Qobustan: History through Glyphs

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.” http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1076