The village museum in Kiş, in northern Azerbaijan, is housed in the tiny, beautifully restored medieval church.The museum tells the story of Caucasian Albania (not to be confused with the Balkan variety), one of the many Transcaucasian statelets that foundered in the face of repeated Persian, Turkish and/or Mongol invasions; it has quite a good chandelier, some glass panels in the floor with skeletons underneath, and a reasonable quota of ancient pots. It also has Thor Heyerdahl.
I am rather keen on Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer and ethnographer who firmly believed that an anthropological theory wasn’t worth the name unless it had some tenuous link to the local mythology and testing it involved building an enormous balsa wood raft and sailing it across an ocean or two. He is best known for the Kon-Tiki expedition, when he built a raft in Peru and sailed it to French Polynesia; he also sailed from Morocco to Barbados and Ecuador to Easter Island in various “authentic” historical vessels. Quite what he was proving in the end was all a bit hazy, but he clearly had tremendous fun along the way and is my kind of social scientist. However, Azerbaijan is a long way from the nearest ocean or balsa wood forest (the Caspian Sea seeming a little tame for a man of Heyerdahl’s ambition). He doesn’t exactly fit in with the amphorae.
The inscription beside the bust, a quote from Heyerdahl himself, doesn’t make matters much clearer:
Scandinavian mythology describes a god called Odin that came to Northern Europe from a place called Azer. I have studied these writings and concluded that it is not mythology, it is real history and geography.
So far, so Heyerdahl, but this seemed to be a bit of a stretch even for him (there was no mention of rafts, for a start). The museum was a little vague on the point, but as it turned out, enlightenment (or at least a more informed state of confusion) could be found considerably further south, in a national park close to Baku.
Gobustan National Park contains some excellent mud volcanoes, the most easterly Roman inscription ever discovered (75 AD, approximate translation: 12th Legion woz ere), and a large quantity of prehistoric rock art. These petroglyphs cover the usual range from decoratively abstract to the cheerfully pornographic, demonstrating that in many ways, humanity has not changed a great deal over the past forty thousand years. Lots of them require a certain degree of imagination to interpret. Fortunately, imagination is one area in which Heyerdahl excelled, and it required only the sight of one particular petroglyph to send him haring off merrily into the realms of conjecture and wishful thinking, and constructing a theory that involved lost civilisations, Norse mythology and, sure enough, a long voyage.
It appears that, buried in a thirteenth-century book of sagas, a certain Snori Sturlusson notes that before Odin got busy hanging upside down on Yggdrasil, he had led the ancestors of the Vikings out of a country far in the east called Aesr. This legend, combined with the petroglyph which resembled Viking depictions of their own longships, was all Heyerdahl needed. The ancestors of the Vikings had in fact hailed from present-day Azerbaijan, and several thousand years ago had left by boat through the Caspian Sea, up the river Volga and ended up through what I can only assume was some terrible map-reading, in Sweden, which must have come as a nasty shock to people used to the Caucasian summers. As was his wont, he showed an admirable refusal to let duller minds, in the form the bulk of the historical, archaelogical and philological community, grind him down by suggesting that his inferences might perhaps be based on rather shaky ground, and continued to publish books, lecture and write articles about the subject until his death in 2002.
And where does Kiş fit in? The website of the local tourist board eagerly claims that the church was “built by the early ancestors of present-day Scandinavians”, which is sensational even by Heyerdahl’s standards, as it would put the church and consequently the foundation of Christianity itself several millenia before the accepted date and would thus be a matter of great interest. Inexplicably, the international theological community appears to have failed to pick up on this, and the more prosaic explanation for Heyerdahl’s presence is that the Norwegian government paid for the refurbishment of the church, and Heyerdahl visited several times; although history does not relate if he found any more evidence to support his theory during the excavations, he seems to have plumped for the Kiş area as the site of his proto-Scandinavian civilisation more or less at random. I’m delighted he’s there, though, and although he never got around to building a proto-longship and sailing up the Volga, I rather hope someone at some point does. Perhaps now that Eurovision is done and dusted the Azerbaijan government could adopt this as its next Big Project?