Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2003 (11.3)
Pages 44-51

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
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."

Back to Index AI 11.3 (Autumn 2003)
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