In the atmosperic, tiny village of Kish, near the historic town of Sheki, an unusual monument stands across from the quiet medieval Albanian church that dominates the central hill of the village. It’s a statue of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer who famously sailed across the Pacific in a simple self-made reed boat.
What was he doing in Kish?
The Search for Odin
Heyerdahl, always interested in upturning science’s traditional ideas, thought Norwegians came from Azerbaijan. As proof he pointed to the work of a 13th-century Norwegian historian, who said the mythical forefather of Norway, Odin, came from a land to the south called Aser. Another piece of evidence were the rock carvings in Qobustan. Heyerdahl was convinced they strongly resembled Norwegian rock carvings of the time, especially the boat designs.
Science never took much notice and dismissed the search for Odin as another crackpot theory from the Norwegian adventurer. Heyerdahl stopped looking in Azerbaijan himself after a while, and moved his search for Norway’s mythical homeland to Azov in Russia.
That was supposed to be the end of the story, yet, it is only the beginning.
The Udi people and Albanian Christians
The Albanian church in Kish was restored, and it was the Norwegian government who coughed up the money. Nobody found anything Scandinavian in the dig, but the restoration proved very interesting all the same. Archaeology is an important field in a region at war, with both Armenians and Azeri’s claiming heritage from the Albanians. The church has now become a museum, telling the untold story of the Caucasus Albanians.
The Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise however, remains very active in Azerbaijan, up to this day. After Kish, the Norwegians started restoring the Albanian church in Nic. It proved to be a controversial project.
Nic, capital of the Udi
Nic, on the way from Shaki to Baku, is the capital of the Udi people, a small nation of descendants of the Caucasian Albanians. They are Christians, and were forced to convert to Armenian Christianity by the Russians in 1836. They have nothing to do with Armenians ethnically, but they also started using the Armenian alphabet for their own language, and to top it off, their names often end in -ian.
That was enough to make the Azeri’s very suspicious, and the Udi men were not allowed to serve in the army until 2002. Many Azeri’s still believe they are closet-Armenians (like our guide said, in a hysterical whisper: “Their noses! Look at their noses!”)
During the church’s restoration, the villagers decided to wipe away any suspicion of Armenian-ness, by erasing the Armenian scripture carved on the inside of the church, and on the ancient graves in the graveyard. A big scandal ensued quoting words like vandalism and desecration, but the restoration was finished in the end, and the church looks beautiful now.
As we were visiting Nic, we had a pot of tea in one of the many tea houses dominated by the violent slaps of domino stones whacked onto tables.
The owner turned out to speak English very well. Yes, he had studied law in Europe, and had lived with a host family who invited him there. That’s where he was baptized as well. Interesting, where exactly was that then? In Norway. Of course.