Azerbaijan – culture, traditions, arts, and cuisine

Kanan Aghasiyev is a native Azerbaijani born in the remote village of Qaziqumlaq in 1995, 251 km away from the capital Baku. He is deeply interested in Azerbaijani literature, culture, and history. Currently, he is studying English Language and Literature in Turkey and Poland. Kanan shares his passion for English literature and language in his blog. And now he’ll share the magic of his homeland with us.

Baku, Azerbaijan drone photo
Sunrise over Baku, drone view, by Nace Sapundjiev

Culture of Azerbaijan

Coming to the local culture, the first thing, as it is in many countries, is to respect older people. Respect for the elderly is in the whole country. If you meet with an old person, when you greet him or her, shaking with one hand is disrespectful. Shaking using your two hands keeping their hand inside your hands is the symbol of showing your respect to the person in front of you that even you are stronger than them because the wisdom you have is not enough.

To know more about Azerbaijani culture, it is enough to visit the country during the national holiday Nowruz. Nowruz means “new day” which means new birth of everything just like spring. Nowruz is the official New Year of Iran and it used to be the official New Year of Azerbaijan till the beginning of the 20th century. By the coming of the Christmas and New Year Eve traditions to Azerbaijan, Nowruz was accepted as the spring holiday of Azerbaijan. But still many people call Nowruz the starting of the new year.

Nowruz is celebrated in some countries around the Middle East and Central Asia, but I would say it is more alive in the Land of Fire because the main symbol of Nowruz is the fire which is the main symbol of Azerbaijan.

On the 20-21st of March, each family makes a fire. According to traditions, there have to have seven fires in the garden but if it is not possible then it is okay to have at least three of them. Jumping over the fire seven times and saying “ağırlığım-uğurluğum odlara” is important which is not possible to translate into English directly but it may give the idea that says that: I leave all my problems on the fire and take energy from it to go to the new year.

To extinguish the fire, it is necessary to wait until the end. Throwing water on it is accepted as a big sin. If it is really necessary then it could be turned off with some soil. All this respect comes from Zoroastrianism. Even some cultural historians say that Nowruz comes from Zoroastrianism traditions which makes it even older than any holiday including the one so similar to it, the Slavic Kupala.

Children’s sweet gatherings by wearing traditional masks, egg coloring, and fighting, visiting relatives, and going to graveyards to visit the dead members of the family are so important. These traditions are so close to the Slavic Kupala even though they are not related to each other geographically.

The emerging green grain called Samani is one of the most important traditions of Nowruz. Samani symbolizes the new life, new day, new blood, and the new world. My mom believes that if Samani is thick, then the year is going to be very good, very rich, but if it is not thick then the year is not good to be good for the family so it is better to take some precautions. For each child of the family, there has to be one Samani, and one for the new dead relative of the family. People put Samani with the same Nowruz sweets on the graves so as to make the souls of the dead people that they are still in their hearts.

Traditional wear of Azerbaijan, by Nace Sapundjiev
Traditional wear of Azerbaijan, by Nace Sapundjiev

Cultural and Educational Development

After being under the control of the Russian and Soviet empires, Azerbaijani culture mixed a lot. While there were the local new year, Nowruz, Azerbaijanis started to celebrate Christmas. The architectural style of Baku changed completely thanks to the rich oil magnates of Baku that built so many Renaissance period’s buildings in Baku.

For the first time in the Muslim East, schools for girls and Universities were made. Even the right to vote for women for the first time in the Muslim East was given to Azerbaijani women in 1918 by the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic before the Soviet occupation. Ekinchi (“The Cultivator”) was the first Azerbaijani-language newspaper, published in Baku between 1875 and 1877. It was the first newspaper fully printed in Azerbaijani, as well as the first newspaper in Russia printed in a Turkic language.

Opera for the first time in the East in 1908, Leyli and Majnun by Uzeyir Hajibeyov (composed from the same-named poem of Nizami Ganjavi). Even today Leyli and Majnun operetta is the most famous one in Azerbaijan that is played all the time. The first thing you have to do when you go to Azerbaijan is to see this beautiful opera play in the old opera theatre of the Nizami street of Baku.

Nizami museum on Nizami street, Baku, by Hans-Jurgen Maurer (German Publisher)
Nizami museum on Nizami street, Baku, by Hans-Jurgen Maurer (German Publisher)

Books and Writers

Azerbaijanis love poetry and they are proud of their poetry and literature. When you say poetry in Azerbaijan everyone imagines in the mind the greatest poet of Azerbaijan, Nizami Ganjavi. He is known as the father of Azerbaijani literature, as well as Persian because of the language that he used in his poetry.

He lived in the 12th century. His greatest work is known as Khamsa which contains five different epic stories. The greatest one of these poems is Leyli and Majnun which is I would say the oldest version of Romeo and Juliet, is the Romeo and Juliet of the East.

Fizuli, another greatest writer of the East and Azerbaijan rewrote the same poem in a bit different form in the 16 century. His Leyli and Majnun are similar to Nizami’s but it mostly talks about the love between God and humans.

Ali and Nino of Leo Nussimbaum (known as Kurban Said as well as Essad Bey) is another book that describes almost all the cultural and historical background of Azerbaijan by telling us a novel of a Georgian Christian girl and Azerbaijani Muslim prince during the I World War and the Soviet occupation in Azerbaijan. The book was a bestseller of the last century in Europe, was translated to so many languages, and still is a bestseller in Azerbaijan.

Because the writer was of Jewish origin he had to leave Azerbaijan due to the Soviet occupation and lived in Germany and some parts of Europe and died in Italy after suffering from a horrible sickness when he was only 38. But he wrote 16 books. One of them is Blood and Oil in the Orient which is an imagery autobiography of him that talks about how Baku got richer with the money of oil and how it became the heart of East and West. Hans-Jurgen Maure, a German publisher (mentioned above), has very good investigated articles and materials about Leo Nussimbaum. Maurer’s collection of Leo Nussimbaum is one of the very few sources of true information about the complicated life of the great writer of Azerbaijani literature (Leo Nussimbaum).

Days in the Caucause or Caucasian Days is a memoir by the French writer of Azerbaijani origin Banine, published in Paris in 1945. Banine also had to leave the country due to the same reason. After the occupation of Baku by the Soviet army, she escaped to France and lived there until her death. The book may look a bit different to you compared to Ali and Nino but it says the reality of Azerbaijan of that time. Because she struggled a lot, she mostly describes negative things, ignorance of Baku’s society.

Molla Nasreddin’s satiric journal started to be published by Jalil Mammadqulizadeh in 1905 in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia). Molla Nasreddin could be connected to the book of Banine because of its stories about the social problems of society, how they suffer from religious ignorance. Journal Molla Nasreddin was very famous in the whole Middle East and Central Asia. Mammadqulizadh is known as the first Azerbaijani feminist because of the journal that he published for women. Jamil’s most famous work is often said to be The Post Box published in 1904.

Henna painting art in Baku, Azerbaijan, by Nace Sapundjiev
Henna painting art in Baku, by Nace Sapundjiev

Movies

Because Azerbaijan was the center of the oil industry very first movies were about the oil wells of Baku. In 1898, the first Azerbaijani movie was made about the explosions in the oil wells of Bibihebat, Baku. In 1916, before the October revolution of Russia, a full movie in the history of Azerbaijan was shot named as In The Kingdom of Oil and Millions (Azerbaijani: Neft və milyonlar səltənətində). The movie talks about the effect of money on human life. Jalil, a poor village boy suddenly got very rich because of the oil well in his land which changes his whole life. By the time, he loses his morality and runs after the material charm which brings his tragic end. Banine, the writer of The Days in the Caucasus writes on the very first page of the book about her own family and his ancestors that they got rich just because of the oil and they do not have “blue blood”…

Unfortunately, it is not possible to find this movie anymore. According to some people, the movie was burned while a theatre was burning in Baku. But in 1980, Qızıl Uçurum based on the same story of In The Kingdom Of Oil And Millions. It is possible to find the movie on YouTube.

Azerbaijanis suddenly got very rich because of the oil industry. So many millionaires and magnates of Azerbaijan got their money from the oil industry, even people from Europe and Russia came to Baku to get rich. Nobel and Simens brothers are only two examples of them that their names are known by everyone. 19 century of Azerbaijan is so similar to the Commonwealth period of England: countless money, more middle class, and tragic endings because of the misusing of money just like the tragic ending of Jalil of the ”In The Kingdom of Oil and Millions” (as well as Qızıl Uçurum).

The Cloth Peddler (Arşın Mal Alan) is a comedy film of Azerbaijan that was made in 1945 based on the same-named operetta. The movie is almost the best work of the Azerbaijani comedy section. Class distinction is the main theme of the film as well as the religious beliefs and ignorance of people. The movie has a happy ending of a couple from the very high class of the society which brings an ironic twist at the beginning of the story that the father of the girl thinks that the boy is a poor boy because he is selling clothes in the streets. But selling clothes is only a trick to see the faces of the girls. Seeing the face of the girl before marriage was forbidden in society, that is what the writer of the story was trying to send to the people that love is a serious subject and all the time, it cannot be done by following the rules of the traditions.

A very new movie of our time is Ali and Nino which is based on the same story of Leo Nussimbaum (known as Kurban Said as well as Essad Bey) that we talked about above. The movie starts from the middle of the book but still, it is so close to the book. The movie was shot in Baku and in the north of Azerbaijan as it happens in the book itself.

Oil in Azerbaijan

The oil industry is the main industry that the country earns money from. During the Second World War, 70% of the oil products of the Soviet empire were from Baku. Even one of the main ideas of Hitler was to get Baku and damage the oil power of the Soviet Empire. In a video, that you can find on YouTube, Hitler cuts a piece of a cake that was written “Baku” on it.

Unfortunately, today, so many lands of Baku and the Caspian sea are polluted with oil. You can easily smell the oily see when you walk near the shore of it.

Polluted land behind the skyscrapers of Baku, by Johannes Plate
Polluted land behind the skyscrapers of Baku, by Johannes Plate

Azerbaijani cuisine

So many people think that Azerbaijani cuisine is so similar to Turkish or Arabic ones, but it is absolutely different than these two. Arabic food contains too many species that you may never see anywhere in the world while the Turkish one is the quite opposite but they care about the appearance of the food more than the test of it.

If we rank the meals of Azerbaijani cousine, in the first place we would put Dolma which is made from grape leaves that contain a large amount of meat and some other ingredients inside of the leaves. You can find it anywhere in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. But the way that they cook it in Azerbaijan is quite different than the other regions. Azerbaijan has 25 types of this meal, dolma. Each region has its own style of cooking dolma. One of them is Yalanchi which is completely made from vegetables. The word “yalanchi” means fake in Turkish languages which gives us a funny accomplishment because the leaves do not contain meat inside of it, that kind of dolma is called Yalanchi, fake. Yalanchi Dolma is very famous in the Aran region of Azerbaijan, as well as in Syria, Iran, Iraq, and some other middle eastern countries, and the most interesting thing is that they call it with its own name Yalanchi, not in Arabic.

As dolma, the fame of pilaw is very known by everyone. In most of the places of Azerbaijan, it is called Ash instead of pilaw. Ash has 51 kinds in Azerbaijan. Each region has its own taste of making Ash. The most known types of it are “doshemeli ash”, “shah pilaw”, and “shuyutlu pilaw”. Dosemeli Ash is I would say the most delicious kind of pilaw. According to the beliefs, if you eat the burned deep part of the pilaw, the weather on your wedding day will be very stormy, a funny belief of people.

Lavangi, a chicken inside nuts and some vegetables, is the most famous meal of the Lankaran-Astara region of Azerbaijan. This meal belongs to the cuisine of Azerbaijani Talishs. Not everyone can cook it. If you want to taste it, it is a must that you have to travel to Lankaran which will be worth it when you see the warm-hearted Talish people of the south of Azerbaijan.

Dovga and Piti are the other famous meals of Azerbaijan. While Dovga is completely vegetarian made from yogurt and vegetables, a kind of yogurt soup, Piti is a quite heavy meal that contains a tail of sheep that for sure you will want to sleep after eating though it is only eaten in the very early morning as breakfast in Shaki, north of Azerbaijan. Dovga is also a very important drink at local weddings.

Baklava or Paxlava, Shakarbura, and jam are the most known deserts of Azerbaijan. In Nowruz, Paxlava and Shakarbura are cooked in each house. Both of them are quite sweet and you may have high tension after eating a few of them. Coming to the Jam, Azerbaijanis love cooking jams of each fruit, even from vegetables in the South of the country. Usually, the women gather together and make jams from different kinds of fruits for the winter. Jam is eaten while drinking black tea, which is drunk at least ten times a day, and eaten as breakfast.

cooking qutab, Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape Reserve, Baku, Azerbaijan
A lady cooking traditional qutab in Qobustan, by Nace Sapundjiev

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  1. […] as you really want to immerse yourself in the Azerbaijan culture, you head to the mud volcanoes. But first, you stop on the bridge to leave whatever vehicle you […]