While the large majority (over 90 per cent) of Azerbaijan’s population are Azeris, the country’s heritage is diverse and complex. Like so much of the Eurasian continent, the modern population of the country has been formed by waves of migration, layer upon layer each making its contribution and leaving its mark, often assimilating those that were already there, and in turn being assimilated themselves by the next wave. The Azerbaijani language is part of the Turkic family, and is close to Turkish; the two languages are mutually intelligible. Turkic speakers first migrated into the region during the 11th century. Before then, the territory that now comprises Azerbaijan had been inhabited by people speaking a variety of Caucasian and Indo-European languages, some of whose traces can still be found today. Religious and cultural influences included Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam; Persia and Byzantium.
Main street, Lahic
Travelling north-westwards from Baku, I left the main road at Ismailli, and boarded a rickety old marshrutka for the journey up to the mountain village of Lahic (or Lahij). This picturesque little village, nestling among the mountains, has become famous for its handicrafts, notably metalwork and leather, and also for its language, Lahiji, a dialect of Persian. Persian influence in the region goes back millennia. This little outpost of less than one thousand inhabitants in Lahic, plus a few hundred more in surrounding hamlets, has held on for centuries in the remote mountain fastness. But what chance do they have of surviving in the modern world of mass education, television and the internet? My genial host was optimistic. They all speak Azerbaijani (he also spoke Russian and English), and he seemed confident they would continue to speak their own language among themselves. Yet while I stayed there, his wife’s relatives were visiting. The children did not speak Lahiji, and conversation was in Azerbaijani. As people travel and marry outside the community, the already vanishingly small pool of people who speak their native tongue will surely shrink. As to their identity? My host was clear; they were Azeri. They just spoke a different language. I wandered along the stone-paved streets, looking into the workshops, with their pots and pans and leather goods. The houses are built with thin layers of wood in the stone walls, as a protection against earthquakes. The village has become a popular destination for Azeri weekend trippers, who have their photos taken in traditional mountain costumes. Lahic’s isolation is over, and the distinctiveness of its people and language seems unlikely to survive much longer.
Back in Ismailli, I continued my journey north-westwards. There was no bus from there to my next destination, Oguz. My host in Lahic had told me I might be able to flag down a bus coming from Baku, but that I could not count on it. But I was in luck. I asked a man for directions, and he told me that in ten minutes he would be driving to Gabala, a town on the way to Oguz, and he would give me a lift. From Gabala I could pick up a marshrutka for Oguz. So a short journey, trying to communicate in my broken Russian with the cheerful driver. Oguz was perhaps a strange place to choose to stop. There were two or three hotels there, the best of which was fully booked. My main reason for choosing to stay in Oguz was the presence of a well-preserved church, now a museum, which is described in guidebooks as having been Caucasian Albanian.
Among the peoples that make up Azerbaijan’s heritage, the Caucasian Albanians, no relation to the Albanians in the Balkans, are a cause of particular controversy even today. For centuries, prior to the arrival of Islam, they ruled an area encompassing much of present-day Azerbaijan and part of Dagestan, to the north (in the present-day Russian Federation). Gabala was their capital. In a region beset by national conflicts, the heritage of the Caucasian Albanians has been a matter of fierce dispute.
While staying in Oguz, I made the short trip to the village of Nic (Nij), halfway back along the road to Gabala. Nic is home to the Udi minority, whose language is believed to be a direct descendent of the principal language of the Caucasian Albanians. Just a few thousand strong now, they have retained their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, as well as their adherence to the Christian religion. I visited a tumbledown church in the centre of the village, with trees sprouting out of the roof. The cavernous interior, with its dirt floor, was evidently little used, but there were some votive candles on the altar, indicating that some continued to pray there. Over the entrance was a plaque, giving the date of the church as 1890. The plaque was in Armenian, indicating the church’s adherence to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Most Caucasian Albanians who had remained Christian after the arrival of Islam gradually assimilated as Armenians. The Udi clung on to their language and heritage, but as the church in Nic bore witness, their religious needs had been met in the Armenian church. Perhaps there had not been an Armenian priest there for many years.
The absence of Armenians in today’s Azerbaijan, where they had until the break-up of the Soviet Union and the terrible war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, been a substantial minority, has left a raw wound, as had the expulsion of Azeris from Karabakh and surrounding areas of Azrbaijan occupied by Armenian forces. Signs of the historical presence of Armenians jar with the official version of Azerbaijan’s history promoted by the regime. Yet, as Thomas de Waal pointed out in his excellent book on The Caucasus, Baku had a stronger Armenian heritage than Yerevan before the population upheavals of Russian and Soviet rule. I had visited an Armenian church in central Baku, ringed by a stout fence, its entrance blocked off. There are almost no more Armenians left to use it anyway. Oguz was called Vartashen until 1991, when its name was changed in a bid to eradicate the heritage of the departed Armenian population. The museum church, now labelled as Caucasian Albanian, had surely served the town’s erstwhile Armenians. Oguz does, however, have a handsome, well maintained synagogue.
From Oguz, I continued north-westwards to Sheki. Close-by Sheki is the mountain village of Kish, which is known especially for its church, which is thought to date from around the 12th century. A beautiful little chapel, it was restored in 2000-03 by a Norwegian-funded project. Azerbaijan has particular links with Norway, notably owing to the rather eccentric claims by the adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon-Tiki fame, that the roots of the Norwegian people were in Azerbaijan, and that Norwegians and Azeris shared a common ancestry. He based his claims on the similarities between cave paintings in the two countries, as well as Norwegian mythology, which he believed pointed to a Caucasian origin. The church is now a museum, and among the displayed texts about the history of the church, and the links between Kish and Norway, is one expounding Heyerdahl’s theory.
This church also could not escape the controversies about the Caucasian Albanian heritage. I chatted with a lady who runs a café opposite the church and doubles as a tour guide for English speaking visitors. While Armenians had worshipped there in more recent times, she vehemently denied the Armenian heritage of the place. The Armenians had taken it over only in the 19th century, she said, and had trashed the documents demonstrating the Caucasian Albanian origins of this and other churches. This is part of ‘our heritage’ she hotly asserted, meaning Azerbaijan’s, her indignation at the perceived Armenian usurpation of her country’s past boiling over. Some have asserted that there were Udi speakers in Kish when the region was taken over by imperial Russia at the start of the 19th century. Perhaps they were subsequently assimilated as Armenians; perhaps there had been Armenians there already; perhaps other Armenians had migrated there from elsewhere. I did not have enough information to resolve these conundrums. Complicating matters further is the claim that the church had originally been Georgian. Surely the clearest conclusion to all this is that in the shifting sands of Caucasian history, no one people can lay an exclusive claim to the heritage of the Caucasian Albanians or the remains of their once great civilisation.
Sheki itself also has a notable heritage, and it is in the process of being spruced up, its monuments renovated for the increasing numbers of visitors. Sheki’s origins go back to antiquity, and it had been one of the most important towns of Caucasian Albania. But it was moved to its present position only in the 1770s, following a devastating flood at the nearby earlier site. The town was the capital of the Sheki Khanate, in its day one of the most important of the Caucasian Khanates. Its glory is the Khan’s palace. Built as a summer palace, it was restored in the 1950s and 60s, and again in 2002-04. In size, it is relatively modest, and not particularly palatial. But its splendour is in its décor, placing it among the finest and most beautiful buildings I have visited. Stained-glass windows known as shebake are formed of a delicate lattice work made out of wood, put together without nails or glue, and fitted with coloured glass in geometric patterns. The craftsmanship is superb, and like nothing else I had seen before. The interior walls are decorated with intricate paintings of flowers, birds, hunting scenes and battles. In the palace it is an enchanted world of harmony and beauty, so appealing in the art and architecture of the Islamic world, whose vision of paradise, unlike the pomp and bombast of so much western architecture, is of quiet harmony and simplicity.
- Heritage and identity in Azerbaijan