“We are no longer talking about mythology,” said Thor Heyerdahl, “but of the realities of geography and history. Azerbaijanis should be proud of their ancient culture. It is just as rich and ancient as that of China and Mesopotamia.”
One of the world’s most ancient cultures, Azerbaijan, has immensely contributed to the cultural heritage of the world with its cultural background dating back to ancient times. Wonderful nature, climate, and the natural resources of the country produced a significant impact on artistic thinking and creation skills of Azerbaijani people. In spite of a long and difficult history both culturally and politically, Azeri arts still represent unity and provide outstanding opportunities for the creation of a full idea of fine arts of Azerbaijan. The folk arts of Azerbaijan are multi-colored, complete and rich, similar to the country’s natural resources. The folk art is connected with daily life of people, something that occupies a very special life in the fine arts as well. Folk art covers a long period from ancient times to present day and includes a variety of products from garments to housing goods and decoration. One can easily come across numerous wonderful models of Azerbaijani folk arts in the world’s largest museums. The pieces of arts created by the skillful hands of Tabriz, Nakhichevan, Gandja, Gazakh, Guba, Naku, Shaki, Shamakhi and the Upper Karabakh can be found in large museum collections such as the Victoria and Albert of London, the Louvre of Paris, the Metropolitan of Washington and others in Vienna, Rome, Berlin, Istanbul, Tehran and Cairo.
The Maiden Tower
Azerbaijan, being a country of relatively small territory, has a solid density of old and ancient monuments. Azeri monuments typically combine elements of East and West, and are surrounded by legends. So, to explore Azerbaijan monuments is not only to look at authentic Azerbaijan architecture, but also to go deeply into myths, legends and fairytales. This involves a deeper understanding of Azeri culture and the history of Azerbaijan. One of the most magnificent and mysterious landmark deserving of attention is “The Maiden Tower” which is on the UNESCO world heritage list. It has no analogues in the entire Orient and is considered an unofficial symbol of Baku. The cylindrically-shaped tower was constructed on a ledge of the rock jutting into the Caspian Sea. There are numerous debates on the date of construction and purpose of this monument. At present it attracts attention most of all for its unparalleled form.
Norse gods and Thor Heyerdahl
Located in the eastern part of Azerbaijan and on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, 70 kilometers from the capital Baku city, “Gobustan State Historical-Artistic Reserve” is an open-air museum with rich archaeological monuments. The reserve has more than 6,000 rock engravings dating back 5,000 – 40,000 years. The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages. The famed Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl returned many times to Azerbaijan between 1961 and his death in 2002 to study the site, which he argued to be evidence that modern-day Scandinavians might have migrated north through the Caucasus in prehistoric times. Heyerdahl refers to notations made by Snorri, a 13th-century historian, which reads: “Odin (a Scandinavian god who was one of the kings) came to the North with his people from a country called Aser.” [See “Snorri, The Sagas of the Viking Kings of Norway”. English translation: J. Stenersens, Forlag, Oslo, 1987]. Further description of the geographic location of Aser leaves no doubt that it matches the region of contemporary Azerbaijan – “east of the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea”. Heyerdahl found similarities in the drawings and rock carvings in Azerbaijan to those found in Scandinavia, particularly some in Alta, Norway. In 2007 Gobustan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered being of “outstanding universal value” for the quality and density of its rock art engravings.
For centuries Azerbaijan had been a country of various handicrafts, particularly carpet-making. Carpet making is one of the ancient fields of the decorative applied art of Azerbaijan. According to archaeological excavations in the territory of Azerbaijan and to literature sources, carpet-making dates back to ancient times. According to the historical sources, Azerbaijan was one of the most important centers of carpet production in the East in the Middle Age. Writings by antique Greek, Roman and Arab authors (Herodotus, Xenophon, Al-Mugaddasi), also indicate that carpet making is indeed a very old craft in Azerbaijan. Carpets and carpet ware made in Azerbaijan has repeatedly been glorified in historical books, classic and folk literature. Inexhaustible richness of colors, inimitable in its beauty, interlacement of patterns, flight of artistic fantasy and consummate skill characterizes the Azeri carpet. Azerbaijan carpets are noted for a vast variety of different ornamental compositions. The traditional art of Azerbaijani carpet weaving is also on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“To explore Azerbaijan monuments is not only to look at authentic Azerbaijan architecture, but also to go deeply into myths, legends and fairytales”
Azeri music, enriching world musical culture with its rare pearls, has centuries-old traditions. Creators of folk music have handed down these traditions for generations and have an important role in the development of Azeri music. One of the many musical traditions of Azerbaijan is “mugam”, one of the foundations of Azerbaijan national music. The art of mugam is an important branch of verbal heritage of the culture of Azerbaijan professional music. Mugam is a highly complex form of art music (as opposed to folk music) with specific systems and concepts of musical expression that demand a very high standard of professionalism of its performers. It has deep roots in cultural traditions and history of Azerbaijan people. The art of mugam is a part of the main cultural wealth that forms the basis for national self-consciousness and self-identification of the Azerbaijanis. The artistic values of Azerbaijani mugam for national culture and the culture of the whole world and its high sense is acknowledged by YUNESKO as “one of the masterpieces of the verbal and non-material heritage of the world”. Jazz fused with mugam can be found in the blend synthesized by the famous Azerbaijani jazz musician Vagif Mustafazadeh. Mugam jazz is jazz based on the modal forms or scales of mugams, just as a mugam symphonies are symphonies based on mugams. Ordinary jazz is marked by metered rhythm. But mugam jazz does not follow a metered system. Both rhythm and scales are improvised. Moreover, mugam received recognition in a duet by famous mugam singer Alim Qasimov and fameous French DJ David Vendetta, which promoted universal recognition of the genre. Eldar Mansurov mixed mugam and rock involving a symphonic orchestra and created a unique composition in which totally different music genres complemented each other beautifully.
There is of course much more to know about Azerbaijan in terms of nature, culture and history, both in the past and in the present. I think Europeans should be more aware of Azerbaijan since the country has been an important gateway between Europe and Asia throughout history with its location of geostrategic importance. Norwegians should particularly be aware of this country where Statoil and the Norwegian Petroleum Fund extract massive wealth from the rich oil and gas resources.
The Republic of Azerbaijan
Coordinates: 40.3°N 47.7°E
Official language: Azerbaijani
Government: Unitary Constitutional Republic
Area: 86,600 km2 (33,436 sq mi)
Population (2012): 9 294 400
Independence: 18 October 1991
Currency: Manat (AZN)