The Albanian Apostolic Church or the Church of Caucasian Albania was an ancient autocephalous Oriental Orthodox church that existed from 313 to 705 and was centered in Caucasian Albania, a region mostly located in present-day Azerbaijan. It was one of the earliest national Christian churches.

After the Muslim conquest of South Caucasus, the Church of Caucasian Albania formed an autonomous diocese within the Armenian Apostolic Church . In mediaeval times, the Gandzasar Monastery was the See of the Caucasian Albanian Catholicate, which continued its existence till 1828 (or 1836) when it was abolished by the Russian authorities.


According to Strabo, who travelled to the region in the first century B.C., the local tribes practised polytheism. Among the worshipped deities, Strabo names the gods of the sun, the sky, and above of all, the moon, and equates them to the Greek gods Helios, Zeus, and Selene respectively.[1] The skeleton of a human bound in fetters found in 1950, during the archeological excavations in Mingachevir, indicates that the ancestors of Caucasian Albanians practised human sacrifice.[2]

Side view of the Church of Kish, which has functioned at different times as a Chalcedonian church within the Georgian Orthodox Church and as an Armenian Apostolic church

St. Elisæus

According to a local tradition, Christianity entered Caucasian Albania in the first century through St. Elisæus, a disciple of St. Thaddeus of Edessa. St. Elisæus was ordained bishop by James the Just in Jerusalem, and travelled eastward through Persia to preach Christianity in the land of the Maskout, one of the Caucasian Albanian tribes (hypothetically related to the ancient Massagetae of Central Asiatoday commonly believed to be the Church of Kish north of Shaki, Azerbaijan. The church founded by St. Elisæus was regarded by Caucasian Albanians as their "mother-church" that laid the foundation of institutionalised Christianity in the kingdom.

Christianisation of Caucasian Albania

Shortly after Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion (301 AD), the Caucasian Albanian king Urnayr went to the See of the Armenian Apostolic Church to receive baptism from St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Patriarch of Armenia. According to historian Igor Kuznetsov, this determined the Armenian Apostolic Church's notion of its superiority to the Church of Caucasian Albania. However Caucasian Albanians, in contrast, may have believed in the seniority of their church due to the role of St. Elisæus who according to Movses Kaghankatvatsi built a church on their lands "earlier than in Armenia." After Urnayr's death, Caucasian Albanians requested that St. Gregory's grandson, St. Gregoris, lead their church. St. Gregoris had been ordained bishop of Caucasian Albania and Iberia at age 15 and travelled through those lands preaching Christianity. He built Caucasian Albania's third known church in the city of Tsri, in Utiķ. During his stay in the land of the Maskout in northeast Caucasian Albania, St. Gregoris was attacked by an angry mob of idol worshippers, tied to a horse and dismembered. His remains were buried near the Amaras Monastery (presently in the Khojavend Rayon of Azerbaijan) built by his grandfather in the Albanian province of Haband.

In the mid-fifth century, under Vache II, Caucasian Albania shortly adopted Zoroastrianism due to Persian influence. The return to Christianity resulted in a war between Persia and Caucasian Albania, during which Vache II lost his heir. Neither side won; eventually Peroz I of Persia offered Vache II peace and the right to adhere to Christianity, if Vache's mother and wife who were Persian and Zoroastrian by birth were returned to their homeland. Vache complied, and lived the rest of his life in solitude

Christianity reached its golden age in the late fifth century under Vachagan the Pious (ruled 487–510), who launched a campaign against idol worship and witchcraft in Caucasian Albania and discouraged Zoroastrianism. Those who propagated idol worship were physically punished, enslaved or ostrasised. King Vachagan would personally arrange for their children to be taken to schools and raised Christian. He took an active part in Christianising Caucasian Albanians and appointing clergy to monasteries throughout his kingdom. On his orders, the site of St. Gregoris' burial was discovered and venerated.

In 488, King Vachagan convoked the Council of Aghuen in his summer residence near present-day Aghdara. During the council, a twenty-one paragraph codex was adopted formalising and regulating the important aspects of the Church's structure, functions, relationship with the state, and legal status.

Structure of the Church


The archbishop was considered the head of the Church of Caucasian Albania, and he had traditionally been ordained by the Armenian Catholicos until 590, when Caucasian Albania proclaimed its own locally ordained patriarchy. This continued until the abolition of the Church's autocephaly in 706. The city of Chola (possibly present-day Derbent, Russia) had originally been chosen to be the See of the Church of Caucasian Albania. However, in 551, due to plundering raids of Khazars on Caucasian Albania, the seat of the archbishop was transferred to Partaw.

In various sources, the dioceses of Partaw, Amaras, Syuniķ (transferred over from the Armenian Apostolic Church in 590), Utiķ, Balasakan, Gardman, Shaki, Kabalaka, Hasho, and Kolmanķ are listed as denominations of the Church of Caucasian Albania.


The liturgical language of the Church was one of the local tribal tongues, possibly Gargarian, which was mentioned by Movses Kaghankatvatsi as having its own literary tradition from the fifth century A.D. In his letter to Persian Christians in 506, Babken I, Catholicos of Armenia, stated that all three churches of the Caucasus are ideologically united despite each having its own language. This is proven by a bilingual Georgian-Caucasian Albanian palimpsest manuscript dating back to no later than the seventh century discovered in 1997 in St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt by Georgian historian Zaza Aleksidze Towards the abolition of the Church's autocephaly, it was increasingly becoming linguistically Armenised. Among the factors that might have contributed to that are constant raids of the Khazars and the "lawless" who burned churches and with them much of Caucasian Albanian religious literature. In 1898–1902, for the first time since 705, the Gospels were translated by Simon Bezhanov of Vartashen into the Udi language, a direct descendant of one of the tribal languages of Caucasian Albania.

Proselytism among the Huns

In the sixth century A.D. the Huns had established themselves in the North Caucasus, in what is now Dagestan. At the time of Javanshir's rule (635–669), they maintained friendly relations with Caucasian Albania. Javanshir's assassination in 669 provoked the Huns to launch raids into the country in retaliation for their ally's death. The new ruler Varaz-Tiridates I, who was Javanshir's nephew, delegated Israel, Bishop of Mets Kolmanķ, to persuade the Hunnic ruler Alp Iluetuer to put an end to military actions, as the people of Caucasian Albania could not be held responsible for a deed committed "by the hand of one treacherous and vile man."[3] During his stay in the land of Huns in 681—682, Israel condemned their pagan beliefs and practices, and preached Christianity. His converts offered him to establish and lead a patriarchate there through a special request sent by Alp Iluetuer to Eliezer, Catholicos of Caucasian Albania.[4] The request was turned down due to Israel already having been assigned a congregation in Mets Kolmanķ. Despite Israel maintaining further contact with the Huns, Christianity probably did not survive among the latter for long.

Chalcedonian Creed

The Church of Caucasian Albania was represented in the early œcumenical councils but similarly to a number of other Oriental Orthodox churches, it did not accept the Chalcedonian Creed (a doctrine condemning monophysitism and propagating the dual nature of Jesus Christ) adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, viewing it as a return to Nestorianism.

In the late seventh century Catholicos Nerses attempted to install the Chalcedonian rite in Caucasian Albania. According to Kaghankatvatsi, Nerses was the bishop of Gardman who adhered to diophysitism, as did the queen-consort of Caucasian Albania, Spram, the wife of Varaz-Tiridates I. In 688, with Spram's help, Nerses managed to be appointed to patriarchy planning to convert the country into Chalcedonianism eventually. Many members of the ruling class and clergy accepted his ideas, whereas those that remained loyal to the original teachings of the Church (including Israel, Bishop of Mets Kolmanķ), became subject to repression. The growth of diophysitism was contrary to the interests of the Arabs who had taken over most of the Caucasus by the early 700s, because diophysitism was regarded as Greek in essence and thus associated with territorial aspirations of the Byzantine Empire. In 705, the anti-Chalcedonian clergy of Caucasian Albania convoked a council and anathematised Nerses and his supporters. Elias, Catholicos of Armenia, followed up by writing a letter to Caliph Abd al-Malik notifying him of the political threat that Chalcedonianism was posing to the region. Abd al-Malik arranged for the arrest of Nerses and Spram, who were then bound in fetters and exiled.

Abolition of the Church

After the overthrow of Nerses in 705, the Caucasian Albanian elite decided to reestablish the tradition of having their Catholicoi ordained through the Patriarch of Armenia, as it was the case before 590.< This event is generally regarded as the abolition of the Church of Caucasian Albania, and the lowering of its denominational status to that of a Catholicate within the body of the Armenian Apostolic Church The Arab conquest and the Chalcedonian crisis led to severe disintegration of the Church of Caucasian Albania. Starting from the eighth century, much of the local population underwent mass Islamisation. By the eleventh century there already were conciliar mosques in Partaw, Chabala and Shaki; the cities that were the creed of Caucasian Albanian Christianity. These Islamised groups would later be known as Lezgins and Tsakhurs or mix with the Turkic and Iranian population to form present-day Azeris, whereas those that remained Christian were gradually absorbed by Armenians or continued to exist on their own and be known as the Udi people.

The Caucasian Albanian tribes of Hereti (the former country's northern province that was temporarily independent and in the late ninth to mid-eleventh century claimed to be the political successor of Caucasian Albania but had been subject to Georgian cultural influence) were converted to Eastern Orthodoxy by Dinar, Queen of Hereti in the tenth century. The religious affairs of this small principality were now officially administered by the Georgian Orthodox Church. In 1010, Hereti became absorbed into the neighbouring Georgian kingdom of Kakheti. Eventually in the early twelfth century, these lands became part of the Georgian Kingdom under David the Builder finalising the process of their Georgianisation.

Albanian Catholicate

The Albanian or Gandzasar Catholicate of the Armenian Apostolic Church continued to exist well into the nineteenth century. There were attempts to restore the autocephaly of the Church of Caucasian Albania in the mid-tenth century but they were averted by the Armenian clergy with the support of King Ashot III.[5] After the transfer of the seat of the Armenian patriarch to Rumkale, Cilicia, in the twelfth century, the Albanian bishops no longer appealed to the former to ordain their catholicos. The original order was restored in 1634 after the seat of the Armenian patriarch returned to Echmiadzin. The See of the Albanian Catholicate remained in Partaw for a while. Around 1213, it was transferred to the Khamshi Monastery south of Gadabay. Beginning in 1240, the Gandzasar Monastery was becoming increasingly consolidating, and in the 1400s it took up the status of the seat of the Albanian Catholicos. From that period on, the Catholicoi also belonged to the resident family of Gandzasar, the princely House of Hasan-Jalalyan; the seat would be passed down from uncle to nephew.In addition to the former jurisdiction of the Church of Caucasian Albania, the Catholicate maintained control over the Armenian diocese in the Golden Horde in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, centered in its capital city of Sarai. In the mid-eighteenth century, the religious life of the Armenian community of Astrakhan was also supervised by the Albanian Catholicate.[6] Beginning in the early 1700s, the Hasan-Jalalyans actively contributed to the Russian conquest of the South Caucasus.[7] In 1815, two years after the Russian conquest of Karabakh, the office of the Albanian Catholicos was abolished, and the congregation was now led by a metropolitan bishop. In 1836, by the decree of Nicholas I, which regulated the status of the Armenian Apostolic Church within the Russian Empire, the Albanian Metropolis was abolished completely. Its jurisdictions subordinated directly to the Armenian Apostolic Church as the Dioceses of Artsakh and Shamakhy, as well as the Vicariate of Ganja of the Armenian Church's Tiflis Consistory.


In the last chapter of book two, Movses Kaghankatvatsi lists monasteries that were established by Caucasian Albanians in Jerusalem.[8]

  • Monastery of Pand
  • Monastery of Mrouv
  • Monastery of St. Theotokos of Partaw
  • Monastery of Kałankatouyk
  • Monastery of St. Theotokos of Artsakh
  • Monastery of St. Gregory of Amaras
  • Four other unnamed monasteries repossessed by Arabs at Kaghankatvatsi's time

As a result of the ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani military confrontation, the Armenian Apostolic Church has not had official representation in Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh since the early 1990s. As of 1997, the churches in Udi-populated locales remained closed since the Bolshevik anti-religious campaign of the 1930s. However, in 2003, the Albanian-Udi Christian Community based in Nij was registered in the Azerbaijan State Committee for Religious Organisations.[9]


  1. Strabo. Geography. (translated into Russian by G.Stratanovsky). St. Petersburg: 1964. Vol. XI. 4,7
  2. (Russian) R.Vahidov. Archeological Works of Mingachevir in 1950. КСИИМК, Issue XVI. Moscow: 1952. p.91-100
  3. Kaghankatvatsi, II.XXXVI
  4. Kaghankatvatsi, XLV
  5. Andre Vauchez, Richard Barrie Dobson, Adrian Walford, Michael Lapidge. Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Routledge, New York: 2000. ISBN 1579582826; p. 106
  6. (Russian) Armenian Apostolic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Encyclopædia.
  7. Yesayi Hasan-Jalalyan. A Brief History of the Land of Aghvanķ.
  8. Kaghankatvatsi, II.LII
  9. Sergei Markedonov. Azerbaijan: an Islamist Threat to Religious Harmony.
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