The American Research Institute of the South Caucasus
Talin Lindsay, ARISC Executive Director
The Caucasian Albanian written language was used by the Gargareans in parts of Azerbaijan and Daghestan from the 5th to 12th centuries. Even though the Udi language currently spoken in northern Azerbaijan is a descendent of the ancient Caucasian Albanian, the Caucasian Albanian written language was indecipherable for decades after a 15th century Armenian language manual was discovered by the Georgian scholar Ilia Abuladze in 1937. Later, fragments of stone inscriptions were uncovered during archaeological excavations in Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, in the 1940s and ‘50s. However, written Caucasian Albanian was unreadable until 2011, after the surprise discovery of a palimpsest in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, Egypt by Zaza Aleksidze, Director of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia: great effort was made to tease out the script using ultraviolet light and photography so that Aleksidze was able to decipher the language.
As enthralling as it is to see the interconnectedness of the South Caucasus’ countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, even more amazing are the continuing research implications of the decipherment – from linguistics, to history, archaeology, and biblical studies.
In the last few decades, research conducted in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia has illustrated the region’s dynamism and complexity. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many scholars have been able to investigate new sources in this previously difficult-to-access region, yielding innovative research. The American Research Institute of the South Caucasus (ARISC) was founded to promote and encourage the research of American academics exploring this captivating landscape. “Since its founding, ARISC has been a leader in cultivating a new generation of student research in the Caucasus and fostering ties between American scholars and their peers in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia,” said Adam Smith of Cornell University, one of ARISC’s founding members.
ARISC began its endeavors in 2009, by applying income generated from membership fees to fund opportunities for scholars, starting with a $1500 ARISC Graduate Fellowship in 2009. In the first year of ARISC Graduate Fellowships, ARISC received applications to fund research projects in anthropology, archaeology, history, political science, and sociology. Over the past six years, ARISC has funded 18 graduate student research projects through this program.
In subsequent years, ARISC added the Collaborative Heritage Management (CHM) Grant and the Junior Research Fellowships. The CHM Grant in Armenia, funded by Project Discovery!, awards collaborative teams up to $4,000 in support of the preservation and conservation of the Republic of Armenia’s archaeological and historical heritage. Over the five years of this grant, ARISC has funded six team projects, including the development of a website that catalogs historical locations within Yerevan, the creation of a botanical reference collection, as well as the preservation of artifacts and bio-archaeological materials.
ARISC Fellow Alan Greene pointed out that ARISC support makes possible crucial projects that expand communication and bridge paradigms, enabling American-led research to grow and flourish in the South Caucasus. He added, “These kinds of projects are turning the relationships constructed between American researchers and local scholars over the past 25 years into permanent and generation-crossing institutions for knowledge production and learning."
With funding from a four-year grant from the US Department of Education, ARISC has been offering new Junior Research Fellowships of up to $5500 to support US scholars’ research in the region. The funding additionally carries a requirement that fellows mentor an undergraduate or graduate student in the South Caucasus, which will both develop the academic skills of the mentee and strengthen ties between the US and host country.
Jeanene Mitchell, a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, and ARISC Junior Research Fellow, was able to complete a key part of her dissertation work on trans-boundary water management in the South Caucasus. “One feature of the fellowship which I especially appreciated was its requirement to work with October 2015 • NewsNet 15 a local graduate student: [it] offered me invaluable access to local knowledge in the field of water and flood management. It also allowed for a fruitful exchange of social science and natural science methods, as well as new colleagues and networks for both of us.”
Because ARISC is a member in developing status with the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, scholars interested in working in the region are also able to take advantage of their funding opportunities as well. For example, the Multi-Country Fellowship awards up to $10,500 to support advanced regional or trans-regional research in the humanities, social sciences, or allied natural sciences. While approximately nine awards are given out each year for research at 26 possible American Overseas Research Centers, in just the past three years, ARISC has hosted three scholars awarded with this fellowship.
Funding from the US Department of Education has allowed ARISC to open branches in Armenia and Georgia, and to have a representative in Azerbaijan. The Resident Directors in these offices offer a wide range of free services to visiting scholars. They assist scholars with the logistics of their research, including information on using local libraries, archives, and museums. They help establish contacts with local institutions and scholars, and they find translators for researchers. For those visiting the region for the first time, ARISC Resident Directors are available to assist with the basics of getting around: how to get local ground transportation; how to coordinate travel to remote research sites; and how to obtain mobile phone and internet service. In addition, ARISC has helped US and local scholars find supporting institutions so that they may apply for the Fulbright-Hays and Fulbright grants. "Armenian bureaucracy can be difficult for a researcher new to the country,” wrote Mitchell Rothman, Chair of Anthropology at Widener University. “ARISC helped me navigate this maze, and we now are looking at a successful completion of our project."
ARISC organizes lectures and workshops, many co-sponsored with local organizations in the South Caucasus. Resident Directors coordinate reading groups, and film studies groups, which bring together local and visiting scholars from different backgrounds for academic discussions. “ARISC...creates a platform and a space for communication between the three South Caucasian countries. I do believe that it is a good opportunity for me, and for all of us to fill this gap,” said Diana Lezhava, ARISC’s Resident Director in Tbilisi, Georgia.
In 2014, with co-sponsorship by the grant from the US Department of Education and the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, ARISC organized its first conference, Caucasus Connections at Indiana University, Bloomington. The interdisciplinary and international conference, with 19 presenters from around the world, focused on the institutions, languages, cultures and histories that connect (as well as divide) the places and peoples of the South Caucasus. Presentations are available on the ARISC website www.arisc.org. In the fall of this year, ARISC will have curricular materials available on their website for those who wish to teach about the region.
At the interdisciplinary symposium, Education in the South Caucasus: Modernization, Innovation and Future Trends, held in Tbilisi in June 2015, scholars and representatives from the South Caucasian Ministries of Education examined challenges, new directions and trends in educational reform in the South Caucasus. The forum opened discussions among members of all three South Caucasus countries on issues regarding higher education, strengthening the regional network of researchers.
With several different types of membership, scholars of the South Caucasus are encouraged to join. Membership provides several benefits. Opportunities are available to hold a seat on various committees, or on the ARISC Board of Directors, through which members can help shape the organization’s activities. Access to a discussion group gives members immediate news on the latest scholarly developments and opportunities in the region. An annual newsletter and member directory are invaluable resources for following ARISC’s work and networking with a wider community of scholars. ARISC also works to publicize university events, publications or news by scholars that are pertinent to the South Caucasus, and offers modest funds for cosponsoring members’ events. ARISC is increasingly being seen as a way for different agencies to reach specialists working in the South Caucasus, and membership would provide inclusion in this network. ARISC’s programs and opportunities have been created to help scholars succeed in their academic careers through funding, networking, and research support opportunities.
Hulya Sakarya, a long-time member, declared: “... [ARISC] has a special service to offer Americans across the three South Caucasian nations. It understands the area has a similar history and strives not to underline the differences but rather the similarities. By embracing scholars and students across these three [states], they not only provide a valuable service but one that emphasizes unity across geographical space.”
Founding member and former ARISC President Karen Rubinson added, “As one of the twenty who attended the [very first] organizational meeting, where we began with nothing but an idea and enthusiasm, I am pleased to see how much ARISC has already accomplished in its mission to support American scholars studying in and about the South Caucasus, bringing knowledge of the South Caucasus to a broader American audience, and building cross-border scholarly connections.”
ARISC’s website, www.arisc.org, features a wealth of online resources for anyone interested in working in the region. Not only does it list events and job opportunities pertaining to the South Caucasus, but also where to go for language instruction for Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian in the US and abroad. They welcome your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Talin Lindsay is Executive Director at the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus. ARISC is on Facebook, LinkedIn, and GreatNonProfits.org