The village of Kish where the church of St.Elysee is located, is situated several kilometres away from Sheki and closely related with this ancient Azerbaijanian town, its history and culture.
The region of Sheki (Shaki) was one of the left bank areas of Caucasian Albania that occupied foothills bordered by the regions of Kabala, Kambiana and Lpinia (1, p.96). It should be noted that the works of ancient authors dealing with Albania devoted much attention to the left bank regions. As is known, a temple region of Selena was located not very far from the borders of Iberia. The capital city of Kabala, according to historical sources and materials of archaeological excavations, was one of the largest and most developed towns in Caucasus. In this part of Albania, there survived the most valuable monuments of early medieval (pre-Arabic) period, including Kum basilica, Lekit and Mamrukh temples, monastic complex Yeddi Kilse, etc. Archaeological excavations in Kabala made it possible to discover remains of structures and fortifications of a large town located near trade ways connecting the Black and Caspian seas. It was a direct proximity with the region of Kabala back in the Christian epoch that created favourable conditions for Sheki development. It is no mere coincidence that St.Elysee chose the territory of Sheki for advocacy of Christianity and the construction of the first church.
As compared to the town of Sheki, the village of Kish is notable for more favourable geographical location. Mud torrents of the river Beyuk-chay incurred no great damages to the village on an eminence. Surrounding mountains and gorges were favourable for the erection of defensive work. Some sources report that rulers of Sheki took shelter in the Kish fortress proper. Village’s glorious history is seen from the famous church «Gelersen gorarsen», remainder of defensive work seen from various parts of the village. Noteworthy is the fact that the very name of the village – Kish (Gish, Gis) is found in other countries of the Orient as well.
It should be noted that today’s Kish is divided into a number of mehelles (blocks). Names of these mehelles go back to the historical past of the region: Gyavyan, Khantamar, Maflar, Layishlar, Chour, Dohun, etc. The church is located in Maflar mehellesi. Local historian and philologist Vagif Aslan links the name «Maflar» to the «Magian» – Zoroastrian priest. Similarly he interprets the name «Gyavyan».
Of interest is the fact that the church in the village of Kish enjoys a particular status among other Albanian monuments. It is remarkable not only as an architectural monument but valuable from historical point of view as well. The history of the church is related to the history of Christianity spreading in Cauvasian Albania. The fact that historical sources refer to the construction of the church by Apostle Elysee, is indicative of Apostle principles in the independent Albanian church, oldest in Caucasus.
The survival of the church till our days is an incontrovertible evidence of Apostle principle and autocephality of the Albanian church. Note that the Kish church is a remarkable historical monument marking the beginning of Christianity not only in Caucasian Albania (Azerbaijan), but in Caucasus as a whole.
Deserving consideration is the fact that the fairly good intactness of this ancient monument of Christianity in the region inhabited by Musulman population is illustrative of tolerance and respectful attitude toward the monuments of culture on the part of Azerbaijanian people. The public opinion and intellectuals of the Republic experience gratitude to the inhabitants of the Kish village for care of this unique monument of history.
It was Movses Kalankatuyskiy who in his «History of Albanians» provided valuable information on the history of the church. The historian links the construction the first Christian church in Albania to the name of enlightener St.Elysee.
«…inspired by St.Spirit, Elysee was ordained by St.Jacob, Lord’s brother, first patriarch of Jerusalem. He was appointed to the east and bent his steps from Jerusalem to Persia, visited Maskutes, avoided Armenia, and started sermonizing in the region of Choga. He taught many people, made them realize their salvation. From there, he came to the region of Yti, the town of Sogarn, together with his three disciples. Their relatives, atheists, strove after them, and one of five disciples died a martyr’s death. Two other disciples left blessed Elysee and pursued murders. However, the saint high priest arrived in Gis, arranged a church and made a bloodless sacrifice. Our first churches sprang up in this place, the same was true of our metropiltan see and education» (2, p.6).
According to the tradition, «the borough of Gis» is identified with the village of Kish in Sheki region, while the church built by Elysee is identified with the church of the same village of Kish. This standpoint is reaffirmed by many facts from activities of St.Elysee in the left bank Albania. Note that this part of Albania is referred to in Georgian historical sources as Eliseni. In general, many churches here are named after St.Elysee. True, an up-to-date building cannot be attributed to such an early period. However, ancient foundation, cult interments and utensils discovered as a result of archaeological excavations in the church and its territory are indicative that the church is located on a site long since known as a place of worship. The oldest part of the church goes back to the first centuries A.D.
It is hard to imagine that St.Elysee really built a church in the modern sense of the word. Perhaps, he arranged an altar here, made a bloodless sacrifice or adapted to this purpose an already functioning pagan cult building. As is known, in the early Christian period, temples of pagan cults were frequently remade under churches. At any rate, reports on St.Elysee’s building activity focus on a place where the church of the Kish village is presently located. This point of view was adhered to by many historians and architects, including Z.Buniyatov, D.Akhundov, F.Mamedova, G.Chubinashvili et al.
«The History of Albanians» refer to the village of Gis also in connection with the developments of earlier 5 century. In the XXVII Chapter of the 1st Part titled «Historical Narration on Mesrop and His Friends» Kalankatuyskiy wrote that when returning from Jerusalem, Mashtots «croosed Armenia, reached borders of the Orient in the region of Uti and decided to live in marshland overgrown with moss near a place called Gis. He approved the belief of the resumed church and began preaching the Gospel in the countries of Utis, Agvania, Lpinia, Kaspia and in the ravine Choga» (2, p.70).
An expression «approved the belief of the resumed church» is interpreted by some researchers rather oversimplified in the meaning «repaired the old church». To our thinking, a word «church» should be interpreted as «religion», so the meaning of the expression is that Mashtots renewed the Christian religion in the places as listed in the text. It is the duty of historians to judge, how far this information corresponds to the historical reality, but, beyond any doubts, no report on the construction of the church is understood here.
Further, the author writes that after visiting peoples populating the great mountain of Caucasus – Gargars,Kamiches, Gefalas, and converting them into Christianity, he «returned and lived in bogs, escaping from ferocious princes and day and night approving God’s church», i.e. secretly sermonizing Christianity. Afterwards, he and his disciples abandoned these places in two groups. «Half of the first part intended to go out from the region of Metskogman» (2, p.71). The fragment is very important for identification of a place called Gis where, according to the source, lived Mesrop. This place is situated in the region of Uti, not far from the region of Metskogman. The region of Metskogman is one of Artsakh’s gavars, the right bank province of Caucasian Albania bordered by the province of Uti and located between the ridge of Murovdag, the left bank of Targi and Terter and the right bank of Kurakchay. It is obvious then that Gis where Mashtots took shelter wassituated in the right bank Albania and cannot be identified with Kish in the region of Sheki, this mountainous village with no bogs in the environs. Besides, when reporting on Gis where Mashtots put up, Movses Kalankatuyskiy refers to no St.Elysee and a church he built. An explanation is simple: the point is about different churches.
Thus, Kalakatuyskiy’s report on preaching activities of Mashtots has nothing in common with Kish and related church.
In his «History», Albanian historian Kirakos Gandzakskiy repeated information, as referred to in «The History of Albanians», about St.Elysee’s sermon and the erection of the church in the village of Kish (3). Throughout the entire Middle Ages, Kish served as bishop’s center. As evidenced by Vakhusheti, cathedral of bishop of Eliseni, Tsuketi and Sheki was located in Kish (4).
Note that the village of Kish is mentioned by A.Bakikhanov owing to the 16 century developments where the Sheki province was conquered by Shah Ismail. Hereditary owner of the province Hasan-khan, one of the offsprings of Shirvanshahs, suffering from raids of Georgia, applied to Shah Ismail. After his death, his son Dervish Muhammad refused to obey Shah’s power. Then, Shah Tahmasib personally arrived in Sheki province and offered him obey. The latter again disobeyed and shelter in three fortresses: Kish, «Gelersen-gorarsen» and a fortress in Caucasian mountains. After stubborn fighting, Dervish’s fortresses were seized, while The Kish fortress was razed to the ground (5, p.100).
In the 50-60s of the 19 century, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army in Cauvasus Gen.Paskevich resettled Armenians in the region. The latter repaired the church and adapted it for their public worship (6, p.27).
The importance of the church as work of art is accounted for by the fact that this is one of «domical hall» type church created in early medieval period. Laying of the church, identical to the one used in the erction of such important monuments of the 5-7 centuries as Yeddi Kilse and Mamrukh, goes back to the pre-Arabic period in the architecture of Albania, most probably, to the 5-6 centuries. At the same time, an upper domical part of the church and an upper part of side walls equipped with towering spires go back to later periods. In all probability, this is a product of «transition» period in the Albanian architecture that covers the 9-11 centuries. The final design of the church is, as we see it, of great architectural and artistic value as a product of the evolution of hall-vaulted churches and their transformation inti domical halls.
However, there are some disproportions and departures in the appearance of the church which came as a result of repair operations in the 19 century. These are a pillar of four-arched vestibule, a plaster, distortions in the doorway, an excessive advancement of altar part, drum of the dome together with a metal hipped roof. The said extraneous features impede aesthetical perception of the church, distort its true image. It was an architectural-archaeological studies of the church that made it possible to conclude: it is essential to remove later developments and restore the church in its primordial appearance, prior to its repair in the 19 century.
Historical uniqueness and architectural-artistic value of the church of St.Elysee in Kish calls for care and adequate protection. In our view, after its restoration the church will turn into a museum of Christianity in Caucasian Albania – azerbaijan. Valuable historical, bibliographical and archaeological materials may be exhibited in the building or on the territory of the church. Besides, separate elements of architectural excavations may also be exhibited. In other words, the territory of the monument is expected to become a center of cultural and scientific arrangements related to the history of Caucasian Albania.
When adjusted for wonderful nature and healthy climate of Kish, as well as unique monuments of architecture in the village and its environs in several kilometres radius around it, the village of Kish should turn into the biggest tourist project in Sheki region.
1. F.Mamedova. Politicheskaya istoriya i istoricheskaya geografiya Kavkazskoy Albanii (III v. do n.e. – VIII v. n.e.). Baku, Elm, 1987.
2. Kalankatuyskiy Moisey. Istoriya Alban (per. K.Patkanova). SPb, 1981.
3. Kirakos Gandzakskiy. Istotiya (per.Ter-Grigoryana). Baku, 1946.
4. Vahushti.Geografiya Gruzii. Tbilisi,1941.
5. A.Bakikhanov. Gulistan-i-Iram.B.,1991.
6. A.S.Khakhanov.Ekspeditsiya na Kavkaz v 1892, 93, 95 gg. MAK, t.VII, M.,1898.
Mamedova Gulchokhra Huseyn gyzy doctor of architecture, rector of the Azerbaijan University of Architecture and Construction