The Caucasian archaeology of the Holy Land: Armenian, Georgian and Albanian communities between the fourth and eleventh centuries CE

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The principal goal of the present research was to establish the place of each of the Caucasian communities in ancient Palestine, to understand the interrelations between them in the Holy Land, and the influence they had on the national churches of the Caucasus. In order to achiEve this, the complete corpus of known literary and material evidence related to the activities of the Caucasian Christian communities of the Holy Land during the Byzantine and the Early Islamic periods was assembled and analyzed; certain long-known monastic complexes and particular finds were reviewed and reconsidered; a number of new identifications were proposed for Georgian and Armenian sites, and association of material remains with the Albanian community was suggested for the first time. A large corpus of archaeological material was introduced here for the first time. Study of the mandatory archives that are held by the Israel Antiquities Authority proved to be of great importance, contributing to a new understanding of the monastic complex at the YMCA site in Jerusalem. The meticulous study of the rich documentary material, mostly unpublished, from the state archives of the Russian Federation - diplomatic correspondence, private diaries, archaeological expedition journals, and photographic collection - made it possible to reconstruct the process of the 19th-century discovery of the large monastic complex on the summit of the Mount of Olives, at least to a certain extent. The combination of the archival research and the survey of the large plots in the possession of the Russian Orthodox Church - an area usually closed to scholars - made it possible to incorporate the finds into the remodeled archaeological context, and put an end to the inconsistencies regarding the time, place and circumstances of their discovery. This study brought to light supplementary evidence to add to the corpus of Armenian epigraphic finds, including three pilgrim graffiti - two from the new archaeological excavations in Jerusalem, and an additional one observed on the church wall in Sobata, two freshly discovered funerary inscriptions from Jerusalem, and the exclusion of one forged artefact - stone bowl with Greek and Armenian inscriptions. New additions to the Georgian corpus include the graffiti left by the hermits in the Shephelah and the inscription from Ascalon, still undecipherable. HowEver, it would be too early to declare the Caucasian corpus complete: new archaeological and epigraphic data continue to grow; often adding to the map not only isolated finds, but rather whole new regions. Even more supplementary data is to be expected with the growing awareness of the wider archaeological community to the Caucasian problematics. The next stage of research was the comprehensive analysis of the accumulated data, the detection, characterization and comparison of the tendencies in the dEvelopment of the Caucasian communities of the Holy Land. The Armenians, Georgians, and Albanians may serve as a case study of national Christian communities in multiethnic Byzantine Palestine, being almost the only group, archaeologically distinguishable from the Greek-speaking (and mainly Greek-writing) majority of the monastic population in the country. The present investigation demonstrates that attempts to confront the archaeological and historical data associated with the Christian Caucasian presence in the Holy Land can barely be considered productive: the two categories of evidence simply do not overlap. None of the Armenian or Georgian institutions that are known from the archaeological record is mentioned in historical sources, or at least cannot be identified as such with any certainty. The silence of the sources is explicable in the case of small rural monasteries such as Bir el-Qutt, but becomes truly enigmatic in cases such as the major pilgrim complex of Musrara. Similarly, none of the sites known from the historical sources has Ever been discovered, or cannot be securely identified. The critical approach to the sources, and particularly the renewed analysis of the archaeological data, shows that the extant random identification of excavated sites with activity of known historical figures should be categorically rejected. Furthermore, the archaeological evidence offers no signs of Armenian and Georgian presence in the two main, iconic national sites - St. James Monastery and the Monastery of the Cross - as early as the Byzantine period. Any attempts to relate the two ancient sanctuaries to the earliest period of the Caucasian presence in Jerusalem are therefore unsubstantiated at the present state of research. The history of the Caucasian communities in the Holy Land should be regarded as a dynamic process. During the first stage, which starts already in the fifth century and is well documented by literary evidence, the presence of the Armenians and Georgians is probably confined to the multiethnic monastic institutions of the Holy Land. Despite the origins of some of the key figures in the Palestinian monastic movement - Euthymius the Great and John Hesychast were natives of Armenia Minor, and Peter the Iberian was born in Georgia - their role at this stage was nEver restricted to the national communities. It seems that the famous 'Iberian Monastery' in Jerusalem, established by Peter, was nEver strictly speaking a national monastery and during its history always sheltered multiethnic brethren. The presence of the Armenian, and especially Georgian monks in the laurae and coenobia of the Judean Desert is well attested also in the subsequent stage, both by literary evidence and manuscripts, and the same is true for the stage after it, when the establishment of national monasteries starts. It is not completely clear if the Christological controversies triggered the process, or whether an increase in the number of Caucasians in the Holy Land left no choice but to establish new institution for all who wished to remain. Numerous new Armenian and Georgian monasteries - Mount of Olives, Musrara, Bir el-Qutt, Umm Leisun, - flourished during the sixth-sEventh centuries. But not all the Armenian and Georgian monks concentrated there - as it is undoubtly shown by the burial inscriptions from the Monastery of Choziba in Wadi el-Qilt, leaving relatively complete list of the members of multiethnic monastic community. Synthesis of the available material analyzed here shows that in this period, members of all three Caucasian communities were deeply involved in the life of the Church of Jerusalem, with local Christian population and pilgrims, not necessarily their compatriots. There is no archaeological evidence for the existence of any central or core Armenian or Georgian site at that time which may have been responsible for minor community institutions. Similarly, no sign of central administrative or royal initiative attested by literary sources can be traced in the archaeological record. The last stage dates to the period of the slow decline of Palestinian Christianity. Despite some of the previous interpretations, none of the archaeological complexes that were discussed here was violently destroyed in the years following the Arab invasion. Quite to the contrary, most of the sites show traces of renovations and enlargement in the middle - end of the sventh century, and are still active during the eighth-ninth centuries, until their final abandonment. This picture is not unique to the Armenian and Georgian sites, but rather common to the churches and monasteries of Palestine.1 The Eventual depopulation of the desert monasteries2 also had an impact on the Caucasian monks: at least in the Georgian case, the manuscripts allow us to follow their migration to St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai. The most obscure period in the history of the Caucasian communities, as in the history of Palestinian Christianity in general, is the period between the ninth and the mid-elEventh centuries.3 The rare evidence from Horvat Burgin shows that the monastic presence did not cease completely, and seems to demonstrate the strong bond with the local (still Christian?) population. The pilgrimage movement from the Caucasus region, attested by numerous graffiti preserved along the Sinai roads, continued far after the Abbasid period, and most probably nEver stopped until the Crusades, and beyond. Viewed against the background of the historical evidence, the archaeological corpus associated with the Caucasian communities presents a very complex picture, quite different from the one traditionally presented by the national Armenian and Georgian research schools. Apparently, despite the dogmatic schisms, the Armenian and Georgian communities were deeply involved in the life of the Jerusalem Church. The most striking is the epigraphic evidence, showing the use of common Greek formulae, in the Armenian sites mainly, and the wide use of Greek language by both Armenians and Georgians. The Palestinian monastic traditions were followed in Everyday-life activities of the Caucasian monasteries, in the architecture and décor, and Even in the funeral rites. Evidently, the archaeological record reflects the multiple identities - civic, ethnic, cultural and religious4 - adopted by the Armenian and Georgian monks of Palestine: they were Caucasians, but chose to live in the Byzantine Empire; they were foreigners as far as the local Christians were concerned, but represent the Church of Jerusalem for visitors and pilgrims. They came here as modest suppliants to pray for their homeland, but found themselves among "the dwellers of this Holy Land", claiming to represent the truth of Christianity.5 Indeed, the eminence and the authority in which the monastic communities of the Holy Land were held by their home countries were outstanding. The evidence for the connection between the Palestinian monastic centers and the Caucasus is most significant, both in the material and the spiritual spheres. With time, the role of the Palestinian centers in the intellectual life of Armenia and Georgia kept growing. In the mid-elEventh century, on the Eve of the Crusades, the sparse and small Armenian and Georgian monastic communities were consolidated around new core centers - the freshly established Monasteries of Sts. James and of the Holy Cross - and began to grow rapidly. These new centers were created by noble or royal initiative, and were based on the ideology of national institutions, a concept that was previously totally foreign to the Byzantine Church of Jerusalem. Although this study is only the first step in the research of the Caucasian archaeology of the Holy Land, the conclusions will help to fill the current lacuna and will serve future archaeological and historical study of Palestinian Christianity. Many research questions were formulated here for the first time, and should direct future studies. The identification of the particular Armenian and Georgian sites is still problematic. Considerable research is necessary before progress can be made in the field of Albanian studies, given the almost total lack of material evidence related to this community. It is not always possible to trace the influence which the Church of Jerusalem exerted on the Christian culture of the Caucasus, whether directly, or as a mediated impact through Syria and Byzantium; nEvertheless, analysis of the material evidences that testifies to the interrelations between the Caucasian region and the Holy Land seems to hold high promise, especially when relating to finds that originated from well-dated and secure archaeological contexts. Hopefully, this study will contribute to the joint efforts of multidisciplinary scholarly communities from different countries in their future research.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Caucasian Archaeology of the Holy Land
Subtitle of host publicationArmenian, Georgian and Albanian Communities between the Fourth and Eleventh Centuries CE
PublisherBrill Academic Publishers
Number of pages331
ISBN (Electronic)9789004362246
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2018

Publication series

NameHandbook of Oriental Studies. Section 1, The Near and Middle East
ISSN (Electronic)0169-9423

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'The Caucasian archaeology of the Holy Land: Armenian, Georgian and Albanian communities between the fourth and eleventh centuries CE'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this