The Azerbaijani culture is a fascinating mixture of European and Middle Eastern cultures. While more than 90 percent of the country’s citizens are Muslim, the Soviet era saw a large influx of European influences that have been stepped up since independence. Unlike its sister Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan did not have a significant intelligentsia class before the breakup of the Soviet Union. The emergence of this group has had a major influence on the current development of the arts and other cultural aspects of Azerbaijani life. As a result, there is a sharp difference between modern Azerbaijani culture and the traditional culture of just a few years ago.
Culture of Azerbaijan roots in ancient times, as documented by petroglyphs on the rocks of Gobustan, Gamigaya in Nakhchivan, on the mountain Dalidag in Kalbajar; archaic ceramics of neolith and epoch of bronze, bronze ornaments and utensils, products from gold and silver found in numerous barrows, burials and settlements.
The ancient cults (animism, ancestors' cult, etc.) in Azerbaijan were replaced by Zoroastrian religion by the middle of 1 millennium BC. Being one of the most ancient religions on the planet, it contains the concept of duality ruling the world (Good and Evil, Ahuramazda and Ahriman), and so one of the main spiritual duties of Zoroastrian worshipper was the concept of Choice. One of the main holidays became Novruz, which is interpreted as "New Day" and means a new day approaching with the victory of Good over Evil. Novruz lost the meaning of a Zoroastrian holiday while centuries passed by, and today is considered as the holiday of spring in the day of Spring equinox on March 21 in Azerbaijan. It is a cheerful holiday that is being celebrated for several weeks. The people have kept recipes of its ritual dishes and sweets through millennia.
In the Middle Ages a number of cities emerged as main cultural, political, administrative and trading centers. Such cities in the history of Azerbaijan were Shamakhi, Ganja, Baku, Barda, Sheki, Tabriz, Nakchivan, Shabran, Ardabil, Maraga, Gabala, Beylagan etc. Medieval authors called Azerbaijan the country of hundred cities. By the 5th century AD Caucasian Albania had already its own writing alphabet. Albanian educator Musa Kalankatu wrote "The Agwan History" in the 7th century AD including the poem of Albanian poet Davdak "On Death of Grand Duke Javanshir".
In late 7th - early 8th centuries, when the great bulk of the town population adopted Islam, a new culture emerged, and the Albanian writing was replaced with Arabic. Muslim educational institutions, mektebs or madrasa, where Arabic was taught alongside with the Koran, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, philosophy etc., spread over the country. Construction works were extensive in the country during both the Albanian period and afterwards. Many cult buildings (churches, mosques), bridges, castles, fortresses, irrigational constructions appeared during 11-12th centuries, marking the time of renaissance in Azerbaijan.
This epoch brought along poets, thinkers, architects such as a philosopher Bakhmanyar, historian Masud Ibn Namdar, architect Abubakr Ajami, poetess Mahsati Ganjavi and the great poet and philosopher Nizami Ganjavi, poet and thinker Khagani and so on. At this particular time the turk-oghuz epos "Kitab-i-Dede Gorgud" was finally formed; chess, backgammon, chovgan game of polo were the wide-spread entertainments all around. Almost in each town a "zorkhana", a wrestling hall or gym, was available. Thanks to that period, we enjoy such gorgeous architectural objects as fortifications of Baku, Maiden tower, mausoleums of Nakhchivan, kanegah on the river Pirsaat and many other monuments.
The intensive development of culture proceeded further in the 13th -15th centuries despite wars and invasions. Such masterpieces of poetry as "Divan", the assembly of verses by a poet Hasanoglu, "Kissa and Yussuf" by a poet Ali were created in Azerbaijani language. A big observatory was built in Maraga under the initiative and plans of the great Azerbaijani astronomer, scientist and philosopher Nasreddin Tusi who was considered a mentor by many subsequent astronomers of the Muslim period, including Ulugbek. The Observatory was equipped with devices, previously unknown to science, designed by Tusi himself. At that time musicians Safiaddin Urmavi and Abdulgadir Maragahi created the original and unparalleled musical system.
Azerbaijan had little unique culture until about the 11th century. Before that, prose, poetry, and oral history recitations called dastans were influenced by Zoroastrian works and other pre-Islamic texts. Even after the Azerbaijani people began to see themselves as unique, Persian and later Turkish influence remained a staple of Azerbaijani culture. Not until the influx of oil workers in the 1800s did Azerbaijan’s authors, musicians, and artists begin to create truly unique works. Ancient epics, such as the Dada Qorqut from the 12th century, which chronicles the struggle for freedom among the Azeri people, and authors, such as Nizami Gancavi from the 14th century whose most famous work, The Story of Layla and Majnun, narrates the story of two lovers who must overcome tradition and the objections of their families to find their destiny, are part of the literary heritage. Fuzuli (1494–1556) wrote poetry and prose in Turkish, most notably the poem Laila and Majnun, the satire A Book of Complaints, and the treatise To the Heights of Conviction. His works influenced dramatic and operatic productions into the early 20th century. Schoolchildren still read Fuzuli’s works in their original Turkish dialects, which are very similar to modern Azerbaijani. Also the culture of this epoch is distinguished with such outstanding personalities as Imamaddin Nasimi, Badr Shirvani, Abdurrashid Bakuvi, Seyid Yahya Bakuvi, philosophers and poets. The famous historian Rashidaddin and others lived at that time. Many of the celebrated personalities - poets, mathematicians, philosophers - developed high principles of Sufi philosophy that were frequently concealed by love lyrics. Such Sufi philosophers as Nasimi and Bakuvi enriched the culture of universal values.
During the epoch of Safavids (16th century) the art of miniature and calligraphy got a new impetus. One of the most known schools of miniature in the East, the Tabriz school, and its brightest representative Sultan Mohammed (16 century) flourished at the time. Mohammed Fizuli's (1494-1556) poem "Leili and Majnun" became the poetic pinnacle. Spoken folk poetry also developed. The epos "Koroglu" was very popular in the region and the person of that legendary folk hero was so popular that now there are several presumed places of his legendary fortress Chanlibel.
During the Middle Ages applied art crafts - glazed ceramics, metal wares, colored glassworks, art of carpet weaving embroidery and tapestry - rapidly developed in Azerbaijan. Those goods were widely exported, and remarkable samples nowadays are kept in the leading museums of the world (the Hermitage, the Louvre, Topgapy, Victoria and Albert Museum, Metropolitan Museum etc.).
The reputation of local craftsmen allowed them to be often invited for work in other countries, and during wars they were taken away forcibly. For example, Azerbaijani builders, copper-smiths, calligraphers and architects participated in construction of many architectural masterpieces of Samargand, Shakhrisabz, Iraq and India.
After Azerbaijan had become a part of Russian Empire, the stage of stronger European cultural influence began. It was reflected in fine arts, architecture, literature, education etc. In the 19th century the first scientific research of the history of Azerbaijan since the medieval ages, "Gulistan-i-Iram" by Bakikhanov, appeared. At the same time Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878), the founder of the Azerbaijan's drama and modern Azerbaijan literature, became known for his realistic novels and dramas. In 1874, the first newspaper in Azerbaijani language, "Ekinchi", was issued. The publisher of the newspaper was well-known educator Hasan bey Zardabi.
In March, 1873, the first theatre performance in Azerbaijani language took place, and in 1866 the first grammar school, and later in 1864 the first female grammar school were opened in Baku. In 19th - early 20th centuries a number of newspapers and magazines were issued in Azerbaijani: "Hummet", "Takammul", as well as in Russian - "Bakinski Rabochi", "Kaspi". The satiric magazine "Molla Nasreddin", issued by writer J. Mammadguluzadeh, was met with great success. Some outstanding personalities were cooperating with the magazine, including a well-known artist-caricaturist Azim Azimzadeh, a poet-satirist M.A.Sabir, and a poet Aligulu Gamkyusar etc.
Opening night of the first national opera "Leyli and Majnun" by composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov took place on January, 12, 1908. On October 25, 1913, first night of the national comedy "Arshin mal alan" gained the hearts of the public. Outstanding masters of national theatrical stage of that period were Huseyn Arablinski, Huseyngulu Sarabski, Mirza Aga Aliyev, and Sidgi Ruhulla. At the same period a basis for modern fine arts in Azerbaijan was created. Its founders were artists Bakhruz Kangarli and Azim Azimzadeh. Architects Ploshko, Skibinski, Goslavski, Ahmedbey Ziverbayov built such remarkable objects as the present Puppet Theatre, City Hall of Baku, Museum of History, Museum of Arts, National Academy of Sciences, Theatre of Opera and Ballet, Juma Mosque in Shamakhi etc.
After the beginning of the Soviet period in Azerbaijan such new directions as constructivism found reflection in the architecture of Baku (Shyusev and Vesnin brothers) that led to construction of the former Azerneshr and other buildings in the city. The national school of architecture developed under the creative impact of Useynov, Dadashev, Gasimzadeh, Ismaylov, and Shulgin.
Such poets, writers and dramatists as Huseyn Javid, Mikayil Mushfig, Abbas Sahhat, Yusif Chamanzaminli, Mammadseyid Ordubadi, Jafar Jabbarli and others enriched the national literature of Azerbaijan. Such composers as Gara Garayev, Niyazi, Fikret Amirov, and Arif Melikov greatly influenced the development of modern national musical culture. Such composers and jazz musicians as Vagif Mustafazadeh, Aziza Mustafazadeh, Rafig Babayev and others started using traditional motifs in their music.
The most famous artists and sculptors of the period were Mikayil Abdullayev, Sattar Bahlulzadeh, Tair Salakhov, Togrul Narimanbeyov, Alakbar Rzaguliyev, Fuad Abdurahmanov, Tokay Mammadov, Omar Eldarov, but they form only a small portion of the talented group. The well known modern film directors are Hasan Seyidbeyli, Rasim Ojagov, Arif Babayev, Ajdar Ibrahimov and others. The list of renowned writers includes the names of Magsud and Rustam Ibrahimbeyovs, Natig Rasulzadeh, Elchin, Chingiz Abdullayev and others.
In the early 1900s, literature received a powerful boost. Seen as the “Age of Three Revolutions,” referencing the Russian revolution of 1905, the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–07 in Persia, and the Young Turk revolution of 1908–09 in Turkey, the writers of this time attempted to represent the hopes and concerns of young Azerbaijanis who were increasingly disquieted by the war in their lives. Perhaps due to the country’s Islamic tradition the fine arts never became popular in Azerbaijan. Although the country has its share of paintings, sculptures, and other fine arts, none of these artists are seen as either distinctly Azerbaijani or as exceptionally accomplished on a worldwide level. Instead, the country seemed to intensify and focus its artistic endeavors on the written and spoken word during the 19th and 20th centuries. After 1945, a new literary tradition began to emerge. Called the “literature of longing,” this dealt with the theme of unity between Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan shares the world passion for soccer, although its team is not up to world-class standards. Wrestling is a popular pastime, in large part because of the country’s Turkish roots. The country claimed a silver medal in wrestling in the 1996 Olympics and has a two-time world champion in women’s sumo wrestling. Another popular pastime is playing board games. Chess is very popular—world champion Garry Kasparov was born in Baku—as well as nard, a board game similar to backgammon.
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