The topic of Turkey’s ‘hidden Armenians‘ has received considerable academic and media scrutiny in recent years. The term generally refers to those Turkish citizens, whose ethnic Armenian ancestors adopted Islam and Turkish and Kurdish identities to escape persecution, particularly at the time of the Armenian genocide, but also in earlier periods, such as the Hemshin communities.
Much less has been written of ethnic Armenians assimilated in Azerbaijan. One paper by sociologist Sevil Huseynova looked at people of full or partial Armenian descent, almost all of them women, who remained in post-Soviet Baku under non-Armenian identities. Even less is known of Azerbaijani rural communities that went through Islamization as recently as in the 18th century and have since largely assimilated.
In a recent paper delivered at an Armenian Academy of Sciences conference, Samvel Meliksetyan reviewed 18th century sources that describe Islamic conversions of ethnically Armenian and native Udi communities of Sheki-Qebele area in northern Azerbaijan. Udis, now numbering less than 10,000 people worldwide, speak a language related to that of Lezgins and other Dagestani peoples, but have historically belonged to the Armenian church.
The area known in Armenian as Boon Aghvank (Albania Proper) retained a considerable Christian population through the 18th century, with additional inflows of Armenians primarily from present-day Karabakh. In the 1720s, an insurgency against Persian empire led by an ethnic Lezgin Haji Davud sought to establish an independent state in what is now northern and northeastern Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan. In the process, both Shiites and Christian Armenians and Udis converted to Sunni Islam.
According to estimates gathered by Meliksetyan, tens of thousands of Christians in dozens of villages were forced to convert (see map). One of the key contemporary sources cited by Meliksetyan is Johann Gustav Gerber, a German-born officer in the Russian service, who surveyed the area in 1728. According to Gerber, forced conversions of Christians, particularly in the Gabala area, “where all Armenians have been forced to become Muslim,” were still taking place just a year earlier. Some of these converts later reverted to Christianity, but most others remained Muslim.
According to Nukha (Sheki)-born Azerbaijani scholar and educator Rashid-bek Efendiyev, also cited by Meliksetyan, memories of the 18th century conversions were still present in Sheki-Qebele area in the late 19th century. At the time, local residents called the area Gavurstan (country of infidels or non-Muslims) and local nobility, the khans of Sheki, traced their lineage to an Armenian priest who converted to Islam.
In the late 1980s, all remaining unassimilated Armenians and many Udis fled the Zakatala-Sheki-Qebele area, as well as districts further to the southeast and southwest. Today, a few thousand Udis remain in the village of Nij in Qebele (former Kutkashen) district, with a few dozen more Udis in Oguz (former Vartashen) district.