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Kafkas Albanyası Alfabesi Üzerine Bilimsel Araştırma -Makaleler
 
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Kafkas Albanyası Alfabesi Üzerine Bilimsel Araştırma -Makaleler





The Albanian Script
The Process - How Its Secrets Were Revealed
by Zaza Alexidze and Betty Blair
Also spelled Zaza Aleksidze

Article translated into Romanian by Alexander Ovsov.
Related Articles
1 Caucasian Albanian Alphabet: Ancient Script Discovered in the Ashes - Zaza Alexidze and Betty Blair
2 Udi Language: Compared with Ancient Albanian - Alexidze
3 Quick Facts: Caucasian Albanian Script - Alexidze and Blair
4 Zaza Alexidze. Decipherer: Glimpses of Childhood - Blair
5 Caucasian Albanian Script: Significance of Dechipherment - Alexidze
6 Udins Today: Ancestors of the Caucasian Albanians - Zurab Konanchev
7
Heyerdahl Intrigued by Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Alexidze

Decipherment is always a long tedious process. In the case of the Caucasian Albanian written language, the span of time between when the script was first seen (though not yet identified) until the first word was deciphered took 11 years. Of course, not all that time was spent trying to crack the code. The most time-consuming problem involved just being able to see and make out the shape of the letters. But it was the accumulation of a lifetime of study of ancient languages and scripts, church history and Caucasian studies that enabled Zaza Alexidze to crack the code.

Here Azerbaijan International's Editor Betty Blair interviews Dr. Zaza Alexidze, Director of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia, about the process he used to go about deciphering the Caucasian Albanian written script.

It's not everyday that someone stumbles upon an ancient writing system that has not yet been deciphered. Over the course of history, it has only happened a few times. Back in the 1820s, there was the Rosetta Stone with Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the 1830s, the Behistun Inscription that was carved on cliff rocks in cuneiform in what is present-day Iran turned out to be Old Persian. Most recently in 1952, clay tablets known as Linear B, discovered on the island of Crete, were identified as Mycenaean Greek. So, tell us, in the larger scope of world discoveries, where does your work with the Caucasian Albanian written language fit in?

Left: Zaza Alexidze, decipherer of the Caucasian Albanian written script, at home in Tbilisi, Georgia. Dr. Alexidze is the director of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi.

These early giants who revealed the secrets of these ancient scripts paved the way for all of us who follow. Their contribution is immeasurable. I remember as a child, reading about French scholar Jean-Francoise Champollion [1790-1832] and the Rosetta Stone and the strategy he used to figure out the meaning of hieroglyphics.

When it comes to my work with the Caucasian Albanian written language and script (which, by the way, should not be confused with the language and modern country of Albania located in the Balkans), this is the first time in history that the person who discovered the text went on to decipher it as well. If I'm not mistaken, never before has the same person carried out this work from beginning to end.

Of course, in the case of each of these ancient scripts, there were differences in the difficulties that each of us faced, as well as differences in the experiences and knowledge that we each brought to the task.

How's that?

Well, both the Rosetta Stone and Behistun Inscription appeared on monuments in parallel trilingual texts. That gave the decipherers a tremendous advantage because they could work from the known languages to the unknown. The Rosetta Stone [now on display in London's British Museum] included three scripts - hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian (a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics) and Greek - all identical texts, in succession. But since the three scripts represented only two languages - Greek and Egyptian, the task of deciphering the one unknown written form - hieroglyphics - though challenging, was not impossible. I'm not belittling the formidable task of decipherment of hieroglyphics, but the task was clearly defined from the beginning.

Below: The Caucasian Albanian script found at Mt. Sinai, Egypt dates from the 5th century and was found on a palimpsest, meaning that the original parchment had been reused for a second text. Monks had tried to clean off the original 5th century Albanian text and useit again in the 10th century for Georgian. Note that the Albanian script is vertical on the page while Georgian is horisontal. The Albanian text in the left photo taken with ordinary lighting is barely visible, while the right photo taken with ultraviolet lighting reveals the Albanian more clearly.
 
 


The work of Britisher Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson [1810-1895] on the Behistun Cuneiform also dealt with three parallel scripts. Of course, he had to get close enough to the cliffs and do some serious rock climbing, hanging from suspended ropes 500 feet above the ground, just to copy down the scripts. But again the task involved comparative analysis. This time there was three, not two, separate languages. Again, he moved from the known cuneiform scripts of Elamite and Babylonian to the unknown one which represented what is now called Old Persian.

Britisher Michael Ventris [1922-1956] had a much more difficult job working on Linear B because he had no parallel bilingual or trilingual texts with which to compare his work. He was extremely handicapped because he had only one script. By inventing an elaborate scheme of statistical analysis, he was able to determine the sound values of the shapes of the letters, and identify the language as Mycenaean Greek. His work was brilliant.

With Albanian, I was also dealing with only one script. I had to create my own "bilingual text", so to speak. Drawing upon years of knowledge of other languages and other writing traditions, I tried to create some "knowns" from which to launch my investigation. My job was made easier when I could identify the language as Albanian because descendents of these people - the Udins - are alive today, residing primarily in Azerbaijan. Despite the possible 1,500-year gap between the sample of written script from which I was working and the language as it is spoken today, they were close enough to suggest some clues.

Below: Caucasian Albanian Alphabet. A comparison of the Albanian script as depicted in the 15th century Armenian manuscript (left columns) with the Albanian script found in the Sinai palimpsests (right columns). The Armenian manuscript had many errors which were very misleading in the decipherment process. At least 19 of the 52 letters (nearly 40 percent) were not found written the same way in the Sinai palimpsests.
 
 
 
 


I might point out one other significant difference related to these famous discoveries. All these other texts were preserved as monuments; either in polished stone, natural rock cliffs, or clay tablets. In the case of Albanian, I was dealing with manuscripts made of parchment. But the Albanian script (possibly dating to the 5th century) had later been overwritten with another script - Georgian (possibly during the 10th century), making it incredibly difficult to see the shapes of the original Albanian letters. Specialists call such manuscripts, "palimpsests", a word derived from Greek, meaning, "to cook again".

Like "recycling?" Using the parchments more than once?

Exactly. If scribes ran out of parchment, in desperation they sometimes scrubbed off the ink from earlier texts and reused the parchment.

In some of the colophons [personal commentaries that were written in the margins and at the end of manuscript], some scribes complained about the lack of parchment at Sinai in the 10th century. Obviously, when choosing which manuscripts to recycle, it must have been a painful decision for them, knowing the tedious and artistic work that had gone into creating such volumes. After all, there were no printing presses in those days; the only existing documents were all copied by hand.

Nevertheless, the scribes had little choice but to identify the manuscripts whose contents were among those considered least useful. They don't mention this decision-making process, but we can see from the results that the manuscripts that were overwritten were those that no longer had readers at the monastery (like the Albanian), or were outdated ideologically or liturgically. In some cases, newer translations had been made, rendering the older texts no longer necessary.


Comparing Alphabets: Albanian and Others

Curiously, the Albanian alphabet with its 52 letter has many letters that resemble other alphabets, specifically Georgian (19 letters), Ethiopian (14 letters) and Armenian (10).





 





 
 
 

It seems they did a thorough job when it came to "wiping the slate clean" of the early Albanian text.

Unfortunately, they succeeded quite well in cleaning off the Albanian text, which has made my task of decipherment extremely difficult. Once this manuscript was discovered, the majority of my time on these working expeditions to St. Catherine's Monastery in 1996 and 2000 was spent just trying to figure out the actual shapes of these letters. I'm sure that back in the 10th century, those monks never dreamed that they were wiping out the only evidence that would exist for the Albanian written language 1,000 years later.

What was their ink made of? How can it be that 1,500 years after these pages were originally written that it's still possible to read these texts even though scribes tried to wipe off all trace of ink from the pages? How is it possible that they can even be seen today?

The monks used what is known as Ferro-gallic ink, which is extremely permanent as well as being water insoluble. The most important components of the ink include the organic extract of tannins (Gallo tannic acid), ferric sulfate and the binder, gum Arabic. The ink is so strong that it permeates into the pores of the parchment. That's why the scribes could never totally succeed in erasing all trace of the original ink when they were preparing to re-use the parchment for new texts.

In fact, scribes traditionally used a pumice stone to scrub the parchment and to try to remove the ink from the pores. Nevertheless, a very thin, rather invisible layer of ink still penetrated the pores of parchment. Curiously, over the course of time, under the natural conditions of dust, moisture and light, the iron oxidizes and the ink that has been "washed off" becomes even more visible. Ironically, the fire at St. Catherine's Monastery also accelerated this process. In other words, the intensity of the heat from the fire helped to make the letters even more visible.

It seems these manuscripts required a lot of parchment. Unlike contemporary authors, the monks couldn't just hop in a car and go out to a stationery shop and buy a ream of paper whenever they needed to copy a book.

Consider the Georgian-Albanian palimpsests found at Sinai. There are 300 pages that exist. This means that the original Albanian manuscript containing the Lectionary required 75 folios (29.5cm x 22.4cm). To produce one single folio (one page folded in half to provide four pages) required the skin of one sheep. So imagine how many skins were needed to produce a whole book consisting of several hundred pages! It's easy to see why the monks were complaining about lack of parchment.

Old Georgian and Armenian manuscripts describe the complexity and the difficulty of acquiring so much parchment for books. Sometimes the scribes even mention the exact price that they paid for the parchment.

The state and church were rich enough to use parchment like that for manuscripts, which, in turn was indicative of the importance of the written language in the life of the country.

Left: Alexidze realized that a certain passage in the Albanian palimpsest repeated the same word nine times in close succession. This led to its decipherment. He knew the Biblical passage was from Apostle Paul's letters to Christians in Corinth. This passage is from II Corinthians 11:26-27. The repeated word turned out to be MARAKESUNUKH which means "I was persecuted".

It's a good thing we can rely on computers and paper today. I'm sure animal rights activists would have something to say about the use of parchment if we had to butcher 100 sheep just to copy a single book.


Multiply that need for parchment by the hundreds of manuscripts in monasteries and other libraries. It must have been a terribly expensive and involved process.

But on the manuscript where the Georgian letters overlap the Albanian script, it must have been very difficult to see the original letters.

It helped that the Georgian letters had been written perpendicular to the earlier Albanian lines. But, in fact, only where the Albanian characters extended beyond the Georgian script in the center of the page (in other words, parallel to the spine where the manuscript was sewn together as a book) could the Albanian letters be seen without too much difficulty. But this text was usually limited to one or two lines per page. Actually, the majority of Albanian letters were extremely difficult to see with the naked eye. And yet even the eye could better discern these letters than photographs that were taken under ordinary conditions.

So how did you manage to figure out the shapes of the letters?

It wasn't easy and I still haven't completely solved this problem. In 1996 I began using an ultraviolet lamp that they had there at Sinai. Actually, it's quite a fascinating story. Ultraviolet light is not very effective unless you work in a darkened room. But the only "dark room" at St. Catherine's was the lavatory. Desperate to read the manuscripts, I used to go in there, lock the door, sit down on the commode and start copying. There was no table in that cramped space so it turned out to be quite a balancing act to rest the manuscript on my lap, hold the ultraviolet lamp in my left hand, and meticulously copy the shape of each letter onto a pad with my right hand.

That's what I did, hour after hour, day after day, even weeks. In 2000, my working conditions were better and within less than three weeks, I managed to recopy nearly all the text that was visible under the ultraviolet lamp. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that working with ultraviolet light, even for a short time, could be so dangerous. As a result, I've seriously damaged my left eye.

But, to tell you the truth, if someone were to ask me today whether I would do it again, I'm sure I wouldn't hesitate - especially if there were no other ways to view the texts there at Sinai. Paving a new way in science is always difficult, but if you manage to succeed, the result is so exhilarating that you soon forget all the difficulties that you've gone through.

Left: Page from the 15th century Armenian manuscript which compared Armenian with other known alphabets. Here the red indicates the Armenian pronounciation of the Albanian letter which is written above it.

But except for the scripts being written on top of each other, these manuscripts were in quite good physical condition. Right?


No, not really. Keep in mind that in addition to the fire damage around the edges of many of the pages, the manuscripts had been stored away and neglected, forgotten along with about 1,100 other manuscripts for possibly 200-250 years. One of the two palimpsests that contained the Albanian script, had been severely damaged by fire. In fact, the intense heat had made the pages clump together like stone.
Both on the 1994 and 1996 expeditions to Egypt, we brought conservators from Georgia who used their expertise to soften the pages. They had to take care that the parchment would not get torn or damaged in any way and that the faint trace of ink would not be further obliterated. Their proficiency enabled us finally to open the volumes, turn the pages and study the contents.

It's really quite a miracle that the manuscripts weren't totally destroyed by fire.

Exactly. It's really amazing! If the wooden floorboards in the chapel had not been covered with earth that they had packed down, perhaps when the floor collapsed on top of the manuscripts, everything would have been totally burned and turned into ash, destroying all trace of the Albanian alphabet! We would never even have known that such documents even existed. But that's Sinai for you - Mountain of Miracles - famous as the site where the Bible says God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

The fact that so many of the parchment pages melted and stuck together like a rock (17 palimpsests) indicates that they had been exposed to intense heat. It's amazing that the pages of parchment had not burned.

In addition, here and there, it seems some insects and mice had made an expedition to Sinai before I did.

Like, "Whoa Mouse! You just chewed some of the letters of one the rarest alphabets on Earth!"

It will probably take us a long time to identify the letters that were nibbled away. We're left with blank spaces instead of letters within quite a few words.

There's another important factor that contributed to the decipherment process. The first time I ever saw this unknown alphabet was on the last day of our expedition in December 1990. In one of the several palimpsests in the collection, I saw a new script. I wasn't able to identify its strange shapes. I made a note to myself, wondering if it might be Ethiopian.

Then in December 1994, again, on the last day a few hours before we were to leave, the conservators brought me one of the manuscripts that originally had "fossilized" from the heat. They had finally managed to open the pages. Again, I recognized those strange letters that I had seen in 1990-again, I saw the script that I thought might be Ethiopian.

I didn't have time to copy any of those letters down as we were rushing out the door for the journey back home. All I could do in those few moments was try to fix some of their shapes in my mind.

Even while I was still there in Mt. Sinai, it began to dawn on me that this unknown script, with its similarity to both Georgian and Armenian, might, indeed, be Albanian. Archaeologists digging in Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, in the late 1940s had found some Albanian inscriptions. There were short inscriptions on the cornices of buildings, candlesticks and ceramics, but to this day they have not been successfully deciphered. But as no one had ever seen a text of any serious length, some specialists in Caucasian studies were starting to doubt that Albanian really had a written form.

 
 
 

Above: (from left to right) 1. capitol with Albanian script found in Mingachevir, Azerbaijan. 2. Abbreviation for Jesus Christ, composed of first and last letters of each word: YS KS (Yesus Kristos). 3. The first word that Alexidze deciphered: TH-E-S-A-L-O-N-I-K-E.

A manuscript of the 15th century of an Armenian grammar had been found by Georgian Ilia Abuladze in 1937. The manuscript illustrated what some of the alphabets in the region looked like, including: Greek, Syriac, Latin, Georgian, Coptic, Arabic, as well as Albanian. The following year, Akaki Shanidze would publish his findings that the Albanian written language was related to the Udin language. In 1956, A. Kurdyan ound another copy of this same Armenian text in a manuscript in California.

Since Georgian and Armenian studies are my specialty, I was familiar with that document. When I started to recall some of the shapes that I had seen on the palimpsest at Sinai, I gradually became convinced that truly this unknown text was Albanian. But I told no one, except my family. I wanted to be sure. Unfortunately, it would take two more years before I could return to Egypt again and confirm my intuitions.

But with a copy of the Armenian manuscript in hand which showed the Albanian letters, your job of decipherment was simplified. Yes?

The Armenian manuscript both facilitated my work and complicated it at the same time. The scribe, it turns out, neither knew the Albanian language nor its script. He was merely copying it down the best he could. So when he wasn't sure about the shapes of some of the letters, he had the tendency to make them look more like something he was familiar with. It was only natural. In other words, he "Armenianized" the Albanian alphabet-making the letters look more like the Armenian letters that he knew. Consequently, he introduced errors.

In addition, later I discovered that the he had assigned the wrong Armenian sounds (phonemes) to nine letters (graphemes). And he had suggested 10 additional letters that did not even appear in the Albanian palimpsests that I found in Sinai. So, all in all, errors had been introduced for 19 letters. Albanian has at least 52 letters. That means that nearly 40 percent of the letters were wrongly identified in the 15th century Armenian manuscript.

With so many errors, the challenge for me was to determine which letters, if any, were correct. I couldn't believe that every single one of them could be wrong. I was determined to see if I could figure out at least one single word in the Albanian script using the Armenian manuscript as my guide. And I finally managed to find one single word.

What was the first word that you managed to decipher?

It was a 10-letter word: "TH-E-S-A-L-O-N-I-K-E". Even then, the Armenian manuscript had spelled it with the letter "U" as "TH-E-S-A-L-U-N-I-K-E". But obviously the word referred to Thessaloniki, Greece, and the letters that Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians there during the 1st century.

Did it take you a long time to find this first word?

Quite some time, yes. Probably about a month. Actually, I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best strategy, which in the end probably saved me a lot of time when I began trying to decipher the text. I had to try to identify every single letter that I had copied from those two manuscripts. Of course, it had taken me two expeditions over the span of four years (1996-2000) to copy them and prepare the infrared photos so that I could even begin that stage.

Actually, decipherment really didn't start until Winter 2001. Back in Tbilisi, the photographer at our Institute of Manuscripts was developing the ultraviolet photos - all 300 of them. His job was immensely frustrated by the frequent electrical blackouts that we were experiencing. In addition, we had no heating and this thwarted his efforts to process the films, which required a specific temperature regime. But it was a terribly exciting time. Those last efforts could best be described as short, intense bursts, extremely concentrated and energetic.

It must have been an incredible feeling - finding that first word after so many years.

I had finally succeeded in unlocking the code. Only a few years earlier, scholars had been skeptical that the Albanians even had a written form of their language. My work confirmed that the Albanian alphabet existed in an extended text and that it was possible to decipher it. These strange shapes were taking on meaning. You can't imagine how excited I was! Such a discovery shocks your entire body and psyche.

It reminded me of what Ivane Javakhishvili, one of Georgia's great historians had observed after making a crucial discovery related to the Old Georgian script. He suddenly discovered that he could not continue his work. And yet, he dared not breathe a word to anyone.

Had his mind played a trick on him? "Maybe my eyes are guilty," he thought. "Maybe the conclusions that I've reached are a figment of my imagination."

I had the exact same feelings: Was it true? Was this really the meaning of these letters? I told no one except closest family members. I had to be 100 percent sure that I was right before making any public announcement.

I was surprised to find myself so overwhelmed with emotion that I couldn't work for several days despite my enthusiasm to press on to decipher more letters. I had to stop. It was impossible to continue. I needed to cool down and absorb the reality that I had really succeeded in deciphering the Albanian script. I was finally able to say, "This is Albanian. And I can read it! Albanian is starting to speak to me."

Let me back up a little and describe some of the chronology that led up to the deciphering of that first word. For starters - before being able to identify that first word, I had had to deal with the basic question: "How do we read this alphabet? Which direction does it go? Left to right, or right to left?"

Naturally, I assumed left to right, which was the direction of script of the other languages in the region - Georgian and Armenian. But I had to be sure. Unfortunately, the usual markers that signal alphabet direction weren't there. For example, Albanian is written only with capital letters - no lower case letters. So there was no initial capital letter in a sentence to signal the first word. Nor was there any punctuation in the ordinary sense of the word to let you know when you had arrived at the end of a sentence. Nor were there any spaces to separate words.

Had you ever worked with scripts like that before?

Such "run-on scripts" were not new to me. All ancient languages were written that way - for example, Ancient Greek, Armenian and Georgian. In fact, prior to the 9th century, both Georgian and Armenian were traditionally written as strings of capital letters with no separation of words.

So what made you so sure that it read left to right?

Well, the left margin was justified and straight, while the right margin was a bit jagged, which, of course, would suggest that the text originated on the left.

But the main clues came from my prior experience researching other ecclesiastical writings. Since the Albanian palimpsests had been found in a monastery, I felt there was a high probability that these texts were somehow related to the Church.

If true, there might be other ecclesiastical writing traditions that could help us decipher the Albanian. This turned out to be true. For example, in Georgian, Armenian and other early Christian texts, there's a tendency to abbreviate words that appear frequently and which are most esteemed and reverenced - words like "God" and "Jesus Christ". Usually, the abbreviation consists of the first and last letter of the word with a cap or line, called "titlo", drawn above those specific letters, identifying the "word" as an abbreviation.

When I looked closely, I discovered the same thing in the Albanian text. Furthermore, the shape of the "titlo" line was exactly the same as those found in the Caucasian texts. The line started lower on the left side and ended higher on the right, thus reflecting the natural movement of the hand, writing from left to right.

In Albanian, I was able to identify about 10 such abbreviations: "God" (Bikhajugh) is abbreviated as "BGH" and "Jesus Christ" (Yesus Kristos) was shown as YSKS (the first and last letters of each word). Obviously, the abbreviations saved time and precious resources like parchment and ink, which were not always readily available.

Also in those early Lectionaries in Georgian and Armenian, new lessons or chapters are introduced with smaller capital letters and the section itself begins with a taller capital letter. Again, this pattern appeared in Albanian, and it provided additional proof that the text read left to right. I was able to identify about 40 sections like this.

This also suggested the possibility that the Albanian text might be a Lectionary, which in itself had significant implications for what strategy I should try to follow to decipher the text. A Lectionary is a church service book, compiled of liturgical lectures that are read throughout the church calendar. The text consists primarily of readings from the New Testament and the Old Testament Psalms.

If it were true that the Albanian palimpsests were part of a Lectionary, it implied that the Albanians also had a translation of the Bible (or at least, major portions of it) possibly as early as the 5th century. In other words, the Albanians not only had a sophisticated written language, but they had a significant book like the Bible which includes an entire system of knowledge and thinking which began in the first century in areas such as literature, history, law, and poetry. Translating the Bible required a well-developed grammatical system and a very rich vocabulary.

If the unknown Albanian text were a Lectionary, that meant that you could begin to work from the known to the unknown, just as the decipherers of other unknown languages had done. Now you had the possibility of anticipating what some of the words might be. Yes?

True, but it wasn't quite that simple. It turns out that this Albanian text may be one of the earliest existing Lectionaries in the world. Church literature historians believe that as Lectionaries evolved over time, they became more complex and developed more extensive church festivals. The Albanian Lectionary is very simple with only 12 church calendar events, so it may well be the one of the earliest Lectionaries that exists in the world, since the very first Greek Lectionary seems to be lost.

But if this text were really a Lectionary, it meant that I could first try to identify proper names and places common to the Bible (New Testament), rather than try at random to decipher Albanian words, most of which I wouldn't know. And that's exactly what I set out to do. I felt that approach would give me a strong possibility of identifying quite a few of the place names and thus help me note the sound assignment for quite a number of the letters. The strategy worked and enabled me to compare the New Testament passages in Ancient Greek, and the neighboring languages of Old Georgian and Armenian.

When I found the word "Thesalonike", again it confirmed the great likelihood that we really were dealing with a Lectionary.

So, what were next words that you were able to decipher?

Eventually after dealing with the overwhelming emotion of discovery, I returned to work and again concentrated on place names. The next word I found was "K-O-R-I-N-TH-A, (according to the Armenian manuscript, I should have been looking for "K-O-K-I-N-TH-A", as "R" had wrongly been identified as "K"), meaning Corinth, another city in Greece. Again this was a reference to Apostle Paul's letters to the Corinthians.

Then came "E-B-R-A": Paul's letters to the Hebrews or Jews. The Armenian manuscript would have had me searching for the letters EOKA, but I already had figured out that the second letter in the Albanian alphabet was "B", not "O". In old written languages, numerals are expressed as alphabet letters (A as 1, B as 2, etc.). Besides, Georgian and Armenian also use the same word for Hebrews - EBRA.

Then I found the word "E-P-E-S-A", meaning Ephesus, the ancient city in modern Turkey where Paul had established another church. Then came TITUS and TIMOTHEOS (Timothy) - other books of the New Testament.

I knew that the name "Paul" had to be there in the manuscript some place as well. According to the Armenian manuscript, I should have been looking for PAYLOS, but I realized again that it was probably an error and I searched for PAULOS instead. I found it.

Since the New Testament references two letters to the Corinthians, I figured that somehow I should be able to find how they differentiated between "first" and "second". Soon I was adding two more new words to my vocabulary - SERBAUN (meaning "first") and PURANIN ("second"). It wasn't long before I felt confident of about 20-30 alphabet letters, both in terms of how they were written and the sounds they represented.

Simultaneously, I began to tackle some of the grammatical forms of Albanian, such as the preposition "to" which in contemporary Udi is expressed at the end of nouns (declensions). Also I began identifying suffixes for the infinitive verb as ESUN, and for the plural suffix as UKH.

What happened after you had deciphered the obvious personal names and place names?

Soon I had to start working with the vocabulary of the Albanian language. Actually, one of the most fascinating discoveries came when I realized that in one passage there was a rather long word or phrase that was repeated nine times in close succession. I started looking in the Paul's writings for this rhetorical devise where he repeated the same phrase nine times.

I had already identified that the passage was in Corinthians but I didn't know in which of the 29 chapters it might be found. So by searching other New Testament texts that were accessible to me - Georgian and Armenian, it didn't take long to find the verb, "I was persecuted" [In the English King James version of the New Testament, this phrase is rendered as "in perils of"]. In Albanian, they used the expression, "MAR AKESUNUKH". Literally, it means "to see troubles". Actually, we have this same expression in Georgian.

Paul was describing the struggles that he had coped with in his evangelizing efforts. The King James version renders this expression as in perils of waters [flooded rivers], in perils of robbers, in perils related to my own countrymen [Jews], in perils by the heathen [Gentiles], in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness [desert], in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren, and in perils of weariness and pain, of watchfulness, in hunger and thirst, in many fasts, in cold and nakedness.

There were still more words related to the New Testament that I wanted to find. For example, words like "Disciple" (HEBI), "Hallelujah" (AYUYA). I also found the word for "church" which was based on the Greek word, "EKLESIA". Over the years, the Udi people had lost that word and had adopted the Armenian word.

By that time I had figured out the majority of letters in the Albanian written language, I was now able to consult dictionaries of the modern Udi language which is a direct descendent of the Albanian language. I had access to both the Udi/Russian and the Udi/Georgian dictionaries which were extremely helpful in my search.

Of course the modern Udin language isn't exactly like the ancient Albanian language because so much time has lapsed - after all this script probably dates back to the 5th century. So what do you say when skeptics suggest Albanian relates to some other language? How do you refute their arguments?

There are about 40 other languages in the Caucasus. Other Caucasian languages do not have their own alphabet. It's true that there are some languages such as Lezgian that belong to the same family group, but they are quite far from Albanian while the Udi language is amazingly close.

The language of the Albanian Lectionary is, undoubtedly, very close to the Udi language in terms of its lexics, phonetics and grammatical forms, though it is still different from what was understood when scholars tried to analyze the epigraphic monuments half a century ago.

One of the ways that linguists judge the proximity of languages is by examining certain categories of words that they have found to retain their form over time; for example, personal pronouns (I, you), or numerals (one, two, three, four or first, second). Also, they look for some of the fundamental verbs that indicate movement such as "do" and "make" or verbs that express physiological needs such as "hunger".

Linguists also judge proximity of languages from terms related to space and natural phenomena (moon, day, night) and kinship (like mother, father, grandmother, son, brother, daughter, wife, husband). Body parts are another indicator (head, hand). It turns out that terms for such words in both Albanian and Udi are very close.

Were you ever able to figure out why you thought this script might be Ethiopian when you first saw it?

Eventually, when I was able to identify all the Albanian letters - there are at least 52 letters, and possibly 54 - I found that, indeed, some of the shapes of the letters are exactly like Ethiopian - 14 of them to be exact. And 19 Albanian letters resemble Georgian and 10 look like Armenian. How these three alphabets share so many common shapes is a phenomenon that needs further investigation. It can't be accidental. You can't create so many letters that look alike. It couldn't have happened without knowledge being shared somehow. It's a question that should be investigated further. After all, in those days, Ethiopia was geographically quite distant from the Caucasus.

What makes you hesitate regarding the number of letters (graphemes) that you have found in the Albanian written language? What do you say "at least 52 letters, and possibly 54"?

There are even more than 54 symbols in the Albanian text, but I cannot say for sure whether they are really letters or not. Some of them might be some sort of text sign rather than letters. Such signs exist in Georgian and Armenian old texts as well. In some cases, specific parts of known letters might have been scrubbed off or covered by Georgian letters so completely that they've been mistaken for new letters.

Unfortunately, the places where I found these signs in the texts were barely visible both in the photographs that I had taken to study back in Georgia, as well as while I was there in Sinai, examining the manuscripts When we get access to higher-powered equipment to view the layers of the palimpsests, I feel sure that these issues will be clarified, and we'll know exactly how many letters the Caucasian Albanian alphabet had. To be absolutely sure of the quantity of letters, I will have to read every word of the text and understand the meanings.

What else is left to do in regard to your work with the Albanian script?

Sometimes I feel like Ali Baba of the Arabian Nights when he would announce: "Open Sesame". I hope that my work lays a foundation and serves as an "Open Sesame" for future research. The tasks left to do now are more routine and mundane in nature, though not of lesser importance than what I have already completed. There is still considerable work to do.

(1) I'll need to verify that the text that I copied by hand with the use of an ultraviolet lamp or from photos taken with such a lamp is accurate. For this, we'll need more sophisticated equipment at Sinai to make comparisons. (2) I'll need to identify the content of the entire text by comparing it with other books and chapters of the New Testament. (3) I'll need to reconstruct the original order of the Albanian Lectionary as the pages of the palimpsests were folded in half when the Georgian was written on top of the Albanian and thus the Albanian pages do not necessarily follow each other sequentially. (4) I'll need to reconstruct the descriptive grammar of the Albanian Language by working together with the best specialists in the Udi language. (5) Finally, working with my French and German colleagues, I'll need to prepare a facsimile edition, which will include translation, transliteration and commentaries to document this work for future generations.

When you look back over the years that you've already dedicated to this project, identifying and deciphering Albanian, what is its significance to you? What does it mean to you?

My life really hasn't changed so much since the discovery was announced. I can't say anything much is different for me except that, perhaps, I'm busier now. Naturally, people have various reactions to discoveries made by others.

Having devoted my entire life to studying history, literature and culture of the South Caucasian Christian countries, it's the nature of the job as a professional scholar to be accustomed to discoveries of various degrees of significance. I've been working on the decipherment of Albanian for about seven years if you count all the time that I've spent just trying to make the texts legible enough to be read. So the entire process has been a series of accumulated discoveries. This experience has vastly broadened my range of interests in Caucasian Studies, and I would be deeply moved if my work somehow would serve to pave the way for other scholars, especially in related branches of science.

"I'm convinced that the epoch of great discoveries lies ahead. It is not confined to the past. The fact that some things don't exist today doesn't mean that this has always been the case. It doesn't necessarily mean that they've never existed! It just means that we must set our hearts and minds to discover them."

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Caucasian Albanian Alphabet
Ancient Script Discovered in the Ashes
by Zaza Alexidze and Betty Blair
Also spelled Zaza Aleksidze

Related articles

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


Alphabets have always been viewed as one of mankind's most significant achievements. With the use of symbols, man has the capability to share knowledge far beyond his own geographic and historical point in time. Alphabets enable man to move outside his own limited circle of friends and relatives - beyond his home, village, town, city and nation to other countries and continents. Alphabets provide the medium to pass along information and wisdom to generations that follow hundreds and thousands of years later. They give man the possibility to leave his imprint, however large or small, on those who follow.


Left: Historian / Decipherer Dr. Zaza Alexidze.

Linguists trace the origins of the alphabet back to about 1700 to 1500 B.C. - 3,500 to 3,700
years ago. As ancient alphabets are discovered and deciphered, they provide us with a glimpse back into history and a chance to marvel at early man's knowledge, his beliefs and accomplishments.

It's not everyday that someone stumbles upon an ancient writing system - especially these days. It's even rarer when that same individual identifies the unknown script and language and goes on to decipher it as well. But that's exactly what Dr. Zaza Alexidze, Director of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia, has done with the Caucasian Albanian written language.

Left: Editor Betty Blair

The story relates to Azerbaijan in that the Udins who live today in Azerbaijan are the descendants of the Caucasian Albanians who lived in the region, perhaps 2,000 or more years ago. The Udi language is the descendent of the language represented by the Caucasian Albanian written script [Note: Caucasian Albanian should not be confused with the Albanian country and language located in the Balkans].

 

Above: (Left) St. Catherine's Orthodox Monastery on Mt. Sinai in Egypt was built in the 6th century. A fire led to the discovery and later decipherment of the unknown Caucasian Albanian script by Zaza Alexidze. (Right): One of the most time-consuming tasks in deciphering the Albanian text was simply being able to make out the shape of the letters on the palimsest. Photo on left is with ultra-violet light. Letters on right were painstakingly copied by Alexidze.

Alexidze's work is considered to be the foremost discovery related to Caucasian studies and one of the most significant finds this past century related to early man's writing systems. It wasn't that he went in search of an ancient alphabet to decipher; he stumbled upon this unknown script quite by chance while doing research on Georgian manuscripts. But he turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time to identify and decipher this mysterious script. Alexidze had spent a lifetime accumulating a phenomenal amount of knowledge about languages, historical geography, epigraphy, ancient church history and literature. And the combination of all these things together enabled him to crack the code of the Caucasian Albanian writing system.

Fire on Mt. Sinai
Ask librarians what they fear most when it comes to protecting their valuable book collections. Inevitably, at the top of their lists is concern about fire. After all, some of civilization's greatest library treasures have been destroyed by fire - from Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1st century B.C., to the Central Library in Baghdad, Iraq, in Spring 2003.

Left: Map shows Azerbaijan where the Caucasus Albanians used to live in relationship to Mt. Sinai in Egypt where manuscripts of the 5th century Caucasian Albanian script were found.

Who would ever have imagined that precisely because of a devastating fire, an ancient writing system would be discovered? Such is the case of the written language of Caucasian Albanian, ancestor to the contemporary Udi language, which is spoken by a population of about 8,000 ethnic Udins, who primarily live in Azerbaijan.

This story of decipherment begins quite some distance from the Caucasus Mountains in what might seem to be the most unlikeliest of places - the remote desert mountains of Mt. Sinai, Egypt, after a fire broke out there at St. Catherine's Orthodox Monastery. The date: May 26, 1975.

While assessing the fire's damage, much to their surprise, the brethren at the monastery discovered a cellar room underneath the chapel floor where hundreds of centuries' old manuscripts had been stored. The monks didn't even know that such a room existed.

The chapel floor, which had been constructed of wood, had been firmly packed down with earth. When the floor collapsed during the fire, the earth fell on top of the manuscripts. In fact, it may well have been the earth itself that smothered the manuscripts and provided a sort of fire protection preventing the pages from being consumed and turned into ash.

Later scholars would catalog the cellar collection and discover more than 1,100 manuscripts, dating from between the 4th-18th centuries. The majority of texts were Greek (approximately 800) and Georgian (141), but they also included Arabic, Syrian, Slavonic, Latin and Hebrew.

More than 20 years would pass before anyone would discover that the collection held an even deeper secret - evidence of a script that nobody knew with any certainty even existed - Caucasian Albanian.

The Hidden Cellar
How is it that so many ancient manuscripts were stored away in a hidden cellar? How could the monks have possibly forgotten about its existence? No one knows for sure, but it seems that about 250 years earlier, in 1734, Archbishop Nikiphoros Marthalis had organized for the construction of a new library at St. Catherine's. He then arranged for the monastery's manuscripts to be transferred and stored there. Could it have been that the monks had left some of the older manuscripts behind, especially those that were severely damaged or of little practical everyday use?

In 1761, a pilgrim by the name of Donati visited St. Catherine's and noted that in addition to the manuscripts that were so dearly treasured and well preserved in the library, others, stored elsewhere, were molded and neglected. He sensed that the monks themselves had forgotten about them. The discovery of so many unknown manuscripts was sensation at the monastery, but the monks were afraid traders might attack or assault them, so they vowed to keep it a secret.

It would be five years before the news about the ancient manuscripts reached the press. In 1980, Mother Philotea, a member of another monastery in the complex at Mt. Sinai, addressed a symposium in Goslar, Germany, and spoke about the discovery of some Armenian manuscripts, among which were some Georgian works. In turn, German Orientalist Julius Asphalg, who was a well-known Georgian specialist, contacted Akaki Shanidze, distinguished Georgian scholar and director of the modern linguistic school in Tbilisi.

But not until 1984 - nine years after the fire - did scholars in Tbilisi obtain more specific information. The Orthodox Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, then visited Sinai and determined that the newly discovered manuscripts were not Armenian, as had been announced at the symposium; but rather, Georgian.

Naturally, the Georgian Patriarch contacted the scholars at Tbilisi's Institute of Manuscripts and invited them to make an expedition to Egypt. At the time, the Institute was directed by the well-known scholar Academician Helen Metreveli. She was elderly at the time, so traveling to Egypt was considered difficult. Also they had heard a rumor that women were not allowed in the monastery - information that turned out to be untrue.

Preparing for Sinai
At the end of 1988, Dr. Zaza Alexidze was appointed as Director of Institute of Manuscripts. From the early days of his appointment, he began making preparations to visit Sinai.

Even so, organizing for such a trip was complicated. The unstable political situation in the Middle East aggravated the situation, making it unpredictable and difficult to plan. There were also difficulties in obtaining visas; much less, funding. In 1990 the Soviet Union was in a severe economic situation. The USSR would collapse the following year.

Nor did it make much sense to visit St. Catherine's if they could not meet there with the Greek Archbishop who held jurisdiction over the monastery as they would need his permission to carry out research on the Sinai manuscripts. They discovered that he spent most of his time in Athens.

Communication was slow and cumbersome. Those were the days before e-mail and the Internet, and the Manuscript Institute didn't even have access to a Fax machine. Eventually, they were able to connect with the Soviet Embassy in Egypt, which helped them tremendously in organizing that first expedition.

After several failed attempts, they were finally able to make the first of what, so far, has been four working expeditions to Sinai (1990, 1994, 1996 and 2000). Since then, relations have been established with the Greek Orthodox Archbishop and the monks living at the monastery, and contacts have become much easier.

St. Catherine's Monastery
Actually, Sinai is really a complex of monasteries (Sinai, Firan and Raithu). However, whenever reference is made to "Sinai", it implies St. Catherine's, which is the main Orthodox monastery and dates back to the 6th century.

The Georgian presence has been marked at Sinai since the early Middle Ages. Georgians seem to have played a dominant role since the second half of 10th century when a number of chapels and complexes were built by Georgian kings. Sources indicate that the names of the first two Georgian monks to live at Sinai were Mikhail and Eustatheus (6th century).

Today, there are about 20 Orthodox monks residing at Sinai, though the number varies from time to time. They tend gardens there. The Bedouins work for them. Income for the monastery comes from hotels (outside the monastery wall), the enormous number of tourists, donations during Holy Days and from Orthodox religious communities. The monks are mostly Greek although a number of them come from various other countries, including Australia, the U.S. and U.K. There are even some Orthodox Jews from Russia.

The Greek monks at Sinai had never even heard anything about the Caucasian Albanian language. In the beginning, they even mistook the Georgian manuscripts as Armenian. There are no Georgian monks on Sinai today. Had there been, still they likely would have had difficulty reading the old Georgian manuscripts without special training because the Old Georgian script looks so much different from the modern script. Though the Georgian script has changed over the millennia, the language itself has remained much the same.

Prior to the fire, Sinai was known for a significant number of very important ancient Georgian manuscripts. After the fire, this remote monastery become known as a great repository and treasury for Caucasian and Georgian studies.

First Expedition (1990)
The journey to Sinai via the desert wilderness from Cairo takes about eight hours by car. Fourteen years after the fire had taken place, the Georgian experts finally had arrived. During that first expedition to Sinai (1990), the work was divided between Alexidze and his Deputy Director at the Tbilisi's Manuscript Institute, Mikhail Kavtaria. They only had 13 working days to get an overview of the situation and begin compiling the rather extensive, though preliminary, catalog of the Georgian manuscripts.

While Kavtaria concentrated on identifying the numerous liturgical texts, Alexidze began describing the historical, hagiographical, patristic and Biblical manuscripts. He also examined and copied all the colophons - commentaries that scribes traditionally wrote at the end of the manuscript or in the margins, offering their own opinion about the content of the manuscript or historical events that had occurred while they were copying the text. These colophons which they found in the Georgian manuscripts are treasured for their rare insight into the history of Georgia and the Sinai monastery.

Alexidze also was curious to define the languages and scripts on parchments that had more than one text, which are known as "palimpsests" (from the Greek words, "palim" and "psito" - "to cook again"). The monks were in the habit of recycling and conserving material. Typically, when they didn't have anything on which to write, they would take an old manuscript for which they had little use anymore (or which was ideologically outdated) and try to scrub off the ink and reuse the manuscript. Afterwards, they would introduce new text, sometimes by writing perpendicular to the original script.

It seems that during the 10th century, there was quite a shortage of parchment at Sinai. Some of the monks even complained about this shortage in their colophons. [For more details about palimpsests, see the side bar: "Questions & Answers: Deciphering the Albanian Script"].

More often than not, Greek or Ethiopian, Syrian or occasionally Armenian texts comprised the original script underneath the Georgian. Alexidze was quite familiar with palimpsests as there are about 5,000 pages kept at Tbilisi's Institute of Manuscripts.

On that first expedition, Alexidze took an interest in the original layer of one of the palimpsests, which was barely legible and had rather unusual lettering. He made a note that the lower text might possibly be Ethiopian. As he only saw this script the last day, there wasn't much time to study it seriously.

At the conclusion of their first expedition, Alexidze and Kavtaria had succeeded in describing 130 manuscripts, but their work wasn't done. Because of the intense heat of the fire, some of the parchment manuscripts - 17 in total - had solidified, making the pages clump together and impossible to separate. The only way they could identify the texts was by their first folio pages, but it was impossible to read the actual contents.

Soon they realized that another trip to St. Catherine's would be necessary to finish cataloging what had come to be known as the New Georgian Collection and which would eventually include 141 manuscripts and 10 scrolls plus a significant number of fragments, all dating from the 9th-13th centuries.

Second Expedition (1994)
The second expedition would not take place until four years later. The fact that the Soviet Union had collapsed in the meantime, further complicated the situation, making funding even more difficult. But on this expedition, Alexidze brought along a scholar, I Khevuriani, who was a specialist in liturgy and Holy script, a photographer and three specialists who worked as conservators to soften and to open all the manuscript pages. In the last hours on that expedition, they managed to open a manuscript that turned out to be another palimpsest.

Though the scribes had done an incredible job of scrubbing off the ink of the original text; ironically, the high temperature generated by the fire had made the letters of the lower text layer even more visible. When the conservators showed Alexidze this manuscript, again some of those strange letters reminded him the palimpsest the lower layer of which he thought might be Ethiopian. This time it was clear for him that some of the letters also resembled Georgian and Armenian letters. This fact also made him conscious that he might be dealing with a text in Caucasian Albanian. As this second palimpsest had been discovered again at the last minute almost as they were heading out the door, Alexidze didn't even have time to copy down a few letters. Another expedition would be necessary.

Search for Albanian Alphabet
The search for a written form representing any of the Caucasian Albanian languages can be traced to the 1930s. Mostly Armenian and Georgian scholars were delving into the problem. Azerbaijani scholars were not involved much, prior to the archeological discoveries in Mingachevir (in north central Azerbaijan) between 1948-1952.

On several occasions, scholars announced that they have found Albanian manuscripts and epigraphic monuments. These were sensational discoveries for Caucasian studies, but the news inevitably proved to be premature. The texts always turned out to be written in some unknown manner, usually based on Armenian or Greek scripts. Sometimes, the scripts even turned out to be cryptograms.

When there seemed little hope of finding a single sample of the Albanian alphabet, Georgian scholar Ilia Abuladze (1901-1968) discovered a sample of the Albanian alphabet in an Armenian grammar text dating to the 15th century, side by side with various other alphabets such as Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Georgian, Coptic, Syrian and Arabic.

This discovery made such an impact in the world of scholarly literature on the subject that the date - September 28, 1937 - was memorialized. The Armenian scholar Hrachya Atcharyan wrote in the Herald of the Armenian Academy of Sciences: "The young Georgian scholar Ilia Abuladze, who discovered the Albanian alphabet on September 28, 1937, among the manuscripts of Echmiadzin, is worthy of inestimable honor and praise".

Atcharyan also compared this discovery of the Albanian alphabet to a man suddenly being exposed to daylight after living in darkness for ages. But Abuladze only announced the discovery, he didn't study the text, leaving that job for Akaki Shanidze (1887-1987), head of the Georgian School of Linguistics. The principal problem for Shanidze was to prove that the reference actually did represent the Albanian alphabet. He confirmed the relationship and then went on to identify the alphabet with the Udi language, a Lezgian group of Caucasian languages, spoken by the Udins who live primarily in northern Azerbaijan.

These archaeological discoveries led scholars to believe that the Albanian texts would be deciphered easily, as the script represented the Udi language, a living language with a corresponding sound structure, which was available. Specialists from a number of countries were involved in trying to decipher the inscriptions. But the promise was never fulfilled.

The problem was that each specialist always began his research from the beginning, rather than building upon the observations that predecessors had already made. Despite minor successes in deciphering of Albanian inscriptions, essentially all attempts failed. The fact that there was no long and continuous text made it impossible to study various data.

Third Expedition (1996)
Two more years passed before the third expedition could be arranged. In 1996 Alexidze headed back to Sinai with two conservators and four scholars including the daughter of Akaki Shanidze, who is a specialist in the Holy script herself. Her father had been the first to link the Udi language with the Albanian. Alexidze also took along the photos of the Albanian alphabet from the Armenian manuscript and from the Mingachevir archaeological inscriptions. On the very first day he compared them with the two palimpsests. This time he was convinced that the lower text on the palimpsest was, indeed, Albanian. It was at this point that he revealed everything to his colleagues who affirmed his hypothesis.

He spent the majority of December just trying to be able to make out the shape of the letters of the script and copying some small, more visible sections of the text since the 10th century monks had done such a conscientious job of trying to wipe out that text. In most cases, photographs proved to be even less effective than the naked eye. Ultraviolet lamp was helpful, but still limited.

Fourth Expedition (2000)
The final working expedition undertaken so far took place four years later when Alexidze took along art historian David Tshkadadze, a photographer, and his own son Nikolas (Tato) who had developed a keen interest in classical studies and ancient scripts. This time they busied themselves with photographing all 300 pages of the to Georgian / Albanian palimpsests using ultraviolet light which helped to expose the original layer of text more clearly. Alexidze copied the entire text that was visible under the ultraviolet light. They would return to Tbilisi to develop the film and Alexidze would begin the decipherment process.

In early 2001, back in Tbilisi, Alexidze finally was able to begin deciphering the first words of the manuscript that had consumed so much of his time during the past decade [see Decipherment sidebar]. Finally, the Caucasian Albanian script was beginning to speak to him. Since then, he has been able to identify its contents as being a very early Albanian Lectionary which celebrates the church calendar, making it one of the earliest Lectionaries that exists in the world today.

Still an immense amount of work must be done before all the texts can be clearly seen and deciphered. More sophisticated equipment is needed to view the palimpsests. However, already the implications for further research in many fields are evident, especially in Caucasian studies, Biblical and liturgical studies, as well as linguistics. The next decade should prove to be one of many more discoveries - all of which were given birth in a devastating fire in a monastery in the desolate mountains of Egypt a quarter of a century ago.

Various people who have made an enormous contribution to this project during this past decade. They include: His Eminence Archbishop of Sinai Damianos, Librarians Father Dimitrios and Father Simeon of St. Catherine's Monastery, and all the monastery brethren for their never-failing support and hospitality of Dr. Alexidze and the Georgian researchers. Without the painstaking efforts of David Tskhadadze, who was involved in developing the film for all the palimpsest pages, decipherment would have taken so much more time. For this article, George Alexidze, 14, son of Zaza Alexidze prepared all the computer photos and illustrations of the Albanian text.

Contact Dr. Zaza Alexidze, Director of Tbilisi's Institute of Manuscripts: zaza_alexidze@hotmail.com.
Betty Blair, Editor of Azerbaijan International Magazine: ai@AZER.com.

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Udi Language
Comparing Ancient Albanian with Contemporary Udi
by Zaza Alexidze

Related Articles
1 Caucasian Albanian Alphabet: Ancient Script Discovered in the Ashes - Zaza Alexidze and Betty Blair
2 Quick Facts: Caucasian Albanian Script - Alexidze and Blair
3 Albanian Script: How Its Secrets Were Revealed? - Alexidze and Blair
4 Zaza Alexidze. Decipherer: Glimpses of Childhood - Blair
5 Caucasian Albanian Script: Significance of Dechipherment - Alexidze
6 Udins Today: Ancestors of the Caucasian Albanians - Zurab Konanchev

One of the most significant aspects about the discovery and decipherment of the Caucasian Albanian written script is that there is a living community today that speaks this language - the Udins who live primarily in Azerbaijan. The Udi language belongs to the Lezgian Group of the Dagestani Branch of the Caucasian Language Family.

Historians date the Caucasian Albanian written script to the 5th century - more than 1,500 years ago. They believe that since the 10th century, or perhaps even earlier, the written form of this language ceased to exist [See Quick Facts: "How the Caucasian Albanian Script Probably Disappeared" in this issue].

That's why the proximity that exists between the Albanian script and the Udi language as it is spoken today is quite remarkable. It was thought that over such a long period of time, greater differences would have evolved in the language since it did not have a script to fix or anchor its grammar and vocabulary.

Today, there are an estimated 8,000 ethnic Udins, who live primarily in the Caucasus. They are concentrated mostly in two villages in northern Azerbaijan near Gabala (formerly called Gutgashen). The largest settlement is Nij and a smaller group live in the Oghuz region (previously called Vartashen). A third community immigrated to Georgia in 1920-1922, allegedly for economic reasons. They call their village Zinobiani, after their leader Zinobi Silikasvili. Previously, it was called Oktomberi by the Bolsheviks after "The Great October Revolution" of 1917. There are also some Udins who live in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Other small groups are scattered throughout Russia, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

 
 
 
 

Above: (From left to right) 1. Orayin by Georgi Kechaari, 2000. First literary book. In Udi (Latin modified script with 52 letters). 2. Traditional Udi Wedding Traditions by Kechaari, 2003. In Azeri. 98 pages. 3. Dance Around the Fire (Examples of Udi Folklore) compiled by Kechaari, 2002. In Azeri. 102 pages. 4. Waterspring by Georgi Kechaari, 2002. In English. 24 pages. The Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise (NHE) sponsored these four booklets related to the Udi culture, plus four others these past three years.

This close relationship between the written Caucasian Albanian text and its descendent - the modern-day Udi language - confirms the scholarship of Georgian Akaki Shanidze who concluded in 1937 that Udi was the language represented by the Caucasian Albanian script. He based his research on a 15th-century Armenian grammar discovered in Yerevan by Georgian Ilia Abuladze. This manuscript illustrated what some of the known alphabets in the region looked like, such as Greek, Hebrew, Georgian, Syrian, Coptic, Arabic and also Albanian.

One of the ways that linguists determine the genetic proximity of languages is by comparing certain classifications of words; for example: terms related to kinship, body parts, the galaxy and natural phenomena. Also they compare personal pronouns, numerals and action verbs as well as verbs that express physiological needs such as hunger. It turns out that terms for such words in both Albanian and Udi are, indeed, very close. Here are a few words (in English transliteration) to illustrate words that are exactly the same in modern everyday usage in Udi as well as the 5th century written Caucasian Albanian script which was found among the manuscripts at St. Catherine's Monastery in Mt. Sinai, Egypt.

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Quick Facts
Caucasian Albanian Script
by Zaza Alexidze and Betty Blair

Also spelled Zaza Aleksidze

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

Alphabet
 
 
 
 
Albanian (from the Caucasus, not to be confused with the language and country of the same name in the Balkans). The Caucasian Albanian language has been identified as the ancestor of the language spoken by the Udi people, who primarily live in present-day Azerbaijan. The alphabet dates to the 5th century A.D., possibly earlier. It is not known for certain who created this alphabet although Old Armenian sources suggest Mashtots (5th century).
Language FamilyCaucasian Language Family: Dagestani Branch: Lezgian Group.
Discovered and Deciphered by
 
Dr. Zaza Alexidze (1935- ), Historian and Director of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia
Where the Manuscript Was Found
 
 
 
 
In St. Catherine's, an Orthodox Monastery on Mt. Sinai, Egypt. The manuscripts due to a devastating fire in 1975 in which hundreds of manuscripts were discovered that had been stored in a forgotten basement cell. So far two Georgian/Albanian palimpsests have been discovered, totaling about 300 pages. (A palimpsest is a manuscript with one or more scripts penned on top of the original text; in this case, after the scribes had tried to scrub off the Albanian, they wrote Georgian on top of it, leaving the Albanian barely visible).
Alphabet Characteristics


 
Albanian has 52, possibly 54, letters (graphemes). Exact number can be determined when equipment will be available to see clearly. All letters are written as capitals in a continuous line of text. There are no separating spaces between words and no punctuation at the end of sentences.
When the Script Was First Seen

1990. But the Albanian letters were barely visible on the lower layer of two manuscripts as scribes had attempted to scrub off the parchments in order to reuse it for a new Georgian text.
When the Script Was First Identified
as Albanian
1996. Prior to that time, specialists in Caucasian Studies were not even sure that a written form of the Albanian language even existed in the form of an extended text. They least expected to find such manuscripts in Egypt.
First Word Deciphered

2001. The word, "Thesalonike", referencing the Biblical teachings of Apostle Paul directed to the Christians who lived in Thessaloniki, Greece, in the 1st century A.D.
Manuscript Content






On the lower layer is an Albanian Christian Lectionary, possibly one of the earliest, if not the very earliest Lectionary, that exists today, judging from the simplicity of its church calendar. This Lectionary dates to the late 4th or early 5th century A.D. The top layer contains a Georgian Patericon, containing biographies and writings of some of the Church Fathers. It may have been prepared around 10th century after scribes tried to scrub off the Albanian text.
How the Caucasian Albanian Script
Probably Disappeared?
















Historians suggest that the disappearance of the Albanian state and its written script occurred over several centuries due to various political influences in the region. First came the Arabian invasion and the process of Islamization (7-10th centuries) followed by the invasion of Turk-Seljuks and assimilation with them (11th century).

In addition, they believe that fundamental differences in Christian doctrine between Armenians and Albanians dealt the final blow to the Albanian written language. Armenians are Monophysites, meaning that they believe that Christ had a single nature - only God. Albanians were Diophysites, insisting on the dual nature of Christ-both God and man.

When Armenians gained religious power over the Orthodox communities in the region, they forced Albanians to give up their beliefs. Albanian sacred and liturgical documents were burned or destroyed as heresy. Consequently, the Albanian alphabet, so closely identified with the church, disappeared from use.
How the Albanian Manuscript Ended Up
at Mt. Sinai, Egypt

 
 
Perhaps after the Albanians were forced to become Monophysites, some of them left for Palestine to the St. Saba Monastery in Jerusalem. In the 10th century, Georgian monks left St. Saba and went to Mt. Sinai. Perhaps among them was an Albanian monk, who carried this manuscript with him.
Contacts


Dr. Zaza Alexidze, Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia: zaza_alexidze@hotmail.com
or Betty Blair, Editor, Azerbaijan International Magazine in Los Angeles: ai@artnet.net

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Zaza Alexidze. Decipherer
Glimpses of Childhood
by Betty Blair

Also spelled Zaza Aleksidze

Related Articles
1 Caucasian Albanian Alphabet: Ancient Script Discovered in the Ashes - Zaza Alexidze and Betty Blair
2 Udi Language: Compared with Ancient Albanian - Alexidze
3 Quick Facts: Caucasian Albanian Script - Alexidze and Blair
4 Albanian Script: How Its Secrets Were Revealed? - Alexidze and Blair

5 Caucasian Albanian Script: Significance of Dechipherment - Alexidze
6 Udins Today: Ancestors of the Caucasian Albanians - Zurab Konanchev
7
Heyerdahl Intrigued by Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Alexidze


Left: Historian/Decipherer Zaza Alexidze.

There's no magic in deciphering an unknown ancient script. Georgian historian Zaza Alexidze will certainly vouch for that. In Spring 2001, after working several years on a text that was barely visible which had been found in a remote monastery in Egypt, the first words of the Caucasian Albanian written language began to speak to him.

Perhaps today, those manuscripts would still be waiting to be deciphered had it not been for Zaza's vast knowledge, cross-disciplinary studies and his immeasurable patience and persistence. When you look back over Zaza's life, you see that this journey of discovery started when he was a young boy. It was his immense love for books, his knowledge of languages and alphabets - both modern and ancient, his research into paleography and epigraphy, church history and traditions of liturgical writing in the region - all these things taken together that enabled him to crack the code of this strange alphabet.

Here's a glimpse of Zaza's childhood and the path that prepared him to dare to undertake the monumental task of deciphering this unknown ancient script that for more than a thousand years had disappeared from Azerbaijan.

Ancient Town
Zaza Alexidze was born on August 3, 1935, in Telavi, one of the most ancient towns in what is now known as the Republic of Georgia. Townspeople pride themselves that their town, identified as Teleda was included on one of the maps in Ptolemy's eight-volume Guide to Geography, written in the 2nd century.

Located about 100 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi, Telavi has a current population of about 25,000 inhabitants. The town is the political, economical and cultural center of Kakheti, and according to Zaza, is one of the richest and most beautiful regions of Georgia. Centuries earlier, Kakheti had been an independent principality and, at one time, even a kingdom. "Everything had a feeling of continuity in time for me when I was growing up in this small town. Perhaps, that's what first made me so conscious of history at a very early age," says Zaza.

For example, the school where he studied had had an uninterrupted history of more than 260 years. The building itself is located adjacent to the great fortress-like stone walls, which surrounded an ancient palace where the kings of Kakheti once lived.

Left: Zaza Alexidze on his first day of school. Early 1940s.

Everything about that school was impregnated with history, including the fact that many prominent political figures, scientists, artists and writers had studied there. Some of the most illustrious names who graduated from the same school as Zaza include: Vazha Phavela, one of Georgia's greatest poets (1861-1915); Academician and world-famous physiologist Ivane (John) Beritashvili (1884-1965); and director and reformer of the Georgian theater Sandro (Alexander) Akhmeteli (1886-1937).

The Alexidzes were three brothers - Thengiz, Zaza and Guram. Today Thengiz is a geologist, and Guram, following in his father's footsteps in agricultural science, became a Professor Doctor, and then was elected as an Academician at the Agricultural Academy of Georgia.

The family lived in an apartment of only two rooms - the three kids, their mother, father and grandmother's sister. During the Soviet era (1920-1991), it wasn't so unusual for so many people to be crammed into such a small living space in Georgia, nor, for that matter, any of the other Soviet republics. "Maybe that's why we developed such close family bonds," says Zaza. We lived so closely together, confined in such narrow living quarters.

Influence of Mother
His mother Eugenia played a tremendous role in his life. "There has never been another person in my whole life with whom I've had a deeper spiritual and intellectual bond than my mother," he admits.

She was a musician - a pianist. She loved Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and Liszt. The portraits of these composers adorned the wall next to their grand piano. "I remember the warm, tranquil autumn evenings in Telavi when she would play Beethoven's Sonata No. 8 'Pathetique' just for me. I have tried to foster this same love and knowledge of classical music and opera in my own children," he says.

But his mom's influence on his cultural development was not limited to music; she also had an insatiable interest in literature and had read widely. Zaza credits his mother with the reason he became familiar with classical literature from early childhood.

Left: Citadel entrance and fortress walls in Telavi, the historical town where Zaza grew up. Telavi is mentioned in 2nd century documents.

As a child, Zaza loved to sit on the floor, playing with alphabet blocks, constructing words and short sentences. "I must have been about three years old when the letters started to take on meaning for me," Zaza recalls. These blocks were his first introduction to the puzzles and mysteries of language.

More than 50 years later, he would have the same experience when he began to work with the barely visible mysterious letters on a charred manuscript discovered in a remote monastery in Egypt. His persistence paid off and the Caucasian Albanian language began to speak to him.

Books became Zaza's greatest joy in childhood. By age four, he had started to read. It seems he had a special affinity for old books. The list of books that he had read before he was 10 years old seems is quite impressive. By the time he was five or six, he had already read Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876), Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852) and Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island" (1875).

One of his most vivid family memories during World War II (1941-1945) was of him and his brothers sitting around the table at night, gathering close to their Mother as she leaned close to the lamp to catch the dim light falling on the pages of the book. As it was wartime, the windows were blackened so that no light could be detected from outside. "Mother would read aloud to us boys," Zaza reflects. "Of course, by then, we were all quite capable of reading on our own, but we loved those moments together with her and the lively discussions that followed."

Below: School in Telavi which Zaza attended, which had a continuous uninterrupted history of 260 years.

By age eight, Zaza had read Tolstoy's "War and Peace" (1865-69) in Russian and a Georgian translation of Cervantes' "Don Quixote" (1605). "I loved 'Don Quixote' most of all and memorized much of it," Zaza recalls fondly. "To this day, it still remains one of my favorites."

There were days when the future historian balked at going to school simply because he was so deeply immersed in a book and didn't want to tear himself away. Fortunately, his Mother didn't insist. "Even when I was quite young," he recalls, "Mother always trusted my judgment. That's the way she raised her children."

This was just about the time that Zaza discovered Shakespeare. He had borrowed a 19th century deluxe edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare from his neighbor. Zaza plunged into reading all of the tragedies and comedies, the adult versions - not abridged or children's versions. They were in Russian.

There was one exception - Hamlet. He can't remember exactly why he had put off reading that specific work. But then one day at school, he discovered that one of the girls in his class-one whom he had "his eye on" had already read that drama. Not to be outdone, he left class and ran home to read Hamlet that very same day. He was in second grade at the time, not quite 9 years old.

Some of the families of Telavi had remarkable collections of books in their personal libraries. When the brothers wanted to read a certain book that they didn't have at home, their Mother would ask around among friends and neighbors and was almost always able to find it.
 
 

Above: Zaza Alexidze's mother Eugenia had a tremendous influence on his life, especially in literature and music. His father Nicolas was one of the first graduates of the University of Tbilisi.

But there was another library in their town that intrigued Zaza. During the war, their school had been converted into a military hospital. Somehow Zaza and his elder brother Thengiz had heard that somewhere in that building there was quite an extensive old library. In 1943 when the hospital was transferred to another location, the boys saw their chance to set out in search of it. Sure enough, they found their treasure downstairs in the basement.

Stacked up on the floor were piles and piles of books. The boys were even able to browse through a number of magazines lying around and even found articles featuring Trotsky (1879-1940) and Bukharin (1888-1938). At that time, articles featuring such revolutionaries who had resisted Stalin were absolutely forbidden. Obviously, no one knew of the existence of these old magazines, stashed away forgotten in a basement room in a small town far from Moscow, the center of Soviet bureaucracy.

Zaza remembers being so absorbed in the books that they didn't budge from that makeshift library until they were made to leave. Then they gathered up some of those forgotten books and headed home. One of Zaza's finds was a purely philosophical work: "Atomistic Philosophy of Democritus in Ancient Greece" written by Georgian philosopher S. Danelia. He was going on nine at the time. During the years that followed, at school he started reading intensely in philosophy, history, logic and psychology, although he had already determined that he wanted to become a historian.

Surprisingly, as a child, despite his voracious reading habits, he seldom read past midnight. That's the pattern he has generally maintained throughout his adult life as well. "Even today," he admits, "I rarely work past midnight. I treasure the nights. Lying in bed is when I do my deepest thinking. That's the time when so many fragmented pieces of information fall into place." Zaza admits that nearly all of his own writings and projects, including the decipherment of the Albanian alphabet, have been thoroughly deliberated and mulled over in his head at night - away from his desk, reference books and computers.

"One shouldn't think that the only thing I did in childhood was read," says Zaza, concerned that someone might get the wrong impression. "Like any kid, I spent a great deal of time outside in the fresh air, playing with friends. I was seriously involved with sports such as soccer, gymnastic and chess and took part in competitions and whenever possible, I went horseback riding."

Zaza is quick to admit to a mind - body relationship. "It's essential for the entire body to be involved if you want to excel in intellectual pursuits. The physical body must be strong and well trained, not only the mind," he says.

Though Zaza's father did not directly influence his academic interests in the profound way that his mother did, Zaza is convinced that the academic milieu in which he grew up did influence his own career later on. His father Nicholas was a scientist and professor, having earned a doctorate in agriculture and specialized in plant protection.

Nicholas Alexidze was among the first graduates of Tbilisi State University, an institution that was founded in February 1918 during that brief window of time when Georgia had gained its independence from the Russian Empire (1918-1921), prior to the Bolsheviks taking control and imposing the Soviet regime (1921-1991). Georgia was the first country in the Caucasus to establish a university. Its founder Ivane (John) Javakhishvili (1876-1940) is revered as Georgia's finest historian. His indisputable authority was, and still is, deeply felt in Georgia. Javakhishvili's complete set of works occupied the most esteemed place on the shelves of their quite extensive family library although no one had yet become a historian in the Alexidze family.

From early childhood, Zaza used to pore over these works. Javakhishvili was primarily concerned with the Caucasus, especially research related to Georgian and Armenian studies. Zaza believes that it was Javakhishvili's influence that made him conscious of the need to approach his studies from an interdisciplinary perspective.

I'm sure all of these factors played upon my subconsciousness," admits Zaza. "Even to this day, I'm convinced that genuine workmanship, in any field, can best be achieved when there is synthesis of thought between related fields. A cross-disciplinary approach is absolutely essential: all knowledge is related."

"Over the years," continues Zaza, "I've gradually arrived at the conclusion that any person who wants to make a serious contribution 'to sail in deep waters', as we say doesn't have to be a great specialist in every field related to his own. However, it's crucial that he acquires a knowledge that is broad enough so to make him extremely conscious of relationships that exist between various fields and disciplines."

Zaza suggests that for historians this might mean philology and linguistics. But, in addition to understanding these broader relationships, further subdivisions in history might include paleography, epigraphy, codicology, textology, grammatology and etymology.

Georgian Church
Despite the fact that neither Zaza nor any of the members of his family were religious, the church did play a significant role in those early formative years. In Telavi, their house was located directly behind the Georgian Orthodox church known as "Ghvtaeba" (St. Saviour's). This 5-6th century building doubled as the residence of the Bishop of Alaverdi, who oversaw the main diocese of Kakheti.

"As a kid, it was only natural that I spent many hours playing in the churchyard, and had regular contact with the clergy," says Zaza. The great religious celebrations fascinated him. Despite the fact that the Communist Party forbade Party members and Young Communist Union members (Komsomol) from getting involved with religion during the Soviet period, the common people, especially in rural areas were able to gather and worship quite freely, especially in those early years during and immediately following World War II. Zaza thinks that these restrictions and contradictions served to pique his curiosity.

"Enormous crowds would gather in the churchyard and spill over into our backyard and onto our balcony when the major Christian celebrations, such as Christmas, Easter, Christ's Ascension and Transfiguration were commemorated. When the weather was bad, townsfolk used to come and sit on our balcony and even come inside our home. So, although I didn't actually participate in those commemorations and celebrations, I was exposed to things that not everyone had the chance to see and know," observes Zaza.
Fortunately, during the Soviet period, the atheist government had not destroyed all the church buildings. In Georgia, many of the oldest churches (dating back to the 5th century) were declared historic monuments and were put under the protectorate of the State.

Academic Work
When it comes to research, Zaza remembers what his first "academic paper" was entitled, "The Origin of Georgian Script". At the time, he was about 13 or 14 years old. It was a paper that he read at a school conference. By that time, he had already read Javakhishvili's "Georgian Paleography" and "Ancient Armenian Historical Literature" which provided their own detailed analyses and perspectives of these issues.

Then he took a fascination in Gremi, the city where his mother's ancestors had come from. It had been the ancient capital of Kakheti before Telavi was. Again, Zaza was involved with research that would relate to future research. His report dealt with inscriptions that could be found in Gremi in the Georgian, Greek, Armenian and Persian languages as well as with other historical sources.

Zaza was only 14 years old when Ilia Abuladze's "Paleographic Album of the Old Georgian Script" was published. The term, "Old Georgian Script", refers to the early Georgian alphabet used between the 5th to 11th centuries, which differ considerably in appearance from the Georgian alphabet that is in use today.

This is the same script that would be on the top layer of the palimpsest under which Zaza would discover the Albanian written script at the Orthodox monastery on Mt. Sinai. Though the Old Georgian and Modern Georgian languages are relatively close to each other, their alphabets differ considerably. Years later, Professor Abuladze who studied the Old Georgian and Armenian texts would become the founding Director of Tbilisi's Institute of Manuscripts, and would go on to direct some of Zaza's future academic there.

Further academic pursuits began when Gabriel Chachanidze, the Bishop of Alaverdi, visited Zaza's home in Telavi. Zaza remembers the occasion: "When he saw me holding Abuladze's 'Paleographic Album', he took a deep interest in me and suggested that we work together, as he had been a professor of Georgian History at Tbilisi State University. And, indeed, we spent many hours in his place, which was located under the dome (cupola) of the church, overlooking our backyard." Zaza was 14-15 years old at the time.

Almost as forerunner of what was to come, whenever the Bishop could find time, he and Zaza would pore over photos from those Old Georgian texts. This was the beginning of Zaza's interest in epigraphy, paleography, especially in relationship to the study of alphabets. Of course, even then Zaza knew about the issues related to the Albanian alphabet.

"It was nigh impossible to know about Georgian and Armenian alphabets and yet be unaware that the Albanian language had existed, although no extensive text had ever been found," says Zaza.

In 1937, Ilia Abuladze, had discovered a sample of the Albanian alphabet in a 15th-century Armenian grammar text, which illustrated what various alphabets in the region looked like: Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Georgian, Syrian, Coptic, Arabic and Albanian. That same year, Akaki Shanidze identified the Albanian script with the contemporary Udi language.

More than 60 years would elapse from the time a relationship had been shown to exist between the Caucasian script and the contemporary Udi language, and when Zaza would find a sample of the extended text and identify it as Albanian.

Another person who influenced Zaza during his childhood and high school years was Givi Machavariani. Though eight years his senior, Givi became his closest friend and already was a promising scholar and developing into one of the great linguists of Georgia. Unfortunately, Givi died rather young, at the age of 40. Nevertheless, the two managed to publish several works together both in Georgian and in English. At the time, they were giving serious thought to developing a program that would combine history, philology and linguistics into a single united discipline, in an attempt to search for new ways to study the development of the Georgian nation.

Givi lived in Tbilisi. During the summer, he would come to the countryside in Telavi and stay with the Alexidzes, as he was also a relative. In turn, whenever Zaza went to Tbilisi, he would spend time with Givi. Zaza credits this friendship with the development of his interest in linguistics. "At that time, my fascination with languages became so intense, that it nearly rivaled my desire to become a historian," admits Zaza. "I'm sure that had I become a linguist, I would have wanted eventually to focus on problems related to Georgian ethnogenesis - understanding the beginnings of the Georgian people."

By that he means studying issues related to the origins of the Georgian people: whether they were indigenous to the region and which other nationalities were Georgians related to genetically, culturally and linguistically?

Zaza didn't become a linguist. But over the course of his studies and academic pursuits, he ended up having to deal with numerous languages and alphabet scripts. He is incredibly modest when it comes to acknowledging his expertise in ancient and modern languages, noting that there are other scholars who know more than he does. But his humility reminds one of the Azeri proverbs: "The tree heavy laden with fruit bends low."

Zaza recalls how his teachers in high school were very keen to find out which direction he would pursue as a career. When he finished high school [an 11-year course], each of his humanities teachers approached him regarding his future academic studies, hoping that he would choose their own specific field. As Zaza looks back on those days, he reflects, "Today, I'd like to think that I have not betrayed a single one of their expectations.

Zaza Alexidze went on to pursue studies in the History and Philology of the early Middle Ages in the Caucasus at the University of Tbilisi. He earned his Doctorate (1969) and Post Doctorate (1984) in Historical Science. He is now Professor at Tbilisi State University where he heads the Department of Armenian Studies. He is an Academician-Secretary of the Department of Language and Literature of the Georgian Academy of Science and directs Tbilisi's Institute of Manuscripts. In 2001, he succeeded in deciphering the ancient Albanian written script, the ancestor of contemporary Udi, which is spoken today by the Udins, who mostly reside in present-day Azerbaijan.

Below is a list of some of the major books he has written that somehow relate to the decipherment process of the Albanian written language. Most of these are in the Georgian language.

(1) Materials on the Historical Geography and Place Names of Georgia. Tbilisi, 1964.
(2) The Book of Epistles, Ancient Armenian Text, Georgian Translation, Analysis and Commentaries. Tbilisi, 1968.
(3) Ukhtanes: History of Separation of Georgians from Armenians, Ancient Armenian Text, Georgian Translation, Analysis and Commentaries. Tbilisi, 1973.
(4) Arseni of Saphara: On The Separation of the Georgia and Armenia, Ancient Georgian Text, Analysis and Commentaries. Tbilisi, 1980.
(5) Armenian Inscriptions of Ateni Sioni. Tbilisi, 1978.
(6) Four Inscriptions of Ateni Sioni. Tbilisi, 1983.
(7) Methodological Problems of Analysis of the Georgian Sources (Hagiography). Tbilisi, 1983.
(8) Georgian Fresco Inscriptions, Vol. I, Tbilisi, 1989.
(9) Breakthrough in the Study of Caucasian Albania, Tbilisi, 1998.
(10) Le Nouveau Manuscrit Georgien Sinaitique No. 50, Edition en facsimile, Introduction par Z. Aleksidze: Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orietalium, Lovanii, 2001.
(11) Caucasian Albanians Begin to Speak: The Deciphering and Identification of the Albanian Palimpsest. These publications in Azerbaijani and Georgian are anticipated in late 2003. Plans for an English translation are also underway.

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Caucasian Albanian Script
The Significance of Decipherment
by Dr. Zaza Alexidze

Also spelled Zaza Aleksidze

Related Articles
1 Caucasian Albanian Alphabet: Ancient Script Discovered in the Ashes - Dr. Zaza Alexidze and Betty Blair
2 Udi Language: Compared with Ancient Albanian - Alexidze
3 Quick Facts: Caucasian Albanian Script - Alexidze and Blair
4 Albanian Script: How Its Secrets Were Revealed? - Alexidze and Blair
5 Zaza Alexidze. Decipherer: Glimpses of Childhood - Blair
6 Udins Today: Ancestors of the Caucasian Albanians - Zurab Konanchev
7
Heyerdahl Intrigued by Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Alexidze


Until 2001 when Dr. Zaza Alexidze succeeded in deciphering the Caucasian Albanian written language from manuscripts that dated possibly back to the 5th century, some specialists in Caucasian studies were skeptical that the Albanian culture was even sophisticated enough to have an alphabet. Alexidze's discovery proves otherwise and has the following implications for theoretical or practical consideration:

Unknown Alphabet discovered
This is the first time that modern scholars have been provided with irrefutable proof that Caucasian Albanians had a highly developed alphabet system that had been used for extended texts. Previously, only a few inscriptions of the Caucasian Albanian script had been found in short inscriptions on the cornices of buildings, candlesticks and ceramics, but even to this day, these examples have not been successfully deciphered.

First in History
To Alexidze's knowledge, this is the first time in history that the person who discovered an unknown ancient written script also went on to decipher it. In 1990, under a Georgian text, Alexidze found what turned out to be the Caucasian Albanian script. In 1996, he identified the script as Caucasian Albanian and the forerunner of the contemporary Udin language. In 2001, he identified the text as one of the earliest Lectionaries (and possibly the earliest Lectionary of the Orthodox Church) that exists in the world.

Implications for Science
The Albanian written language provides insight into some of the historical, political and cultural forces that were at work in the region, especially as they relate to the ethnogenesis of the people who lived there-Albanians, Armenians and Georgians. Scholars will now be able to speak with more preciseness and pursue more research regarding the essence of the Albanian state, phases of its development, its boundaries, religion, ethnic and literary situation and other relevant issues.

Language Family Trees
The Albanian written language, which is the only known ancient literary language among numerous Caucasian languages, can be used as a springboard to reconstruct earlier stages of 40 some Caucasian languages.

Linguistic Analysis
A study of the etymology of words and loan words used in the Caucasian Albanian Lectionary can provide clues as to possible relationships and exchanges of early people who obviously had contact with each other, especially Caucasian Albanians, Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians and Jews.

Re-examine History
Present day Udi language is a descendent of the ancient Caucasian Albanian written language. In fact, the languages are much closer than anticipated. A written form of language tends to help standardize oral language. But modern Udi and the ancient written Caucasian Albanian do not appear to be so distant from each other. This would seem to indicate that the written Caucasian Albanian language did not disappear as early as previously believed in the 10th century. Otherwise, the process of oral transmission is likely to have introduced more distance and changes between written Albanian and contemporary Udi language.

Bible Translation
The discovery of the written Albanian language confirms that the Caucasian Albanians who embraced Christianity also had access to Scriptures in their own language. The Albanian Lectionary includes many passages of the New Testament as well as instructions to recite some of the Psalms from the Old Testament. Such references would not have been made if these portions of the Bible were not available to the Caucasian Albanians in their own language and script. This realization is new. Many scholars did not believe that the Caucasian Albanians had had a translation of the Bible in their own language.

Biblical and Liturgical Studies
If the accurate measure of the antiquity of a Lectionary can be judged by its complexity over time, then the Albanian Lectionary may be one of the oldest, or perhaps, the very oldest extant Lectionary in the world. Its church calendar is viewed as very simple.
If this is true, after the decipherment is completed, Biblical scholars will have access to texts, especially New Testament sources, that are likely to be closer to the original scriptures in the Greek manuscript which has since been lost. According to Alexidze, the Albanian Lectionary "is like a moment frozen in time" - like Pompey after the nearby volcano erupted. It may prove to be a great treasure and resource for Biblical scholars.

Reclaim ecclesiastical language
As Caucasian Albanian Orthodox Christians were forced to become Armenian Gregorian Christians or to convert to Islam more than 1,000 years ago, they soon lost their own belief system and the corresponding vocabulary that went with it. Now they will have a chance to reclaim their own ecclesiastical vocabulary that they once used in ancient Orthodox services and incorporate these terms in contemporary services.

Udi Alphabet
Theoretically, the Udi language, which has a complicated phonological system [more than 50 letters], as well as the other languages of Caucasian highlands will have the possibility of using the ancient Caucasian Albanian alphabet, instead of either the Russian or Latin script which are brimming with diacritical marks. In the ancient Caucasian Albanian alphabet, just like Georgian and Armenian, each phoneme (sound) is represented by only one grapheme (symbol). This will enable the modern Udi people to have the option of reclaiming their ancient alphabet.

Reverse language extinction
The Udi language, a descendent of the Caucasian Albanian language, is currently listed in the Red Book of Languages, signifying that this language is on the path to world extinction. Fewer than 8,000 people are estimated to speak Udi. The Albanian translations can facilitate the ability of the Udins to reclaim interest in their own roots as they reclaim ties back to the 4th-5th centuries. Already, this awareness has bolstered the Udi language and culture. Small literary works and samples of folklore are already being published in a modified Latin script.
n
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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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Heyerdahl Intrigued by Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Alexidze


Voices of the Ancients
Heyerdahl Intrigued by Rare Caucasus Albanian Text
by Dr. Zaza Aleksidze

Also spelled Zaza Alexidze


 
 
 


Other articles related to Thor Heyerdahl:

(1) Thor Heyerdahl in Azerbaijan:
KON-TIKI Man by Betty Blair (AI 3:1, Spring 1995)
(2) The Azerbaijan Connection:
Challenging Euro-Centric Theories of Migration by Heyerdahl (AI 3:1, Spring 1995)
(3)
Azerbaijan's Primal Music Norwegians Find 'The Land We Come From' by Steinar Opheim (AI 5.4, Winter 1997)
(4)
Thor Heyerdahl in Baku (AI 7:3, Autumn 1999)
(5)
Scandinavian Ancestry: Tracing Roots to Azerbaijan - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.2, Summer 2000)
(6)
Quote: Earlier Civilizations - More Advanced - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.3, Autumn 2000)
(7)
The Kish Church - Digging Up History - An Interview with J. Bjornar Storfjel (AI 8.4, Winter 2000)
(8)
Adventurer's Death Touches Russia's Soul - Constantine Pleshakov (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(9) Reflections on Life - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(10) First Encounters in the Soviet Union - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(11) Thor Heyerdahl's Final Projects - Bjornar Storfjell (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(12) Heyerdahl Burns "Tigris" Reed Ship to Protest War - Letter to UN - Bjornar Storfjell, Blair - (AI 11.1Winter 2003)

Articles related to Zaza Aleksidze and the Caucasian Albanian Script

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



_____

Much of the territory of modern Azerbaijan was once known as Caucasus Albania - not to be confused with the modern country of Albania found in the Balkans. Caucasus Albania remained a cohesive, mostly Christian, political entity in the area from the third to eighth centuries A.D. But even though the ancient Albanians were highly advanced and had their own writing system, very few remnants are left from their civilization. A few Albanian inscriptions were found in Azerbaijan in 1948-49 during an archeological excavation, but until recently, no one could figure out how to decipher them.

According to Professor Zaza Alexidze, one of the world's top experts on the Caucasus Albanian period, some amazing progress has been made on this front in the past few years. His remarkable discovery of a rare Albanian church service book even attracted the attention of the late Thor Heyerdahl, who was very interested in the possibility that the ancient Caucasus Albania region was the original home of the Scandinavian ancestor Odin. Heyerdahl, unlike many other scholars, took Odin to be a real person who migrated to the region from the Azerbaijan region, not just a mythological character.
______

Dr. Thor Heyerdahl was a legendary personality for the teenagers of my generation living in Georgia. We were fascinated by his books and films. I'm sure that for many of us, his example influenced our career choices and academic directions. As for me, I decided to specialize in the study of ancient texts. Today I am the Director of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia.



Left: Thor Heyerdahl examines a text at the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia, during his September 2000 visit.
Right: Thor Heyerdahl, Thor's wife Jacqueline, and archeologist Bjornar Storfjell examine copies of the ancient Caucasus Albanian church service book at the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia.

So you can imagine my joy when I heard that Thor Heyerdahl wanted to pay a visit to the Institute of Manuscripts to see me. His visit was one of the most interesting and important days of my life.

Heyerdahl was convinced that the Scandinavian god Odin was actually a historical figure who had originated from the Caucasus and then migrated with large numbers of his people to Scandinavia. Heyerdahl's search for the traces of Odin had taken him to Azerbaijan to find out more about the Udis, a small Christian minority living there.

The Udis' ancestry and language dates back to the highly developed Caucasus Albanian population that used to live throughout the region prior to the 10th century. After that time, the Caucasus Albanian state, people and culture gradually vanished from the historical arena. Today the few thousand remaining Udis live in three villages: Nij and Oghuz (previously Vartashen) in Azerbaijan and Zinobiani in Georgia.

Important Discovery
Some scholars believed that the Caucasus Albanians in this area never had their own written language and alphabet. All known Albanian texts had been preserved only in the Armenian language.

But in 1996, I discovered an ancient manuscript that proved conclusively that Caucasus Albania once had its own highly developed written language. During an expedition to St. Catherine's monastery on Mt. Sinai in Egypt, I found a unique palimpsest, a type of parchment manuscript that has two layers of text. The top layer of text was Georgian, but beneath it was another layer - this one, written in Albanian script.

Back in the Early Middle Ages, parchment was very expensive and in great demand, so it was typical for manuscripts to be reused. In this particular manuscript, the lower Albanian text was washed away so that the 10th-century Georgian text could be written on top of it. That makes the lower-layered Albanian text very difficult and time consuming to read, but with the help of modern technology and special illumination, we can determine what it says.

When Heyerdahl visited me in Tbilisi in September 2000, he was very curious to learn more about my discovery. I showed him several photos of the palimpsest and some of the pages that I had copied from it.

We had a long talk, exchanged views and spoke about future joint plans. He also visited the repository of the Institute of Manuscripts, which contains a large number of ancient manuscripts and historical documents in Georgian and many other languages.

My work of deciphering the lower layer of the Georgian-Albanian palimpsest continued until the beginning of 2001. Unfortunately, I never had another chance to see Heyerdahl, and I'm not sure if he heard about the preliminary results of my work. My upcoming book, which documents the results of deciphering the Albanian manuscript, will be dedicated to Dr. Thor Heyerdahl's sacred memory.

Ancient Lectionary
The palimpsest, as it turns out, is from a Christian Albanian lectionary, a church service book that contained a collection of liturgical lessons that were read throughout the church year and mainly consisted of readings from the Old and New Testaments. To compile a lectionary, one must first have a translation of the Bible available in that language.

This Albanian lectionary is very simplified, with only readings for 12 religious feasts along with some psalms and praises (alleluias). Unlike other ancient lectionaries, there is no evidence of a calendar system, no mention of any saints or ecclesiastical Fathers and nothing about liturgical processions to the holy places in Jerusalem and stops at relevant churches.

Traditionally within the church, lectionaries have evolved from being very simple to more and more complex. This means that in all probability, the Albanian text represents one of the first lectionaries ever written. It may even date back to the second half of the 4th century. In turn, that would mean that the written Albanian language had been created even earlier.

It's also interesting to note that some of the lessons given in the Albanian lectionary are not found in ancient Armenian and Georgian lectionaries. This may indicate that the Albanian lectionary was not translated from those other languages but was composed independently based on a Greek lectionary, which no longer exists.

Lost for Centuries
So why did the Albanian script disappear in the first place? In the 8th to 10th centuries, Arab invaders and Armenian clerics burned documents that were written in the Albanian language. The Albanian Church until around 720 AD was Diophysite, meaning that it perceived Christ as having a dual nature - both human and divine. The Armenian Church, however, was Monophysite and believed that Christ's nature was altogether divine. It wanted to stamp out any literature that was considered to be Diophysite.

From about 720 onwards, the Albanian church was strongly affected by the influence of the Monophysite Armenian Church. Albania gradually adopted the Armenian language and script, and thus, step by step, lost its national identity and written language. Up until recently, the only Albanian historical and ecclesiastical texts we had access to were translations that had been preserved in the Armenian language.

By examining the language found in the palimpsest, I discovered that the direct descendants of the Albanian people, the Udis, still speak a language that is very similar to the ancient Albanian language. Up until recently, the Udis wrote their language in the Cyrillic alphabet; now that Azerbaijan has opted for a Latin-based script, they, too, have switched to the Latin alphabet. But neither alphabet can handle the 50 or more phonemes found in the Udi language without creation of additional symbols. [As of this writing, the work on the Udi grammar has not yet been finished. Some scholars identify 52 letters, some 54, others 48]. Perhaps this new discovery will mean that the Udis can reclaim their long-forgotten alphabet once again.

Unto the Unknown
Now there is no doubt that the Caucasus Albanians once had their own written language and literature. But many questions remain: When was the Caucasus Albanian state formed on this territory? How far did it spread? How did the process of ethnic and cultural consolidation develop there?

Up until recently, the only information we had about the Albanian language came from Armenian sources. But now, this discovery will enable us to have access to less biased sources about the history of Albania, which may even reshape our ideas about ethnic origins and the history of the Albanian nation. An unknown civilization is revealing itself to us through its ancient alphabet.

Dr. Zaza Alexidze is the Director of the K. Kekelidze Institute of Manuscripts of the Georgian Academy of Science (1989-) and Head of the Armenology Department at Tbilisi State University (1979-). Contact: Dr. M. Alexidze, Institute of Manuscripts, Street 1, Bild 3, Tbilisi 380003, Georgia. Tel/Fax: (995-32) 94-25-18.
Email: zaza_alexidze@hotmail.com.

______

Right: A page of the Caucasus Albanian-Georgian palimpsest discovered by the author at Mt. Sinai. In the 10th century, the Caucasus Albanian writing was partially washed away from the parchment, and then a Georgian text was written perpendicular to it.

From the Caucasian Albanian text found in one of the palimpsests at the Mt. Sinai monastery (Egypt). This segment was identified by Dr. Zaza Alexidze, as II Corinthians 11:26-27 in which the Apostle Paul provides a short autobiographical summary of what he has suffered to proclaim about Christ. The Living Bible Translation reads:

(26) "I have traveled many weary miles and have often been in great danger from flooded rivers, and from robbers, and from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the hands of the Gentiles. I have faced grave danger from mobs in the cities, and from death in the deserts, and on the stormy seas, and from men who claim to be brothers in Christ, but who are not.

(27) I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. I've often been hungry and thirsty and have gone without food; often I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm."

To see Detailed Notes on the Grammar of this Biblical passage (II Corinthians 11:26-27) in Caucasian Albanian text by Dr. Zaza Alexidze, visit: www.lrz-muenchen.de/%7Ewschulze/Cauc_alb.htm#gram. To see: "A Functional Grammar of Udi" by German Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulze of the University of Munich, visit: www.lrz-muenchen.de/~wschulze/FGU.htm.

____

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