Archive for the ‘ caucasus ’ Category

Georgia: National resurrection through allegorical religious history


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


asbtract: In the first decade of this century, President George W. Bush was not the most popular American abroad. Georgia was an exception. Here was his picture , smiling and waving at me, on the sign of a major street named after him in the capital city of Tbilisi. He was obviously much loved. This was, in fact, the only portrait-memorial to any living person I saw in Georgia. Bush’s America was seen as a heroic savior against the menacing Russia. Paradoxically, some two hundred years earlier the Georgian rulers looked to Russia for exactly the same protective role, that time against Persia. Russia came here but it overstayed. I went to see what has transpired since. I found out that for fuller appreciation, one needed to understand the long and tangled history of Georgia’s past. Having just regained its independence, Georgia is in that intriguing transitional stage of shaping its national myths from historical facts. A process that is made more complex as it relies on the distant legacy of religion for a nation that has been dominated by the aggressive secular culture of Marxism in the past century. This is a report on what I learned about Georgia in details necessary for adequate illumination.


A few miles into Georgia, our bus got stuck on a bridge behind a herd of sheep. The shepherd was in no hurry and in the pause our tour guide commented that “Lamb meat is mostly unavailable in restaurants, it is considered cheap villagers’ food, although we eat it at home.”  Restaurant was an institution found only in Georgia’s few large towns. “In restaurants we are most likely to eat pork, chicken and veal.” The guide expounded on the difference between the two Georgias, villages and towns, when she talked about the mixture of ethnic groups in urban centers. She was from the capital city of Tbilisi. There, unlike in most villages, “every person, in addition to being a Georgian is also something else, in contrast to our neighboring Caucasian countries. For example in Armenia, every Armenian is just an Armenian.” She was right, in Armenia this index of “purity” has risen to about 92 percent, largely due to the conflict with Azarbaijan where in turn, for the same reason, that index has also reached about the same level.

“In Georgia everybody wants to know everything about the other person and they usually find out,” our guide continued. “The first thing they ask to find out which kind of ‘other than Georgian’ you are is your last name. I am the complete opposite of anything like a ‘pure’ Georgian. I am only eight percent Georgian, the rest is different ‘nationalities:’ Russian, Jewish, Armenian and Italian.” This raised my first question: what exactly is a Georgian?

The bus had cleared the bridge. Out of window I could see a verdant vast plain with clouds bordering its sky. We were in the southeastern part of Kakheti, having crossed the border from Balakan in northwestern Azerbaijan. Kakheti is a historic region.  Some two-thousand five-hundred years ago it was part of the Persian Achaemenids state. The Persians’ attempt to bring the tribes further to the north also under their control provoked, instead, the formation of an alliance of those proto-Georgian tribes, the Colchians in the west and the Iberians in the east. They eventually merged with the southern indigenous tribes to constitute the Georgian people.

“Georgia is a name the West uses to refer to our country,” our guide said. “We have a different name for it: Sakartvelo which is derived from Kartli, the name of the other main region in Eastern Georgia -not Kakheti.” (My trip would not take me to Western Georgia. Tourists are told that the most important sites are in Eastern Georgia.) Kartli is in the north where Tbilisi, as well as Mtskheta, the more ancient capital of Georgia, are located. As to the Georgian language which is unlike others, nobody knows its origin, although some historians have speculated that “it might be related to those of pre-Indo-European peoples of Europe including the Proto-Basques.”

As we drove through the countryside, our guide offered this reflection: “We were agricultural in the classical time and we are that now.” Our bus had the road practically all to itself. It was a two lane road, narrow, which went through quite a few small villages. No villagers were out on the streets. The buildings we saw seemed to be in dire need of repair. They showed poverty of the kind that prevents needed maintenance. Bricks were used and the architecture was non-descript, not distinguished. 

Wine House

Our first stop in Georgia was at the Wine House Gurjaan. The village of Gurjaan, we were told, was typical in Kakheti, the wine country of Georgia where “hundreds of different grapes” are grown. Each village has “its own particular variety.” This Wine House was a family winery. The women lined up at the entrance to greet us. In the yard a man was barbecuing pork. Corn was hung to dry next to a shack nearby. The family sold wine and also served food to visitors.

We were led to a cellar with brick and stone walls for a demonstration of how wine was made. A man stood at a pit in the middle of the room and stirred the wine in an earthenware vessel, called qvevri, buried below ground level while he explained to us the process. The qvevri was large, with a capacity of about 1,000 liters. This type of vessel existed as early as 8,000 B.C. It has been developed primarily for wine making. It is used for the fermentation and storage of wine. Its inside is coated with beeswax. Grapes are dumped into the qvevri, crushed and left to ferment. Over the next week or so, the grape skins are pushed down and then the qvevri is covered with a stone cap and left standing for nearly two years. Thereafter the wine is ready to be bottled. The qvevri is then sterilized with lime for re-use.

We were told that the qvevri wine, made in this traditional Georgian way, is “rich in tannins, superior in taste” and does not require chemical preservatives to ensure its “long life.” According to our guide, Georgia is counting on qvevri to make its wine popular in the world as the product of a “more natural method” in the industry.

Our hosts now ushered us into a room where a table was set for lunch. On it, there were cucumbers and tomatoes, barbequed pork, fish, an eggplant dip, olives and the famous Georgian cheese bread called khachatury.  There were also pitchers of wine; we were served two kinds of house wine, red and white. This spread was called sofreh. A loanword from Persian, “sofreh literally means table cloth but it also means a feast,” our guide said. “It is important in our culture because in Georgia everything happens around the food table. We have a tradition of having a person be the toastmaster and tell a story, something that goes on for a long time. It is followed by toasts which start, like, to friendship. Then there is another story with another toast, and then comes yet another story.” She said “This lasts quite a bit, and most of this time you are supposed to be listening and not eating or drinking.” She then said “Gaumarjos, which means cheers and your answer will be madlobt, which means thank you, the same to you!”

We responded as she taught us. Then she told us about Georgian food. “We eat basically meat, different kinds of meat. We also eat liver and heart and stuff like that. We also have all sorts of vegetable foods: mostly eggplant with herbs and spices, spinach and beans; also cheeses and smoked cheese; and we have this special cheese bread of which we have many different kinds, also bean bread, meat bread and bread with different herbs. We make a decent beer and Georgian lemonade with different flavors, like tarragon and grape, which some may find too sweet.” In my conversation with her afterward we noted that many Persian words remained in usage in the Georgian food lexicon: badrijani (eggplant); gulabi (pear); lobio (bean); kababi (kebab); mastnis (yogurt); and plovi (pilaf).

St. Nino

The “grapevine cross” is a potent symbol of Georgian Christianity. It is the attribute of the country’s most popular saint, Nino. More than any other name, newborn girls in Georgia are named after her. The common folks’ identification with St. Nino is deep-rooted for her to be so emblematically important, as we would learn from the detailed history of Georgia pertaining to St. Nino which our guide told us.

Toward the end of her life, “when St. Nino was in her sixties,” as the guide estimated, “she withdrew” to the Bodbe gorge, in Kakheti, where she died around the year 340.  The gorge was just a few miles southwest of the Wine House Gurjaani. We drove toward it. Where St. Nino was buried, Georgia’s King Mirian III (284-361), built a small monastery in the hamlet of Bodbe. This was the King who in 327 made Christianity the official religion of his domain, Kartli in Georgian, which was called Iberia by the Greeks.

St. Nino had come there in 320 because, according to Georgian tradition, “she had a dream when she was 14 in which the Virgin Mary told her to go to Iberia and convert its people to Christianity.”  She won “respect from the people by her good deeds and the miracles she performed.” In the capital city of Mtskheta she won a royal convert when her prayers managed to save Queen Nana from serious illness. Her husband, King Mirian, however, was not convinced “until he was struck blind while hunting, and his sight was miraculously restored only after he prayed to the Christian God.” The King then abandoned “the pagan religion, and replaced his Aramazd idol with a cross.”

Nino is a historical person, originally from Cappadocia in present day Turkey.  The Georgian name “Nino” is “Nune” in Armenian, and St. Nino is known as St. Nune in Armenia.  According to Armenian sources of the 5th century, Nune was among a group of 33 Christian women from Rome who had escapade to Armenia to avoid persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When one of those women, the beautiful Hripsime, refused the Armenian King Tiradates III’s advances to take her as his concubine, the King ordered them all killed in 301. The only one who managed to survive was Nune (Nino). She eventually managed to come to Georgia.

At the time, Tiradates was a follower of the cult of Anahita, the old Iranian goddess. The neighboring Georgian King Mirian’s Aramazd idol, on the other hand, was “a syncretic deity,” of two legendary figures, the Armenian Ara and Iranic Ahura Mazda.  Aramazd came to occupy the top position in this area’s pantheon after interaction with the Persians led to the Armenians’ accepting the Zoroastrians’ Ahura Mazda as their primary deity.

Like King Mirian, the Armenian King Tiradates III was converted to Christianity when he was cured of a disease (melancholy leading to insanity resulting from being spurned by Hripsime) by a Christian Saint, the Armenian St. Gregory (257-331). This is also a part of religious traditions, not necessarily a historical fact. But such traditions were often more potent than history. Christian beliefs indeed shaped the history of Georgia in this period as I was about to learn.

Georgia from the 3rd to the 7th century was the scene of intense competition between Persia and Rome (and its successor, Byzantium). The first king of Georgia or Iberia, the legendary Pharnavaz I (302–237 B.C.), had used Persian institutions as models for organizing his realm.  But later, as the kings of Georgia came to rely on Rome to uphold strong monarchical control, the Georgian nobles sought help from Persia to counter their kings’ centralizing ambitions.  By the middle of the 3rd century Iberia effectively became a part of the domain of the new Persian Sassanid dynasty. The Persians’ vigorous propagation of their Zoroastrianism soon established this religion in Iberia. By the middle of the 5th century the Sassanid King Yazdegerd II (438-57) decreed that the people of all of the Caucasus had to renounce Christianity and embrace Zoroastrianism. Most of the Georgian nobles submitted, but the common people resisted. Christianity had taken deeper roots among them.  This was in part due to St. Nino. Our guide said: “At the point when Nino was ready to  die, she asked all the sick people from all over to come and she prayed and healed them all and this was heard all over Georgia, even before they became Christian.”

Christianity became a major barrier to Persian influence in Georgia. To weaken it, Persian rulers tried to exploit the disputes among Christians by protecting the Monophysites who opposed the Chalcedonian doctrines (that Christ had two natures, one divine and one human) promoted by the Byzantine emperors. The Persians sponsored, at the Council of Devin (capital of Armenia) in 506, unity among the Georgian, Armenian and Caucasian Albanian (in present day Azerbaijan) churches which had adopted the Monophysites’ doctrines. Only when the Persian influence waned, did the Chalcedonians gain prominence in Georgia, causing Monophysitism to disappear by the end of the 6th century.

We had now entered the grounds of St. Nino’s Monastery and were admiring the tall cypress trees which gave it a sense of natural serenity. The triple-church basilica that faced us was not the original but one from the 8th century which has been renovated many times since. It is dedicated to St. George ( 275 –303), the holy Christian warrior, who, according to Georgian tradition, was the gentle Nino’s cousin. St. George is the most venerated Saint in Georgia which at one time (in the 18th century), reportedly, had 365 churches named after him, to match the number of days in the year. The English name for the country is connected to St. George. It is believed to be an anglicisation of the Persian Gurj (via the Arabic pronunciation, Jurj). On the assumption that Gurj was derived from the Persian word gorg (wolf) and thus referred to the frightening and heroic people in that land, the early medieval chroniclers translated it as George, the same as the fearless Christian Saint.

The St. George Church at Nino’s Monastery in Bodbe became a favorite of the kings of Kakheti in the late Middle Ages, a place where they held their coronations. Its future history, however, was tied to the changing tide of the domination of Georgia by foreign powers. The Muslim troops of the conquering Persian King Shah Abbas I plundered it in 1615, but it thrived when Christian Russia annexed Georgia until the Soviet regime closed it in 1924, converting the monastery building itself into a hospital. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Bodbe monastery was reopened as a convent and extensive restoration work on the St. George Church followed.

Today the St. Nino Monastery is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia. “What we are seeing now is how these buildings basically looked in the 19th century,” our guide said as she specifically pointed to the St. George Church . The Church’s bell tower was built in 1815 and appropriately looked like a Russian bell tower . The frescos remaining inside the Church were also painted in the period under the Russian rule but by Georgian artists. In a small chapel to the right of the alter of the Church under a marble slab was Nino’s simple grave.

“The areas where the nuns live are behind the trees and inaccessible to us,” our guide said. Down the slope northeast from the church, a short distance away, was a small chapel over a spring named after St. Nino. “Water sprang there as she prayed,” our guide said. “Pilgrims drink and wash their face with that water which is considered to be holy and to have a healing effect.”


Just outside of the St. Nino Monastery we could see the red tile roofs of the houses in Sighnaghi perched on top of another cypress green ridge . Under the blue sky with fluffy clouds Sighnaghi beckoned you with its publicized reputation as the most attractive town in Kakheti. With substantial help from the government since 2007, Sighnaghi is being developed as a tourist center for Kakheti with an emphasis on wine. It now has a week-end long wine festival every October.

Sighnaghi has an “Italinate feel to it,” our Georgian guide summarized her impression. The place did look a bit like the south of Italy, or other parts in southwest Europe, with its balconies and their ironworks. Many of its buildings have been renovated but with an eye to preserving and restoring their original versions from the 18th century. Galleried houses are located around small cobblestone  squares where elderly men still sit to a game of backgammon . When we went for a walk around the compact center of town, we noticed some newer buildings, like the City Hall in which “some of the old architectural stylization, in terms of columns, was used,” as our guide said.  A “modernist” looking building which was built in 1820 during “the Russian Imperial time” continues to be the theater.  Another building with iron balconies “used to be the house of an aristocratic family and now has been turned into a hotel.” A few steps away was a newly established casino. Many of the visitors to Sighnaghi are from Tbilisi which is only one and a half hour away. “The first thing they opened here was the wedding house and ever since it has been used all day long,” our guide said.

“On the right,” the guide now pointed, “there is a wall with names inscribed on it. Those are the names of the people who took part in the Great Patriotic War, as WWII was once called here. But we now consider that war as a part of the history of the Soviet Union.” She paused and said “Every 7 citizens of Georgia took part in that war and every 16th Georgian never came back.”

From many locations in this small settlement of about 2,000 we had impressive views of the valley of the AlazaniRiver and the Caucasus Mountains in the distance. Sighnaghi is still surrounded by much of the four kilometer long wall  that was built in the middle of the 18th century to defend it against attacks by “Persian and Lezgin  enemies of King Erekle II,” our guide said. Each of the six entrances to the wall was named after a local village whose residents would come through it to this sheltered refuge in case of danger. Sighnaghi itself was populated by artisans and trades people, mostly Armenian, who were brought here by Erekle as “he wanted this to be a thriving town of art.”  By the 19th century Sighnaghi had evolved into a leading trading center.

Historic pivot

We went for a walk on a part of Sighnaghi’s wide wall. “King Erekle II was a major figure in Georgian history,” our guide began a conversation with me. As we both knew, that history took a radical turn during Erekle’s rule, changing a long-standing relationship with Persia and ushering in a dramatically different era of relations with Russia. The walk offered an opportunity for me to hear the guide’s version of what happened. It was long and informative. I interrupted her occasionally for clarification. I paraphrase much of our conversation here as it sheds light on momentous periods in the past of Georgia, often forgotten or misunderstood.

Kakheti was an independent feudal principality from the end of the 8th century until the Georgian King David the Builder (1089–1125) incorporated it into his Kingdom. After the disintegration of the GeorgianKingdom which was due to foreign invasions by the Mongols and Tamerlane, and domestic conflicts among local rulers, Kakheti became an independent kingdom in the 1460s.  In 1762, the KakhetianKingdom was united with the neighboring Georgian Kingdom of Kartli. In 1801 the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti was annexed by the Tsarist Russian Empire.

Through most of its turbulent history, before the arrival of Russia on the stage, Kakheti was a tributary to various Persian kings, whose efforts to keep this reluctant Georgian kingdom within their sphere of influence resulted in a series of military conflicts.

The rulers of the Kingdom of Kartli, who had continued to claim the titles of the all-Georgian monarchs after the 15th century, were not immune to pressures by Persia either. Indeed, Kartli (then called Georgia proper by Europeans and Gorjestân by Persia) became a battleground in the wars between the Persian Safavids and the Ottomans of Turkey. The Ottomans finally conceded all of Eastern Georgia to Persia by the Amasya Treaty of 1555. Relations between the Safavids and Kartli thereupon developed into the system of vassalage. In the 1630s the Kartli Georgian rulers reached a “compromise” with Persia. Accordingly, Persia allowed Kartli to retain a measure of autonomy under the lords of the Georgian Bagrationi (Bagratids) dynasty, provided that they adopted Islam and remained subordinate to the Persian shah. In Georgian documents these Georgian rulers were mentioned as kings, while Persian official documents referred to them as the wali (viceroy) of Gorjestân, marking their subservience to the shah.

Nader Shah Afshar who succeeded the Safavids in Persia reasserted that country’s control over Eastern Georgia against the Ottomans who had intruded there in the meantime. He appointed a Persian as governor of Kartli in 1735, but a decade later, as a reward for the services of his Georgian wali of Kakheti in putting down the rebellion of the nobles of Kartli, Nader gave Kartli to that wali, Teimuraz II (1744-62), and made his son, Erekle II, the wali of Kakheti.  Further, he permitted Teimuraz to be crowned as “king of Kartli” according to Christian customs in 1745. The “politics of compromise” thus came to an end. In the chaos that followed Nader Shah’s death, those two Georgians rulers found an opportunity to assert their authority, when the new Persian ruler (Adel Shah) who was married to one of Teimuraz’s daughters sought their help in consolidating his control over of Persia.

From 1748 onward the kingdoms of Kartli and Kakheti were in effect independent although they still observed the formality of vassalage to Persia. Upon the death of Teimuraz in 1762, Erekle succeeded his father in Kartli and united it with his own realm, Kakheti, thus making a single united state in Eastern Georgia under a Georgian ruler for the first time in three centuries. Realizing that his independence from Persia remained precarious, Erekle II (1762-98) sought the protection of Russia. In 1783 he signed the Treaty of Georgievsk making the Kartli-Kakheti state a Russian protectorate.

Persia did not concede immediately. Its new ruler, Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, demanded that Erekle acknowledge that his position was just the wali of Kartli-Kakheti. When Erekle refused and instead reaffirmed his attachment to Russia, the Persian Shah launched a campaign that led to the destruction of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1795.  The Russians failed to provide timely support.  Agha Mohammad Khan’s successor, Fath Ali Shah, in 1798 similarly demanded the submission of Erekle’s son and successor, Giorgi XII (1798-1800). Giorgi also rejected him. This time Russia’s firm support prevented the Persian armies from moving to Georgia, and instead led to the unilateral declaration by Tsar Paul I of Russia incorporating the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti in his Empire.


History followed us into the only store we were taken to in Sighnaghi by our guide. The sign outside gave its full name: Georgian Carpet Knitting by Old Methods Educational Experiment Center .  “You are now in the sole remaining carpet factory where carpets are produced in the old method,” the manager of the Center told us.  In Western literature on carpets Georgia is usually not given much notice. “Before the period when we became part of the Soviet Union,” our host said, “in this area there was a special weaving method, but we have almost forgotten that art. In this Center we are trying to revive it. For that we go looking in many villages with the help of a group of knowledgeable women villagers we have employed. They collect carpets and information for us.”  This was not a government operation, his shop was “a private enterprise.”

The manager now told his men to spread a carpet before us on the floor. “In this design we have a fight between the phoenix and dragon, the good and the evil. This kind of design we have been using in Georgia since the very first century A.D.  Dragon was considered evil in the pagan time, and it has been incorporated into our Christianity. So in Georgia we see St. George depicted as killing the dragon snake. Phoenix was the symbol of good and entered in Christianity as such too. The fight between good and evil is something that happens everyday in each of us.” He went on: “The symbolic negative value of dragon here is similar to that given it in old Persian tales. In fact, our Georgian term for dragon translates as ‘the master of snakes’ which is the literal equivalent of the Persian ozhdha (lord of snakes).” From this he moved to show us a carpet that he said “was produced in Iran.” Another one, which was similar in design, was a local Georgian product, “wool on wool which is not very popular in Iran.”  He said: “For 125 years in Shiraz, Iran, carpets were actually woven by Georgians who were taken there from Georgia some 400 years ago by the Safavid King Shah Abbas. Even today there is a place in Iran called Faridan where Georgians live.”

In support of the long-standing significance of carpet weaving, our tour guide now told a story “which in Georgia we connect to Sighnaghi.” She said, “According to legends there was once a very beautiful lady in this town. A prince hears about her and comes to ask her father for her hand. She tells him that he first has to learn some craft to do with his hands because, she said, ‘what would happen if the kingdom should be no more? How would we survive?’ So the prince decides to learn how to make carpets. Couple of years later he comes back and she agrees to marry him. They live happily for a few years but when he is the king and she the queen and their children are grown up, suddenly, the king is captured and taken away. The captors ask for ransom. He says to them ‘Let me make a carpet which my wife could give to you as ransom.’ They agreed. He makes a carpet and within its geometric design he indicates where he is kept. The carpet is then given to the queen to be used as the ransom, but it enables her to find out where the captured king is and to come and rescue him.”

Diaspora Georgians

The guide did not specify the place of the king’s captivity, but the general theme of Georgians taken in captivity to Persia is well-known, and frequently told to tourists in Georgia. The conversation we just had specifically connected it to carpet weavers moved to foreign lands. There were, however, some obvious discrepancies in this casual reference to an important part of Georgia’s history.  The 61,000 Georgian-speaking people who now live in the town of Fereydunshahr, in the Faridan region of Iran, are indeed an important phenomenon in understanding contemporary Georgia. They constitute one of the largest Georgian-speaking communities outside of Georgia.

They trace their ancestral origins to 19 Georgian clans or extended families, relocated to central Iran four centuries ago. They are believed to have come from Tianeti and other northern mountainous areas of Georgia. They were not the only group from Georgia who were brought to Iran, but those other Georgians have all fully integrated (in language as well as religion) into the general population in the other parts of the country, especially Mazandaran, Fars and Isfahan. There is no evidence, however, that any of these transplanted Georgians were especially skilled in carpet-weaving.

Many were peasants, and a large number of Georgian women were taken to the harems of the shahs and the elite where some came to gain notable influence and power. Several queen mothers in Persia of the 17th century came from Georgia. What the Georgians excelled at, however, was military service to the Persian shahs, especially during the Safavid dynasty. They fought in the army of its founder, Shah Esmail I (1501-1524). Under his successor, Shah Tahmasb I (1524-76), Georgians, taken captive during the Shah’s four excursions into Georgia, began to be imported into Safavid territory. Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) vastly enlarged the pool of Georgians in Persia by capturing many in his campaigns of 1614, 1615 and 1616 in Kartli and Kakheti. The number of his captives has been estimated as high as 200,000.

The moving of many of the Georgian peasants by Shah Abbas to the Faridan region was intended to implement his plan for a systematic depopulation of the area north of the Persian province of Azarbaijan to discourage Ottoman incursions. Later, Shah Abbas also institutionalized the practice begun by Shah Tahmasb of employing Georgians in the Persian army and even civil administration. He formed his bodyguard from the estimated 12,000 of his Georgian gulam (dedicated servants) and his Georgian cavalry guards reportedly numbered 25,000. Indeed, both he and Tahmasb pursued a policy of creating a new “ force” to diminish the power of the Turkish qezelbash on whom the Safavid had initially relied but which had since become suspect. Accordingly, a Georgian, Allahverdi Khan, served as the Persian army’s commander-in-chief for eighteen years (1595-1613), and his son Emamqoli Khan led the war that freed the Persian Gulf from control by the Portuguese navy. Many more Georgians were settled along Persia’s strategic roads, Tehran-Mashad and Isfahan-Shiraz, to defend them against bandits and predatory nomads.

The Georgians who were brought to Iran converted to Shia Islam. The Georgians allowed to serve as wali in Georgia were also required to convert to Islam. From 1620 these walis’ sons were appointed to serve as the darugha (city perfect) of the capital of Persia (Isfahan) “in perpetuity.” In the waning years of the Safavid dynasty, the wali of Kartli, Vakhtang VI (1711-14, 1719-23) began to oppose Persian predominance, expressing pro-Russian and pro-Christian sentiments. He was forced to give up his throne. A few years later, receiving no foreign assistance, he accepted Islam and became wali again (1711-14, 1719-23). His eventual successor several decades later, Erekle II, also refused to be a mere wali of Kartli-Kakheti and proclaimed his attachment to Russia. When in response the Persian king, Agha Mohammad Khan attacked and captured Tbilisi in 1795, he took some 15,000 of its inhabitants to Persia.(Russia accommodated him as it withdrew its forces for use in its war with Turkey.)  This would be the last time, however, that Persia took captives to Georgia. Defeated in a subsequent two-year war with Russia, by the Treaty of Torkamanchay in 1828 Persia confirmed Russia’s control over Georgia.

Old Tbilisi 

“Almost all the buildings you see in Tbilisi were constructed after 1795,” our guide said. “Agha Mohammad Khan left nothing standing.”  We were standing on the site of Narikala Fortress. This was once the citadel established by the Persians in the 4th century. The Fort which they called Shuris-tsikhe (Impregnable Fortress) was built to keep watch over the narrowest passage of the River Kura (called Cyrus by ancient Greeks, after the Persian Achaemenian King, Kuros) and the opening to the all important Kura Valley, the birthplace of the Georgian people. The citadel was expanded by the Arab rulers who captured Tbilisi in 645 and stayed for 400 years, and then further expanded by the Georgian king David the Builder after he moved his capital here from Kutaisi in 1121. The 14th century Turco-Mongol invader Tamerlane gave it its current name, Narin Qala (Little Fortress).  The Georgians have since also renamed the river Kura as Mtkvari.

“Most of the fortifications you see here are from the 16th and 17th centuries,” our guide told us,  “parts of them damaged by a 19th century  earthquake.” Of the original Shuris-tsikhe only a little portion of the front wall still exists.  Down the slope we could see the ruins of the frame of a building which was called Shah-takhti (Shah’s Throne) by the Persians and had been turned by the Arab Emirs into their residence first and then into an observatory in the 7th to 9th centuries . Inside the fort the Arabs had built a mosque which when David the Builder came was replaced by a church in the 12th century. Called the Church of St. Nicholas, this too was destroyed in 1827. The church is the only structure that has since been rebuilt, in the 1990s.

Oligarch’s Compound. The Narikala Fortress is atop the peak of Sololaki Range of mountains, offering a panoramic view of Tbilisi which grew below the Fortress’ walls, stretching along the river to the east. We followed a path down the western gentle slope of the crest now dominated by a surprisingly modernistic complex of buildings which, we were told, served as the headquarters of Georgia’s top “Oligarch.” Some say he is the new de facto ruler of Tbilisi. He provides the financial backing for the opposition which in the last election won in the Capital. Our guide said there was a helicopter pad on this property. “And when there is no helicopter on the pad it means he is not home, which is most of the time.” The Oligarch has had vast investments in Russia. To certain Georgian intellectuals, he is an anathema, our guide continued: “As a friend told me, he reminds her of what the German novelist Erik Maria Remarque once said: the best way to make money is either to help build a civilization or to ruin it. To her this was a time a civilization was being ruined by crass materialism here.”  Georgian scholars we heard later echoed this critical sentiment when they talked about the “grand corruption among top level officials” produced by the post-independence growth of a market economy, while large parts of the population were still deprived of “a basic source of livelihood.”

Soon we reached the statue of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia). It is a 20 meter aluminum image of a woman holding a sword in one hand “to defeat enemies” and a cup of wine in the other “to welcome friends.” This combination is considered “very Georgian,” our guide said. Therefore, erected in the Soviet times in 1958, the statue is still “one of the symbols of Tbilisi.”

Botanical Gardens.  To our right were the many trees of the Botanical Gardens. It had opened to the public in 1845 on the grounds that had been the royal gardens. For more than a decade after Independence, however, ordinary Georgians could not dare to go there. This was the period of the virtual civil war in Georgia that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. “All the weapons of the Soviet regime became available to anyone. So everyone had a gun and some even had tanks. Bullets were flying like crazy.” Our guide talked about her own experience:  “First thing I saw when I opened my eyes in the morning and looked out the window was a tank outside on the street. Neighbors were fighting against each other. The illegal formations of these militarized people basically positioned themselves in the botanical garden and in the Fortress. So these places were unavailable for us to enjoy.” She continued: “The first time I could go to the botanical gardens was in 2000.” Her parents had had even a longer wait before they visited the Fortress, because during World War II and just after it, it was used as storage for ammunition. “It was there but they could not reach this symbol of their town, almost like Mount Ararat for the Armenians which they can see from Yerevan but can’t go there.”

Wishing tree.  As we continued our descent we came to a look-out next to a tree with many pieces of paper and cloth attached to it. It was a wishing tree. “The GeorgianChurch is against such trees because they are considered paganistic,” our guide said. The force of custom has proved stronger. “One teenager puts a wish on a tree and then another one and then another, then we end up with a whole tree of wishes.” Ironically, she said, “Youngsters suppose that the more spiritual the place is, the better are the chances that the wishes will come true. So in some places, like a monastery we end up with whole bushes of wishes and the main job of the monks becomes untiing the wish bands.” She continued: “Take this point where we stand. I once counted the many churches you can see from here. There were twenty. So this is considered a very spiritual place, ideal for a wishing tree.”

Origin. Historical facts notwithstanding, Georgians liked their legends about how Tbilisi came to be settled. “It seems that in Georgia, everything happened by the will of the king, and he made his important decisions when something happened during his hunt,” our guide commented. There are in fact two different folk stories about how the king of Georgia decided to make a settlement in Tbilisi. One has him shooting a pheasant which then fell into the hot sulfur spring here and was cooked for dinner. The other version is about the deer which the king wounded in the hunt. “The deer then washed himself in the water of the spring and miraculously ran away healthy.” Either way Tbilisi, indeed, took its name from the Georgian word tbili (warm), the water of the hot spring that attracted the king to this location. That king, the legends tell us, was Vakhtang Gorgasali (447-522) of Kartli (Iberia) who thereupon moved his capital here from Mtskheta, some 25 kilometers away. Tbilisi remained the capital when Georgia later became the united Kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti.

In fact, evidence of settlement in the Tbilisi area stretches back to the fourth century B.C., long before Vakhtang. The latter, called Gorgasar (Wolf-headed) by the Persians (Gorgasa in Georgian) because of the shape of the helmet he wore, was charged with guarding the northern passes through Kartli for the Persians who had occupied this area since 368. Gorgasar participated in Persian campaigns against Byzantium between 455 and 458. He was married to a Persian princess but later came to resent the Persian encroachments on his authority. In 482 he rose up against his suzerain and also declared war on “Persian Christianity,” which was Monophysitism. His rebellion was put down, however, by punitive Persian expeditions in 483 and 484. After a lull, when the Persians attacked again in 517-18, Vakhtang appealed to the Byzantines for help, but they provided none, and he fled to Lazika where he died in 522. (This Byzantine disappointment was an early version of what Georgian kings would experience in their relationship with Russia in 1795.)  For more than a century thereafter, Tbilisi remained in Persian hands, with occasional interruptions by Byzantium, until the Arabs established their domination in the 7th century. The Georgian kingdom in Tbilisi, abolished by the Persians in 580, was not revived until 1122 when King David the Builder (Davit Aghmashenebeli)took Tbilisi and made it his capital.

MetekhiChurch.  We were discussing the outline of this complicated history at the rocky outcropping above the river, across the Narikala Fortress, which was the site of David the Builder’s former Palace. Instead of the Palace there was now the 13th century Metekhi Church of the Virgin, constructed by King Demetri Tavdadebuli (the Self-Sacrificing) like its original from the 5th century. The latter had been built by King Gorgasali. This King’s equestrian statute  on a pedestal facing the river, erected in the 1960s, now dominates the front yard of the Church.

There was still one more Georgian historical luminary who left a mark here. Tamar, the Queen Regnant of Georgia from 1184 to 1213, was married here in the Palace, our guide said. As the first woman to rule Georgia, Tamar was indeed given the title of mepe (king), as she presided over what is deemed the “Golden age” of the medieval Georgian monarchy.  Her monarchical Bagratid dynasty that had been established by Ashot I (813-830) soon would see its decline with the Mongol invasion of the 1220s.  The Mongols destroyed King David’s Palace.

We walked to the MetekhiChurch. It had been converted into a theater by the Communist regime in 1974, but was reconsecrated in the 1980s. Once again history engulfed us. There to the left of the altar was the tomb of the early Christian St. Shushanik, martyred by her husband in 475 for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism. Her husband was a Georgian feudal lord who opposed Vakhtang Gorgasali and took a pro-Persian position, renouncing Christianity and adopting Zoroastrianism. For that he was put to death by Vakhtang in 482.

OldTown. “Ever since its beginning in the 1st century, Tbilisi began to develop on both sides of the river,” our guide said as we looked out from where the outstretched arm of the statue of Gorgasali was pointing. The east of the river “has always been for the ordinary citizens: merchants, artisans, etc.; the other bank , especially the elevated area, was meant for the royal family and aristocrats.” She pointed to the “highest part of Tbilisi” on this western side: “We refer to it as the Holy Mountain.” There is a church there which “started as a monastery in the 6th C,” and near it is “the cemetery which is our ‘Pantheon,’ where famous Georgian poets, writers, politicians, dancers, etc. are buried.” She completed the description of those hills: “There is also a restaurant there, famous as it was mentioned in many novels, with a funicular, which was so popular in the Soviet period that some of the Moscow officials would fly to Tbilisi just to have a meal there with some Georgian wines and attend a concert.”

Most of what we saw on the other side of the river is referred to as “the OldTown.” There are historic neighborhoods which have been populated by various ethnic groups. Armenians still have their own church. The Jews have two synagogues on the same street. There is a Catholic Cathedral. The foundations of a former ZoroastrianTemple still exist. The Muslims have a Mosque. “Most of these religious temples are in active use,” our guide said.

Sulfur Baths. Also in the Old Town are Tbilisi’s iconic sulfur bath-houses, the abanotubani. Their architecture is recognizably distinct with beehive domes rising at the ground level. These date back to the 17th C. “Bath-houses existed from the very beginning,” our guide said. “They are concentrated where the subterranean hot spring stops but the spring is present in many other places in Tbilisi as well.”  Then she told us this about the use of the hot spring water and the baths:

“Some people are fortunate to have this water coming straight into their water tubs as hot water. They are lucky because everywhere else since 1991 hot water does not come anymore. In Soviet times everything was centralized, you got your heating and hot water. Then for many years there was nothing and you had to install the connections yourself and, of course, that was not cheap or easy to do so. But now the majority of people in Tbilisi have something to heat at least one room in winter time and some hot water. Yet there are some people I know personally who come to these bath-houses a couple of times a week to wash themselves.”

She paused and then continued “But there is also a part of the Society that comes here for entertainment: to get a bath, get a massage, relax. There are common rooms here for women and under age children, and for men, separately of course. In the private rooms there is a small pool and you can also get a massage.”

There are six bath-houses in Tbilisi. We went to where most are located, the Abano (Bath Street). We saw the colorful Orbeliani Baths which had a blue-tile mosaic facade, specifically stylized to look almost like a mosque. The lobby, on the other hand, was simple with clear lines and sported a modern leather chair. We were told that the French writer Alexander Dumas and the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin were among those who had bathed here. Pushkin is memorialized by a plaque on the outside wall which quotes him saying “I have never had better fun than in the bath in Tbilisi.”

Mosque.  As late as 1795, there were 68 bath-houses in Tbilisi. “Many were demolished in the attack by Agha Mohammad Khan,” according to our guide. Worse than the fate of the bath-houses, only one Tbilisi mosque has survived, even though Muslim rulers dominated this town for many centuries. For a long time there was a celebrated Shiite Mosque in Tbilisi built in 1524 by the Persian Safavid King, Ismail I. In 1951, to facilitate the construction of the Metekhi bridge over the river, the Communist government of Georgia demolished that mosque. The Persian king Nader Shah had destroyed, in 1740, the early 18th century Sunni mosque that had been built by the rival Ottomans in the OldTown. It is this mosque, which was restored in 1864 by a Volga Tartar family, that now stands in Tbilisi. We went a short distance uphill behind the sulfur baths to see it.

In contrast to the Orbeliani Baths, the Mosque had a simple brick facade.  We saw a sign for a religious school  within the Mosque. “Students go there everyday after the regular school. There is also a Turkish language public school,” our guide said. Most of Tbilisi’s Muslims are Azeris. There are some 10,000 of them and over 80% are Shiites. But they pray alongside their Sunni brethren in this mosque, which is usually simply called the Tbilisi Mosque, but sometimes also referred to as the Dzhuma (Community) Mosque. This true community use is unusual between the two branches of Islam, perhaps made possible by both necessity and ethnic and linguistic affinity of the Azeri minority (both Shiite and Sunni) in a foreign land. A new leader of the Mosque also helped in 1996 by ordering the removal of a curtain that had separated the two denominations during prayers.

In comparison with the sole mosque, fourteen old Armenian churches have survived in Tbilisi, including the Saint Gevorg Church which was near the Fortress.  The Armenians had thrived under the Russian Tsarist government.  Their number in Tbilisi jumped to about 40% of the population after the Russian conquest. At the beginning of the 19th century the Muslims in Tbilisi constituted the majority of the population, but by the end of the century Tbilisi had become mostly Armenian and Russian. Armenians formed the majority in the city until the early 20th century. There were at that time some 24 Armenian churches in the city.  Then the Soviet anti-religious campaign of the 1930s took its toll: ten Armenian churches were destroyed.  After Independence, Armenians left Georgia in huge numbers. Some 200,000 migrated, mostly in search of employment. A large number of those remaining live in the Javakheti region, in the south of the country. In Tbilisi the Armenians are now only the second largest ethnic minority, after the Azris, at 7.6% of the population. As a result there are only two working Armenian Churches in the city.

The same has happened to the Jewish community of Tbilisi. From a height of 100,000 in the 1970s, the number of Jews in Georgia has declined to some 3,500 as many have left for Israel. Most of those remaining live in Tbilisi but being so small in number, for economic reasons, the two congregations, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, are now housed on two stories of one of the formerly separate synagogues, according to our guide.

Georgian Churches. The oldest surviving religious temple in Tbilisi is the Georgian Anchiskhati Basilica which was built in the 6th century and restored many times, especially in the 17th century. “It is the favorite of the Catholicos-Patriarch who is the head of the Georgian Church’s” our guide said. “He comes here to pray on holy days.” The residence of the Patriarch is at a square around the corner.  Opposite these we could see the Presidential Palace across the river. We went inside Anchiskhati and admired the fresco paintings which were done by Russian painters in the early 20th century. The Russians also built a bell tower here in 1812 which still stands. A block away was the Sioni Cathedral which was originally built in the 6th century as well, but it was later destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure is from the 13th century.  This church is distinguished for sheltering the important sacred Cross of St. Nino. According to Georgian tradition the Cross, made with vine branches, was given to Nino by the Virgin Mary. Nino later bound it with her own hair. We could not see the Cross as it is kept in a safe.

Kala. In early 19th century, Tbilisi had 13 caravanserais. One of them has survived in the Old Town. It is being restored and turned into a series of modern offices. The Old Town, however, continues to reflect a bit of the past. The locals still call it by its old Persian name, Kala (Fort), just as they have kept the Persian names for street (qucha), square or circle (moedani), and lane (sikhi). The Old Town’s famous Bath Street is called Abano, derived from the Persian word for water, ab.

There are graceful houses with wooden balconies in the OldTown which have laced ironwork  with vines growing on them. These stand in contrast to the Soviet era housing still found in the Old Town’s half-hidden covered courtyards. We visited one. “Several families live on the second floor,” our guide said. “They are from different ethnic groups. They get along playing soccer in the courtyard.” At one corner there was a stairway that went down to “a place for them to get water from.”  The guide added: “There is one kitchen and one bathroom which they share on each floor.  There are separate gas stoves and meters for electricity and gas for each family. ” She spoke from experience. “My grandparents lived in this kind of courtyard. Similar courtyards still exist in other parts of Tbilisi too. ”

OldTown has become chic. On some streets, such as Shardenis Qucha, which the fashionable young Tbilisis frequent, smart cafes have sprouted up right under the old Ottoman style balconies. They have names like KGB: Still Watching You. A recently built clock tower tries to be the answer to the famous old one in Prague; accordingly, it is made crooked and antiqued. It is called the PuppetTheaterTower. From the window above the clock dolls come out on the hour, walk around in a circle and go back in. The forthcoming programs of the theater, when we visited, were the whimsical Battle of Stalingrad and Autumn of my Springtime .

Flower Story. Ethnic neighborhoods have survived in the OldTown. Many Azeris live in the Abanotubani area near the Mosque. In 2007 a memorial statute of Heidar Aliev, the founding President of the independent state of Azerbaijan was erected there. The traditional Armenian quarter is the nearby Avlabari. There is also a flower market here, and this was where our guide told us the following story:

“One day I saw a tour bus pull up in front of Aliev’s statue. A man stepped out of the vehicle. He went to the flower market and bought one hundred white roses for a big amount of money and gave one to each of the passengers on the bus. While the Armenian tourists sat still on the bus, the Azeris all came out. One by one, they marched to Aliev’s statue and put their rose at his feet; you could almost hear the marching drums! Then they all went back on the bus. As soon as the bus left, the white roses were picked up and went back to the flower shop! The Georgians who were witnessing this just laughed.”

There was a moral in this story, our guide said. “In the last two decades because Azerbaijan and Armenia have been not so friendly with each other, Tbilisi has become where all the regional conferences are held so that representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan could both attend. We actually are very happy with this role.”  Our guide continued: “Azerbaijan is happy that Georgia is neutral, but Armenia is not and also wants Georgia to condemn the Turkish Genocide.”

The human side of the triangular relationship of these countries was more personal to our guide: “When all the three were just one county under the Soviet Union, at the age of 16 I was in love with an Azeri boy. We would hold hands and read poetry. I even thought I could marry him. Once we went to Baku. At the Memorial to the Martyrs there which has a magnificent view of the city we sat down. He held my hand as he said ‘tell me how much Armenian blood you have?’ I answered ‘what if I told you fifty percent?’ He let go of my hand and walked away and I have never seen him again.”

New Tbilisi

Tbilisi has functioned as the geopolitical center of south Caucasus, in fact, since the Russians arrived in the 19th century. Where the OldTown ends, to the west is a most impressive square from which six streets branch out. This is now known as Freedom Square, but it was originally named Erivan Square to honor the general who earned the title of Count of Erivan by conquering Erivan (Yerevan) for the Tsarist Empire. Indeed, the Russians lost no time in building a whole new city for Tbilisi, which they made the seat of their Viceroy of the Caucasus. In contrast to the old city, this one had big squares and wide streets, the most illustrious of which was the Palace Street, today called Rustaveli Avenue. The Viceroy’s Palace was here, today turned into the YouthPalace. In between these changes in names and functions, many of these landmarks of Tbilisi had undergone other transformations during the Soviet regime. The Viceroy’s Palace became the PioneerPalace. The mansions of the rich in the Sovolaki district, just to the south of Erivan Square, each were split into parts and given to several families. Erivan Square itself became first (Lavrentiy) Beria Square and then Lenin Square.

Here at that time stood a statue of that leader of the Bolsheviks. It was brought down after Independence from Soviet Russia in 1991 and has been replaced by a golden statue of St. George spearing his dragon, as the resurrected patron saint of Georgia. The name Freedom Square itself was a resurrection: it was first given to this Square in 1918 by the short-lived (1918-1921) First Georgian Republic. The leaders of that Republic, however, were Mensheviks, who “liberated” the Square following the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire. Like their rivals, the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks were generally hostile to religion and insisted on the separation of church and state. St. George would not do as the symbol of their freed polity.

Demonstrations. The vast Freedom Square which is where Tbilisi’s  City Hall is located has been the venue for mass demonstrations for independence from the Soviets as well as other dramatic political changes since, including the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought down the first President of the new Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze.  On the day of my visit, however, the Square was quite. In the little park on one corner of it, with a newsstand full of newspapers, several duos of men were sitting on the benches playing chess. Each duo had at least one spectator, another man standing and looking at the progress of the action on the board. They seemed oblivious to a smaller demonstration that was now passing in front of the Old Parliament House , just a few blocks away on Rustaveli Avenue.

The Parliament House had become the primary venue for political demonstration after the “storming” of it brought to power the current President, Mikheil Saakashvili in January 2004. Many times since, his opponents have come to march in protest here. While winning re-election in 2008, Saakashvili is not popular in Tbilisi which he lost, garnering his majority in the rest of country. Perhaps to avoid the same environment that led to Shevardnadze’s resignation, Saakashvili has arranged to move the seat of the Parliament to the 12th century capital Kutaisi, a city more than 200 kilometers west of Tbilisi. At a lecture I attended in Tbilisi, an American expert on Georgian politics offered this assessment of the move: “Saakashvili has proven once again that he is the best politician in the country.”

The demonstration which I saw today was non-threatening. There was no noise. I saw no police or marshal. Rustaveli was blocked off where this crowd of some 1,500 marched on the wide street. They carried a white banner which, in Georgian, said “Our Language,” as a fellow observer explained to me. “This is for Mother Tongue.” The march was “for purification of the language: getting rid mainly of Russian words, but also more.” The English language newspaper next day wrote that the demonstrators’ goal was “Georgia for Georgians.” Judging by their clothes, the majority seemed to be middle-class. Most were middle age, but several youth carried the banners. A few clergy led in the front row.

Our guide had told us that the most influential voice in Georgia was that of the GeorgianChurch’s Patriarch. The Parliament building was balanced on the other side of Rustaveli by Kashveti (Stone Birth) Church. It is said that a “pagan ritual” used to take place on this spot. According to tradition, this StoneChurch was first built in the 6th century by Davit (David) Gareja, one of the ascetic Syrian Fathers who came from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia. As our guide related: “A nun accused David of impregnating her. He replied that if this were true she’d give birth to a baby and if not, to a stone, which is what duly happened.” The Stone Church commemorates that incident.

After the demonstration I stood looking at the venerated Church. Women and men, passing by, stopped before the Church and crossed themselves.

Rustaveli. Rustaveli is a mile long. Georgians say “It is a mile of democracy because all the events since Independence have happened here.” But Rustaveli has been much more.  The majority of its stately buildings date back to the 1840s-1860s. The most impressive one, the baroque-style building of the Opera and Ballet State Theatre was built later in the same century. Like the other structures it was damaged in the violent civil conflicts of the 1990s. Most have been restored since, including the 1910 Hotel Majestic, called Hotel Tbilisi in the Soviet time, still considered to be the best in town. It has been given a different name, The Tbilisi Marriot, by its new owner, the American company. Also commensurate with the new regime, the old Institute of Marxism-Leninism building, a pet project of the Georgian high-ranking Soviet official Lavrentiy Beria from the 1930s, is being renamed and turned into the luxury Kampinski Hotel.

Rustaveli itself was originally called Golovin Avenue, after a Russian Viceroy. In 1918 the First Georgian Republic changed the name to honor Shota Rustaveli who is regarded by Georgians as their greatest poet.  In its present form Rustaveli is oddly more like a freeway than a boulevard: there is no traffic light stopping the cars, nor a pedestrian cross walk. To go from one side of the street to the other, a pedestrian has to use underpasses. In one of these underpasses I found a picture of Shota Rustaveli with a plaque that explained how his major work and the Georgian national epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, came to be attributed to him: by the words of the prologue in that work. Rustaveli’s picture and those of the others in the pages of that mediaeval book of poems, posted on the wall of the underpass, were of the style customary in Persian miniatures of his time (1172–1216). This was a portrait of Rustaveli quite different from how he was depicted later, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, almost as a Georgian saint, or in the 1937 monument to him in the square named after him at the western end of Rustaveli Avenue.

Rustaveli’s name means “from Rustavi,” a native of his home village of Rustavi in the southern Georgian region of Meskheti. He is believed to have been a “Treasurer” at the royal court of Queen Tamar of Georgia 1160-1213). I looked up a summary description of Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther’s Skin. It is a long poem of approximately 6,500 lines. They consist of over 1,600 shairi quatrains, in places showing strong Persian influence. Shairi is in fact from the Persian word for poem. The story of the poem, surprisingly, has almost nothing to do with Georgians. It describes the adventures of Avtandil, a young Arab nobleman, and his friend Tariel, an Indian prince. Sent by the ruler of Arabia on a mission to find a mysterious knight clad in a tiger’s skin, Avtandil finds the knight who turns out to be Prince Tariel, grieving over the disappearance of his beloved, the daughter of the king of India. Avtandil and Tariel succeed in freeing the beautiful princess from captivity in the hands of evil spirits. The poem has a happy ending with the double wedding of Tariel and Avtandil to their respective beloved.

Literary Heritage. When I discussed these observations with my young learned Georgian friend in Tbilisi, she was not surprised. Already a polyglot –fluent in English, Russian, Armenian as well as Georgian– she said she was now studying Persian because that was “necessary for understanding not just Georgia’s history, but also its literature.” Her language instructor was “a Persian woman married to a Georgian in this town,” but her introduction to the literary influence of Persia had come from the courses she had taken at the Tbilisi State University. According to her understanding of the literary contacts between Georgian and Persia, they began from the very beginning of the development of Georgian secular literature in the 11th century. The New Persian literature had emerged just a couple of centuries earlier.

The Georgian literary elite’s connection with the Persian poets of the neighboring Persian province of Shirvan (in today’s Azerbaijan), such as Nezami Ganjavi, and Khaqani Shirvani, was especially strong. Not only in Rustaveli’s Panthers Skin, but also in almost all Georgian literary works of this period there are names of Iranian heroes borrowed from such classical Persian texts as Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. The Georgian readers of the time must have been quite familiar with those texts. Later, in the renaissance of Georgian literature in the 16th to 18th centuries, which followed its decline in the previous two centuries, Persian literature again greatly influenced the upper classes in Georgia.  Georgian kings had an important role in this. King Teimuraz I (1603-63) who was born and later died in Persia was fluent in Persian and highly valued Persian poetry.  King Vakhtang VI (1711-14, 1719-23) who had a long stay in Persia where he mastered the language, had several works from Persian translated into Georgian. It was only from the 19th century that the Persian-Georgian literary and cultural contacts decreased markedly. As Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire, Russian language gradually replaced Persian and Russian themes became dominant in Georgian literature.

Russian Influence. We had a glimpse of the impact of Russia on Georgian arts when we walked beyond Rustaveli Square to the House Museum of Elene Akhvlediani. Born in 1901, Akhvlediani lived 73 years and became an influential representative of a generation of Georgian artists. Best remembered for her “atmospheric” paintings of Tbilisi, she is also credited with custom designs for over seventy theater productions. Her house became a salon for artists, musicians and poets. Turned into a museum four years after her death, the house reflected that era. Its round balconies overlooking vines with grapes still on them were typical of the Russian Caucasus. Inside, a concert of European classical music was awaiting us. Two women played the violin and a third was at the piano. On the walls were Akhvlediani’s paintings, in all sizes. Hand-woven thin textile on other walls and old pitchers and jars lined below on wooden cabinets reminded you that this was not quite a Western European setting.

Toastmasters. In the waning years of the Soviet Russia’s Empire, “ensembles of singers” represented Georgia in the cultural offerings that General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev took with him in his visits to the West. They are still playing in Tbilisi, singing “traditional and religious songs.”  One of these ensembles entertained us at a “toastmasters dinner”  in a basement restaurant. These singers were four men in their fifties. They had met at the university and had continued to sing together. They said they had “their own original compositions too but tonight would sing the traditional songs.”

As we sat down one from the ensemble stood up and offered this toast:  “Thanks for this beautiful day.”  We had been reminded that the protocol required us not to drink or eat before the toast was finished, and that the toasts could last as long as the toastmaster had “stories” to tell. This first toast was brief. The man sat down to eat. Soon another of the men got up and offered a toast to “friendship”. Then the first man picked up his guitar to play while others joined him in singing in Georgian. The guitar player introduced the next song, in English: “One more song about Tbilisi.” The others accompanied him as he also sang while playing the guitar, which was the sole instrument used that night. After a pause, one of the performers stood up and offered a new toast: “What makes life possible is love.”

Now the men took a cigarette break, after offering their CDs at $15 a piece: “There are up to 12 songs on a CD.” When they came back they gave a toast to “the family, children.” This was followed by their singing Elvis Presley’s “Love me Tender, Love me True” in English. It was our turn now to offer toasts. One from our group of guests said this: “A toast to friendship between American and Georgian peoples.” He was followed by a woman who asked “all women to toast the men.” This prompted a reply from a husband. He remembered a Mexican toast from his honeymoon 48 years ago: “To health, love, wealth, and time to enjoy them all.”

The last toast was from the ensemble: “Everything has to come to an end and this is to meet again. Have a good journey and the last song is the Travelers’ Song.”


The ensemble singers told us that some of the religious songs in their repertories were one thousand years old. A church that old and venerable where those might have been sung was the “Svetiskhoveli Cathedral  in Mtskheta, believed to be the most important “religious center” and the biggest ecclesiastic construction of medieval Georgia. It was originally built by in 1010-1029 by the Catholicos Patriarch Melkisedec, and since then has undergone several restorations.  It is a “must visit” for Georgians, our guide said. Today, indeed, we shared it with some local pilgrims .

The Svetiskhoveli Cathedral represents Georgia’s “inscribed cross” type church (with a central dome and four smaller domes at the tips of the arms) and has a layout of elongated rectangle . I walked inside the Cathedral. There were mural paintings on the walls which mostly date back to the 17th century.  The floor was covered with stone markers for tombs.  Erekle II and a few other Georgian kings as well as patriarchs and nobles are buried here.  In a prominent place before the altar there was a tomb with Arabic script on its stone. Some clue as to the date of his burial was indicated by the tombstone next to it which marked the times of this deceased: 1729-1799.  That was the era Persia still dominated this area.

Walls surrounding the courtyard of the Cathedral are from the second half of the 18th century, but on their western section we could see gates which were dated to the 9th century. There were also fragments of a palace built by Patriarch Melkisedec on the site. We were shown fragments of earlier churches as well. In the 4th century there was a wooden church erected here, over which in the 480s there was built a bigger three-nave basilica, our guide said.

The Georgian state’s conversion to Christianity, in 337, took place in this town, Mtskheta. According to legend, the reigning King Mirian, once converted by St. Nino, arranged a mass baptism in the nearby AragviRiver for the townsfolk. Mtskheta had been the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century.

Starting as an important market town because of its location at the confluence of Aragvi River and MtkvariRiver, Mtskheta evolved into a center of the Iberian civilization both culturally and spiritually. Iberia’s “founding” king was Pharnavaz I. In addition to the Iranian origin of his name, his connection with Iranian epic traditions has been noted by scholars. He is said to have created a Zoroastrian sanctuary at Armazi, the ancient capital of Georgia near the future Mtskheta. The word Armazi, which is also the name of a deity in the Georgian pantheon, is associated with the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda.  Mtskheta has been “refurbished” since Independence by the Georgian government, our guide said. We could tell this by the recently paved streets and the new houses  just outside the Cathedral.

From the Cathedral in Mtskheta we could see the JvariChurch on the peak of the surrounding mountains. It was not hard to imagine the strategic significance of that location when Mtskheta was the capital. It was also easy to understand why it could be an ideal location for a Christian cross. That is exactly what was erected there in the 4th century. It is called the Holy Cross (Jvari in Georgian), although it is not clear if the huge wooden cross was set there by St. Nino herself, or later by King Mirian or by both.  To many Georgians Jvari has become “the holiest of holies, the country’s spiritual heart,” we were told. For them Jvari is another “must visit.”

On the day we went there, we were the only visitors. In the grassy field fronting the Church a single rusting sign anchored in the dirt among the grazing cattle was presumably intended for busier days as it warned: “Do not litter. Fine 200 Lari.” Against the majestic background of the Caucasus Mountains we saw the imposing structure of the Church atop a hill overlooking the confluence of the Kura and Argavi Rivers. Down below were spectacular views over Mtskheta, giving us the full measure of the significance of the town, positioned at the foothills of the mountains and the opening to the plains in the south.

The building of the Church dates back to 585-604 when Stepanoz I, the ruler of Kartli constructed it over the original cross. The sign at the JvariChurch, also called Jvari Monastery, called it “the most significant monument of Georgian architecture… a classic of early Georgian tetra-conch design with appendixes.” The angles between the four equal arms of its cross-shaped plan are filled in with corner rooms. The low dome sits on a squat, octagonal drum, with the overall result of a beautifully symmetrical little building. At one time this was surrounded with a wall from three sides, a crumbling portion of which is still there.

The exterior of the JvariChurch has rectangular pink stones. Its interior is rather bare . “An octagonal pedestal” of the original Cross has been preserved in the church, according to a sign, but the cross that now stands there is of a later vintage. The JvariChurch is in need of repair as the presence of workers, ladders and scaffolding indicated .


St. Nino might be revered by Georgians, but not long ago it was a Georgian apostle of another system of beliefs who was more admired by many more, if not necessarily in Georgia, certainly in the wider world. Joseph Stalin was not always a Communist, indeed as a youth he was a student at a Tbilisi seminary of the Georgian Christian Church that St. Nino had established. Now held in despise in most countries, Stalin is still remembered in Gori as a native son. That Georgian town, some 60 miles northwest of Tbilisi, is where Stalin was born in 1878 and lived as Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili until 1883. Stalin (Man of Steel) was a title he acquired later.

Gori which now has a population of some 50,000, is an old town perhaps existing as early as 65 B.C. Where Stalin lived was a poor neighborhood, demolished in the 1930s in the reshaping of the town to glorify its favored son, while his home was perfectly preserved for a future museum. The street we now saw was wide but empty, with utilitarian, long five-story apartment houses. There was only one store in sight. On the outside wall in red paint it advertised, in English, “Hot Bread .”

On the other side of the street was an impressive building, The Stalin Museum. Built in 1957, it has been a major source of income from visitors for Gori. It has a specious courtyard where a bigger-than-life statue of Stalin in white-stone stood, dominating the scene.  We went through the rather ornate door of the building of the Museum. Inside a wide staircase faced us. On its landing, there was another white-stone bigger-than-life statue of Stalin, identical to the one in the courtyard.  Unimaginative repetition also characterized the few items in the gift shop on the first floor. Glasses and plates were all embossed by the same picture of Stalin. There was only one book of his poems written when he was as a teenager, with a picture of him as a school boy on its cover. On the souvenir banners you had the choice of two pictures of Stalin.

Exhibits. The exhibits were on the second floor, in a huge hall and smaller rooms connected to it. Stalin’s life from the Gori school to his death in 1953 is depicted selectively and mostly in copies rather than the original artifacts. There was no sign in English. His revolutionary work from before 1905 was portrayed in photographs with ample evidence of his collaboration with Lenin. This was followed by pictures of the two of them upon their triumph in 1917. Next, however, a copy of Lenin’s final testament recommending that Stalin be removed from the top position in the Communist Party stared you in the face. That advice was, of course, not followed by the leaders of the party, to the eventual detriment of many of them.

More pictures chronicled the highlights of Stalin’s rule, including his attending the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Non-Aggression pact with the Nazis in 1939 and his meeting with his new, opposite allies, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill four years later in Tehran . A picture with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was special in that it is a rare showing of one of Stalin’s physical deformities: his left arm which was cut short in a horse ride accident and carefully avoided in other pictures of him. His other deformity, the marks of small pox on his face, also usually hidden from cameras, is caught yet in another rare picture on display in this Museum.  A reminder of how Stalin was glorified by Communists and sympathizers in the world was a picture of him framed in an exquisite inlaid frame presented to him as a gift by the Youth Organization of the Tudeh Party of Iran. It was inscribed with this greeting: “Nam-e stalin kabir gharin eftekhar bad (Glory be to the name of Stalin the Great).”

Stalin’s overcoat is virtually the only personal item in the Museum.  There is a picture of his first wife, the Georgian Ekaterina Svanidze. She died in 1907. At her funeral Stalin said “This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” Many members of Ekaterina’s family would later be executed during her husband’s “Great Purge” of the Soviet Union’s elite in 1937-1938.

Jakob (Yakov) Iosifovich Dzhugashvili was Stalin’s son from his first wife. Serving in the Soviet Army during the Second World War, he was captured by the Germans. They offered to exchange him for one of their Field Marshals captured by the Soviets. Stalin turned down the offer, saying, according to our guide: “No, he is just a soldier. I will not trade a Marshal for him.” Jakob eventually died in the German prison. There is a picture of Jakob’s son, Yevgeny Yakovlevich Dzhugashvili, in the Museum. He is a retired colonel of the Soviet and later Russian Air Force. Yevgeny has gained world-wide notice as a defender of his grandfather’s reputation. Currently residing in Georgia, he was visiting Gori on the day we were there, our guide reported. Yevgeny has named his son after Stalin, Soso (Joseph Dzhugashvili). A picture of this young boy taken in 2009 sitting at a desk with Stalin’s picture on the wall behind him is also posted in the Museum.

Fear and Cruelty. With all that ability to cause fear in others, Stalin was himself afraid of flying. He traveled by train even to far away places abroad. His private railway car which took him to World War II conferences in Potsdam, Tehran and Yalta was on display in the Museum’s backyard. I climbed the steps onto the green historic train. Its conference room could accommodate about ten persons in the upholstered chairs around a wooden table. Stalin’s bedroom was furnished with a simple bed and desk. Next to it was a washroom with a hand-held shower. The train had a primitive air-conditioning system and was bulletproof.

A Few yards away from the train on the Museum’s grounds stood the original wood-and-mud brick cottage where Stalin’s parents rented a single room. There he lived with them for the first four years of his life. The room on a narrow open corridor was now marked with a sign. It was reached by three short wooden steps from the street.

Stalin’s father, a cobbler named Vissarion Dzhugashvili, was cruel and abusive.  Our guide said:  “Stalin did not show mercy for Georgians.” Having engineered the Red Army’s take-over of Georgia in 1921, he led the Bolsheviks’ eventual elimination of much of the opposition elite. Georgia suffered as much from his purges as any other Soviet republic. The guide told us a personal history which she said was not atypical. Her great grandfather was sent to Siberia and shot there in the Stalin era. “My grandmother toward the end of her life was so feeble that she could not recognize anyone, but on the day in May which was the anniversary of his death, she would cry and say ‘Stalin: I remember, always. You killed my father!’” The guide said her great grandfather “was merely an accountant so chances are that somebody just said bad things about him.”

Poet. Stalin went to church school in Gori before going to a Georgian Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi at sixteen. His mother wanted him to become a priest but he rebelled against both the church and the Russian imperialist order before he was finally expelled five years later. It was during his early years in the seminary that Stalin wrote romantic and patriotic poetry in Georgian which later came to be “widely read and much admired.”  They were memorized by school children in Georgia. Among Stalin’s earliest sources of inspiration was Rustaveli’s epic, The Knight in the Panthers Skin, which he read as did other Georgian children of his time.

“Stalin’s poem Morning was still required reading in schools in my time,” our young guide said and recited for us a few stanzas, translated as:

The pinkish bud has opened,

Rushing to the pale-blue violet

And, stirred by a light breeze,

The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

Stalin published all of his poetry anonymously and never publicly acknowledged them. The small book of his poems sold at the Museum which was titled Poetry by J. Stalin was published in 2011. I browsed through it. It only had 6 short poems which were translated into English. (There were several in Georgian and in Russian.) All these poems were written in 1895 when Stalin was 17.  They were all signed “In Iberia, by Soselo (Stalin’s nickname given by his mother),” except the earliest poem which was signed by “J. J-shvili.” In one poem, Stalin referred to his birthplace as “my beautiful country, Land of Iberia;” but in another as “Georgia.”  The poems The Rosebud Flowered and To T.R. Eristavi were patriotic in subject; When the Shining Moon was about social justice;  To the Moon was inspirational; He wanders like a shadow was about the ignorant mobs’ reaction to a Socrates-like bearer of truth; and Old Ninika was about the old age of a strong farmer now living for his memories.

Change of Fortune. As late as 2008, one could find statutes, busts and portraits of Stalin in all corners of Georgia. He had become the emblem of national pride in Independent Georgia. After all he had been the most famous and influential person in the world ever to come from this country. Stalin had projected himself as a Russian leader, publicly referring to Georgia as “that small area of Russia.” In private, however, he spoke, ate, sang Georgian, and ruled Georgia through hand-picked local lieutenants. Like many in the Soviet Union, Georgians had come to revere Stalin as the leader who defeated fascism in World War II. Later, when many of the same Soviet compatriots denounced Stalin following the disclosure of his crime by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, the Georgians refused to join in. Instead, thousands gathered in Tbilisi to commemorate the third anniversary of Stalin’s death.

In the last decade there has been a remarkable switch between the positions of Georgia and Russia on how Stalin should be viewed. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has been rehabilitating Stalin. Meeting with the newly elected Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004, Putin reportedly said: “Thanks for giving us Stalin.” The Russian re-adoption of Stalin has only intensified the campaign to reject him by pro-Western Georgian politicians led by Saakashvili. Their attitude was summarized by this quote from one of them I heard in Tbilisi: “In the new Georgia, Stalin is no longer Georgian. He’s a Russian emperor.”

The short war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 crystallized this attitude. Russian planes bombed Gori, targeting apartment buildings and a school and killing civilians, but leaving untouched Stalin’s Museum and his statue then standing in the main square of town. This has been considered by Georgians as a sign of Russia’s unwelcome reverence for a man many now disfavor. The Russian bombs reportedly killed 60 persons in Gori. When the government brought down Stalin’s statue a short while later there was no protest by the local residents.

The Conflict

The war of 2008 was over Abkhazia and South Oscetia. These areas were small autonomous entities within the GeorgianSovietRepublic under the USSR.  The Abkhaz Republic was in the northwest of the country with around 8,500 square miles and the South Oscetian Autonomous Oblast was due north, half that size. They were also small in population, Abkhazia’s barely reached 500,000, and South Oscetia’s not many more than 70,000. Both, however, were diverse in ethnicity. These different ethnic groups historically have gotten along except in the two periods of Georgia’s independence. In 1918-1921, the Menshevik Georgian government had problems with non-Georgians in Abkhaz who demanded greater autonomy, and it faced rebellious Oscetians which it accused of cooperating with Russian Bolsheviks.

It was, therefore, not a total surprise that ethnic tension resurfaced as the Soviet rule collapsed. In the referendum of March 1991, the non-Georgian ethnic groups residing in Abkhazia (mostly Abkhazians but also Armenians and Russians), constituting 65% of the population, by overwhelming majority opted to stay within the Soviet Union and boycotted the separate referendum for Georgian independence. At issue for them was preservation of the autonomy they had enjoyed under the Russian rule, with control over language and culture, against the fear of Georgian nationalism.

The same was true with South Oscetians (an Iranic ethnic group, speaking an Iranian language but mostly Eastern Orthodox Christian) who constituted two-thirds of the population in their territory. Seeing signs of what they feared was an attempt by the new government in Tbilisi to eliminate their autonomy, South Oscetians declared independence from Georgia in 1990, calling themselves the Republic of South Oscetia. The Georgian government responded by trying to regain control by force.  This led to the 1991–1992 South Oscetia War which ended by putting more than a half of South Oscetia under de-facto control of a Russian-backed government. Most of the ethnic Georgian parts of South Oscetia, in the south of the territory, remained under the control of Georgia. Two more fights occurred in 2004 and 2008 before Georgia lost to the combined Oscetian and Russian forces all that rest of the territory of the former South Oscetian Autonomous Oblast. The Russian-backed independent government of South Oscetia came to be recognized by a handful of other countries, Venezuela and Nicaragua being the biggest. The rest of the international community recognize Georgia’s right to call South Oscetia simply a part of its Kartli region under Georgian sovereignty, but occupied by the Russian army.

Meanwhile, a parallel, similar yet more complex, story was evolving in Abkhazia. There the ethnic Georgians were the largest single group, about 48 percent, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Armenians and Russians, however, continued to support ethnic Abkhazians (a north Caucasian group related to Circassians and Orthodox Christian in religion except for one-sixth who are Muslim) in their fight for independence from Georgia. In the Abkhazian battles of 1992-1993, the Georgian army was no match for the separatists supported by the Russians and helped by forces from the militants across the border in North Caucasus. In the lull that followed, only a small eastern region remained under Georgian control.  That was the upper Kodori Gorge where on 9 August 2008, Abkhazian forces fired on Georgian forces just as the battle in South Oscetia flared. In three days the last of Georgian forces and civilians were forced out of Abkhazia and Russia moved down the same historic Military Road [125] it had greatly improved in the early 19th century to come to the help of Georgia in defeating Persia. This time Russia captured Gori and threatened Tbilisi in the Georgia which had just declared its independence from some two centuries of Russian rule. A week later Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia, followed by the same configuration of countries as friends and foes as in the case of South Oscetia. Indeed by now these two regions had become the focus of a new great power competition.

New Great Power Competition

When Putin obtained the right to construct a Russian military base in Abkhazia in 2009, the United States confronted his ambition to re-assert Russian power in the region by offering to train Georgia’s army. Massive economic assistance followed. The Georgian government was an active agent in the brewing of this major drama about a country of fewer than 4.5 million people. As an American professor of Georgian history reminded us in Tbilisi, “Being a small nation, Georgians always tried to have others fight their fights against big powers.” That was indeed the case when they had first invited Russia in, against Persia. As the example of that attempt had shown, of course, the solicited supporters had to be ready and willing. In this case, the American government of President George Bush was receptive. When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to Washington in 2006, he was received as “a hero of democracy.” Saakashvili made it clear that he wanted to get Abkhazia and South Oscetia back.

His predecessors had not been so bold in challenging the Russians. It was not that they were any less nationalistic. They could not afford to be as the separation of Abkhazia and South Oscetia has been the central issue of Independent Georgia’s domestic politics. The promise of American support enhanced Saakashvili’s ability to benefit from nationalistic fervor that, ironically, gained strength from defeat in the conflict with a foreign power.

In his lecture about Georgian domestic politics, the same professor of history pointed out the significance of the intelligentsia in the Russian-dominated Georgia. They were “petty nobles” who had been “adopted” by the Russians at the expense of the traditional nobles. Educated by Russia they eventually came to be “resentful” if employed by the Russian rulers or “even more if they were not so employed.” This group became the core of the Mensheviks’ struggle for independence. The rulers of the new Independent Georgia immediately after the Soviet Union were the Russian-educated intelligentsia of their generation. A senior Western diplomat located their position twenty years later in this demographic outline of Georgian politics he offered during a private conversation with us: Georgian who are potentially active in politics may be divided into three age groups, 25-35 year-olds who are not yet influential, 35-45 year-olds who were about to come of age in the changes of 1991 and are perhaps the most important, 45-55 year-olds who were functionaries under the  Soviets, and 55 and over who are “hard core” Soviet types. He placed the current opposition in Georgia squarely in this last group, while calling the ruling group reformist. The latter were mostly from the diplomat’s category of the 35-45 year-olds. They want to move the country in the direction which is favored by the United States, democracy and free market, the diplomat said. We met some younger members of this group at a private reception. They were organized in an alumni association of prestigious American universities. The contrast with the venue of the education that the elder members of the Georgian political elite had received, in the Soviet Union, was telling.

Internally Displaced Persons

One more demographic fact that the diplomat in Tbilisi recited also deserved special attention: “Two-thirds of the Georgian population still live in villages and village is also a way of life.”  We were reminded of this as we went to see a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) near the border of South Oscetia. This was set up after the 2008 war to accommodate the Georgian villagers from that territory who had escaped to the south. Much of the human cost of Georgia’s war with the Russian-backed rebels has been borne by the villagers from South Oscetia and Abkhazia. They are the bulk of the 250,000 IDPs in Georgia. The biggest group, exceeding 200,000, came from Abkhazia after the first battles of the 1990s. At the time they were not provided for adequately by Georgia. It was hoped that they will be able to return. Some did return during the lull, but they have come back after the 2008 fights. The number who escaped in the early phases of the conflict from the far smaller South Oscetia was correspondingly low, about 15,000. The IDPs we were now going to visit were the newer arrivals, from the 17,500 ethnic Georgians who had stayed in South Oscetia until 2008.

Regretting its past records regarding the IDPs, the Georgian government now even has a Ministry of Displaced Persons to deal with their needs. The camp built just north of Gori is far superior to the previous shelters for the IDPs, which had been described by foreign observers as “grim Soviet-style blocks and faded government buildings.” This new camp which was called a “village” had modern looking houses in rows. It shelters some 6,000 villagers barely ten miles from their original homes on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains which towered over the landscape. We were told that all of these villagers hoped to go back home. In the meantime, they could move anywhere within Georgian but only if they could prove to a certain “commission” that their intended new housing was better. They were employed in some factory work and the government hoped soon to establish new factories with even better-paying jobs for them, our guide said. We were met there by the village’s school administrator. He told us that all the 900 children in the village attended school; 350 of them were in kindergarten. Some were learning English.  We were then taken to a class where they were being taught a type of martial arts by an instructor. Some looked as young as five. They wore black. They looked serious .


While the Georgian future remained murky in the north, the country has found pride in the south where it has dug for its past.  When we visited the HistoryMuseum in Tbilisi, it showcased ancient gold decorative pieces and 1.8 million year old hominids. The latter were found recently in the ruins of the medieval town of Dmanisi. The Sakdrisi gold mine near the town of Kazerti, under excavation since 2004, is claimed to be the world’s oldest. We went to see both of these sites, which are within 40 miles south of Tbilisi.

Sakdrisi is in an area where the ethnic Azeri and Turkish Muslims constitute more than fifty percent of the population. In some locations, flags of Azerbaijan waived on the side of the road. We were told that the main town, Bolinisi, was 40% Azeri, 40% Armenian, and 20% Georgian of German descent.  We hardly saw any of these people as we passed through Bolinisi’s streets which were also devoid of shops. We then came to an equally empty park that was one of the Victory Parks built in such Georgian towns to commemorate The Great Patriotic War in the Soviet time.

A few miles further our bus pulled to the side of the country road in a field of rolling hills . A Georgian archeologist was waiting for us there. We took the dirt trail on a 10 minute walk behind him. When we came to his car, the archeologist lifted the trunk and gave us helmets which he had stored there. “Not pretty but they were just cleaned,” he said. Our shoes were muddy by now. “You are among the first tourists to see our work in this mine,” we were told as we approached the main entrance to the mine.

We followed him into one of the tunnels which the archeologists have found here recently. It had been dug by the inhabitants of this area many centuries ago to obtain ore. It was 30 meters long. It stopped and started again .  There were gaps and fissures in many places.

The existence of these mines had become known as early as in the 1750s. Then in 2004 a new tunnel was made on the site by miners. “The miners soon found something unusual and called the archeologists for help,” our archeologist said. They had found fragments of ceramic pottery. There were also tools made of river stones. “The gold here is in quartz.” He showed us some . It needs to be separated. “They used those tools in ancient times to chisel out the gold from the volcanic rocks.”  The pieces here have large percentage of gold.  “We have also found areas with evidence for scorching the ore.”  He said “One kilometer from here were dwellings of people who worked these mines those many centuries ago.” The mines and tools and other artifacts from here have been dated to the fourth millennium B.C.  “This makes Sakdrisi’s the earliest case of underground hard-rock gold mining in the mountains, to the depth of 20 meters, ever discovered.  In Egypt they might have mined gold earlier, perhaps in 4,000 B.C., but only in quarries.”


A few miles southwest down the road from the gold mines of Sakdrisi we climbed a gentle slope of hills through a forest of trees and arrived at the Dmanisi Archaeological Site. The sign that greeted us told its significance for Georgia. It is a “narrative of history” of this country, because “simultaneously it presents the Medieval, the Bronze Age and the Early Stone Age sites.” Archeologists have been excavating ruins of the medieval Dmanisi since 1936. Starting in 1983, beneath the layers of that town “prehistory” archeologists discovered human ruins, stone tools and fossils of extinct animals. The hominids found here are deemed to have been among the earliest humans who lived in Eurasia.

We passed the guard house  and met our guide, Irma. The examples of the prehistoric holes dug under the medieval layers  were now in our plain view . “The site consists of 13 hectares,” Irma began. “There are two rivers, one on each side, which were important for settlement. The rivers were created by lava which flowed through here.” Discoveries have included remains of ancient animal remains and stone tools , as well as hominids.  “The tools were primitive and easy to make,” the guide said, “just by cutting one stone with another.”  Signs indicated that one of those ancient animals was an elephant from 1.8 million years ago, and another was the ancient saber-toothed cat megantereon .

We now stepped on a Plexiglas walkway above some of the ancient pit graves. The remains of a Bronze Age, 35-40 year old woman had been found in one grave lying on her back in the lotus position. No goods were buried with her in this grave.  The originals of the remains of hominids found here have been removed to museums. Among them were two “homo skulls”, and four jawbones (mandibula). These hominids , were about 1.5 meters tall, weighed 50 kilograms in weight and had a small brain, our guide said. As they have been dated to 1.8 million years ago, they are older by ½ million years from any other discovered elsewhere outside of Africa.

Medieval Town.  The hominids who lived in Dmanisi were “hunters and gatherers,” Irma said.  “Their ancient settlement did not survive because they ran out of animals for food.” More than a million years later Dmanisi again became an important site. It was first mentioned in the 9th century writings as a town under the Arab Emirate of Tbilisi. It was conquered, destroyed and rebuilt several times since by a succession of rulers, the Seljuks, Georgian kings, Tamerlane and finally the Turkomans in 1486. After that it declined to a sparsely populated small village.

Now abandoned, in the Middle Ages Dmanisi had thrived as a commercial center at the crossroad of trade in the region, helped by the confluence of its two rivers. It had a multiethnic population with mosques, churches, baths, caravanserai, bridges and custom houses. Some of these buildings  were constructed right on the top of the buried ruins of its ancient hominids settlement. Dmanisi’s strategic position eventually turned it into a royal fortress as well. It was in a dominant position for defending the large area below it which we could see from the elevated points nearby. Around where we stood were the foundations of the imposing fort which continued to be used until the end of the 18th century.

DmanisiSioniChurch. Amidst the ruins of that fort, we could see the Georgian Dmanisi Sioni Church built in the 6th century as well as the 9th century addition to it. These are the only structures standing, repaired and maintained in the entire Dmanisi site. The original stone Church is probably the oldest Christian church in Georgia. Equally significant, it holds possibly the oldest example of Georgian script dating to the late 5th century. We walked inside the vast basilica and noted its collection of well preserved frescos  of saints.

David Gareja

On the day we were at Sakdrisi and Dmanisi we were the only visitors. In fact, we did not see that many tourists, foreign or Georgian, at other important sites around the country. In contrast, as we began our drive to the David Gareja monastery complex our guide said that site “gets over 200,000 visitors a year; every Sunday a couple of thousand go there -mostly Georgians.” We saw hardly anyone on the road, however. Granted that it was not a Sunday, but this arid landscape  of southeast Georgia was empty of much interest. We were on a plateau some 600 meters above the sea.  Trees did not grow here; we could only see some grass .

Treating it virtually as a wasteland, the Soviet army used this area as an artillery range for training during its Afghanistan war of the 1980s. Ironically, the damage that this exercise caused to David Gareja called the Georgians’ attention to the monastery after nearly a century of neglect when it was closed and uninhabited. Students in Tbilisi focused on this issue to ignite the first large scale protests in Georgia against the Soviet rule in 1987 and 1989, at the dawn ofthe perestroika. The Russians stopped their artillery, but in 1996 the Independent Georgia’s army also came to the conclusion that such was the best use of this land. They too, however, had to abandon their project when protesters camped in their firing range. Indeed, by now David Gareja had become “one of the most sacred sites in the country,” as our guide said. Its buildings were fast repaired and it was once again inhabited by monks. As our guide said “Starting with David Gareja, there were some 20 monks by 1991 and their number would increase ten-fold in the next two decades. In Georgia today, it is popular to become a monk or a priest.”

The restoration of David Gareja was financed largely through private donations, our guide explained, “especially by the Oligarchs, sometimes anonymously but such things do not remain secret long because this is a country where everyone talks about the others.” Just now we were going through the village of Udabno which had been built by the government for refugees from a 1974 avalanche disaster, but subsequently used in Soviet military exercises. It resembled the war-torn villages of Afghanistan. It was un-repaired but still inhabited .

The Monasteries were further south at the border with Azerbaijan. Their location, the Plateau of Lore, is the most arid and barren area of Georgia. The road narrowed, its surface became gravelly , and ended in David Gareja.

Lavra. There are 15 Monasteries in the David Gareja complex, spread over a large area, and we were at the gate of the one called Lavra. It is the most visited. As we approached the tall stone wall of its entrance I noticed a man peering from a window above its gate. Presently, two SUVs (Sports Utilities Vehicles) pulled up to the door and a clergy disembarked. The man at the window had now come down. He crossed himself, bowed and took the clergy’s hand to kiss it, as the latter patted the man’s head. The clergy was the “abbot” of a neighboring monastery, our guide explained. His entourage followed the abbot through the gate. Among them were two women, covered in black clothes. “Priests can marry but not patriarchs or bishops, who must take the oath of celibacy, although they could be divorced from a previous marriage,” our guide said.

Lavra was the only inhabited monastery in David Gareja today. We could see the residence building above us as we walked on the entrance passage inside the monastery. Next to it was the small 17th century Church of St. Nicholas. Lavra had three levels, constructed in several different periods. The most important was the lowest level. In its yard a white cross marked the cave which St. David Gareja carved himself in the mid-6thcentury as his own dwelling. He came here, to the slopes of MountGareja, after years of preaching in the Tbilisi area to seek a life of solitude. He had chosen to avoid “worldly concerns.”  David was accompanied only by one disciple, St. Lukiane. “At the beginning the Holy Fathers subsisted with grass and milk,” which was given to them by deer “who appeared miraculously,” according to the Monastery’s official guidebook. Still another miracle attributed to St. David Gareja was the “healing water called St. David tears, which appeared after he prayed for several days with all his heart.” This spring is the only drinkable water in this area. It runs at the bottom of a rocky slope in the western part of Lavra.

Next to David’s cave we saw several other caves . Lukiane and another of David’s disciples, Dodo, were the first among several monks to add their own cave dwellings here. They “would heat the sandstone, and then pour water on it to break it off the cave walls in chunks.”  In this fashion they created cells, and later “refectories, storerooms and chapels” in the Monasteries

David died in Lavra and is buried in the Church of Transfiguration which was erected over his grave in the 9th century. The Church is opposite David’s old cave dwelling. When we went inside the Church we encountered the abbot and his entourage. David’s grave is considered “one of the most sacred objects” in Georgia, the guidebook said. On this day, however, we were the only other group visiting it. On the top of this simple rectangular grave a single object caught my eyes: a small stone. Our guide explained: “This symbolizes the only stone St. David was able to bring back from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the soldiers there took away from him two other stones believing that these stones were the ‘spiritual power’ of Jerusalem. That is why tradition calls for three trips to David Gareja.”

Although David’s disciples expanded his Larva and founded two other Monasteries, the next important phase in David Gareja was in the 9th century. Under the guidance of St. Ilarion Kartveli, the Church of Transfiguration was enlarged, embellished and modernized and new cave chapels were created. This was also the beginning of the fresco art in these Monasteries. From the 11th century all the Monasteries in Gareja came under the control of Georgian rulers and construction reached it peak toward the end of the 12th century.  By this time, the community of monks here had grown to 2,000, and the Monasteries had gained a reputation for a distinctive style of fresco painting and manuscript illumination.

Udabno. The Church of Transfiguration in Lavra had it own share of David Gareja’s frescoes. What we saw, however, were not the old ones; these were newly done frescoes kept in cases.  “The best examples of Gareja frescos were done in the Udabno Monastery,” our guide said. This Monastery was originally built in the 9th century as a branch of Lavra, a little further west. The best of Udabno’s frescoes dated from the first half of the 11th century to the 13th century, the period of the general prosperity of the medieval Kingdom of Georgia. “These frescoes depicted different episodes from St. David’s life.” Much of those frescoes now lay in the ruins of the old Udabno Monastery.

Those ruins tell the rest of the history of the David Gareja Monasteries. As narrated by Georgians that history is full of dramatic tales of death and destruction by foreign enemies and subsequent resurrection by faithful Georgians. First came a lengthy period of decline following devastation by the Mongol army that arrived here in 1265. Revived in the early 14th, the Monasteries were sacked by Tamerlane later in that century. The Georgian kings subsequently restored the buildings and the glory of the Monasteries, so much that in the 16th and early 17th centuries, in addition to the frescoes, a local “literary school” was established here with “unique manuscripts” including those translated from other languages.  Much of this work of Georgian art and literature were again destroyed in 1615 by the army of the Persian Shah Abbas I.  In 1675 Georgian King Archil initiated some restoration and a new Father Superior of David Gareja, Onopre Machutadze appointed in 1690, once more resurrected the Monasteries. They regained their position as the “spiritual center of Georgia.” They remained active until the end of the 19th century, but, as the Monasteries’ guidebook put it, even in this period “many Garejians took martyr crown.”

Recent visitors to the Udabno Monastery have reported that some of its old frescoes have survived all that turmoil, including the 1980s artillery fire of the Soviet training exercises which felled walls and shattered ceilings. Among those frescoes is an exquisite depiction of the last supper on a refectory wall. In many of the frescoes, however, the figures have been effaced – not by the Mongols or the Persians but by the Bolshevik Russians. Yet, today it is the impact of the Persian invasion of 1615 that appears seared into the Georgians’ historical memory.

On Easter Day of 1615, “numerous Holy martyrs … were slaughtered” by the Persian invaders, according to the Monasteries’ official guidebook. The book does not quantify the “numerous,” but one often hears in Georgia that 6,000 monks were killed that day. Carved into the cliff of the Udabno Monastery are “room after room” which could have accommodated many. The question that is left unanswered, however, is how they could have lived in that desert environment with St. David Tears Spring as the only source of drinkable water. On the day of our visit the Spring was locked behind a door but there was no evidence that it was especially large.

There is a “small church” in Udabno where, according to Georgian tour guides, “the Gareja fathers were brought to, tortured and martyred.” It has been enshrined as the Church of Easter Day. The alleged reason for this brutal orgy was the refusal of the monks to convert to Isalm. Only two of them acceded to that demand by the Persians. Their fate, according to our guide, was to be turned into snakes. The bones of the rest who became martyred are “now relics distributed among all holy places in Georgia.”

According to historians, the Safavid dynasty maintained Persia’s political dominance over Eastern Georgia in part by placing converts to Islam on the thrones of Kartli and Kakheti where the David Gareja Monasteries were located.  When the Ottoman Turks interrupted that dominance briefly at the end of the 16th century, it fell on the new Safavid Shah, Abbas I, to restore it.  In 1614, he undertook a campaign into Kartli and Kakheti, replacing their kings with Muslims. When the nobles of Kakheti rose in revolt in 1615, Abbas’s troops ravaged it as a punishment. Some 70,000 people were killed and another 100,000 were deported to Persia.

Azerbaijan’s Claim. Persia’s dominance in Georgia continued for another two and a half centuries until Russia replaced it at the end of the 18th century. The neighboring Azerbaijan shared that history with Georgia. Also like Georgia, as a newly independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has been in search of its identity in its past. This has brought it into a dispute with Georgia about David Gareja. Azerbaijan claims not only the territory of the Monasteries which straddle the border between the two countries, but indeed also their cultural legacy.

The dispute has been the subject of ongoing talks between the two former SovietRepublics since 1991. The Soviet Union had drawn their borders in such a way that part of the David Gareja complex ended up in the AzerbaijaniRepublic. Georgian officials have admitted that, by that “administrative” decision, the Udabno Monastery has been an Azerbaijani territory since the Soviet times. It is located in the Agstafa rayon (district) of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan maintains that the origin of its right goes further back in history. It has called the Udabno Monastery an Albanian cultural monument, a part of the Caucasian Albania, a kingdom which existed from the 4th century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. mostly in present day Azerbaijan where its capital Gabala was located. The Caucasian Albanians became Christian as early as the beginning of the 4th century. David Gareja is referred to in Azerbaijan as Keshish Dagh (Priest’s Mountain). Contemporary Azeris, however, are Muslim, even those who live closest to David Gareja. Evidence linking David Gareja to the Caucasian Albanians may be lacking. This, however, does not dissuade Azerbaijan which, additionally, covets the strategic value of the high grounds of the site.

Mirroring Georgia

In many ways the David Gareja Monasteries exemplify Georgia. Their long history of glory and defeat reflects the fortunes and misfortunes of the nation. The harsh landscape in which they thrive is a reminder of the difficult environment which has tested the Georgians’ endurance. The large number of pilgrims David Gareja attracts shows the power of religion in making a cohesive people out of Georgians. The Monasteries are awe-inspiring in their simplicity. The white cross that marks St. David’s cave here is the opposite of the impressive opulence of temples of other countries. That type of large church does not exist in Georgia. St. David’s writ, however, runs large and wide. Crowds in cosmopolitan Tbilisi acknowledge it with respect, as they do also St. Nino’s legacy. The same is true in villages of Georgia where worship unusually takes place at home in a simple shrine at a corner of the living room holding their icons.

The bonding that the church of St. David and St. Nino creates among ethnic Georgians who constitute no more than 70% of the population risks alienating the other groups in the nation. In the north especially, excessive nationalism has contributed to strife and separatist sentiments. Internal dissension is not new in Georgia, nor is seeking help from outside powers. When the government of Georgia so engages foreign powers it might be following historical precedent, but it does so with the same concomitant potential for entanglement. The dual legacy of Georgia’s relationship with Russia is a case in point. Russia fended off Persia as it was invited to do, but it only stayed to own Georgia. When that yoke was broken its consequences did not disappear. They show even in the dispute regarding David Gareja with the fellow former SovietRepublic, Azerbaijan, as well as the wars in Abkhazia and South Oscetia.

While the new politics in Georgia is democratic, the small number of people in the elite of intelligentsia and oligarchs play an inordinately large role, reminiscent of the nobles of the past, who left their impact on the fate of the David Gareja Monasteries and many other historical developments in Georgia. Huge street demonstrations, especially on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, have replaced the rebellions of bygone years. The mode of expression of vox populi may be its only changed aspect. Notwithstanding, the fate of the nation is still determined in large measure by the villages. They were the ones who determined the outcome of the last national election. For villagers, as a Georgian expert at a Tbilisi think tank summarized, traditional patriarchal culture and historical feeling of trust for a charismatic leader led to supporting concentration of power in the hands of the president. There you have it: look into tradition and history to understand today’s Georgia.


Armenia: Anchoring in the soil



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.


abstract: How does a group maintain its identity as a distinct people while wandering the world? For the Armenians who for centuries have been away from their original homeland by force or volition the answer is complex. They have been united by their language. Their distinct writing script, however, had itself been invented to serve their unique brand of Christianity, not only against Christian Byzantine but also against Zoroastrian Iranians with whom they had most in common both in language and political history. Resorting to their own national myths and metaphysics did not suffice for their differentiation. These had to be anchored in turf, a national homeland. As it has been in their history, it is true now for the Armenians. The two-thirds of them who are in the diaspora look to the domain of the recently independent Republic ofArmenia for relics of the roots that sustain their identity. This is, of course, no less so for the three million who actually live on that land. I went to see those potent symbols of the sustaining elements of the Armenian nation.


I rolled my luggage behind me as I walked the several hundred yards on the narrow bridge that connected the State ofGeorgiatoArmeniaat the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border. Deep underneath the bridge was theDebedRiver. The river was wide. With the trees on its banks, it looked picturesque. The view was spoiled with empty cigarette packs and broken liquor bottles strewn on my path.  The mud that covered parts of the ground on the bridge stuck to the wheels of my luggage.

“Buongiorno,” the Armenian guard greeted me, in Italian for some unexplained reason, as he took my passport. In an old Soviet-style uniform, he was sitting at a desk in a small office on the other side of the bridge. The prominent feature in his face was a jet-black moustache of thick bristles. He picked up his cup of dark demitasse coffee, took a sip, and dragged a puff on his cigarette before he began thumbing through my passport. He stamped it without hassle about the visa that indicated I had recently been toAzerbaijan, unlike the Azeri passport officer who had voiced strong displeasure about my visa toArmenia.

It would not be long, however, before I heard from the Armenians about their problems with Azerbaijanand their other neighbor, Turkey.  When we boarded the bus that would take us eventually to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, our guide said “We are in Eastern Armenia, which is now the territory of independent Armenia. Western Armeniais in eastern Turkey.” The Turkish treatment of the large Armenian population that lived in the eastern part of Turkeyin the late 19th century and early 20th century has been called genocide by the Armenians. This grievance is the main reasonArmenia’s border withTurkey is now closed.  Our guide was brief regarding what was needed to solve that problem. “Turkey has to recognize the Genocide and help our people to forget it.” She had a ready-made model: “We have forgiven the Kurdish residents ofTurkey their role in the Genocide because in 1938 their community’s representatives formally apologized and promised to give all Armenians their properties back.”

Armenia’s conflict withAzerbaijan, on the other hand, was focused on Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly mountainous 1,700 square-mile area inside theRepublicofAzerbaijan, constituting 14% of its territory.  At the closest point Armenia is over two miles away from that enclave. Under theSoviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh was an Autonomous Oblast (Region) within the Azerbaijan SovietRepublic; it is still internationally recognized as part ofAzerbaijan. That country, however, has not exercised power over it since 1991. This is because as theSoviet Unionfell apart the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, who at the time constituted more than 75% of its population, took control of the area. Supported by the newly independent state ofArmenia, they held a referendum onDecember 10, 1991to approve the creation of an independent state of their own. The referendum was boycotted by the local Azerbaijanis (Azeris) who had comprised a minority of about 20%, and theRepublicofAzerbaijandid not recognize the new state.

Clashes between the Armenians and Azeris of Nagorno-Karabakh were made even more violent because of the respective support each side received, respectively, fromArmeniaandAzerbaijan. Most of the Azeris have since been forced to leave so that the current population of Nagorno-Karabakh, estimated to be about 140,000, is about 95% Armenian.

Our guide explained Armenia’s position by pointing out that from the 9th century to the early 19th century Nagorno-Karabakh had been ruled by the Armenian Khachen princes. Thereafter, under Russian Imperial rule Armenians were favored as local administrators and when the Tsarist regime collapsed the Armenians gained control, declaring self-rule. Soon afterward, however, “when the Bolsheviks came, things changed,” our guide said. “Lenin gave Nagorno-Karabakh toAzerbaijan so as to keep it a part of the newSoviet Union, and to please Ataturk.” In fact, theSoviet Union had a far-reaching hope that by thus placating the new government ofTurkey after World War One, “it might help move it to develop along Communist lines.”


It was also the combination of pressures from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist government and Soviet Russia that overwhelmed the last attempt by Armenians to establish sovereignty over their traditional homeland through the short-lived Democratic Republic of Armenia (May 1918– Dec.1920). This attempt, in turn, had to wait almost a millennium after Catholicos Petros Getadarts -who governed the capital city Ani in the incumbent Armenian king’s absence- surrendered Ani to the Byzantines in 1045, thus ending the reign of the Bagratuni kingdom which had begun in 885. The nearly 160 year’s domination ofArmeniaby the Bagratuni dynasty is remarkable not only for its length but also because its founder, Ashot I, had been the land’s first Armenian king since 428.

This history only magnified the significance of the Haghpat Monastery complex which we were about to see. Haghpat was crucial for preserving the threatened culture of a nation with so tenuous a hold on its land. Before the Bagratuni kingdom emerged, the Arab invasion ofArmenia, followed by the devastation caused during the Arab-Byzantine wars, had stifled expressions of Armenian culture. The Bagratuni kings largely eliminated such restrictions by ushering in an unusual period of stability and prosperity.  With the patronage of the kings and nobles, monasteries became centers of learning throughout the kingdom, where literature flourished and historical studies were undertaken to document events of the past centuries andArmenia’s relations with neighboring countries. In thus reviving Armenian culture the two Monasteries of Haghpat and nearby Sanahin, we were told, were especially effective because their location, the Lori region, had been more immune to strong Arab presence.

As we drove up the deep canyon that theDebedRiverhad carved in northern Lori, we could appreciate the choice of the site for the fortress Monasteries.  Not easily accessible, the hills afforded both protection against hostile forces and concealment from prying eyes cherished in a monastic life.  Monks lived in the caves here for generations, our guide said. As well, “pagan Armenian temples” once had stood in the area where Haghpat is today.

When Haghpat came into our view on the top of a promontory, we noted that this Monastery, “unlike most inArmenia’s arid region,” as our guide said, was not isolated. It had been built in a village environment surrounded by many hamlets. The smaller Sanahin Monastery a little further up is older than Haghpat. Its inner sanctum of Surp (Saint) Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church dates to 928, during the reign of Bagratuni King Ashot II who earned the title of Iron for his efforts to preserve and defend the kingdom. It was under his brother and successor Abas I (929-953), however, thatArmeniaenjoyed a period of stability and prosperity unprecedented for decades. The construction of Haghpat began in this later period.

The monastery at Haghpat was founded by Saint Nishan. The small churchof Saint Nishan(“Sign” of the Cross), built in 966-967, is the oldest surviving building in the Haghpat Monastery. The Monastery’s principle church is the larger Cathedral of Saint Nishan, built between 967 and 991.  It is valued as a surviving example of the 10th century Armenian architecture: four pillars uphold its central dome and triangular recesses mark the outside walls. We walked inside the Cathedral’s spacious hall. There were frescoes on the walls and the ceiling. They depicted Christ Pantocrator (Almighty), among others. Our guide said that there was also a bas-relief of Queen Khosrovanoosh, who founded this Cathedral, and of her two sons.

Exiting the Cathedral we stepped over flat tombstones laid in the Monastery. “They are flat because those buried here wanted to make a statement: ‘We are humble and have sinned’,” our guide explained. There were several khachkars standing around us. These are intricately carved stone-crosses, distinctly Armenian in design. They originated in the pagan era; the Christian versions which were modeled after wooden crosses began to appear around the 4th century, we were told.

We now entered a room that had served as the library when the Haghpat Monastery was an active center of learning. Originally called the scriptorium, it had been more particularly a place where old manuscripts were copied. Outside these closely connected structures of the Monastery, we saw the free-standing three-story tall Belltower that was added in 1245, and a stone Refectory.

Architecture is an important part of the Bagratuni era’s contribution to Armenian arts. Most of the surviving old churches inArmeniaare from that period.  As the literal meaning of haghpat “strong walls” indicates, they were built with stone or tuff. The Armenian builders combined the architectural style of Byzantine churches with the local Caucasian architecture of the time to produce a distinct art form.

Aspet’s flock

In the centuries since it was finished, the Haghpat Monastery has suffered damages by earthquakes and invading armies. Yet, many of its buildings have remained intact. It is the monks that it has lost. Our guide said that at one time this thriving center of Armenian religion had 500 monks. “It now has one priest,” she said. Indeed, there is a shortage of clergy in all ofArmenianow that “about 500 churches” have come into being after the end of Communist rule. In Haghpat we met its sole clergy, Father Aspet.

He impressed me as urbane, with a twinkle in his eyes and a worldly sense of humor. “In the Soviet time, Haghpat was used as storage,” Father Aspet told us. “It had long been replaced as a center of learning by seminaries in Echmiadzin,Jerusalem,Lebanon, and a few other places.” Some Armenian priests are sent abroad, especially to theUnited StatesandEurope. “Not a few of them leave their positions and stay in those countries,” Father Aspet continued. Hearing that I was fromCalifornia, he said he had served inSacramentoandLos Angelesfor three years. He was now in Haghpat “taking care of the villagers.” He had “services every day.”  He had “about 20 weddings and 100 baptisms a year.” Some of these are for people “who come fromEuropeand theU.S.”  Father Aspet also “visited local schools, aiming at bringing the youth to the church.”

Prompted by our interest, Father Aspet gave us glimpses of his monastic life at Haghpat. The Diocese gave him the equivalent of 1,000 dollars a year. “That is all” his income. He had a housekeeper who also cooked for him. He told her many times to “go low in salt and oil.”  But “She does not listen and so I cook for myself.”

After we left Father Aspet, in the parking lot of Haghpat we saw three of the villagers he ministered to. They were sitting on stools patiently hoping that visitors might buy some of the few items of hand-made merchandise they had spread before them. These were mostly woven socks and hats. One of the women was busy finishing a hat. I wondered how their religious beliefs were affected by years of secular Soviet rule. My guide’s response was categorical. “Their practices are not so much religious as based on superstition.”

Folk traditions, it seemed, was what survived long periods of foreign intervention. “In daily life they are Christian. They show gratitude for God. Criminality is low.” The guide continued: “They sacrifice lamb and rooster. Salt is blessed together with the animal. Priests put some salt in the mouth of the animal. Then the animal is slaughtered and they eat some of the meat and distribute the rest to 7 other people, preferably poor, or 7 neighbors. Seven is a sacred number. There are a lot of wish trees here. They tie a piece of cloth, ribbon, or handkerchief to the branches and beseech the almighty with their wish.”

The guide talked about some of their other practices: “On the hot days of summer they spray water on each other. This was an ancient pagan practice as archeological discoveries show. Another pagan tradition is for the newly-wed to come to church on the 13th of February, jump over the bonfire to purify their marriage.” The guide added: “The occasion when a child loses his first tooth is celebrated. He is made to sit in the middle of the room on the carpet and water is poured over him. Tools of various professions are set around him and what he touches is taken to indicate his future profession. On national religious occasions they just light candles and listen to music.”

The guide said that “In the cities they are different; they are mostly very European in their practices.” But even there old customs persist:  “When my son got married we had 150 guests. We broke plates over the newly-weds.” She added: “The neighbors would want to know that the bride is a virgin. Only women go to the celebration of virginity. Once even a Ukranian bride of an Armenian invited me too. A blanket red with blood was spread over the carpet in the bedroom. The Ukrainian’s Armenian friends did that for her.”


On the way from Haghpat to the town ofAlaverdidown the valley, we stopped at a café for lunch where we were treated to live music. A man who played the synthesizer was accompanied by a clarinet player who also served as a vocalist. He snapped his fingers as he sang. They played a couple of favorite Armenian songs and followed with a medley of popular international songs from the 1950s, including the Hava Nagila. They finished the set with a forceful rendition of “Moscow Nights,” which was the anthem of the Soviet Communist Youth.

The nostalgia for the Soviet times lingered inArmenia. “Under the Communists people lived longer because pensions gave them security,” the café owner said. Her smile showed the sturdy gold tooth work she had acquired in those days.

In Alaverdi a factory with an active smoke stack brought back still more old memories. This town had been the industrial center of Armeniasince the 18th century, our guide said. Its main business still seemed to be metallurgy. The factory “melted iron ore,” we were told. “It was built by Greek owners but the Soviets nationalized it. Now two Armenian brothers own it. They also mine copper here.  The mines are behind the mountains. The long white line you see is the stack to make the smoke go up and away. But much is left, causing pollution.” A funicular built in Soviet times brought the villagers to the factory to work. There was not enough work here, however, our guide said. “And the Russians have been successfully recruiting many Armenian villagers to work inSiberia.”

Alaverdi also has the distinction of having been on the medieval trading highway, the Silk Road. The guide took us to a pleasant small park and showed us a stone bridge that had been built for the “Chinese road.”  It was from the 12th century but now, erosion having eliminated the road on other side of the Debed river gorge, this was a bridge to nowhere.

Lesser Caucasus

Snow came almost two months too early in September of 2011, dusting the mountains of the Lesser Caucasus inArmenia. The scenery in these highlands were heavenly] as we drove behind the only other vehicle on the road, a yellow mini-bus full of passengers that dangerously carried a large capsule of butane gas on its roof. Green pastures hugged the foothills.

Here we saw the encampment of the Molokane, Russian “Old Believers” who had left Russiain the early 19th century because they were considered heretics for rejecting the Russian Orthodox Church’s edict regarding some 200 annual fasting days. They have been called “milk-drinkers” (molokane) to describe their heresy of eating dairy products on those days. “They have a simple way of life, like the American Amish,” our guide said. “They are in the milk and dairy business. They live in their own villages, and do not mingle with others. They have their own language.” The guide said the Molokane constituted “one percent of the population of Armenia.” She contrasted this Christian minority with Armenia’s largest ethnic and religious minority, the Muslim Yazidis who were “well integrated into the Armenian society.” She said “The Yazidis showed patriotism in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, by sacrificing many men in fighting against the Muslim Azeris.”  She said the “Yazidis are Kurds who converted to Islam in the 9th century, but they are also considered sun-worshipers.”

Soon we were at theshoreofLakeSevan which at 1,900 meters above sea level is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the world. The views of the “volcanic lake,” as our guide called it, were appropriately breathtaking.  A fresh water lake, the Sevan is a popular resort with many beaches and different classes of accommodations. Alas this was not the right season. The cabins we saw were empty. No one was attending the police outpost. Even the aging Russian-made taxis emitted an air of melancholy.

LakeSevanhas a special place in Armenian history. It is the only one of the three great lakes of ancient Armenian, collectively referred to as the Seas of Armenia, which is within the borders of theRepublicofArmenia. Lake Urmiais now inIranand the third one,Lake Van, is inTurkey. It is said that when Armenians came from the areas around Lake Van to Lake Sevan, they found that this lake was dark, almost black, yet it reminded them of Van. Therefore they called it called Sevan (Black Van). Centuries later, Bagratuni King Ashot I built the Sevanavank Monastery, on an island in this lake and made it his residence. That island has now become a peninsula as the water of theLakereceded due to a controversial project to use the water for irrigation.

Poor country

Armeniahas not just lost territory from the “ancient country;” it has lost most of its people. Twice as many Armenians are now living in diaspora than in theRepublicofArmenia. Many of those were forced out of their homes in the region that had beenWestern ArmeniainTurkeyas the result of the Genocide. Additionally, a considerable number left immediately afterIndependencewhen the collapse of theSoviet Unioncreated 70% unemployment, as it ended the Soviet centralized economy which had employed many Armenians. The approximately 3.2 Million who are left inArmeniaconsider themselves “the survivors,” in the words of our guide. “This is a harsh environment of mostly mountains and gorges,” she said, referring to her land. “There is only one good valley, theAraratValleyin the south.” She quoted a popular Armenian saying: “God said nothing was left for you because you came late.” She concluded “We do our best in this poor country.  Armenians work very hard.”

We were now driving south formLakeSevan, having passed through a tunnel that seemed to demarcate the landscape. The mountainous forest of oak, sycamore and wild fruit trees we had seen on the other side gave way to volcanic stone. “We use these stones in our construction, as you will see on the surface of the buildings, because wood is rare and expensive” our guide said.

The construction of the half-a-kilometer long Sevan-Dilijan tunnel was financed by an Armenian in the American diaspora: Kirk Kerkorian. According to our guide, the billionaire Kerkorian had also paid to repair roads and build apartments for displaced Armenians, and provided loans to businesses inArmenia. These contributions have exceeded 200 million dollars. Like other Armenians in diaspora, Kerkorian’s interest is fueled by his focus on the Genocide. On the other hand, an American expert told me, the political stalemate on the issues of relations withTurkeyandAzerbaijanhas prevented adequate foreign investments inArmenia. In his opinion “things have improved very little sinceIndependence, onlyYerevanhas been booming in real estate.”Yerevan, of course, has been not only the seat of the national government but alsoArmenia’s cultural and industrial center. It has absorbed about 35% of all the people living in the country to reach a population of 1,122,000.


The extensive reshaping of a part of the old Abovian District at the heart of downtown Yerevanwhich I saw upon arrival in the city was a sign that its real estate boom was still alive and well. So was the construction of the big indoor shopping mall that was slated to open soon. The latter was thoughtfully located sufficiently outside the sphere of the focal point of the city, the Republic Square, to keep the integrity of that sphere as a graceful urban setting. The beauty of this urban area belies the cliché about drab Soviet cities. It was indeed the product of  the 1960s, with its Republic Square debuting asLenin Square, and the monumentality of its statutory work shouting heroic socialist realism.  All the same, the sphere exuded the distinct charm of Armenian architecture.

Much is owed to Alexander Tamanyan who got his own monument in Yerevanas “the greatest Armenian architect who incorporated national traditions with contemporary urban construction.” The spacious squares and wide avenues of central Yerevanare said to have been inspired by his dreams. It is equally true, however, that unlike many other cities in the Caucasus, before him Yerevanhad not changed in appearance for a long time; it was ripe for a makeover. The Russian tsarist officers visiting Yerevanat the end of the 19th century famously dubbed it a hovel of mud houses.

Once the “hovel” was cleared, the space was freed for a fusion of Armenian and Russian designs which created its best in the large Republic Square itself. In the middle I saw some massive fountains and all around the Square was a group of fine buildings mostly in pink and orange color stones with colonnade and arches. They included the city’s venerable grand hotel, now renamed Armenia Marriott, theNationalArtGallery, and the State History Museum of Armenia. Broad shaded boulevards radiated from the Square.

The boulevards had wide sidewalks. One, V. Sargsian, also had a wide island in the middle with leafy green trees. Here and in front of the Marriott were outdoor cafes. At night in this early October, the fountains in the Square were ablaze with lights and loudspeakers broadcasting music that ranged from classic to popular Armenian attracted large crowds. Young Armenian women, one holding the other’s arm, promenaded.

The grand Avenue of Yerevan was Mashtots, a few blocks away. The longest street, it was also where the real city life went on. This was the street where the residents shopped in its many diverse stores. At its south-western end was the town’s huge covered food market. Vendors proffered flowers and fruit and cheese and meat.

Mashtots virtually connected two of Yerevan’s landmark buildings at the extremes of town, the Matenadaran Museum and the Brandy Factory. The latter has the distinction of incorporating some of the original walls of the seven-hectare fortress built by the local Persian Governor Husayn AliKhan in the middle of the 18th century That fortress was destroyed in the 1880s. The Blue (Kabud) Mosque, with its brightly tiled turquoise dome, which the same Governor built in the1760s, has survived. It was the only major building of the oldYerevan which I could find. It was also the only one remaining of the eight working mosques that existed inYerevan as late as in 1900.

Even the Blue Mosque had been turned into the YerevanCityMuseumby the Soviets. As a gesture of good relations with Iran, the independent Republic of Armeniaallowed the Iranian government to repair the Blue Mosque in the 1990s It was now also called the IranianCulturalCenter.  I thought it was remarkable that from all the different times the Persians ruled Armenia throughout it long history this monument was today celebrated: it dates from the period when Iran was ruled by Karim Khan Zand (1750-1779),  who singularly never styled himself as shah (king), choosing instead the title of Vakil e-Ra’aayaa  (Representative of the People).

The Blue Mosque was located on Mashtots Avenueon the other side from the covered food market. On the day of my visit there were only two other tourists with their guide. Nor did I see many other people. The Mosque was much bigger inside than it appeared from the outside. It has a 24 meter high minaret. Around its large central garden were rooms, a common plan of mosques in Iran. Unlike those mosques where these rooms housed religious students, however,  here the rooms were used as offices for physicians, a school for young students, a bread store with signs extolling the benefit of the Persian flat bread sangag, a gallery of a permanent exhibit of Persian handicrafts, and the offices of the Iranian student organization at Armenian universities.  On a bulletin board in the Mosque were posters for cultural events. At one end was the spacious prayer room under the big blue dome.


When the Yerevan City Museum was moved out of the Blue Mosque it had to endure a period of homelessness and a decade of obscurity in another building before reemerging with the prestigious name of the State History Museum of Armenia in a commensurately impressive building at Republic Square. It now receives over 30,000 visitors a year. It is there that I learned about the history of settlement inYerevan. There were cave dwellers as early as the Stone Age right here in the gorge of the River Hrazdan, just a few blocks away. The stone writing on a tablet found in 1959 has led the archeologists to a large cuneiform slab in which the King of Urartu, Argishti I, inscribed the date of building the Fortress of Erebuni inYerevan. It was 782 B.C.   Erebuni, which was built at the western extreme of the Ararat plain, means victory in the Urartian language. That word was blended with Armenian to evolve into “Yerevan.”

Some two hundred years later various groups of the Hayk tribe gathered together, founding a nation. As our Armenian guide explained, the roots of the Hayk tribe have been traced to the people who lived in the area ruled by the Urartu (Assyrian for Ararat) Kingdom (1000–600 BC), and the rulers before them in the bronze age, namely the Hayasa-Azzi, Mitanni , and Hittite. Armenians began to call their country Hayastan (thelandofHayk) after Hayk Nahapet, the legendary patriarch of the Hayk tribe. Their neighboring countries called itArmeniawhich is fromAramwho was the great, great, grandson of Hayk Nahapet, and is considered to be the ancestor of all Armenians.

Yerevanwas not always under Armenian rule. Far from it. The HistoryMuseumwhich is said to have 10,000 pictures chronicling Armenia’s history, tells us about the rulers who followed the Urartu.  From the sixth century to the second century B.C. the Orontid Dynasty, of probable Iranian origin, who had been satraps (client kings) of the Iranian Median and Achaemenid Empires, established an independent kingdom here after the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire. The Museum’s story is then taken “through Hellenistic Armenia, the arrival of Christianity and long wars against Persia, the Arab conquest and subsequent flowering at Ani, and then the long centuries under Muslim Turkish and Persian rule.” All this before the Russian Empire absorbed Yerevanand the rest of Eastern Armeniain the 19th century. In the years of the Ottoman-Persian wars (1513- 1737) alone,Yerevan changed hands fourteen times.

The excavations that discovered the objects in the Museum began in 1930 and most of the discovered have been done under the Soviets. They also established schools to train Armenian archeologists. Our guide was an Armenian archeologist who manifested the pedagogical discipline of Russian scholars. She showed us the tusk of an elephant from 100,000 years ago, found in the north ofArmenia, and obsidian tools from 6,000 B.C. But her favorite was a 5,500 years old shoe discovered, among other objects, in a cave in the southern part ofArmenia. Its significance to her was not just that it was thus 2000 years older than the famous Alpine shoes. More important was that theArmeniashoe was made of cowhide: “This means that even then they had farm animals inArmenia.” There was grass added inside the shoe because the leather was too thin.


Where other cities have built cathedrals,Yerevanhas erected a monument to Armenian culture on the hill-top overlooking the city with the statues of the great Armenian scholars adorning its entrance.  The secular temple was completed in 1959 to be “the first scientific center of Soviet Armenia.” Now called “The Matenadaran Museum,” it declares itself “the center of Armenian culture.” As the word’s plain meaning says, Matenadaran is a “repository of manuscripts.” Nearly one-half of the world’s 30,000 manuscripts in Armenian are collected here.

The task of collection began a long time ago. The first mention of it was in the 5th century A.D. Soon after Mesrop Mashtots created the Armenian letters, thus establishing the foundation of a literature in Armenian language, a depository was founded at the Echmiadzin Patriarchate in Vagharshapat, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom. In it newly written Armenian manuscripts were collected together with books in other languages. Throughout following centuries Echmiadzin Matenadaran and other depositories and libraries in monasteries became centers of learning where works in various branches of art and science were created and kept even when Armenia was under foreign rule. The restoration of the Echmiadzin Matenadaran began in the 19th century. Its collection of 1809 manuscripts increased to 4660 by the eve of World War One. The work was resumed in 1920-1950 by gathering the Armenian manuscripts not only inArmenia but also inRussia andUkraine.

In 1939 the collection was moved from Echmiadzin toYerevan. A special research institute for the preservation and study of manuscript was added in the new Matenadaran building.  The building itself was renamed Mesrop Mashtots in 1962. It is Mashtots’ huge statue that sits in front and middle of the standing, smaller statues of the six other Armenian scholars and writers.  Above Mashtots’ head, there is an inscription of the first sentences he translated into his new Armenian script: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.”

The first books which were translated into the Armenian alphabet were about Christian doctrines and ancient philosophers. In the Exhibition Hall of Matenadaran we saw an old Armenian translation of Aristotle. Our Museum guide extolled the value of such manuscripts: “Some Greek originals of these translations no longer exist; scholars know of these works only through their Armenian translations.” Many of the more rare manuscript are behind closed doors and not on display. Scholars, however, are allowed access to them.

According to a MatenadaranMuseum’s publication the oldest written document of the Armenian people are parchment relics of the 5-6 A.D. in fragments found in caves. The oldest surviving complete Armenian manuscript, on parchment, is form the 7th century. The most rare parchment manuscript in the Matenadaran is the Lazarian Gospel of 887. The oldest Armenian paper manuscript was written in 981.

The 36 letters of the alphabet that Mashtots created so thoroughly expresses all the phonemes of the Armenian language that they are still in use today without any significant changes.

Based on the Matenadaran’s collection, its publication reports that the first philosophical work by Armenians was the 5th century Refutation of Sects, in which Armenian and Greek polytheism, and Persian Zoroastrianism were criticized from a Christian viewpoint.  Secular works soon followed. They covered philosophy, the history of Armenia -such as the 5th century History of Vardan and the Armenian War about the struggle against the Sassanid Persia in 451- as well as law, exact sciences, musical notes, and poetry.

Many Armenian manuscripts have been completely destroyed. The Matenadaran Museum especially noted that thousands were lost during the Genocide. The largest manuscript in the Matenadaran, however, was the one heroically saved in the Genocide: the Homilies of Mush which was written in 1200-1202 and kept in the Monastery of the Saint-Apostles of Mush till 1915. As our guide related “it was so heavy that it was cut into two halves and was carried out of Turkey by two women. It was then put together again.” We also saw the smallest manuscript in Matenadaran which was Calendar dating to 1434.

Several of the works on display in theMatenadaranMuseumwere beautifully decorated “illuminated” manuscripts. “Miniatures tell more than the text in these,” our guide commented. The guide was proud of her Matenadaran: “Along with Ararat it is the pride of all Armenians.”  She noted that Persian manuscripts also used miniatures. She said that, however, “Persians never used parchment; they used papyrus in their manuscripts.”  Full of enthusiasm, our guide now added, “By the way, Armenians were the first Eastern people to print books. That was inVenicein 1509. Although the first printing house in theMiddle Eastwas founded inIran1638, let’s not forget that it was established by the Armenians of the town ofNew Julfain that country.” She finished by showing us a copy of the works by the Iranian “Ebn Sina” (Avicennia)  and by Copernicus and, finally, a map by Ptolemy which depicted such ancient lands of this part of the world as  “Colchis, Iberia, Media, Albania, and Armenian.”


If the MatenadaranMuseumpreserves the works of many Armenian authors of the past, the SergeiParajanovMuseumshowcases the many talents of one contemporary Armenian artist. An ethnic Armenian, Sarkis Parajanian was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1924; he later added the Russian “ov” suffix to his name. Working in Tbilisiand Kiev, Parajanov won international fame for his films, such as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Italian film-makers of the time, especially, lavished praise on his works. Michelangelo Antonioni, expressing the opinion shared by Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci, called Parajanov “one of best film directors in the world,” upon viewing The Color of Pomegranates. That very same movie, however, was banned in the Soviet Union where Parajanov’s discord with the aesthetics of social realism eventually landed him in prison on charges of immorality arising from homosexual liaisons. Some five years later, Parajanov emerged to make still two more films, The Legend of Suramskoy Fortress in 1985 and Ashough Gharib in 1988. He also moved toYerevan.

It was now the age of perestroika, andYerevanclaimed Parajanov as its own. It proceeded to build him a house overlooking the Hrazdan gorge with a great view ofMount Ararat.  Alas, Parajanov died before the construction was completed, but that house has since become a memorial museum where over 600 of his works are on display.

I went in. In the street level lobby there were many posters of the showings of Parajanov’s films in friendly venues, including a retrospective in theTehranCity Hall. The exhibits were in the three rooms upstairs. They included impressively diverse works by Parajanov catalogued as “installations, collages, assemblages, drawings, dolls, hats,… unpublished screenplays, librettos and various artworks which Parajanov created while in prison.” The last category included figurines from prison-issue toilet brushes, proof that a totalitarian bureaucracy could not fully suppress a free spirit. The wit and flair which I saw in Parajanov’s colorful and amusing works perfectly fit their appropriately homey venue in the Museum.


Not far from theParajanovMuseumis another institution thatArmeniacounts on for international fame, the Ararat Factory where its brandy is made. Armenians prefer it if you call it cognac. Our tour guide said that the French allowed the use of the word cognac, otherwise reserved only for the wine from the French region by that name, after they were surprised at how remarkable the Armenian brandy was in a blind tasting. The Ararat Factory, founded in 1887, is in fact now owned by the French Pernot-Richard group.

Our tour of the Ararat Factory was memorable by the great number of massive oak barrels of brandy we saw in its cavernous cellar. Many were marked with the dates when they were tasted, as they must be periodically. Some barrels were several decades old. I asked when they would be opened for consumption. The surprising response was that some would never be opened in the foreseeable future. “These are like national treasures,” the guide said. One barrel in particular contained a 1994 vintage. “This one we will open when a peace agreement is signed regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” our guide said.

She then invited us to sit a table where we were served the house brandy in elegant glasses. When we said it tasted quite smooth and tasty, the guide said this brandy was Winston Churchill’s favorite. “Stalin sent him 400 bottles a year.” Even nowRussiais the biggest consumer of the Armenian brandy, followed byBelarusandUkraine. Together they take some 92% of Ararat’s production, and they indeed call it “cognac.”

Genocide Memorial

A trip to Yerevanwould be incomplete without a pilgrimage to the Genocide Memorial. It sits on the high grounds of what was a fortress in the Iron Age with a commanding view of Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, some 50 miles away in Turkey. The Memorial was established in response to an unprecedentedly large demonstration by the people of Yerevanon April 24, 1965, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the genocide of Western Armenians inTurkey. At the Memorial’s entrance we saw a small forest of trees planted by dignitaries from countries that had recognized the Genocide, despite denial byTurkey. TheUnited States is not among them, but 43 of its constituent states have recognized the Genocide, includingKansas. The former Senator from that state, Robert Dole has planted a tree here, in memory of Dr. Hampar Kelikian, the Armenian who helped in his rehabilitation from wounds suffered in World War Two.

We walked on a wide path along a simple wall to our left which was engraved with the names of communities inTurkeywhere Armenians were massacred in the Genocide. “The number of those Armenians exceeds 300, 000,” our guide said.  Facing us on the right was a 44 meter high, arrow-shaped stele of granite with a line dividing it.  “This Obelisk that representsMount Araratreaches to the heaven, symbolizing the spiritual rebirth of the Armenian people,” the guide said. “The line you see is symbolic of the separation of the Western fromEastern Armenia. The smaller section representsWestern Armenia.”

Next to this spire that was a group of 12 tilting basalt slabs guarding an eternal flame inside. Our guide said “This is to symbolize the refugees who were forced out ofTurkeyinto theSyrian Desert, huddling around a fire.” The 12 slabs represent the 12 lost provinces ofWestern Armenia.

On one side of the eternal flame, underground lay theGenocideMuseumin a grey stone hall. It told the Armenian story of the Genocide in photographs. As our guide summarized, the problems began inTurkeywith the massacres of Armenians in 1896 and 1909. In 1914-1915 Armenian labor conscripts in the Ottoman army were murdered. Intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up and killed on 24 of April 1915. Soon thereafter, all over eastern Turkey Armenian men were arrested and shot and their women and children were forced to march into theSyrian Desert. Those Armenians who were able to eventually reach the safety of other countries have become what is now called the Armenian Diaspora. “The first country that opened its door to them wasIran,” our guide said. (Turkey, of course, has its own narrative for these events. It includes arguments that alternatively amount to total denial, or that the evidence is fake, or that the deportation of Armenians was for their own safety, or that the Armenian Dashnak terrorists were to blame.)

Lest one forgets Armenia’s other grievance, in the Genocide Memorial area there are tombs of 5 Diaspora Armenians who took part in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Nearby is a khatchkar commemorating the 1988 massacre of Armenians in the town ofSumqayit,Azerbaijan, which was an early result of that conflict.


As we drove through the southern part ofYerevan, our guide pointed out several abandoned buildings. “There used to be 200 factories in this area in the Soviet time,” she said, “only some are functioning now.” Armeniawas one of the most industrialized of theSovietRepublics. The end of the Soviet centralized economy has meant the loss of both domestic market for Armenian products and easy sources of raw material for its industry.  For its synthetic rubber factory, one of the few which have survived, the guide said “we now import raw materials fromChinainstead ofUkraine.” Industrial agricultural has become prominent. According to our guide: “47% of the population ofArmeniais in agriculture.”  Much of that agriculture is in the uniquely fertileAraratValleywhich we were now driving through.

The landscape consisted of green fields embroidered by narrow water channels. This is where the finest grapes for Armenian brandy are grown, and the famously sweet apricots have been cultivated for so long that the fruit probably originated here. On this autumn day I saw watermelons, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, and red peppers sold on the side of the road by farmers who grew them. The bounty of the valley’s soil is owed to the two volcanic mountain ranges of Ararat and Aragats which bracket it. Its plentiful water comes fromLakeSevanas well as local rivers.

The 13,419 feet high Aragats is the highest mountain inArmenia. “Aragats means the Throne of King Ara,” our guide said. There are two Ararats: the Greater which at 16,854 is the tallest peak inTurkey, and next to it, the Lesser Ararat at 12,782 feet, also inTurkey. These two mountains were named after the Valley. According to the medieval Armenian historian Moses of Khoren the Valley (as a province) was called Ayrarat in honor of King Ara the Handsome. Ara was the great grandson of Amasya who, in turn, was the great-grandson of the Armenian patriarch Hayk. Amasya, on the other hand, called the Ararat mountains Masis after his own name.

Our guide who was telling us this history now pointed to a small town some 8 miles southwest ofYerevanas we passed it. That town is called Masis. From the windows of our bus I could see a group of school children in neat uniform walking on the sidewalk in the early morning. “The locals in this valley still refer to the Ararat mountains as Masis, not Ararat,” our guide said.

In Judeo-Christian legendsMount Ararathas been associated with the “Mountains of Ararat” where according to the Book of Genesis Noah’s ark came to rest “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month.” The Bible does not specify any mountain or peak but just a mountain range in the region of Ararat. Armenians have identified that mountain asMountMasis, which is now also calledMount Ararat.

Some ten more miles down the road we came to the city of Artashatwhich is the capital of the AraratProvince, the administrative name of the Valley in modern Armenia. Artashat is located next to the historical Artashat. That was one of the oldest cities of Armenia. Artashat, meaning joy of Arta in ancient Iranian languages, was founded by the Armenian King Artashes I in 176 B.C., and served as the capital of the Kingdomof Armeniafrom 185 B.C. until 120 A.D. Just a few miles north in the Valley was where the city of Dvinhad been built by Arshakouni King Khosrov IIIin 335. Thereafter it was the primary residence of other Armenian Kings of the Arshakouni Dynasty (54-428). After the fall of that ArmenianKingdom, Dvin became the residence of marzpans (governors) of theprovince ofArarat appointed by the Persian Sassanid Kings.

To Dvin and Artashat, our guide added still other capitals of Armeniathat had been established in the AraratValley:  Armavir, Yervandashat, Vagharshapat, Bagran and Yerevan. According to her, the history of the Valley was the main story of Armenian history. “The Sassanids’ rule was replaced by the Arab domination from the 7th century for some 250 years. In the 13th century the Mongols came who were at first tolerant but after becoming Muslims became brutal. In the 14th century Timur arrived who was awful. Then came the Iranian Safavids. They fought with the Ottomans and finally, in 17th century, those two divided Armenia between themselves. Since the 18th centuryRussia has been with us.”

Khor Virap

The road we were driving on was historic. Although hardly busy today this was a strategic highway. It connectedYerevanto Goris, close to the border of Nagorno-Karabakh and on the way to the Iranian border.  “This highway goes toIranwhich is about 400 kilometers fromYerevan,” the guide said. Much closer was the Turkish border.  The bordervillageofPokr Vediwas only 5 miles south of Artashat. Here we climbed a small hill to the compound of the Khor Virap Monastery. From there we could see the houses of Turkish villages on the other side of the border.   This was also the closest toMount Ararat, inTurkey, that one could get in Armenia.  We could see theArasRiverwhich separated the two countries. On the Armenian side there was a Russian military base facing us. “The Russians are here to protect our border withTurkey,” our guide said.

We also noticed here a man offering us the use of his doves.  These were not the traditional peace doves. They were the likes of the birds which Armenian legends tell you Noah used when he landed onMount Ararat. Noah released them from the top of the mountain so that they might find dry land. They kept coming back until they did not. It was then that Noah concluded there was land down below. From this legend the Armenians conclude that they are the descendants of Noah. They concede, however, that the Georgians have the same claim. “So we are cousins,” as our Armenian guide put it.

The doves which the man at Khor Virap was offering to us were domesticated to come back to him. We also saw the sculpture of another dove inside the Monastery compound. This had nothing to do with Noah. It was the image of “the Holy Ghost.  The Monastery is a Christian shrine now. “It is a religious site that gets perhaps the most pilgrims inArmenia,” our guide said. It was not like that around the year 288. Those days, this was in fact the “deep pit (Khor Virap)” prison near the former capital city ofArtashatwhere the Armenian Arshakouni King Trdat (Tiridates)IIIbanished one Grigor Lusavorich because of his Christian faith. Grigor languished there for thirteen years, miraculously surviving the threat from the “poisonous snakes and scorpions,” and feeding only on “bread which was secretly carried to the dungeons by a widow everyday,” according to Armenian tradition. He emerged from the pit one day in June of 301 as the King’s own religious mentor. Thereupon, as Saint Gregory the Illuminator, he proceeded, with the help of TrdatIII, to proselytize, thus makingArmeniathe first country in the world to be declared a Christian nation.

It was not until 642, however, that a chapel was built at Khor Virap as a mark of veneration to Saint Gregory, by the leader of the Armenian Christians, Catholicos NersesIII, who was himself later buried in Khor Virap in 661. After a major Armenian victory over the invading Arab army in the 930s and the defeat of the Emir of Dvin a century later by the Byzantine army, both at this site, Khor Virap became known as an important strategic military point, with high walls, as well a religious center.

In the 13th century a Cathedral was built in Khor Virap and the monastery became an educational center as well, with students in both theology and other branches of knowledge. A library of manuscripts existed at Khor Virap until the 18th century. Its collection is now inYerevan’s Mesrop Mashtots Matenadaran.

On the ruins of the old church in Khor Virap, the larger church known as the Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) was constructed in 1662, and reconstructed again later when the earthquakes destroyed it.  From the opening on the right of this church I could see the iron stairs of what was said to be the original old vaulted pit of Virap. It was 6.5 meters deep and 4.5 meters in diameter, and built with rough rocks. It is now the oldest surviving vaulted construction inArmenia. I was shown an opening on the eastern side of the pit through which, it was said, the widow fed Grigor Lusavorich.

The exterior of the church is lively with a belt of yellow and white on the facade of white stones. Above its alter is a bas-relief depicting Saint Gregory holding the Bible in one hand and blessing and curing king Trdat from devil possessions with his other hand. To the Saint’s right is the image of a twisting snake. The high walls that surround the Khor Virap were fortified with seven high circular towers. This protective shield still surviving makes Khor Virap the best extant example of the fortified monasteries which became common in Armeniain the 17th century.


No sooner was Saint Gregory the Illuminator out of he pit in Khor Virap than he had a divine vision. He saw a beam of light falling on the earth in Vagharshapat, the capital of King TrdatIII. At his urging the newly converted King built on that very spot the first Mayr Tachar (MotherChurch) ofArmeniain 301-303. The city which remained the capital for the rest of the century gradually came to be known as Echmiadzin (Descent of the Only Begotten Son of God) after theMotherChurch. It has been the spiritual center of Apostolic Christian Armenians as the seat of the Catholicos (patriarch of all Apostolic Armenians), except for a period between 485 and 1441.

Christianity has long played a critical role inArmenia.  Like most pre-modern societies Armenians have defended their identity by religion more than ethnicity. This was also the common practice for diverse groups in the polyglot empires which wereArmenia’s often dominating neighbors,Russia,Turkey, andIran. Today, especially after the purging of Muslim Azeris, the number of non-Christians inArmeniais minute. Over 90% of population of the country belong to theArmenianApostolicChurch, and another 5% are Armenian Catholics who follow the Pope. Much smaller numbers are followers of other -Russian, Greek, orAssyrian-Orthodox-Churches.

TheArmenianApostolicChurch’s split from the churches in the West (which in 1054 themselves split between the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox) began in 451 when the then worldwide Christian church’s Council met inChalcedonnearConstantinople. Ever since, the Armenians have disagreed with those churches over the nature of Christ. The Armenians are Monophysites: they consider the human and divine nature of Christ as combined in one body, while the churches in the West see each nature as separate.

The Armenian Church is sometimes referred to asGregorianChurchafter Saint Gregory, but as the word Apostolic in the proper name of their church makes clear, the Armenians believe that Christianity was brought here by two of Christ’s Apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who are therefore referred to as “the First Illuminators.”  According to our guide “They came toArmeniain the year 45, traveled through this country to preach, and converted many people. Bartholomew was martyred inAlbanapolis,Armenia. Thaddeus was killed inBeirutbut his relics are now in theMotherChurchin Echmiadzin.” She added that “many secret Christian groups were established before Saint Gregory as a result of those Apostles presence inArmenia.”

The Armenian Church was assimilated into the Communist regime by Stalin, but in the Brezhnev years the church began to regain some independence. The Armenians who were in Diaspora, in the meantime, were divided. Some stayed with the Catholicos of Echmiadzin, while others followed the anti-Communist Catholicos of Cilicia inLebanon. That fracture has been mostly reconciled, especially sinceArmenia’s independence. Our guide gave credit to “the last Catholicos, Vazgen I (1955 to 1994), under the Soviets because he was a very decent and humble person.  He was such a good diplomat that the capitalists called him a Soviet spy, and the Communists called him an American spy!”

The streets of the city of Echmiadzinlooked almost festive with many flags of both the church and the state of Armeniaon the day we arrived.  We entered the compound that is called Armenia’s Vaticanfrom the southern entrance next to the large PapalVisitMuseumbuilt for the Catholic Pope Paul II’s visit and mass in 2001. (The Armenian Church has historically steered closer to Romethan the Orthodoxes of Constantinople.) On our right stood the 19th century building of the Gevorgian Seminary which had been closed under the Communists. Now bearded seminarians in black robes were strolling on paths in a quadrangle of hedges and lawns, with many khatchkars which surrounded theMotherChurch. In front of the Church was the Palace of the Catholicos, the residence of Garegin (Karekin) II who was elected in October 1999 as the Catholicos of All Armenians at the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. (The town ofAntelias, nearBeirut inLebanon, however, still houses another Armenian Catholicos, the prelate of the Great House of Cilicia which, while recognizing the “primacy of honor” of the Catholicosate of Echmiadzin, has not been united with it since the latter’s re-establishment in 1441. The Catholicosate of Cilicia dates back to the migration of the Armenians toCilicia, a region in the south ofAnatolia, after the fall of the Armenian Bagratuni kingdom in 1045. In Sis, the capital of theArmenianKingdom ofCilicia, they established a Catholicosate which centuries later had to move because of the Genocide; it then settled inLebanon. The difference between the two Catholicos is said to be “purely, simply, and only a jurisdictional split”: one group believes that it moved the Holy See back to Echmiadzin.)

The MotherChurchin Echmiadzin was last reconstructed with plaster under Persian influence, our guide said. “Look at the frescoes of its ceiling she said. The church’s carved bell tower was from 1648. The MotherChurchwas modest in size. The guide pointed to an altar and said: “That is where the beam of light in Saint Gregory’s vision hit the ground.” A moment later I saw a woman worshiper take her child to the altar. She seemed to cross herself and then she kissed the holy book that was on display.  At the back of the church was its treasury. The guide told us that it contained the Holy Lance. “That is the geghard or weapon used by the Roman soldiers to wound Jesus on the day of his crucifixion,” she said. “It was brought toArmenia by the apostle Thaddeus. He used it to cure sick people here.”

According to our guide, under the treasury was a passageway to a “pagan shrine” which had a fire altar. Not unlike other temples, this Christian church had been built over a shrine of King TrdatIII’s previous religion, more specifically, the sacred site of his favored cult of Anahita, the old Iranian goddess. According to some Armenian tradition, ironically, what had led TrdatIIIto imprison Gregory in Khor Virap was his refusal to lay a wreath at the statue of Anahita in her shrine because of his Christian religion.


In his rounding up of the Christians that followed, the Armenian King learned about a group of virgin Roman Christian women secretly living in his Capital. They had escaped the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Among them was the beautiful Hripsimé. “King Trdat decided to take her as his concubine,” our guide said, but “Hripsimé refused him.” Thereupon, the King ordered that all of those women who totaled 32 be killed. The only one who survived “was Saint Nino who escaped toGeorgia” and preached Christianity in that land. “The spurning by Hripsimé, however, threw the King into melancholy and finally made him insane,” our guide continued.  Then one day, the King’s sister “in a dream saw Gregory coming out of Khor Virap and healing her brother.” They brought Gregory out of the dungeon.  He healed the King and, after converting him to Christianity, immediately collected and buried the remains of “the virgin martyrs.”

According to Armenian traditions, Saint Gregory now had “an inspired vision of chapels honoring Saint Hripsimé and her sisters in Christ” which he proceeded to build at the site of their martyrdom. These were replaced in 618 by a church called Hripsimeh Martyria . We went to visit it.  It claimed, in its brochure, to be “a jewel of intricate design.  A big portrait of Hripsimé was embedded in the wall facing the door.  Next to it a khachkar stood guard.  Hripsimé’s tomb is underneath the building. Some of her relics also are reportedly kept here.

Zvartnots Cathedral

Unlike Hripsimeh Martyria that has remained virtually intact, the much grander contemporaneous Zvartnots (Celestial Angels) Cathedral laid in ruin nearby.  Built in 642-661, it collapsed in the earthquake of 930. Its location on the edge of the old capital city Vagharshapat was where “a memorable meeting took place between Saint Gregory and king TrdatIII,” our guide said. The Cathedral was dedicated to Saint Gregory and it “held the relics of that Catholicos.”

In its time Zvartnots was one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the world. What is left still evoked awe. Steps led to many pillars that once held up the dome of a hall 45 meters high.  The finely carved pillars depicted “pomegranates and grapes from the tree of life.  The guide said: “The interior of this Cathedral was a tetraconch, the shape of a Greek cross.”

The pillars in Zvartnots showed the influence of Greek and Roman architecture, a reminder that the Cathedral was constructed when this part ofArmeniawas under Byzantine control. The Arabs were not far away. Their occupation of Dvin forced Catholicos NersesIIIwho had ordered the construction of the Cathedral to move his patriarchal palace from Dvin to Zvartnots. The ruins of the Catholicos’ palace are visible around the Cathedral.


Earthquake also destroyed the 1st century Temple of Garni in 1679. It has since been partially restored to stand as “the only pagan temple in the Caucasus,” as our guide put it. Garni is indeed one of the oldest inhabited places in Armenia. The official sign at the site of the Temple told us that: “Excavations have uncovered artifacts dating to the Paleolithic era, while the original walls date to the Bronze and Iron Ages. A look around the site showed why it was so attractive. As the sign described it “a triangular plot of land jutting out over the Azat River Gorge,” it was “naturally protected on two sides by sheer cliffs that drop 100 meters to the valley floor.”  A 180-meter long wall, the remnants of which we were now seeing, closed the remaining opening between the cliffs. A temple was erected here as early as in the Urartian period (8th -6th centuries B.C.). That became the footprint for the current structure.

ThisTemplewas built in the year 66  by the Armenian Arshakouni King Trdat I. Having defeated the invading Roman troops in 62, Trdat then sued for peace as he feared the Iranian Parthians who were threatening his rule from the East. He went toRomeand received the confirmation of his crown from Emperor Nero as he kneeled before him and pledged fealty: “‘I have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do Mythras (Mythra).”  Pliny the Elder credits this Armenian king with initiating Nero into certain magician rites, thus introducing the cult of Mythra (the Parthians’ Zoroastrian divinity Mithra or Mehr) into Roman pantheon. The GarniTemple, in turn, shows the influence of Roman architecture.

We entered the Templeto see “the hole in the middle of the floor of the temple and the opening in the ceiling which allowed the burning of fire as the ritual for worshiping Mythra,” as our guide said. She had also organized a special treat for us to enjoy the great acoustics of the place. An accomplished a capella group of five young Armenian women regaled us with Armenian folk songs, which are mostly about love. These they followed with Armenian religious music choir singing of complex harmonies. When they finished a solo player tested his skills at the traditional Armenian instrument of doumbak (goblet drum).

Garni was later the site of the summer palaces of the Armenian Kings. From that period a 3rd century Roman Bath survives on one side of theTemple. TheBath’s mosaics which we saw are signs of its once artistic opulence.

The fire we observed in Garni was not from the Temple; it was related to another Armenian institution, the outdoor feeding on khoravats, barbequed food prepared in a special way. In the gardens ofGarniVillage, eateries run by families hospitably catered to us and many other tourists just off their buses which had parked haphazardly on the narrow side streets. Men kebabbed skewered pieces of lamb, beef, and pork over flames of woods burning in huge open tandoori ovens . Women then wrapped the kebabs in lavash breads, adding onions, before serving them to us. The spread over our wooden table, shaded by trestled vines, included other delicacies which completed the alfresco feast.


Nine kilometers from Garni, in a scenic canyon dug by Azat River we saw the structures, mostly rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century, which had been at times used as a summer residence by the Catholicoses.  Called Geghardavank (Monastery of Spear), this used to be where the Holy Lance (Surp Geghard) was stored before it was moved to the Treasury at Echmiadzin. That reliquary, and the fragments of wood believed to have been from Noah’s Ark, made the Geghard Monastery a major site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. What structures existed then, before the devastating earthquakes of 1679 and 1840, had been mostly built in the 13th century when the Orbelian Princes came to occupy this part ofArmenia which had been under control of the Muslim Seljuks of Persia. The Orbelians’ generals who made their conquest possible, called the Zakarian brothers, have left their mark. We saw their coat of arms with a lion symbolizing might on the door above the large vestibule with nine arches  which connected the two reconstructed churches of the monastery. In the present form the original main church had been built under the auspices of the Zakarians.

In the chapel to the right of the vestibule is a burial chamber of another Armenian lord, associated with the Zakarians, Prince Papag Proshian. We also saw his family’s coat of arms which included an eagle with a lamb in its claws.  The Proshian family built most of the rock-carved cave structures for which Geghard is now famous. The carving of these and the many khachkars which one sees in Geghard was done on hills mostly made of tuff, which is consolidated volcanic ash. The most impressive which we saw was a two-room combination “carved from one rock beginning from the top down,” as our guide noted.  One major carver had left his name on a corner here by inscribing it: Galdzak. He is said to have spent 40 years carving the huge piece in Geghard. “But he had helpers,” the guide said.

In the chapel on the left of the vestibule was a basin with spring water. We were told that pre-Christian inhabitants worshiped at this spring, considering its water holy. Legends say that a monastery was founded here in the 4th century. We could see many caves inside and surrounding the site. Monks once lived in them, some accessible only by ladder or rope. Geghard was in the past called Ayrivank (Cave Monastery).  Saint Gregory is said to have been among those who resided here for some time. Geghard’s oldest church is called after him. Saint Gregory’s Church was originally built in the 7th century.

After its heyday in medieval times, Geghard began a period of decline. Its main church came to be used to shelter the flocks of nomads. The Monastery ceased to exist. A few monks from Echmiadzin resettled here after the Russian Power arrived in the 19th century. Then came the atheistic Soviet regime.  No monk lives in Geghard now. There is, however, a small church presence there, “with three active priests,” our guide said. Right next to the main church on the site, we also noticed a wishing tree with ribbons and strips of cloth attached, a sign that folk-ways to beseech god had survived. We could not determine when a tree stump needed for slaughtering sacrificial animals to the same divine end, standing nearby, was last used.

Occupy Freedom Square

Metaphysics was not in the thoughts of the people who were pleading their grievances that day inYerevan. They were exercising their modern right to democracy.  In the afternoon, as I approached the wide plaza that fronts the Opera House, I was surprised to see some twenty-five tents pitched there in a group. Amidst many “Armenian Tricolors,” the bands of red, blue, and orange colors which since 1990 have been the flag of newArmenia, there was a banner on the back of a tent facing the newcomers. It said “OLIGARCHY OUT, DEMOCRACY IN. I walked in.

On the steps of the statue of Alexander Spendiaryan, the great Armenian composer of operas, two men were playing chess while a few others hovered over their game. Soon one player said shakhmat (checkmate). The word was close to its original version shah mat connoting the primacy of the king in ancient times whose being “confounded” meant the loss of the game.Armenia that claims the world-famous player Garry Kasparov as one of its own thinks of itself as having been since those ancient times “an epicenter in the chess world.”  The claim is supported by the fact that even before Kasparov, the Armenian Tigran Petrossian had reigned as the world chess champion from 1963 to 1969.

With their slogan posted nearby, the “pro-Democracy” chess players of the tents were today afterArmenia’s alleged new rulers, the Oligarchs.  As in the neighboringGeorgiawhich I had just visited, inArmeniathe Oligarchs are blamed for the corruption of its politics so as to maintain their hold over the economy. They are considered the villainous beneficiaries of the privatization which followed the collapse of the Communist system. This was the view voiced not only by our guide but also privately by high-ranking Western diplomats we met inArmenia. Our guide believed that “Corruption was widespread among police, judges and lawyers. Also in education: consider that a university professor gets a salary of just $150 per month!”

The tents all around me were in Freedom (Azatut’yan) Square, which used to be calledTheatre Squarein the Soviet time. It has indeed become a place for political theater. I was attracted to a tent with the sign in English “Press Office.” Alas, nobody was there who spoke English. Instead, I was pointed to a young woman standing a few yards away. She became my guide here. She said “These tents hold the congress of the opposition. We have been here six nights. We have three main demands, all related to the corrupt elections of 2008: full investigation of the killing of eight of the protesters in March of that year; release of all opposition political prisoners; and an immediate new election.” She said there were several opposition groups represented in the Square, all united in “the Armenian National Congress, or HAK, its acronym in Armenian.”  She continued, “The Government has tried to force us out of Square by closing public toilets and the cafes nearby. The first night we were here it rained hard. But we are doing O.K. Tonight we will decide how to proceed. At6:30the leaders will come and speak to us.”  She said “The president of the Congress is Ter-Petrossian.”

We now discussed Levon Ter-Petrossian who, I remembered, was the Republic’s first President from 1991 until 1998 when he resigned as even his own key ministers, led by the Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan, refused to accept a plan the President had negotiated to settleArmenia’s major international disputes. The plan called for returning most of the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh but, in return, lifting the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades ofArmenia.

“President Ter-Petrossian knew that Armeniacould not be a normal state until it had good relations with Azerbaijanand Turkey,” was how an American expert, I heard in Yerevan, had admiringly referred to that peace plan by Ter-Petrossian. My guide in Freedom Squarebrought me up to date. Robert Kocharyan succeeded Ter-Petrossian who then spent most of the next 10 years out of public eyes, writing a two-volume history book, The Crusaders and Armenians. “In October of 2007, Ter-Petrossian announced his candidacy in the 2008 presidential election,” she said.  “He accused Kocharyan’s government of huge corruption which involved the stealing of four billion dollars.” He also argued that Kocharyan and his Prime Minister, Serge Sargsyan, had come to accept a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problems very similar to his own old plan.”  Ter-Petrossian placed second in the official results of the election, but he protested that the government rigged it and claimed victory. “The demonstrations of March 2008 were to support Ter-Petrossian’s claim,” my guide said. Now she abruptly pointed to a corner of the Square, a hundred yards from where we were standing, and said excitedly: “There he is, President Ter-Petrossian himself!”

I saw a man in a trench coat holding a cigarette holder in one hand, surrounded by six bodyguards, walking among the tents in the Square. He shook hands with his deferential supporters, talked to them, and listened attentively. He moved regally, kissing the cheeks of women, including the one who had been my guide. A man came up to him and kissed his stretched hand. For Ter-Petrossian this seemed normal. For the other man this was a pleasure which he savored as he withdrew from the circle of people around the great leader. He was elated, smiling broadly. Was this a type of “asymmetric relationship” between a political patron and clients that political theorists have called “clientelism”?

Historians point out that the nobility always played a major role in Armenian society. I had noted the impacts of several medieval noble families: the Bagratunis, Orbelians, Zakarians, and Proshians. The number of such families has been recorded to be different at various times in the history of Armenia, from ninety to three hundred. As distinguished from the rest of the population which consisted of peasants, the nobles were called azats (freemen). That Persian word indicated the origin of the appellation: the first Armenian royal dynasty, the Orontids, ruled this land as a satrapy of the Persian Empire in the 4th century B.C.  In the centuries to come, however, foreign invaders decimated the Armenian nobility because they concluded that the Armenian state was based on the national aristocracy. The last noble families were the Meliks (Princes) of the Khamsa (Five) Principalities of Karabakh-Artsakh.  In the 19th century, they were incorporated in the Russian Empire as the prominent representatives of Armenian origin in an effort to use their potential for acceptable governance. During the Communist regime, however, the aristocratic tradition inArmenia suffered a fatal attack. As the noblemen faced systematic oppression they disappeared as a social class.

TheSoviet Unionestablished its own Armenian elite for locally “representative” governance. The difference was that this small elite was not related by kinship. Their connection was more likely through the schools they attended and the work they did for the Soviet system. Both Ter-Petrossian and Kocharyan were deputies in the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR. Serzh Sargsyan served as the head of his hometown Stepanakert’s City Communist Party Youth Association Committee. They are all graduates of Communist Armenia’s elite schools.

At the edge of theFreedom Squareas I was leaving I met a skeptical Armenian woman who was observing the tent demonstration. “Our problem is that all our senior politicians still have Soviet mentality,” she said. “That generation must pass before we have true democracy.” She said her name was Svetlana and chuckled “My parents named me after Stalin’s daughter.” She then mused: “God was good to the Jews. He kept them in the desert afterEgyptfor many years because he wanted to get rid of the generation that was of old mentality.”

My guide in theFreedom Squarehad said that Ter-Petrossian was different from the other politicians inArmeniabecause he had protested against the Communist regime and had gone to jail for it. Ter-Petrossian was in aMoscowprison for six months from December of 1988 because of his activity as a member of Armenian Karabakh Committee. He was there, however, along with several other members of the Committee. What especially interested me about Ter-Petrossian was his detention for a week in 1966 for active participation in the April 24 demonstration of that year which marked the anniversary of the Turkish Genocide. He had started his political career that early as a student activist inYerevanStateUniversity, from which he would graduate in 1968. I was curious to see if the campus was still a hotbed of political activity.


The statue that greeted you at the entrance to the campus ofYerevanStateUniversitymade a political statement about the role of religion in Armenian culture and national unity. Like the one in Matenadaran it depicted Mesrop Mashtots, but here he was paired with Sahak Partev: the two men were seen sharing the credit for the invention of the Armenian alphabet. The difference is indicative of the political times: the Matenadaran statue was erected in 1967 by the Communist regime, the other statue in the post independence days of 2002.  Sahak Partev was the Catholicos of Armenia (338–439) who gave crucial support to Mashtots for his invention, in order thus to save the ancient culture of Armenia from disappearing under the onslaught of the  Byzantine and Persian Empires. Those two Powers had dividedArmeniaand in their territories, respectively, forbad the use of the Syriac language in one territory and, conversely, the Greek in the other.  With the new Armenian alphabet, Catholicos Sahak Partev sought to save not only the Armenians’ culture but their national unity. He proceeded to use Mashtots’ alphabet for translating into Armenian the Christian Bible, the Church liturgy, and the principal works of Greek and Syrian Christian literature.

Not surprisingly, the faculty of philology has always been prominent atYerevanStateUniversity. The current President of Armenia was one of its many illustrious students. Ter-Petrossian attended one of its principle subdivisions, the Faculty of Oriental Studies. Yet it was not easy for me to find those faculties in the University’s sprawling campus. The University boasts of having recently integrated elements from the “Armenian Educational Institutions,” but there were no directional signs in English. The broad passageway that led from the entrance took me to a building with a massive lobby. Nobody from the crowd of students and staff inside seemed to be able to guide me. After wandering through several quadrangles I stumbled onto the modest plaza fronting the building of the Oriental Studies. I was early for appointments with two members of the Faculty which I had made through Armenian friends inGlendale,California. I sat on the steps in the plaza.

From the student body of 13,000 at the University, I had already seen several. The ones I now had the opportunity to observe more were typical. There was no visible sign of political activity. The conversations seemed to be about other subjects. The young men were in comfortable informal clothes and the women, in contrast, were mostly in high heels. Occasionally the young women came in pairs holding onto each other, not to balance on their heels but simply because that was customary. They were fashionably slim. Their main weapons of flirtation were their penetrating deep dark eyes, with which they only glanced at the men since being demure was also an expected part of their charm.

Inside, the building of the school showed the fatigue of its age after some 60 years. The functional standard design of the time, with a wide stairway dominating the lobby, did not inspire imagination. The walls were bare except for the no-smoking signs. These seemed to be observed, until I entered the room of the professor I came to meet.

The room was large enough to be a big classroom. It had a separate entry area in front and was connected to a backroom where an assistant prepared tea for the professor’s guests. The professor’s massive desk occupied most of the opposite narrower side, but the professor received me sitting at the larger conference table. He was emptying the smoked tobacco from his pipe directly onto the surface of the table. A colleague sat next to him, looking at the monitor of a laptop while smoking a cigarette. There were also two other younger men at the table.

After briefly greeting me, the professor, now with his pipe in mouth, turned his attention to one of those men who was facing him. He was a student pleading with him about the problems of an assignment in his doctorate program. “You have already flunked once,” the professor said. Then he turned to the other man who had been a former student since graduated. He was there to lend support to his friend. The professor asked him rhetorically: “How many times did you flunk?” The response was “Twice.” The professor motioned to the pleading student: “See, I cannot change the grade.” All this was apparently meant to convey that the assignment could be done again. The student fidgeted with the notebook which was open in front of him. The friend asked if was alright for the student to get “the file” on the assignment from the office. There was no resolution. As they got up to leave, the professor told them that a metal brazier he had bought when he last visited their hometown needed repair. He asked them if they could find out “What could be done.”

In the meantime the professor had ordered tea for me. He called the tea-server again, annoyed that it had not yet been served. Before the professor could talk to me about my visit, two women entered the room. One sat on a chair in the row behind the conference table, the older one at the table next to the professor. The younger woman was the daughter of the other and was now an actress, as the professor announced them to his colleague.  The women both smiled. The mother who had bleached her hair blonde smiled a lot, almost flirtatiously. At this time an older lady came out of the backroom and walked with some difficulty to the other end of the conference table. She stood there for a few minutes and exchanged words in Armenian with the professor before leaving.

Now a wiry man came in and joined us at the professor’s table. He asked me if I spoke Arabic. He said he was the professor of Arabic at the Faculty of Oriental Studies.  “You know, of course, that Ter-Petrossian specialized in Arabic language and literature when he was a student here.” I knew Ter-Petrossian had been born inAleppoto an Armenian-Syrian family, but they had migrated to Soviet Armenia the year after he was born. The professor of Arabic continued: “Ter-Petrossian is fluent not only in Arabic and Armenian, but also in Assyrian, Russian, French, German, English.” Unknowingly, he was drawing a contrast with the students who had left just before his arrival. “Ter-Petrossian is amazing: he even knows some extinct languages.”

This conversation caught the attention of our host. Finally, he had a brief conversation with me. He mentioned that the Faculty of Oriental Studies had extensive courses also in Turkish and Iranian languages. Indeed the logo of the Faculty on the University’s website is an old hand-written document in Persian.

The professor was equally interested, however, in telling me about the Caucasus Institute which was founded in 2002 as a think tank. Independent of the University, the Institute sees itself as “a neutral platform for non-politicized debate on acute policy issues.” The professor gave me a June 2011 “research paper” published by the Institute on Nagorno-Karabakh. The academic nature of the publication was endorsed by the support not only from the European Union but also the Open Society Think Tank Nagorno-Karabakh Fund. As the professor called it, however, the subject of this publication was ‘political.”

It was that subject which I took up with the next professor at the Faculty of Oriental Studies I visited that day.  He had the same type of room. He also chose the conference table over his enormous desk to work at. His work also included hosting people who did not have direct business with his tasks at the school. At one time both the professor whom I had just visited, and the professor of Arabic, came by to say hello to him and his guests.

Our host was standing when I arrived. He did not know me but the earlier introduction by our mutual acquaintance fromGlendalewas enough for him to give me a hug and warmly receive me among his other guests. He offered me coffee and cookies from a plate on the conference table. Then he resumed his discussion with a decorate student in the department of Archeology who had come with her faculty advisor for help in deciphering an inscription on an Armenian building from the era which our host happened to know well. He told them he would be happy to go to the site of the inscription with them sometime soon. Now the professor turned to chat with a former student who had migrated to theU.S.and was visitingYerevanwith her husband, an Armenian physicist originally fromLebanonwho worked at the Californian Institute of Technology.  A box of chocolate was soon opened and passed around.

When everyone else left, we were able to engage in a conversation.  We were of the same age, and I told the professor that I admired his actively continuing his teaching work. It turned out that he had equally heavy “social public obligations” as the head of a charitable foundation for “large families” in dire need, who had been displaced because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In sorrow, he said “There are as many as 12 in some of these households.” I told him about my having seen the camp of Ter-Petrossian supporters earlier. He reminded me that in the 2008 election Ter-Petrossian received only 21.5% of the votes. He said the present Armenian government “will stay because of Nagorno-Karabakh.” He did not say he favored it.  The implication was that public sentiment regarding Nagorno-Karabakh favored the tougher position of Serzh Sargsyan -who was a prominent leader in the battles of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and helped found both the Nagorno-Karabakh’s andArmenia’s armed forces- and Robert Kocharyan who had been President of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1994 to 1997. My host said “I am a colonel of the Nagorno-Karabakh army, but I am for peace.”

The professor got up and opened a bottle of red wine which was from Chile. It was past five in the afternoon. Pouring me a glass, he said with a smile “We drink at this time.” He said “ Of all countries, Iranhelped Armeniaa lot during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and still does.” He added “Iranshould be the great power of the region, not Turkeywhich is supported by the U.S.for its own reasons.”  This last comment reflected the professor’s long-term historical perspective. He said “Relations between the Armenians and Iranians went back to the ancient times, especially during the Ashkanis, when the royal families of the two lands intermarried.”  The Armenian Arshakouni (Arsacid) ruling family (54 -428) is considered a branch of the Iranian Ashkanis who ruled from 250 B.C. to 226 A.D. My host went even further back in history. He talked about the valuable services of Armenian soldiers under the previous Iranian Achaemenid Dynasty (559-330 B.C.). He was of the opinion that the last Achaemenid King, Darius III, would not have lost to the Greeks under Alexander at the decisive battle of Issusin 333 B.C. if he had deployed his division of Armenian soldiers “on the correct flank.” He said “Those Armenians were good cavalry with zereh (armor) both on man and horse.”

He paused to smile after using the Persian word for armor. “You have seen the statue of Sahak Partev at the entrance to the campus. The name Partev (Parthev) tells his origin as a Parthian. There are many words we share with the Persians from the time of the Parthians, otherwise know as the Ashkanian (Ashkanis).” He said Armenian, which is an Indo-European language unlike the languages in the neighboringAzerbaijan(Turkish) and Georgia (Georgian), shares more than 1,100 roots of words with the Persian. He exclaimed “Some languages do not have more than 800 roots in total!”


In between the courses he served me, the waiter at the restaurant inYerevan’s Marriott Hotel took time to belt out a Charles Aznavour oldie. His voice was operatic and he also sang some arias. But who could best Aznavour? The audience, in fact, adored Aznavour as one of their own.  The Marriott was where many Armenians in Diaspora stayed when they came for a visit to the old country. The ones I saw were not the richest but they seemed well off. They are, indeed, the closest to an Armenian middle class, the proverbial lynchpin for a democracy. The problem is they do not want to live inArmenia. About eight million of them are scattered all over the world. The population ofArmeniais only a little more than three million and declining. Of these, few are rich and far too many are poor.

The Armenians who started living abroad centuries ago established a reputation as a merchant class. Their numbers increased sharply as an eventual result of Turkish Genocide of 1915-1923. There are now big groups of them inFrance, theU.S.,Canada,Australia,South Africa, andRussia. Their size continues to grow by new immigrants fromArmeniaas well as from such old Armenian habitats asIran.  They predominantly speak Western Armenian which differs somewhat in grammar and pronunciation from Eastern Armenian spoken inArmeniaandIran. They have done well everywhere they have settled. InYerevan, an eyewitness told me a story about when the Prime Minister of theSoviet Union, the Armenian Anastas Mikoyan came toWashingtonto help diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In a large meeting room at the State Department, an American Armenian shouted welcome to the visiting Mikoyan in Armenian. The Prime Minister showed great interest, immediately asking who that person was. When the man introduced himself as aU.S.diplomat, Mikoyan quipped: “You see, we are not doing too badly inRussiaeither.” Neither, in fact, did Mikoyan’s brother, Artem, the co-designer of the Mig military aircraft.

The glossy magazine for guests at the Marriott was full of articles about the likes of Charles Aznavour,Cher, Andre Agassi, and Garry Kasparov.Armeniabasks in the fame of “its” luminaries living abroad. Those in Diaspora, in turn, seek connection to their roots in the turf now ruled by an independent Armenian state. I was struck at how location-specific were the legends that connected Noah’s doves to the Ararat Valley and Saint Gregory’s vision to the Mother Church in Echmiadzin. My friends fromCaliforniaandMichiganwho chose to hold their wedding ceremony in Garni were not atypical, as Father Aspet also told us about his weddings of Armenians from abroad at Haghpat.

When an independent state ofArmeniadid not exist for them to be called the homeland, many of those in Diaspora came to refer to themselves as “citizens of the world.”  Retrospectively, that brave face might appear to have been an existential denial, a euphemism. It is no wonder that the Armenians in Diaspora now spend so generously forArmenia. The Armenian government that has established a Ministry of Diaspora wants to make sure that their money is appreciated.  As my taxi approached theYerevanairport I noticed a big sign addressed, I assumed, mainly to the departing Diaspora passengers. It said “Enjoy your journey. Your money is safe.” One may conclude that both sides were at last able to enjoy the safety of their precious common legacy.


This article, entitled “Armenia: Anchoring in the Soil”, was published on the following website of on July 1, 2012, with related pictures:

It was also published on the following website of Armenian


AZERBAIJAN: Constructing a Nation-State

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.




abstract: Upon the implosion of the U.S.S.R. two decades ago, the people ofAzerbaijan suddenly found themselves faced with the challenges of becoming a nation-state. Not unlike several other parts of the Russian polyglot empire, for nearly two centuries the Azeris had been citizens of a different state. Stalin had granted them recognition as one of his domain’s “nationalities” in his project for coping with the world-wide tide of nationalism. The Soviet Union, however, remained their sovereign, the “fatherland,” for which they fought in the “patriotic war” of 1941-1945. This was a relationship that the Azeris did not wish to end as they voted to stay in the 1991 referendum on the fate of theUnion of theSovietRepublics. Forced to build a nation-state in the territory they inherited from the chaos that followed the dissolution of that Union, the elite of the Azeri nationality set out to construct a national narrative for their new country. A self-respecting nation, in addition to a territory, needs its own heroes, legends, and glorious tales of military exploits and cultural feats. The Azeri challenge was that in this land only disparate small khanates had existed which could rarely claim they were not in fact parts of other states, particularlyIran. With that southern neighbor, the Azeris had for centuries shared so much in history, religion, and culture. In my trip to Azerbaijan I wanted to get a glimpse of its distinct struggle of nation-building.



Up close and personal

The fluffy white clouds were everywhere under me, in clumps, like so many sheep. A gentle sun covered the sky over them. It was just before seven in the morning on a day past the middle of September. We were over Baku. The captain submerged the plane and the clouds embraced and engulfed it. There was water underneath. It was the Caspian Sea. The shores were narrow and cream in color. I was born on those same shores some two hundred miles south. I was now seeing them for the first time in 33 years.  I focused on my feelings. I wanted to embrace the scene, to feel it touch me. The low mud- color houses and the beige desert, a few miles away, looked familiar. The clouds still covered the sky, but in the horizon an orange band from the faint sun separated them from the ground.

Uzun, sitting next to me, smiled knowingly. We met at theParisairport while waiting for this plane to board. She was coming back from a summer spent in Disneyland,U.S., where she had worked for 200 dollars a week. “This is a lot of money inAzerbaijan,” she had told me. I listened attentively because I wanted to learn about Azerbaijan through the way its residents, the “locals,” thought about it.

Uzun had spent the summer before this inMoscowwhere she had relatives. She was a senior at the State University of Baku, majoring in mathematics. This was her fourth year of college, the eleventh year of schooling. After that she needed two more years to become an “aspirant (doctor).” She did not know whether she would end up teaching or working. While attending school she was working for a pharmacy, processing insurance claims. There were twenty other girls in her math class. “InAzerbaijan, there is a saying,” she said, “When a man comes to ask your father for permission to marry you, he is asked if he is good in math. That is a sign that he is clever and would make a good wage-earning husband.” She chuckled, “things are changing.”

A few youth also returning home, whom Uzun met on the plane sat in a group near her. They chuckled too. A young man in tattered jeans hugged his guitar. He said many Iranians come toBakufor the Nowruz, the old celebration of the first day of spring which these two countries have shared since Zoroastrian times.  “Where are you staying in Baku,” they asked, “we could get you a good room for fifty dollars a night.” When I said that my travel agent had booked me in the Hyatt they said “Oh, that is expensive!”

Later, at the Hyatt Hotel, I thought about my introduction to the Azerbaijanis through my encounter with Uzun and her friends. This was at the end of a lecture by an American professor on the place of Azerbaijan in the politics of the region which is characterized by multi-ethnic clashes. In the course of the discussions that followed, a woman who had recently visited Iran asked me “where do you stand in all of this?” I chose to invoke Ronald Reagan’s famous observation about multi-ethnic Americans: “One chooses to be ‘an American;’ whereas, one cannot choose to be ‘a French’ or ‘a German.’ You are either born ‘French’ or ‘German’ or you are not.” I said to the woman “For the last several decades I chose to be ‘an American.’” What I was really doing, however, was postponing my answer until I had a bit more opportunity to observe Azerbaijan before commenting. Even then, I knew, my answer would be affected by my heritage.

I had come with two general thoughts about Azerbaijan, probably shared by most others in my generation, which I expected to influence my observations. One was that this area had been a part of Iranwhich it “lost” to Russiaearly in the 19th Century. This loss became the wake up call for the Iranian intelligentsia about the country’s need for reform and modernization if it were to stand up against ambitious European powers that now proved to be far stronger militarily. My second thought was the expectation thatAzerbaijan had become far more modernized thanIran as a result of being a part ofRussia for nearly 170 years, especially in the last 70 years under the Soviet regime.

Lay of the land

I embarked on a walk from the Hyatt to theOldTownfor a glimpse of various neighborhoods ofBaku. The Hyatt is in the administrative district of town. This was an area of wide streets with green islands in between, light traffic, and stately buildings -public and private- which were all lit at night at the expense of the city government. A large portrait of the late President Heydar Aliyev stood on the corner of its main intersection. This was not a statue but a picture in vivid colors. Aliyev sat in an amused pose that was more of a successful businessman than a politician.

There was some distance from here to streets with shops. The area in between had some apartment buildings and more were under construction. It still remained to be shaped. The streets that followed were also nondescript, not quite “Middle Eastern,” not bustling or crowded. There were pockets of graceful buildings of the early 20th Century, some being renovated , until one came to a monumental structure which was the National Azerbaijan Drama Theater  with a statute of the 16th Century Azeri poet Mohamed Fizuli in front of it. Occasionally, a striking modern building rose up among structures of various heights with no apparent attempt at cohesive planning.

As I got closer to the OldTownthe streets took shape. The gaps between stores became fewer and there was more harmony in height and colors among the buildings. The plaza around the Fountain Squarewas the focal point that brought them all together. This was the main part of the living city. Here were the shops that offered what residents needed daily. Small fruit (mivah) shops did a brisk business selling grapes, watermelon, pears, pomegranate and produce such as tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage.  The public bath houses (hamam), which also provided the traditional massage services, hung their towels on the sidewalks to dry. Travel agencies advertised two distinct types of tours: one was for fun to Europe and Turkey, the other was to Shiite pilgrimage sites.

This area then radiated down to a boulevard that ran around the OldTown. Called Istiqlalliyat (Independence), the boulevard was where the major public buildings of the first Bakuoil boom (1880-1914) had been built: BakuCity Hall, the Instituteof Manuscript, Baku Philarmonia, and IsmailiyaPalace. Mansions from that era lined up the long Nizami Streetwhich I took up to the hill where new luxury apartment had been built recently. It was also where a stela commemorating the establishment of the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-21) by reciting its “Aqdnama (Convention or “National Charter”) under its Coats of Arms which consisted of an 8-sided star said to be for the eight branches of the Turkic peoples, with a fire symbol inside the star, referring to the land’s many open fires from its gas wells.

Istiqlalliyat encircled a semicircular medieval wall around the OldTown. The OldTownwas a mélange of 15th Century structures, mostly residential, in twisted alleys with buildings of the last two centuries, some of which were used for offices. The area that has been kept separate as a museum was the compound of the rulers of the town in the Middle Ages.  On the other side of the Old Town was another boulevard lined with still more Art Nouveau buildings of the early 20th Century oil barons . This street was separated from the Baku Bay in the Caspian by a wide strip of park called People’s (Milli) Park, with palm trees, acacias and rhododendrons. A long board walk  marked the edge of the sea shore.

At this location, a massive new Hilton Hotel looking out to the Caspian on one edge of the boulevard,  and a just-completed shiny indoor shopping mall, complete with escalators, on the  other edge, stood out as commercial signs of the new prosperous era.

Closer to the Hyatt on the other side of town I walked through streets of substantial residential construction sites. Glossy advertisement on the boards fencing off the sites promised the future of Bakuin luxury apartments. There was still empty land to be used here, but already recent landmarks were being replaced as they became historically outdated. One was a monumental park that commemorated the visit of the former Georgian President Eduard  Shevardnadze on the occasion of President Aliyev’s 75th birthday in 1998. Growing weeds threatened the Heydar Aliyev Concert Complex at the other end of this park which looked abandoned.

Baku appeared as a city in a hurry, struggling to build with bare planning in an image of its twenty-first Century prosperity on an architectural heritage of uneven worth.

Starting From Scratch

For a day or two it seemed that I shared the lobby of the Hyatt Park Hotel inBakuonly with single men from other countries here on business. “Before 1995 there was practically nothing here,” one of them told me. Having first come toBakuin the early 1990s this foreign entrepreneur was a pioneer with stories from those times. “President Aliyev himself attended the opening of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, saying that he wanted to be the firstVIPto visit and to give his personal blessing.”  The Regency was the older Hyatt next door. “In fact, Aliyev’s personal involvement was deeper. He had encouraged the developer, Paolo, to build the hotel.” Paolo Parviz is something of a legend inBaku. I was eager to learn more and my new friend obliged. In the following paraphrase, I will try to be closely faithful to his exact words, as I will be in paraphrasing comments by others throughout this report: “The son of a high official of the Shah’s government, Paolo, from Iranian Azarbaijan who lived in San Diego, California after the Islamic Revolution was in Moscow looking for opportunities, perhaps, to build a hotel in Russia, when an Azeri from Baku told him “why don’t you come and look at Baku?’  Once here, Paolo was introduced to Aliyev and accepted his offer to take the old Nakhjavan Hotel and turn it into a first class hotel where Western investors the President sought could feel comfortable.”

The old sign for Nakhjavan Hotel is still on the wall at an entrance to the Hyatt Regency. The Hyatt eventually became a “complex,” as Paolo added homes for oil executives “likeSan Diegohouses” and an elaborate health club. In 2000 Palo embarked on another major project, “building a steel industry inAzerbaijan,” beginning with the Baku Steel Factory. In fact, he was now “regularly consulted by the President as a trusted economic advisor.”

In an interview given in 1999, Paolo described those early years of independentAzerbaijan:

“It’s amazing how much has taken place in six years in building up this country. It’s impossible to solve so many great difficulties during such a short period of time. The Russians wanted to maintain their sphere of influence -they didn’t want to give away theCaucasus, especiallyAzerbaijan. Even when theSoviet Unioncollapsed, the Russians wanted to keep their troops here. There are so many problems -Russiato the North,Armeniato the West, the Islamic Republic of Iran to the South, the lack of money. Consider what happens when a country suddenly collapses: it has no government, no money and yet it must become a country. With empty hands, they have created a country.”

That interview was conducted by another Iranian, Pirouz Khanlou who like Paolo was from Azarbaijan and came toBakuafter independence. He established himself as a major player in publishing, including becoming the Editor of the glossy Azerbaijan International. His writings included critical comments about cultural discrimination of the “Azeris (Azarbaijanis)” inIran.

Three other Azarbaijanis fromIranhave also played important roles in the development ofAzerbaijan. Unlike Khanlou, however, their primary objective was business, like Paolo. “They became prominent actors in the oil industry, mining, and entertainment,” my friend said. “These were the times this country was desperate for investment and people brought and paid cash in millions, including those fromIran.”

None of these prominent Iranians represented Iran. In fact, they presented themselves as having severed contacts with the Islamic Republic of Iran. They emphasized that they were all from the provinceof Azarbaijan. That is the spelling that Iran uses for the land which is within its borders just south of the country that calls itself Azerbaijan. Although the two areas have much in common because for much of history they were both parts of Iran, Iran reserved the name Azarbaijan mostly for the southern part, referring to the northern part sometimes by its old name Aaron and at other times calling it a part of Ghafghaz (Caucasus). Even when the northern part declared itself an independent state in 1918-1920, having been a part of the Tsarist Russia in the meantime, it was careful to assume the name “Caucasian Azerbaijan,” specifically to avoid offending Iranian sensibilities.  Azeri is a term later coined by theSoviet Union afterRussia re-occupied and incorporated the area in Stalin’s system of nationalities. It replaced “Turkish” which was the previous name for the language of this “nationality;” and thereafter also became the name of the  people who spoke it.

The other group that was influential in the development ofAzerbaijanafter independence in 1991 was the Turks fromTurkeywho have been especially dominant in construction. “In contrast with the expatriate Iranian Azarbaijanis, they benefited from connection withTurkey, a country thatAzerbaijanfavors unlikeIran,” my friend said. “The welcome for those Iranians, at any rate, seems to be weakening asAzerbaijanhas become prosperous, thanks to oil revenues. They are being told ‘we now want to run things ourselves.’ That is what is believed to have happened to Paolo. He has sold his interests and left. He maintains that he has no regrets: ‘I came here with 5 million dollars in investment and I am leaving with $300 million, ten years later.’”

The system and its elite

The Scalini restaurant was where the powerful in Baku dined. In its two narrow cozy rooms every guest could see everyone else and they all seemed to know each other. The owner stopped at our table to greet my host personally. “Heydar Aliyev deserves all credits,” my host said. He went on to give me the following outline of the recent history of Azerbaijan that sounded similar to what I had heard at the lecture by the American professor -not surprising since my host had studied in the U.S.

After World War II, theAzerbaijanoil industry steadily declined as theSoviet Unionshifted attention to the huge newly discovered oil fields ofSiberia. This caused economic stagnation inAzerbaijan.  In the Brezhnev era Aliyev was put in charge of improving conditions here from 1969 to 1982. He was so successful that he was later rewarded with a seat on the Soviet Politburo. Gorbachev, however, forced him to retire in 1987. In Gorbachev’s referendum of March 1991Azerbaijanvoted overwhelmingly in favor of theUnion, but in the chaotic disintegration of the Soviet regime later that summerAzerbaijandeclared its independence. The end of theSoviet Unionalso led to the war over Nagorno-Karabakh withArmenia. Set backs in that war brought Heydar Aliyev back as the leader of Azerbaijan, first as head of the Parliament and then, after an election, President in October 1993.

Heydar Aliyev died in 2003 and was succeeded by his son Ilham. “The current President is good at holding on to power,” my host said. “His father was very big in the KGB [the Soviet Secret Police] and he taught the son.  That KGB machine is now very strong and effective here. People don’t talk now;Azerbaijanis ever less democratic than at the time of his father.  This President has changed the law by referendum so that he may stay in office beyond the two- term limit of the original Constitution.”

My host, who said he had known Ilham Aliyev from the time of his father, continued: “Ilham is smart. He studied atMoscowUniversityin his 20s. He speaks English well.” He has had to balance his policies. Russia’s claim to this country as a part of its sphere of influence must be respected. “Ilham wants to get close to theU.S., but [President Barak] Obama has not invited him toWashington. The Azerbaijanis’ eagerness to receive high ranking American government officials was shown when Hillary [Clinton] visited recently. I was present and saw that the President himself walked to the door ofClinton’s car to greet her.”

The President’s wife, Mehriban, a physician who trained inMoscow, is a prominent figure in her own right in this country. My host described her in comparison with certain other wives of the rulers in the region “She is the patron of arts. Her latest project wasBaku’s award- wining music center designed by a world famous architect in the shape of the tar,Azerbaijan’s national musical instrument. She is very fashionable. Partly because of the example she has set, the Christian Dior store inBakuis the biggest afterParis. The President’s wife herself owns that store and many other luxury fashion shops here. The Shah’s Queen and Suzan Mubarak are gone, but Mehriban still can count on the Queen of Jordan to accompany her without Islamic headgear, hijab, in meetings such as a recent one held here to court Arab rulers.”

My host then noted that some foreign media have accused Mehriban of corruption in the past. “Of course,” he validated the charge as a matter of fact. “The President and his wife are the winners of many lucrative government contracts through fronting companies that shield them.  Their agents in this arrangement have become really wealthy from their 10% cut while they give 90% to the President and his wife.” He paused and added “But the President and his wife also spend money on ordinary people. And they are not alone in enriching themselves. This country is run by and for the benefit of twenty families.”

In private conversation, an American diplomat acknowledged that corruption existed inAzerbaijan, but to him that was almost the norm in these countries. He also recognized that the regime was semi-authoritarian. Opposition groups are permitted to exist but, he admitted, they are under constant harassment. Elections are rigged, he said, but polls indicate no reason to do so, as the President is popular. When there are serious protests, as in the spring of last year inBaku, they are usually attributed to instigation by “foreigners, “meaning agents fromIran. The diplomat dismissed the threat fromIran: Heydar Aliyev effectively took care of that problem early on when he expelled the Iranian Shiite missionaries.  Nonetheless, the diplomat said laughingly, he himself still had bodyguards who were big and very good in Judo, against assassination attempts.

From across the street, the Iranian Embassy, in the Istiqlalliyat area, looked harmless. Nobody was on the sidewalk around its two story walk-up building but a single uniformed guard. The small structure looked curiously like an old Ottoman style building. I took out my camera. Before I could take a picture, the guard rushed through the traffic to my side of the wide street. I showed him my camera and motioned “no picture.” He made me show him the previous frames. Not satisfied, he demanded my “passport,” as he held on to my camera. I said I had left it in the hotel. We barely communicated verbally. He asked my name and “second” name and repeated my answer as though to memorize my names. Now his superior appeared on the steps of the Embassy building and shouted “passport.” I stretched my arm, shook the guard’s hand, and took my camera away. I walked away. He did not pursue.

Instead, I ran into a man who happened to observe all of this from a little distance. He told me that he was going toTabriz,Iran, the following week to have a surgical operation. I asked “Why are you not doing it here?” He replied: “They are much better there.” He saidIrandoes not require visa from Azeris, while Iranians must obtain a visa to enterAzerbaijan. The explanation he gave for this lack of reciprocity was that “Azerbaijanis small and is afraid ofIran;Iranis big and is not afraid ofAzerbaijan.”

The opinion of a deputy ofAzerbaijan’s parliament was just the opposite. He had come to address our group of visitors from theU.S.According to him, as I wrote down, “A secularAzerbaijanis the biggest problem forIranbecauseAzerbaijanis getting more and more modern and people who come fromIransee this, and they want the same things inIran. Iranian tourists come here because alcohol is free here and they enjoy looking at the women without the hijab. So they start to raise their voices and that makesIranvery nervous. The Iranian regime wants its people to get addicted to drugs. Despite all that there are always uprisings going on every week there and demonstrations have now become very common inIran. Every year hundreds of Azerbaijanis living inIranare killed under this system just because they want their rights. The Iranian regime is, therefore, very aggressive towardAzerbaijan. For example, they are supportingArmeniaagainstAzerbaijan.”

Someone asked how many refugees fromIranwere inAzerbaijan? The deputy answered: “Not many but a lot of houses and apartments are bought by them inAzerbaijan, just in case of an emergency.” Someone else asked if things were different whenIranwas ruled by the Shah. The answer was: “Not really, all the time it was always bad because they know a very big population ofIranis Azeri.” The deputy explained: “We are 9 million people living inAzerbaijannow but altogether there are 50 million Azeris of which 30 million live inIran. Two hundred years ago, as a result of the Russian-Persian war they dividedAzerbaijaninto two parts; the northern part which is now independent is the smaller part. The bigger part remains inIran.”

The deputy said he was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament. “The biggest foreign policy problem of Azerbaijanis is the Karabakh conflict withArmenia.” Everybody, he said, including the United Nations, the European Union, and almost all countries have acceptedAzerbaijan’s position that Karabakh was a part ofAzerbaijan. But two countries have supportedArmenia, “one of them isIranand the other one isRussia.”  He saidAzerbaijanhad “good relations” with the neighboringGeorgia. As to the fourth neighbor, “We don’t have a problem withTurkeybut I don’t know how it will continue in the future because nowTurkeyhas an anti-Israel politics, and it will be a challenge in the future.”  He paused and then said “ I will  tell you a very funny story. The first time in history the Jews arrived together was inAzerbaijan, only second inIsrael. There is a mountainous region called Kuba in northwestAzerbaijanwhich for a long has had a Jewish community. They are centered in a place called Lahij. There is a very interesting background.”

He did not elaborate on that “background.” Instead, he said, “sandwiched betweenRussiaandIran, it is very hard for us to have democracy and secularism and liberalism. But Azeris are still very successful in keeping secularity and inBakuyou can see synagogue and church on the same street.”

Someone asked “Do you have any problem with theUS?” He replied emphatically “No, no, no! We sent troops to Afghanistan, sent troops to Iraq. Azerbaijanis the only country in this region that opened its air corridors forU.S.military to go to those two countries. They fly, they land, whatever they want to do.”

Azerbaijan’s relations with theUnited Statesnoticeably changed after September 11, 2001. The American laws that prevented aid toAzerbaijanwere overridden by new requirements of national security. Those laws were the work of the Armenian-American lobby that had gathered the support of all American Senators, except one, forU.S.assistance toArmenia.

To combat that Armenian influence in the U.S. Azerbaijan had tried to use the enticement of its enormous energy resources in oil and gas. This strategy was still being employed inAzerbaijan’s relations with virtually all countries. While I was inBaku, delegates from nations around the globe were arriving as guests for the celebration of the twentieth anniversary ofAzerbaijan’s independence. I had a conversation with a delegate fromLithuania. “Azerbaijanwants our support on Karabakh and we want its oil and gas,” was the way the delegate summarized the relations between the two countries.

On the day of its independenceAzerbaijanfound itself completely isolated on the issue of its conflict withArmenia. The only exception was Turkey. The Azerbaijani deputy recalled those days and the hard work that was put in to improveAzerbaijan’s position: “Countries did not acceptAzerbaijan’s position. For some time, we had only 30 embassies; now we have 80 embassies.”  The breakthrough came with “The Oil Deal of the Century,” an agreement in 1993 with a consortium of oil companies headed by BP which includes others, especially Exxon. BecauseAzerbaijan’s oil is expected to be exhausted in about 20 years, the attention has since been focused on its gas.  As the deputy said: “Now the biggest deal is the Nabucco pipeline project to connect the Azerbaijan gas and the Caspian basin gas to the European market, mainly throughBulgaria. Recently we explored three more gas reserves.” He estimated thatAzerbaijanwill have energy resources from gas for the next 100 years.

The revenue from oil and gas has made the government ofAzerbaijanrich. “The state budget was only one billion dollars 10 years ago, now it is 20 billion dollars,” the deputy said. This has enabled the government to increase social spending to reduce potential political discontent. “The rate of poverty in the population was 55%, now it is only 9%,” the deputy said. “As our President says, now we are developing human capital. So each year we are sending thousands of students to the best colleges of the world totally at the government’s expense.”

The deputy was personally very active in this project. He said that he had finished “a very short course atHarvardUniversity” to that end. He had established an N.G.O. with a program of “education and representation: educating young people on democracy and leadership.” As he described it, this began as a student organization and now that those original members have become “professionals” it has become a lobby to “connect the young with corporations and government.” He said his organization has some 20,000 members. “We are kind of a bridge between education and professional and political life.” He said “I don’t belong to the governing party. I am independent. There are at least eight parties in the parliament. But a big group of deputies are independent.”

This model of recruiting the elite sounded innovative, but it was not novel; it had been used in the middle of the last Century by the Shah’s regime inIran.

As the representative of this elite, the Azeri deputy had a proud picture of his country’s past. “For the first time in the East, a movie was made here in Azerbaijan. In the beginning of the 20th Century, before the Soviet regime, the first opera in the whole Turkish world and Muslim world was staged inBaku. We have had a Nobel prize winner fromAzerbaijan.” He was not more specific, but I assumed that he was referring, respectively, to the 1906 silent film Arshin Mal Alan (Clothes Peddler), to the 1908 production of the opera Leyli and Majnun, and to Lev Landau, born in 1908 to a Jewish middle-class couple, who left Baku at the age of 16 for Russia and won the Noble Prize for Physics in 1962 as a Soviet citizen.

Shahidlar: Heroes of the state

The first place that our city tour guide in Bakutook us was The Martyrs’ (Shahidlar) Alley. Atop one of the highest hills, it is a good vintage point for a panoramic view of Baku. “In territoryBaku is bigger than evenMoscow,” our guide said. With the suburbs it has about three and a half million residents now. Many buildings were built in the oil boom time, from 1880s to 1914, then for twenty years “nothing, because of the World War and the civil war here.” Construction was resumed in 1925 and the structures of the Soviet era are the bulk of what one now saw, with the exception of the modern high rises which date from the 1990s. The Old City was under our feet in the shape of an amphitheater around BakuBay. Oil and gas wells with burning fires were visible in the distance, as were mud volcanoes and islands of the Baku archipelago.

In Soviet times this area was a park, named after Sergei Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik leader. After independence, the park was turned into a national cemetery to the martyrs of the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Azeris’ peaceful protest of 1989. Of those, 137 are buried here. As we entered the cemetery our guide showed us a raised grave and said: “This young woman married her husband six months before he was killed by Russian soldiers on January 23 of 1989. When she found this out, she decided that she did not want to live either. So she drank vinegar and died. She had married this man about 6 months before. The mordehshur (the person who washes the dead before burial) said that the woman was pregnant. So in this grave are buried three persons.” Next to this grave were several black tombstones. The guide said on these tombstones “it says na-ma’loom which means unknown, because their bodies were damaged so terribly.” Then there were patches of grass which, the guide said, meant that “fragments” of other bodies were buried here.

Toward the back of the cemetery was an imposing structure  which, the guide explained, was the “mausoleum erected some ten years ago in memory of the citizens ofAzerbaijanwho gave their lives fighting for the independence of our country during the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918 which lasted just 22 months.” Heydar Aliyev’s grave, which is the reason foreign dignitaries on an official visit come here, was nearby, in theFakhriKhiabaniCemetery.

“You see,” our guide said “this word shahid which is sometimes misinterpreted in the West, simply means hero, a person who gives his life for his country. Today we have a front line and every week two or three people die in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is now under occupation. Our President Aliyev stopped military operation in 1994 but the conflict is not finished yet. The last people from Baku who died in that struggle are buried here.” It was more this struggle that she wanted to tell us about now, as though its story was the real story of all heroes.  “In 1989, Gorbachev did not pay attention that Armenians attacked Azeris, so we decided on a peaceful demonstration on 19th of January and Gorbachev sent the Alpha army group and attacked. For three days the Russians ruled and 620 men and women were killed on one night alone. Together, a total of one thousand people died. Our movement of separation from theSoviet Union began unofficially then andAzerbaijan became officially independent one year later.”

What I had heard from Western scholars was a more complicated history. When the Supreme Soviet of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted in February 1988 to joinArmeniait was a surprise, although the region’s predominantly Armenian population had in the past petitionedMoscowto be incorporated into the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Several days later, more than a million people came out on the streets ofYerevan,Armenia’s capital, in support of incorporating Nagorno-Karabakh. The authorities of theAzerbaijanSovietRepublichad counted on theSoviet Unionto protect Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of theirSovietRepublic, but Azeris now began to fleeArmenia. Many arrived in the northernAzerbaijancity ofSumgait, and on February 28 attacks against local Armenians began there. Nearly fifty were killed and the rest of an estimated remaining 14,000 took refuge inArmeniaor Nagorno-Karabakh. The arrival of Azeri refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh inBakuled to another pogrom against the Armenians there. The Soviet army that our guide referred to was sent to quell this inter-ethnic violence. Its intervention led to the death of some 130 civilian and 21 soldiers in that “Black January.” These are the ones that the Shahidlar Cemetery commemorates.

The deaths and displacement caused by the conflict with the Armenians aroused the Azerbaijani national consciousness, and as our guide reminded us about the events in 1905 and 1908, this was not the first time. In Bakuwe had a community of Armenians, our guide said: “But to see how they ended up here we have to return back to the event of the 19th Century when there were two wars betweenPersia andRussia, for the lands of the Azeri Khanate. By the two treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) these two powers came to shareAzerbaijan; about 60% of theterritory ofAzerbaijan now belonged toIran, and 40% belonged toRussia. According to those treaties, because the Persians did not want to see so many Armenians in their land, the Russians said O.K., we will accept them. They moved them to areas which had been actively against Russians. So Armenians were settled in Nagorno-Karabakh,Yerevan, Shemakha, and alsoBaku.”

The guide continued: “After the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established,  it came under attack by the Bolsheviks. The Armenians supported the Bolsheviks. Russians and Armenians were together in this. In June of 1918, thousands of Turkish soldiers came to help us clean our territory from the Bolsheviks and Armenians and by the 15th of September 1918 everything was finished and the wholeterritory ofAzerbaijan was under the control of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. This lasted until28 April 1920, when Bolshevik Russia’s Army defeated Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and our country came under the control of theSoviet Union for the next 71 years.”

According to our guide: “Because of the help that Armenians gave the Bolsheviks, because of the nice service toRussia, the Russians created theArmenianSocialistRepublicmainly on Azeri land.Armeniahad disappeared at the beginning of the A.D. Since that timeArmeniawas never independent. It was part of different empires, was a province or something like that. The Communists gave their words and Lenin was a man of honor.  Yerevan Khanate, and the regions ofLakeSevan,  the eastern part ofArmenia, were all historical lands ofAzerbaijanand so many Azeris lived there. In 1918 the Armenians started to move the Azeris out. This was the first refugees’ wave.”

The second waive of “Armenian provocations,” according to our guide, was in the Stalin period beginning in 1947. “A lot of Azeris were deported from lands now calledArmeniawhich were parts  of our country since ancient times when it was calledAlbania.” The memory of that “deportation” was vivid for the guide. She said: “My mother was born inYerevanand she was a refugee of 1949. Armenians gave them just 24 hours. They said we don’t touch you but you have to leave your house, property, and everything and move outside ofArmenia. My mother’s family came toAzerbaijan. They were a big family, with 21 children. Only 4 children survived, the rest died on the way.”

The guide finished: “So you see, the deportation of 1988 was the result of the third part of a  conflict whichArmeniastarted with us in the last 100 years.” She said there were one million Azeri refugees now inAzerbaijan, 400,000 deported fromArmeniaby Armenians and 600,000 who left Nagorno-Karabakh and surroundings. Those who have not been absorbed in the existing cities have been placed in different parts ofAzerbaijan. Some fifty miles south ofBakuwe later saw a village which had been built four years ago for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. Our guide said thatAzerbaijanwas still home to some 60,000 Armenians. “The mother of our President and the wife of our Vice President are Armenian. But you cannot find an Azeri inArmenia. If I go toArmeniathey will cut my head off.”

As to the core of the existing conflict between the two countries, the guide said: “Nagorno-Karabakh is our land and should be returned back. Most people prefer if this problem is solved peacefully. But the present situation cannot last; we don’t want to have a long conflict as in some other parts of the world. We are a patient people but we cannot wait hundreds and hundreds of years. That is why if it takes longer, more and more people inAzerbaijanwill prefer war. Historically, whenArmeniaoccupied our land they never returned it back without war.”

In our guide’s version of historyTurkeywas a hero. It sent thousands of soldiers to help the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic against the Bolsheviks after 1918. The victorious Soviet Russians, accordingly, later forbad the Azeris to “have any relations withTurkey, they could not travel toTurkeyas tourists or have any cultural contact.”Turkeywas one of the first to recognize the post-Soviet independent state ofAzerbaijan. By 1998Azerbaijangratefully erected a grand memorial to the Turkish friendship not far from theShahidlarCemetery.Britainwas also quick to recognizeAzerbaijan’s independence, but a memorial to the 84 British subjects who lost their lives when 2000 British troops came here at the time of “the struggle with the Bolsheviks” was more controversial. After all “Britain was on the opposite side of Turkey in World War I and the British soldiers came to protect British oil interest,” our guide said. “People still do not have a good memory of them and we have to be respectful of that.” Nevertheless, “after the 1993 oil deal with the BP, a memorial to the British with their names inscribed was erected nearby.”

Villa Petrolea

Bakushowcases many beaux arts buildings from the “oil boom” era, which began in 1870 when the Russian government undertook a privatizing program of auctioning plots of land in the nearby oil rich Absheron peninsula, and ended with the First World War. Most of those buildings were built by the “oil barons,” Azeris who became millionaires in the booming oil economy. “There were eleven oil barons,” according to our guide.

The Tsarist policies also brought in the Noble brothers. They were Swedes who had been engaged in a variety of ventures inSt. Petersburgsince their father, Emanuel, moved there in 1835, “at the invitation of the Tsar.” The first one of the Nobel brothers to come toBakuwas Robert. The purpose of his trip was to look for “high quality wood for the guns that would use the dynamite just invented by his brother Alfred,” we were told. “We have ironwood and walnut here in the south ofAzerbaijan.” In the Baku area Robert “saw oil gushing” from shallow wells and wrote to his brother Ludwig that he should promptly come as he had found “black gold.” It was Ludwig who soon assembled the “technical staff to establish a colony called Villa Petrolea,” according to the guide at that location which we were now visiting.

Villa Petrolea is today a spacious mansion housing the Nobel Brothers’ Museum and the Nobel Oil Club. It was completed in 1884 and served as the Nobels’ residence inBakuuntil 1924. In between those years the Nobles played a major role in exploration, extraction and transportation of oil from theBakuregion. Ludwig formed a stock company in 1879 in which the Nobels were the main shareholders. The company gained a 15% share in the oil products ofAzerbaijanin this period. The Nobels built the world’s first tanker in 1878 and called it the Zoroaster. A picture of this tanker now adorned a wall in Villa Petrolea, as did the picture of a Zoroastrian “fire worship temple,” the temple being the logo of the Nobels’ company. This was in accord with “the belief that the ancient Zoroastrian inhabitants of this area used the oil oozing out of the land, a practice which they included in their religious customs,” our guide said.

When the Bolshevik revolution reachedBakuin 1920, the Nobels left.  “Genetically, the family was sick with asthma and during the revolution and because of the additional stress Ludwig’s health got worse.” Ludwig’s son, Emanuel, however, was soon able to make a deal with the Bolsheviks. “He got permission to work here four more years. But at the end of the third year, the Bolsheviks broke their promise. They came to the Villa to kill the whole Noble family as they wanted to nationalize their company. The local people hid the family, and helped them escape, masked as workers.”

The guide at the Nobles’ Villa continued: “All the furniture you see in this house belonged to the Noble family. The locals took the Villa’s furniture in their houses and when times got hard, started selling them. Their foreign buyers then sold the furniture in public auction. Our experts began looking around the world in 2005, to collect the Nobles’ belongings.  The collection in the next room is from this house’s ‘Oriental Room.’ Here is a piano which also belonged to the family; these gold plated plates also, and that picnic box, silver samovar, the gramophone.  These all had the Nobel logos and that is how we looked for them.  On that desk Ludwig drafted the design of the world’s first oil tanker.” The guide said: “The first Noble oil prize was established inBakuin 1900. They stopped giving that prize in 1911 and the money then went to the foundation that now gives all other Noble Prizes.” This Villa had “the world’s first air-conditioning system.” It also had “a special greenhouse with exotic trees and birds.” We saw its garden which had trees fromAzerbaijanandEurope.

Oil and gas

The Nobels were not the only world-famous family involved in theAzerbaijanoil boom. The Rothschild Frères fromFrance“came toAzerbaijaninitially to do financial business but when they saw what the Nobels were doing in oil, they became interested as well,” our guide said. “In the 1890s, the Rothschilds decided to transport oil by means of metallic tanks on the train. They could not use the existing railroad tracks because those had been built in the 1870s to carry passengers. So they asked Alfred Nobel to design changes so that trains could carry heavy oil tanks.” The guide showed us a part of those tracks,  in theAbsheronPeninsula, which still connectBakutoBatumion theBlack Sea.

“The Rockefellers were also very active here,” the guide said. She told a story of the bidding between John D. Rockefeller and the local oil baron Musa Nagiyev for a building on a boulevard which was at the time the most “prestigious, the street of the rich and aristocracy.”  It was the most expensive building in town. “Rockefeller did not have enough money and the house was bought by Musa Nagiyev for the equivalent of 1,600,000 US dollars. Rockefeller was angry, but he needed an office for his company and, later, rented the fifth floor of the building for the senior managers of the Standard Oil Co here.”  Of all the oil barons, Nagiyev was the richest. “His family now lives inLos Angeles,” our guide said.

The legacy of another oil baron, Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, still influences the oil industry ofAzerbaijan. TheAzerbaijanStateOilAcademywas founded by him, originally as The Mechanical andTechnicalSchool. Our guide who now taught there called it the first university in the world that offered “classes in oil and gas.” She told us more about theAzerbaijanoil industry as we drove south fromBakuon the Absheron peninsula.

“We have 14 oil zones. Seven were used in the past, but today technology allows us to use the other seven too. We don’t have oil everywhere in Azerbaijan. We have oil in Absheron, Gobustan, northeast of Azerbaijan, and in the Caspian Sea.” I could see the Caspian Seaon our left. The guide pointed out some small lakes on the opposite side of the road. “According to a seventh Century manuscript we know that salt from these lakes was exported to Europevia Genova and Venice. This was one of the most expensive salts in the European market because it contained a lot of iodine which is very good for your body. Even now we use this salt.” That is how the peninsula got its name: abshour in Persian means salty water.

At the Caspian shore we saw shipyards where “platforms are equipped and sent to the sea” our guide said.  “These platforms extract oil from a depth of three to seven kilometers. There is one platform here which is unique as it can explore for oil and gas at a depth of 12 kilometers.” Our guide continued: “The first deep water oil platform was designed here by scientists and engineers from theAzerbaijanOilAcademyin 1916. It was called Absheron and produced the first offshore oil.”

The guide now pointed to a part of the Caspian coast we were passing by: “In 1939 for the first time in the world at this location in the Caspian Seawe built a city, Neft Dashlari, which is not on an island but it is over metallic platforms. It now has a population of several thousand, with four-story and five-story buildings, tennis courts, and football fields. People usually work 2 to 3 weeks there and then they are returned to Bakufor one week or 10 days. But in that city we also have reserves of water for one month, in case of emergency because sometimes the weather is so bad that people cannot return back to Bakuearlier.”

As our guide related its history, oil was used by Zoroastrians as early as in the 7th B.C. “Its use was in divine services.” The word kerosene came from the Median language of Iran then spoken in Azerbaijan, she said. In ancient times they did not need to extract oil “because we had lakes with oil. People just needed buckets to get oil from the lakes.” In the middle ages, in the 16th Century, “oil wells were dug.” Some of those wells still exist, “the deepest is about 30 meters.” The industrial extraction of oil “began in the middle of 19th Century.” The important date was 1846 “when the first pump was used inAzerbaijan, two years before it was used in theU.S.” Therefore, the “oldest oil fields” were inAzerbaijan, “in Balakhana, Surkhana, and Ramana, all close toBaku.”

Similarly, not only the first oil tanker, the Zoroaster, was built and used in Azerbaijan, but “the earliest transportation of oil started in the Caspian Seaarea in the 15th Century.” Oil was taken in wooden barges on theCaspian Sea to other regions, and on land it was transported in wineskins on four-wheel carts and camels on land across the country.

Our guide continued with her list of firsts:  “The first oil pipeline was invented by Alfred Nobel to be used for connecting the Nobles’ oil fields here.  Other oil producers inBakusaw its benefits and soon the Nobel brothers were making pipes for the others’ oil fields. The Nobles later “created theBakutoBatumipipeline with money provided by the Rothschilds.”

On the right of the road we now saw many lights. Those were from the Sangachal Terminal.  “All the oil extracted from the area south ofBakuis moved to this Terminal and stored here in big tanks and then from here it goes by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to the TurkishportofCeyhanat theMediterranean. From there tankers transfer the oil to different countries of the world.” Last year, our guide said,Azerbaijansigned an agreement withItaly“to send this oil by a pipeline laid at the bottom of theMediterranean SeatoItalyand from there to southernEuropeand other countries.”

The old Baku-Batumi pipeline to the Georgian coast continues in operation. It was built in “the Russian time.” But the “Russians made a trick” in the Soviet time, our guide said. “They added the supply form Siberian oil which is of very low quality into the supply fromBakuwhich is of a very high quality oil.” She added “Today Russian oil is one of the cheapest oils. The quality of oil ofAzerbaijancan be compared with some fromTexasandOklahoma. We sell it as ‘Azeri light’. The oil from these three places is the best and so the most expensive. InRussia, the best oil comes fromChechnya. That is why there is a big conflict there.”

International politics clearly had a role to play in howAzerbaijandistributed its oil, according to our guide.  “Romania and Bulgaria want our oil.  But the Bulgarians have been talking with the Russians so they will be the last in our order. We have very nice relations withRomaniawhich was one of the first to recognize our independence. From the former Soviet bloc our relations are best withPoland, and with theCzechRepublic  where twenty-five percent of the means of transportation use oil fromBaku.Italy, thenGermanyandEnglandare our best customers. WithTurkeywe have a different kind of relations, political and economic, and it is the main country for the transit of our oil. Another transit country with which we have very good relations isGeorgia.”

Gas. The guide told us that the Ateshgah (place of fire) near Baku, “which is the only one of the Zoroastrian temples of fire still remaining in Azerbaijan, dates from the first Century A.D., which means that we have a 2,000 year history of using gas here.  Excavations have also found gas lamps made of pottery used in that ancient time.”  She said “Today we have deposits of over 4 billion cubic meters of gas.”

A major topic of discussion in the Baku English language newspaper when I was there was the Nabucco project for the distribution ofAzerbaijangas. “Europehas a big interest in this project because it is not happy with the current situation of depending on the gas fromRussiaviaUkraine,” our guide said. According to her: “The northern stream activity is expected to begin in one or two months. Fifty percent of that gas via the Nabucco pipeline will be fromAzerbaijan. Another fifty percent will be shared, maybe, byKazakhstanandTurkmenistan, maybe a little bit fromIraq. AndIranis under discussion.Iranhas offered its gas to Nabucco. The operator will beEnglandor theU.S.; that is whyIranis still under only discussion. The gas ofAzerbaijan,TurkmenistanandKazakhstanall are several time better than the gas fromIran.  In the southern stream of Nabucco there will be gas fromSiberia, but its quality is lower than gas from the Caspian. The main issue in all of this forAzerbaijanis Karabakh. IfRussiagives us real results regarding our territorial demands fromArmenia, thenAzerbaijan, maybe,  is ready to reject Nabucco. IfEuropeand theU.S.  help us solve that problem, Nabucco will get our gas. Our President will sign only an agreement that is based on the independence of Karabakh inside ofAzerbaijan.”

Our guide’s loquaciousness on the subject of Azerbaijani oil and gas impressed me. The subject was of immense significance for the future ofAzerbaijan. Oil had already made the newly independent country very rich by the standards both of its past and its regional neighborhood. Gas promised to expand and extend this fortune. I asked the guide if she had put her knowledge in any written form, maybe a book. She replied that she did not have time to do so. She was busy making a living. That is why she worked as a guide. She explained the as a full time teacher she made 350 Manats (about $280) a month, while in Baku the rent for an apartment was about 350 Euros a month. She said she would not be able to get any money from writing such a book. She paused and then told me this story about a textbook she had written. She said in the Soviet time the Russians had supplied the text books at her school. Now she had to write and publish her own text book for the class she taught. She had to give the book free to the students because the school administration said “that is your patriotic duty.” She said she could not charge colleagues for the book either. “They are the only ones who would be interested, to use it in their classes, but how could I sell the book to my colleagues who are friends I have known for 30 years?”

Shirvanshah Palace complex

The oil industry changed Baku. Its population in 1807 was only 3,000; by 1900 it had increased to 250,000. Migrant workers from various parts of Russia, Iranand other places flooded the town; the local Azeris now were a definite minority. Before the advent of oil, the residents of Bakulived in a walled mediaeval town. The walls protected the city as a fortress. Some 500 meters of the walls still remain around that town which is now called Ichari Shahar (OldTown). They are 8 to 10 meters high and 3 to 4 meters wide. There were several gates. Some of these entrances, as well as five of the original 25 smaller towers and one  of the 5 big towers, at intervals on the walls, have survived. “Inscriptions on these walls indicate that they were built by the Shirvanshah ruler of Bakuin the middle of the 12th Century,” our guide said.

TheOldTownhas been turned into a major tourist attraction, but it is also a lived-in place. Inside its walls old structures co-exist with recent additions. Neoclassical buildings with slick entrances stand among quaint structures which are distinguished by their ancient  doors , medieval windows and covered balconies ,  some of which  almost touch each other across narrow passage ways .  There are carpet peddlers, souvenir shops selling T-shirts, and modern recycling segregated bins, prominently placed for visitors to see.

The Old Town also hosts international banks, the Italian Embassy and the headquarters of the “Armwrestling Federation of Azerbaijan Republic.” TV dishes jut out of the modest residential buildings, next to laundry lines holding washed clothes.  Little gardens separate these buildings. Friends write graffiti on the steps in theOldTown: “Tomi -Cheka- Aliko- 4ever -Friends.” Discrete lovers court in its courtyards. There are also restaurants, one calling itself Kohne Sahar which is Persian for old town, a reminder of many centuries when the place was a part ofIran.

The rulers who are now celebrated in the OldTownare the Shirvanshahs, dynastic Khans vanquished by the Safavids of Iran in 1501.  Russia, in turn, ended the Iranian rule here in the early 19th Century. The 15th Century Shirvanshah Palace complex in theOldTown was restored by 2003, virtually rebuilt in places.  “This was based on careful study of discovered plans, a project that began in the Soviet time,” our guide said. The complex, now on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, gives an idea about what our guide called the “Absheron-Shirvan architecture school of the Middle Ages, which was so famous in the East that when Tamerlane was building his capitalSamarkand he took stone specialists from here.”

The complex as the seat of power of the Shirvanshahs reflects on the limits of their power by its modest size. It summarizes what buildings were deemed essential for compound of the rulers in a mediaeval Caucasian Khanate (Fiefdom ).

Palace. Almost all the structures we saw were originally built during the long reign (1417–1465) of just one ruler, Shirvanshah Khalilullah I. There are three courtyards in the complex. The most imposing building, the Palace, is on the upper courtyard. It was the “living quarters; its left side for men and the right side for women and children,” our guide said. Khalilullah was unusual as an “oriental ruler,” in that he did not have a harem -he had just one wife. “She was from the Timurids family. She was the daughter of Mohammed Sultan who was a grandson of Tamerlane. She was very special; maybe for that reason she was the only wife. For her, this was the second marriage; her first husband was executed. He had been the ruler of the Qara Qoyunlu Empire. Khanike Sultan was the name of this great woman. This lady from time to time was the leader of Shirvanshah’s army in some battles.”

Our guide now gave us this history of the Shirvanshahs who have a special place in Azerbaijan’s historiography because they are the closest that this country can claim as a local dynasty that ruled a large part of its territory. I paraphrase her: “The Shirvanshah family started as rulers of the Derbent Khanate in 6th Century. Derbent is now in the territory of Russia, in Dagestan. The family’s domain kept getting bigger and in the 9th Century, in our war against the Muslim Caliphate, the Shirvanshah Khanate was established. It was the most powerful and biggest in Azerbaijan. It even had a fleet. In the Middle Ages, the Caspian sea was under the control of only two fleets, Shirvanshahs’ and Persia’s.  Shemakha in the center of today’s Azerbaijan became the first capital of the Shirvanshahs and remained so until 1,191 when Baku replaced it as the capital. The Shirvanshah dynasty lasted 1,000 years until this Khanate was conquered by Shah Ismail Khatai Safavid, the founder of the Safavid Empire in Iran. He destroyed Baku and executed the last Shirvanshah because Shah Ismail’s great-grandfather who had wanted to conquer Azerbaijan before had been executed by Khalilullah the 1st in 1447.”  Although the guide did not elaborate, I noted her reference to Shah Ismail’s pen name Khatai (Sinner) with which he contributed greatly as a poet to the development of the Azeri literature. Perhaps for this reason, indeed, a monumental statue of Shah Ismail Khatai has been erected inBaku.

We went to the main room around which theShirvanshahPalacewas built. This was an eight-sided hall. “This shape is typical of mausoleums,” our guide said. “This might have originally been the mausoleum of a holy person, and they decided to build a palace in a holy place. Before the Islamic period this area was famous for the biggest concentration of Zoroastrian temples, and later Christian churches.” As we looked at the stalactite and stalagmite decorations of the room, the guide said, “that type of decoration was adopted by the Arabians when they came here to the Zoroastrian country. Such kind of interior was typical of Zoroastrian temples, typical of their temples of fire.”

She elaborated on this theme of the origin of Azeri cultural elements: “If you ask Arabians why they think there are 9 levels in the sky, they cannot tell you anything because that is not a part of their culture. You see, before Zoroastrianism we had one religion called Tantrism.  Tantri was the main god of cosmic space and sky. In the beliefs of ancient Azeris who were Tantrist, we arrive at our birth on the lowest level. Learning more and more about our god we rise up and up. The 9th floor is the home of God. Later, Zoroastrians inAzerbaijan continued Tantrism’s beliefs and practices; but the Zoroastrians in the rest of the world do not have these practices.”

As another example of Zoroastrian tradition reflected in the decoration of this room, our guide pointed to the design of a flower. “This is the saffron flower -and it is open- which was the holy flower of the Zoroastrians. It was used in preparing a special drink called Sherbet which the Zoroastrians would drink before each prayer. It was made from lemon juice, bay leaf, saffron oil essence, some honey, and some water. That was the original, classic Sherbet; Arabians brought it toEuropeand now the word is used there for a variety of cold drinks.” Next to the saffron flower was the design of another flower with five leaves. Our guide said that in ancientAzerbaijan“this was the symbol of the planet Venus and as such the symbol of woman’s beauty.” She pointed out still another flower with 12 leaves and said that was “the symbol of the sun.”

The ShirvanshahPalacewas now being used as an exhibition hall for private collections of more concrete artifacts of much more recent times. There were some coins from the 1880s . There was clothing that women and men wore in the 20th Century. Our guide called our attention to “the articles of luxury.” She said “Look, they are huge. For example, the bracelets are big because they had to protect important parts of military ladies. Before Christ we had an Amazon tribe. We have archaeological evidence of this Amazon tribe in our  petroglyphs of Gobustan. You can find in them some details of their military uniform.” Next, our guide showed us a case which had “stuff for fixing moustaches. At night men tried to shape their moustaches by using this wax and wrapping them.  This was important because the shape of the moustache showed the social class of the person.”

There was a samovar . Our guide commented:  “Samovar is not from Russia. The Russians first noticed its use in the 17th Century here, and bought it from the Lahij people in northern Azerbaijan. Even the word samvar is Azeri.” Then there was a metal brazier called manghal.  Our guide said: “Nowadays in some mountain villages and even in suburbs of Baku in winter time people still use manghal. With a plate under it, they fill the manghal with some coal or wood which they light to heat up the manghal. After that they put a big box over it and on the box they put blankets and under the blankets they put their feet and hands and warm themselves this way.”

Divankhana. The structure to the left of the Palace was called Divankhana which the sign in front of it said was built in 1428 and was intended for official receptions and state meetings, held in its octagonal hall-rotunda. Our guide said that this place was possibly also a “judge court.” She said there are several “wells” under this structure and in those the remains of people and animals have been found, “leading us to believe that the condemned were left here to be eaten by animals such as tigers.”  What further supported the idea that this was a judge’s court was the front portal of the building, according to our guide. Here there were two medallions with Arabic inscriptions inside them. One said la elahe el allah, muhammadan rasoul al-lah (there is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet), the Sunni Muslims’ declaration of faith – “the greetings of Muslims,” in our guide’s words. The other inscription was a verse from the Qur’an. Our guide said such inscriptions are found at the entrance to a judge court or a mausoleum. In fact, she said, the third theory is that this place was a mausoleum. She pointed out the entrance to a small room inside this building which “was the royal treasury” and said that the inscription above it is “usually what you see above the entrance to royal mausoleums.”  Furthermore, the 8 corner shape of this building is “typical of royal mausoleums.”

The guide noted that the main meeting room here was connected by stairs to a basement at the center of which a sarcophagus had been found with a name on it: Ibrahim I. He was the father of Khalilullah I. Although the sarcophagus was empty, our guide said, “There is a legend that the Khans of neighboring areas which Ibrahim had conquered swore that after his death they will find his body and crush it; so Ibrahim asked his son to bury him in a secret and safe place. Therefore, maybe sometimes Khalilullah was sitting on the grave of his father.” What the guide did not say, however, was that, in fact, afterBakuwas taken by the Safavid Shah Ismail I, at his order the remains of all the Shirvanshahs were exhumed and burned.

Middle Court. We now descended to the middle court of the Shirvanshah Palace complex. Here we came to a large number of broken slabs of stone, some decorated with faces of people, camels, and goats, and many with Arabic script.  They were from the ruins of a castle called Sabayil Qala, a fort that once protected an island which is now submerged in the water just off the shore of Baku’s southern Bayil Peninsula (hence, called Bayil Stones). These stones were found in two expeditions by Soviet archeologists in the 1950s.There were many writings in Persian on these stones, as I was shown by a woman standing nearby who said she was a local teacher . The inscriptions  have not yet been adequately deciphered. From the names of the rulers of the Shirvanshah family on some stones, it is believed that they are from the middle of the 13th Century, our guide said.

Of equal interest was an old cannon on display a few feet away which was said to have been used by the Qajar rulers of Iranto defend Bakuagainst Russiain the early 19th Century. One reason for their defeat, the technological backwardness in weaponry, was explained, if metaphorically, in the other weapon, the medieval trebuchet (kolookhandaz ) that stood nearby.

On the other side of the Bayil Stones are the remains of the “Key-Gubad Mosque-Madrasah” which was built during the reign of Shirvanshah Key-Gubad Farrukhzad II (1317-1356), and burned down in 1918. Some historians believe that the scholar Shaykh Yahya Shirvani Bakuvi taught the royal children in this mosque-school. The empty octagonal two-story structure next to is called the Dervish Mausoleum because, as our guide explained, “Bakuvi was buried here.” The unusual fact that a non-royal would have his mausoleum in the Palace was explained by our guide this way: “He was the leader of Sunnis, and the Shirvanshah was Sunni.” However, the title Dervish denotes the 15th Century Bakuvi’s position as a leader of the Sufi Khalwati order. The Shirvanshahs were patrons of this group. Indeed, some writers believe that the wholeShirvanshahPalace complex was built around the place of worship and tomb of Yahya Bakuvi. The Khalwatis popularity later grew inTurkey, where it is pronounced Halveti, as well as in north-westernIran. Today, as our guide said. “Many pilgrims fromTurkey come here, but sometimes you can also smell gulab, the attar of rose, which is an offering to a shrine by the Persian visitors.”

Lower Court. The Mausoleum of the Shirvanshahs is in the next court below this level. It was built for Khalilullah’s mother but, in fact, the Shirvanshah himself along with his wife, Khanike Sultan, and their sons were later buried there. It is an imposing structure, dating to 1435. The portal is decorated with oleander flowers “for the Queen,” our guide said. There is Arabic calligraphy of Qur’anic verses on the top, and stalactite-stalagmite designs below them. On the sides there are two medallions with inscriptions inside them. “If you bring a mirror close to them, you see in the mirror image the name of “Memar (architect) Muhammad Ali Azim, who would not be permitted to indicate his name more openly.”

The exterior of the Mausoleum “was once covered with polished green and blue tiles,” our guide said, “but they were so beautiful that our communist leaders preferred to take them to their private houses.”  Inside the Mausoleum Khalilullah was laid “with head orientated to Meccaaccording to Muslim traditions, and on his tombstone is a buta. The guide said that buta, in the shape of paisley, was a Zoroastrian symbol: “White buta symbolized Ahura Mazda, and black buta symbolized Ahriman, which are the two opposite super-naturals in Zoroastrianism.” She concluded: “In our funereal rituals you see a symbiosis of bronze age, Zoroastrian, Christian, and Muslim traditions.”

The Mausoleum shares the courtyard with the small Shah Mosque  The Mosque has two praying halls, the big one was for the Shah and his men courtiers and the small hall was for court women.  “Azeri mosques were generally very simple because we suppose that in the house of God we have to think about God and not the decorations in the interior,” our guide said. “But this was a royal, Shah, mosque and, therefore, it was nicely decorated.” She pointed to the mihrab (altar)  of the big hall: “Now, as you see, not only the decorations are gone but it is full of bullet holes made by Russians who were here.”

In the hall for women, the guide mentioned another purpose it served: “At times of danger the Shah would keep his wife and children here. This room and the other hall were connected by stairs that went underground. There was an underground passage from here under the minaret which you see outside. It connected to the underground of the main Palace and from there to theMaidenTowerand then to the outside of theOldCity. That was the escape way.” She concluded: “That is why we can speak about two Bakus, one underground and another on the ground.  The underground is about two meters wide. Some parts are dry and some have an underground river. That part they probably passed by boats as it is wide enough for two small boats.”

The guide pointed to an area which she called “ovdan” (Persian abdan) below us. That was “the Palace’s water reservoir.” She said: “Water was brought by the Shirvanshah here from the north of our country which is 600 meters above the sea level by channels for a distance of 180 kilometers. The Romans had been in Azerbaijan but this was not their aqueduct.” From her general description of the system -“kind of like water wells, where the water that comes down in the desert from the higher elevation can be tapped” – it seems that this was a form of the underground water system kariz (qanat) used in Iran. Next to the reservoir were the ruins of the royal bath of the Palace, built in 1438, once well decorated both inside and outside with tiles (kashi) which, again, no longer exist.

There were two minarets in the Palace complex. Our guide said originally they too were covered with beautiful green and blue tiles. She offered this unusual explanation for the function for these minarets, otherwise commonly used as call-to-prayer towers: “Because Baku is surrounded on three sides by deserts and in sandstorm caravans could not find their way to Baku, to contrast with the color of brown and yellow of the land, the blue and green tiles of these minarets and domes gave people direction. They were used like lighthouses.”

Old Town

The Shirvanshahs built up the old Bakufrom the 12th Century but most of the royal family stayed in the old capital, Shemakha, until an earthquake early in the 15th Century killed almost half of the extended family and made the rest move toBaku, especially to the Palace complex. We now went to see the other parts of theOldTown where the common people had lived.

The sign at the most prominent monument in the OldTown, the MaidenTower, said that a settlement existed here as early as the “Paleolits” period, which meant as early as 10,000 B.C. In an arcaded courtyard near the Tower, I saw stone carvings from the burial sites which have been dated to the third and second centuries B.C. The Tower itself, however, was “founded” in the 7th to 8th B.C. It was restored in the 12th Century. It is an impressive stone structure, 5 meters thick and towering over 29 meters. Its name in Azeri, Qiz Qalasi, literally means virgin tower, alluding to its impenetrability as a defensive building. Throughout times, however, it has stimulated the imagination of admirers who have claimed it as a “fire beacon,” “a lookout post,” “an astronomical observatory” and even “a Zoroastrian tower of silence.” Even on the day of my visit, in the yard fronting theMaidenTower there were several contemporary installations of the imagined meanings ofMaidenTower by artists from several nations.

The squares one sees next to the Tower and elsewhere in the Old Town were once its seven bazaars. Similarly, the two caravanserais that still exist are from among the four that once served the heavy traffic of the “Silk Road” whenBakuwas the crossroad of its branches connecting theCaucasusand points west towardEuropeandRussia.

In theOldTown’s hamams , as in the Middle Ages, the public bath is still used by women customers in the “first part of the day,” and men in the “second part,” our guide said. On this morning, a few blocks away, women were waiting patiently to visit another house: that of a “holy man, called Olyia,” our guide explained. “He was a man without many bones, he had just some skeleton and a head; the rest was just muscles. He was a ‘meat man.’ He lived for about 50 years and died in 1951.” Next to the women, a man was skinning a lamb which had just been slaughtered.  Our guide said “maybe this is a religious offering by the holy man’s visitors.”

We soon came to the ArchangelMichaelRussianChurchwhich is the center of Baku’s Christian Orthodox community. It was not open to tourists, but the guide had a story to tell us about the relics it contained.  “According to Italian manuscripts,” she said: “St. Bartholomew came to Azerbaijanand treated the ruler’s sick daughter and this led her mother to convert from Zoroastrianism to Christianity. That made the ruler angry and he ordered St. Bartholomew killed. The saint was tied to a wooden cross. His hands were tied and, one by one, they cut them; but all the while he continued preaching. The Christians wanted to bury him here. But they knew that the ruler wanted to burn Bartholomew’s remains. So they put them in a box and moved them through Persiaand Mesopotamia, and threw them out into the sea. The remains came to an island close to Italywhere the fishermen caught them and brought them to the priest. The priest then had a dream in which St. Bartholomew told him that those were his remains.  A church was built on that island. Then one big bone was later taken from that church and brought here to this church.  In 2004 the RussianChurchasked our President to allow divine services and since then we have such divine services every year here on the 24th of June.”

Not far from the RussianChurch, we saw the Armenian Church of the OldTown, “another sign of our tolerance for all religions,” as our guide said. It looked unused.  The door to the 14th Century Mohammed Mosque was also closed. “This mosque was built over a Zoroastrian temple,” our guide said. It has since been rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed it many years ago. Its minaret , dating back to the 12th Century, however, survived the earthquake. This Mosque is unique in that, according to our guide, “other than for royal mosques, only in 19th Century we began to build minarets as a part of the mosque. Before that ordinary mosques were all without minaret. When the Muslims came in the 7th Century they did not have a place for prayers, so they drew a mihrab on the stone and they prayed looking at this mihrab. Later they began to use mausoleums of holy people as places for praying. Before the minarets were built in our country, azan (call to prayer) was made from flat roofs.”

Moving on in the OldTown, we saw a more elaborate stone facade of another mosque, the Cuma (community) Mosque, which was built “by a rich man 112 years ago,” with Arabic script at its portal. The guide pointed out that its shape was modeled in the “Zoroastrian temple tradition.” We saw only a couple of people standing on its steps. Further along, we noted the simple wall of what our guide said “was a 14th Century domestic (private) mosque,” as distinguished from public mosques.  It was only in the basement of a nondescript building a block away that we noticed the unusual sight of a crowd, sitting on the floor with an overflow of people outside, all listening to someone talking inside. The guide said there is usually a Muslim service here at2 p.m., and this was “probably, a group having a conversation with the Mulla (clergy) after the prayers.”

Shiite and Sunni

The mosques we saw inBaku’sOldTownwere Shiites, our guide reminded us. “In Shaki, in the north, you will see a different design in mosques, because Shaki is one ofAzerbaijan’s Sunni cities.” We did not have to wait until then, however, to see a Sunni mosque. Although “Bakuis a center of Shiism,” the Turkish designed Shahidlar Mosque, a short distance from theOldTown, was a Sunni mosque. “In the 1990sTurkeybrought the materials and everything and built this,” our guide told us.

Even the most important Shiite mosque in the country, in the suburb of Baku, called Bibi Heybat, was in fact an Ottoman-style structure completed in 1998. The notable construction of several mosques in the 1990s was “because we did not have enough mosques,” our guide said.  The old Bibi Heybat Mosque, which from the 13th Century was this land’s holiest shrine, was demolished by the Soviets in 1934. The Communist regime had eliminated many other mosques and shrines. By 1976 the number of mosques allowed in the whole country dwindled to only 16. With Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost,Azerbaijan saw a revival of Islam from 1987. In the course of a decade the number of mosques increased dramatically to 200, although only about 40 were officially “registered.”

Azerbaijan’s President, Heydar Aliyev, was at first responsive to the revival of Islamic sentiments. He took his oath of office on the Qur’an and made the Muslims’ Hajj pilgrimage toMecca. However, Aliyev, a long-time atheist communist, lost no time in expelling Iranian Shiite missionaries. By 1997, he had imposed increasingly strict government control of Islamic centers. The regime has since tacitly encouraged the activities of educators and missionaries of the Nurcular sect fromTurkeywho pointedly respect secularism and aim at promoting Islam by example. It has, conversely, suppressed demonstrations calling for schools to allow the Islamic headgear, accusing their leaders of having been supported byIran.

The interaction of politics and Islam in Azerbaijanshares characteristics of other Islamic peoples who had been ruled by the Soviet Union. In all of them religion came with their “nationality,” as that concept of community was allowed under the Soviet rule. Also in all the inevitable influence of seven decades of Soviet secularization policies was offset by the secret practice of religion as a program of defying foreign rule. What made the Azerbaijanexperience unique was the intra-Islamic dynamics of Shiite and Sunni relations compounded by the opposite pulls of Iranand Turkey. “Our language is basically Turkic” our guide said. It is far easier for an Azerbaijani to understand the language spoken in Turkeythan Persian. On the other hand, there is no denying the cultural affinity that comes with the immense long-standing impact of the Persian language. The 12th Century poet Nizami Ganjavi is a good example. His poem, in Persian, “Leyli o (and) Majnun,” is deemed the “poetic pinnacle” inAzerbaijan.

Nizami, however, is just one of many such influential Persian poets. In the classic early 1920s book, Ali and Nino, Ali refers to the tradition that required an educated Azeri “to display Ferdowsi’s verses, Hafiz’s sighs of love and Sa’di’s quotations.” Yet the cultural tradition which evoked those Iranian poets, equally influential inAzerbaijan as in their native country, was challenged even in Ali’s time by the desire for modernization. The program of the leaders of the early Twentieth Century Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was to “Turkify, Islamize, and Europeanize!” This was a slogan originally formulated by one of the Azeribaijani (Azeri) intellectuals, Ali Bay Hussein Zadeh.  When their Azeribaijani independence movement failed, its leaders sought refuge inIstanbul, unlike the earlier nobles from this area who looked for asylum inIran.

In this tug of cultures, it mattered thatIranwas predominantly Shiite andTurkeywas Sunni. After all that was how the Shiite Safavid rulers ofIrandefined themselves against their rival Sunni Ottoman Turks. After the Safavids defeated the Shirvanshahs,Azerbaijanwas ruled by them and the dynasty that succeeded them inIran, the Qajars, also Shiite, for more than three hundred years. Two-thirds of the population ofAzerbaijanhave since been Shiites; most of the rest are Sunni.

Bibi Heybat

“All the Shiites of Azerbaijan who go on pilgrimage to Meccafirst come and pray at the shrine- grave of this lady, Bibi Heybat; then they go to Mashhad, Najaf and Medinaand finish in Mecca.  That is why this is a very special mosque.” Having said this, our guide now gave her version of how the shrine came to be: “This lady, whose original name was Hakima  Khanum, was the oldest sister of the 8th Shiite Imam, Ali al-Redha. Their father was the 7th Imam of the Shiites.  Ali al-Redha lived at the beginning of the 9th Century and he had some religious troubles with the ruler of Baghdad, who was Harun al-Rashid, of the 1001 nights fame. Because of these troubles, Ali al-Redha had to move his family to Persia. He wanted to come to the Absheron Peninsula and live here, and he had great interest in the Zoroastrian religious practices. But Ali al-Redha became ill and died in the city which was called something else at that time; today it is known as Mashhad. His youngest sister is buried in Qum, Iran, which is, therefore, also a very holy place for the Shiite Muslims. But the oldest sister and middle sister reached Absheron Peninsula, and the oldest sister came to this place which at that time was a very small village where the Shaykh was a leader of the Shiites. She died here and was buried in the ancient cemetery. Later, in 13th Century, the ruling Shirvanshah who had a serious illness came and prayed at the grave of this lady and got well. He decided to move her body and build a mosque on her grave. She is buried in this mosque with some members of her family.” On the other side of the road from the Bi-bi Heybat Mosque was the cemetery which our guide referred to, “the most ancient in the suburbs of Baku .”

We took our shoes off and the women put on head-scarves and we entered the Mosque. We saw only two men in its vast main hall. They were praying. I asked the guide whether she knew if the Ismailis came to visit this shrine -as their Imam Ismail was also the son of the Shiite 7th Imam. She had not heard of the Ismailis or their contemporary leaders, the Agha Khan and his descendent. She said she was Sunni. My Iranian friend, who was married to an Azeri woman inBaku, chuckled when I told him about this exchange. “My Shiite wife does not know much about the Sunni and Shiites either,” he said. “She has some vague ideas about the Sunni Caliph Omar and the Shiite Imam Ali, orKarbala [the site and hence the name of the iconic battle in which the Shiite Imam Hussein was killed by the soldiers of the Sunni ruler]. She asks me ‘We like Ali, yes?’”

In recent polls, about 60% of Azerbaijani respondents called themselves Muslim believers; and of these only a sixth prayed daily. Our guide said “the dominant religion in this country is Islam but never callAzerbaijanIslamic because State and religion are separated and that is a very old tradition. Khan and Shah never could be the religious leader.” She did not note that this was not unusual in the Shiite tradition, but it was among the Sunnis.


Shemakha has the reputation of being a city of strong Shiite tradition. It is also called a center of Sufism. Some of the leaders of the Sufi order Hurufism were born here in the 14th Century, such as the poet Imadaddin Nasimi.  There were also important Naqshbandi Sufis from Shemakha. Furthermore, the 10th Century Djuma Mosque in Shemakha was the oldest mosque in the Caucasus. Its remains have been excavated on the site where a 19th Century mosque has been built. We did not go to see this mosque or any Sufi place in Shemakha. Instead, our guide took us to a cemetery. There, we looked for the influence of religion in cultural traditions by the evidence on the tombs.

Our guide related a strong Azeri tradition: “Azeris can live and work in various parts of Azerbaijanbut when we feel the last day is coming we try to return back and be buried in our native city or village.” This cemetery, on a hill in the outskirt of the town, was called Seven Domes “because the dead from the seven branches of the Shirvanshah dynasty were buried here, including those who were brought from Bakuafter death, as Shemakha was the dynasty’s long-time capital. Each of the seven families had its own separate mausoleum.” Only the dome  (gonbad) of one of those mausoleums was still standing. The ruins of the others testified to the terrible damage caused by repeated earthquakes in Shemakha. There have been five major ones since the early 19th Century. “We have a saying,” our guide said, “When something is totally destroyed we say it is as flat as Shemakha.”

Our guide said that in this cemetery “One grave was used several times; ladies were buried deeper than men.” The closest evidence of this which we found was the one rare legible tombstone writing that had survived. Dated from about 1815, it indicated, in Persian, the deceased’s royal tile (alijah), and signified the importance of family relations by mentioning his birth (valad) from a mother who was the daughter (sabieh) of another person with the royal title.

The guide told us that in Azerbaijanwomen never come to the cemetery on the day the deceased is buried. “The first time they may come for a visit is on the 40th day after death.” She mentioned the days that are commemorated after death and their special ceremonies: “On the first day they bring to the grave-side cheese, bread, and a special funeral halva; on the third day they bring pilaf and the same on the 7th day; then they come every Thursday until the 40th day. On the 40th day the ladies come at noon and men in the evening. After the 40th day, the next day to commemorate is the one-year anniversary.”  She paused and said these were the Sunni traditions in Azerbaijan.  She said “I don’t know much about the Shiites.” However, she added: “I think the Shiites celebrate the 52nd or the 56th day.”

The guide was more voluble about other religions. She noted: “The Christian and Jews commemorate the 40th day, and the Zoroastrians came to the Tower of Silence on the 40th.” She elaborated: “Islam was religion number five in our country. Before that we had Zoroastrianism. Then we had a very long Christian period. Our Christian church was the leader of our war against Islamic domination; when Islam came all our churches turned into fortresses.” Our guide now led us to see the impact of Zoroastrianism in the cemetery. “Look at these designs,” she pointed to a standing pillar . “They are the shape of saffron, sacred to the Zoroastrians. Also here is a picture of a nightingale which to Zoroastrians was the symbol of a happy life. This is the picture of a pigeon which was the symbol of something pure. Also here is the symbol of sun from the pre-Zoroastrian and Zoroastrian periods.” She now directed us to another design in the stones: “the 8-pointed star.” Then she pointed to another design: “This is our cross. Sometimes it looks like flower with three petals, but they are, in fact, flames of fire. This cross with equal sides is the most ancient symbol ofAzerbaijan. One wing is the symbol of water and fire and the other symbol of wind and earth. You can find this cross in our mesolit petroglyphs in Gobustan area.  We call this cross Zora and Zoroastrianism was named after it. And this cross was adopted by Zoroaster for his new religion. The cross would undergo transformation, historically, to positive swastika and negative swastika which were symbols of Ahura Mazda and Ahriman in Zoroastrianism, and also symbols of the sun and moon.  There is nothing from Islam in this cross, only Zoroastrianism and then Christianity from Caucasian Albania which was an area in the north of our country.”  Our guide now explained her knowledge of these things: “I have an academic degree on the subject of ancient symbols inAzerbaijan.”

As we left Shemakha heading north we came to a verdant field. Our guide said this area was called Moghameh, “a very old geographic name after the word mogh (magi) which was the name of the Zoroastrian patriarch.”  Still further north we saw trees to which ribbons were attached. On many of the ribbons there were “ayat (verses) from the Qur’an, some in Arabic and some just in Azeri language.” She said those were holy trees, and the ribbons were meant to convey wishes of the supplicants. “This is a very old tradition inAzerbaijan, a pagan tradition.”

In addition to holy trees, in Azerbaijan there is a group of holy mountains, the guide said as she expounded on yet another tradition: The most ancient holy mountains are called flaming mountains. Some of those are in Bakuand some in the uplands. The second type of holy mountain is “what we call pir, literally meaning holy mountain.”  People climb this mountain and speak to the winds of north, south, west, and east. “Then we have holy rivers and holy springs.” Finally there are graves of holy people. In some holy places people can get treatment for their illnesses. To some holy places you can go everyday and ask for everything; to some only cure for specific types of illness, for example, neurological problems. Some are for ladies wishing pregnancy. Some places are used by men and some by ladies. “Some who use these places this way are Muslims and some are Christians, and some are visited by Jewish people.”

Amidst this talk of folk beliefs, on the other hand, we could see the outline of an observatory on a mountain peak, with one of the biggest telescopes in the world aimed at discovering the mysteries of heaven. It was built by the Soviets in the 1960s and named N. (Nasiraddin) Tusi after the great Muslim astronomer of the 13th Century, a Persian whomAzerbaijan calls Azeri.

Carpet Museum

For a one-stop overview of an important aspect the culture ofAzerbaijanin recent centuries a good place isBaku’sCarpetMuseum. Carpet weaving might well be considered this country’s most representative art form. TheCarpetMuseumboasts a collection of “over 10,000 carpets and carpet products, representing six schools of weavers from different regions ofAzerbaijan,” our guide told us. She enumerated those regions: “Baku, Shirvan, Ganja, Karabakh, Kuba,” adding “Tabrizwhich is now inIran.”

She said that the Museum had “fragments” of ancient carpets made in the first Century, but they were not in the galleries, they were “in storage.”   These were apparently different from the Pazyryk Carpet, dating to 2,500 year ago, which is now in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, believed by many expert to be the oldest carpet ever found. Similarly, none of the three carpets which the guide said were “the originals of the very famous four-season carpets from the Middle Ages,” was on display in this Museum. We were told that one was in the BakuArtsMuseum, another was in the office of the Director in the BakuLiteratureMuseum, and the third was in storage in the CarpetMuseumbut would be displayed when the new building for the Museum was built. These three were also apparently different from the famous Baharestan (Spring) carpet of the Persian Sassanids’ imperial Palace atCtesiphon.

TheCarpetMuseumowes its genesis to the work of one man, Latif Karimov, who dropped out of school inMashed,Iran, at the age of 14 to become a carpet weaver. He came to excel in this craft by traveling extensively throughoutIran. In trouble for his political activism, he leftIranin 1929 for Karabakh where he had been born. There he became a citizen of theSoviet Union. Beginning in 1961, Karimov published three volumes on the more than 1,300 elements in the Azeri carpet patterns. This led to the founding of thisCarpetMuseumin 1967 which was named after him in 1991.

“There have been 260 patterns in all ofAzerbaijan,” our guide said, meaning in both sides of the border withIran. “147 are still in use. They are still producing a lot of carpets inAzerbaijanand every region just makes its own pattern and type of carpet. People from generation to generation preserve their native patterns.”

The Carpet Museum in Baku was now located in a neo-classical colonnaded building left from the Soviet era when it was a branch of Moscow’s Lenin Museum, an institution that had branches in all major capitals of the Republics of the Soviet Union. The building’s portal is still adorned with the symbolic hammer and sickle. Inside, we were not allowed to roam freely. “It is the rule of this museum,” our guide informed us. “We have to walk from one room to the other room together; otherwise, I will be in big trouble. And no pictures are allowed!”

There are about 300 items on display here at a given time, and the displays change every three months, we were told. The Museum has a “small research department.”   There was a gift shop but, alas, they did not have any book or even postcard about the Museum’s collection or its individual carpets.

The carpets we saw belonged to “the eastern group, meaning Azeri, Persian and Turkmen, which are the best in the world,” the guide said. She divided carpets into two major groups: piled and unpiled. “Unpiled is what you call ‘rug ;’ piled is what you call ‘carpet.’” She was referring to the thinner flat weave rug which is woven on a loom, and the knotted carpet which has tufted pile. In her commentary she did not always stay with this differentiation, sometimes using the term “carpet” indiscriminately. Most of the pieces that we saw were, in fact, rugs. Many were for usages different from the main function of the traditional carpet that is floor covering, as literally reflected in its Persian name, farsh. In addition to the common geometric designs, the Azeri rugs which we saw in the Museum showed the influence of the natural environments of the regions they came from.

There were several types of rugs. As an example of the type called kilim, the guide showed us a Shirvan rug. “You can see the traditional patterns, like the square and the 8-pointed star, and the traditional combination of blue and red as the main colors, with some additions like white, green and a little bit yellow.” Close to this was another type of rug called palas “which has vertical or horizontal lines, reminding you of the waves of the Caspian Sea.” Then there was a shedde rug. The guide said “these usually have panels on the sides, and in the center there is a composition which is sometimes a man on the back of the horse with a falcon and hunting dog.” She now pointed to another rug on the wall: “This one has 108 camels, big and small.”

Next we saw two “carpet products.” One was for putting on the back of camels or donkeys, and the other was for decorating the top of the entrance doors. The latter, the guide pointed out “looks like a ribbon.”  Now we came to another type of rug called jijim. “It is woven on a special loom, for a length of between 15 and 30 meters. They are combined to make a fabric for men’s coats or for decorating the tents.”  In the next room we saw a zilli. “Making this is more complicated,” the guide said. “We use two main threads and a third one that goes up and ties the first two. In zilli you see squares. Also there are animals or goods or sometimes flowers. Zilli is woven from wool. But in the Shaki region in 18th and 19th centuries we had silk zilli carpets.” The most ancient patterns are found in the zilli rugs, our guide said. “They used patterns which one finds in petraglyphs of the Gobustan area, and also the immortal bird or phoenix which we call homayun.”

The next type of unpiled rug we saw was sumakh. She showed us one woven in the first half of 19th Century. It had a pattern of a square inside which was a cross. Another piece was a verni from the Karabakh region. “On these you see full swastika or half swastika. These are put in front of the entrance to the room because these decorations could turn away evil eyes, and in the country house you don’t know about the visitors. This was woven very thin, and used especially like a curtain. The negative energy in this design will turn away the evil eye.” The large size rugs which we saw in the following gallery, our guide said, “were also decorative, hung on the walls without windows.”

We now entered in a gallery which had a map ofAzerbaijanon the wall. In red colors, it showed the carpet weaving regions ofAzerbaijan. Our guide said all the carpets in the Museum were identified by the villages where they were woven. “This carpet is from the Kuba region, which is very rich in nature, with forests and valleys. That is why you see patterns which remind you of beautiful flowers and forest. But in some you can see also geometric designs because those were woven in the highlands, over 3000 meters above the sea level, where it is not good for forest and flowers.” Now she called our attention to a flower design and said: “This flower you see in all carpets from the Kuba region. It is a flower which grows only there.”

When we came to carpets from the Bakuschool, she pointed out another “flower.”This is buta, the symbol of life and fertility; it is like the label of Azerbaijan, you can see it in all kinds of carpets in different variations.” It occurred to me that this droplet-shaped paisley (butteh in Persian), sometimes called “Persian pickles,” was a design also ubiquitous  in carpets and other textiles products ofIran. It is a design resulting from combining a stylized floral and a cypress tree. Its use is believed to have originated during the Persian Sassanid Dynasty (200–650 AD). The Sassanids were Zoroastrian, but the design was used extensively during the Safavid Dynasty too.

In theBakucarpets we saw a new combination of colors reflecting, our guide said, the nature of the Absheron peninsula, theCaspian Sea, the colors of sand and shells fromBakuBay. “The Shirvan carpets reflect the region with desert and uplands.” In the carpets from the upland villages we saw the figures of a man with a hunting dog, hunting scenes and camels. The guide showed us a thin flat carpet from Karabakh. “This carpet tells you that in this region nature was really, really rich. There are mines of gold, silver, and tin. There are also virgin forests and flora and fauna.”

In the next room two women were weaving to demonstrate for the visitors like us the technique for making a sumakh rug. They had a special knife which could cut as closely as 4 millimeters. We were told that the sources of pigments used included the skin of walnut, hazelnut, and chestnut. “Those are used to color wool threads. For silk you can use other colors and pigments, for example, pink which you can see just in silk carpets. The salmon color is made from the skin of pomegranate. Some colors are just for namazlyk or prayer rugs.” In the upland carpets we saw a distinct color which came from “carnelian berry.”

When we saw carpets with fish designs, our guide said they were special because “fish carpets were made for the Khans’ palaces in Karabakh,Baku, andTbilisi.” Some carpets had inscriptions, which gave the date when they were woven and for whom.

The guide showed us an example of the pictorial carpets from Karabakh, which were woven in the beginning of the 20th Century. This one depicted the fight between Rustam and Sohrab, a story from the Iranian epic Shahnameh by the 10th Century poet Ferdowsi. “In such carpets you usually see local myths and legends,” she said. There was another carpet here depicting Sattar Khan, a hero of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, who led the successful resistance against the Russian-backed king. This carpet was dated 1321 in Iranian solar calendar, or 1942. There were still two other pictorial carpets, with subjects popular at the time. One was of the “Omar Khayyam Lovers,” referring to the Iranian poet’s theme of seduction of feminine beauty and wine. The other was “a visit to the doctor.” I was struck with the fact that these subjects were all from the south ofAzerbaijan’s border. Indeed, Iranian carpets of the time depict exactly the same pictures.

On the walls of this room there were also many photographs showing women and men “who were from the families of those who made these carpets.” They were in this Museum to show how “the Azeris looked in the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries,” our guide said.  “Ladies made these dresses with their own hands.” They wore head-scarves. “The kind of head-scarf indicated the woman’s age, social class, and whether she was married.” The guide pointed to the picture of a woman: “This young lady soon will be a wife. One older lady washes her hands in the water with attar perfume. Red is the symbol of brides, that is why you see so many red ribbons and the bride’s dress is also red.”  She added “they used the same one room as kitchen, bedroom and living room.”


In the middle of Baku’s OldTownwas the statue of a man with scenes from his literary works carved on his neck and hair. He is Aliagha Vahid who is credited with introducing, in the early 20th Century, the medieval ghazal style of poetry into the Soviet Azerbaijan literature. Ghazal, a form suited for expressing both the beauty of love and the lover’s pain of loss was perfected by the 14th Century Persian poet (Shams al-Din Muhammad) Hafiz. Our guide chose this spot, at Vahid’s pedestal, to tell us about the Azerbaijani Mugham music. This was appropriate, coincidentally, as the lyrics of Hafiz, and the 13th Century Mulana Jalal-e Din (Rumi), are indeed the ones most used in the radifs, the Persian Traditional (sonatti) music which is the foundation of the Azerbaijani Mugham.

“Every year in March when we celebrate our new year, Nowruz,” our guide said, “we have an international competition festival of Mugham music, in which Mugham musicians from central Asiaand North African Arab countries also participate, but usually the first place belongs either to Azerbaijanor Iran.” She described Mugham music as “very complicated,” and divided it into two groups: “classical and rhythmic, depending on whether percussion instruments are used. In the classical Mugham three musical instrument are used: the tar (similar to the lute), the kamancheh (similar to the cello), and the ghaval (similar to the daf). They are all our national instruments.” In what she called “rhythmic music,” such percussion instruments as nagara (drum) are used.

The guide pointed out the improvisational aspect of Mugham. “You have the main tune, the melody, and different people can add a part of their heart and soul. So you have one tune and many, many variations on the same.” Mugham revolves around over 200 short melodies, known as gushehs (fragments), transmitted orally, which performers use in improvisation. These gushehs are grouped variously in dastghas (systems). Our guide enumerated seven of these dastghah as used inAzerbaijan: “Rasht, Shur, Segah, Chahargah, Shushtar, Humayun, Bayat-eShiraz.”

While Mugham could be strictly instrumental, it is usually accompanied by a singer whose role, in fact, is crucial. Often with the ghaval in hand, the vocalist sets the “mood” and chooses the dastgah and even the poems to sing. “The singer gives variations” to the music, a little bit like jazz, our guide said. “Mugham needs a very special type of voice, and requires special vocal techniques; training in it is a very long process. The best Mugham singers ofAzerbaijan are from Karabakh.”  She continued: “At the end of the Soviet time a new kind of Mugham was formed. Now in the West there is an Azeri Mugham singer who is very famous. Her name is Azizah Mustafazadeh. She composes this new type of Mugham. In her concerts she sings music of Mugham composed by her father Vagif, or by herself.”  Azizah’s music has been called a fusion of Mugham and Jazz. She has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide.

Our guide said inAzerbaijan“sometimes Mugham music is accompanied with dances. You see, here all people like to dance and sing.” When we went to hear Mugham music that night inBaku, a belly dancer accompanied the musicians to entertain us.

“Almost all Azeri musicians writing in Western tradition usually add something from Mugham, or Azeri national songs,” our guide said. “The very first Azeri opera, in fact, is called Opera Mugham. Composed in 1908, it was the first opera in the whole Eastern world. Called Leyli and Majnun, it was based on the poem of Mohamed Fizuli who translated it from a poem by the Nizami Ganjavi,” one of the greatest romantic poets in Persian literature.



On the day I toured Gobustan, many students were on a field trip visiting the site. It is the most popular state reserve in the country. The Azerbaijanis, who proudly depict Gobustan petroglyphs on their 5 Manat banknote, find in them the earliest signs of settlements in their land. These nearly 6000 stone-carvings date from as early as 10,000 B.C. The dating is done, our guide said, “by chemical analysis of the traces of copper and iron, by radio nuclear method or by comparing the item with the already dated items in the collection.”

These petroglyphs were discovered accidentally by miners collecting gravel in the 1930s. The locals apparently knew about them before, “but kept them secret,” according to our guide, “and there had been legends related to them.”  Organized work on the site did not begin until 1960, “under the leadership of our archeologist, Ishaq Jafarzadeh.”

Prehistoric petroglyphs have been found in many places in the world. Our guide thought, however, that Gobustan’s were special in being easy to access, and in the “different ways” people were shown “in action.” She said “that is why the stories I will tell you today about their lives are not my fantasy.”

Gobustan is close to the shores of the Caspian. The level of the sea was more than 150 feet higher around 10,000 years ago and the land near it was full of vegetation, making it natural for settlement by hunter-gatherers who could fish here as well. In what is today a semi-desert we could see huge blocks of boulders pressing against each other, just a short walk away from the water. They had produced over a dozen of caves as shelters for the ancient settlers, who later added a few they dug themselves.

We followed our guide on the path through the caves which were mostly shallow and open; in some, canopies had served as natural cover.  Soon we met the caves’ long-dead inhabitants in their carvings. The men were depicted thin. Some were lone figures, some in groups of as many as more than seventy. Some were armed with lances in their hands, some with bows and arrows. Some were oarsmen. One had what the guide saw as hair, “very rare in petroglyphs anywhere.”  In some men were with women.

When we came to the carvings of a group of humans, the guide said “this is the biggest find in Gobustan.” She pointed out that there were a man and a woman “because the woman has a big chest, and later you will see some big chests and big legs in other depictions of women.” Additionally, she said: “Between the man and woman you can see a boy, and from this side a girl who is holding the hands of two children, two girls. Those last figures are mostly on the back of this rock. That is why the name of this big carving is Three Generations: a grandfather and a grandmother, their own children, and their daughter’s own two girls.” In another picture both men and women were armed with bows and arrows. Then there was a group of dancers with a “magic man.” Our guide said this was a ritual dance before hunting. “From the position of the men we can say this was the time of prayer to ensure the success of the hunt.” She said “both men and woman are dancing.” They used an ancient percussion instrument, called gavaldash, she said, which was a volcanic stone with a chamber and a metallic sound, “unique to this area because of its climate.” There were many of those stones here. Several were set on a rock. When I banged them with a small stone they made a tambourine-like sound.  According to our guide, “that ancient dance was similar to the yalli which is one of our folk dances today.”

Our guide dated most of these pictures of humans to the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., “but the latest research indicates that there are some from two or three centuries earlier.” She continued: “From the fragments of bones  found here we also know what kind of animals lived here.” We saw many petroglyphs of buffalos. Some were easy to recognize, others had to be carefully traced from the horn to the tail and then legs. Our guide dated one to between 5000 and 6000 B.C., but she said there were some from 8000 B.C. She showed us the petroglyphs of what she said was an ancient seal from the Caspian Sea which was 4 meters long, “its natural size.” Another figure, she said, was “a lion, from 8,000 B.C. ” There was still another animal figure which looked like a donkey. The guide said that was now extinct here but it had been used in cross breeding to produce the Karabakh horse, which is today the national animal ofAzerbaijan.

There were some petroglyphs I could not recognize as familiar objects. We had to rely on the guide’s explanations and stretch our own imagination to understand what they were. She called a figure the picture of “a pregnant woman.” This was in a shallow area which she called “the maternity hospital. This place was not windy and so it was very comfortable.”  She pointed at another figure on the rock here: “That is the patroness of pregnant women and babies and also a symbol of motherland.” With my untrained eye, I could see only what looked more like some white thin bird. The guide showed us some broken lines carved above three human figures. To her this could have been the evidence for the existence of a mathematical system. “We have a theory that maybe they had 10 numbers because of the 10 fingers and 10 organs. See here two lines point to two eyes, four to four eyes here, and six to the eyes of three people.”

The guide did not stop at this level of abstraction. She imagined that these pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers had “a notion of God.”  This was, of course, against the widely held assumptions about the hunter-gatherers since an agricultural economy is said to be needed for requiring an orderly system which is thought to be the prerequisite for the conception of God. Our guide pointed to what she said was a small carving that “united the feet of a man and a woman every time they are carved near each other. We think that is the idea of God.” It occurred to me that a person demanding scientific evidence would find it hard to imagine things he could not actually see. On the other hand, without imagination, much of this collection of carvings would be almost a jumble of doodling.

The guide, however, now took us to another conundrum. She was making sense of some of these carvings through her own experience. Could we reasonably assume that the stone-age people might have felt the same way as we would about social relationship? The guide was commenting on a hole in yet another cave here. “See the two men standing on the left and right of the hole? Ladies were asked to cross over the hole. If they were very fat they could not and, on account of  that failure, could not get married. Now on the back of this rock which you could not see, but we have a picture of it, are the petroglyphs of a small-size man and a big-size woman. They are running.  Maybe they had to leave the tribe. But at the entrance to a room they are leaving is a stone with a hole in the middle. That is the symbol of immortal life. After departure from there our soul will live in another world. And for a lady to get married is to go to an unknown country.” The guide finished by saying: “The tradition continues to date. Today all the ladies in the towns near Gobustan who want to get married have the same kind of worship to get the positive energy of the cosmos in new marriage.” She trailed off and I could not get a clearer exposition of her views.

We had come to a small round area dug in the ground which the guide said was for making a fire. “Around 2,000 B.C. the climate changed, and it became cold.  People used this to make a fire with coal for heat. It also served them for cooking. They barbequed, boiled water, made soup and also something that was very similar to our yogurt, almost made the same way: milk mixed with something from the stomach of sheep which turns the milk into yogurt or cultured cheese.”

The change in the climate was rapid and dramatic. Graves dating to 2,000 B.C. have been found in Gobustan, “and some skeletons have survived nicely because the green land and trees quickly turned into desert.”


Did any of those pre-historic people survive? A Norwegian ethnologist, Thor Heyerdahl, has argued that they became the forefathers of his country’s Scandic people. This theory owes it origin to the petroglyph of a spindly flat bottom reed boat we could see in Gobustan. Our guide said: “In this picture the ship is not so big, but you can find the natural size which is 2.5 meters in petroglyphs elsewhere in Gobustan.” According to her, in 1981 archeologists fromAzerbaijanshowed the petroglyphs of this boat at an international conference on ancient civilizations. Heyerdahl then compared it with the picture of another boat from Norway and found that “it was very difficult to say which one was from Gobustan and which fromNorway. So he came to Gobustan in 1982 and studied its boat petroglyph and concluded that “the Norwegians came from Gobustan.” These boats were “folding boats and could be carried in parts of the trips that were on land,” our guide said. Heyerdahl’s conclusion was supported by his analysis of “our common legends, events, names of gods (Thor, and Odin which we pronounce Odon), and name of ancestor Aser which we pronounced Azer.”

Our guide acknowledged that “most people in the academic fields are skeptical about this theory, calling it just a fantasy of Thor.”  Heyerdahl, however, persisted. “He organized expeditions. He led the first expedition that came from Norwaythrough Swedento Azof Sea in Russia, an area where, according to our researchers, Norwegians in the 7th Century had come and lived for 200 years.” I noted that this was different from the trip by the Swedes (Vikings) to the Caspian Sea area around 864 where they stayed until 1040, an event that is substantiated by descriptions of them recorded by the traveling 10th Century Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlan.

Our guide continued with her story: “Heyerdahl died, however, before the second expedition he had planned, which successfully ended here in Gobustan by the way of Don and VolgaRiversto the Caspian Sea. After that Norwaystayed especially interested in Azerbaijan, participated in our oil industry projects, and contributed the funds for the restoration of our 4th Century Church inKish in the north.”

We saw the petroglyph of another type of boat in Gobustan, above the picture of a buffalo. Our guide said that boat carving was done much later by the Arabs who occupied this area in the 7th Century. In fact there was ample evidence of their presence at that time in other carvings of Arabic inscriptions and pictures of horses, chariots, and warriors holding lances [119].

We also saw some rock inscriptions in Latin left by the Romans in the first Century A.D., only two kilometers from the pre-historic petroglyphs, at the foot of the BoyukDashMountain. As they read, this was done for Julius Maximus, a centurion of the 12th Legion, probably on a reconnaissance mission during the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96).   This was the easternmost evidence of theRoman Empire’s penetration in its challenge to thePersian Empire’s domination of this area. According to our guide, “the Legion came here four times and on the fourth trip all the legionnaires were killed. They came here through south ofPersia which at that time was calledParthia.”


Today much of the land around Gobustan is desert or semi desert, much devoid of life. The vast administrative district in which Gobustan is located that extends north some 1,400 square miles has a population density of only 27 persons per mile. The dusty forgotten past lives in the closest contemporary hamlet, with the same name, Gobustan, which looks more like a ghost town . The hamlet’s desolation is attributed to “the Soviet time.” However, the detritus in this whole strategic area, bound by the town ofMarza(meaning border) at the northen end, tell much more aboutAzerbaijan’s longer past history. Particularly, the ruins of old forts on the hills of this rising plateau in centralAzerbaijanspeak of battles that were raged over many centuries

Semi-official Azeri publications say that the “ancestors of Azerbaijanis” formed their first government, the MannaKingdom, in the 9th Century B.C.  Judging by the names of their early rulers, such as Udaki and Aza, the Mannean were an Iranian people. Two centuries later, Manna was absorbed into the Iranian Median Empire, which in turn, in the 7th Century B.C.  was incorporated into the Persian Empire. This area remained a part of Iran, despite challenges by the Roman Empire and Byzantium. The Arabs conquered all of Iran in the 7th Century. Thereafter,  the  territory that is nowAzerbaijan was frequently invaded from the north by various tribes (Hunns, Savires, Khazars, Bulgars, Onogurs), some of whom stayed and mixed with the local population.

The hilly region of Marza served its function as a protecting border, however, for the Bakuregion. As our guide put it: “Most of the Middle Age conquistadors, like Chengiz Khan, his elder son, and Tamerlane tried to conquer Bakubut they were not successful. That is why we count just on the fingers how many times Bakuwas conquered.” For this our guide partly credited Azerbaijan’s “Mountain Jews.” According to her, these Jewish people came here from Iranin the 3rd Century: “The situation was not good and they had to run; they were like refugees.” The local rulers allowed them “to settle in those wild places, canyons, but with the condition that they had to protect the area against the nomadic tribes.” She pointed to some canyons to the west of the road we were driving on. The Mountain Jews’ settlement here is called Lahij, “probably after theterritory ofLahijan,Iran, from which they might have come.”

Our guide continued with this history of the Mountain Jews: “Later, they discovered a big deposit of iron, copper and tin here and in the Ismayilli region further north, and they began to process them.  In the 18th Century they produced weapons.  When Napoleon the First invadedRussia, the Russians did not have good quality guns. They got them fromGermany but   that was very expensive. And the same people from Lahij now sold their weapons to Russia.” She said “Some of those Jewish people eventually moved to the Ismayilli region and converted to Islam. So we have Mountain Jews and Jewish Muslims, but both speak the same language which is the language ofPersia in the beginning of the A.D.”

Meanwhile, southern Azerbaijanhad become the stage for the struggle against the Arabs. Babak Khorramdin, born in today’s Iranian Azarbaijan, a man who started as a shepherd, camel driver, and apprentice to a craftsman in Tabriz, joined a resistance group known as the Hurramites and starting from 816 led it in an uprising against the Arab rulers of the land. This movement spread west and north and lasted until 838. Azeris now claim “Babek” as  their national hero whose fight for independence  was “one of the bright pages… in Azerbaijanhistory. ” His movement “defeated seven armies … sent against them.” In the Azeris’ narrative, even after Babek’s defeat, the anti-Caliphate separatism continued in Azerbaijanand produced new kingdoms, of which the Kingdom (Khanate) of Shirvanshahs was the most enduring. It was the only one that could defend its independence against the invading armies of the Saljukid Empire of Iranin the 11th Century. It remained a separate entity even when the Ildenizids (Atabegs) replaced the Saljukids, albeit as a vassal of these new rulers. The Shirvanshahs retained their relative independence even through the invasion of the Mongols and Tamerlane in the next two centuries, succumbing finally to the Safavid dynasty of Iran at the dawn of the 16th Century.

The decline of the Shiite Safavids by the 18th Century allowed the Sunni Khanates in the north of Azerbaijan to challenge their rule. The expansion of the Russian Empire southward, from the middle of the 18th Century provided these  Khanates  with an opportunity for support from a patron which they seized but, eventually, at their own peril. Two prominent such Khanates were Gabala and Shaki, centered in  towns which I was visiting now.

I was hoping to find clues for an answer to two questions aboutAzerbaijansince that pivotal time in its history. Had these exemplary places become more “modern” in the two centuries under the Russians, and how wasAzerbaijantreating the legacy of its prior long relations withIranin this rather unique area? In the brief time that I would spend here, I had commensurately modest expectations. I can only offer impressions resulting from my limited observations and contacts.


Gabala did not look that different from other towns we saw outside ofBaku. Its half-paved main street was shared by cows and cars, almost in equal numbers. The shops in the one-story buildings that lined up the street sold basic provisions of a simple life . The ubiquitous out-size picture of Heydar Aliyev was posted on a wall in the center of town. Here also stood, however, a statue in a small square on the side of the road. It was that of a bearded man sitting with the palm of his left hand open and up as though he was acknowledging an adoring audience.

A sign under the statue identified him as Ismayil Bay Qutqasinli (1806-1869). He is honored as a founder of realistic prose but he is also known as an Azerbaijani general in the Tsarist Russian army. He was the son of Nasib Nesrullah Sultan, a noble man who was the last Sultan of Gabala. WhenIsmayilBaywas a small boy the Russians took him toSt. Petersburg“as a hostage,” it is said, “so that his family would obey the Russian government.” He served in the Russian army for 30 years.

“The last Gabala Sultan, Nasib Nesrullah, was my ancestor,” our guide said . “Sultan was the title given to religious leaders from the area, while Khan was the civil ruler. My great grandfather, however, was both the civil and religious leader.” She continued: “At the time of the war between Russiaand Persiain the early 19th Century, some Sultanates chose the Russian side.”  Gabala was one. “The Sultan of Gabala preferred to be withRussia and the Russians at first did not destroy this Sultanate, but later they totally occupied this territory.” She said “the Russians did not keep their promise to Nasib Nesrullah and after two years they abandoned him.”

During the Soviet rule, our guide added, “most of my relatives were sent toSiberia.” Some of the guide’s relatives, however, still lived “on that side-street,” she said, as we passed through town. There is also a Memorial House-Museum of Ismayil Bey Gutgashinli (Qutqasinli) on that street. Our guide said the museum has pictures of her family members including herself. She then explained that the Sultan was related to her father. Her mother was a Qajar, the dynasty that ruledIranduring the last Gabala Sultans. I said I thought that was an interesting combination. She said “Yes, that is why we have had a continuous argument between the two parts of my family.”

The presence of Russian power is still felt in Gabala. The Gabala radar station which we could see in the distance was one of the most important elements in theSoviet Union’s missile defense system. The Russians continue to use it under a lease from independentAzerbaijan, and aim to complete the construction of a new radar station here, Voronezh-VP, in 2019.


The Sultan of Gabala was in fact a nayeb (deputy) of the Khan of Shaki. He was a local ruler of the Gabala province which was a part of the Shaki Khanate. Far more than the Sultan, Shaki’s Chalabi Khan is remembered inAzerbaijan as a symbol of resistance to Iranian domination.

Born in 1703, Haji Chalabi could trace his ancestry to Darvish Khan, who in 1551 led a revolt against the Iranian Safavid Shah, Tahmasp I. In the 1740s, Chalabi became a leader in the rebellion against Nader Shah Afshar, who had succeeded the Safavids in Iran. Chalabi declared his independence by establishing the Shaki Khanate in 1743. When Nader Shah came attacking Shaki, Chalabi took refuge in a fortress outside of town. When the Shah demanded his surrender, Chalabi dared him by this message: come and see (gelersen gorersen in Azeri)! The outraged Shah ordered that Shaki be destroyed. Chalabi himself, however, survived and in the temporary chaos inIran that followed the death of Nader Shah, Chalabi took revenge by going south as far as the middle of Iran’s Azarbaijan. He died in 1755, allegedly in a plot by other local Khans.

Chalabi’s fortress, later proudly renamed Gelersen Gorersen, is now in ruins. The monument that remains of the Shaki Khanate is theShakiKhansPalacewhich was built by Chalabi’s grandson Mahammadhuseyn Khan in 1761-1762 as a part of his summer palace in thevillageofNukha, some four miles from Shaki. When Shaki was destroyed again in the flood and mudslide of 1772, Nukha became the capital of the Khanate. (In 1968 it was renamed Shaki.)

The Shaki Khanate continued through four successors of Mahammadhuseyn. These Khans, however, increasingly came to depend on Russian military assistance againstIranas the Qajar Shahs consolidated their power as successors to Nader Shah. In 1805, Shaki Khan Salim made the Shaki Khanate a Russian vassal state by a treaty. The Russo-Persian Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 recognized this fact. In 1819Russiaofficially abolished the Shaki Khanate, making the territory a Russian province, under Russian military administration.

Khans Palace. After 1805, the Russians “extended the walls of the Khans Palace compound where they now stayed because they were afraid of the population,” our guide said. She showed us three buildings which were the “dormitories for Russian officers and soldiers.” She said “The Khans were kept by the Russians so as to be responsible for everyday life.” The Russians eventually took over the Palace and built “a kitchen, bathroom and toilet” in it. So the Palace is “part from the 18th Century and part from the 19th Century.” It  was “restored” between 1952 and 1967. It is now one of the major tourist attractions inAzerbaijan.

The Palace has a garden with an impressively tall, 1,150 meters, chinar (plain) tree,  planted six centuries ago. The Palace itself is surprisingly modest in size. It is a two-story masonry structure, each floor only one-room deep, and both floors the same with three rectangular chambers, separated by a narrow corridor, and two iwans facing the garden. What is impressive about the building is how it is decorated. The exterior is done with tiles of ochre, turquoise, and dark blue in geometric patterns which surround stained-glass windows enclosed within an intricate wooden latticework, called shabaka, which were assembled without nails or glue. This elaborate presentation is only the introduction to the colorful frescoes that literally cover the whole surface of the interior walls and ceilings.

The second floor is especially dense with frescoes. It is also noteworthy because the artists have left their signatures in its main room. Three identify themselves from the town of Shusha, two from Shemakha. The one who is perhaps the most important is Abbas Kuli, believed to also have been the architect. The subjects of the murals we saw were of two types. In the main room, mixed with the traditional decorative geometric designs and paisley shapes, there are many flowers, several shown in pots. These were probably inspired by the poems of famous poets, especially Nizami Ganjavi, in line with Mahammadhuseyn Khan’s special fondness for poetry. The Khan himself wrote poems, under the pseudonym Mushtaq. Hence, this palace has also been called the Palace of Mushtaq.


The second type of murals, in the smaller room of the floor, was of scenes of hunting with real and mythical animals. Here beasts were depicted ripping smaller animals apart. Next to these tableaus were the scenes of the heroic battles of the Shaki Khans, with guns, swords and severed heads aplenty. Our guide could see the legendary Chalabi Khan in those scenes. She imagined much more in the symbols: “These symbolic frescoes are about the Khanate’s relationship withIran. You see, in one panel the Khan is a dragon andIranis a woman. Then in another panel,Iranis a lion who wants to eat that deer. But the Khan turns into a lion. So in the next panel, the Khan is a lion andIranis a goat -goat is a very bad word. But then the Khan becomes the dragon with a flower in his mouth, which is the sign of peace. This means that the Khan is saying toIranwho is now the lion, you have to share the world with me.” I wondered how much the guide’s interpretation of these symbols reflected the common view inAzerbaijantoday. I asked her if there was a source I could use on the subject.   She said no. We were not allowed to take pictures of the frescoes.  Later, however, I found the pictures of some of them at the following website:,0.00,70.0>

On the grounds of the Palace compound there was an old church which was now used as a museum for artifacts of the Khanate period. There was a metal sinaband (chest shield), but most of the other items were not for martial use. There were the main instruments of the mugham music, the tar, kamancheh and negara in one display, while another case displayed more Azeri musical instruments, including a daf and two wind instruments. On a table there was a variety of samovars and on another yet some more, including a “qahva (coffee) samovar.” An assortment of copper pots and pans and water pitchers  occupied still another corner of the “Shaki History Museum.”

Now and then. It was not difficult to imagine that much of these implements were still being used in the homes  of today’s Shaki, a town with the population of some 63,000. The roofs of most houses were still in red tiles , as “the Khan ordered them to be,” our guide said. At 6:30 in the morning the call to prayer from the mosque woke me up -this was a Sunni azan as it did not mention the Shiite Imams. It was from the Djuma (Community) Mosque in the center of town which boasts a 40 meters high minaret ; but this call to prayer was broadcast over electric loudspeakers. There was a similar mélange of the modern and traditional as the television satellite dishes  competed with laundry lines which were strung like banners across streets, ingeniously attached to telephone poles. The chaotic use of various styles of architecture and building materials -bricks, stones and columns of plaster- had not been stopped by any planning authority. An enterprising marketing person had posted on a store the picture of the President of the country using the cell phone of the type sold there. Shaki now even had a college devoted to teaching music where “students learn European style singing,” our guide said.

The imposing statue in the main squareof Shakiis that of Mirza Fatali Axundov. It is here because Axundov was a native son. He is honored “because he introduced Latin script for Azeri,” our guide said. But Axundov (1812-1878) is much more than that. He became famous as a playwright. The Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater was named after him in the 1920s; he was called a “dramatic genius” and “the Azerbaijani Moliere.”  A philosopher and social critic, Axundov is also considered to be the founding father of “the materialism and atheism movement” in Azerbaijan. If that juxtaposes him with Shaki Khans whose Mosque is directly down the street from his statue, Axundov stands even more in contrast with the anti-Iranian legacy of the Shaki Khanate now promoted in their Palace, just a bit further down on the street. For Axundov is also an important figure in Iranian history, profoundly influencing its mid-nineteenth Century intellectuals. He was the son of an Iranian-Azarbaijani family, Akhundzadeh ( Persian for decedents of  clergy). He wrote his lyrical poetry in Persian. He showed no sign of conflict of a split-personality: he integrated the broader Iranian identity with Azerbaijani. Pointedly, he employed the term vatan (fatherland) in reference to both.

In Axundov’s time Shaki was still an important crossroads of trade in the region. It boasted five big caravanserais built in the 18th and 19th Centuries, each named after the hometown of the merchants who stayed there, or for their ethnic group:Isfahan,Tabriz, Ermeni (for Armenians), Lezgi, and Taze (New). Only one – the biggest which later came to be called theUpper Caravanserai– has survived. It is now a three-star hotel after renovation that began in 1943. It consists of a two-story structure of river stones  and bricks  surrounding an open atrium which was the stable for the merchants’ camels and horses and has been turned into a dinning garden for guests.

Shaki has become something of a tourist attraction in Azerbaijan. Its natural setting is a major reason. This is a green area of rolling hills at the foot of the majestic, snow-covered peaks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The forests nearby have been a favorite of such famous hunters as the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev. In addition to the Caravanserai, a four-star hotel has recently opened in Shaki. On the day I was there it hosted not only a group of American tourists but also a few dignitaries from Central Asiawho had come from Bakuwhere they had celebrated the 20th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence. Two bulky men from among them rode down the elevator with us. As they disappeared in the lobby, my American friend asked in a conspiratorial whisper if they were “terrorists fromChechnya, across the mountain.” If global traffic continues in Shaki, it is not always perceived as good or benign.

Church in Kish

The  “V-VI centuries “ building which houses the History Museum in Shaki“used to be an Albanian church,” our guide said. “When the Russians came in 1806 they modified the existing structure with its round basilica for their own use, putting the entrance on the opposite side per Russian Orthodox tradition. In 1836 the Russians abolished our independent Albanian church altogether.”

We were later told that the Albanian patriarchate was subordinated to the “Armenian Grigorian (sic)church, and with the permission of the Russian Synod, the archives of the Albanian church were annihilated by the Armenian church, completely eliminating all traces of Albanian literature. This was on a sign posted in the church in Kish where we went to learn more about the history of the Albanian church.  The village of Kish is near the ruins of the old town of Shaki. The Kish Church’s round-towered structure has survived the mudslide that destroyed that town. A sign at the building dates the Church back to the I-V Century. It has been renovated more recently, but other signs also imply that in the 19th Century, repair and renovation by Armenians settled in Azerbaijan by the Russians introduced into it architectural elements uncharacteristic for the Albanian architecture, in order for their “Armenization.”

Azerbaijanwith its largely Muslim population would like to project itself as a ‘”secular” country, but it has made the Kishchurch a major locus of its narrative as an old Christian nation, indeed giving birth to Christian Armenia. It maintains that the Kish church was the most ancient Christian community in the Caucasus. As our guide said the church started its “activity in 313 A.D. when Caucasian Albania became officially a Christian country.” That was when “our Albanian Tsar became Christian. And from that date we count the history of Christianity as our official religion, to the 8th Century when Islam replaced it.” In that period of five centuries,  “half of the population ofAzerbaijan was Christian, while the other half remained Zoroastrian. “

Even after Islam came, she said, in most of the northwest, especially in Karabakh, Christianity survived until the 13th Century. This was despite the fact that because the Christians were very active in resisting the invading Muslim Arabs, “those invaders destroyed our churches first.” According to her: “The situation in the Karabakh region began to change this way. In the 11th and 12th Centuries, the Armenian Church Patriarch Gregory separated from the Albanian Patriarchate; that is why Armenians are called Gregorian. Consequently, the Albanians who lived in the Karabakh region changed to Gregorian. This is what we call the Armenization of the population of Karabakh. Similarly, some Armenians who today live inArmenia are Albanians who changed their church in the Middle Ages.” Albanian Christians, however, remained in the Shaki and Gabala regions.  Even today there are “8,000″ people who practice this faith inAzerbaijan. “Also there are some in the Khomsi, one of the provinces ofArmenia.” Around the Church inKish we ran into several women who, the guide identified as followers of theAlbanianChurch.

Our guide described the Albanian church as “a Christian Orthodox Church, like the Churches of Ethiopia and Syria.” She said it is called anApostolicChurch because it was brought here by Apostles Saint Bartholomew and Saint Jude Thaddeus.  They came toAzerbaijan in the first Century A.D.  Between the first and the fourth Centuries we had Christian practices but Christianity was not yet the official religion.”

Caucasian Albania

According to our guide, “toward the end of the 4th Century the Albanian alphabet was invented” in the Kish Church and “the holy books, including the Bible, were translated into the Albanian language.” She said some graves near the church in the Khans Palace in today’s Shaki, left untouched by the Russians, have this Albanian script writing on them.  She added that the Armenian script was made in the 5th Century by Mesrop Mashtots “who came toKish and sitting in thisKishChurch began to translate the holy books from Albanian to the Armenian language.” She maintained that the Armenian alphabet is basically the same as the Albanian alphabet, with only several different letters. “That is why today Armenians can read our Albanian manuscripts but they don’t understand anything because they don’t know the Albanian language, which is quite different from Armenian.”

The guide said the Albanian language “belongs to the Caucasus Iberian languages like the modern Georgian language.” She said the closest to Albanian is the language of the Lezgis, “a Caucasian nationality,” who now live mostly over the mountains, inDagestan. “Our own small Lezgi population is concentrated in this area, the northwest ofAzerbaijan. There are three other smaller nationalities who speak a language close to the Albanian, one of them with about 800 people, but none of these could read or write Albanian.”  In the current language ofAzerbaijan, our guide continued, “We have Albanian, Arabic and Persian words, but our language is really Turkic; for the structure of language we belong to the Oguz group, which included the Ottomans and the Seljuks. The Oguz were a part of the ‘Western’ Turkish tribes.”

To learn more about the Albanians, since 1998 archeologists have been excavating near the KishAlbanianChurch. Just outside the Church I could peer through the glass cover into the excavated walls and foundations of a “temple,” dated to “2-1” Century B.C.” Among the oldest discoveries reported are the ceramics, identified as belonging to what is commonly referred to as the Kur-Araz culture of about 3000 B.C. The Kish Church itself has been turned into a museum. Among its artifacts I saw “vessels” from a Shaki “necropolis,” dated to the late 2nd and early 1st Millennium B.C. The sign did not identify it as Albanian. There was a “copy” of “a stone with Albanian epigraphy” discovered elsewhere, in Mingachevir. This epigraphy looked more like spots than inscription.

The Museum, however, had a large sign describing Caucasian Albania based on other sources:

“Numerous settlements … discovered by archeologists are evidence of animated life, developed economy and culture of … Azerbaijan. According to cuneiform inscriptions of King Sardur … during … 7th century B.C. … in Azerbaijan there were upwards of one hundred large populated localities and fortresses. Ancient authors Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy focus on the great quantity of towns in Caucasian Albania to mention … Kabala. Excavations made in Kabala … helped identify remains of fortifications, public and dwelling houses. … [In] 4 century B.C. 3 century A.D. [,] Classical period…. Constructed were town-fortresses … [in] Kabala … Bailakan.”

Next to another sign in the Museum on “The Art of Caucasian Albania,” there was a collection of pottery from Bailakan, Shaki, and other places in an exhibit cabinet. They were dated to 3rd and 2nd Centuries B.C., but not specifically attributed to the Caucasian Albania.

Our guide said the Greeks gave Caucasian Albania its name, “because the local people here had white skin, and were tall, blonde, with blue, green, or light-brown eyes.”  She added: “modern Azeris are basically Caucasian with Turkic and Persian elements.” Caucasian Albania thus plays a significant role in the Azeris’ conception of themselves as distinct from their neighbors. It is also one more link to connect toEurope.  Outside theKishchurch was a bust of Thor Heyerdahl with a quote from him on a plate below it. The Norwegian ethnographer was here to say that “Scandinavian mythology describes a God called Odin that came to northernEuropefrom a place called Azer. I have studied these writings and concluded that it is not mythology, it is real history and geography.”

Our guide said that there were “29 cities” in Caucasian Albania. In addition to Shaki, we had a chance to see Balaken (Bailakan). There was no evidence of Caucasian Albania in sight. Today, Balaken was a small town at the border of Georgia through which trucks fromTurkeyenteredAzerbaijanand, hence, stores catered especially to Turkish visitors. A statement from President Ilham Aliyev was proudly posted on the outside wall of one such store. People lined up at the ATM machine to get their periodic pension check, this being the end of the month, our guide explained. The Azerbaijani currency not being accepted outside the country, we spent our last Manats to buy some sweets from a grocery store  before we drove toGeorgia.

I carried with me the thought thatAzerbaijanwas also on the move. Its leaders were determined to join the community of nations to the west. Yearning acceptance byEuropeand theUnited States, they disassociated from their region by emphasizing secularism at the expense of Islam. Their eagerness to align with the West was only restricted by the pragmatic circumspection toward the region’s great power,Russia. Barely twenty years old,Azerbaijanwas still a developing nation-state. Because its immediate past was barren, for a proud national narrative reaching over to the ancient times became an attractive program. That hazy distant past could be deconstructed in building venerable myths for a new nation. Thus, its existence could be dated from the Gobustan petroglyphs, its religious customs rooted in Zoroastrianism, and its race traced to the Caucasian Albanians.

In the process what might appear to others as inconvenient truths could be ignored. Thus, Shaki Khans and Shirvanshahs who might otherwise be known as vassals of foreign powers would becomeAzerbaijan’s national heroes. This transfiguration is applied across the cultural board. Literature, music and the defining art of carpet weaving are projected as indigenous in origin. Folk traditions, widespread in the surrounding Islamic region, are treated as distinct.  In this whole enterprise, however, it occurred to me,Azerbaijanwas not much different from the way other countries went about their nation-building. Alas, in my brief visit I could only steal glances at the ordinary citizens. Yet that was enough to notice the gap between the reality of their life and the dreams of the elite. Fueled by the revenues from oil and gas, those dreams hope to eliminate that chasm. Whether they succeed is the story for the future.


This article, entitled “Constructing a Nation-State: Journey to the Republic of Azerbaijan”, was published on the following website of on June 7, 2012, with related pictures: