Whilst travelling through Gabala in the north of Azerbaijan I took the time to experience a small part but significant part of the religious makeup within the country.
Religion is removed from the state here in Azerbaijan and freedom of religion is something you feel brings pride and togetherness when you speak to people.
For a country that is 95% muslim the support for all religions is evident. If a new church is built for whatever denomination the heads of all other religions are invited.
A good example is the fact that outside Israel there is only one country where a mountain Jewish settlement lives and thrives in the manner they did hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and that country is Azerbaijan. At Qırmızı Qəsəbə.
Today though I was honoured to visit the church of the Udi. I really wanted to learn more about the church building, the village and these rare peoples living in a small village with their own culture.
The Udi People
The Udi people were originally the native people of the Caucasus especially the east along the Caspian sea and beyond. The remnants of the Caucasus Albanians, whose land covers mainly what we now know as Azerbaijan.
These Udi people were some of the first people to convert to Christianity in the 4th Century.
Over the centuries they have been influenced by differing peoples taking over the land. Turkish, Iranian and Armenian influences have been incorporated into lives through the generations but their Christianity and own language has survived amongst a small number which are mainly here in Nij.
Today the population of Udi stands around 10,000. Here in Nij they have a population of just over 5000, the highst population of the Udi anywhere, and there are pockets of Udi people in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan.
Yes they do have their own language but the Udi people are mostly bilingual in that day to day they speak Udi but otherwise they speak the language of the country they are in, in this case, Azeri.
Farming plays an important role with the Udi language naming calender months after things like grapes and seeds.
Today they practice Orthadox Christianity and I was welcomed by the local people here in Nij to see their church, renovated and still in use.
During the USSR period for example they kept their heads down quietly and kept up their beliefs quietly.
In their homes a flame always burns and the moon plays a great part in their beliefs. All are signs that they followed much more before christianity.
History of Nij Church
The Jotaari Church I visited with them was built in 1823 by an Udi priest and was originally an Armenian Church. It stands on the location of the grave of Vlas the Martyr, who was a disciple of St Elisæus.
During the USSR period of course Religion was not tolerated so the church was used to store harvests etc and fell into some decay.
At the turn of the 21st century a big restoration work was carried out with humanitarian help from the Norwegians.
This enabled this small group of unique peoples to have their historic and coveted building in full use once again.
On my many travels through Azerbaijan I am continuously finding something new an interesting to see and the want to learn more is great.
It was a pleasure to meet and speak with some of the Udi people of Nij. They were full of genuine kindness and their passion and want to let me into their world and inform me was great.