Azerbaijan – the Land of Fire

The signing a few days ago—Oct. 10, 2009—of the historic treaty between Turkey and Armenia, after a century of enmity, again brings up the issue of Nagorno-Karabach, as Turkey tries to balance its foreign policy between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia is still no fait accompli as long as Armenia has not at least partially withdrawn troops from the enclave in Azerbaijan.

Last fall, Azerbaijan presented itself to the Berlin public at the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem with a quite beautiful exhibit of its history and culture. The following article revisits that show, reviewing some of the artifacts and presentations, and commenting also on what was not shown:


At the entrance to the exhibit are the oil drums—in front of them a map from 1882. On it are charted the oil wells, the gas resources, the refineries and pipelines of that time, appropriately annotated in both English and Russian. Around 1891, Azerbaijan supplied the world with about half of its oil needs. But the story of oil and Azerbaijan goes back much farther—2600 years ago the “fire-water” of this land was already well known and it was to give the present-day Azerbaijan its name. Oil was plentiful, then as it is today, and when the wind died down near Baku, and the sea was calm, even the water was aflame with burning oil. Pilgrims traveled from far and wide to bow down in front of this “Eternal Fire” in the Zoroastrian cult temples on the Absheron Peninsula.

However, the show is not just about oil. The Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Ministry for Culture and Tourism are presenting their country to Europe—for the first time. The outstanding archaeological artifacts, artworks, manuscripts and articles of everyday life, mostly from Azeri museums, are not only dazzling but bring this culture of the South Caucasus to life.

An over 5,000 year-old tiny clay ox introduces the visitor to the early days of civilization; painted and glazed containers, parts of harnesses, and jewelry give a glimpse into the Bronze and Iron Ages. Particularly noteworthy are two small female figures with ample hips, defined as fertility goddesses—be that as it may, perhaps a clue to the world view of those times?

Many centuries and a few steps further one comes upon impressive fragments of stone, a few feet high, engraved with various designs—including animals and human faces!—and Persian inscriptions. These are remnants from Bail Castle, built in 1234-35 by Shirvanshah Faribuz III to protect Baku from the sea, and since then sunken in the Caspian and shrouded in legends.

Among the collection of manuscripts on display the most sensational is the original Kitabi Dede Korkud, the 7th c. poem of patriotism, heroism, love, and life. Further, the Oriental Renaissance masterpiece, the Khamsa of Nizami, still glistens with colors and gold ornament, and Avicenna’s medicine canon along with Nasruddin Tusi’s writings on science exhibit meticulous, minute calligraphy.

Finally, reaching modern times, the decorative art objects and the woven or knotted carpets display rich color and ornament, as does the Persian-influenced women’s clothing, made of high-quality Azerbaijani silk or of tirme, a wool weave, with artful embroidery and design appropriate for wear at court. And as if to crown all of the above, the Azerbaijani Mugham, a musical tradition drawing on the Iranian-Arabic-Turkish Maqam, together with a collection of traditional instruments, is presented with numerous historical recordings.

As one reaches the end of the exhibit, the question remains how daily life might look in today’s Azerbaijan. The very conservative contemporary painting selected by the curators only gives a limited insight. Does the country still suffer from the effects of the Nagorno-Karabach war that ended in a ceasefire in 1994? Indeed, the conflict is not even mentioned in the exhibit—the chronological table at the entrance to the show ends with the year 1991! The Armenian people, their history and culture within Azerbaijan is simply ignored—even though officially Nagorno-Karabach belongs to Azerbaijan. And although written evidence exists that the Armenians have continuously settled the region since the 6th c. BCE.

Keeping silent not only effectively denies the war, but also certain events after the war. In the exhibit, a colorful, lavishly decorated stone fragment with inscriptions in the Arabic Kufi script is not to be overlooked. The fragment originates from the Islamic Momine Chatun Mausoleum in Nakhchivan. Nakhchivan is a region of particular importance for the Armenians. Here was once the largest and most valuable medieval Armenian cemetery. The visitor to the exhibit, however, is not informed of this fact, nor of the fact that this burial ground with its over 2,000 chiseled grave stones was brutally destroyed in 2005—under the supervision of the Azeri government.

Many Azeri still feel the effects of the war. According to government statistics (2008) almost 600,000 internally displaced persons are dependent on state aid, whereby over the last 15 years a new generation of refugees has grown up, many of whom lead a dismal existence either in camps, railroad cars, or other improvised shelters and who have no hope of escaping a life of dependence. These so-called „gachinlar“ (they who run away), only theoretically have access to education, or to the political and social rights that are taken for granted by other Azeris.

Nevertheless, they can be thankful for the small bit of freedom they do have—Azerbaijan is both the country of origin and transit for trafficking in human beings.  According to the Alternative Country Report for the UN, 2004, mainly women are affected, above all, women who were victims of rape, a category which includes girls who have been subject to harassment at their work-place and thus “dishonored”, single mothers, and unmarried women who are frequently the wage earners for entire families. The traffickers kidnap such women, but also children, take them from Azerbaijan, but also from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Moldova, into Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where they are sexually exploited. The men, on the other hand, are taken to Russia for forced labor.

At the same time, thanks to oil exports, the country has been experiencing an economic boom: the World Bank predicts that in 2010 Azerbaijan will have the highest rate of growth among European and Central Asian countries. The military expenditure is likewise growing—in fact, disproportionately, say some sources. The military expenditure in 2009 is $2.46 billion, 2.6% of the GDP, according to the CIA. Only a small segment of the population has part in this prosperity. It is far more the case that the negative aspects of this development are gaining the upper hand. As a result of the unregulated building boom, entrepreneurs are demolishing historical city neighborhoods, along with their intact social structures, replacing these with luxury apartment buildings. The inhabitants are driven away.

The present Azerbaijani oil boom started with the so-called “Contract of the Century”. In 1994, State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, together with ten other oil companies, among others, BP, Unocal and Statoil, signed this agreement. Since then, Baku has been transformed into a city with pulsating night life, propelled by foreign money, for the amusement of the elite that are profiting from this boom. Meanwhile, scientists have declared the Absheron Peninsula, including Baku, and the Caspian Sea, to be the ecologically most polluted region of the world. Perhaps this is what the curators where thinking of when they placed the oil drums in their prominent place at the beginning of this very beautiful exhibit. But whether intended or not, they surely make a statement: even today, we are still bowing down to this holy fire.



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