Last September, I joined a group of academics from the Arab world and Europe on their way to celebrate the life and work of a 14th-century Azerbaijani poet. Held in Baku, the Nasimi Festival was a lavishly mounted series of cultural programmes devoted to Imadaddin Nasimi’s 650th birth anniversary. President Ilham Aliyev had earlier declared 2019 as the ‘Year of Nasimi.’ Known for his revolutionary poetry in the Turkic, Arabic and Persian languages and staunch advocacy of Hurufi philosophy that emphasised on the spiritual powers of letters and numbers, Nasimi was a bit of a misfit in his time. As he himself once remarked in a famous verse, “Both worlds can fit within me, but in this world I cannot fit / I am the placeless essence, but into existence I cannot fit.”
In 1417, Nasimi was accused of heresy. He was duly produced before a shariah court and ultimately executed in Aleppo by religious fundamentalists, sending shock waves across the region. Today, six centuries later, in what can be described as ‘poetic justice’, Nasimi has become one of modern Azerbaijan’s spiritual and moral guardians. “He laid the foundation of our literary and philosophical imagination,” said our host Emin Mammadov, as we whizzed past Baku’s cloud-bursting skyline with gleaming glass towers and skyscrapers interrupted at regular intervals by Soviet remnants, most starkly evident in the Brutalist architecture and ageing, Russian-made Ladas vying for space with Lamborghinis on the highway. If Nasimi were alive today he would have found it hard to recognise the new Baku, fuelled in recent years by oil riches that has made it a byword for both modernity and luxury. But here’s the one thing the Sufi mystic would be proud of—Azerbaijan’s exemplary secularism, a cause for which he had laid down his life.
“Nasimi is controversial and it’s brave of Azerbaijan to have embraced him,” observed Neil van der Linden, a scholar on Mid-East arts and culture and one of the key speakers at the Nasimi Festival. “Because Nasimi was born here in Shamakhi and because he was a dissident,” van der Linden went on, “through him Azerbaijan, in principle a Shi’a majority country, tries to distance itself from the traditional rift between Shi’a and Sunni Islam.” Throughout the festival, he lugged around a Nasimi tote bag gifted to all delegates upon arrival along with a Nasimi T-shirt and hoodie. An abiding interest in music and poetry keeps drawing van der Linden back to Baku. He claimed this to be his fourth trip.
Like van der Linden, tourists generally pour into Azerbaijan for its music and poetry—but also for its famed commitment to cosmopolitanism and diversity. The country’s nearly 99- lakh population observe the Islamic festival of Ramadan, but reserve their biggest celebrations for Nowruz, the Parsi new year. Sitting on the outpost of Eurasia, Azerbaijan’s liberal ambitions and Western values undoubtedly make it closer in spirit to Europe than to the Arab world and Asia. As a nation, it has successfully fostered a culture where its Islamic identity stays firmly in the backdrop. Driving around Baku, it was only after van der Linden pointed out Azerbaijan’s Euro-centrism that it struck me that there was hardly a mosque in sight. There was one, with a golden dome, near the airport. But you don’t hear the five-time calls to prayer, or azaan, which is typical of the Muslim world. Van der Linden termed it a Soviet heritage, explaining, “In Uzbekistan, for example, Chechnya Islam had a strong comeback. On the contrary, the Azerbaijani regime does not encourage religion. While Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly Shi’a, I think that most Azerbaijanis don’t see a strong Shi’a Islamic state comparable to Iran as their ideal. I have never heard of a crackdown on neither religion nor religious dissidents.” Imagine our shared surprise then, when the next day, while exploring the city during a break from the Nasimi celebrations, we discovered the Juma Mosque, a striking 12th-century Maragha-Nakhchivan masterpiece with its colourful tassels, ornaments, inscriptions and ghost elements.
The mosque stands in the heart of Baku, in what the locals call the ‘Icherisheher’—literally, the inner city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this medieval haven is Baku’s showpiece, a timely and welcoming reminder of the city’s rich spiritual past. Also called the Old City, this place is as perfect as any to reflect on Baku’s past, present and future; from this ancient walled enclave visitors can see the contours of modern Azerbaijan and its soaring ambition. Built in the 11-12th century when Azerbaijan was a part of the Persian empire, the Maiden Tower was once used as a lookout point. Today, you can climb its spiral staircase and see from its rooftop a city caught in a tremendous flux. Even as you get a feel of Icherisheher’s old-world charm, the glittering Flame Towers (a trio of skyscrapers) stand proudly in the background. Azerbaijan has a strong Zoroastrian heritage and the Flame Towers, symbolising fire in design, represent a link to its pre-Islamic past. It’s also a shining symbol of Baku’s 21st-century urbanism as well as its multiculturalism. But it is, by no means, the only modern attraction that Baku has to offer.
Perched on a slight elevation in a city that’s otherwise scandalously below the sea level, the Heydar Aliyev Center, with its wave-like ascension, has quickly become Baku’s hottest cultural property in less than a decade of its launch.
In 2018, it was accorded the ultimate tribute that any country can bestow on its national monument—a new 200-manat banknote was released by Azerbaijan’s Central Bank to honour the building’s extraordinary design. Based on a prizewinning Zaha Hadid blueprint, the Heydar Aliyev Center’s statement-making architecture is a sharp departure from Soviet Modernism. Many Azerbaijanis say the building reflects the “optimism of a nation that is looking to the future.” Mainly, Baku’s architecture is a “mix of many cultures including Persian, Ottoman European and Imperial Russian,” said Mammadov.
For artists like Ayna Moazen, the Icherisheher is a creative lifeline. On weekends, she can be found here enjoying a leisurely stroll and taking pictures for her Instagram. “Generally soaking in the ambience,” she smiled, when I caught up with her at the Nasimi Festival’s art event. “With all of its progress and constant change, Baku, for the most part, has retained a little of that Soviet hangover in a post-Soviet era,” said Moazen, who’s originally from Ardabil, Iran.
Arguably, the Icherisheher’s most striking monument is the 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs. If Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center is futuristic, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs is its exact opposite—the old dame with her hypnotic bygone charms. “We used to run along the streets of the Old City as children and play tag or hide-and-seek, hiding here in a secluded spot of one of the street deadlocks,” recalled Dr. Shirin Melikova, director of the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum. “In the sudden silence, it was possible to dream of a beautiful and distant future, looking straight into the clear blue-blue sky with slowly floating clouds as if cut out of paper,” she waxed eloquent in an email later. “I remember how in the square in front of the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, our teacher usually seated us in the wide and cool shade of the trees and gave us papers and pencils to draw… We, blushing and excited from running around, could not calm down and tune in to creative work, grabbed each other’s pencils, tore paper, laughed and copied cars and little men—but in the end, everyone managed to draw a bright yellow-yellow sun.”
The sun and fire are hopeful metaphors in a country watched over by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Despite being surrounded by these political and cultural giants, the Land of Fire has retained its distinctive culture. “Azerbaijan has a rich history in terms of its connection to the East and West, mainly because of its geographical position,” Zeigam Azizov, a noted British essayist and artist, told me. Azizov was one of the speakers whose talk on Nasimi, Hurufism and the “imperfections of existence”, was a big hit, especially with the young and hip crowd at the Baku Book Center, a capacious library aptly situated on a street named after the Russian literary god, Nikolai Gogol. “The strongest role played in the formation of Azerbaijani culture is a deeply colonial history, which led to a cultural mix from Zoroastrians of Persia on their way to India, then Caliphate, later the Ottomans and finally the Russian Empire before the Soviet,” said Azizov, who was born in Soviet Azerbaijan.
Van der Linden added, “In brief, I can say that Azerbaijan is still trying to find its place. It was carved off from Iran by the Czars…for a while it was part of a unity with Georgia, and the Ottomans vied for it too. Northwest Iran has a large Azerispeaking community and ethnically, there is a homogeneity. Over seventy years of USSR have also left their mark. And the conflict with Armenia. Now it tries to be on its own. Nobody wants to join Iran, although both are Shi’a and have a common history.” He added, smiling, “One thing is that most people love wine way too much to join Iran.”
Another eminent source on Baku’s culture I met during the festival was Dr. Michael Reinhard Hess, a Berlin-based scholar who had written books on poet Nasimi. Over the course of my trip we spent many hours talking. Scratch that. It was more like him talking and yours truly at the receiving end of his intellectual assault. “Baku, for me, is not only a place that is outwardly enjoyable with its boulevard, the cuisine, music, architecture, history and the friendly people—but one of the hubs of the Turkic-speaking world,” Hess told me during one of our dinnertime conversations. “All kinds of cultures meet and exist here side by side and also produce fruitful syntheses and experiments in a density and with a vividness I know from few other places. There is no other place where I have seen Iranians, Israelis, Arabs, Turks, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Chinese and Europeans get along with each other and exchange in such a non-conceited way as they do in Baku. Every time I am here, I like it a little more.”
For culture aficionados, there’s plenty to absorb here. For instance, the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum near the waterfront is an ideal place to explore Baku’s treasure troves. With its architecture resembling a rolling carpet, the museum is a one-of-its-kind, boasting the largest collection of Azeri rugs anywhere in the world. Established in 1967, the ANCM has preserved several 20th-century portrait carpets of Imadaddin Nasimi.
One of the exhibitions dedicated to Nasimi’s 650th anniversary featured a carpet by artist Eldar Mikailzada. At first glance, it resembled a straightforward portrait. But it turned out to be full of hidden symbolism. It depicted Nasimi in radiant colours with classical Azerbaijani khatai ornament designs at its bottom. Behind the poet’s shoulders one could see landscapes of two cities, his hometown Shamakhi on the right and Aleppo on the left, the final destination of his life. Swirling clouds with outlines of Arabic letters hovered above his head. “Arabic letters have numerical values,” said Dr.
Shirin Melikova, director of the ANCM as she accompanied us on a walk-through. “The composition includes numbers that have a special meaning both in the work of Nasimi and in Hurufism, the Sufi movement that he followed. They denote the numbers “1”, “4”, “5” and “6”. The unit (or 1) is the sign of the almighty, 4 symbolises seasons, 5 is the five pillars of Islam, and 6 is the unity of the sides and directions surrounding a person (up, down, left, right, forward, back).”
As Nasimi once advised in his own writing, “Look to the world from all six sides.”
Since Azerbaijan has a rich tradition of poetry, scholars insist on looking beyond Nasimi. More than Nasimi, it is Nizami Ganjavi who is considered the national poet of Azerbaijan today. “Nizami was born here although from a Persian-speaking family and he wrote in Persian,” van der Linden said. “So Persian and Azeri-speaking people compete for him.” Persia’s other great bard, Hafez, is virtually absent in Azerbaijan. “But he is the most prominent poet in Iran,” van der Linden was quick to remind. “Eighty five percent of the sung classical Iranian music is about Hafez. Rumi is less present in Iran. He was born in Balkh, now in Afghanistan, and died in Turkey, so nations in this region claim him, without fully wanting to claim his thoughts.”
When it comes to Persian poetry, most avid readers immediately think of Rumi and Hafez. Hafez is often claimed by Iran, as he was born in Shiraz while Rumi’s popularity transcends borders though he’s originally from Afghanistan. Hess laughed when I told him that without Rumi there would be no Bollywood. “Love is what many people want to read,” he piped up, adding, “In many of Rumi’s poems, love seems to be a solution to all of life’s problems.” Serious critics, on the other hand, favour the great Fuzuli’s Divan style. Compared to Nasimi, Fuzuli opted for lucid lyricism. “To be honest,”
Hess concurred, “Fuzuli’s poetry is regarded by many as the apogee of Azerbaijani poetry.” Extolling Fuzuli, Hess argued that his “works have become much more famous than those of Nasimi’s.” The explanation lay in the nature of their work: “While complicated mystical teachings underlay Nasimi’s verses Fuzuli frequently treated rather mundane topics.”
Because of its stirring alchemy of poetry and spirituality, as well as its own regional musical legacy, Baku is home to a refined musical scene. Like in Iran or India, for centuries, music has been a way of life for Azeris. While Azerbaijani jazz musicians and pianists are much sought-after globally, the ‘classical folkloric’ Azeri music known as mugam is highly revered for its heritage and history. “It is related to the mugam of Turkey and the shashmaqam of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the maqam of Iraq and the dastgah of Iran,” said van der Linden. We were at the Heydar Aliyev Center, savouring an evening of musical extravaganza that marked the Nasimi Festival’s finale. A lover of musique savante, van der Linden said, “Azeri music is very emotional and the text must consist of high poetry, as anybody not mastering Azeri could hear just as well.” Partly due to the Soviet influence, Baku also hosts ensembles and orchestras. After suggesting that I should try the Azerbaijani fusion of ‘Western’ classical music with local elements, Dr. Michael Reinhard Hess explained admirably, “The interest in music was kept alive in Azerbaijan through all the vicissitudes of history, including the creation and downfall of Safavid Iran and the Russian conquest.”
After four intense days of activity and heavy doses of cultural exchange, the Nasimi Festival ended on a fitting note, with a symphonic performance on a windy October evening. It was close to midnight when we reached our hotel after the show wrapped up. After bidding khoda-hafezes (Persian for ‘May god be your guardian’) and heleliks (Azerbaijani for ‘see you until next’), the scholars and professors who had early morning flights gradually retired to their suites. “Oh, don’t worry,” my friend Mammadov tried to cheer me up. “You will be back soon,” he said, reassuringly, before sending me off with a warm hug and a healthy reserve of poetry that I can gleefully quote the rest of the year.
Shaikh Ayaz is the kind of writer, who, say if he's in Melbourne will gladly skip the MCG for any art museum. But the problem is there aren't that many great art museums in Melbourne. Also, he's running out of professorial, serious-looking turtlenecks that help him, as he says, fit into the whole arty-farty culture.