Azerbaijan has a rich history and culture, and boasts of many natural wonders and musical traditions. Here are five things you should know about the Caspian Sea nation:
The land of fire
Due to the abundance of natural flames coming from the energy-rich nation’s huge underground gas deposits, Azerbaijanis often call their country “The Land of Fire”. The expression is rooted in Zoroastrianism, a fire-worshipping religion that dominated the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan before it adopted Shia Islam. The pentagonal castle-like Baku Temple of Fire had an altar with eternal fire that was fed by underground gas coming to surface and lit up due to the contact with oxygen. A red flame features at the centrepiece of Azerbaijan’s state emblem.
One of the country’s most important landmarks, the imposing Azix Magarasi six-cave complex, is located on the territory of Nagorny Karabakh, which has been under Armenian control since it was seized during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The labyrinthine limestone caves adorned with stalactites and stalagmites are considered by archaeologists to be one of the oldest living sites of prehistoric humans in Eurasia, dating back 1.5 million years.
A complex art form blending traditional Azerbaijani musical improvisation and classical poetry, Mugham reflects different periods of Azerbaijan’s history and its contacts with other Turkic peoples, as well as Persians, Armenians, and Georgians. Cultivated by members of the Sufi orders and by performers of religious dramas, the genre features a male or female singer accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments, such as a long-neck lute, a four-string spiked fiddle, and a large tambourine. A short selection of Azerbaijani Mugham was in 1977 included on the Voyager Golden Record attached to the Voyager spacecraft to represent world music.
Azerbaijan’s national animal, the Karabakh horse, is a mountain-steppe racing and riding breed noted for its speed, intelligence and red-golden colour. Thanks to their suppleness, the Karabakhs are ideal mount for Azerbaijan’s national sport, chovgan, a polo-like horse-riding game played on a flat, grassy field by two competing teams. One of the world’s oldest, the breed currently numbers below 1,000 and is threatened with extinction.
According to the Azerbaijani constitution, the country is a democratic republic, but in fact it is for over three decades ruled with an iron fist by uncrowned monarchs — a family which, critics say, has crushed the opposition and used their power to amass a fortune that funds its lavish lifestyle. Current president Ilham Aliyev, succeeded in 2003 his father Heydar, the former Communist leader of the ex-Soviet republic. Cementing his family’s grip on power, Ilham Aliyev last year appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president — after having awarded her with the country’s highest honour, the Order of… Heydar Aliyev.