The importance of reviving the national, historical and cultural identity of the Azerbaijanis
Guivami Rahimli: “President Heydar Aliyev wanted to show the importance of reviving the national, historical and cultural identity of the Azerbaijanis…”
The early years (1991-1993) of Azerbaijan’s renewed independence were a very challenging time with combined crises– occupation of its territory by Armenian forces, consequential and post-independence instability and general economic decline in the country.
Heydar Aliyev made a pragmatic comeback in 1993 to rescue his nation, not letting the competing forces in the country and the war in Garabagh tear the nation apart.
In 1994, during the first year of Heydar Aliyev’s presidency, he showed an understanding of the need in foreign investment if Azerbaijan was to escape the Soviet legacy of economic inefficiency. Thus, the first step was to sign the Contract of the Century. Later on, Heydar Aliyev participated in the opening ceremony devoted to the commissioning of the “Dada Gorgud” drilling rig in the framework of the Contract of the Century in August 1996, highlighting the importance of this event, which was related to the name of this rig:
“This drilling rig was given the name of Dada Gorgud… I must say that I was proposed about ten names connected with traditions, history and various places of Azerbaijan. All of them were worthy for naming the rig. But I adopted a decision to call it Dada Gorgud. I think this name is very sacred and dear for each Azerbaijani, and therefore, it is the worthiest to name the rig after him.”
The reason was that the Azerbaijani people trace their Turkic cultural legacy from “The Book of Dada Gorgud,” a masterpiece of the world’s treasury of epic poems for its humanitarian ideas. Religious tolerance, which was a characteristic of the Oghuz-Turkic mindset, is also reflected in these poems. This literary landmark, whose 1,300th anniversary was marked by UNESCO in 2000, is a cultural phenomenon that encompasses the past and the present in the history of humanity.
Naming the drilling rig Dada Gorgud indicated the importance of cultural heritage and Heydar Aliyev was confident that a strong sense of national identity enables a nation to stay strong even when the surrounding political forces challenge the nation and its right to existence.
Heydar Aliyev loved his country and its history. He knew the history very well and valued the main
In Azerbaijan’s history, the most powerful expression of Azerbaijani identity came with the rise of Shah Ismail Khatai (1487–1524) during the Safavid era. The Safavids were a linguistically and politically Azerbaijani dynasty upon their rise to power in the beginning of 16th century. For the first time in history, by a decree of Shah Ismail Khatai, the Azerbaijani language was elevated to the status of an official language of court and military in the Safavid Empire.
In the 20th century, the Azerbaijani language twice became an official language for a short period of time. The Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, which existed for about two years (1918-1920), is characterized as a period of formation of the national self-consciousness of the Azerbaijani people. By a special law, the Parliament of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan declared the Azerbaijani language as the official state language. In 1945-1946, when the Azerbaijan People’s Government was established in South Azerbaijan (the Azerbaijani populated territories of Iran), the parliament of the new Azerbaijani government announced Azerbaijani as an official language which was taught at schools and universities, replacing Farsi.
Of course, the usage and official status of the native language is one of the main factors in nation-building. After independence in 1991, Azerbaijani was declared the state language, and Latin was declared the official alphabet. However, a decade after independence people still continued using the Cyrillic alphabet and the Russian language in government institutions.
President Heydar Aliyev was keen to ensure that Azerbaijani was the state language in actual practice. To strengthen the use of the Azerbaijani language he made a deadline and issued a presidential decree that all official documents in all of the governmental offices must be written in the Azerbaijani language using the modified Latin alphabet. In his decree, President Aliyev stated that first time in Azerbaijan’s history it was Shah Ismail Khatai early in the 16 century who passed a decree that the Azerbaijani language should be used as an official language in his state of Safavids. By mentioning Shah Ismail Khatai, Heydar Aliyev wanted to show the importance of reviving the national, historical and cultural identity of the Azerbaijanis, as Shah Ismail Khatai is viewed as one of the greatest personalities in Azerbaijan’s glorious history for his political, military, scholarly and poetic competences.
For centuries, the Azerbaijani carpets have accurately represented our nation’s great past, unique culture, and its origins. They have always been popular in the world’s most famous auction houses, such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s or Bonhams. These precious carpets were woven in different parts of Azerbaijan and the weavers used the traditions dating back at least to the 11th century and used designs that belonged to their tribe and regions where they lived. They generally inserted their own ornaments and tribal symbols in the empty areas of the carpet to show their identity. In Europe and in the world as a whole these carpets, with various designs, historically representing different regions of Azerbaijan – Baku carpets, Tabriz carpets, Ganja carpets, Ardabil carpets, Garabagh carpets, Shusha carpets, Guba carpets, Gazakh carpets, Shirvan carpets, Derbend carpets, Sheki carpets and other parts of Azerbaijan, were called “Caucasian” or “Persian” depending on whether the carpet was woven north or south of the Araz river that now divides the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran. Just like one of the world’s largest, most beautiful and historically important Ardabil carpet of 16th century in Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. The carpet’s display board in the museum shows that the carpet was weaven in Ardabil, one of Azerbaijan’s provinces of Iran.
As a matter of fact, 95% of Caucasian-labelled carpets and perhaps up to half of the so-called Persian carpets are in reality Azerbaijani carpets. The map published in every Sotheby’s Auction catalogue showing the classic oriental carpet weaving areas clearly shows Azerbaijan as the name of the area where most of the so-called Caucasian and many of the so-called Persian carpets originated.
Azerbaijani carpets were also used as decorative features in Western European paintings from the 14th century onwards. These carpets woven by Azerbaijani weavers were exported to Western Europe, and consequently were available to the Renaissance artists.
However, the Azerbaijani carpets needed better recognition in the world, which for various twists and turns of history generally are not attributed to Azerbaijan. And it started with Heydar Aliyev who once was one of the most influential leaders of the Soviet Union. As the First Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers he supported holding an international symposium on Azerbaijani carpets under the patronage of UNESCO in Baku in 1983 and personally participated in this symposium representing the top Soviet leadership, thus reinforcing the importance of this event in uncovering and preserving Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage. This was the first biggest event on correcting the historical record by adding the name of Azerbaijan to all the carpets made by Azerbaijani people living in both the Republic of Azerbaijan as well as the carpets made in Iran by ethnic Azerbaijanis. The famed Azerbaijani carpet expert Latif Karimov had played a fundamental role in this recognition presenting all statistics related to Azerbaijani carpets to this international forum. In Karimov’s in-depth research presented in his three-volume book “Azerbaijan Khalchasi” – “The carpet of Azerbaijan” published in 1983, one can find the analysis of ornamental elements of more than 1,300 Azerbaijan carpets, indicating the regions of Azerbaijan where these exquisite carpets were woven.
Today you can see the new carpet-shaped museum of Azerbaijani carpets as a landmark in Baku. And it was Heydar Aliyev who first opened the Carpet Museum in Baku in 1972 – the first carpet museum in the world. As a result of his policy “The Traditional Art of Azerbaijan Carpet weaving in the Republic of Azerbaijan” was included into the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity showing Azerbaijan’s historic and continuing role as one of the world’s major carpet production centres.
During the dark times of renewed independence, Heydar Aliyev used every opportunity to promote Azerbaijan culture which gives dignity and pride to the people. He wanted people to understand that he supported traditional values of Azerbaijan, and that cultural heritage is important because it is an essential ingredient to national identity and plays an important role in nation-building. When Heydar Aliyev learned that an American kamancha player Jeffrey Werbock had been invited to perform a concert at the newly renovated Opera House in Baku devoted to Independence Day of Azerbaijan he wanted to meet with him in his office. Heydar Aliyev had himself played the tar in his youth and meeting with American kamancha player was a good opportunity to convey his messages on traditional culture to greater audience.
Heydar Aliyev greatly appreciated the idea of inviting the American who loves Azerbaijan culture and promotes Azerbaijani mugham music in many Western countries.
The meeting with Jeffrey Werbock was very interesting lasting more than half an hour despite the President’s busy schedule. There was a very curious moment near the end of the conversation when Jeffrey Werbock invited President Heydar Aliyev to his concert the same evening handing over the concert invitation and pointing out that the invitation ticket was actually for two people, as if he needed to be informed that he could bring a guest with him and needed an invitation ticket!
In a moment Jeffrey became conscious of what he had offered while the President had a hearty laugh over it, and I was among witnesses to this exchange and tell this story in every gathering of how my “strange” American friend invited the now iconic President Heydar Aliyev to his concert, saying he could bring anyone he liked!
Another important message from the meeting was Jeffrey’s promise to President Aliyev that if Azerbaijan ever got its lands back, he would personally come to help build a mugham school in Shusha, the cultural and spiritual capital of Garabagh where Azerbaijani mugham was born.
Heydar Aliyev had a talent for inspiration. He talked of all that needed to be done, – unity of purpose, service to one’s country, music, poetry, the cause of peace on earth.
Azerbaijani mugham is truly of a great cultural phenomenon. Mugham has a thousand years of musical tradition and is a highly complex art form that weds classical poetry and musical improvisation. Heydar Aliyev greatly appreciated mugham singer Alim Qasımov’s talent whose performance encouraged the rebirth of this important piece of Azerbaijani national culture. At that time the birthplace of Azerbaijani mugham, Garabagh was under Armenian occupation placing it in danger of disappearing. And Alim Qasimov’s performance of mugham helped the people from Garabagh to maintain their identity under very difficult conditions.
Alim Qasimov – a living national treasure of Azerbaijan, has played a great role in spreading this musical and cultural heritage in the world. His unique performing style combines deep knowledge of centuries-old rules of mugham with challenging innovations.
The world’s appreciation of Azerbaijan’s musical riches was poised to change due to Alim Qasimov’s performance.
According to The New York Times, Alim Qasimov is one of the greatest singers alive, with a searing spontaneity that conjures passion and devotion, contemplation and incantation. The Guardian claimed him to be “one of the most thrilling, unashamedly emotional performers on the planet”. Le Monde described him as a virtuoso possessing “one of the most beautiful voices of our era”. The Times revered Alim Qasimov as “one of the five best singers of all time, … the living legend you’ve never heard of”.
In recognition of Alim Qasimov’s musical contributions to world peace, he was awarded the coveted International IMC-UNESCO Music Prize. With this prestigious award – the “Nobel Prize for Music”, Alim Qasimov joined a select company of musical genius, such as Yehudi Menuhin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Ravi Shankar, Olivier Messiaen and Daniel Barenboim.
Today, a good number of the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan was included to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Among them the Azerbaijani mugham, the Azerbaijani ashig art, the Novruz holiday, the national musical instrument “tar”, the traditional headwear “kalagayi”, the Azerbaijani carpet, the traditional Garabagh horse-riding game “chovqan”, the copper craftsmanship of Lahij village, were included in the honor roll of UNESCO’s world masterpieces and this process will continue enrich the corresponding lists of UNESCO in future. This small multi-ethnic state with rich cultural heritage is viewed as a model for ethnic and religious tolerance. Respect and tolerance for national minorities has played a vital role in the development of this country from old times to modern days.
This year, in Heydar Aliyev’s 100 anniversary, we, the people of Azerbaijan, honor the life, legacy and leadership of the man who called us to think of our country’s cultural legacy.
This article originally appeared on AzerTac on June 14, 2023.