Zaza Aleksidze, D.Sc. (Hist.), professor, member of the Georgian National Academy of Sciences, head of the Armenian Studies Department, Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, head of the Department of Codicology, Georgian National Manuscript Center (Tbilisi, Georgia).



This article traces the establishment of national Christian churches in the Caucasus from the declaration of Christianity as the state religion until the 8th century. The crux of the matter is that the countries of the Christian Caucasus (Albania, Armenia, and Georgia) which found themselves between two great empires of the West and the East (The Byzantium and Iran) were in urgent need of a united ideological (Christian) front to preserve their independence, while preservation of their ethnocultural uniqueness required adherence to different religious trends within Christianity.


During the second half of the first millennium B.C., three ethnically different states arose on the territory of the present-day Caucasus. At different times in their history, they tried with varying success to achieve political and ideological supremacy in the Caucasus, in so doing bringing the political and geographic boundaries into coincidence with each other. And foreign powers, whether they were hostile or friendly, were interested throughout the whole of ancient and medieval history in possessing or primarily maintaining a united Caucasus and not merely one individual country.

The perception of the Caucasus by foreign powers (they) as a single whole compelled the Caucasian countries, also as a consolidated front (we), to oppose the outside world. One of the manifestations of this unity was the almost simultaneous declaration in Armenia, Georgia, and Albania of Christianity as the state religion. The Caucasus set up a single ideological front in opposition to the assimilation policy of the great empires of the East. Its location at the crossroads of the Western and Eastern civilizations, its single religion, its close cultural-everyday contacts, and the powerful process of ethnocultural interpenetration, particularly in the border provinces, gave rise to a typologically new, so-called Caucasian civilization.

The adoption of a Greek-style alphabet (capital writing, page orientation from left to right, vocalization, alphabetic order, and so on) and translation of all the books of the Bible physically expressed this choice.

Unity of Opposites

But the strength and wealth of the Caucasus consisted not only of unity, but also (and to no lesser extent) of the political, ethnic, cultural, and ideological uniqueness of its components. Full ideological unification under the conditions of those times posed a certain danger to the national independence of the Caucasian countries. Christian Byzantium and Mazdean Iran strove for their unification in a way that served their own interests, since a single religion would have deprived the Caucasian countries of the possibility of balancing between the empires of the West and East. This was why all the attempts of the Caucasian countries to preserve a single Christian faith displayed rudiments of self-denial from the very beginning. A church schism was just crying to happen long before it actually did. The struggle for priority in the Caucasus and for national independence to boot, as well as the need to defend themselves from the influence of the Byzantine and Iranian empires, on the one hand, and from interregional mutual influence, on the other, led the Caucasian countries to choose different trends among the main branches in Christianity that arose in the heart of the Eastern church in the 5th century.

By recognizing Christianity as their state religion, the Armenians were not only setting themselves against Mazdean Iran, but, by choosing its Eastern version, Monophysitism (anti-Chalcedonism) they were dissociating themselves from Byzantium as well, thus losing a strong ally-coreligionist. On the other hand, the Armenian church became totally national, being able to make up for its lost statehood and later also to unite the Armenian diaspora throughout the world. Due to the schism, Chalcedonian Byzantium was unable to put down roots in the Caucasus even under the banner of uniformity with Georgia, encountering in its path a barely insurmountable obstacle in the form of anti-Chalcedonian Armenia.

On the other hand, all of Irans attempts to use the so-called Armenian faith (Monophysitism) in order to carry out ideological diversion in the Caucasus were futile, since Georgia opposed such attempts with its Chalcedonian (Dyophysite) faith.

The fact that Caucasian Albania was unable to find a third, sufficiently powerful, platform in Christianity that differed from Dyophysitism and Monophysitism in order to save itself from the strong cultural and ethnic influence of its neighbors, in particular Armenia, which was supported first by Iran and later by the Arab caliphate, proved tragic for it.

This is why it seems to me that, from the historical viewpoint, the church schism in the Caucasus was a justified and legitimate phenomenon, although had it been taken to fanatical irreconcilability, the signs of which were obvious at the initial stage, it could have proven fatal. Fortunately, as soon as the initial passions died down, forces were revived again that paid tribute to the vital importance of the Caucasus unity. Only with the constant presence of such forces were the two mutually exclusive but nevertheless equalizing trends able to play a positive role in the history of the Caucasus: the striving for unification and the striving to preserve independence.

During the 5th-8th centuries, the churches of the South Caucasian countries ultimately formulated a dogmatic position which proved to be very closely associated with their international and cultural orientation. In turn, the differences in theology and ecclesiastical practice largely promoted the establishment of special features of their written language and artistic thinking. The consequences of the church schism at the beginning of the 7th century in the Caucasus had their repercussions for a long time to come, throughout the whole of the Middle Ages and recent history. Although greatly changed, they are still sometimes manifested to this day in contemporary historiography.

So conditions were made ripe for the schism in the Caucasus throughout the 6th century. The interest of later generations in the facts of the schism has kept it fresh in societys memory and replenished it with questions of the current day, at times compelling these generations to relive events buried far in the past as their own destiny.

Historiography in the Service of the National Churches

Every generation has its own historiography, which places the facts of the past at the service of the present, particularly if the past is still important as a living process. Thus the reconstructed picture of the past is subjective from the very beginning. Medieval writers evaluate the consequences of the schism and the participants in its finale according to criteria elaborated by contemporary society based on those presumed positions they would have historically occupied themselves had they been in the place of the protagonists of the church schism.

Since the heirs of the schism in the Caucasus ultimately split into two campsthe Dyophysite (the Georgian church) and the Monophysite (the Armenian and Albanian churches)historians and the representatives of the indicated camps formed two (Monophysite with two national branches) different models of the establishment of the national churches in the Caucasus.

No matter how subjective the historian-polemists of the Middle Ages were about the topic being studied, when reconstructing the past they nevertheless relied on primary sources. The sources used by historians had already been in the hands of editors and copywriters, representatives of the interested sides of the previous generations. What is more, the historians themselves edited their data when incorporating it into their works. In this way, historical sources were first worked over in keeping with the reconstructed story and were then used themselves to construct the new model in compliance with the interests of the society in question.1

It goes without saying that the attempts of medieval Armenian historians to find among the Armenians, and particularly among the representatives of the higher nobility to which they belonged themselves, ecclesiastical figures who were already anti-Chalcedonians at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, are evidence of a later trend that became widely introduced into the Monophysite church. Tom Artsrunis information (10th century) about the participation of the Artsruni brothers in the Christological debates held in Constantinople immediately after the Council of Chalcedon is more typical in this respect. The author tries to justify the absence of sources of corresponding documents with a fabricated story about how Nestorian Bartsum arrived in Armenia and removed several pages from the work of historian Eghishe.2

It is worth noting the attempt of 10th-century Albanian historian Moses of Kalankat to convince his readers that during the church schism in the Caucasus at the beginning of the 7th century, Albania did not separate from Orthodoxy (Monophysitism) and uniformity with the Armenians,3 while contemporary documents say the direct opposite.4

The same disregard of historical facts is characteristic of the medieval Georgian orthodox writers. In Giorgi Mtsires work The Life of George the Hagiorite, George the Hagiorite declares in an argument with the Patriarch of Antioch: We were enlightened by the holy apostles and, after recognizing one God, we have never deviated from Him, and our people have never inclined toward heresy. We anathematize and curse, on the basis of Orthodoxy, all those who deny [one God] and heretics, and we strictly adhere to the commandments and preaching of the holy apostles.5

On a Common Platform

After the Council of Chalcedon, the Caucasian churches collectively expressed for the first time their attitude toward the Christological arguments at the Ecumenical Synod of Dvin in 506. It is utterly clear that the Council adopted Henoticon (482) issued by Emperor Zeno (450-491) and supported the reconciliatory policy of the Byzantine emperors.6

The participants of the united council at Dvin, each in his own language (or to be more precise in its written form), sent the Christians in the countries subordinate to Iran messages explaining their dogmatic positions.

From the Synod of Dvin in 506 until the mid-6th century it is impossible to find any direct evidence in the sources of the confession of the Caucasian churches. This fact could be seen as indirect evidence that the position of the Caucasian churches did not significantly change during this time or, which is more likely, any change in position, if there was one, was not collectively formulated.

At the same time, Byzantium changed its ecclesiastical policy. The policy of Zeno and Anastasius (491-518) carried out by the Dyophysites and Monophysites gradually became pro-Monophysite, although not completely (after 508).7 But this situation did not last for long. Anastasius successor, Justin (518-527), again returned to the Chalcedonian confession and revived the anti-Monophysite policy.

The religious policy of the Byzantine emperors was reflected, like an inverted image in the mirror, in the religious policy of the royal Iranian court, which began with helping the persecuted Nestorians and ended with protecting Monophysitism.

The need to maintain a constant balance between the two great empires made it difficult for the Caucasian countries to choose a faith and particularly make an official declaration of it. All the same, there are facts that can help to shed light on the development of the religious situation in the Caucasus in the second quarter of the 6th century.

The second message of Babgen, the Catholicos of All Armenians, to The Orthodox Christians in Persia shows the Armenian churchs inclination toward anti-Chalcedonism, while court historian of Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565), Procopius of Caesarea, in his work called De bello Persico about events close in time to 525, writes that the Georgians are the best Christians among those nations under the power of the Persians.8 There is no doubt that the Chalcedonian historian meant the Dyophysites, with certain specifications, when he wrote the best Christians. We do not have any information in this respect about Albania, although there is every reason to believe that it did not move far from the reconciliatory position between the Dyophysites and Monophysites either.


In the mid-6th century, Iran tried to create a single Monophysite camp in the Caucasus. At the Local Councils of 551-553, the Armenian church, with the participation of representatives of the Syrian church, officially declared Monophysitism as their ideological choice and established a liturgy that complied with the dogma. This is how the Chalcedonian historians assessed the significance of the second Synod of Dvin for the history of the Armenian church. According to Arseni of Saphara, the Armenians declared 551 as the first day (resp. year) of their confession.

As for the Monophysite historians, they tried to show that the Armenian church had not changed its confession since Gregory the Illuminator and that it rejected the Council of Chalcedon as soon as it was held. So the significance of this council as one of the turning points in the history of the Armenian church is sometimes overlooked in ancient Armenian historiography.

From this viewpoint, the compromise position of John of Odzun (718-729), a chronicler of the local Armenian councils and a prominent Monophysite official, which he expressed in the 720s, is of interest:

The council was convened by hierarch Nerses against the Council of Chalcedon, since the dirty affliction of the confession of the Council of Chalcedon had become more frequent and the Dyophysite faith was gradually becoming stronger.

The dogmatic-political position clearly expressed by the Armenian church naturally demanded that the other churches of the Caucasus express their attitude toward the step taken by the neighboring church. And indeed, the Armenian chronicles of the 16th century write: Patriarch Nerses convened a Synod at Dvin on the order of the Persian czar in order to separate from the Greeks. At this council, the Georgians and the Fourth Armenia deviated from their unity with the Armenians. The Suniitsy and Albans also deviated, and then joined [the Armenian church] again.9

The chroniclers point of view is clear: the common ideological camp (with a reconciliatory position) in the Caucasus was destroyed with the help of Iran and this took place at the beginning of the second half of the 6th century. The quotation presented above should belong to quite an old stratum, since it was used by Arseni of Saphara (c. 11th century) and his source Narratio de rebus Armeniae (8th century).

It should be noted that Armenian historian Samuel of Ani (13th century) also says the same thing about the opposition of the Georgian church to the resolutions of the Synod of Dvin of 551-553, who writes in his Chronicles dated 557: Separation of the Georgians is written about here.10 Admittedly, anachronisms can be found in Samuels work, but in this case his information deserves attention because he writes about the separation of the Georgians immediately after establishment of the national chronology of the Armenians and information about Gregory of Manachikher and Izid-Bozid, which excludes any error in its dating. What is more, he does not confuse this separation with the church schism, which is dated to 607, and he also correctly indicates the participants.

In this way, the testimonies of some Armenian sources, along with the information of Procopius of Caesarea, bring us to the conclusion that the Caucasian churches had different understandings of the reconciliatory principles of the Synod of Dvin of 506: the Georgian and, in all likelihood, the Albanian church along with it saw rightwing Chalcedonism, while the Armenian saw rightwing Monophysitism. The following period in the history of these countries was a time of ever increasing definition of the confessional and political position. At the beginning of the second half of the 6th century, the Armenian church ended its searching, convened an ecclesiastical synod (or synods) in Dvin and accepted an extremely leftwing Monophysite faith known as Julianism.11 Georgia (Kartli) and Albania apparently did not convene such councils. In search of a navigating channel between Scylla and Charybdis (Byzantium and Iran), they evidently did not reject the Council of Chalcedon, but nor did they take the path of active anti-Monophysitism. This situation left the Iranian court with the hope that it would at some point be able to draw the Georgian and Albanian church out of Constantinoples orbit with the help of the Armenian church.

Attempts to Restore a Single Ideological Space

At the beginning of the 570s, the Armenian church made another attempt to create a single Monophysite camp in the Caucasus. The messages of John IV of Jerusalem12 and Patriarch of Armenia John of Gabelen to Abas, the Catholicos of the Albans,13 and the treatises Narratio de rebus Armeniae14 and On the Division of Kartli (Georgia) and Armenia by Arseni of Saphara contain information on this issue. Although, according to the ancient Armenian historians, the Suniitsy and Albans were subordinated to the will of the Patriarch of Armenia at that time, the Book of Messages shows that if this were the case the testimonies of the Chalcedonian sources should have been more correct.

I offer the following solution to this dilemma. Abas, the Catholicos of the Albans (552-596), who was supported by the Greek patriarchs of Jerusalem, Macarius II (552, 556/4-575) and Eutyches (552-563/64), refused to communicate with the synods of Dvin of 551-554. Patriarch of Armenia John of Gabelen (557-574) demanded that Abas, the Catholicos of the Albans, adopt Monophysitism. Abas stuck to his moderate Chalcedonian position, but made a compromise with John and accepted the formula of Peter the Fuller (469-471, 475-476, 478-479, 485-489) Thou who wast crucified for us. According to The History of the Albans, Chalcedonian monks Foma, Elia, Biot, Ibas, and others spoke out against this innovation and were forced to leave the country. Moses of Kalankat emphasizes that Abas restored peace in the church fraternity with the grace of the Lord Almighty.15 The Albanian academic monks, who did not obey Abas innovation, settled in the Albanian monasteries of Jerusalem, in the heart of Dyophysitism. Foma from the monastery of Panda informed Patriarch of Jerusalem John IV (574-595).16 In his message to Abas, John of Jerusalem demanded that he carry out a more aggressive anti-Monophysitic policy and refuse to include the formula of Peter the Fuller Thou who wast crucified for us (Armenian khachetsar) in the Trisagion.17 Evidently John of Jerusalems efforts were not in vain. The Book of Messages unambiguously shows that in 607-609, in the polemics with the Armenian hierarchs over the definitions of the Council of Chalcedon, the Albanian church officials were on the same platform as the Georgians. This is why at the end of the church schism that occurred in the Caucasus (604-609), Patriarch of Armenia Abraham of Albatan (607-615) anathematizes Georgia and Albania in his encyclic message and permits his congregation to have only trade relations with these countries.18 This is why the Albanian texts turned up in the Georgian (Dyophysite) environment. Discovery of the Albanian texts in the Georgian environment confirms the existence of this unity, on the one hand, and precisely it, this unity, dates the lower stratum of the Georgian-Albanian Palimpsests.19

At the very end of the 6th century, the Monophysites tried to take possession of the Georgian (Kartlian) church again. At this time Kartli was most likely ruled by pro-Iranian and Monophysite-oriented erismtavar Stephanoz I. The ascent to the throne of Catholicos of Kartli Kyrion, according to the Catholicos of Armenia, was supposed to strengthen the position of the Georgian Monophysites. But the exact opposite happened.

Church Schism

Kyrion of Mtskheta began carrying out a national-religious policy, the aim of which was complete assimilation of the mixed provinces and ideological support of the unification of Kartli. This policy could only be successful if the Georgian church chose a faith that differed from the Monophysitism supported by Iran and, in addition, did not clearly turn from the reconciliatory path of the 506 synod. A church schism was inevitable.

By anathematizing the Albanian along with the Georgian church in his encyclic message, Catholicos of Armenia Abraham showed that the Albanian church remained true to the Chalcedonian (Dyophysite) faith and ideological unification with the Georgian church. It is worth noting that all the mentions in the Book of Messages of Albania and the Albans in the context of unification with Georgia and the Georgians, when defining the attitude toward Chalcedonism, have been removed from the works of Ukhtanes and Moses of Kalankat, since they were written or compiled after the Albanian church had long left this unification.20

In 613 or 616, at the so-called Persian Council in Ctesiphon, the Chalcedonian leaders of the countries subordinated to Iran were asked to change their confession (adopt the Armenian faith) or leave their congregation and their homeland. Representatives of all the churches of the Middle Eastern countries (including Armenia and Albania) were present at the council and obeyed the order, apart from the Catholicos of Kartli.21 Catholicos of Kartli Kyrion was probably forced to leave the throne and move to Phasis, the rank of metropolitan of which, according to Armenian historian John Draskhanakert (10th century), he occupied at the same time as the patriarchal throne of Mtskheta.22


The biography of Catholicos of Kartli Kyrion can be easily tied to the biography of Cyrus of Phasis, hereafter (since 631) the patriarch of Alexandria and the ruler of Egypt (known as Al-Mukavkas). The identification between Kyrion of Mtskheta and Cyrus of Phasis explains the latters devoted following of the Monothelite doctrine, the aim of which was to reconcile the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. The religious policy of the Catholicos of Kartli was supposed to be analogous. Over the span of two decades he changed his confession and religious entourage three times and as the Chalcedonian leader tried, as best he could, not to break ties not only with the Monophysites, but also with the Nestorians.23

At the end of the 620s, the Byzantine Empire triumphed in the war against the Persian Empire. The return of the eastern provinces, most of which were populated by dissidents, prompted Emperor Iraclius to restore the ecclesiastical world on the basis of a doctrine that maintained that Christ had two natures but only one will (Monothelitism).

The Caucasian countries were the first among those to join Constantinople. Restoration of Chalcedonism in Kartli, although with several concessions to Monophysitism, was carried out smoothly. Iraclius forced Patriarch of Armenia Ezra (631-641) and the congregation dissatisfied (on the whole) with him to communicate with Patriarch of Constantinople Sergius (died in 638).24

There is no information about the Albanian church, but it most likely also fell under the influence of the Byzantine Empire. However, Monothelitism, which did not satisfy either the Dyophysites or the Monophysites, suffered defeat, just like the earlier attempts to form a union (Zenos Henoticon). At the 6th Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (680-681), Monothelitism and its heretics, including Cyril of Alexandria (former metropolitan of Phasis), were anathematized.25

In this way, the Caucasian churches arrived at a period of relative theological stability. It became clear that Georgia (Kartli) had forever chosen the Chalcedonian (Dyophysite) confession as a bastion in a difficult domestic and foreign political situation. As for the Armenian church, it still faced the national synod convened by John of Odzun (717-728) in 726 at Manzikert, during which the Monophysite faith was ultimately restored in Armenia.26 Albania, which vacillated for a long time between Monophysitism and Dyophysitism, moved into the bosom of Monophysitism at approximately this time. As a result, the Albanian written language and Albanian ecclesiastical language gradually lost their national function, and Caucasian Albania, as a state, gradually disappeared from the political map of the Caucasus.


The geopolitical position of the Caucasian countries has always placed them before a choice between the great empires of the East and West, the Eastern and Western civilizations. After declaring Christianity its state religion, Albania, along with Georgia and Armenia, made a choice in favor of the West.

The Byzantine and Iranian empires, in counterbalance to each other, supported different trends in Christianity (Dyophysitism, Monophysitism, and Nestorianism). The following became important stages in this struggle, in which the Caucasian churches also became involved: the unifying Synod of Dvin in 506 held under the patronage of Byzantium; Irans attempt to create a single Monophysite camp in the Caucasus; the church schism that occurred at the beginning of the 7th century in the Caucasus, during which Georgia and Albania, in counterbalance to the Armenian church, occupied a pro-Chalcedonian position; the convocation by Iran that won the war with Byzantium of the so-called Persian Council in 614, at which on the order of Chosroes II, its participants were to accept the Armenian faith or leave their countriesthe Albanian and Armenian churches obeyed the orders of the Iranian shah.

Since the 630s, Byzantium emperor Heraclius again began to carry out a policy aimed at reconciling the Dyophysites and Monophysites under the aegis of Monothelitism. Georgia and Armenia supported the doctrine. We do not have any information about Albania, but there is no doubt that it would have supported Monothelitism too.

1 See: Ukhtanes, History of the Separation of the Georgians from the Armenians, Armenian text with Georgian translation and research was published by Zaza Aleksidze, Tbilisi, 1975, Preface, pp. 6-7 (in Georgian). Back to text
2 See: F. Artsruni, History of the House of Artsruni, St. Petersburg, 1887 (reprod. New York, 1991), pp. 80-82 (in Armenian). Back to text
3 M. Kalankatuatsi, Istoria strany Aluank, Transl. from the ancient Armenian, preface and commentary by Sh. I. Smbatian, Erevan, 1984, p. 136. Back to text
4 See: Book of Messages, Armenian text with Georgian translation, research, and commentary was published by Zaza Aleksidze, Tbilisi, 1968, pp. 62, 120, 122. Back to text
5 Memorials of Ancient Georgian Agiographic Literature, supervised and edited by I.A. Abuladze, Tbilisi, 1967, p. 154 (in Georgian). Back to text
6 See: Z. Aleksidze, Materials on the History of the Council of Dvin in 506, Vestnik of the Georgian S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. History, Archeology, Ethnography, and History of the Arts series, No. 3, 1973, pp. 145-166 (in Georgian). Back to text
7 See: P. Charanis, Church and State in the Later Roman Empire: The Religious Policy of Anastasius the First, 491-518, Madison, Wisconsin, 1939, pp. 25-43. Back to text
8 Georgika, 2, texts with Georgian translation were published and commented on by S. Kaukhchishvili, Tbilisi, 1965, p. 48. Back to text
9 Gl. Galano, Conciliationis Ecclesiae Armenae cum Romana, I, Rome, 1650, p. 85. Back to text
10 Collection from Books of Historians, Vagarshapat, 1893, p. 75 (in Armenian). Back to text
11 See: Arseni of Saphara, On the Division of Kartli and Armenia, text was critically formulated and supplied with research and commentary by Z. Aleksidze, pp. 48-56 (in Georgian). Back to text
12 See: Message of John, the Bishop of Jerusalem to Abas, the Catholicos of the Albans, Ararat, 1896, pp. 252-259 (in Armenian). Back to text
13 See: Book of Messages, Tiflis, 1901, pp. 81-84 (in Armenian). Back to text
14 See: G. Garitte, La Narratio de rebus Armeniae, Louvain, 1952. Back to text
15 M. Kalankatuatsi, op. cit., p. 74. Back to text
16 See: Message of John, the Bishop of Jerusalem, to Abas, the Catholicos of the Albans, p. 252. Back to text
17 See: Ibid., p. 255. Back to text
18 See: Book of Messages, pp. 11-123. Back to text
19 See: Z. Alexidze, What a Georgian-Albanian Palimpsests, Discovered in St. Catherine Monastery of Mt. Sinai, Can Tell Us about the History of the Caucasian Albanian Church, in: The History of the Caucasus, Baku, 2002, p. 17. Back to text
20 See: Ukhtanes, op. cit., pp. 359-382. Back to text
21 See: Istoria episkopa Sebeosa, Transl. from the Armenian by St. Malkhasiants, Erevan, 1939, pp. 104-105. Back to text
22 See: I. Draskhanakertskiy, History of Armenia, Tiflis, 1912, p. 65 (in Armenian). Back to text
23 See: Book of Messages, pp. 225-244. Back to text
24 See: M. Ormanian, Armianskaia tserkov, Moscow, 1913, pp. 42-44. Back to text
25 See: V.V. Bolotov, Istoria Tserkvi v period Vselenskikh Soborov: istoria bogoslovskoi mysli, Moscow, 2007, pp. 507-580. Back to text
26 See: Ibid., pp. 45-46. Back to text

SCImago Journal & Country Rank
build_links(); ?>
 - Advertorial UP - E-MAIL