Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2003 (11.3)
Pages 58-59

Udins Today
Ancestors of the Caucasian Albanians
by Zurab Konanchev

Related Articles

1 Udi Language: Compared with Ancient Albanian - Aleksidze
2 Quick Facts: Caucasian Albanian Script - Aleksidze and Blair
3 Albanian Script: How Its Secrets Were Revealed? - Aleksidze and Blair
4 Zaza Aleksidze. Decipherer: Glimpses of Childhood - Blair
5 Caucasian Albanian Script: Significance of Dechipherment - Aleksidze
6 Udins Today: Ancestors of the Caucasian Albanians - Zurab Konanchev
7 Heyerdahl Intrigued by Rare Caucasus Albanian Text

Left: Zurab Konanchev.

One of the most fascinating aspects related to the decipherment of the Caucasian Albanian written language is that there is a living community today that still continues to speak this language. Udins, who live primarily in Azerbaijan, are the descendants of the Caucasian Albanians.

(Don't confuse Caucasian Albanians with the people and language living in the Baltics). More than 2,000 years later, despite the fact that their language has not been in a written form since, at least, the 10th century, the language still is alive. We interviewed Zurab Konanchev to learn more about the Udins of today. Zurab is the Founder of the Albanian Research Center and Deputy Chairman of the recently registered Albanian Udin Christian Community of the Azerbaijani Republic.

The discovery and decipherment of the Caucasian Albanian alphabet is an epochal event for Udins. For me, getting a chance to accompany Georgian decipherer Zaza Aleksidze and Azerbaijani historian Farida Mammadova this past May to St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai, Egypt, was an experience of a lifetime.

Left: Author Zurab Konanchev as tourist in Cairo in May 2003.

For me, an Udin and a historian just to hold that manuscript in my hands was like touching history. It's such a difficult feeling to describe. Can you imagine that more than 1,500 years ago an Albanian was sitting there writing those words? It makes you realize that history never really disappears.

The discovery and decipherment of Caucasian Albanian is such an important event for our people. It's only natural that we would be excited about it. Every group on earth wants to feel connected to their roots. Especially for us Udins, this discovery is so important as there are not many of us left.

The latest estimate of the Udin population was 8,000 (1989); today, some suggest the figure to be about 10,000. The majority of Udins live in northern Azerbaijan near Gabala in two areas. An estimated 4,000 Udins reside in the village of Nij and about 100 live in the Oghuz region. There has not been a census since the collapse of the Soviet Union, so no one is absolutely certain what the total Udin population is. A small number also live in the cities of Baku and Sumgayit. There are also small groups living in Russia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Albanians in History
Caucasian Albania was a state that existed on what is now the territory of Azerbaijan Historically, it is believed to have existed between the 4th century B.C. and 8th century A.D. From about the 4th century A.D. onward, Albanians adopted Christianity. The manuscripts written in Caucasian Albanian found at Mt. Sinai consist of an Albanian Christian Lectionary dating from about the 5th century.

Left: Zurab Konanchev and Dr. Farida Mammadova (left) accompanied the decipherer Dr. Zaza Aleksidze (right) to Mt. Sinai to St. Catherine's Orthodox Monastery to see the Caucasian Albanian scripts. Zurab is Udi, a descendent of the Caucasian Albanians.

The last Albanian Catholicos up until the Arab conquest in 703 was Orthodox. However, during the Arabs rule on the territory, the Armenian Catholicos wrote a letter to Abd-al Malik, the Arabian khalifa attacking Albanian Orthodox beliefs and accusing Albanians of fostering a friendship with Byzantium.

Since the Arabs did not have good relations with Byzantium, they gave a decree that the Albanian church would be put under the jurisdiction of the Armenian church.

Again in 1836, the Russian czar, Nicholas again put pressure on the Udins and to come under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Gregorian church. From that time onward, Udins stopped practicing Christianity. In the beginning, we were told to pray in Armenian, which we didn't understand. Then we were forbidden to visit our own churches, and Armenian churches were built next to our churches. As a result, some Udins accepted Islam, others became Gregorians by marrying Armenians, especially on the territory of Karabakh.

Since Independence
Significant changes have occurred for small minority groups since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Now they can begin to identify as an ethnic group, study their roots, reclaim their history and, in the case of Udins, become reacquainted with Christian beliefs that they once held.

Below: St. Elsey Church, an Udi Church, in Nij which is located in the north central region of Azerbaijan. The church is currently under repair.

In the early 1990s, Jora Kochari, one of the elders of the Udin community in Nij, registered a Cultural Foundation with the government. Since then, he has worked hard to produce numerous literary works in the Udi language. Since Azerbaijan has adopted Latin as their official alphabet, Udins also have based their 52-letter alphabet on Latin as well. Such nationalistic gestures would have been impossible during the Soviet period.

In addition, these days in Udin schools, children are taught the Udin language up through the fourth grade. Some community members would like to see instruction extended through the eighth grade.

Since independence, the Caucasian Albanian Research Center with the help of Udins has organized conferences such as "The History of the Caucasus". Zurab is proud that foreigners are recognizing and helping them. "At our last conference called 'Albanians in the Past and Present' that we held in May 2003, a number of scientists came from abroad. We took them to Nij. They met with the Udin people and saw the church building that we are trying to restore there. We introduced them to Udi cuisine and presented them with books in the Udi language about our folklore."

The Caucasian Research Center in conjunction with these conferences has already published two issues of the magazine "History of the Caucasus", and the third issue will be published soon.

Military Service
Not long ago, the Azerbaijani government started recruiting Udins for military service. According to Zurab, this change marks a change in policy, signifying that Azerbaijan finally recognizes the Udins as full-fledged citizens. The problem had been that many Udins had adopted Armenian family names. Because of the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenians, the Azerbaijani military did not want to recruit these Udins in military service, even though military service is required of all Azerbaijani males.

It was incomprehensible to me as a citizen of Azerbaijan not to be able to serve in the army. Every Udin must serve in the military just like any other citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Now they're recruiting everybody," notes Zurab. "But we're such a small group that we have to be concerned if they recruit all our eligible young men. Imagine the hardships on our families if 10 percent of our men were doing military service at the same time?" The Udins are trying to make the government aware of this problem.

Albanian Udin Christians
On May 26, 2003, a religious entity was formalized and registered with the government called the "Albanian Udin Christian Community of the Azerbaijan Republic". Representatives from the major faiths in Azerbaijan participated at the presentation, including some of the most important leaders of the Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Mountain Jews, European Jews and Evangelical Christian faith. Even the Bishop of the Norwegian Church, Ole D. Hagesæther, sent the Udins a letter, congratulating them on their new status.

The Udin community is eager for the rebirth of their church. "At present, we are not practicing Christianity," explains Zurab. By that, he means that the economic conditions, and the fact that they have not been practicing Christianity for the past century are the primary inhibiting factors. It's not that Christianity in Azerbaijan is against the law.

Azerbaijan's Constitution, adopted in 1995, protects all religions - Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other belief systems. The Constitution also guarantees the separation of power between Church and State.

But the Udins are realizing that Christianity requires its own infrastructure to support the community. The old church building is in such disrepair that people cannot gather there to worship. Nor do Udins have their own priests. Therefore, even the most basic ceremonies related to weddings, baptisms and funerals are not yet celebrated in the Church.

Young men must prepare themselves to become priests by studying the Gospels and enrolling in seminaries. We need competent priests who can lead our communities. Unfortunately, there are no such people now. We need the right people. We shouldn't just pick anybody. For a person to become a priest, he must have strong beliefs so that he can lead.

This process will take a lot of time. We don't want to rush the process. Then we'll need to send them to study somewhere." Already the Russian Orthodox Church has suggested that Udins could study at their seminaries in Stavropol or Moscow.

Udins feel the need to publish books in their language. "It's not just enough to translate the Gospels," he says. "You have to publish a sufficient number of copies and distribute them."

At the turn of the 19th century, an attempt had been made to re-establish reading in the Udi language in churches. Bezhanov, an Udin from Oghuz, had translated the Gospels in 1898 and published them in 1902. Of course, some of the terminology used a hundred years ago is no longer used. But Zurab is convinced these works can be revised. Jora Kochari has already translated the Gospels and linguists and philologists of Caucasian languages abroad are reviewing his translation to make sure that they adhere to the grammatical rules of the Udi language.

So we are making progress. We haven't been able to worship in our church from more than 160 years. So it's really a great achievement for us to begin to restore our community and our church and to be able to read the Gospels in our own language.

Zurab describes the many needs among the Udins - especially in the realms of economics and educational - but they all require money. Books need to be published. They'd like to get some computers for their Center and connect with the Internet. They dream of being able to offer their youth courses in computers and foreign languages.

They also have plans to work closely with other ethnic groups in Azerbaijan, especially the Mountain Jews who live near their communities. They hope to work together with Udins in Georgia and Russia in studying and documenting Udin customs.

We understand that these dreams will take a long time to realize. Our people have survived more than two millennia, so we have great hopes that these things will really take place, and that our community will be strengthened by all of these things that we are discovering about our past.

Gulnar Aydamirova also contributed to this article.

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