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The Mystery of Caucasian Albania

The Mystery of Caucasian Albania Fast Facts

Chairman, Center of Analysis of International Relations, Azerbaijan

Caucasian Albania in the 5th-8th C. CE, now Azerbaijan. Map from Farida Mamedova.

Throughout history, many languages have vanished. Some of these are fortunate enough to be rediscovered by chance or a dedicated researcher. One of these lost-and-found languages is Caucasian Albanian, written and spoken in the area of what is now modern-day Azerbaijan. With no relation to the modern European country of Albania on the Adriatic, the name Caucasian Albania derives from Greek historical manuscripts, and its real name is Aqhwank or Aluank. A remnant of Caucasian Albanian people exists in the form of the Udi ethnic group that resides mostly in Azerbaijan — Christians living in the heart of a Muslim-majority region in the South Caucasus on the Caspian Sea, between Russia and Iran.

Matenadaran MS 7117, a 15th Century codex with many languages of the period and region.

The study of the vanished state of Caucasian Albania resembles something of a detective story, entangled with twists and ongoing, heated debates. The story begins in 1936. Georgian scholar Ilia Abuladze, working in the Armenian archives, discovered an Albanian script in a medieval manual of languages. This manual compared several ancient languages such as Armenian, Georgian, Syriac, and others. Like the Rosetta Stone, this discovery led to the development of the historiography of Caucasian Albania.

The now-forgotten history of this state, comprising about 26 tribes, was known to ancient historians including Strabo and Pliny. However, with its language, this state slowly disappeared from the historical record. A further, quite puzzling circumstance is that no Albanian manuscripts survived in the South Caucasus; nevertheless, intriguingly, some resurfaced in Egypt.

The discovery of this unique document was made by accident in the desert mountains of Sinai, at Saint Catherine’s Orthodox Monastery, a place far remote

St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai, Wikicommons

from the Caucasus. In 1975, a devastating fire broke out in the monastery. This led to the discovery of a secret chamber full of manuscripts in Greek, Georgian, Hebrew, and Latin. Another twenty years passed until another Georgian scholar, Zaza Alexidze, was dispatched to study the Georgian texts. He suspected that the palimpsest - a document where the original script is wiped away so that the paper can be reused - concealed another language under the ashes of a later, Georgian, text. Eureka! There, indeed, was the Caucasian Albanian script, which, for some reason, the medieval monks had tried to erase. Alexidze did tremendous work deciphering what turned out to be a very early religious lectionary containing the church calendar—incidentally, one of the earliest Christian lectionaries to exist in the world today. Caucasian Albania was among the earliest entities to adopt Christianity, as long ago as the fourth century. It is around this time that the 5th-century monk and linguist, Mesrop Mashtots, created the Caucasian Albanian alphabet.

Just as the alphabet survived erasure and rewriting, and rose from the ashes of fire, Caucasian Albania’s history is undergoing a similar rediscovery. Little is known about its history before Roman rule in the First Century BCE. Greek historian Strabo wrote (1) that the country had two dozen tribes with their own leaders that were eventually subsumed under one. For a period, Albania became a vassal state of the Roman Empire, but later emerged as an offshoot of the Parthian kingdom controlled by the Arsacid dynasty. Caucasian Albania flourished from the third to eight centuries and developed its own distinct culture—a culture that did not, however, survive the medieval period.

What happened to Caucasian Albania, its church, and its language? In the seventh century, the country came under Arab rule and the Albanian church fell under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Church. In the South Caucasus, three distinct states—Armenia, Albania, and Iberia—followed different branches of Eastern Christianity. Armenians were Gregorian, following the doctrines of Monophysitism, in contrast to the beliefs of neighboring Orthodox Georgians and Eastern Romans. The Albanian Church also followed Armenian Monophysitism, believing in only one nature of Jesus—the divine. However, they were aligned with the Georgian Church through religious communion. During the Arab subjugation of Albania, the Armenian Church was preferred by Arabs because of its distinction from the Church of Rome, the source of their rivalry over territories in the Middle East. Over an extended period of time, many Albanian tribes adopted Islam, while those that adhered to Christianity were partly Armenized. These events pushed the ancient Caucasian Albanian language out of use, and it and the Caucasian Albanian culture fell away into history. As Russian scholar Timur Maisak has pointed out:

Worship in Albanian churches was completely passed into the Armenian language, and the use of non-Armenian liturgical books was suppressed. Books in Caucasian Albanian ceased to be copied, and the language itself was forgotten; manuscripts created in the V-VII [fifth-seventh] centuries were destroyed or embroidered, while text on their pages was washed out in order to write on them again in other languages.

However, an Albanian religious center maintained its independence through the Middle Ages until the Russian conquest of the region at the beginning of the nineteenth century: the monastery of Gandzasar (2), now in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Interestingly, 18th-century Russian policy makers knew about the existence of independent Caucasian Albania. For example, in designing a plan for the conquest of the Caucasus, prince Grigory Potemkin (1739–1791; a favorite of Empress Catherine the Second), proposed the creation of Armenia and Albania as two separate vassal entities subordinated to the Russian throne.

Interest in the history of Caucasian Albania has resurfaced in the twentieth century but, unfortunately, became hostage to toxic debates caused by the Armenian–Azerbaijan conflict: specifically, Armenia has claimed territory in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which has an Armenian population and is considered in both countries as an important place for historical and cultural identity of the two modern nations - Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In Armenia, historians claim that Albania was an insignificant territory (history-wise), but it constituted a part of ancient Armenia. In Azerbaijan, scholars believe that Caucasian Albania was an independent state. Emotive language and nationalist rhetoric (3) have negatively influenced the current historiography of Caucasian Albania, which still awaits a full and impartial rediscovery.


Do Your Own Research



(1) “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. They have twenty‑six languages, because of the fact that they have no easy means of intercourse with one another. The country produces also certain of the deadly reptiles, and scorpions and phalangia.” - Strabo

(2) No other Caucasian Albanian documents survived in those areas, which were under the Armenian church.

(3) Armenian expert Henrik Bakhchinyan opines that Azerbaijani theory of Caucasian Albania originated "specially among the parasitic Turkic tribes that sought to establish themselves as ancient and cultural peoples by plundering the history and culture of other nations (mostly Armenians)."



Primary sources (online):

Secondary literature (online):

Ronald Suny, What Happened in Soviet Armenia, Middle East Report, No. 53, 1988, Ronald G. Suny: What Happened in Soviet Armenia? on JSTOR

Map from: Farida Mamedova. Caucasian Albania and Albanians, Baku, 2005.

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