In 2019, upon the invitation of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan, I had the pleasure of participating in a major international conference on inter-cultural dialogue which was held on 2-3 May in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, with the cooperation of UNAOC, UNESCO, UNWTO, the Council of Europe and ISESCO.
The fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, held under the motto of "Building dialogue into action against discrimination, inequality and violent conflict," gathered eminent dignitaries, government officials, religious leaders, renowned international experts as well as civil society representatives “to better understand the drivers and benefits of intercultural dialogue as an instrument for addressing some of the pressing challenges of our time.” At the onset of the visit, His Virtue Prof. Dr. Allahshukur Pashazade, the Chairman of the Caucasus Muslims' Board invited a selected number of participants to attend a concluding ceremony to revisit the achievements of the event and also further discuss avenues of future cooperation.
Among the invitees, I had the gratitude of meeting with representatives from the different religious communities in Azerbaijan, including the Caucasian Albanian-Udi Church. I was taken by surprise and intrigued to learn that an Albanian community in fact existed in the Caucasus region and in present-day Azerbaijan.
Out of interest and curiosity, I yielded to the temptation to undertake further research regarding the genesis and origin of the Albanian community in the Caucasus and whether in fact they had anything in common with the Albanians of the Balkans.
According to Azertac, the Azerbaijani state news agency, the most numerous of the 26 Albanian tribes that founded Caucasian Albania remain the Udins. Numbering approximately 5,000 people according to the 2009 Azeri census, they inhabit different villages of the Nidzh and Gabala regions in northern Azerbaijan, not far from the Russian border.
Against this background, and in light of other relevant material that I consulted, it wasn’t immediately evident whether the Albanians of the Balkans and the Albanians of the Caucasus share points of commonalities of their origins.
Or perhaps the reference to Caucasian Albania was merely circumstantial and anachronistic and would therefore not serve as telling evidence to demonstrate the congruity between the Albanians of the Balkans and the Caucasus?
Let us not forget that there are numerous other locations in the world that contain a reference to Albania. For instance, we can name Alba, the Gaelic name of Scotland, the city of Albany in the state of New York and Medieval Venetian Albania (14th-18th century) referring to the territorial possessions of the Venetian Empire around the Bay of Kotor and Lake Skadar that were not subject to Ottoman rule.
Although it remains up to historians and scholars to further investigate the origins of Caucasian Albania, I had the pleasure of engaging in fruitful and constructive conversations with two internationally renowned professors, Jost Gippert and Svein Mønnesland, respectively from the University of Frankfurt and the University of Oslo, regarding the origins of Albanians.
Both experts were skeptical about the existence of historical facts or archival records that would link the Albanians of the Balkans to the Caucasus Albanians, despite their similar denominations. According to Professor Gippert:
The ethnic group considered under the name of ‘Caucasian Albanians is an East Caucasian ethnic group that is today represented by the Udi people in the south-eastern Caucasus. There is no visible relationship whatsoever between the Albanians of the Caucasus and the Albanians of the Balkans. There are no historical facts supporting this, there is only the accidental similarity of the names.
For Professor Mønnesland, it is dubious that historical facts exist which could relate the Albanians to Caucasus Albanians due to the linguistic differences between both the Albanians and the Udi people:
It is unlikely that Albania in the Caucasus has anything to do with the country Albania. Albania was a name the Romans gave to the area known today as Azerbaijan. The Udi people speak a Caucasian language, not an Indo-European as Armenian. The Albanian language is Indo-European. Therefore, there cannot be any connections between the Udins and the Albanians. Whether Albanian derives from Illyrian or Dacian/Thracian, is in this context less important. All these languages were Indo-European.
In the context of the origin of the name Albania, Professor Mønnesland underlines that Greek historians have associated the name Albania with the name of the ancient Illyrian tribe Albanoi located in what is known today geographically as Albania.
We know that ‘Albania’ is not the name the Albanians use of their country, but was probably given by Western (Greek) historians [who] associated the name with the Albanoi tribe. Albania also exists as a name referring to Scotland/England. That means that the name cannot be used to prove anything. Linguistic kinship is important.
Professor Gippert follows in the same vein and points out that there is no relationship between Albania and “Albion as an ancient designation of Scotland. Albania is the name given to the area in question (present-day Azerbaijan and adjacent areas) by ancient Greek authors such as Arrian, Strabo, and Ptolemy, as well as Latin authors such as Pliny the Elder and Tacitus.”
Although Caucasus and Balkan Albania march to different drummers, the Udins and the Balkan Albanians would endorse the motto of the 2019 conference:
Building dialogue into action against discrimination, inequality and violent conflict.
They too would share a noble aspiration: Long live Albania!