Author: Rizvan HUSEYNOV Baku-Derbent-Baku
Welcoming faces, persistent requests to stay for dinner, giving guests little parcels with [traditional Azeri] hot tandir bread - that was how a family of local Azeris warmly greeted the scientists who had come to see the Church of St. Grigoris in the Dagestani village of Nugdi. It is mainly Azeris who now live in the once Jewish village and it is they who are protecting this Christian shrine, even though they worship Islam. "God's temple must be protected" - is the sincere belief of this Azeri family who kindly agreed to offer their key to the church to the visitors to the All-Russian scientific-practical conference "The 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in Derbent as the state religion of Caucasian Albania".
The scientists wanted to find out for themselves who actually owns this memorial to Christian architecture to which the Armenians at the conference were laying claim. They maintain that the history of Christianity in Dagestan has been since ancient times linked with the work of the Armenian Church and that Armenian rulers played a key role in the spread of Christianity in this region. And they point to the temple at Nugdi (Mola-Khalil), allegedly built on the site of the murder of St. Grigoris, the grandson of Grigoriy the Illuminator, in the 4th century as an ancient seat of the Armenian Church in Dagestan.
In the 30s of the fourth century Grigoris, at the request of the Albanian rulers, was ordained as Bishop of Iberia and Albania. Arriving in Albania, Bishop Grigoris "…ordained priests and persuaded them to be sanctified…and eagerly absorbed the apostolic truth". In 337 (or 338) Bishop Grigoris achieved martyrdom at the hands of the Maskut czar of the Huns of Senesan (Sanatruk). The maskuts (mashkuts, massagets), who lived on the western coast of the Caspian Sea - from Dagestan to Abseron [peninsula in Azerbaijan] and further south - were a bellicose people and held the ancient world in fear. The village of Mastaga, which lies in the outskirts of Baku, now carried in its name memories of the former might of the Mashkuts (Maskuts). Ancient sources particularly note that the Maskuts were a Hun people, whose warriors mastered the skills of fighting and were excellent horsemen. In other words, the Maskuts, being a Turkic people, have since ancient times owned vast territories in the Caucasus. They executed St. Grigoris after bringing down his horse to whose tail the martyr was tied - this was a method of execution that was once widespread among the Turkic peoples.
Curiously, the Armenians, alluding to ancient - including Armenian - sources on the death of Grigoris, "fail to note" the Turkic origin of the Maskut-Huns, who lived in the region from time immemorial. But let us return to the Temple of St. Grigoris.
If one is to believe the Armenian sources, including the encyclopaedia of the "Hayazg" Foundation, here there used to be "the chapel of St. Grigoris, erected in 337, as the story goes, on the site of the death of the young Grigoris". According to the version of the Armenian participants in the conference in Derbent, this church was built in ancient times by the Armenians, and then in the 19th-20th centuries was restored on a number of occasions. However, the earliest known written record of the chapel of St. Grigoris in Nugdi only relates to 1857 when it was visited by the Armenian publicist, Rostom-bay Erzinkyan. This has always been regarded as a holy place for both Muslims and Christians and there is no record of there ever having been an Armenian church here.
The participants in the Derbent conference, who included the author of this article, could find no trace of antiquity or earlier building in the church. At the same time, it was revealed that thanks to the now late Azerbaijani Kamil Qudratov, a stone was preserved with a commemorative inscription about the restoration of the church at the end of the 19th century, on the basis of which the Armenians have rebuilt the church and are now trying to date it as the 4th century. At the beginning of the 20th century this church was again either restored or the Armenians tried to rebuild it. And a few years ago further restoration and rebuilding of the Church of St. Grigoris was begun and continues to this day.
The process of the total Armenization of the Albanian Church began from the 19th century and continues today in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. A memorial to the Albanian civilization, the Gandzasar Monastery complex, like many other temples situated in Armenian-seized Nagornyy Karabakh, has been subjected to numerous alterations, rebuilding and "restorations", with but one aim - its Armenization. Fortunately, ancient manuscripts, as well as old findings and books, which help modern researchers to make judgements on the state and significance of Gandzasar, have been preserved. In particular, a rich seam of factual material has been collected in the scientific research of academician I. Orbeli (1887-1961) and the works of Bishop Makar Barkhudaryants (1834-1906), which contain data and details about the state of the temples, inscriptions and sepulchral epitaphs until they started to be completely Armenized. This was noted in the speeches by the Armenian participants in the Derbent conference.
The 1,700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Caucasian Albania was solemnly marked for the first time in August this year in the Udi village of Nij in Azerbaijan's Qabala District. This date was not chosen at random because, according to some sources, it was in 313 that the Albanian Czar Urnayir (the Blessed), together with Albanian princes and his warriors, received baptism from St. Grigoriy the Apostle. Christianity in Derbent, as in all Caucasian Albania, spread from the middle of the first century. But in the V-VII centuries Darband was one of the main Christian centres in the Eastern Caucasus. Here, according to a report of the early Mediaeval Albanian author Moisey Kalankatuyskiy, was situated the residence of the patriarchs of the Albanian church.
Meanwhile, the claims of the Armenian contributors about Dagestan's early Christian heritage belonging to the Armenian Church provoked serious dispute between the participants in the conference. Representatives of the Dagestani academic public rejected the Armenians' arguments, showing that the history of Christianity in Dagestan and throughout the Caucasus is indelibly linked with the Albanian Church, Caucasian Albania and the peoples who settled there since ancient times.
The Azerbaijani delegation at the discussions on this question noted that the legacy of Caucasian Albania is the general cultural and historic treasure of all the peoples of the Caucasus and there is no point in "dividing it according to ethnic units", thereby provoking a conflict between peoples. The Azerbaijani side's position was eventually supported by the organizers of the conference and all the participants in the debate who described the attempts to "nationalize" the heritage of Caucasian Albania from any side as unproductive and dangerous.