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Volume 51, Number 1January/February 2000

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Roots Deeper Than Oil

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Kevin Bubriski

The noisy crowd who come looking for oil, find it, get rich and leave again are not the real people of Baku.

—from Ali and Nino

In 1971, an epic love story set on the shores of the Caspian Sea appeared on American bestseller lists, seemingly out of nowhere. Authored in 1937 by Kurban Said, a pseudonymous Azerbaijani exile writing in German in Vienna, Ali and Nino is the semi-fictional story of a Muslim man and a Christian woman in turn-of-the-century Baku, capital of the short-lived first Azerbaijani republic, torn by the forces of both Bolshevism and nationalism. Then as now, it was a setting with a rich and complex ethnic background, a place whose economic fortunes rose and fell with oil, and a territory which has long been viewed as a prize by neighboring countries.

Rereading that book today—it was reprinted last year by Overlook Press—alongside news reports from the Caspian region teaches a good lesson: Too much concentration on energy reserves and hypothetical pipeline routes can lead one to the impression that petroleum-based riches trump a nation's cultural treasures—but in Azerbaijan, the opposite is true.

Like many parts of Central Asia, Azerbaijan is a dense palimpsest of the cultures of invading and migrating peoples—a fact that the Gobustan petroglyphs, south of Baku, demonstrate dramatically. The drawings are approximately 10,000 years old, and they are among the world's most impressive prehistoric records. They include a Roman graffito: "Livius Julius Maximus, centurion of the XII Legion, came with the speed of heaven." And from that same rock, one can stand and look out toward derelict, Soviet-era drilling platforms rising hodgepodge from the Caspian shore.

To the ancient Babylonians, the Caucasus Range, whose highest peaks top 4750 meters (15,580'), was part of a great mountain chain that separated the world into lands of light and lands of dark. Bernd Geiger, a contemporary scholar of the region, calls the Caucasus "unique as both a divide and a refuge," hindering invaders such as Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Turks and Slavs and sheltering such minorities as Talysh, Tats, Lesghis, Avars and Kurds. So effective were those refuges that the princely 14th-century historian Abu al-Fida called the Caucasus region jabal al-alsun, "The Mountain of Tongues," for there he counted more than 300 languages.

Today the southeastern portion of the Caucasus region is the Azerbaijani Republic, whose official language is Azeri, a Turkic language that in the 20th century alone has been written variously in the Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. It is related to Anatolian Turkish, the language of modern Turkey, but the Azeri vocabulary is heavier with loan words from Arabic and Persian, and includes Russian loan words unknown to Turkish. Besides Azeri, however, some 20 percent of Azerbaijan's population speaks other languages, among them Indo-European, Turkic and Caucasian tongues.

Historically, the name "Azerbaijan" leads to some confusion about just what geographical territory is referred to. "Greater Azerbaijan," as defined by the reach of the Azeri language, covers both the modern state of some seven million people, called the Azerbaijani Republic, and a two-province chunk of Azeri-speaking northwestern Iran that is roughly equally populous. This division between northern and southern territories dates from 1922, when the Soviet Union reasserted control over the region's oil resources by crushing nationalist movements and absorbing Azerbaijan south to the Araks River, the classical Araxes, which defines today's border between Azerbaijan and Iran. In 1990, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic rose up against the USSR, then endured a bloody war with Armenia over the Karabakh region, and became independent in 1991. Azerbaijanis today often refer to the Azerbaijani Republic as "north Azerbaijan" and the Azeri-speaking Iranian provinces as "south Azerbaijan."

Baku's cultural wealth is quickly apparent in the city's circles of artists, writers and scholars. One social evening included a poet, a translator of the Qur'an and a professor of linguistics, and was hosted by Mazahir and Lala Avshar, a ceramist and embroidery artist respectively. They welcomed their visitors by burning sprigs of yuvshan, a pasture grass from the Central Asian steppe that fueled the migrations of the Oghuz Turk people, and that today is a symbol of Turkic identity. "What was good for our horses is good for us," explains Mazahir.

After voicing concerns that a new oil boom that would usher in an era of Western-oriented oil wealth might smother some of their country's local arts, Mazahir asks each guest to tell a story about their favorite Azerbaijani hero. As his guests nibble from a seven-sectioned platter of nuts and dried fruit—another Turkic symbol—he leads off with the tale of Hajji Zeynal Abdin Taghiyev, the son of a cobbler who became an oil baron and 19th-century Baku's leading philanthropist, one who is said to have never forgotten his humble roots.

"Once there was a terrible food shortage," recounts Mazahir. "Prices were going higher and higher. So Taghiyev took action. He took a fish from Baku harbor, forced his gold ring down its throat, and threw it back into the water. With that, of course, every fisherman in the city tried to catch the golden fish, and each fish whose stomach did not contain the ring was taken to market, where prices again started to drop." Today, Taghiyev is remembered affectionately—he also founded the region's first secular school for girls—and his portrait can be found hanging in many shops, always sporting a gold ring.

Lala's story is darkly modern. She speaks in hushed tones as she remembers the courage of three friends killed in the recent Karabakh war. Her words cast a shadow on the lively party: Between 1988 and 1994, more than 25,000 people died on both sides, and more than a million people—including some 700,000 Azerbaijanis—were made refugees. The status of the region, now controlled by Armenia, is still in bitter dispute. Azerbaijani families post plaques on their doors recognizing those they lost in battle, and on weekends, mourners fill a new, Ottoman-style mosque in Baku's Martyrs' Cemetery, overlooking the harbor.

While Baku is home to many nationalist intellectuals like the Avshars, it is also true that other Bakuvites anticipate a far brighter future fueled by oil. They recall the 19th-century oil rush here, led by Rockefellers, Rothschilds, Nobels and the Siemens brothers. But these Western tycoons were by no means the first outsiders to come here in search of fortune.

Greek adventurers of antiquity knew this land as Caucasian Albania, bounded by the Caspian, the Caucasus, Georgia and Armenia to the west and the Araxes to the south. Here was the land in which were set Odysseus's battle with the Cyclops and Prometheus's lonely fate, and it was both the land of the Golden Fleece and the home of the women warriors known as Amazons.

The Roman geographer Strabo praised Azerbaijan's bounteous central valley, today the country's leading breadbasket, noting that "the plain as a whole is better watered by its rivers than Babylonia and Egypt." He also spun his own legend: "The country produces deadly reptiles and scorpions and spiders. Some spider bites cause people to die laughing while others cause people to die weeping over the loss of their deceased kindred."

Although Alexander the Great never crossed into the region himself, he appointed Atropates, satrap of Media (in what is now northwestern Iran), to rule the land, which thereafter went by the name of Atropatania. The Roman historian and eulogist Flavius Arrianus, writing some 500 years after the conqueror's death, recounted that Atropates introduced Alexander to a troop of Amazons, and that Alexander made a promise to return and visit their queen. Strabo had been quite specific as to the Amazons' home territory: It lay "in the northerly foothills of those parts of the Caucasus which are called Ceraunian."

As we know, Alexander never kept his promise—if one was indeed made. But the memory of Alexander remained in Azerbaijan, kept alive in written and oral forms and reinforced by a popular interpretation of part of Sura 18 of the Qur'an ("The Cave"). Verses 82 to 97 tell of dhu al-qarnain, a "two-horned one," who came "between the two barriers" to erect an iron wall to keep Gog and Magog—Yajuj and Majuj in Arabic—at bay. The wall was built and the day was saved, but the Sura foretells a day when God will level it. Some interpreters have read this as a reference to Alexander, who was known as "the two-horned one" because he ruled the "horns" of the world (east and west); the "two barriers" may have been the two major ranges of the Caucasus, and Yajuj and Majuj may have been raiding tribes of the region.

Perhaps the most elaborate treatment of the Alexander legend was the Iskandar Nameh (Epic of Alexander) by Jamal al-Din Nizami Ganjavi, a 12th-century Persian-language poet who was a native of Ganja, in today's Azerbaijani Republic. He conflated the tale of the Amazons with the story of Queen Nushaba of Barda, a city not far from Ganja, in which the hero visits the queen at her court, falls in love and promises to return after his conquest of China. He does so, just in time to save her from the "Rus" invading from the north. (See Aramco World, November/December 1999.) Yet in all of his verses that are preserved today, only in these few lines most did Nizami write what we know to be an eyewitness account of his homeland:

O blessed country within which
Neither spring nor winter is without bloom.
Summer blesses the mountain with the rose
And winter crowns it with the balmy breeze,
And all around, the woods, a paradise.

To Arab writers and geographers, however, including al-Mas'udi, Yaqut al-Rumi and Abu Dulaf, it was not so much Azerbaijan's flowers that made it interesting, but rather its abundant naphtha wells spouting bitumen, oil and sometimes fire, a phenomenon first seen by Arab eyes during their conquest of the region in the seventh century. (See Aramco World, September/October 1995.) Moses Dasxuranci, a 10th-century Christian monk, described the Arabs' arrival in his History of Caucasian Albania: "The race of Hagar grew powerful and approached from a distant clime in a bold and terrifying mass like a tempest blowing over the desert."

The anonymous geography Hudud al-Alam (The Limits of the World), written in Persian in the 10th century for the amir of the Farighunid dynasty in Khorasan, had nothing but praise for the region: "[It is] the most pleasant among the Islamic lands, the region being prosperous with running water and good fruit. It is the abode of merchants, fighters for the faith, and strangers coming from all parts." But it also had strategic significance.

The 11th-century geographer al-Qazwini wrote at length about the pass north of Baku known as Bab al-Abwab ("the Gate of Gates"), which gave access beyond the Caucasus barrier into the territory of the Khazars, a Turkic people of the Russian steppe who had checked the northward expansion of Arab power and frequently assaulted Arab strongholds. The Caspian Sea, which in some early Arab writings is called "the Sea of Yajuj and Majuj," is still known as Bahr al-Khazar, "the Khazar Sea."

Today, however, Mufti Allahshukur Pashazade, who oversees the religious welfare of Muslims throughout Azerbaijan, Georgia, Chechnya and Daghestan, maintains that the north-south religious conflicts of the Caucasus are over. Speaking from his office in Baku's 19th-century Taze Pir Mosque, he notes that, before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only 17 mosques, and no madrasas, or Islamic schools, had been permitted in Azerbaijan. But since independence, he says, there are no more restrictions on religious expression: An Islamic university with three satellite campuses has opened, Baku State University has created a department of Islamic studies, and "new mosques and madrasas are operating everywhere."

"I just organized a conference here on Islamic civilization in Transcaucasia, with scholars from Western Europe, Central Asia and North Africa," he says. "We heard about Arabic poetry, Qur'an recitation, and linguistics and history." None of this, he explains, could have happened under Soviet rule.

One of the first historical descriptions of the city of Baku was written in 1402, shortly after the invasion of Timur (Tamerlane), by the local historian 'Abd al-Rashid ibn Salih al-Bakuwi. He described it as a town of stone with "healthy airs"—but to a fault, as winter winds occasionally blew men and animals into the sea. These winds are indeed fierce, and the name Baku comes from the Persian for "windy place." Bakuvites bundle up tightly in winter and call the north winds "khazari," after their old enemies.

Baku is today a city of about two million people, of whom some 300,000 are new arrivals who fled the Karabakh war. At its center, down near the water, stands the old icheri sheher, the "inner town." It once rose up from the water's edge, but the Caspian's waterline has dropped throughout the 20th century to its present height, some 92 feet below sea level, due to dams and irrigation projects built all along the Volga River, its sole important source. As a result, Baku's old city now stands some 100 meters from the shore. Its stepped and winding streets and alleyways were once surrounded by double walls, and a third wall girded the citadel. Only one remains today, but when French novelist Alexandre Dumas visited in 1858, they were all standing: "Entering Baku is like penetrating one of the strongest fortresses of the Middle Ages. There are three encircling walls with gateways so narrow that our horses could not pass abreast."

At the highest point of the old city's center stands the 15th-century palace of the Shirvanshahs, who ruled over Shirvan (mostly northern Azerbaijan) from pre-Islamic times until 1501, when they were overpowered by the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Ismail I. The Shirvanshahs ruled from Shemakha, in the country's central valley, until an earthquake in the early 15th century prompted construction of their palace in Baku.

The stone palace is modest in size, and it consists of a judicial courtyard, domestic quarters and a haram, or sacred enclosure, with a small mosque. The palace's builder, the penultimate Shirvan-shah ruler, Khali! Allah I, is buried here.

Standing at the seaward-looking Gate of Murad, one of Baku's four surviving gates, with its elaborate, inset half-dome mu-quarnas, the old city's other points of historic note are within sight. Several are named after foreign patrons, attesting to Baku's place on the Silk Road, which made it a cosmopolitan center: the 14th-century chin (Chinese) mosque; the 12th-century Lesghi Mosque; two double-storied caravanserais, known as Bukhara and Multan, the names of the home towns of frequent 15th-century travelers; and the 18th-century bath of Hajji Bani, which is attached to an arcade that now shelters statues and richly incised tombstones carved in the form of standing rams, a symbol of the Shirvanshah dynasty. The city's earliest building is nearby, too: the Muhammad mosque, which dates to 1057 and whose original minaret was destroyed by the artillery of Peter the Great in 1722.

But the iconic symbol of old Baku, the place that appears first on the tourist brochures and that is the favorite downtown meeting place for the young, is the 12th-century Qiz Qalasi, the Maiden's Tower. Its nine cylindrical stories, supported by a spur-like buttress, rise almost 30 meters (98') in alternating courses of indented, honey-colored stonework. Inside, there are the remains of a well. No one is sure what the tower was built to be: A lighthouse? A fortified keep? An armory? Nor can anyone ascertain the truth of the legend that gives it its name, in which a young woman leapt to her death from its ramparts rather than accept an unwelcome arranged marriage. All that is certain about the Maiden's Tower is the builder's name, Massud bin Da'ud, carved in stone, midway up.

Not far from the Maiden's Tower is the National Carpet Museum, created in the early 1950's from the private collection of the late Latif Kermov, whose three-volume encyclopedia of textile motifs helped to systematize the fractious field of Azerbaijani carpet studies, and which still stimulates the contemporary revival of the art.

Kerimov's work, in which he counted some 144 different weaving styles, provides a mere outline of the problems of identifying and classifying what scholar Carol Bier of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. called "the amalgamation of more distinct regional designs than those from any of the world's other rug-producing areas."

A brief museum tour runs through seven major styles of flat-weaves, seven types of embroidery and Kerimov's four regional groupings of pile carpets: Quba-Shirvan, Ganja-Kazakh, Tabriz and Karabakh. The weaver's art touches not just carpets but also saddlebags, camel cloths, tent nettings, cummerbunds and more.

Sabiha Ali is a young artist whose flat-woven hangings and miniature tapestries were recently shown in a Baku gallery. "Art students in this country take up weaving as naturally as in other countries they work with paints and clay," she says. "I didn't grow up on the loom like many village girls do, but in art school I quickly saw its potential. And now I'm teaching five-year-olds to be creative on the loom. It's fun to break all the rules using ancient tools."

The textile arts were so common, and so well developed, that for long periods carpets were an art form and, in the largely barter-oriented economies of the Caucasus, virtually a form of currency, explains Emin Hashimov, director of a textile restoration lab in Baku's old city. "Carpets could be instantly monetized if need be. When you made a carpet, you were weaving meaning and sowing value that might pass from hand to hand."

Carpets and other textiles also functioned as a medium for the written word, with their knots and patterns much like the calligraphy and marginal ornamentation that might adorn a manuscript. Baku's Institute of Manuscripts holds 40,000 items, most of them of local production, starting with a 13th-century work in Azeri Turkish, one of the earliest known to exist. There is also a 19th-century silk tunic covered with inked verses from the Qur'an; it was worn in battle as a talisman by the ruler of Karabakh.

Baku's other treasures include the literary collections, or "divans," of the two writers who compete unofficially for the title of Azerbaijan's national poet: Nizami, whose lifelong residence in the town whose name he bears earned him the sobriquet "Prisoner of Ganja," and Fuzuli, a 15th-century poet whose love lyrics seem to trip daily from the tongues of Azeris young and old.

As a result, most towns in Azerbaijan seem to have both a Nizami and a Fuzuli Street. Nizami's face adorns the currency, and his name is attached to Baku's Museum of Literature. Fuzuli's verse is the basis of much of Azerbaijan's music. The modal art-song tradition known as mugham is filled by Fuzuli's ghazals, a short form of lyric verse that originated in 10th-century Persia. In the early 20th century, his epic poem "Layla and Majnun" formed the libretto of the first mugham opera.

Muhammad Adilov, director of the Institute of Manuscripts, is initially reluctant to choose a favorite between the two. "Nizami was our Shakespeare—or maybe I should say that Shakespeare was your Nizami," he says. Nizami wrote in Persian, a universal language at the time, because he wanted to be known around the world. Fuzuli, however, was much the opposite: He lived and died in Iraq, never having visited the heartland of the Turks. Azerbaijanis nevertheless claim him as theirs, finding evidence that his father was a native of Shemakha. He wrote his most famous work in classical Turkish, but in a style that was Azeri rather than Ottoman and that showed much influence from Arabic and Persian.

"Nizami is known to us in translation," continues Adilov, with passion in his voice, "but Fuzuli is our most recited poet. Mugham singers all invoke his name—"O Fuzuli," they say whenever they end their songs. For this he seems always present." To Adilov, it is their languages, and not their birthplaces, that distinguish the nation's leading literati.

There is no doubt, however, about who carries the mantle of national composer. Uzeyir Hajibeyov, born in 1885 in Karabakh, was a St. Petersburg-educated prodigy who is credited with adapting mugham to staged drama and native instruments, including the spike-fiddle kemenche and the lute-like tar, and integrating them into a Western orchestral tradition. He created Azerbaijan's uniquely hybrid genre of opera, and his greatest operas, including "Mashade Ibad," "Koroghlu" and "Layla and Majnun," were based on history, folklore and Fuzuli's famous love epic.

On the other hand, Hajibeyov's comic operetta "Arshin Mal Alhan" ("The 19th-century Peddler"), satirizes the conflict between new and old traditions. An hour before its first new production in two decades at Baku's State Theater, director Hafiz Guliev is hurrying from the costume department down to the stage. His crew is still moving props, hanging backdrops and setting up lights. Guliev urges them on and then sets off to the makeup room. There he finds his top singer, Azer Zeynatov, who plays Asker, a young, Westernized oil baron of turn-of-the-century Baku who rejects the customary prohibition on seeing the face of his bride before marriage. To circumvent the rule, he disguises himself as a cloth peddler to gain entry to the house of Sultan Bey, the widowed father of the beautiful maiden Gulchora. Through a series of mistaken identities, Asker and Gulchora almost miss marrying, but in the end everyone finds happiness with an appropriate mate, including Gulchora's and Asker's respective servants, her father and his aunt, and his friend and her cousin.

"Azerbaijanis love this opera because they all see a little bit of themselves in both sides of the story," says Guliev. The alternating scenery seems to say it all—a café table, rocking chair and door bell in Asker's house; fountains, carpets and pointed arches in the home of Sultan Bey.

Guliev finds Azer putting the finishing touches on the two costumes he will wear tonight: a waistcoat and cravat for Asker, and a high-buttoned tunic and cummerbund for his peddler's disguise. In both roles, he wears the same Persian lamb hat.

As curtain time approaches, Azer warms up the strong tenor voice he trained in Venice. His second language is Italian, which accents his voice as he runs up and down a western scale. Next to him, Gulyaz Mamedova runs through the very different notes of a mugham scale, which she will sing in a tar -accompanied solo in the role of the servant Telli. A troupe of young dancers and choristers chatters away in Russian, waiting for their cue in the overture.

The painted backdrop for all of this is the skyline of old Baku, clearly showing the Maiden's Tower and the Shirvanshah palace. There are no oil derricks visible, even though in 1913, the year the opera was first performed in Baku, oil was flowing and making people rich. But for every oil well flaring today offshore, Azerbaijanis promise to burn a sprig of yuvshan grass as a way of recalling origins whose roots lie even deeper than oil.

Louis Werner is a New York freelance writer and filmmaker.

Kevin Bubriski's
photographs have been widely published, exhibited and collected. He lives in Vermont.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the January/February 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2000 images.