Spring 2005 (13.1)
Symbols Reveal Trends
by Betty Blair
won't find many camels in Azerbaijan these days despite the fact
that there are numerous caravanserais still left over from the
Middle Ages, dotting the countryside. But, there is one camel
that has gained quite a reputation. He's the stone camel at Sofi
Hamid. These days he's got a glossy coat of white paint and a
wreath of red yarn pom-poms hanging from his neck.
Legend has it that in the 14th century, Hamid, a Sufi from Arabia
- a sort of itinerant mullah - told his followers to bury him
wherever his camel came to rest. That location, now known as
Sofi Hamid, is located outside of Baku, down beyond the Sangachal
oil terminal on the wind-swept plains in what appears to be "the
middle of nowhere".
Naturally, kids love to play around the statue and crawl under
it. For some unknown reason, it has come to be associated with
another popular tradition - providing hope to women who want
to get pregnant. Crawl under the camel three times and soon the
problem will be solved.
Some might laugh at such a simple folk remedy to a problem that
has a scientific explanation and possible solution. But studying
such phenomena gives insight into society. It helps us identify
issues that are of deep concern. After all, in Azerbaijan, despite
the fact that many youth are now getting their education in the
West, there still is immense pressure from family and friends
to "make a baby" during that first year of marriage.
And a woman's inability to bear a child (no matter whose "fault"
it might be) is still considered legitimate grounds for divorce.
Left: Sofi Hamid Cemetery leaves you thinking more about
life than of death.
And, thus, the title of this
issue: Myth and Imagination. Here, we mean "myth" in
the broader sense of the word, as in general notions, especially
those enveloped in some sort of narrative form, that get carried
down generation after generation, that provide hope and sustenance
to deal with the hurdles-the difficult days-in life?
When preparing our last issue: "Folklore: Ties that Bind",
Winter 2004 (AI 12.4), we ended up gathering so much material
that we decided to carry over some of the articles into this
issue. Some people are quick to dismiss folklore as frivolous,
make-believe narratives that are of little more consequence than
fleeting entertainment. We see it differently. We think of folklore
as a medium in which beliefs and values are passed down because
they have been tested over time and found to be useful in providing
practical guidance in everyday life. For this reason, we're convinced
that folklore provides invaluable insight to understand some
of the deep layers of the psyche of a nation, as well as trends,
and thus it provides valuable content for our magazine.
Many pages here feature the Sofi Hamid cemetery, especially since
this sacred place deals with issues related to pan-Turkism and
pan-Islamism, which were forbidden to explore during the Soviet
period. To our knowledge, we are the first to publish about it
in any language - even Azeri or Russian.
Sofi Hamid is a cemetery unlike any that we've ever seen before.
Here you'll find several thousand graves, carved in bas relief
with symbols representing the interests and careers of those
who have passed on. Many graves are painted in pastel colors-especially
blues, greens, yellows, pinks. Women's graves often display jewelry
- necklaces, earrings and sometimes rings. Sewing machines are
ubiquitous - especially the early models before the invention
of the foot treadle or reliance upon electricity.
Men's graves are often defined by occupations, many of them relate
to modes of transportation - camels, horses, carriages and cars.
You'll also find the occasional motorcycle, bus, and ship. And
yes, there are many guns.
A great deal of the mystery of Sofi Hamid cemetery is due to
the ambiguity of the symbols. Things are not always clearly defined.
The result is that you leave this place with more questions,
than answers. For example, what does a snake carved on a gravestone
really mean? Did someone succumb to a fatal bite? Or did they
happen to work on a snake farm where venom was milked for its
medicinal properties? One of the stone carvers told us it meant
that the person was perceived as being so kind that even snakes
weren't threatened by him.
Amazingly, Sofi Hamid always leaves you thinking more about life
than death. You can't help wondering: "And just what symbols
would best reflect my life?"
Sofi Hamid is a living monument. People are still being buried
there. Families are staking
out plots on the outer perimeters of the cemetery, putting up
concrete block walls and fences. And, therefore, just by studying
and analyzing the designs on the graves, one is able to detect
trends in society.
Sofi Hamid Cemetery would suggest that Islam is on the rise in
Azerbaijan. It's one of newest trend evident among these graves.
More and more stylized geometric and floral shapes are replacing
photographs of the deceased and the symbols reflecting personal
interests and careers on the graves. Islam forbids making sculptures
of the human image - human or animal.
More and more these days, verses from the Quran are replacing
the folk poetry that used to lament the passage of life. Islam,
like Christianity, and many other religions encourages its followers
to embrace life after death - even if people aren't too sure
what that actually means.
Though Azerbaijan has been defined as Muslim since the Arab invasion
of the 7th century; in reality, it has been quite secular, even
after gaining independence from the atheistic Soviet State in
late 1991. According to the latest Constitution ratified in 1995
under President Heydar Aliyev, Church and State are separate
entities. There is no official State Religion, and other faiths
such as Russian Orthodox, Christianity and Judaism are free to
worship and practice their own beliefs. Religious extremism has
been virtually nonexistent; tolerance, generally the norm.
If trends at Sofi Hamid are to be believed, more and more people
are embracing Islam in Azerbaijan. Perhaps this is due to the
large vacuum that existed during the first decade of independence
(beginning in late 1991) when Azerbaijanis were asking themselves:
What can we believe in now? Where can we put our faith? Whom
can we trust? Most Azerbaijanis will admit that the West - especially
the United States - has not lived up to expectations. Ten to
twelve years ago, Azerbaijanis were so eager to embrace the West
- to substitute it as the "father figure" of the failed
Soviet state. But they are more cautious these days.
Now the West is viewed mostly as an entity in pursuit of its
own selfish materialistic goals, not as a reliable source to
help Azerbaijanis out of the mire of their own dilemmas. Instead
of their lives being eased with the collapse of the Soviet Union,
life for most people has become more complicated - more unsure
- more tenuous.
And thus, slowly, gradually, Azerbaijanis are beginning to look
for other means and other systems in which to align their future.
At least, that's what the cemetery at Sofi Hamid would suggest.
Go take a visit, check the dates for yourself. The symbols are
there for all to read-not just for folklorists.
(13.1) Spring 2005.
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