Azerbaijan: A Cultural Crossroads

Located in the eastern part of the southern Caucasus, and with a shoreline on the Caspian Sea, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a cultural crossroads linking Europe, Asia, Russia and the Middle East. Like many such crossroads, it has at times endured a tumultuous history in which conflict has played as instrumental a role as trade and transit. Nowadays, however, the Azerbaijani government is determined to turn this strategic location into an unambiguous asset, meanwhile capitalising on the rich legacy of the country’s past.

‘The peculiarity of Azerbaijan is the combination of different strands of cultural influence,’ declares Abulfaz Garayev, the government’s urbane Minister for Culture and Tourism. ‘Azerbaijan went through various stages of religion, beginning with the worship of fire, Zoroastrianism. It was Christian from the second to the eighth centuries, and thereafter mainly Muslim. Its most particular characteristic is tolerance, of other people and other cultures, because of that genetic memory.’

There is even a significant Jewish community in Azerbaijan, composed of three distinct strands: so-called Mountain Jews, who probably immigrated from Persia or the Byzantine Empire in medieval times; Ashkenazi Jews, who largely settled in the capital, Baku; and Georgian Jews. Each group maintains its own traditions. Though some Jews took the opportunity of emigrating to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many have stayed and continue to play an important role in the country’s cultural and intellectual life. Azerbaijan’s relations with the State of Israel are unusually cordial for a Muslim-majority nation.

‘Every religion and every conqueror – starting with Alexander the Great, through Tamerlane and the Ottoman Empire to the Russians – brought many innovations to the local culture,’ says Dr Garayev. ‘Therefore there is respect here for different cultural traditions.’

Such cultural and ethnic diversity is particularly visible in Baku, which has developed hemispherically around the Caspian shore. The compact old walled city, with its stern, defensive Maiden Tower, ancient mosques and narrow streets paved with cobblestones, is surrounded on three sides by the magnificent late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mansions of oil and engineering barons and elegant, pedestrianised shopping streets that light up at night. Even further beyond is a new half-ring of ultra-modern glass and steel tower blocks, still more of which are rising in a construction frenzy that bears witness to the country’s rapid economic growth.

While whole swathes of the outer city are being demolished to make way for parks and more attractive developments, Baku’s finest public buildings and museums are being renovated. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism occupies a floor of a vast and imposing, wedding-cake edifice, formerly the headquarters of Azerbaijan’s Soviet government, situated on the main boulevard that runs along the Caspian shoreline. Dr Garayev’s huge office has been redesigned in ultra-modern, minimalist white, against which a few choice paintings and fabrics glow in all their colourful richness.

‘The biggest carpet museum in the world is being built in Baku, next to the Mugam Museum,’ the minister explains, as he extols the quality of local textile manufacturing. ‘Carpet-making is a very important heritage which dates back many generations.’

Mugam is a special type of musical tradition that has been preserved and developed with the active participation of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, named after the modern republic’s celebrated late president. The foundation has sponsored a Mugam ‘encyclopaedia’ bringing together operas, songs and instrumental pieces of various genres; last year it helped stage the first International Mugam Festival, featuring participants from 11 countries.

There is also a thriving international music scene. Every December a Western classical music festival – named after one of the city’s most famous sons, cellist Mstislav (‘Slava’) Rostropovich – is held in Baku. Last year the English Chamber Orchestra played there, as well as the New Russia State Symphony. The International Bulbul Vocal Competition, an event for opera singers, takes place every few years, while for those who like a more uninhibited, modern style there is the annual Baku International Jazz Festival.

‘There are lots of cultural events in the city,’ Dr Garayev says, ‘which are designed to promote what we call “the Baku Process” – intercultural dialogue as a basis for peace and development in Europe and its neighbouring regions.’ This ‘process’ has been endorsed by the Council of Europe, which acknowledges the role of creative work in fostering stable economic, social and personal development.

Of course, there is much more to Azerbaijan than just Baku. In fact, notwithstanding its relatively small size, the country boasts nine different climatic zones offering an astonishing variety of scenery, from lush semi-tropical gardens to bleak tundra. There are wide seasonal variations in temperatures too, which means that Azerbaijan’s tourist industry, which is just starting to take off, can offer everything from beach holidays to skiing.

Tourism in Azerbaijan is now being promoted in Britain. A new guidebook to Baku, written by Ben Illis, has just been published as part of the Hg2: A Hedonist’s Guide to... series. ‘Actually, many British visitors did come here almost a hundred years ago,’ Dr Garayev recalls. ‘During the brief, first independent republic, from 1918-1920, there were many British engineers and others based here and they told their friends about the country.’

A small number of British soldiers were among the fatalities in the violent turmoil arising from the collapse of the Imperial Russian regime and  resultant regional struggle between different communist factions, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Martyrs’ Alley was created on a hillside overlooking Baku as a burial place for casualties from the fighting, but when the Bolsheviks came to power two years later they removed the graves and turned the place into a children’s amusement park. However, the memorial was restored following Azerbaijan’s second declaration of independence, and the bodies of civilians killed in clashes with Soviet forces in 1990 were laid to rest there.

Though Martyrs’ Alley is on the itinerary of every official visitor to Baku, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is keen to open up the rest of the country – apart, of course, from sensitive areas near the Armenian frontier. There has been a massive road-building programme and the number of hotels in the country has rocketed: nowadays, once can choose from everything between five-star establishments of an international standard to modest guesthouses.

‘Azerbaijan is a new, unknown destination for most Europeans,’ Dr Garayev admits. ‘But we can offer a wide variety of new types of tourism – not just cultural tourism but eco-tourism, extreme sports, mountain hiking and horse-riding, for example.’

The Guba-Khachmaz region in the north-east – the territory of the former Guba Khanate – boasts beaches, forests and mountain resorts, while the sub-tropical Lankaran-Astara region in the south-east is rich in vegetation and wildlife. The inhabitants of Lankaran-Astara are famous for their longevity, which they attribute not just to the climate but also to their diet, which is heavy on fish from the Caspian Sea and organically-grown vegetables and grains. Food in Azerbaijan, like the culture, is an eclectic mix – Turkish, Persian, Russian and other European influences abound, alongside some distinctive local dishes.

Though Georgian wine currently enjoys greater renown in Western Europe, the Azerbaijani wine industry is also substantial. Viticulture is concentrated in the Ganja-Kazakh and Shirvan regions, the main grape varieties grown being Rkatsiteli and Pinot Noir. Vineyards take up about seven per cent of Azerbaijan’s cultivated land, though they used to account for more: toward the end of the Soviet era, when a campaign was instigated against heavy drinking, an overzealous local commissar ordered the destruction of many vineyards. Schoolchildren were sent into some of them, to hack down the vines. It is small wonder that few people lament the end of an ideological regime that wilfully destroyed traditions in the name of ‘progress’.