The curator was delighted I expressed so much interest in the exhibits inside the old house in Xinalaq, that had been converted into a makeshift museum. He said though, I must visit the home of Haji Balar who lived only a few minutes walk away. He had many objects that I would find most interesting…
At an elevation of 2,300 meters, Xinalaq or Khinalug is one of the highest communities and formally one of the most isolated in Azerbaijan. With a population of only 250, the local Avar people speak their own language that according to Wikipedia belongs to the “Avar-Andi-Tsez subgroup of the Alarodian Northeast Caucasian (or Nakh–Dagestanian) language family”. They certainly look different from Azeris, often being taller and slimmer with many of them having stunning blue eyes, deep set in deeply tanned faces.
It was the ancient ancestors of these people that Thor Heyerdahl thought might have fled the area that is now Azerbaijan in the face of Roman invaders and made their way via European waterways to Scandinavia some 2,000 years ago. Certainly, a Roman legionnaire left an inscription on a rock near Gobustan, South of Baku and the area was at the edge of their influence during the first couple of centuries of the common era.
My guide and friend Elkhan from the village of Laza, showed me the way to Haji Balar’s home. When we arrived at the modest, traditional house with a glazed entrance hall and steep steps up to the living area, we were confronted by the women of the family who had been sharing a meal with a pair of linguistics researchers I happened to have met the week previously in Guba. They had been invited to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan with the family. I tried to withdraw as I didn’t want to disturb them but by this time, the family were getting up from the table. “No, no”, one of the women researchers said quietly to me “I am so glad you came. We have been eating with the family since 11am!” By this time it was four in the afternoon.
Eid is a good time to visit Xinalaq as the tradition is to visit friends and family, so many doors were open to me and my companion.
Haji Balar is a substantial man in his late-middle years, with shining intelligent eyes. He has been a collector of odd and interesting objects all his life and the best of them he keeps in a display cabinet at the back of his dining room. If he were English, living in the 18th century, he would be described an an antiquary as his interests are broad, very broad.
Next to the coins and banknotes from the Tzarist and Soviet periods was a clearly ancient quern stone used to grind corn, some amber funerary beads and some iron shackles that had previously been used (so he claimed) to fasten slaves to their galley seats. At some point, they had been brought to Xinalaq and converted into a hobble for horses. Actually, they looked old, but not that old! Maybe mid 19th century… Then something grabbed my eye. Was it, could it be?
Elkhan leaned across to me and said “he says this is a Roman sword” and truly, it did look just like the Roman short stabbing swords used by legionnaires across the empire. About 30cm long, it was broad in comparison to its length and substantially made of iron. It was rusty and had clearly been in the ground for many years. The handle had corroded long ago, leaving the metal blade exposed to the handle.
I did not have long enough to spend with Haji Balar to ask him where he found the remarkable object, if he uncovered it himself or if someone gave it to him. Certainly, even if it were a genuine Roman sword, there is no guarantee that it came to Xinalaq attached to a Roman soldier. But if it did, then this is circumstantial evidence that Heyerdahl would have jumped as it supports his theory that some of the Avar people fled their homeland over the mountains, into Europe and on to Scandinavia at the time of a Roman invasion.
I ogled the many and varied treasures in Haji Balar’s home for as long as was decent then with regret left to rejoin my other companions waiting for me outside. This is a story that needs to be investigated more thoroughly…