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Entries in Azerbaijan (6)


Azerbaijan – an Islamic eye-opener

Among many atheists there is a trend to rank Islam as representing the worst of religious excesses (conversely, Eastern religions tend to get off the lightest, at least among Western atheists). The rationale for this ranking appears rather weak. Clearly, it is very easy to spot abuses of religious power among the Islamic world, but the same can be said of the Christian world. Yes, there are Islamic terrorists, but equally there are many Christian terrorists - terrorism in Northern Ireland (more than 2000 killed), the Ku Klux Klan (a hundred years of terrorism), anti-abortionist terrorists in the US (on average 10 attempted bombings/arsons per year and five murders/assaults every year) and so forth. Historical acts of Christian violence would probably well and truly exceed that of Islamic violence - Crusades, witch burnings and the Spanish Inquisition are just the beginning.

So why does Christianity tend to get let off relatively lightly by many atheists? I think there are two major reasons. The first is that anyone receiving media in the Western world is exposed to what I'll call "the black man" effect. If someone is murdered by a black man, the media will constantly talk about the murder by "a black man", while if someone is murdered by a white man, the media will just talk about the murder by "a man". Likewise the reporting of any attempted bombing by an Islamic man will constantly mention his religion, while an attempted bombing by a Christian man will rarely ever mention his religious identity, even when clearly linked to motivation (such as abortion clinic bombings). The second reason, perhaps, is observer bias. It is all too easy for an atheist living in a post-Christian country to look at the Islamic nations that are most frequently in the press (Iraq and Afghanistan) and say - "sure, religion is causing problems here, but look at what Islam is doing to girls in Afghanistan!" Certainly Islam has much to answer for in Afghanistan, and other countries, but using modern western Europe as the control Christian country is a farce: firstly, the control countries are largely post-Christian with a wall between Church and State; secondly the past record of these countries, when controlled by the Christian church, was appalling (even today, child rape stories are constantly leaking out of the Church); and thirdly the comparison does not take into account development status, stability and other (non-religious) factors that can influence the outcome. Religious abuses show much greater parity at the regional level - Islamic terrorism in Sudan competes with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda (a major Christian terrorist organisation complete with child soldiers, massacres, mutilation, torture and rape) for the biggest death toll, genital mutilation of girls is practiced by Christians and Muslims across North Africa with equal frequency, Christian Ghana and Islamic Guinea both agree on horrific prison sentences for homosexuality, and so forth.

The other side of the argument is demonstrated by countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey is often touted as the modern model of an Islamic country, with highly religious people but a staunchly secular state. To me this makes Turkey analogous to the US, while Azerbaijan is a better example of the modern European model. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan are secular states with largely Islamic populations, but unlike Turkey (which is highly religious), Azerbaijan must be the closest example we have of a post-Islamic state. 95% of the population is Muslim, yet this Islamic population guarantees religious freedom under article 48 of its Constitution and a recent Gallup Poll showed Azerbaijan to be one of the most irreligious countries in the world, with 50% of the population ranking religion as having "little or no importance in their life". Azerbaijan is an eye-opener because it is a country full of people who self-identify as Muslims, but don't let it get in the way of their life - just as western Europe is full of people who self-identify as Christians but don't let it dictate "morality". And this makes a major difference - Azerbaijan was the first democratic secular republic in the Muslim world, and granted women equal voting rights to men in 1918 - before the United Kingdom or the United States. In our week in Azerbaijan I only saw a bare handful of women wearing a headscarf and no men with the traditional Islamic beard. Local restaurants all served alcohol and pig-products, and couples strolling along the boulevard hand-in-hand or sitting down and kissing were commonplace. Azerbaijan is less religious and less conservative than neighbouring Armenia or Georgia, both Christian with a shared history. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is that Azerbaijan is not exotic. It is just a normal country full of normal people doing normal things, an image I wish more people would see before making religious comparisons.


Mud volcanoes and petroglyphs

Today we visited the region Gobustan, famous for its mud volcanoes and petroglyphs. Mud volcanoes are low temperature volcanoes that burp and bubble mud rather than lava. Over half of all the thousand mud volcanoes in the world are on the Caspian coastline of Azerbaijan, with a special concentration in Gobustan. The mud volcanoes formed bubbling pimples on the surface of the desert plain, with slow motion mud flows and the occasional belch of mud flying through the air, accompanied by the sound like a heavy smoker’s cough. The methane bubbling up through the mud occasionally catches on fire (hence Azerbaijan, the land of eternal fire), making the site sacred to early Zoroastrians in Azerbaijan.

The petroglyphs of Gobustan are carved into the rock walls of the deep ravines that cut through the mountainous part of the region (Gobustan means “country of ravines”). The pictures of humans and animals date back from 3000 BCE to 40,000 BCE. Also carved into the rock at Gobustan is the most Eastern record of Latin script, engraved between 84 CE and 96 CE, by the Roman legion Legio duodecima Fulminata (Twelfth Lightning-Struck Legion), sent to guard the Eastern border of the Empire at its pinnacle.


Baku, old and new

New Baku is one of broad boulevards, amusement parks along the Caspian Sea and designer clothes stores and cafes in the city. Old Baku reaches as far back as the Maiden’s Tower, built sometime between the 7th and 15th centuries. The are two explanations behind the name “Maiden’s Tower”, once concerning a maiden who threw herself to her death, rather than be forced to marry her father, and the other (more prosaic, but equally distasteful in concept) that it is so named as it has never been taken by force. The Palace of the Shirvanshahs, several preserved Caravanserai and the Gasimbey bathhouse finish off the 15th-16th century architecture of the city, with more recent additions in the 19th century from oil barons made rich by the first major industrial extraction of oil (including the Nobel brothers, the Rothschild family and Rockefeller). Outside the city, old oil wells litter the landscape like dead trees surrounded by oily sand, but within the city centre the oil wealth left behind stately mansions and grand public houses.


The deserts of Azerbaijan

In Sheki, Azerbaijan was geographically very similar to Georgia, with fertile valleys and wooded hills. As we drove from Sheki to Samaki, however, the land became progressively flatter and drier, to form the semi-arid hills where the dead tombs of forgotten Kings lie. After Samaki, Azerbaijan became a parched desert, with the molten sun beating down on bare rock for endless flat kilometers. The desert landscape really shows in a nutshell exactly why the Azerbaijani government are so sore about having the region Nagorno-Karabakh, the most heavily forested in Azerbaijan, occupied by Armenia for the last twenty years.


Staying backstage in a Mugham Opera production


We stayed in Sheki in a converted caravanserai from the 18th century, once a trading centre for merchants working the Silk Route between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. When we arrived we found cameras set up and a choir assembled for a major performance, only to find out that there was an international folk music festival due to start that evening in our caravanserai. In the small courtyard where camel trains were once picketed, the young girls in the choir smiled and giggled while the Cossack-style dancers limbered up. Finally the important dignitaries filed in and took their seats and the music began. The high-light was undoubtedly a young man, with stress plastered over his face, who walked out into centre-stage to sing a solo Mugham ballad. He stood there and sang in an oddly metallic voice, moving a stretched hide against his face to change the echoes, in a song reminiscent of the Islamic call to prayer, but which really needs to be heard to be understood.

Our second night, after a day spent exploring the elaborate palace of Sheki, was the scene of a Mugham instrumental opera, with dancers using the room next door to ours to change costumes between acts, and people running around the hallways and stairs of the caravanserai while all was calm and perfect down in the courtyard.


Azerbaijani border guards

Crossing the border from Georgia to Azerbaijan at Lagodekhi can be quite an ordeal. Georgia and Azerbaijan have very good relationships, but after seeing Armenian stamps in our passports we came in for extra scrutiny. Relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia are frosty, to say the least, with 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory under occupation by Armenia (the region of Nagorno-Karabakh). Azerbaijan has responded by not only closing the border with Armenia, but banning the import of anything Armenian into the country. The Lonely Planet even has a warning in it that the book tends to get confiscated at the border. They say they don’t understand why, but it seems pretty obvious to me, they give Nagorno-Karabakh an independent section in the guide book, rather than listing it under Azerbaijan (for some inconsistency they list Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the Georgian chapter). Ahead of us a baggage search found some Georgian postcards, which resulted in an extensive conversation between the border guards as to whether the church depicted on the postcard was Georgian (acceptable) or Armenia (contraband). Looking back at my photos I’d be stretched to tell the difference. We inadvertently found a way to smuggle past the border guards – on opening a bag the border guard looked with mystification at a box of tampons, opening them up and trying to work out what they are. When the translator said a few quick words in Azerbaijani, the guard quickly shoved them back and waved the whole bag along without a thorough search.