Apart from Dede Korkut, whose work Oghuz Epic possibly dates to the 9th century and was first transcribed by the 14th century, the earliest known figure in Azeri literature was Hasanoghlu, also known as Pur Hasan Asfaraini. Hasanoghlu composed a divan consisting of Persian and Turkic ghazals. Ghazals typically consist of rhyming couplets and a refrain. When writing Persian ghazals, Hasanoghlu used his pen-name, while his Turkic ghazals were composed under his birth name of Hasanoghlu.
A 14th century literary figure, Khurshidbanu Natavan (pictured, right) was the daughter of Mehdi Gulu-khan, the last ruler of the Karabakh khanate (1748–1822), and is considered one of the best lyrical poets of Azerbaijan. Among the other poets of the 14th century were Gazi Burhanaddin, Haqiqi (pen-name:Jahan-shah Qara Qoyunlu), and Habibi. The end of 14th century served as the creation period for literary activity of Imadaddin Nesimi. Nesimi, one of the greatest Turkic Hurufi mystical poets of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, is one of the most prominent early Divan masters in Turkic literary history and is also known for composing poetry in Persian and Arabic.
The Divan and Ghazal styles, introduced by Nesimi in Azeri poetry in the 15th century, were further developed by poets Qasim al-Anvar, Fuzuli and Khatai (pen-name of Safavid Shah Ismail I). A 16th century poet, Muhammed Fuzuli, produced his timeless philosophical and lyrical Qazals in Arabic, Persian, and Azeri. Benefiting immensely from the fine literary traditions of his environment and building upon the legacy of his predecessors, Fizuli was destined to become the leading literary figure of his society. One of Fizuli’s most notable works, The Epic of Layla and Majnun (pictured, left), concentrates upon the pain of the mad lover Majnun’s separation from his beloved Layla, and comes to see this pain as being of the essence of love.
In the 16th century, Azeri literature further flourished with the development of the Ashik poetic genre of bards. Under the pen-name of Khatāī (Arabic: خطائی for sinner) Shah Ismail I wrote nearly 1400 verses in Azeri, which were later published as his Divan. Another unique literary style known as qoshma was introduced during the 16th century and developed by Shah Ismail and later by his son Shah Tahmasp.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Fizuli’s unique genres as well as Ashik poetry influenced prominent poets and writers such as Qovsi of Tabriz, Shah Abbas Sani, Agha Mesih Shirvani, Nishat, Molla Vali Vidadi, Molla Panah Vagif, Amani, Zafar and others. Along with Turks, Turkmens and Uzbeks, Azeris also celebrate the epic of Koroglu, a legendary hero or a noble bandit of the Robin Hood type. Several documented versions of Koroglu epic remain at the Institute for Manuscripts of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan.
As a result of Russo-Persian Wars, Azeri literature of the 19th century was profoundly influenced by the Russian conquest of present-day Azerbaijan. Particularly during Joseph Stalin’s reign, Azeri writers who did not conform to the party line were persecuted. Bolsheviks sought to destroy the nationalist intellectual elite established during the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. In the 1930s, many writers and intellectuals were manipulated into promoters of Soviet propaganda. Yet, there existed a group of Romantic Azeri intellectuals who resisted the Soviet purge. Mahammad Hadi, Abbas Sahhat, Huseyn Javid, Abdulla Shaig, Jafar Jabbarly, and Mikayil Mushfig, in their search for a means of resistance, turned to the clandestine methodologies of Sufism, which taught spiritual discipline as a way to combat temptation. When Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1953 following Stalin’s death, the harsh focus on propaganda began to fade and writers began to branch off in new directions, primarily focused on uplifting prose that would be a source of hope to Azeris living under a totalitarian regime.
An influential piece of post-World War II Azeri poetry, Heydar Babaya Salam (Greetings to Heydar Baba) was written by the Iranian poet Mohammad Hossein Shahriar. By this point, Shahriar had already established himself as a notable writer. Heydar Babaya Salam, published in Tabriz in 1954 and written in colloquial Azeri, became quite popular among Iranians and the people of Azerbaijan.
In Heydar Babaya Salam, Shahriar (pictured, right) expresses his identity as an Iranian Azeri attached to his homeland, language, and culture. Heydar Baba is a hill near Khoshknab, the native village of the poet. It was while Shahriyar was training as a medical student in Tehran University in the early 1940s that he became influenced by his mother to develop his colloquial Azeri idiom into a masterful literary language. Equal to Shahriyar’s best poetry in Farsi, “Heydar Babaya Salam” proved that he could write Azeri with equal elegance and power.
Influences on Azeri Literature
Previously mentioned, Russian influences can be seen in a great deal of 19th century Azeri literature, considering the Russian control of Azerbaijan followed by the Soviet Union control of the nation during the 20th century. These Russian and Soviet influences on Azeri literature exert themselves in the mysterious nature of the content of Azeri literature written between the 19th and 20th centuries.
Persian and Arabic literature have also greatly influenced Azeri literature, especially during its classical phase. Amongst poets who have written in Persian and have influenced Azeri literature, Ferdowsi, Sanai, Hafez, Saadi, Attar, and Rumi stand out as the most prominent writers. Arabic literature, particularly through the Quran and Prophetic sayings, has also played a major role in influencing Azeri literature. Amongst poets who have written in Arabic and have influenced Azeri literature, Mansūr al-Hallāj has had a wide-ranging influence in the Sufic literature of the Islamic world.