Old Town, New Baku: The Importance of Icheri Sheher in Azerbaijan

Icheri Sheher (Old Town) Historical-Architectural Reserve, located in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major Azerbaijani tourist attraction. This small town has managed to preserve its ancient architectural and cultural heritage throughout the centuries.

Until Azerbaijan’s early 20th-century oil boom, Old Town constituted all of Baku. Today, with the increasing construction of skyscrapers and other modern structures, Old Town has become a tiny part of the capital. Old Town is surrounded by huge walls that separate it from modern Baku.

In 2005, in order to protect Old Town, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree declaring the area a Historical-Architectural Reserve under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This step toward preserving the cultural center of Baku has been an important factor in Azerbaijan’s developing tourism industry, and in Azerbaijan’s economy as a whole.

Old Town now is home to quality hotels, gourmet restaurants, international organizations, big oil companies, and diplomatic institutions—and it is a huge attraction for tourists in Baku. Old Town has about a dozen significant cultural monuments, including the intriguing Maiden Tower, Shirvan Shah’s Palace, and the Mohammed Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the Baku area.

21st-century urban-planning advisors have recommended that Baku develop its tourism sector around Old Town. This historic center, these experts suggest, will attract more tourists than any other place in the city.

In 2009, 198,000 foreign tourists visited Old Town, where they spent a total of $4.5 million. That same year, just 1.4 million tourists in total visited Azerbaijan. Thus Old Town hosted more than 14% of all 2009 foreign tourists. By the end of 2014, the number of foreign tourists is expected to increase up to 417,000, and these tourists’ expenditures are expected to rise to $11.1 million. New entrepreneurs have an opportunity to start businesses including, malls, hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and even small souvenir and handcraft shops.

The question arises, what is the role of the government in development of cultural tourism in Old Town?

First of all, the government should create high business incentives in the tourism sector. The government can achieve business incentives by creating a competitive market among businesses, which, in the end will lead to low costs and higher service. Offering tax credits and business credits for new businesses in Old Town further will enhance the economy.

Second, the government must invest in developing and rehabilitating Old Town cultural monuments, museums, and theaters. Integration of cultural festivals into the Old Town will utilize the investment in rehabilitation and increase the tourist flow.

As the tourist and institution numbers increase in Old Town, the number of residents decreases. The population of 5,000 in the early 1990s decreased to just 3,000 residents by 2006. Thus, we can assume that the number of residents will continue to decrease as the number of Old Town hotels and restaurants increases. This is a strong indicator to support the statement that Old Town is fast becoming the cultural-tourism backbone of Baku.

Post written by Elchin Abdullayev, Karabakh Foundation Analytical Economics Intern, Senior Undergraduate Student of Economics at George Mason University, and president of Azerbaijani Youth of America 

From Soviet Republic to European Cultural Destination

In oil-rich Azerbaijan, the economy has been developing very quickly in the past decade. The former Soviet Republic has been holding a high place in the GDP growth rate among world countries, from the late 1990s until 2010, including the first places from 2005 to 2007. Azerbaijan ranked the first for average annual GDP growth rate from 2005 to 2009. In the early 21st century, country’s GDP went up from $ 6.2 billion in 2002 to $ 51.7 billion in 2010 with a national debt equaling only six percent of the GDP.

As the economy grows, the government of Azerbaijan is taking initiatives to develop different sectors, one of which is cultural development. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan is responsible for the country’s cultural development, specifically in the literature, music, theater, cinema, fine arts, architecture, and cultural tourism.

Investments in cultural development do not only contribute to social and cultural development of the country, but also has a huge impact on the economy itself. Azerbaijan’s victory at Eurovision, the most popular and largest song contest in Europe, is a good example of the outcome of such an investment. As the winner of the 2011 Eurovision contest, Azerbaijan will host the next Eurovision in the capital city Baku in May, 2012. Azerbaijan expects to host up to 60,000 tourists, during the contest. According to the World Tourism Organization an average tourist spends $600 to $700 in Azerbaijan. Ignoring the specific Eurovision related consumptions (tickets and similar) of the tourists, Azerbaijan will have nearly $40 million revenue, during the Eurovision song contest. This is almost 25% of the annual tourism revenue that Azerbaijan had in 2007. Other than the huge revenue Azerbaijan will gain from hosting Eurovision, it is a great opportunity for the country, especially for Baku, to introduce its rich heritage to Europe.

Tourists from Europe and other places, will have an opportunity to see old and modern juxtaposed in one, one part of the city Icheri Sheher (Old City) still preserves its ancient architecture, while on the other side of the city, the brand new, $100 billion dollar Khazar Islands project, where the Azerbaijani Tower, the world’s largest building is being built. Baku alone hosts a large number of tourism sites, especially Icheri Sheher (the Old City), the History Museum and the Carpet Museum, various art galleries, Maiden Tower, Yanardag (the Flaming Mountain) and the Shirvan Shah’s Palace.

Another huge contribution to country’s tourism development is just starting to develop. Azerbaijan submitted 2020 Summer Olympics bid in September, 2011. Preparations for 2020 Summer Olympics have already started. The National Olympic the Committee of Azerbaijan is investing a sizable amount of money in construction for this purpose. Several venues as, the Baku Olympic stadium with capacity to seat 65,000 people, hockey and wrestling arena and an aquatic center are to be completed by 2016. The committee is yet to announce how many tourists Baku expects to host in 2020 Olympic games, as they have to go through bidding process first in order to become the official host city for 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

Azerbaijan’s geographical, geopolitical location, climate, medical, mineral and thermal springs and rich culture gives it great tourism development opportunities. Every region has specific tourism perceptive, one of which is the Nagorno Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Nagorno Karabakh has always been famous for its exquisite carpets, architectures, and special breed of horses designed for racing. Karabakh carpets preserved this popularity for centuries and they are still welcomed with special interest throughout the world. This region is also a homeland to famous writers and musicians. Musicians like Uzeyir Hajibeyov who introduced opera to Muslim world, and many others contributed to popularity of Azerbaijani culture.

Other than the tourism potential of the region, it would be worthwhile it mention that Karabakh always produced one of the highest value added among the regions of Azerbaijan. The region is also one of the richest in country, for its natural resources. Nevertheless, it was impossible for Azerbaijan to develop neither tourism nor any other sector in the Karabakh region due to ongoing Armenian occupation of it, and surrounding regions.

In many developed countries cultural development has a remarkable impact on economy. As an example, cultural industries produce 7.4% of GDP in Canada, where it employs more than 1.1 million people. According to the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries, investment in cultural development in Michigan State, creates more jobs than many other sectors. Thus, from economic perspective cultural development of the country is as much important as any other sector. The young Azerbaijan understands this importance and takes initiatives to develop its cultural industry alongside with every other part of economy.

Post written by Elchin Abdullayev, Karabakh Foundation Analytical Economics Intern, Senior Undergraduate Student of Economics at George Mason University, and president of Azerbaijani Youth of America 

This post is also available in German and Turkish.

Sari Gelin

You don’t braid the end of your hair,
You don’t pick a dewy flower.
What is this love?
They will not let me marry you.
Oh, what can I do?
Oh, what can I do?
Fair Bride 

This verse is from the Azerbaijani folk song Sari Gelin, which is said to have mesmerized all who have ever heard it. The song is a symbol of national pride for many Azerbaijanis.

Sari Gelin is written in the literary genre known as bayati, which is one of the most popular forms of poetry in Azerbaijan and Turkey. Bayati poetry is known for its reflective and introspective prose. Generally, Bayati poetry consists of lines of seven syllables written in a simple rhythm.

The poem Sari Gelin is a love story involving two young people separated by social, religious, and political conflicts. In the Azerbaijani language the title of Sari Gelin conveys the theme of the poem. In the Azerbaijani Language, the word “Sari” refers to a person’s soul or to the color yellow, which is associated with positive qualities. The word “gelin” means someone who joins a family, like a bride, with its root in the Azerbaijani verb “gel,” which means “to come.”

The origin of the Azerbaijani masterpiece Sari Gelin is disputed. Abbasgulu Najafzadeh, who is the head of the Research Laboratory of the National Conservatory of the Azerbaijan Republic, argues that Sari Gelin was composed by Shakh Ismail Khatai. Khatai was the ruler of the Sefevi state during the 15th Century. According to this theory, Khatai’s inspiration for the poem came from a beautiful girl he saw dancing in a yellow dress while he was hunting. Khatai enjoyed the girl’s dancing so much he dedicated a poem to her. Because he did not know the girls name, Khati called the poem Sari Gelin or maiden in yellow. The music for the poem was added at a later date.

A second theory was proposed by the Azerbaijani artist Akif Islamzade. Islamzade believes that the song originated amongst the Oguhz people in the pre-Islamic period. The Oguhz were a Turkic tribe with historic ties to present day Azerbaijan. Islamzade argues that Sari Gelin’s stucture and intonation reflect the musical traditions of the 7th Century Oghuz-Turks.

Also, Islamzade asserts that the way in which marriage is described in the poem is typical of Oghuz-Turkic society. The matchmaker, in Oghuz Turk society, addressed the bride’s grandmother instead of her mother. This is evident in the line that states “They will not let me marry you. May your grandmother die.”

A third theory was developed by Hikmat Babaoglu, an Azerbaijani writer and researcher. He bases his theory on the Ottoman writer Ahmet Refik Altunay. Altunay wrote a book called “In the way of the Caucasus,” about a trip he took in 1918. In the book Altunay describes a meeting with a man named Ali who sung a song called “Sari Gelin”. Ali spoke what Altunay descibed as ‘fluent Turkish’ which is very similar to modern Azerbaijani. Based on this account, it seems that Sari Gelin originated amongst Azerbaijani peoples around 1918.

The Sari Gellin story has been retold by the prominent early 20th Century Azerbaijani poet and playwright Huseyn Javid in his play Sheikh Sanan (1914). Javid’s version features a Muslim boy and a Christian girl. The story has also been adapted into a film directed by Yaver Rzayev called Sari Gelin (1999).

The song Sari Gelin has become an important part of Azerbaijan’s cultural legacy throughout the world. For example Sari Gelin was performed by a combination of the Azerbaijani singer Brilliant Dadashova and the Norwegian choir SKRUK as part of an Azerbaijani-Norwegian cultural project. A more recent performance of Sari Gelin took place in Harlem, New York in 2009. Sari Gelin continues to play an integral role in the musical development of Azerbaijan and contributes to the international dialogue concerning poetry and music.

Post written by Ilqar Dadashov, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador

How Azerbaijan Promoted the Internet to Keep Citizens Online: On Internet in Azerbaijan and Related Speculations

“How Azerbaijan Promoted the Internet to Keep Citizens Online: On Internet in Azerbaijan and Related Speculations”

Identifying the Reality Gap

Why would a government fearful of the Internet and aspiring to keep its citizens offline announce information communication technologies (ICT) as a policy priority, push for price cuts, modernize its infrastructure, and going even farther initiate and actively participate in regional projects like the Trans-Eurasian Information Superhighway and the Europe Persia Express Gateway that are actually supposed to improve Internet trafficking and penetration?

Why would a government achieve progress in ICT development in general, and Internet penetration in particular, which is recognized and appreciated by various serious studies and reports, if it wanted to demonize the Internet and minimize its penetration into the lives of its country’s citizens?

No doubt, the Eurovision 2012 song contest program held in Baku opened up many excellent—if sometimes painful—opportunities for Azerbaijani self-examination. Anyone addressing “Azerbaijan and the Internet” needs, in my opinion, to apply a broader perspective and more extensive statistical back-up than those offered by authors Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce in , “How Azerbaijan Demonizes the Internet to Keep Citizens Offline,” May 11, 2012.

The issues Kendzior and Pearce touch upon are crucial for the country’s development. However, as is the case in several other recent publications, the authors seem to get carried away by their critical aspirations toward the Azerbaijani government, at least as far as the state of the Internet and public policies on it are concerned.

I do not wish to play devil’s advocate point by point, but as a person who knows a little bit about the Internet in Azerbaijan, I consider some of the article’s conclusions to be flawed and the data used likely to be outdated.

A Data-Based Reality Check

Let me begin with the data. Ms. Kendzior and Ms. Pearce appear to refer to the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) annual households survey data. With all due respect to CRRC, I would propose consideration of another survey, one that was conducted in 2010 and 2011 by the Azerbaijan Marketing Society ICT Marketing Center. The activities of this Center are aimed at the development of the ICT sector, researching new world, regional, and national trends in this field.

The survey was conducted in eight regions of Azerbaijan among 5,865 households selected based on systematic random selection. In order to define the participation criteria, respondents were divided into two groups, as follows: living in the capital (Baku) and living outside the capital. This division was calculated based on data of the State Statistical Committee of Azerbaijan Republic and experts’ opinions on the population’s relocation dynamics.

Distribution of respondents by gender was 45% (male) and 55% (female). 40% of the respondents were employed on a regular basis. Distribution of respondents by age groups appeared to be as follows:

      * 18-24 (28.4%); * 25-34 (25.4%); * 35-44 (18.2%);


    * 45-54 (16.1%); * 55-64 (8.8 %); * 65-74 (3.1%).

Education level of respondents was incomplete or complete secondary 40.21 %; specialized secondary 14.96%; incomplete or complete higher 44.68 %; primary or no education 0.15%.

Comparing the 2010 and 2011 surveys reveals a 16% jump in Internet usage, from 29% of households in which at least one member used the Internet at home to 45%.of such households. Internet usage via mobile phone increased from 17% to 39% in the same time period. As for Internet usage in general, the percentage went up from 40% to 68%.

In 2011, the share of households in which at least one member used Internet anywhere was 69% (73% in Baku; 59% in the regions). 42% of respondents indicated broadband fixed line as the type of Internet connection used at home. 94% of computer users responding claimed to access the Internet at least once a week, and 51% indicated that they used it every day. Users indicated that they used the Internet mostly for downloading music and movies (63%) as well as for sending and receiving e-mails (52%).

So just a cursory examination of differences between the 2010 and 2011 surveys indicates that there has been progress in Internet usage in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government has played a role in this development by taking steps aimed at decreasing prices and improving ICT infrastructure, developing e-services, and so forth.

It is not just the Azerbaijan Marketing Society that tells this story. The latest Networked Readiness Index NRI of the Global Information Technology Report (GITR), released in April 2012, includes 142 countries of the world. Azerbaijan ranked 61st; Georgia, 88th; and Armenia, 94th. It is worth mentioning that in the last 5 GITR rankings, Azerbaijan regularly has been in the top 3 among the CIS countries.

The NRI is made up of 4 sub-indices, as follows: Environment, Readiness, Usage, and Impact. These categories reflect key policy action areas enabling measurement of the overall preparedness of a country to use ICT. Azerbaijan is ahead of its Caucasian neighbors in all but one, Environment, on which Georgia is just three ranks ahead.

As for the Readiness sub-index, Azerbaijan is far ahead of its neighbors, demonstrating more readiness to utilize ICT in terms of infrastructure, affordability, and skills. In general this sub-index reflects the level of relevant infrastructure development—easy access as well as knowledge to utilize key infrastructure.

GITR also includes a specific indicator for Use of Virtual Social Networks, which measures the use of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other such virtual social networks for professional and personal communication in a country. According to this indicator Azerbaijan is ranked 44th in the world; Georgia 60th; and Armenia 113th.

So, back to the Slate article: Who is demonizing Internet and preventing the population from social networking now?

Moreover, according to Facebook statistics for the last 3 months byhttp://www.socialbakers.com/, Azerbaijan is ranked 86th with 780,340 users, while Georgia is 87th with 779,980 users and Armenia is 115th with 283,460 users.

And according to Social Bakers, Azerbaijan actually has the highest growth rate—11.26%—among the Caucasus countries for the reported period of time and even much higher growth for 6 months—48.30%.

Strange dynamics for a country accused of keeping its population from social networking! The statistics contradict the propaganda that has appeared throughout the media.

Another important factor for understanding the role of ICT in the South Caucasus countries is ICT Price Basket Index. This index is calculated based on three main sub-indices, as follows: 1) Share of costs of fixed telephone services in average income per capita; 2) Share of mobile/cellular services in average income per capita; and 3) Share of fixed-broadband Internet prices in average income per capita.

Azerbaijan ranks 53rd overall and third among the CIS countries; Armenia is 102nd overall, and Georgia is 111th. It is worth noting as well that in the last ICT Price Basket Index, in 2010, Azerbaijan made a tremendous jump forward, moving 46 ranks from 99th in 2009 to 53rd in 2010.

According to this report, Azerbaijan, with its 81.7% relative change, leads the Top 10 countries with the highest relative change. A closer look at the sub-indices reveals that this significant change in Azerbaijan was achieved due to dramatic price reduction in broadband services (88%) and mobile communications (21%).


Even this brief examination of relevant surveys and reports provides striking comparisons of the performance and development of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia in terms of Internet penetration and overall ICT development.

So, as a matter of fact, Azerbaijan is an evident leader in the area of Internet development and usage. Healthy criticisms that are surfacing as a by-product of Eurovision-Baku can help Azerbaijan to continue to develop along positive lines. But I do not see any objective point in blaming the Azerbaijani government for something that something that actually represents a noteworthy accomplishment.

Dr. Fuad Aliyev
Fulbright Scholar
The Johns Hopkins University
School of Advanced International Studies
Central Asia–Caucasus Institute


Global Information Technology Report (GITR), World Economic Forum

Measuring the Information Society–2011, International Telecommunications Union
http://www.itu.int/net/pressoffice/backgrounders/general/pdf/5.pdf .

Social Bakers Facebook Statistics, http://www.socialbakers.com/facebook-statistics/.

More analysis on ICT in Azerbaijan and neighboring countries:



Khojaly: The Day When All Bets Were Off!

I always say that, the magnitude and importance of Khojaly Tragedy for Azerbaijan is equal to that of 9/11 for Americans. Just like 9/11 when people talk or think about Khojaly they’ll always remember, where they were on that day, how they heard the news, what was their first reaction.

For many of us, Khojaly massacre was a very serious turning point in Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, when we realized all bets were off. Armenians will not stop at anything, will hold nothing sacred to advance. Because, if at the initial stage of the conflict there were some who blamed Moscow for escalating the tensions to keep its political grip on the region, after Khojaly it was clear that the game has changed severely. As President of Armenia Serj Sarkissian admitted himself, people in Khojaly were massacred to prove a point, to break a stereotype that Armenians will not raise their hands against civilian population.

To me, Khojaly is very personal. My family is from Karabakh. My roots, my ancestors’ graves, my family memories are laying in ruins in the Armenian occupied territories as I write this. Some of my family members who resided in Khojaly left the town in December of 1991. They were one of the few lucky ones who realized the hopelessness of the situation and took off early and moved into my grandmother’s house in Agdam. There was a point when they had about 42 family members sheltered in 4 bedrooms. But no one even thought about complaining, because they realized there’s no way back.

A week after the massacre, I was making rounds in the hospital in Baku as a medical intern where they brought few survivors. They managed to make it through the snowy mountains out of Khojaly at night half-clothed. They were being treated for frozen limbs. Many of the cases were hard to save, we ended up amputating feet, toes or hands. I kept hearing stories from patients about civilinas who tried to escape the military encircled town through the “free corridor” to the nearby town of Agdam. Only that “corridor” was attacked hours later by Armenian forces and fleeing ones were shot like turkeys in an open field, killed with unusual cruelty. I am sure you all remember the terrifying news footage and pictures of mutilated and shot from close range people that was documented courageously by journalist Chingiz Mustafayev.

As a journalist I have covered a story of Khojaly massacre and its meaning for Azerbaijani people for CNN. We had extremely hard time coming up with the footage that would be suitable and non-graphic enough to show to the international audience. The producers in Atlanta were shocked. Because, once you see it, the mental snapshot stays with you forever. I don’t care what your ethnicity, beliefs or values are, it is not a site to forget once you lay your eyes on a dead body of a scalped elderly man or a raped child.

What kind of definition we can give to Khojaly tragedy? It has been a point of debates for almost two decades… Was it a genocide? Was it a massacre?

If you open any book on military and war history you will see that since the time of Romans it was called a “destructive war”. But today, contemporary military scholars and strategist have narrowed down this general definition. Deliberate military targeting of civilians as a method of affecting the political behavior of nations and leaders is called terrorism.

My personal take is I agree with that definition. What happened in Khojaly in February 1992 was a terror. It was an attempt of Armenian side to influence Azerbaijan and its stance on Nagorno-Karabakh by hurting children, elderly and women, by treating an innocent life as a disposable bargaining chip.

An unsuccessful attempt at that too! Anyone who is a bit familiar with war strategies should have known that civilian casualties in a given conflict or war is not only morally reprehensible, but also bad military science. While it can bring short-term advantage, in the long run it does not break an opponent’s will to resist; on the contrary, it usually steels it. Killing civilians rarely if ever enhances security, and ,especially, in an age when global public opinion is of dramatically increased importance, it only undermines a nation’s force in both the field and the international arena.

Targeting innocent noncombatant civilians for military gains didn’t start with Khojaly and will not end there. In the same manner, human cruelty against another human being is a dark child of a mankind. Whether it is a terrorist beheading a hostage “for the record” or US military personnel posing in front of the camera with raped and tortured prisoners- it is indeed a sad realization that despite stepping into progressive times we didn’t leave human savagery in Middle Ages. But what is important here and what makes us different as a civilization today is for the group of people who have been subjected to this cruelty, violence and humiliation and for the people who are associated with them, as in case with Khojaly and Azerbaijani people, to talk about it, educate the international community and make it a part of history of a mankind, so it will not be repeated again, so the worst of evil within ourselves responsible for this inhumane cruelty, as it happened in Khojaly is repressed next time. If you remember when the story of Abu-Qhraib broke out first, not many Iraqis were surprised. Because as it turned out, by word of mouth people knew about mistreatment of prisoners. Only when it was spoken out, the measures were taken and those responsible were brought to justice. The campaign of “Justice for Khojaly” needs to go on until it becomes a part of books, a part of curriculums, until it becomes a symbol and equivalent of human savagery.

It is, of course, very hard to talk about it. Even almost two decades later, for the generation who witnessed it. But we have to move on. The importance of confidence building measures between Azerbaijanis and Armenians as one of the conditions to advance the peaceful negotiations can’t be underestimated. But Khojaly will definitely stand out as a tragic episode that will be most hard to deal with when it comes to those confidence building measures.

I think, it will take first and foremost an official apology and recognition from Armenian side for what happened in Khojaly for us to even start sorting out this inhumane act against Azerbaijani people.

But, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it for now- as we see today, a person responsible for this is a head of state in Armenia. A terrorist being a head of UN member state! After presidential elections in Armenia Serj Sarkisian proved that he is ready to gamble with innocent lives for political gains not only in Azerbaijan but also by opening fire and killing its own people in the streets of Yerevan.

But for us, for Azerbaijanis, forgiveness has to be down the road. I have no doubt – we are tolerant society- to the point that, sometimes, we even tolerate the intolerance.

We will forgive, but we will never and we should never forget!

Post Written by Shafag Mehraliyeva, Baku Representative for the Karabakh Foundation.

Eurovision: Music Has No Borders

Eurovision_2012Azerbaijan’s victory in the Eurovision song contest in May 2011 revealed that the country, at the crossroads of East and West, is culturally part of Europe. The Eurovision contest and television program, launched in 1956, fosters a broader European identity by spotlighting performances that trumpet national identity and culture. Last year, audiences and juries in the competition confirmed Azerbaijan’s cultural ties to Europe, awarding Azerbaijan first place in the transnational European contest.

Last year, Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal, calling themselves Ell/Nikki, were declared winners of the 56th Eurovision Song Contest held among 43 countries in Düsseldorf, Germany. Their song, “Running Scared,” was the first mixed-gender duo to win the contest since 1963, and earned Azerbaijan its first win since joining in 2008. Sung in English, the song embodies the internationalist nature of Eurovision, using English as the lingua franca to bring people together. The pair’s victory put Azerbaijan on Europe’s mental map and earned Azerbaijan the honor of hosting the 2012 contest. Interviewed immediately after their win, Ell/Nikki said that they hoped their song would “bring Europe together.”

This year, the official contest theme of “Light your fire!” reflects Azerbaijan’s unique heritage. Azerbaijan has long been called “The Land of Fire” due to the phenomena of “burning hillsides” caused by gas seeping through fissures in the Earth. The fiery flower logo of the competition embodies the following elements: fire; national dance; and Azerbaijani history. Fire, a potent symbol in ancient worship, remains relevant today – bonfires are lit during the celebration of the spring holiday Novruz. The flames in the Eurovision 2012 logo also symbolize the hospitality, care, and warmth of the Azerbaijani people, which will be demonstrated throughout the event.

The 2012 Eurovision Song will showcase Azerbaijan at the newly constructed Baku Crystal Hall. The Azerbaijani public broadcaster Ictimai Televiziya, or ITV, will host the event. This will be an excellent opportunity to showcase Azerbaijani culture to millions around the world. Adil Kerimli, Executive Producer of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Ictimai TV, stated that although a large part of the television shows are being produced by the Germany-based company Brainpool, “a strong flavor of Azerbaijan will be added.”

The next official meetings in Baku will be held in March, when all the Heads of Delegations gather in the host city and will officially hand over their entries for this year’s edition of Europe’s favorite TV show. Ell/Nikki, Isa Melikov, Dilara Kazimova, and AySel will be among the jurors selected to represent Azerbaijan on an international jury made up of music professionals. Jury results are then combined with audience televoting results to calculate a country’s final score.

Post written by Devin Conley, Karabakh Foundation Analytical and Editorial Intern

Azerbaijani-Norwegian Friendship: Not Just About Oil

BranobelAt first glance, the cooperation and collaboration between Azerbaijan and Norway seems to strictly fall under the economic category. Their common interests, some argue, are oil and gas, which are indeed a large part of their relationship. Bilateral partnerships between SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) and Norway’s Statoil have been forged since the fall of the Soviet Union, furthering European energy security and petroleum management objectives, not mention increasing profits. SOFAZ (State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan) is based on the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund model, which transparently manages assets generated from national oil and gas exploration and development.

However, this is not just another post-Soviet story of foreign investment and development. Pre-dating the Soviet Union, ties between the two countries were already well-established. Under the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, the Nobel Brothers’ Petroleum Company (also known as Branobel) began work in Baku in 1879. The logo of the Nobel Brothers’ Petroleum Company depicted the Ateshgah Temple near Baku. At the start of the 20th century, 50% of world oil extraction was centered on Baku and some 40% of that belonged to the Nobels. In fact, when the Nobel Prizes were established in 1901, roughly 12% of the prize money was drawn from shares in the Nobel Brothers’ Petroleum Company in Baku. Today, the Nobels’ legacy lives on through the Azerbaijani State Economic University Nobel Scholarship and the Baku Nobel Heritage Fund.

Though its natural resources may have put Azerbaijan on the map, many cultural partnerships solidify ties between Azerbaijan and Norway. Many officials reference the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) who speculated that the roots of the Scandinavians were to be found in present-day Azerbaijan. Though never proven, this speculation provides common ground between the two cultures, and remains a source of cultural interest. Inspired by Heyerdahl’s interest in the Udi people, the Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise (NHE) financed archeological excavations and restorations of an Albanian church in Kish near the city of Sheki in the north-western part of Azerbaijan. In addition, NHE has also financed projects in Nij village in Gabala.

Organizations such as the Azerbaijan-Norway Friendship Society, established in 1995, create bonds of cooperation between Norway and Azerbaijan across a wide range of areas, including culture, education, science, and business activities. The Norwegian Red Cross has cooperated for more than ten years with Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society on humanitarian projects. The Norwegian Society of Chartered Engineers and the Norwegian Energy Efficiency Group organize trainings on Cleaner Production and Energy Efficiency in Azerbaijan. Their goal is to establish an Azerbaijan Energy Efficiency and Cleaner Production Center in Baku to strengthen the work towards cleaner production and energy efficiency.

Educational exchange between Azerbaijani and Norwegian universities gives students broader world perspectives and educational opportunities not available in years past. Khazar University, University of Languages, and State Oil Academy collaborate with Norwegian counterparts such as the University of Oslo, and the Center for Norwegian Studies Abroad (CNSA) at Agder University College, and have established language and cultural programs in each other’s countries. In Azerbaijan, the Scandinavian Center at the University of Languages offers Norwegian language courses as well as regional studies. Moreover, the Norwegian Foreign Service Institute and the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy are training young diplomats in both countries. In addition, Danvik Community College, a volunteer “gap year” college, has for many years arranged educational trips to Azerbaijan for their students, who benefit from the many opportunities available in Azerbaijan.

As part of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, the Association of Scouts of Azerbaijan and the Norwegian Guide and Scout Association hold exchanges each year, encouraging cultural education and awareness among Scouts. Finally, the Norwegian-Azerbaijani Youth Organization (NAYO) creates both formal and informal ties between the two countries. Providing educational and cultural opportunities, the NAYO fosters a new generation of cosmopolitan leaders equipped to handle both global and domestic challenges.

The bonds created by these professional, cultural, and educational exchange programs enrich both Azerbaijan and Norway. In a globalized world, these opportunities will only serve to benefit participants, fostering mutual understanding and cultural appreciation.

Post written by Devin Conley, Karabakh Foundation Analytical and Editorial Intern

Concert of Classical Music of Azerbaijan in San Diego

On March 10th, 2012 the Grossmont Symphony Orchestra gave a dazzling performance of Azerbaijani classical music at North Park Birch Theatre in San Diego, California. The concert commenced with the national anthem of Azerbaijan performed by the Grossmont College Master Chorale and the Orchestra. Orchestra Director Dr. Randall Tweed informed the audience about the rich history of Azerbaijani classical music, its founders and prominent classical music composers of Azerbaijan.

The first part of the concert featured two masterpieces by Fikret Amirov: Kurd Avshari and Gulistan Bayati-Shiraz. Dr. Tweed informed the audience about Amirov’s works and how Amirov incorporated traditional mugham music into classical orchestra pieces, highlighting his novel approach. The second half of the concert was devoted to Kara Karayev, another prominent Azerbaijani composer. The Grossmont Symphony Orchestra performed the “Seven Beauties” ballet suite, one of Karavev’s most famous pieces.

Along with classical pieces, a few folk songs were featured by a trio of local Azerbaijani folk musicians: Mehdi Bagheri on kamancha, Parisa Daneshvar as a singer, and Amir Etemadzadeh on hand percussions. Singer Parisa Daneshvar greeted the audience in the Azerbaijani language and conveyed her Nowruz holiday wishes. A brilliant kamancha performance by Mehdi Bagheri conveyed the depth of the Azerbaijani soul and captured the hearts of audience members. The event was sponsored by Switzer Highlands Association, an organization created to promote cultural exchange and understanding between American and Azerbaijani cultures.

Post written by Jamila Del Mistro, Karabakh Foundation Volunteer

Remembering Shusha

I have never developed a habit of accepting role models, but one lady from the recent history of the Caucasus certainly has made a mark on how I define my own identity as an Azerbaijani woman.

Khurshid Banu Natavan known as “the Daughter of Khan” from the city of Shusha in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan stood out for me as an outstanding Renaissance woman of her time with progressive looks aimed at developing science and literature reflecting the values of the New Age of Enlightenment. The only heir to the ruling family of Karabakh khans, she was not officially a princess by her time, since the Khanate was abolished and taken over by Russian Empire, Khurshid Banu was still held at a high esteem not just by the local population, but in the region. She worked hard to improve the lives of Shushavians, including promoting social and cultural development of Karabakh and being engaged in philanthropy. One of her praised accomplishments was the establishment of “Majlisi Uns”- “The Society of Friends”, which created major poetic-intellectual force of her time. Natavan went down in history as a highly educated woman, who knew several Oriental and European languages, penned many memorable poems and elegant sketches, crafted exquisite decorative embroidery and had a good understanding of music. But my understanding of Khurshid Banu Natavan’s legacy came to me later when I was old enough to appreciate my own history, living in post-Soviet independent Azerbaijan. And by that time it was too late, since the precious archive materials, including the home-museum of Khurshid Banu, as well as the springs built by her initiative from famous Shusha white stones, which were called by the city folks “Natavan springs” and considered historical monuments under protection became out of reach and destroyed by the Armenians in the occupied Azerbaijani city of Shusha.

The last time I saw the monument to the “Daughter of Khan” that once adorned the streets of Shusha was 300 miles away from her home in Baku, in the yard of the Azerbaijani National Museum of Art. Severely damaged by the Armenian invasion of the City, along with other statues to various famous Karabakhi Azerbaijanis it was dismantled by Armenian militants and intended to be sold as a scrap metal in the neighboring country of Georgia. Fortunately, the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan rescued the bronze statues and brought them to the capital city of Baku, where pocked by bullet holes, they stand as another mute witness to the “Burnt Culture” of Karabakh. Azerbaijan lost control of the city of Shusha exactly 20 years ago on May 8th, 1992, when an Armenian military contingent of a few thousand advanced on a poorly defended city from three surrounding directions. After a ten hour full-scale engagement, that took lives of 480, wounded 1,860 and drove away 22,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis, Armenian militants, among them then the future president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan and the current Defense Minister of Armenia Seyran Oganyan, declared the “most glorious victory in the Nagorno- Karabakh War.”

An occasion to gloat was a significant one, since the district of Shusha, made of the City itself and ten surrounding villages was a crown jewel of Karabakh and the historic symbol of Azerbaijani statehood. In May, 1992 the total population of the Shusha region was 23,156, of which 21,234 were ethnic Azerbaijanis and only 1,620 Armenians. The City was established in 1750 as a town-fortress by the founder and first ruler of the Karabakh Khannate Panah Ali Khan Javanshir. Titled “Panahabad” after him, it came under attack a few years later when Panah Khan’s son, Ibrahim Khan, was in power. The legend has it a Persian army led by Mohammad Shah of the Gajar dynasty surrounded Panahabad. In his message to Ibrahim Khan, Shah wrote: “Look, God is “pouring stones” on your head from heaven. How can you sit in that “glass fortress?” meaning “we’re going to shatter your city to pieces, as though it was made of glass.” The response from Ibrahim Khan was confident: “I know that God will protect me even in this “glass.” The residents fought bravely and withstood the attack, but after that the city came to be known as “Shusha,” which means “glass” in Azerbaijani. But the special significance of Shusha to Azerbaijanis is not limited by its historical symbolism of resistance to foreign occupation and preservation of independence. It has been a center of Azerbaijani culture, giving to the world people like Uzeyir Hajibeyov the author of the first ever written opera of the Muslim World, Bulbul, a La Scala trained famous Azerbaijani tenor who founded a vocal opera art in Azerbaijan, Molla Panah Vagif, an 18th century poet who founded modern trends in Azerbaijani poetry.

Generations and generations of composers, musicians, artists, and writers came from Shusha that bestowed the title of “Conservatory of Caucasus” to this temple of culture. The music was so interwoven into the lives of the people of Shusha that there is a well known saying “even babies cry in mugham verses in Karabakh”The music was not the only trademark of this region. Shusha carpets with their bright colored designs, locally bred Karabakh horses, crafts and sites of ancient mosques, palaces and remarkable architecture of the City attracted traders and tourists from near and far for centuries. The Shushavians always imagined their town-fortress to be invincible. They simply refused to believe that it might be otherwise. Sadig Ibrahimov, a member of the exiled Azerbaijani community from Shusha who lives in Baku these days says on the eve of the occupation the City was under almost constant artillery attack. But the local population never lost a belief in their self-defense capabilities. “If not for internal political provocations Armenians would have never been able to take control of Shusha,” he says: “We are guilty for that before our Homeland.” Mr. Ibrahimov claims they always had a great relationship with their Armenian neighbors. What happened was so quick, they never saw it coming. “It feels like living with a missing limb for the past 20 years. As times goes by, all Shushavians realize that we used to leave in a real paradise. And not just because of its emerald green nature that was a joy to the eye and heart, but because Shusha, as a beacon of high culture and creative spirit, instilled in its residents kindness, sincerity, humanity and love.”

For the past 20 years he has heard many stories of Shusha neighborhoods having been burnt, looted or occupied by squatters, his own musical college where he used to teach dismantled. But he is still confident he will see the day soon when the tricolored Azerbaijani flag will be flying over the Jidir Plain in Shusha again. Sadig Ibrahimov is not the only one living with such a belief. Many in Azerbaijan are sure that the return of Shusha under Azerbaijan’s sovereignty is an uncompromised part of any future deal with Armenia. Experts claim Azerbaijan’s guaranteed control over Shusha could contribute to Baku’s willingness to accept certain concessions as part of a comprehensive peace settlement. While the Azerbaijani side recognizes the need for ensuring the security of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, it also believes that the rights and security of its ethnic Azerbaijani population should not be forfeited just because they were forced to flee twenty years ago. Since the majority of the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh originates from Shusha district, Azerbaijanis would view the return of the region to their control as an act of fair treatment toward the Azerbaijani population ousted from Nagorno-Karabakh. It is difficult to envision Baku consenting to a settlement in which they did not regain Shusha, or in which the previous Azerbaijani residents of the district were not offered the opportunity to return to their homes there. As Azerbaijanis around the world mark May 8th as the Day of Remembrance of Shusha, those involved in the negotiations should consider the return of the ethnic Azerbaijani population to the district as a priority for the Azerbaijani public in the peaceful solution of this protracted conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Post Written by Shafag Mehraliyeva, Baku Representative for the Karabakh Foundation.

Review of the Alim Qasimov Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet Concert

I can still remember the first time that I heard the passionate, extemporaneous, and initially jarring staccato sounds that are characteristic of Mugham music, the traditional music genre of Azerbaijan, Central Asia and surrounding regions. The force, emotion, and vocal command demanded by this art form was exceptionally powerful. As I came to learn over my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan, Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova are widely regarded as among the best Mughamist in the world. As such, when I heard that they were performing with the highly acclaimed Kronos Quartet at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, I was determined to be in attendance. Fortunately I was the winner of a Karabakh Foundation raffle for two tickets to the concert and thus I was able to attend. For those who enjoy Mugham, the performance was an affirmation of the beauty and intensity that it conveys. For those unfamiliar with this music style, the Alim Qasimov Ensemble provided an unparalleled introduction.

Following a beautiful melodic opening set by the Kronos Quartet, Alim Qasimov and his ensemble began to play and didn’t stop until the end of the first act. The piece flowed like a gradual ascent revealing more about the artists as the music slowly progressed from the structure of premeditated lyrics to the deeply moving improvisational solos. As the music wove in and out of the structure loosely built around it, the improvisation took on the form of conversation between Alim and Fargana as they alternated solos, each seeming to express deep inner struggle in beautiful, albeit heart-wrenching, vocal riffs. The power of this musical style is revealed not only in the musical sophistication and passion with which it is sung, but by the physical performance of the artists. As Fargana completed her segment, Alim’s body seemed to convulse with the sudden onset of musical inspiration. Left hand resting gently by his left ear, his right arm flew into the sky and head flung backward as the music rushed out of his body and flooded the concert hall. Over the course of his lyrical appeal, his right arm, palm facing up, yearningly shook horizontally in the ubiquitous Azerbaijani motion symbolizing inquiry and questioning.

“Almighty, why did you make my life so miserable?

Why did I make such a mistake and fall in love with you?”

I sat in my seat gripped by the realization that I was witnessing something incredibly raw and personal. The duo sang not only with intensity and depth, but with an immense amount of joy. It was a privilege to watch this rare combination of mastery and love for an art form – the interplay of which permeated the entirety of their performance.

In the second act, the Alim Qasimov Ensemble was joined by the Kronos Quartet producing a full and complimentary fusion of sound and musical tradition. I left the concert hall that night feeling uplifted, emotionally drained, and awestruck. The experience of witnessing the rare talent of Alim Qasimov and his ensemble is one that I would unequivocally recommend to anyone. It is a window into the culture of Azerbaijan, an example of the universality of music, and a glimpse into the soul of a truly exceptional artist.

Post written by Jonathan Elkin, an Analyst at Fontheim International