Udi Christians and their ties to the ancient Christian Albanians

caucasian albania

By | Rachel Brooks

January 25, 2021 

Above, an image of an ancient Caucasian Albanian church. Fair use. 

In the world of Christianity, there has been a long-running debate over the original state adoption of the religion. Armenia commonly announces itself as the first state adopter of Christianity, building its national church in the 300CE era, at the inspiration of St. Gregory the illuminator. Some have politically argued that it was, in fact, Syria that first adopted Christianity as its state religion. 

With ancient records disputing a common ancestor among Armenians and Syrians, and with the politics of early Christianity, the debate over the origins of the faith comes down to an argument where lines as fine as hair are blurred. 

The Armenian church broke ties with the Eastern Orthodox Church. This church shares denominations with Russian Orthodox, and the ancient church of the Udi Christians, who are a major ethnic group of the ancient Christan Albanians. Politics among the church led to a schism between the different sects, making Armenian, Russian, and Christian Albanians distinct faith groups. For example, Christian Albanians did not have priests to the same capacity that the other faith groups have today. 

During the Republic Underground Roundtable event, a Russian Orthodox priest in Azerbaijan, special guest Elnur Afandiyev, stated that most of the Albanian church was Armenized in the 19th Century. The churches of Orthodoxy and Armenia have a decided difference, having split roughly 1,500 years ago, over complicated relations. They share the same holy books and tradition but do not have fellowship. 

One of the first Christian structures in recorded history comes from the Udi era of Eastern Christianity. The Church of Kish, which is located near the city of Sheki in Azerbaijan, was erected in the First Century and has since been restored many times. 

Udi people, Caucasian Albanians, and a history of dialectal identifiers  

The Udi people of the Caucasus descended from the Albanian ethnic group. They speak a unique dialect of Persian. The language has been watered down over the years. From the research of Wolfgang Schulze, in Endangered Languages of the Caucasus and Beyond, the Udi language of modern history is localized mostly in Nij, a township in Northwestern Azerbaijan. The language of Udis is complicated by the influence of the Azerbaijani language, which is a primary influence of the people. 

In further detail, Schulze states that Udi is a Southeast Caucasian language that’s direct ancestor is Christian Albanian. Udi has since borrowed from the three major influences of the Medieval Caucasus, taking foreign language influence from Old Armenian and Oghuz Turkic dialect of Azerbaijani, with its Persian markers coming from Northwest Iranian and Southwest Iranian dialects. The influence of Persian and other Caucasian languages set Udi apart from Lezgian languages, citing Schulze. 

Schulze gives the origins of Christian Albanians as a race of the Transcaucasian region, “the core of which can roughly be associated with the Northern Azerbaijan regions left of the river Kura.” He also wrote that the Caucasian Albanians existed as a political power in the 2nd century BC. They appeared as a result of the wars between “ Arsacid Mithridates II and the Armenian king Artavazd I,” citing Schulze. Schulze quoted the scholar Strabo in a history of their origin. Schulze paraphrases Strabo as follows: 

“Their kings, also, are excellent. At the present time, indeed, one king rules all the tribes, but formerly the several tribes were ruled separately by kings of their own according to their several languages.”32 Else, nothing precise is known about this process that ended up in a more or less stable political unit being around 70 BC. Nevertheless, after Pompeius had defeated the Albanian king Oroezes (or: Orodes) in 65 BC, Albania became a vassal or protectorate of the Roman empire, still under obvious cultural impact from Parthia. This vassalage lasted roughly 300 years, interrupted by periods of closer ties to the Parthian empire. But the consolidation as a more or less independent political unit ended under the rule of the Arsacids. What has been described by Toumanoff for Armenia grosso modo holds for Caucasian Albania, too…”

Schulze then describes that the process of Caucasian Albanian political development in the region happened when the region was conquered by the Sassanid regime. This was between 252-253 AD. Ancient Albania then became a Sassanid satrapy.  

The Caucasian Albanian language has been preserved from the 6th-7th Centuries, but their culture is still only vaguely understood. This is partly due to the Armenization of their culture, and the Soviet Union’s influence. In the 1950s, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society published a review of the recently discovered alphabet for Caucasian Albanian. The alphabet of the Aluank’, was, according to the researcher Korwin developed by St. Mesrop. For 1,500 years before that, no confirmation of the alphabet was unique to the other languages of the region. 

Russian language research of Caucasian Albania’s influence on culture today 

Review of the culture of ancient Caucasian Albanians has existed in terms of language, alphabet research and archaeological finds. One such example is the complete peer-reviewed study of a gem-seal that could have belonged to one of two of the catholicos of Albania: Panta or Zapharia. The gem-seal in question is a “noteworthy element” for the study of cultural and political relations between the Iranians and Albanians of long ago. The study was written by the researcher Gadzhiev M.S. as part of a much larger collection of research into the culture of the long-ago Caucasian Albanians, who had a firm presence in Dagestan as well as Azerbaijan.

Religious philosophy of the Medeival Christian Azerbaijan 

A brief review of Caucasian Albanian Christianity on the Religion Wikia project, which is a collection of research sources on the subject of Caucasian Albanian history,  the Church of Kish is known as the Church of St. Elisaeus. The wiki’s description reads as follows:

According to a local tradition, Christianity entered Caucasian Albania in the first century through St. Elisæus, a disciple of St. Thaddeus of Edessa. St. Elisæus was ordained bishop by James the Just in Jerusalem, and travelled eastward through Persia to preach Christianity in the land of the Maskout, one of the Caucasian Albanian tribes (hypothetically related to the ancient Massagetae of Central Asiatoday commonly believed to be the Church of Kish north of Shaki, Azerbaijan. The church founded by St. Elisæus was regarded by Caucasian Albanians as their “mother-church” that laid the foundation of institutionalised Christianity in the kingdom.

The Wiki project likewise states that the Caucasian Albanian king Urnayr made a pilgrimage to Armenia to receive baptism from St. Gregory the Illuminator. This shows that, while the Armenian Church and the Caucasian church once had a pronounced tie to each other, they were unique entities. The relationship continued until roughly 590, when the Caucasian Albanian church established its own ordained patriarchy ordained separately from Armenian catholicos. This continued until approximately 709, when the Caucasian Albanian’s autocephaly was abolished, citing the religious wiki project. The Caucasian Albanian church existed as a unique entity until, according to this religious project, it was abolished by Russian authorities in circa 1828. The Religion Wikia noted that the Russian conquest of Karabakh region led to the direct abolition of the church’s influence in the region, citing assorted works written from the Russian perspective and even those with polticized bias.

Research conducted in Russian also follows the history of Christianity in Medeival Azerbaijan. These reports give credence to the findings of the Religion Wikia project, in terms of verifying findings on the Caucasian Albanian ties to Nestorian doctrine.  Reports written by Sara Kasumova detail the history of southern Azerbaijan, and the presence of the Christian Nestorian church in that region. Translated into English, the article’s description reads as follows:

The article deals mainly with the southern part of Azerbaijan , since we are talking about the Christian Nestorian Church, which received special development and distribution here. This is evidenced by the presence on this territory of a large number of ecclesiastical and administrative units from bishoprics to metropolises. The most interesting moments in the history of Christianity in Azerbaijan fall on the millennium from the 4th century to the first quarter of the 14th century. One of the prominent Nestorian Catholicos was Timothy I, known for his restructuring of the church and the development of missionary work. The period of activity of the Nestorian Catholicos Mar Yabalakhi III in Azerbaijan is also interesting.

This research into the philosophy of Nestorian Christians in the Eastern Church during the Caucasian Albanian influence of Azerbaijan’s Christian history gives us some ideas on the ideological development of the Caucasian Albanians at that time.

Regarding Caucasian Albanian, and its modern influences on local languages, in the years since the Royal Asiatic Society documented the discovery of the Caucasian Albanian alphabet, documentation emerged likewise of Udi dialects. A scientific article, written by Maysak Timur Anatolievich in Russian in 2016, reflected upon the Perfect and Aorist variants found in the Nij dialect of the Udi language. In this article, Udi, the modern descendant language of the Caucasian Albanian language, is described as the Lezghin group of the Nakh-Dagestan family. In 2017, the same author followed up on Udi language research looking into the personal agreement of the Udi language. This article notes that the Udi language bears some similarities to the other language families of the region it belongs to, particularly Persian and Azerbaijani, but is itself an unrelated language to these.