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Tamara Talbot Rice
ANCIENT ARTS OF
CENTRAL ASIA
An extract from Chapter Six, pp. 253-262

Caucasian Albania

   Caucasian Albania - the Aghovan of the Romans and the Aran both of the Parthians and of King Shapur's Sassanian rock inscription at Naksh-i-Rustem - was considerably poorer and politically less important than either Armenia or Georgia. Nevertheless, it ranked with them as one of the three foremost Caucasian kingdoms. Its territory extended in the north to the Derbend area, in the west to Khakhetia, in the south, in the third century, as far as the Kura river, and a century later as far as the Araxes, whilst in the east it stretched to the Caspian. The country was wild and mountainous. Access to it was so difficult that it probably accounts for the fact that Albania's art remained more individual and truly local than that of either Armenia or Georgia. Albania's history dates back to the fourth century BC when her soldiers were greatly respected for their valour and endurance. In 331 BC the Achaemenids were, nevertheless, able to gain control of the country; they then hastened to enrol Albanians into their army. However, the people's national consciousness was already so well developed by the time Pompey led his legions against them that he could make but little headway. The Albanians confronted and held the invaders wearing armour, that of the officers being made of metal, that of the men consisting of leather breastplates. Armour of this type continued to be worn in remote Caucasian hilltop villages, more particularly in Ossetia, in modern times (Ill. 245).
   The Albanians were at first divided into numerous tribes and even in Strabo's time twenty-six of these were still in existence. However, in c. 215 BC they were already united under their first king. Writing in the seventh century AD the first of their historians, Moses of Kalankatu, noted that in 152 BC their ruler was a member of the Persian house of the Arsacids; his descendents retained the throne till well into the fourth century AD. Whilst under their rule the Albanians came into contact with eastern Hellenism, an encounter which left only a slight mark on their art. From the first century or so BC till late into the third century AD the Albanians, like their neighbours the Armenians and the Georgians, were obliged to defend themselves from the Romans, Parthians, Alans and Sassanians. In the fourth century King Shapur's conquests in the Caucasian area led to widespread revolts. The Albanian ruler, Vaie II, fared badly in one of these risings and was obliged to cede his powers to a Sassanian viceroy. In consequence the Persians became responsible for the safety of Albania's north-eastern frontier and, in order to protect them from nomadic raiding parties, Yazdagird I built a fort at what was then known as the Albanian Gates, but is called today the Derbend defile.
   The country's capital was established first at Kabula, Pliny's Kabulaka, the Kabalah of the Arabs and the Shamakha of medieval times. Following upon Vaie's abdication the Sassanians moved it to what is now the Yevlakh district, to a point whence the Iberian and Armenian borders could be seen. They called the new capital Perosez (city of Peros) after Peros (Firus) the son of Yazdagird I because the prince had given the town's inhabitants permission to build defensive walls round the city. The name was soon altered to Perozbad, but it was pronounced Petrav by the Armenians. It came to be generally known by the latter name though the Arabs called it Barda'a. At the time the Albanians were so much under the influence of Persia that they ceased worshipping the forces of nature to become Zoroastrians. Then Gregory the Illuminator, having accomplished the conversion of Armenia set out to establish Christianity in Albania. He was helped in this by Mesrop who proceeded to evolve an Albanian alphabet from his Armenian one. Nevertheless, the Albanians remained in closer touch with the Persians than with the Georgians, but though they maintained regular contacts with the Armenians they proceeded to use the Georgian and Pahlevi alphabets as readily as their own. In later times they made equal use of the Arabic.
   The converted Albanians were fervent Christians. The Catholicos of their church combated paganism with the utmost intensity and, in the seventh century only a couple of years before succumbing to the Arabs, he even sent missionaries to the Huns in an attempt to convert them. A northern bishopric was established at Kabula at an early date, but the Arab occupation brought many difficulties to the Albanians for they not only had to contend against the invaders, but they were also obliged to defend themselves against the Volga Khazars. Nevertheless, their craftsmen continued throughout the years to produce pottery, brocades and metal vessels which won them wide renown. They were, in fact, as gifted artistically as their neighbours. Their crafts were at their best in the seventh century under King Jevansher, but they continued to produce till late medieval times bronze dishes, jugs, aquamanile, and more particularly cauldrons (Ill. 247) and incense burners which are now greatly sought after. Both the pottery and the cauldrons made in the Kubachi region of Daghestan are particularly lovely. The pottery (Ill. 252) often displays floral designs exquisitely delineated and produced in the most alluring deep pastel shades. The metalwork, and the stone sculptures for which Daghestan is equally famous, often reflect Sassanian designs. They continued to be produced in Albania later than anywhere else, both because Albania was not easily accessible to outside influences and also because the diversion of the ancient trade route linking Persia to Dvin via Partav, southward of Ani, and thence to the Black Sea brought about the complete isolation of Albania. As a result old traditions survived there for longer than elsewhere and in the twelfth century when Armenia annexed the southern part of Albania and western Georgia, the Albanians were still making open and rounded cauldrons with tripod bases similar in every respect other than size to the tiny gold ones which had been laid in the Maikop burials some four thousand years earlier. They continued to decorate the rims of many of the cauldrons with animal designs of Scythian character and to fashion their handles into animal shapes (Ill. 246). They also produced some spouted cauldrons equipped with lids which are as characteristic of the country as the pottery aquamanile in the form of goats or birds, often with strong Sassanian influence. The relief decorations which adorn a number of stone slabs of the same late date discovered by the late J. Orbeli in the Kubachi district (Ills. 249, 250), though they include Sassanian motifs, also recall certain designs in the felt appliqué worked objects found both at Pazyryk and Noin Ula. They appear in conjunction with others bearing a marked resemblance to designs of a similar date evolved in such widely separated regions as Armenian Ani, Seljukid Anatolia and Russian Vladimir. It is thus to this remote corner of the Caucasus that we must turn to find elements which had been evolved many centuries earlier in Central Asia, still flourishing (Ill. 251) at a time when, elsewhere, they had already been fused into the framework in which the decorative arts of Europe developed in late medieval times.


245 Photograph taken at the beginning of this century showing a man from Ossetia wearing armour consisting of leather breast-plates, similar to that worn by the Tadjiks.
246 Bronze cauldron, with animals mounted on the handles. Daghestan, thirteenth century. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
247 Bronze cauldron showing mounted rider, Daghestan. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
250 Stone relief: the hunt. Daghestan, twelfth century. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
251 Stone relief: horsemen fighting. Kubachi twelfth-thirteenth century. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
252 Bowl: floral decorations in underglaze colours. Kubachi ware, sixteenth century. H. 4½″ (11.4), diam, 12″ (30.5).

Illustrations from Tamara Talbot Rice, Ancient Arts of Central Asia, 1965