out how to decipher them.

According to Professor Zaza Alexidze, one of the world's top experts on the Caucasus Albanian period, some amazing progress has been made on this front in the past few years. His remarkable discovery of a rare Albanian church service book even attracted the attention of the late Thor Heyerdahl, who was very interested in the possibility that the ancient Caucasus Albania region was the original home of the Scandinavian ancestor Odin. Heyerdahl, unlike many other scholars, took Odin to be a real person who migrated to the region from the Azerbaijan region, not just a mythological character.


Dr. Thor Heyerdahl was a legendary personality for the teenagers of my generation living in Georgia. We were fascinated by his books and films. I'm sure that for many of us, his example influenced our career choices and academic directions. As for me, I decided to specialize in the study of ancient texts. Today I am the Director of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Left: Thor Heyerdahl examines a text at the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia, during his September 2000 visit.
Right: Thor Heyerdahl, Thor's wife Jacqueline, and archeologist Bjornar Storfjell examine copies of the ancient Caucasus Albanian church service book at the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia.

So you can imagine my joy when I heard that Thor Heyerdahl wanted to pay a visit to the Institute of Manuscripts to see me. His visit was one of the most interesting and important days of my life.

Heyerdahl was convinced that the Scandinavian god Odin was actually a historical figure who had originated from the Caucasus and then migrated with large numbers of his people to Scandinavia. Heyerdahl's search for the traces of Odin had taken him to Azerbaijan to find out more about the Udis, a small Christian minority living there.

The Udis' ancestry and language dates back to the highly developed Caucasus Albanian population that used to live throughout the region prior to the 10th century. After that time, the Caucasus Albanian state, people and culture gradually vanished from the historical arena. Today the few thousand remaining Udis live in three villages: Nij and Oghuz (previously Vartashen) in Azerbaijan and Zinobiani in Georgia.

Important Discovery
Some scholars believed that the Caucasus Albanians in this area never had their own written language and alphabet. All known Albanian texts had been preserved only in the Armenian language.

But in 1996, I discovered an ancient manuscript that proved conclusively that Caucasus Albania once had its own highly developed written language. During an expedition to St. Catherine's monastery on Mt. Sinai in Egypt, I found a unique palimpsest, a type of parchment manuscript that has two layers of text. The top layer of text was Georgian, but beneath it was another layer - this one, written in Albanian script.

Back in the Early Middle Ages, parchment was very expensive and in great demand, so it was typical for manuscripts to be reused. In this particular manuscript, the lower Albanian text was washed away so that the 10th-century Georgian text could be written on top of it. That makes the lower-layered Albanian text very difficult and time consuming to read, but with the help of modern technology and special illumination, we can determine what it says.

When Heyerdahl visited me in Tbilisi in September 2000, he was very curious to learn more about my discovery. I showed him several photos of the palimpsest and some of the pages that I had copied from it. We had a long talk, exchanged views and spoke about future joint plans. He also visited the repository of the Institute of Manuscripts, which contains a large number of ancient manuscripts and historical documents in Georgian and many other languages.

My work of deciphering the lower layer of the Georgian-Albanian palimpsest continued until the beginning of 2001. Unfortunately, I never had another chance to see Heyerdahl, and I'm not sure if he heard about the preliminary results of my work. My upcoming book, which documents the results of deciphering the Albanian manuscript, will be dedicated to Dr. Thor Heyerdahl's sacred memory.

Ancient Lectionary
The palimpsest, as it turns out, is from a Christian Albanian lectionary, a church service book that contained a collection of liturgical lessons that were read throughout the church year and mainly consisted of readings from the Old and New Testaments. To compile a lectionary, one must first have a translation of the Bible available in that language.

This Albanian lectionary is very simplified, with only readings for 12 religious feasts along with some psalms and praises (alleluias). Unlike other ancient lectionaries, there is no evidence of a calendar system, no mention of any saints or ecclesiastical Fathers and nothing about liturgical processions to the holy places in Jerusalem and stops at relevant churches.

Traditionally within the church, lectionaries have evolved from being very simple to more and more complex. This means that in all probability, the Albanian text represents one of the first lectionaries ever written. It may even date back to the second half of the 4th century. In turn, that would mean that the written Albanian language had been created even earlier.

It's also interesting to note that some of the lessons given in the Albanian lectionary are not found in ancient Armenian and Georgian lectionaries. This may indicate that the Albanian lectionary was not translated from those other languages but was composed independently based on a Greek lectionary, which no longer exists.

Lost for Centuries
So why did the Albanian script disappear in the first place? In the 8th to 10th centuries, Arab invaders and Armenian clerics burned documents that were written in the Albanian language. The Albanian Church until around 720 AD was Diophysite, meaning that it perceived Christ as having a dual nature - both human and divine. The Armenian Church, however, was Monophysite and believed that Christ's nature was altogether divine. It wanted to stamp out any literature that was considered to be Diophysite.

From about 720 onwards, the Albanian church was strongly affected by the influence of the Monophysite Armenian Church. Albania gradually adopted the Armenian language and script, and thus, step by step, lost its national identity and written language. Up until recently, the only Albanian historical and ecclesiastical texts we had access to were translations that had been preserved in the Armenian language.

By examining the language found in the palimpsest, I discovered that the direct descendants of the Albanian people, the Udis, still speak a language that is very similar to the ancient Albanian language. Up until recently, the Udis wrote their language in the Cyrillic alphabet; now that Azerbaijan has opted for a Latin-based script, they, too, have switched to the Latin alphabet. But neither alphabet can handle the 50 or more phonemes found in the Udi language without creation of additional symbols. [As of this writing, the work on the Udi grammar has not yet been finished. Some scholars identify 52 letters, some 54, others 48]. Perhaps this new discovery will mean that the Udis can reclaim their long-forgotten alphabet once again.

Unto the Unknown
Now there is no doubt that the Caucasus Albanians once had their own written language and literature. But many questions remain: When was the Caucasus Albanian state formed on this territory? How far did it spread? How did the process of ethnic and cultural consolidation develop there?

Up until recently, the only information we had about the Albanian language came from Armenian sources. But now, this discovery will enable us to have access to less biased sources about the history of Albania, which may even reshape our ideas about ethnic origins and the history of the Albanian nation. An unknown civilization is revealing itself to us through its ancient alphabet.

Dr. Zaza Alexidze is the Director of the K. Kekelidze Institute of Manuscripts of the Georgian Academy of Science (1989-) and Head of the Armenology Department at Tbilisi State University (1979-). Contact: Dr. M. Alexidze, Institute of Manuscripts, Street 1, Bild 3, Tbilisi 380003, Georgia. Tel/Fax: (995-32) 94-25-18.


From the Caucasian Albanian text found in one of the palimpsests at the Mt. Sinai monastery (Egypt). This segment was identified by Dr. Zaza Alexidze, as II Corinthians 11:26-27 in which the Apostle Paul provides a short autobiographical summary of what he has suffered to proclaim about Christ. The Living Bible Translation reads:

(26) "I have traveled many weary miles and have often been in great danger from flooded rivers, and from robbers, and from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the hands of the Gentiles. I have faced grave danger from mobs in the cities, and from death in the deserts, and on the stormy seas, and from men who claim to be brothers in Christ, but who are not.

Right: A page of the Caucasus Albanian-Georgian palimpsest discovered by the author at Mt. Sinai. In the 10th century, the Caucasus Albanian writing was partially washed away from the parchment, and then a Georgian text was written perpendicular to it.

(27) I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. I've often been hungry and thirsty and have gone without food; often I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm."

To see Detailed Notes on the Grammar of this Biblical passage (II Corinthians 11:26-27) in Caucasian Albanian text by Dr. Zaza Alexidze, visit: www.lrz-muenchen. de/%7Ewschulze/Cauc_alb.htm#gram. To see: "A Functional Grammar of Udi" by German Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulze of the University of Munich, visit:


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