Autumn 2003 (11.3)
- Believers in Possibilities
by Betty Blair
As a kid, I'll never forget the many
biographies that we read at school about the great inventors
of the century. We devoured books about the Wright Brothers in
their pursuit of flight, about Alexander Bell with his telephone,
and Thomas Edison and his electric light bulb. The books were
simple, packed with anecdotes of struggle and determination.
No doubt the authors' real intention was to nudge us kids along
so that we would study harder and some day contribute something
to society ourselves.
But who are these people who make these great discoveries and
become the Pathfinders of society, challenging us to think and
act in new ways? What combination of childhood experiences, circumstances,
passionate drive and determination enabled them to give birth
to these inventions?
In this issue about Pathfinders, our primary focus is the work
of historian Zaza Alexidze and his discovery and later decipherment
of the Caucasian Albanian written script (not to be confused
with the Albania of the Baltic region). Alexidze is from Georgia;
the Caucasian Albanian language was spoken by people who lived
in the territory that is now called Azerbaijan. As so few people
in the West know about the recent decipherment of this 5th century
script, our magazine is proud to be the first international publication
in the English language to document this achievement in depth.
This past summer, we went to Tbilisi, Georgia, to meet with Alexidze
and document his story.
Deciphering an ancient alphabet is an extremely rare scientific
achievement. To our knowledge, it has happened only three times
in the past 200 years: first, with the decipherment of Egyptian
hieroglyphics on the famous Rosetta Stone by Francois Champollion
(1820s); second, with Persian cuneiform on the Behistun Cliffs
by Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1840s); and third, with archaic
Greek deciphered by Michael Ventris on the Linear B Tablets (1950s).
Historian Zaza Alexidze has spent a lifetime, studying the history
of the Caucasus, its languages, its liturgical writing traditions
and belief systems. An Academician of the Georgian Academy of
science, Alexidze is the Director of the Institute of Manuscripts
in Tbilisi. His discovery was not accidental. In fact, it could
easily be said that few, if any, scholars in the entire world
were better equipped to tackle the decipherment of this language.
A few short years ago, no one knew with absolute certainty that
the Caucasian Albanians even had a written form of their language.
No manuscripts in Caucasian Albanian had ever been found. The
Albanians date back to the 4th century B.C., and are believed
to have adopted Christianity around the 4th century A.D. at about
the same time as their neighbors - the Georgians and Armenians.
The unraveling of the mystery of this alphabet began in 1975
when a fire broke out in a sixth-century Orthodox Monastery in
the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. After the flames subsided, the
monks themselves were quite amazed to discover more than 1,000
manuscripts in a cellar room beneath the chapel floor. It seems
that in the 1700s when a new library was built, some of the manuscripts,
which had been deemed less useful, had simply been left behind
and forgotten in this earthen room.
Again, another curious fact contributed to the discovery of Albanian
text. For some unknown reason, the monks had packed down earth
on the wooden chapel floor. But when the floor collapsed during
the fire, the earth fell on top of the manuscripts and served
as a fire extinguisher to preserve the ancient text from the
It would take until 1990 - 15 years after the fire - before Alexidze
would be able to lead an expedition to Sinai after it was discovered
that there were numerous Georgian text among the unidentified
Lack of parchment became another factor that played a crucial
role in the story. During the 10th century, the scribes at the
monastery complained about the scarcity of parchment. To prepare
a 300-page manuscript required the skins of as many as 75 animals,
so when the monks were desperate for parchment, they simply recycled
the old manuscripts by scrubbing off the ink of the original
That's how the Albanian was found. It was the original text,
meaning that it was on the lower layer of a parchment that the
monks had tried to scrub off and rewrite with Georgian. Despite
how successful they had been in cleaning off the original text,
the heat from the fire made some of the letters even more visible;
otherwise, who knows when these manuscripts - which are the only
known samples of Caucasian Albanian that exist in the world -
might ever have been seen and deciphered?
The text itself turned out to be an Orthodox lectionary of the
5th century A.D., which makes it one of the oldest Lectionaries,
if not the very oldest, which exists in the world. The decipherment
of Caucasian Albanian script has enormous implications for the
geopolitics and history of the region, as well as for research
in linguistics, early Christianity and Biblical studies. Perhaps,
of even greater significance is the positive impact it is making
on the descendents of the Caucasian Albanians, the Udi people.
Today, and estimated 8,000-10,00 Udis live primarily in Azerbaijan.
No one can measure what such a discovery does to their self-esteem,
dignity and sense of worth.
The fascinating story of the decipherment of Albanian Caucasian
written script turns out to be another example of an individual
who happened to be the right person, in the right place, at the
right time, who with a bit of luck, enormous concentration and
determination, and an unwavering belief that decipherment was
possible, succeeded in doing what others could only dream of.
We hope you'll enjoy this modern saga of struggle and triumph
- the life of a Pathfinder of our times.
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