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Decline of Albania

Apparently, the ethno-political situation in Albania was pretty complicated in the early middle ages. The majority of Albanians were Christians, but the minority kept their loyalty to the paganism. However, Turks that settled in Albania only partially adopted Christianity. There were a lot of representatives of other religions in Albania: fire-worshippers lived in the zone near the Caspian Sea, but in the north part of the population stuck to Judaism.

This mixed ethnic and religious character of Albania was affected during the invasion of Albania by the Arabs in the seventh century. That was a tragic period in the history of Albania the echo of which reaches the present, as the dominance of the religious interests over ethnic ones was characteristic of the Middle Ages. Each person, and correspondingly, each nation was involved to a certain degree in “its own world” and in “the world of the unfaithful.” The conversion to another faith meant going over to another world of values and the rejection one‟s own nation. That is, if a Greek adopted Islam, then his compatriots and his entourage perceived him as a Muslim even if he continued to speak his own language and considered himself a Greek. Apostasy was perceived very negatively and, as a rule, was punished by death. Mixed marriages between observers of different religions were almost nonexistent, as, in that case, one of the spouses had to reject his own faith.

That is why the medieval chroniclers placed a special emphasis on the religious, not the ethnic, origins of inhabitants of this country or that. It was mentioned directly in an essay by George Merchul, a Georgian author of the tenth century, that Georgia was considered a land where the church service was held in the Georgian language. Naturally, the countries in which the church service was held in the Armenian language were considered by his contemporaries a part of Armenia, although ethnically they might not be Armenians; but politically that was another case.

At that period of time, conversion to another path or sect, even within the framework of a common religion, was considered a break with one‟s own nation. In that respect, the destiny of those Armenians who, in the middle ages, repudiated the “national” monophysitism and became Orthodox was noteworthy. If those Armenians adhered to the Georgian orientation, their compatriots and entourage immediately called them “Ivers” (i.e. Georgians), but if they stuck to the Byzantine one, “Tsats” ( i. e Greeks). Meanwhile, nobody doubted that they were Armenians in origin and language, but nonetheless, because of their belonging to another religion, they were not recognized as “their own Armenians.” As time went by, those Armenians forgot their native language and de-ethnicised and became Greeks or Georgians.

The above- mentioned processes took place in Azerbaijan as well. The destiny of Tats is particularly noteworthy in that respect. That Persian-speaking nation was known in Azerbaijan since the early middle ages. After the conquest of the country by Arabs in the seventh century, the Tats were divided into three groups according to their religion. The first one, and the most numerous, adopted Islam and today actually became part of the Azeri ethnos. Another one living in the northeast of Azerbaijan adopted Judaism together with the Turkish speaking Hazars and today have assimilated with Jews and are called “mountain Jews.” The third, the least numerous group of Tats, adopted Christianity of the monophysite direction which made them closer to Armenians. In the early nineteenth century they lived in K hachmaz, in the settlements K ilvar (modern Devichi district) and Madrasa (Shemakha district), having kept themselves as a distinct ethnicity. However, the number of Armenians that moved there then increased and that considerably accelerated the process of Armenisation among Tats. “As a result, by the end of 1920 about 90 percent of K ilvar inhabitants spoke Armenian, although they spoke the Tat language with each other, but in Armenian with the newly-arrived Armenians. The young people who left for seasonal jobs in Baku mainly spoke Armenian.” The same process of Armenisation knew the Tat language” . In soviet times, that group of Tats was completely Armenianised and when the Karabakh conflict flared up in 1988, they were perceived by those around them as Armenians and soon left Azerbaijan for Armenia and Russia.

The destiny of the Albanians turned out to be more tragic, particularly after the invasion of the country by Iran. According to the Armenian historian Sebeos (VI c.), the ruler of the Albanian area Sunik (modern Zangezur), which was a part of Armenia at that time, “rebelled and separated from Armenia and asked the Persian king Hosrov that the archives of Sunik land be moved from Dvin to the city of Paytakaran (Baylakan) and that their city be included within the borders of Atrpatakana (South Azerbaijan). Thus, the name of Armenians would be taken away from them. The order was implemented”. After the Arab invasion of Albania, most of the population adopted Islam and a small number kept their loyalty to their religion. Afterwards, Muslim Albanians assimilated, having become a part of the Azeri ethnos. However, Muslim Albanians who became Turkish remembered their origins for a long period of time. In 1961 in the late Azeri village of Urud situated in the modern Sisian district of Armenia (historically Sunik), a headstone, dated 1578, was found on which was written in the Azeri language “Iftikhar from the generation of Albanians” (“ovlade agvan”).

However, the fate of the Christian-Albanians was different. A small number of them living in the northwest of Albania who stuck to the diphysite doctrine became Georgians in the course of time. The majority of them, primarily those living in Karabakh, stuck to monophysitism and were perceived by those around them as Armenians, which was reflected in the works of Armenian and Muslim medieval authors.

However, the Christian population of Karabakh remembered their past for a long time and continued their struggle for the reestablishment of an independent Albania. According to the information of Moses from Kalankatuk, in 866 the Albanian prince Grigory Hamam “restored the abrogated realm of Albania as Ashot Bagratuni had restored that of Armenia. These things were done simultaneously” (32). But soon that state was defeated by the Arabs. However, the Albanians managed to keep partial independence in mountainous Artsakh. The Khachen princedom arose in the twelfth century and reached its peak in the thirteenth century during the reign of Hasan Djalal, who assumed the title “the king of Albania.” Between 1216 and 1238, he built the now- famous Gandzasars temple in Karabakh. It was then that Gandzasar became the center of the Albanian church and residence of its Catholicos. Even having lost its political independence in the fifteenth century, the descendents of the Djalalids remained members of the higher orders of clergy among the Christians of Albania.

All that delayed the process of de-ethnisation of the Christians of Albania. It was not by accident that Muslim authors of the tenth and eleventh centuries (Masudi, Istakhri, Mukaddasi, Yakut and others) mentioned that the majority of the population of Azerbaijan spoke the“Azeri language” while in Arran and particularly around the city of Barda in the “Arrani language.” Meanwhile, the “Arrani” language differed sharply from the Armenian language, which according to the Muslim authors of the Middle Ages, people spoke in neighboring Armenia (33). Thus, despite the expanded Armenisation, Islamisation and Turkisation of Karabakh in the middle ages, the local Christian-Albanians managed to preserve their ethnicity. In that respect, it is noteworthy to mention the indication of thirteenth century Armenian historian K irakos Gandzaketsi that he considered it necessary to include a chapter about Albania and its population in his “History of Armenia,” “as of our congeners and coreligionists and as their leaders were Armenian-speaking many of them spoke Armenian” and that is why “it is necessary to speak about two nations together”. In other words, even at the end of the thirteenth century only representatives of the nobility knew the Armenian language among the Albanians in Karabakh.

The turning point happened at the end of the fourteenth century when the South Caucasus time, Armenian poet Grigor Khlatetsi wrote in 1422 that the troops of Tamerlane “entered the country of the Albanians from Ararat land” where they organized a wild pogrom that turned Karabakh “into a desert”. Tamerlane resettled thousands of the surviving Albanians in the territory of modern Afghanistan, where they later adopted Islam. That tragedy was so well remembered in Karabakh that even in the early eighteenth century Albanian Catholicos Yesai Hasan Djalalyan recalled it, pointing out that Tamerlane then moved out a considerable number of Albanians from Karabakh to “Horasan and Kandagar,” and even considered the offspring of resettled Albanians as Afghans.

If we take into account that the realm of Khachen ceased to exist at that time, it is clear that the Albanians who escaped the pogrom of Tamerlane‟s troops had few chances to preserve their ethnicity. The religious expansion of the Armenian Catholicos, which aimed to supplant the Albanian one, was strengthened all the more. The struggle between Armenian and Albanian churches was long and aggravated. In 1750, the Armenian Catholicos Lazar even sent out an official document to Armenian communities, including those in Russia, in which, returning to the times of Tamerlane, he particularly mentioned that then “the whole Agvan nation young and old, grandee and beggar, was picked up and settled together with their prisoners inland of Horasan and beyond Kabul to Kandahar, while some Armenians settled in the new sacred capital Djuga, in Fahrabad, in Hamadan in the Mazandaran district, but the Agvan people who were resettled in the area of Kandahar, while living with the Persians there, became accustomed to their disposition…” Thus, if to be brief, our speech only concerns those sitting in Gandzasar and called Agvan. The Catholicos grazed the local population, Armenians, not Agvans, in origin, our nation, not theirs and they‟ve been governing them until today mutinously…” (37). The argument of the Armenian Catholicos, as we see, is simple: Albanians were driven out but the Christians currently living in Karabakh were Armenians who were headed by the Albanian Catholicos in disobedience to Echmiadzin.

However, despite all that, the Albanians of Karabakh still kept their ethnic identity even at that period of time. Thus, it was said in a famous letter prepared by Karabakh Udins in 1724 and addressed to Peter I: “We, Agvans and Utians by nation”.

The outcome came at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the South C aucasus was invaded by Russia. The latter counted on the support of the Armenians in its foreign political interests in the Caucasus and that is why they made a number of concessions to them. In 1836, according to the Provision on the Armenian Church, the Albanian Catholicos was abolished and the areas dependent on it were subordinated to the Echmiadzin Catholicos. In 1857, the concepts “Albanian church”and “Albanian eparchy” were cancelled altogether.

Thus, the history of Albania ended. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russian publicist and historian V.A. Velichko, quite familiar with the realities of the Caucasus, exactly described it: “The issue of Caucasus Albania, or Agvania in Armenian, is very interesting. That country which included the current Elizavetpol province and parts of Tiflis province and Dagestan was populated by nations of non Armenian origins… A separate Agvan or Gandzasar Catholicos, which competed with the Echmiadzin one, and which, from time to time was independent from the latter one, existed until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Currently the Christians who were once a congregation of Agvan Catholicos are considered Armenians and, having mixed with them, they assimilated their character”.


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