The Fire Keeper

kelsey : May 25, 2011 8:24 pm : Blog

The Fire Keeper

From the mountains that “produce” fire to a land which has been the scenario for so many battles, it is very easy to understand why Azerbaijan is known as the land of fire. From amazing carpets to a unique architecture, it is impossible not to notice how this place is so full of culture and history engraved on its textiles and city’s walls. So much to see, so much to hear, so much to feel. Azerbaijan is the country that inspires one who is passionate for art, food and history!

While visiting Azerbaijan recently I received constant reminders that the country regained its much desired independence not so long ago. I remained impressed by how the country had maintained its rich culture over centuries in the face of many obstacles.

It is difficult to identify my favorite experience during the recent trip. But the theme of fire keeps returning to me. The natural fire from the mountains, a sign of the natural gas that is one of the country’s many assets, stand out in my mind. When I arrived at Yanardag (Burning Mountains), I noticed some tables and chairs about 10 meters away from that fire that never stops and never spreads to anywhere else, it is just always there for people to admire it, and during the winter I guess it becomes a place to protect the people from the harsh winter.

It was just a great experience and a great way to understand how the land of fire relates to so many different aspects of their culture, as shown in their carpets designs and ancient temples. The fire in those mountains is so beautiful and amazing that it becomes evident how it became a source of inspiration to so many artists when expressing themselves in carpets by designing pictures of fire and on the walls of the temples used to worship the god of Zoroastrians: Fire.

In Azerbaijani the word “Azer” means fire, which explains how important the fire figure is to its culture and history. In Turkish language the word “Azer” also means “a brave man”, “the fire keeper” , which may have been the source of inspiration to so many warriors who fought to protect their land. A brave man, the fire keeper who fights to keep its land protected, who fights to protect the Land of Fire – Azerbaijan.

Throughout its history Azerbaijan has been a land where so many empires and dynasties fought over constantly. Because of its extremely rich land, source of so many resources and extremely valuable ones such as oil, it attracted much interest from major empires of the world and due to so many influences, Azerbaijanis present a culture and architecture that mixes together with the Turkic, Caucasus, Persian, Arabic, European and Asian cultures, that all together form an unique, beautiful, rich and mysterious culture, worth fighting for and protecting.

To understand its culture one must understand the Azerbaijani history and how it became such a diverse country. History tells us that from the 11th century, Azerbaijani’s land was increasingly dominated by Turkic people, which gradually consolidated the local dialects with an Oghuz Turkic that evolved into the modern Azerbaijani language. In the 13th century the Great Seljuk Empire and the Atabek State of Azerbaijan could not resist the Mongol-Tatar invasion, who ruled over the lands until the 15th century. Then, nearly the entire 15th century the region was dominated by two Turkic empires, the Qara Qoyunly and Ag Qoyunly, when in 1501 a native Azeri dynasty emerged, establishing the Safavid Empire, and promoting the conversion of the population into Shi’a Islam (to distinguish itself from other Turkic people, such as the Ottomans, who were mostly Sunni).

In the 18th century, the Safavid Empire fell, was replaced with another Turkic empire of the Afshars, which once again fell apart in 1747, when Azerbaijan was divided into independent khanates (states). Although, Azerbaijan remained in Iranian’s cultural and religious sphere of influence until the 19th century, when Russian Empire finished its ambitious plans to conquer the Caucasus and later became the Soviet Union.

Throughout its history, Azerbaijani cities were marked by such influences. The walls of the Old City in Baku show the influence of the Persians, Sheki shows influence of the Caucasian Albanians, the Russian Fort in Zagatala gives a hint of eastern Europe, the historic buildings in the outer city of Baku expresses the similarities with western European architecture and the carpets are definitely a perfect mixture of Azerbaijan’s history with oriental designs and patterns.

Under so many different influences it is amazing how Azerbaijan overcame many conflicts and thrived to become a unique country with its own unmatchable culture. This mixture of amazing architecture and inspiring art gives to Azerbaijan the title of a mesmerizing and breathtaking country, full of history, culture and mystery worth exploring and understanding. A land that lights the fire in the soul of the visitors who taste Azerbaijani culture and heritage. Now, I will also spread that fire.

Post Written by Andrea de Souza – Office Manager of the Karabakh Foundation in Washington D.C. and a recent graduate in International Affairs and Economics from GWU in Washington DC. She has an extensive background and experiences in many different countries including Brazil, Switzerland and Mozambique, where she recently went on a Mission Trip. Mrs. De Souza is now enrolled in the Peace building and Development program at American University, also in located in Washington DC.

Additional Sources

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Qobustan: History through Glyphs

kelsey : May 12, 2011 8:27 pm : Blog

QobustanQobustan (“land of dry riverbed”) is a site in central Azerbaijan that contains 6,000 rock engravings and evidence of habitation that spans 40,000 years. In addition to the rock art, archaeological excavations have revealed inhabited caves, settlements, and burials. All of this shows just how important the site has been to the habitation of Azerbaijan from the Upper Paleolithic through the Middle Ages. During my first adventure in Azerbaijan, I was lucky enough to visit this treasured site.

The history told through these ancient glyphs reveal fascinating insight into the life of past inhabitants. While walking around, I saw that the previous inhabitants drew long row boats, much like the rock art glyphs found in Nordic sites. However, the Qobustan rock art pre-dates the Nordic depictions. Does this mean that long row boats were a simultaneous culture development in both regions or was their established contact between the two groups that resulted in an exchange in culture? The reality is that we currently do not know the correct answer, but it sure is fun trying to solve this mystery. What scholars do know is that boats were one of the first man made architectural artifacts that must have held significant cultural importance due to the prevalence of depictions. To the left you can see an image I took of a boat during my visit. This image is from the upper terrace of Boyukdash Mountain, one of the three mountains housed within the park.

Many of the glyphs contain depictions of fauna, such as dogs, deer, cattle, goats, wild boars, bulls, and gazelles. These rock engravings tell visitors the types of animals living in the region, as well as subsistence practices. Other glyphs show clothing, tattooed women, warriors, shamans, and hunting. One of my favorite glyphs (shown on the right) displays a man holding a bow and arrow with rain pouring down. Is the man on a hunting expedition or is he a practicing shaman conducting a ritual? The amazing thing about Qobustan is that the glyphs can be interpreted in many different ways, leaving it up to the visitor to reconstruct the past.

To accompany the engravings, archaeologists have uncovered tools, weapons, and other artifacts, allowing them to better interpret the images and reconstruct the lifestyles of earlier inhabitants. Historic graffiti has also been left by Persian and Roman visitors. The Roman graffiti identifies the visitors as members of the 12th Roman legion during the reign of Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus (51-96 AD).

In 2007, Qobustan gained world-wide recognition when it was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Unfortunately, when the petroglyphs were exposed to the elements, damage occurred. Efforts have been made by conservators to preserve the site, but they cannot stop the decaying glyphs. In response to this alarming fact, some of the drawings have been re-covered, allowing the ground to provide natural protection from wind, rain, and visitors.

Post Written by Athena Smith, Karabakh Foundation Former Cultural Affairs Coordinator

Additional Sources

Abbaszade, Nigar. “Gobustan: The Ancient Petroglyphs of Gobustand.” Azerbaijan International. Summer 1998 (6.2), 38-39.

Amiraslanov, T.I. “Gobustan is the Ancient Location of the World Culinary Culture.” Azerbaijan Culinary. Azerbaijan National Culinary Center at Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan Republic.

UNESCO. “Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape.”

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