Language and Cultural Diversity of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan takes pride in its language and appreciates the cultural diversity of the people, living in the territories of Azerbaijan. Everyone is considered an integral part of our culture and history. Throughout its history, the Azerbaijani government has been aspiring to develop this cultural diversity and sees it as a priority for social development in the 21st century.
This piece offers you an introduction into a little part of this cultural and language diversity of our country, as we would like to give you an opportunity to independently research this interesting phenomenon.
There is a village in Azerbaijan, where the people are proud of speaking their “own” language, as they say. This is the Khinalig village in Guba region, located on the northern side of the Caucasian Mountain range, 2,100 meters above sea level in a hard-to-reach area in the southwestern part of the Guba region. Gizil Gaya, Shahdagh, Tufandagh and Khinalig mountains surround the village, which is why it is called the “island among mountains”. Khinalig is famous for its unique language, customs and traditions. It hosts the medieval temple of fire-worshippers, the Khidir Nebi tomb, Sheikh Shalbuz and Abu Muslim mosques, caves and several unstudied archeological monuments. Included in the UNESCO list of historic monuments of great international significance, Khinalig is also compared to an open-air museum. In 2007, the historic territory of the village was announced a state historic-architectural and ethnographic reserve of “Khinalig”.
The villagers call their settlement “Kiat” and refer to themselves as “Kiats”, direct descendants of the Biblical Noah. Khinalig is over five thousand years old. Throughout centuries this village has been cut off from civilization surrounded by inaccessible mountains and dangerous sheer drops. Such isolation has allowed its people preserve their unique language, which does not belong to any language group, and their peculiar traditions and customs, unseen anywhere else.
Two thousand people live in Khinalig and all of them are natives of the land and are divided into four families. Each of them has their own cemeteries, ornaments for carpets and clothes. The Khinaligi practice Islam, but used to worship fire before Islam.
The first mentions of the “Kiats” were made in the 1st century BC in the works of the Ancient Roman historian Pliny and Strabo’s famous “Geography”. However, its eight big cemeteries speak of its ancient history more vibrantly than anything else. The area of the cemeteries is much larger than Khinalig itself. There are three, sometimes even four layers of burials and the headstones bears writings in various alphabets.
The Kiats build their homes on top of one another, which remind of a high-rise building as a whole body. The roof of one house serves as a yard for another household.
There are around three hundred and sixty houses in the village and all of them are quite old, dating 200-300 years back. They are built mainly of cobblestones. The windows in the houses are closed with plastic sheets and there are smoke flaps on the ceilings. The Khinaligi use this flap to visit each other. The floors and walls of the houses are covered with vibrant-colored and warm “tikme” carpets, blankets, pillows, mattresses and mutakka-pillows, weaved by the women of the houses. It is not only an adornment for the houses, but also a means of protection from the winter frosts. They use bricks made of a mixture of straws and manure as fuel in winter. All yearlong the Khinaligi make and dry such bricks everywhere they can find a place for them. Firewood is pure luxury in these places, as there are not many trees around. The land is infertile and rocky, however the locals manage to grow onions and potatoes on it. They plant cucumbers and tomatoes in planters like houseplants. They keep small cows and goats, fowl and very few of them keep sheep.
The Khinaligi eat the simplest of foods, such as vegetables, chureks (bread), milk, cheese, mountain honey and dried goat meat, which they preserve every autumn. The Khinaligi are very religious. In the village itself and close to it there are many holy places –with tombs of holy people, caves and monuments, unstudied by archeologists.
Nowadays, many Khinaligi speak Azerbaijani and some even know Russian. They sell home-woven products and buy household items from the town. Some of them offer inexpensive shelter and food to tourists, who are willing to find out more about this unique village.
The high-mountain town of Lahij in Ismayilli region of Azerbaijan stands as an original monument to architectural and city-planning art of antiquity. The town is located at the southern side of the Great Caucasus, 1375 meters above sea level at the left bank of the Girdimanchai River, which runs from the Babadagh hillslope. Lahij is a medieval town, known as a center for handicrafts and trade, with streets, laid with light-grey river rocks from the bottoms of Girdimanchai, which define the zest of the city, squares with two-storey houses with open verandas and balconies, workshops and little trade shops, public bathhouses and mosques.
The first quarter in Lahij was founded in 3rd-4th centuries. Intriguingly, the water supply and sewage system, functioning in the city, is no less than one and half thousand years old! At present Lahij is a historic-architectural monument, protected by the government, and the image of the town is pristinely preserved.
The main population of the town is the Lahiji people. There are several legends about the origin of the Lahiji. One of them reads that they are the descendants of the Iranian Lahijan (Gilan Province). And old story has it that the Persian Shah Kay Khosrow was in pursuit of power and killed a very esteemed ruler in one of the cities and was a subject of indignation among people. He had to flee his own country in order to escape the wrath of people and save his own life. The shah found shelter in the mountains, not far from the modern-day Lahij, where he lived out the rest of his life. And his servants and their families from the tribe of Lahij build the town, settling down close to their ruler’s shelter. Gradually the village grew and turned into a center of crafts. The people of Lahij speak their local tongue of Lahiji, which is quite similar to Persian. Naturally, they also widely use Azerbaijani besides their local language.
The primary occupation of the Lahij population is producing copperware, carpets and leather goods. All over Lahij there are smelt-furnaces and workshops, which only prove the glory of the town as a center for handicrafts, particularly, for producing copperware of superb artistic merit. The masters of Lahij tin-coated and adorned the copperware with decorative ornaments. Usually it was the task of special engraver-masters – “the hakkaks”. It is believed that the legendary Monomakh hat wore by the Russian Tsars through many centuries was made there.
Several articles about Lahij have been included in the collections of the Louvre and Bern Museum. Lahij is also a part of the international tourist route the “Great Silk Road”.
Nij Village in Gabala Region
Nij is a town in Gabala Regin, located 20 km southwest from Gabala city. 7,000 people live in the town.
Nij is a big town of around 100 square km, surrounded with tilled lands. It boasts houses with big farmlands and fruit trees. The town is interesting for Udis, an ancient Caucasian people, living there. Herodotus, Pliny, Strabo and Ptolemy used to describe this nation. They were the first Christians in the Caucasus and the Udi church was founded in the 1st century BC. There were at some point ancient churches preserved in the town. At the moment, there are three, and one of them has been restored. This is the Chotari church, named after Saint Elisha.
The traditional occupation of the Udi is irrigated cropping, rice growing, silkworm breeding and animal husbandry, which are less popular.
They teach Udi in primary schools. It is the language; people use to speak to each other. The second spoken language is Russia, because all of them speak it fluently. At the same time, there are many Azerbaijanis in the village, who the Udis get along well with. However, they do not mix, and there are very few cross marriages.
Udis are a very peculiar people, who speak a Caucasian-Iberian language and practice eastern branch of Christianity.
Lankaran Region and the People of Talish
The Talish is one of the northwestern Iranian peoples (self-named “Tolish”, “Tolishon” in plural). They live on the southwestern shores of the Caspian Sea. They inhabit the mountainous regions of the Talish Mountains and the low lands. The Talish people live densely in five southern regions of Azerbaijan. These are Lankaran, Astara, Lerik, Masalli and Yardimli. They also live in large cities, such as Baku and Sumgait. They belong to the Caspian anthropological type of southern Caucasians (representatives of European ethnicity). These people are considered the descendants of the ancient native population of the Caucasus. The Talish language belongs to the Indo-European branch of the northwestern part of the Persian language group.
The culture and way of life of the Talish are very similar to those of Azerbaijanis. The wedding, birth and death ceremonies of the Talish remind of the Azerbaijani customs. The bride leaves her handprint in honey on the doorjamb, as a symbol of a happy and abundant life. Their traditional costumes, both men and women, are similar to the Azerbaijani ones. The men wore a shirt, pants, arkhalig, a sheepskin or a hat, whereas the women wore a shirt, wide long trousers, wide gathered skirts, arkhalig and headscarves.
They usually ate boiled rice instead of bread. Patriarchal institutes, such as mutual help, vendetta and hospitability, are characteristic of their traditional lifestyle. Their folk art is mainly Azerbaijani, however they have also preserved Talish wedding and labour songs.
Most religious Talish practice Shiite Islam. In 1980, the Caucasian Muslims Office was headed by Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh, who is of Talish descent.
In 1990, a state centre for Talish culture was established under the Azerbaijani Culture Foundation. The centre is devoted to promoting research, development and revival of the history, unique culture, tradition and customs of the Talish. There is a “Grandmothers” folk ensemble from Separadi village in Lankaran region. They sing folk songs and bayati in Azerbaijani and Talish.
In 2003, the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan issued an order, which confirmed curriculums for 1st to 4th school grades on several languages of nations living in Azerbaijani, including the Talish language. 19,010 students in 225 schools of Azerbaijan study Talish from 1st through 11th grades.
The “Talish Sedo” (Voice of Talish) newspaper is published in Azerbaijan and there are radio podcasts in Talish.
Some keywords to remember: integral, aspire, hard-to-reach, civilize, isolate, cemetery, ornaments, cobblestone, infertile, mattress, intrigue, ceremony, revival
Class Activity: Descriptive writing, ask students to use their own words and describe how a typical Khanaliq, or Lahij village would look like. Teach students clauses and phrases, how to identify main clauses and supporting clauses
- Where is Khinaliq village located?
- Where is Lahij village located?
- Where is Nij located?
- What’s another name for Khinaliq?
- According to legend, who is the founder of the Lahij settlement and where did he come from?
- What year was Khinaliq recognized as state historic-architectural and ethnographic?
- What historical artefact, or monument can still be found in Nij?
- What do the Khnaliq people call themselves and which descendants do they say they are?
- What is the main occupation of the people of Lahic?
- What is the religion of the Talish people?