In which I learn where Vikings come from

Can't beat a good chandelier.

Can’t beat a good light fitting.

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 once made the mistake of describing a twelfth century church as old to  Georgian lady. She sniffed contemptuously.

The correct size for a museum.

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.

Does this scream longboat to you?

Does this scream longboat to you?

Gobustan National Park contains some excellent mud volcanoesthe 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.

The expression of a man who has just concocted another theory of genius.

The expression of a man who has just concocted another brilliant theory.

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?

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2 thoughts on “In which I learn where Vikings come from

  1. While the “origins” of the church are up for debate, it is certain that the church at Kish (St. Yeghishe Church) did have Armenian inscriptions that were removed during restoration (with the full knowledge of the Norwegian government as the Norwegian Foreign Ministry financed it). The Norwegian government is ruled by a power elite with many connections to the Lutheran Church of Norway (also complicit) and it’s a shame this building was subject to the confluence of their pseudohistorical ideology and Azerbaijan’s political one.

    It is extremely disturbing that the propaganda seems to be working on tourists and journalists.

    • Hi John, thanks for commenting! I had heard of Armenian inscriptions being removed during the restoration of the nearby Nij church, but not at the church in Kiş – do you have a link for that?

      Certainly the current church at Kiş postdates Caucasian Albania by several centuries; its origins are definitely interesting though, as the roughly twelfth-century building seems to have replaced an earlier one, while the site appears to have been a holy place of some sort for many years before.

      It probably wasn’t founded in the first century, though. Which is a pity, because that would be impressively old, even for the Caucasus.

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