Church of Arran

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The Church of Aran or Arran (Azeri: Əran 'Land of Warriors', Ər - 'warrior/man', an - 'land'; Greek: Αράν), also known as Church of Caucasian Albania in the western sources, is one of the oldest churches in the world. It is an Autocephalous Orthodox Church and was first established by the Holy Apostle Bartholomew in Baku, and then by St. Elisha in the village of Kish, north of Azerbaijan. It was amalgamated with the Armenian Orthodox Church in 1836, when Tsar Nicolas I of Russia signed "The Decree on managing the affairs of the Armenian-Gregorian Church in Russia" ("Положение о управлении делами Армяно-Григорианской церкви в России"). The Church of Aran was re-established in Azerbaijan in 2003 as the Church of Caucasian Albania-Udi. In 2013 during 1700th anniversary of establishing Christianity in Azerbaijan, the grand opening of the Church of Aran took place in the village of Nij.

Early history

The original name of Azerbaijan (for both North and South) was Caspiane according to Strabo (book 11, chapter 2, section 15), which is also referred to Caspian Mountains (Caucasian Mountains) and Caspian Sea : "According to Eratosthenes, the Caucasus is called "Caspius" by the natives, the name being derived perhaps from the 'Caspii'". Subsequent invasions, split Caspiane into two distinctive entities Atropatene in south, and later Aran in north. Then Caspiane became a little province along the Caspian shores, which later was incorporated into Aran. The kingdom of Aran, better known in English as 'Caucasian Albania' (Latin - Albānia, Greek - Αλβανεια), is said to have been first evangelized by the Holy Apostle Bartholomew and a disciple of St. Thaddeus, St. Elisha, who is called the 'Apostle of Aran.' The nation as a whole did convert into Christianity when the Arsacid King Urnayr of Aran was baptized by St. Gregory the Illuminator in 313.

In 330, a grandson of St. Gregory, St. Grigoris, became the first bishop and Catholicos of Aran, which included much of modern day Azerbaijan, South Dagestan and East Armenia. St. Grigoris was martyred in 338 while preaching in Dagestan, but his relics were rescued by his disciples and kept at the Amaras Monastery in West Azerbaijan. In the following years the position of the Catholicate strengthened, being established at the Arranian capital Qabala.

Aran suffered a similar fate to neighboring Armenia, rising with it against the Sassanian Empire in the 400s and being crushed by its shahs as a result. In the fifth century an already existing Aranian alphabet was systematised so that the Bible, divine services, and writings of the Fathers could be translated. According to some legends St. Mesrob Mashtots invented the Arranian alphabet, however it is the historical fact that he did not know Arranian, so he could not have developed a new alphabet as it might have appeared in some Armenian sources. In 552 the seat of the Catholicoses of Arran was transferred to Barda, remaining there until the ninth century.

In the seventh century Aran regained its independence under King Javanshir, but then fell to the Arab Muslims not long after their conquest of the Sassanian Empire. Beginning in the 700s the Arab rulers began forcibly converting sections of the population to Islam. Under influence of the Armenian Catholicos, the Caliphate forced the Aranian Catholicos to accept the supremacy of the catholicoses of Echmiadzin. During this period, many of the Arranian Holy books and scriptures were confiscated and destroyed by the Church of Armenia to subdue the Church of Arran.

During the catholicate of Catholicos Nerses I overtures were made to the East Roman Empire regarding the acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon by the Church of Aran, but this was met with outrage by the hierarchy and nobility of the country, who appealed to Catholicos Sion I (Bavonatsi) of All the Armenians for help. In response Catholicos Sion convened a council in Partav that rejected Nerses' Christology, confirmed the Church's adherence to the Christological teachings of St. Cyril of Alexandria, and enacted canons concerning marriage.

Although the Council of Barda upheld the Christology of the Church at the same time it seriously weakened its autocephaly, especially as the Armenians enjoyed greater favor with the caliphs as a consequence of the council. (The Caliphate had feared that Aran would become an ally of the East Roman Empire if it accepted Chalcedon.) At the Barda Council it was decreed that thereafter the Catholicos of Aran would be enthroned by the Catholicos of All the Armenians. In the aftermath of the Council, the remnants of the Arranian Christian population was gradually absorbed, those converted to Islam eventually merged with their ethnic brothers - the larger Muslim Azeri population, and those who remained faithful to Orthodoxy eventually joined the Armenian and Georgian Churches. The recent DNA analysis of the Armenians in Qarabag (Arsak), and eastern part of the Republic of Armenia confirms that theory. Their DNA showed closer ties with the neighbouring Azeri population than the Armenians living across Middle East.

Later history

In the 1300s the Catholicate transferred its seat from the Amaras Monastery to the Gandzasar Monastery, becoming known thereafter as the Catholicate of Gandzasar. By this time the Catholicate only retained jurisdiction over the historic west Azerbaijan provinces of Utik, Arsak and Syunik as well as the small number of Orthodox living between these provinces and the Caspian Sea. When the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia fell to the Mamelukes there was thought of merging the Catholicate of All the Armenians, which had moved to Cilicia in the 900s, with the Catholicate of Gandzasar, but it was decided instead to return the Catholicate to its original seat in Echmiadzin.

The Gandzasar Catholicate rose in prominence again in the early 1700s under Catholicos Yesai (Jalalian). During this period its catholicos was recognized as the sole representative of the Arranian and Armenian Orthodox Churches by the Russian Empire. In 1805 Russia Empire invaded Azerbaijan and took control of all its territories, and in 1815 the tsars lowered the rank of the catholicos to metropolitan in response to pressure from the Catholicos-Patriarch of Echmiadzin and pro-armenian policy within the imperial court. The Metropolitan of Gandzasar nevertheless retained jurisdiction over the canonical territory of the Catholicate until 1836, when an imperial decree abolished the remnants of the Church of Arran altogether and reorganized them as a diocese directly under the authority of Echmiadzin.

Church today

The last former seat at Gandzasar now serves as the seat of the Diocese of Artsakh of the Catholicate of Echmiadzin (the Church of Armenia). However, today the Aranian christian heritage survives directly in the Azeri Orthodox Christian community and the 10,000-strong Udi minority of Azerbaijan, who have begun restoring with the help of the government of Azerbaijan the ancient churches around Gabala (an ancient capital of Arran) which are now part of the Apostolic Church of Arran. The full translation and printing of Bible in Azerbaijani was completed in 1984. In addition to these , in early 1980's the manuscripts of the Arranian Orthodox Church (the Aranian alphabet of these manuscripts is much different than St. Mesrob's attested alphabet kept in Echmiadzin) have been discovered in St. Catherine's Orthodox Monastery on Mount Sinai.

Cross of Aran

The cross itself represents the Greek (sometimes Latin) cross with fleur-de-lis at its ends, which represents a fire or a flame - a common symbol in Azerbaijan and the present symbol of Baku. The Church of Aran also used as a church and altar ornament the eight-point star (as it is currently seen on the flag and coat of arms of Azerbaijan) to show the Aranian (Azerbaijani) identity, and as the Star of Sun (Fire) it is also represented the redemption or regeneration and baptism. The Cross of Aran can be seen in the Round Temple (Shaki), Kish, Nij and other places across Azerbaijan, Tatev Monastery in Syunik, Armenia. The Cross of Arran was adopted by the Order of Calatrava (a Spanish military order from Castile) in 1164, and Patek Philippe and Co. (Swiss luxury watch manufacturer) was using it as a company logo since 1851. The Cross of Aran can also be seen among the Coptic christians of Alexandria as an ornament.

Church design

The church has generally the altar apse height (place where people pray) of 30-40 cm. This kind of height in altar apse certainly shows that the Church of Aran belongs to Dyophysite. The stone carving techniques used in the construction of churches were developed in East part of Azerbaijan due to an abundance of construction materials such as grey sandstone, tuff etc.


There were 26 ethnicities in Caucasian Albania according to Moses of Kalankatuyk. All of them could be separated into three major linguistic groups: Turkic, Caucasian, Iranian languages.

The Turukkaeans (Turuk/Turk according to the Assyrian sources), proto-Turkic aboriginal nation who inhabited Azerbaijan since XX BC, practiced Tengrism and mainly used the Turkic Runic script which dated back to the Cuneiform script of Sumeria. The Turkic runic alphabet has 29 letters. Those ones who adopted the Christianity used both the Runic and the Greek. Eventually due to an oppression from the Armenians, Arabs and Mongols, those Turkic speaking christians migrated to Cappadocia and formed the Karamanli Turkish community, the Karamanlides. The Greek alphabet for writing Turkic is called Karamanlidika (Καραμανλήδικα / Καραμανλήδεια γραφή). Example, Bardanes Tourkos (Βαρδάνης ὁ Τοῦρκος) was a Byzantine general of the Turkic origin who launched an unsuccessful rebellion against Emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802–811) in 803. His name shows that he was baptised in the Church of Arran, and of the Turkic origin. The ancient Tauri and Bulgars, Gagauzians and Urumians are also another example of the Orthodox Christians of the Turkic origin from the Black Sea basin who did employed the Greek alphabet.

The Caucasian speaking lived mainly in the north part of the kingdom and used the alphabet which was based on Syriac and Aramaic. Eventually, it became the alphabet that is often referred as the Alphabet of Caucasian Albania or the Arranian alphabet. The script contains 54 characters.

The Iranian speaking appeared in the Caspian-Black Sea basin around 7-6th century BC. They moved from north to south by partially displacing the local Turkic speaking population from Crimea, Anatolia and Caucasus further east into Central Asia. However, over the time they saturated with the local Turkic population. Within Kingdom of Arran they were distributed sporadically as the Parthian settlements. Majority of them practiced the Zoroastrianism and initially the Parthian (Pahlavi) script was issued. This script contains 19 characters. Then it was replaced by Avestan. The Avestan alphabet has 37 consonants and 16 vowels. Those script were also based on so called "Imperial Aramaic".

All three languages were different so could not share one common alphabet. Therefore the each community held services on its own native language.

Eparchies of Arran

1. Caspiana (North East, East, South-East, South, Center)

  • Chola
  • Lpiniya
  • Kabala
  • Ejeri

2. Utik (North, North West)

  • Hereti
  • Kambisena
  • Gardman
  • Sakasena

3. Arsak (South-West)

  • Sisakan

4. Syunik (West)

  • Gohtan

List of the heads of the Church

  • St. Bartholomew
  • St. Elisha
  • Matthew
  • Isaac
  • Karen
  • Pandas
  • Lazarus
  • St. Grigoris
  • Zachary
  • David
  • John
  • Jeremiah (circa 434)

Catholicoses of Arran

  • Abas (551-595)
  • Viro (595-629)
  • Zachary I (629-644)
  • John I (644-671)
  • Uhtanes (671-683)
  • Eleazar (683-689)
  • Nerses I (689-706)
  • Simeon I (706-707)
  • Michael (707-744)
  • Anastasius I (744-748)
  • Joseph I (Hovsep) (748-765)
  • David I (765-769)
  • David II (769-778)
  • Matthew I (778-779)
  • Moses I (779-781)
  • Aaron (781-784)
  • Solomon I (784)
  • Theodore (784-788)
  • Solomon II (788-789)
  • John II (Hovhannes) (799-824)
  • Moses II (824)
  • David III (824-852)
  • Joseph II (852-877)
  • Samuel (877-894)
  • Hovnan (894-902)
  • Simeon II (902-923)
  • David IV (923-929)
  • Isaac (Sahag) (929-947)
  • Gagik (947-958)
  • David V (958-965)
  • David VI (965-971)
  • Peter I (971-987)
  • Moses III (987-993)
  • Mark, Joseph III, Mark, Stephen I (from 993 to 1079)
  • John III (1079-1121)
  • Stephen II (1129-1131)
  • Gregory I (circa 1139)
  • Bezhgen (circa 1140)
  • Nerses II (1149-1155)
  • Stephan III (1155-1195)
  • John IV (1195-1235)
  • Nerses III (1235-1262)
  • Stephen IV (1262-1323)
  • Sukyan and Peter II (circa 1323-1331)
  • Zachariah II (ok.1331)
  • David VII
  • Karapet (1402-1420)
  • John V (circa 1426-1428)
  • Matthew II (circa 1434)
  • Athanasius II, Gregory II and John VI (1441-1470)
  • Azaria
  • Thomas (circa 1471)
  • Aristakes I
  • Stephen V (circa 1476)
  • Nerses IV (circa 1478)
  • Shmavon I (circa 1481)
  • Arakel (1481-1497)
  • Matthew III (ok.1488)
  • Aristakes II (1515-circa 1516)
  • Sergius (Sarkis) I (circa 1554)
  • Gregory III (circa 1559-1574)
  • Peter III (1571)
  • David VIII (circa 1573)
  • Philip
  • John VII (1574-1584)
  • David IX (circa 1584)
  • Anastasius II (circa 1585)
  • Shmavon II (1586-1611)
  • Aristakes III Kolataktsi (circa 1588)
  • Melkiset Arashetsi (circa 1593)
  • Simeon III (circa 1616)
  • Peter IV Hondzaksky (1653-1675)
  • Simeon IV Hotorashensky (1675-1701)
  • Jeremiah Hasan Jalal (1676-1700)
  • Isaiah Hasan Jalal (1702-1728)
  • Nerses V (1706-1736)
  • Israel (1728-1763)
  • Nerses VI (1763)
  • John VIII Gandzasar (1763-1786)
  • Simeon V Hotorashenksky (1794-1810)
  • Sergius II Gandzasar (1810-1828, with title of metropolitan after 1815)

External links