Winter 2000 (8.4)
Norwegians Help Restore
with J. Bjornar Storfjell
articles by or related to Bjornar Storfjell:
Heyerdahl's Final Projects - Bjornar Storfjell (AI 10.2,
of the Ancients: Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Zaza Alexidze
(AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
in Kish: Carbon Dating Reveals Its True Age - Bjornar Storfjell
(AI 11.1, Spring 2003)
have guessed that a rather plain, small church, found in a remote
part of northwest Azerbaijan, would excite so much international
attention? What could be so fascinating about a building that
hasn't even been in use for the past two centuries?
Norwegians have the answer. In the village of Kish, near the
town of Shaki, which snuggles up to the foothills of the Caucasus
mountains, a team of Azerbaijani and Norwegian scholars is investigating
a remarkable remnant of Caucasus Albanian Christianity. Based
on their findings, they estimate that this local church may be
nearly 1,500 years old.
How did the Norwegians even hear about the church? Some of the
credit goes to Eyvind Skeie, a well-known Norwegian author and
scriptwriter who has been involved in various cultural projects
involving Norway and Azerbaijan. Skeie made a video of the church
in Kish, which appeared on the TV news in Norway in December
1998 as a short, interesting religious feature for the first
day of Christmas. The piece mentioned that this was an ancient
church and that they were eager for scientists to explore and
excavate it though, at present, there was no funding for such
J. Bjornar Storfjell chanced to hear the announcement, even though
he wasn't paying much attention to the television playing in
the background. It sparked his interest, since he has done a
considerable amount of research on the Byzantine period and early
churches in Jordan, Israel and the Middle East. Storfjell sent
an e-mail to the Norwegian Broadcasting Company, which put him
into contact with Skeie. What followed was a full-scale excavation
that began in the summer of 2000 in Azerbaijan.
Left: Norwegian archeologists
believe that the Kish Church found in the foothills of the Caucasus
may be nearly 1,500 years old. It was built by Caucasian Albanian
Christians who lived in the region.
Norwegians seem to have a particular - and some might even say,
vested - interest in Azerbaijan's early history. At the forefront
is the famous Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, 86, who
is convinced that Norwegians and other Scandinavians can, in
part, trace their roots back to Azerbaijan. Heyerdahl, who has
been featured in several issues of Azerbaijan International,
returned to Baku for the fourth time this past September to visit
the archeological dig in progress at Kish. But Heyerdahl is not
the only Norwegian to take a personal interest in this country's
Ambassador, Olav Berstad, himself an archeologist by training,
is convinced of the wealth of archeological sites in Azerbaijan.
"There's more cultural remains beneath the surface of the
ground in this country than is generally recognized," he
insists, "and so little of it has been documented."
In the remote village
of Kish, six hours northwest of Baku, Norwegian and Azerbaijani
researchers are working together to learn more about the history
of the ancient Caucasus Albanian Christian church. Oral tradition
says that church was built in 78 AD, but the researchers place
it a few centuries later.
Left: World-renowned Norwegian
anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, 86, visits the archeological dig
at the Kish Church near Shaki, Azerbaijan in September 2000.
Caucasus Albania, not to be confused with contemporary Balkan
Albania in Europe, is the Roman designation for the northeastern
Caucasus, roughly today's Azerbaijan. Caucasus Albania remained
a cohesive, mostly Christian, political entity for about half
a millennium, from the 3rd to the 8th centuries A.D.
Berstad explains why the Norwegian government decided to help
Azerbaijan with this particular project: "We believe that
it's important for Azerbaijan, as a young, developing state,
to dig deeper into its past. Establishing direct links with the
past will strengthen the nation's identity as a separate entity
here in the Caucasus.
this project is also very interesting from a professional point
of view. The location is idyllic; Kish is a beautiful village
situated in the foothills of the Caucasus. It's obviously a very
old cultural site, and more needs to be known about it."
The project feeds the Ambassador's personal interests. "I've
been fascinated with archeology ever since I was a child,"
he adds. "I remember reading about Egypt, Central America
and the Indus Valley. I found early civilization to be so fascinating."
Berstad then studied archeology in Oslo for a short period of
time and received a scholarship to Leningrad in the mid-1970s
before beginning a career as a diplomat.
Despite a strong interest on the part of the Norwegians, Berstad
points out that the excavation and restoration of the Kish church
is an Azerbaijani project, not a Norwegian one. "It would
have come about sooner or later," he says. "But it's
happening sooner, since we have these established contacts and
have found some funds through Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We would also like to use this project to establish a closer
professional relationship between Norwegian and Azerbaijani experts."
based in both Norway and Azerbaijan are working on the project.
In addition to Norwegian-American Storfjell and British Ms. Suseela
C. Y. Storfjell, there's Dr. Vilayat Karimov from the Academy
of Sciences' Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, who is
the local director of the project's excavations. Ms. Aliya Garahmadova
of the same institute is also involved. Archeologist Nasib Mukhtarov
has been responsible for organizing the local workers for the
Left: A very unusual grave
with six skulls was found near the foundation of the Kish Church.
Gulchohra Mammadova, Rector of Azerbaijan's University of Architecture
and Construction, is supervising what will be the restoration
of the church once the archeological project is completed. Mammadova
has spent the last 20 years investigating early Christian architecture
in Azerbaijan, a topic that has rarely been touched upon, even
though there are several other Christian sites in the country.
She was born in Yerevan, speaks Armenian and therefore managed
to read many of the Armenian historical books about early architecture.
She wrote the first monograph on the subject, "Christian
Architecture in Azerbaijan from the 4th to 14th Century".
Davud Akhundov, who directed Mammadova's thesis and was the first
scientist to claim that Azerbaijani architecture predated Islam,
has also contributed greatly to making the Kish project a reality.
that Azerbaijani scholars are not used to the Western multidisciplinary
approach to fieldwork. "It's very interesting to exchange
ideas with my Azerbaijani colleagues about methodology,"
says Storfjell. "They've been working in the Soviet tradition
and have had very little contact with the West. Though there
has been a common source and origin in our methodologies, they
have been developing separately and independently for quite some
"In the West we are able to incorporate a number of scientists
in the actual excavation process. For example, on our digs in
Jordan, we bring along physicists, chemists, microbiologists,
paleontologists, geologists, climatologists, geographers, physicians
and even dentists. It's really a multidisciplinary team - like
a whole university - working on the site."
Another difference is that Western archeologists today are much
more focused on social elements and how ordinary people lived
thousands of years ago. "Fifty or 100 years ago," Berstad
explains, "archeologists were focused on learning about
the upper class and royalty. But this is only part of the story.
Today we have scientific tools and methods that make it possible
for us to know more about how ordinary people lived, what they
ate, and what kinds of diseases they suffered from. Modern science
has completely opened new possibilities into such studies."
The Kish project is organized through Norwegian Humanitarian
Enterprise, an organization with ties to the Lutheran Church
in Norway, which reaches out to the world through various humanitarian
projects. Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise began working with
refugees in Azerbaijan in January 1994. According to Director
Tore Seierstad, the archeological project was brought to the
attention of the organization by Bjorn Wegge, a special advisor
when the humanitarian projects first started in Azerbaijan. "Wegge
is really the father of the project.
He was very interested in the history of this area and very knowledgeable
about the early Christian church. He started to look into the
history, spoke to historians and scientists here in Baku, read
books and soon found out that Christianity had early roots in
Azerbaijan as well. We went through Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise
in Norway and set up the project as a Norwegian-Azerbaijani project."
Layers of History
Storfjell was amazed at the correlation between the building
that is standing today and similar structures in North Syria,
Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey but felt this was not to be
unexpected since those places were cradles of early Christianity.
"The Kish church was right at home among those Byzantine
structures in terms of both size and shape. In the Middle East,
the Islamic conquest basically put an end to the Byzantine era
in the middle of the 7th century - in 648 AD. But the architectural
style suggests that the Kish church might be earlier than that."
Though tradition and
legends hold that the church at Kish was built in the latter
part of the 1st century AD, Storfjell says that there has never
been any evidence of any church being built before the 4th century
anywhere in the world. The oldest known church to date is in
Left: After the excavations
and archeological surveys are completed, plans are being made
to restore the 1,500 year old church and convert it into a museum
to tell the story of the Caucasian Albanian Christians and their
religious faith. Photo: Sanan.
However, it seems clear that the site was in use long before
the church was built there. "Possibly, it has been viewed
as a holy place for millennia," observed Storfjell.
Archeologists have identified at least seven different layers
of data at the Kish site and believe that the church was reconstructed
at least four times. Each layer, or "stratum", represents
a period of occupation at the settlement. The earliest stratum,
naturally, is the layer on the bottom. Within the church building
itself, the archeologists have dug deep enough to reach sterile
clay, meaning that there are no cultural material remains lower
than this level.
In the oldest layer inside the church, ceramics were found that
date to the Early Bronze Age of the Kur-Araz culture, about 3000
BC. This calculation was based on the types of artifacts found
there - in other words, comparing them with other ceramics that
have been unearthed in Azerbaijan and determining if they were
made on a potter's wheel or shaped by hand, and how the clay
was worked and fired.
The next layer
indicates that the area was used as a graveyard prior to the
church's construction. Archeologists are not sure yet about the
dating of the burials, but estimate that they may have occurred
during the first few centuries AD. When Storfjell left Baku in
September this year, he carried out the bones of four different
people in his suitcases so that they could be dated using the
"We found a lot of skeletal material," Storfjell recalls.
"One grave was very unusual. It had one skeleton with all
of its bones connected in the right places, but on top of it
there were six skulls arranged in a sort of oval, right over
the lower abdomen and pelvic area. I've never seen anything like
it before. The skulls belonged to people who had already been
dead for some time when the other person was buried. They were
buried a second time with this person. It looked like most of
their other bones were there because there were enough femurs
(thigh bones) to account for the number of skulls that we had.
But they were carefully arranged - the femurs were in one area,
sort of grouped together. This grave predates the church."
Pieces of the Puzzle
Researchers are still trying to determine when the church was
built and exactly how it was used as a religious site, so that
they can place it within the larger context of Christian Caucasus
Albania and in the process leading from pre-Christian times to
the introduction of Islam. One piece in this puzzle is a coin
found near the church's foundation. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Curator
of Parthian and Sassanian Coins at the British Museum, dates
the coin to a Sassanian king named Kavad I, in the 39th year
of his reign, which corresponds to the year 526-527 AD. The coin
depicts a Zoroastrian fire altar and was minted near Persepolis
in what is now Iran. The inscription reads, "May the glory
of Kavad increase!"
"It's premature to draw a conclusion and say that the church
comes exactly from that same period," Storfjell cautions.
"What it gives us is the earliest possible date - it's hard
to imagine that it could have been earlier than that."
Evidence also seems to indicate that the building was a small
country church, only used by the people who lived in the village.
Kish is still a living village today. "We found very little
jewelry except for a few bronze pieces. This tells us about the
general economy of the area," Storfjell says. "There's
no evidence of mosaics on the floor; it was probably made of
stone or just plaster. Perhaps there was a monastery complex
associated with the church, as was often the case with churches
in the 5th to 7th centuries."
Albanian, Not Armenian
"We have clear evidence that this church was built as an
Albanian Diophysite church," says Storfjell. While Armenians
might beg to differ, he explains how the church's own architecture
shows it was not originally a Monophysite church.
"In the 5th and 6th centuries there was an intense theological
debate in the Eastern church regarding the nature of Christ,
whether he was both human and divine, or only divine, overshadowing
his human nature. At that time, the Caucasus Albanian church
took the position of the Diophysites, the group that perceived
Christ as having a dual nature - both human and divine. Today's
Western church, both Protestant and Catholic, also holds the
Diophysite position. The Armenian church, however, took the position
of the Monophysites, who said that Christ's nature was altogether
divine, even though he took on a human body.
"In a Diophysite church, the apse - the area where the altar
is located - is much closer to the level of the church's floor,
in order to symbolize the incarnation, or humanity, of Christ.
In the earliest phase of the church in Kish, the difference in
elevation is about 30-40 cm (1 foot, 4 inches), which shows that
they believed that God had come closer to humanity in the person
of Jesus. However, in the last three phases of this church, the
difference between the church floor and the apse was 70-90 cm,
which indicates a change in theology."
This doesn't necessarily mean that Armenians were actively using
the church, Storfjell says, only that it was influenced by Monophysite
theology. "The Armenians were not the only Monophysites.
There were also some groups in North Syria and North Iraq in
those early periods that held this belief as well."
"Armenians claim that any church on Azerbaijani territory
was built by Armenians," Mammadova says, a notion that has
contributed plenty of controversy to her own research on ancient
Azerbaijani churches. She argues that an ancient text proves
the Armenians wrong in this particular case: "In a 7th-century
text, 'History of Albania,' historian Moses Kalankatui writes
that 'the church in Kish is the mother of the Albanian churches.'
"Of course, there are also churches that were built by Armenians,"
she continues. "They built churches in Shusha, Karabakh
and Shamakhi. We don't deny that. But the origins of most Christian
churches on the territory of Azerbaijan are Albanian. In the
19th century, when Armenians were transplanted in Azerbaijan
from Turkey and Iran, they found these ancient Albanian churches
and monasteries that weren't being used. Instead of building
new churches, they renovated the existing ones that had fallen
into disrepair. Even though these churches now have Armenian
signs, they were originally Albanian, not Armenian," she
Telling the Story
Next year, the archeological team plans to excavate a 3 1/2-foot
(120-cm) trench along the foundation of the church. "When
we dig down through the soil," Storfjell says, "we
are digging down through time, layer by layer. Right up against
the wall and in the soil, we can piece together the story. If
you can date that material, then you can identify a date to attach
to the church.
"Archeology is a slow process," he says. "It requires
a number of seasons of excavation. We generally use a trowel
with a 4-inch blade. That's the one used by most American archeologists.
Smaller tools are used when we discover items such as skeletons
The fieldwork is just one small part of the entire project, he
points out. "There's a lot of work to be done in analyzing
the finds and records that we have taken during the field portion
of the dig. We now have to try to make sense out of them. It's
like detective work.
"In the West, so little has been published about Caucasus
Albania. That's why it's 'terra incognito' for us. We're exploring
it for the first time. Obviously, this region was one of the
major crossroads on international trade routes from the earliest
civilizations. It's one of the richest archeological regions.
Evidence of anthropoid settlement from the Caucasus goes back
millions of years."
Although the church has not been actively used for religious
purposes nearly 200 years now, it is treated with great respect
in the community. There's a woman in the village, Ilaha, who
has a key and has been taking care of the site. Previously her
mother-in-law, Firangiz, did it. "They've done a wonderful
job," remarks Storfjell. "There's no damage to the
building - only natural deterioration."
Curiously, there is a folk tradition related to fertility that
has long been associated with the site.
Women who are unable to conceive visit the church, pray and press
a coin against the wall. Because of the humidity, the coin sticks
to the plaster. The next day, they return to see if the coin
is still adhering to the wall. If so, it's supposed to be a sure
sign that the woman will have a baby. The practice still exists
today, and villagers attest that even women from Baku come to
After the excavations are completed, the next phase will focus
on the restoration of the church by the University of Architecture
in Baku, with local Azerbaijani architects supervising and guiding
all aspects of the project. "Once the building has been
restored," Storfjell says, "the plan is for it to be
turned into a museum that will tell the story of the church from
its very beginning. When we are finished, we should have enough
evidence to be able to say something meaningful about the place
from when it was first used right down to the present time."
For more information about other archeological sites in Azerbaijan,
SEARCH for "Gobustan" and "samovar".
(8.4) Winter 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
Back to Index
AI 8.4 (Winter 2000)
| Magazine Choice | Topics