Digging into the Past in Search of Azeri Identity
By Jack Coombes
The author in Baku.
Last summer I was awarded a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to participate in an intensive language-immersion program in Baku, Azerbaijan. Prior to applying for the scholarship, I had virtually no knowledge of Azerbaijani and a very limited understanding of the Caspian Sea region. My interests were related to energy politics of Eurasia and I thought that studying in an energy rich post-Soviet republic would be a good introduction to this field. What I did not expect, however, was that my time in the CLS Program would dramatically reshape my understanding of the region.
Having come from rainy Seattle to an arid climate where car exhaust, dust from countless construction sites, and 100-degree weather, the first couple of weeks were quite a shock. Despite the initial physical discomfort that comes with adjusting to a new environment, getting to know Baku was a great experience. Located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the city was an international hub under the Romanovs and throughout the Soviet era. Since 1991, Baku has grown considerably thanks to foreign investment in the country’s energy resources and a fair number of foreign businessmen, students and tourists now visit the city.
After our first month of study, a fellow student found part-time employment with Visions of Azerbaijan, an English-language magazine founded by the European Azerbaijan Society to promote Azeri history and culture. Upon learning that there was a group of Americans studying Azerbaijani in Baku, the magazine’s editor-in-chief invited us to Qabala, a village in the Caucasian foothills, four hours to the north on the Russia-Azerbaijan border. No one knew who exactly extended the invitation or what lay in store for us, but by then a weekend away anywhere seemed like a welcome adventure.
We were hosted by Tale Heydarov, a young Azeri entrepreneur born and raised in Qabala and known throughout the country as a prominent businessman. Tale is also famous as the son of Kamaladdin Heydarov, the former chairman of the State Customs Committee and the current Minister of Emergency Situations. The Heydarovs are one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Azerbaijan, possessing a sizable business empire. Kamaladdin Heydarov is currently using his substantial political influence and financial resources to transform Qabala from a backwater village into what he hopes will become an internationally recognized city. In addition to founding the Qabala International Music Festival, he imported a Dutch piano-making business, established a multinational juice factory, and built a five star resort to attract Azeri and international elite to the city.
After exploring the resort’s facilities, complete with over 200 rooms, numerous bars, restaurants, and conference rooms, a disco club, a full-sized paintball course, ATV and horse trails through the foothills, bars, restaurants, and a children’s entertainment center, our guide took us to what he considered to be the main points of historical interest in the city and the surrounding region. Following a trip to several churches built by Albans, an ancient people from whom the Azeri claim to have descended, we travelled to an archaeological excavation site located outside Qabala. Mr. Heydarov explained how the government has financed hundreds of similar excavations. The director of the site proudly displayed a set of findings such as primitive agricultural tools, pottery, coins and an unearthed burial ground. What stood out most, however, was the excitement his discovery elicited from the archaeological team. The artifacts, the director said, were proof that Alban tribes occupied this territory in ancient times, which in turn supported the government’s assertion that like Armenia, Azerbaijan holds historically justified territorial claims in the region.
Experiences like the visit to the archaeological site increased my awareness of the relationship between political conflicts and national identity in Azerbaijan, and in particular how the collapse of the Soviet Union compelled many groups to reshape their national identities. While this process is by no means unique to Azerbaijan, witnessing the geographic, cultural, and ethnic diversity of the South Caucasus first hand made it particularly vivid. Many of the Azeri I met considered themselves Turks above all else and sought closer relations with their Turkic neighbors. Others stated that the Azeri are first and foremost Muslims and in addition to a deep-rooted faith, share a close connection to the millions of Azeri living in Iran. There were also many others who saw themselves as citizens of a liberal-democratic and, more importantly, European society, arguing that any inconsistency between life in Azerbaijan and life in Western Europe will disappear as their economy continues to grow.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the country’s natural resources and its close proximity to regional powers, such as Turkey, Iran, and Russia influence and weigh on the government. As a result, the formation of an internationally recognized and respected national identity is of particular importance to the regime’s political legitimacy. Archaeological evidence of ancient Azeri settlements creates a common thread that bind the disparate and competing national identities described above. The government-funded excavations are therefore paramount to constructing Azeri national identity. Witnessing firsthand how regional conflicts and politics affect the formation of national identity was an invaluable and memorable experience.
Much of the scholarly literature pertaining to Caspian energy politics focuses on competing geopolitical agendas, regional conflict, and political alliances, often overlooking the very real cultural and historical ties that Azerbaijan shares with other regional powers. The influence of culture and national identity on Azerbaijani foreign economic policy is under-researched, but important to understanding the region. The CLS program provided me with both a unique insight into regional energy trade to use for future research, as well as an angle for examining regional issues that I could not have gained without studying in the country.
Jack Coombes is a second-year REECAS MA student. He received his BA in Russian Language and Literature from the University of Notre Dame in 2007. He has spent over two and a half years working, studying, and traveling throughout Russia. His interests include the politics of energy and natural resources in the Caspian Sea region and Russian-Azerbaijani relations.