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The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.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