Spring 2005 (13.1)
Sofi Hamid Cemetery
Life Mirrored in Pastel Colors
Betty Blair and Farid Alakbarli
Essay - Sofi Hamid Cemetery
Sofi Hamid Cemetery is the most
unique graveyard that we know of - not just in Azerbaijan, but
any place in the world. No exaggeration. The practice of choosing
meaningful symbols to represent one's life, carving them on gravestones
and painting them in pastel colors seems to us to be extremely
Like all cemeteries, Sofi Hamid is a repository of thoughts and
attitudes regarding death. It is like an open history book begging
to be read. There, in a very concentrated form spread out over
a few acres on a wind-swept desert plain in Azerbaijan is documentation
of the trends and transitions related to folk beliefs, religion,
nationalism, politics, economy, education, and even language
and alphabet usage, that have taken place over the centuries.
Sofi Hamid Cemetery is located about 45 minutes southwest of
Baku off Alag Highway beyond Sangachal Terminal and Umbaku in
what might appear to be "the middle of nowhere" on
a wide, wind-swept plain. No village or town is within sight.
The gravestones are characterized by carvings of objects that
were meaningful in the life of the person who passed away. The
symbols and scenes are carved out on limestone and painted, usually
in pastel colors, primarily blue, green, pink and yellow. Note
here the arrangement of fruit carved in stone on top of the grave.
Typically, apples, pears, grapes and pomegranates are part of
the display of fruit.
In this sense, Sofi Hamid is a paradise for folklorists. Studying
the graves provides incredible insight into the belief systems
in the region. And yet the reality is that no folklorists have
published any analysis about this place. We wondered why such
a vast treasury had been overlooked or neglected by social scientists.
The answer, we learned, was simple: Sofi Hamid touched on two
areas that were forbidden for investigation during the Soviet
period. And since independence, very little field work has officially
been carried out because of the lack of funding. During the Soviet
period, topics that delved into the influence of nationalism
and religion, specifically pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism, were
left untouched. During Stalin's era, several folklorists lost
their lives for investigating such issues.
So, in essence, Sofi Hamid became forbidden territory for academic
research. Of course, it was possible to visit the cemetery. But
generally, scientists knew that they would not be able to advance
their careers if they tried to grapple with such topics. And
thus, self censorship became the norm. Truly, it is impossible
to do a proper analysis of Sofi Hamid except in the framework
of Islam and nationalism.
This is not to say that at Sofi Hamid you won't discover a hodge
podge of beliefs as you wander amidst the several thousand gravestones.
Here you'll find an unusual and unpredictable blend of folk beliefs
- animism, communism, Shia Islam and more.
To our knowledge, this is the first time that any article has
ever been published about Sofi Hamid in any language - Azeri,
Russian or English. We hope our work will encourage others -
both Azerbaijanis and foreigners - to follow with an even deeper
Open Air Art Museum
One's first impression
about Sofi Hamid is that it is a delightful open-air museum -
full of symbols, carved out in stone - often a bit primitive
in the execution of their design - and painted in pastel colors.
Sofi Hamid represents a triumph of personality and individuality.
And it can be sincerely enjoyed and appreciated on this level.
A stroll through the cemetery is a bit like going on a Treasure
Hunt as you try to answer questions such as: Who was this person?
What does this symbol or object represent? Why is that person
represented in this way?
Sofi Hamid is a unique place for many reasons. It does not resemble
any other cemetery in Azerbaijan, as there is a juxtaposition
of so many trends and styles incorporating ethnographic, religious
and even communist motifs. All of them are the production of
folk culture and fantasy. During the Soviet period, Communist
rule weakened the traditional religious Islamic framework and
encouraged folk fantasy and national culture to reveal itself
in this funereal art.
One of the major defining characteristics of Azerbaijan's history
this past century was the reversal of political systems that
took place over and over again. Again, this is evident here in
the cemetery and becomes one of its most defining characteristics.
The pre-Soviet era (prior to 1920) was defined by Islam. By the
1930s, with the Soviets in firm control, many of the mosques
and cathedrals were dynamited. Efforts to establish an atheistic
state were put into motion. For example, two of Baku's most prominent
places of worship - Bibi Heybat Mosque and the Alexander Nevski
Russian Orthodox Cathedral - were both demolished in the early
1930s. Despite the official stance against religion, Sofi Hamid
proves that ambivalence about religion continued to persist in
society. There are many graves that provide evidence of belief
in God during the Soviet period.
Context of Religion
To understand the phenomenon of Sofi Hamid, it is important to
analyze the graves at Sofi Hamid within the context of Islamic
beliefs related to death and burial. Islam discourages memorializing
the corpse after death. It holds that the grave is only a temporary
sanctuary for the human body in this "Fani Dunya" (ephemeral,
temporary, material world). When a person dies, his soul passes
on to the next World. All remnants of this existence here on
earth, including the grave itself, must be allowed to disintegrate
and gradually disappear.
According to Islamic law, graves must be modest and the gravestone
should not be very large. Traditionally, the grave is marked
by a large rock (about one meter in height) on which the name
of the deceased is identified, along with dates of his birth
and death. Often a few verses from the Quran are inscribed on
As is true in most societies, it is the closest relatives that
continue to visit the graves of their loved ones. Sometimes,
grandchildren continue this practice but, invariably, the following
generation tends to forget and the grave is left abandoned. From
the Islamic point of view, this process is natural and right.
Islam does not encourage the maintenance of the grave too long.
Within a few generations, the soil that has been dug and heaped
up over the grave must sink in and become level with the ground
again. Construction of ornate gravestones, burial tombs or luxurious
mausoleums is considered to be a sin of arrogance or pride.
This is not to suggest that Muslim rulers did not built elaborate
burial sites. Ample evidence exists indicating that kings in
the Middle Ages did construct ornate mausoleums for themselves
and family members. For example, the 12th century grand mausoleum
for Princess Momina Khatun in Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) or the
Taj Mahal Mausoleum in Agra (India) are well known examples of
such trends among medieval Muslim monarchs. However, these exceptions
were characteristic of royalty or totalitarian despots, not average
In general, cemeteries for ordinary people adhered strictly to
Islamic law. Prior to the Soviet period, nearly all cemeteries
in Azerbaijan were quite modest in appearance. Such traditional
cemeteries still exist in Azerbaijan. They look like an open
field with many gravestones, in various states of disintegration
- some are new; others show evidence of age with lichen growing
atop or wild bushes of the camel thorn and tumbleweed nearby.
Some are beginning to sink into the ground, lean to one side,
or fall over. The ornamentation and inscription are nearly illegible,
having become eroded by natural elements - wind and water.
So, in such Muslim cemeteries, you might say that you can distinguish
between the "generations" of grave stones: (1) the
straight, tall, "youth" represented by light, cream-colored
stone recently hewn from local quarries, (2) the gray and slightly
eroded gravestones of "middle ages", (3) darkened gravestones
and lop-sided "elders", (4) lame "centenarians"
and finally, the (5) "dead graves" which have mostly
disappeared underneath the ground.
Things are somewhat different at Sofi Hamid. First of all, many
gravestones are painted in pastel colors, especially blue, green
and yellow. Some gravestones are multi-colored, sometimes even
resembling tropical African art. Even some of the very old gravestones
still have traces of color. These characteristics predate communism
and seem to be influenced by ethnographical characteristics of
the local population.
At Sofi Hamid, objects are carved out on the various sides of
the gravestone and head stone that relate to the gender, interests
or profession of the deceased. For example, it may be a rifle
if this person were a hunter, a ship for a sailor, a bus for
Sofi Hamid is unique in that the depiction of images of both
humans and animals is not typical in Muslim cemeteries. In Islamic
art, only plant ornamentation (images of flowers, herbs and trees)
is permitted. It is true that images of humans and animals do
exist in Islamic art, such as the illustrated miniatures in books
of the Middle Ages. However, such depiction was possible only
Sculptures depicting humans or animals were strictly forbidden
because they were considered to be akin to idols of the pagan
religions. Therefore, carving images of humans or animal on sculptures
was equivalent to rejecting Islam and pursuing pagan belief.
During the Middle Ages, such a person could be declared "murtad"
(apostate) and sentenced to death.
Depiction of human images, including photographs or etchings
on gravestones, is not permitted in Islam. The grave was considered
the final sanctuary or resting place for the human body. According
to Islam, on the Judgment Day, all those who are dead will be
resurrected and will rise up out of their graves to be in the
presence of God to answer for their sins.
But graves at Sofi Hamid often include photos of the face of
the deceased person. There are even black headstones, characteristic
of the Soviet period that began just before Gorbachev's era (around
1980s), where an entire full-length view of the person, front
and back, is etched out. Such photographs are not confined only
to Sofi Hamid.
Though statues or carvings
of animal life are forbidden in Islam, you'll find many carvings
of animals at Sofi Hamid. For example, there are many scenes
of camels, usually portrayed in caravans. Azerbaijan served as
a crossroads for trade routes between east and west, as well
as north and south and transportation via camels was very common.
The very existence of Sofi Hamid as a place of holy pilgrimage
has its roots in the use of camels as a mode of transportation.
Sofi Hamid, according to the stories that circulate today, was
an Arabian merchant in the 14th century who visited the region,
more or less, like an itinerate mullah. As the story goes, when
Sofi Hamid realized that he was dying, he instructed his traveling
companions to bury him where his camel would come to rest. And
thus, camels are often featured as a great part of the iconography
on the gravestones there. Also, camels provided the primary mode
of transportation for Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca.
Not only are camels depicted on the graves, but inside the courtyard
where the Pir (sepulcher) of Sofi Hamid is located is a stone
statue of a camel. Folk practices have grown up around the statue.
For example, if a woman cannot become pregnant, it is believed
that if she crawls under the belly of the camel, she will become
fertile. She should repeat this three times for it to be effective.
In addition to camels, you'll find many depictions of horses
on the graves. They are depicted with saddles or hitched to covered
carriages. There are also scenes of nature, which feature animals
such as mountain deer or pastoral scenes with sheep. You'll also
find an occasional cow. Also pairs of lovebirds can be found
on gravestones especially if the person died at an age that people
associate with weddings more than with funerals.
Worshipping snakes dates to pre-Islamic times in Azerbaijan.
Such animistic beliefs were held by ancient Caucasian Albanians
and medieval Turks. In pre-Islamic times, the snake was a totem
of some ancient tribes. Pictures of snakes and dragons were featured
on the flags of ancient Turks. Many villagers still consider
snakes to be sacred creatures.
The influence of ancient legends is still evident at Sofi Hamid.
Superstitions pre-dating Islamic beliefs still exist among the
local population. For example, people living in the vicinity
of Sofi Hamid consider snakes to be sacred. They believe that
no snake will harm them on the cemetery grounds if they are pure.
For good measure, they often take a handful of earth from Sofi
Hamid to their own residence to ward off snakes.
There are even carvings of snakes depicted on gravestones. We
were so surprised to see such an image portrayed. Our first thoughts
were, «Poor man, he must have died of a snake bite».
But a closer look showed the snake being offered what appears
to be a small bowl of milk. Was this venom that someone had milked
from the snake? Was this person a caretaker of snakes? There
used to be a snake farm on the Absheron Peninsula where vipers
were raised for therapeutic uses of venom.
When we inquired of one of the stone carvers what the meaning
of snakes carved on the tombstones indicated, he told us that
it simply meant that that person was not afraid of snakes; and
that he was perceived as being extremely kind and gentle, to
the extent that, at least, metaphorically, snakes would eat out
of his hand.
In Azerbaijani folk tales such as "Beautiful Fatma",
"Hunter Pirim" and "Wood Sword", we can see
traces of ancient animistic beliefs where snakes and such creations
are portrayed in a positive light.
At Sofi Hamid, one might expect that with thousands of graves,
each one would be different. Well, of course, there is some variation
in the execution of the many designs; after all, there are six
surfaces on the gravestone that must be designed - front and
back of the headstone, plus the four sides and the top table
surface of the gravestone itself. So, you might say that there
are six canvases that the artist must fill in a cogent and related
manner. It's no wonder that many symbols are repeated.
One of the stone carvers told us that people usually look at
the other carvings on the graves and choose from them what they
would like for their own. For example, during the mid-20th century,
many of the graves of women, depict a simple sewing machine and
necklace and earrings. Of course, the carvings can be expressed
differently, but the content is often quite the same. There seems
to be more variety on men's graves, than on women's. But this
may only reflect that more options were open for careers for
men, and that women were more closely associated with the home.
You don't have to know
Azeri, Russian or Arabic to glean enormous meaning from a visit
to Sofi Hamid. However, taking someone with you who knows some
of these languages will make your visit more meaningful and help
you understand it more deeply. The typical grave in Azerbaijan
features inscriptions and prayers from the Quran. But at Sofi
Hamid, you'll also find secular inscriptions that can be traced
to medieval Azerbaijani or Eastern poets, such as Nizami Ganjavi,
Hafiz of Shiraz, and Omar Khayyam. Friends or relatives, especially
parents or children of the deceased often author these lines.
Typically, they are in the Azerbaijani language, and may be written
in Cyrillic, Latin or even Arabic scripts.
Some verses glorify the most exemplary characteristics of the
person who has died. Other verses may be reflective and philosophical
about the transience of life or they may express regret that
life has been snuffed out or that a person's fate met such a
Inscriptions related to Islam are invariably chiseled out in
Arabic, though at Sofi Hamid, the Arabic is often very poorly
written and misspellings are frequent.
Typical expressions from Islam include verses from the Quran
such as: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his
Prophet", or expressions such as: "May God rest his
Sometimes, attributes about God are expressed, such as the following
In the name of Allah, the Merciful One,
Who has no Beginning, nor End,
He has neither parents, nor children.
Some implore God to forgive
Forgive me for the sake of Quran.
Have mercy on me,
For the sake of Mohammed, the Prophet!
A few anticipate a better life
Welcome to your house after
It is the rule of Allah that everyone dies,
Welcome on your journey to the land of justice.
Laments and Complaints
At Sofi Hamid, however, you find a broad variety of verse that
reject the notion of anticipating the Afterlife. Instead, they
complain about death snatching them away, especially if death
was untimely or brought on by an accident or tragedy. Such notions
would not be permitted if Islam were strictly followed.
For example, we came across a section of five related graves
(a mother and her four daughters), who obviously had met tragic
deaths on the same day - November 15, 1986. Each of the graves
had inscriptions and poems on them, though none reveals the actual
unfortunate circumstances that took their lives.
The Angel closed my eyes.
I could not utter any protest.
May those who see me
Beside my lovely daughters, mourn.
Daughter, age 1:
So little had I spoken with my parents,
So little had I sought their care.
Our fate was too dreadful.
May those who visit my grave mourn.
Daughter, age 4:
I was still a baby
The heart of the angel became stone.
My mother and sisters surround me.
May those who visit my grave mourn.
Daughter, age 6:
Barely had I opened my eyes to this world,
Barely had I seen anything,
Barely had I seen enough of my father and mother.
I did not know that my fate would be so unlucky.
Daughter, age 16:
My poor father made a wish,
But this grief would not let us smile,
Did I not predict that this fate
Would one day destroy everything.
Others graves express a cynicism
about life. A woman (1957-1982) whose grave was decorated with
necklace and earrings expressed the following:
Here I learned that this world is fake.
It takes back the things that it gives.
I've seen how fate has ruined everything.
And made most people to suffer.
All people in this world will
surely pass away,
No doctor can save us from this disease.
Do not look for me any more, my dear sisters,
Everyone who comes into this world will leave it this way.
Others seem to blame others for their deaths:
I became desperate because of you,
I spent my days and nights
Just for you.
You did not value me,
You burned me like a fire.
I was charred like kebab
Because of your love,
My light has gone out.
Impact of Communism
Many of the monuments at Sofi Hamid were erected during the Soviet
times and reflect the Soviet style. Since USSR was officially
an atheist state, it introduced an atheist communist ideology
and secular culture in Azerbaijan. Sofi Hamid Cemetery bears
witness that the influence of Islam declined during this period.
The Soviets encouraged the cult of personality and leaders. They
went out of their way to honor and distinguish individuals who
they considered to be "heroes of labor", the peasants
and workers. Commemoration of these outstanding personalities
is evident in sculptures, burial monuments and tombs. The impact
of such ideology is seen in Muslim cemeteries in Azerbaijan as
well. Instead of modest gravestones carved from limestone, the
graves took the shape of tall pedestals capped with a Soviet
five-pointed star and a photo of the deceased person and symbols
related to his work or career.
The cult of the material world is typical of Soviet ideology.
Communists did not believe in the soul or existence in a world
that followed. However, they claimed that "good communists"
after death live eternally in the memories of those left behind.
One of the most popular slogans during the Soviet period declared:
"Lenin is always alive! Lenin is always with us!" The
Mausoleum of Lenin in Moscow with his mummified body on display
reflects the aspiration of Bolsheviks to create their own religion
without God and without belief in the Next World. Lenin was their
prophet and "Kapital" by Karl Marx was their Bible.
Not only Lenin and Stalin, but it became possible for all citizens
throughout the entire Soviet Union to be commemorated after death.
Every peasant or worker was permitted to erect a sculpture or
beautiful tomb in honor of relatives who had passed away. Therefore,
it was at this time that Sofi Hamid cemetery turned into an art
Sofi Hamid also provides considerable insight into the delay
between official policy and acceptance in folk psyche. Take alphabet
and language usage, for example. In the 20th century, the alphabet
was officially changed four times in Azerbaijan: from Arabic
to Latin (1929), to Cyrillic (1939), and back again to a modified
Latin script (late 1991). [Search AZER.com: Entire issue: «Alphabet
and Language in Transition», AI 8.1, Spring 2000].
It takes time - often years - for language policy to take effect.
People need time to learn and and feel comfortable with new scripts.
Age becomes a major factor as older people are reluctant to embrace
new symbols when the old ones have been adequate for them throughout
their entire lives.
Often there is a significant delay between law and practical
folk usage. For example, one of the first pieces of legislature
that Azerbaijan's Parliament passed when Azerbaijan gained its
independence was the adoption of a new alphabet. Azerbaijanis
were so eager to throw off the Cyrillic alphabet that had been
imposed upon them
during the Soviet period and to reclaim the modified Latin alphabet
that they had adopted in the early 1920s.
Though Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union
on October 18, 1991, the BelaVezha Agreement which officially
brought about the Soviet collapse was signed on December 8, 1991.
Hardly had two weeks elapsed before Azerbaijan Parliament voted
on December 25, to officially adopt their new alphabet. However,
in truth, changes came slowly and Cyrillic was still in widespread
use until August 1, 2001, when President Heydar Aliyev declared
it illegal for Cyrillic to be used for any official document
or on any store signage for the Azerbaijani language.
Such delay in adopting the new Latin alphabet is evident on the
gravestones. The general public naturally felt more comfortable
with the Cyrillic, despite the desire of many of them to disassociate
themselves with Russian - dominated Soviet Union.
Because so much individualism was encouraged at Sofi Hamid, the
impact of changing alphabets can clearly be seen in the inscriptions
on the graves. On Muslim graves, there is a tendency for more
uniformity and repetition of specific verses. But when individuals
express themselves in a unique, individualistic way, it is clear
that changing alphabets so frequently during the past 20 years
has led to considerable illiteracy. Many gravestones have misspelled
words and expressions that are not considered to be proper literary
Future Face of Sofi
Because graves always indicate dates of birth and death, it is
already possible to detect trends and transitions in the nuance
of beliefs. For example, now that Azerbaijan has gained its independence
from the Soviet Union and freedom of religion is permitted, we
see clear evidence of a growing acceptance of Islam, even during
the past three or four years.
More and more Quranic verses are appearing on graves. And one
might add, at this stage of history, the ability of the stone
carvers to emulate the difficult cursive Arabic script can be
equated with a first grader, clutching pen in hand for the first
time. Clearly, the scripts is not known or understood by the
artist. It's obvious that each loop and dot does not carry meaning
for the sculptor. Arabic writing appears as a poor imitation.
Consequently, the texts are full of errors.
Also fewer and fewer symbols representing the life and careers
are being carved on the gravestones. If this trend continues,
it is likely that photos, even the tiny small oval head shots
of the Soviet period are likely to disappear. Again, this would
be in accord with a more strict interpretation of Islam. In the
future, it is likely that there will be less tendency to express
individualism and personality. There is likely to be more uniformity
and more emphasis on expressing attitudes toward death the "right
So, it is likely that the gravestones of the future of Sofi Hamid
will take on a different face. Instead of objects being carved
out to depict gender, personality, interest and careers, it's
likely that decorative arts will become more ornate with symmetric
and geometric design.
The Big Question
More than any academic study or analysis of this cemetery, a
visit to Sofi Hamid always makes you come away with more questions
than answers. It's impossible to visit Sofi Hamid without being
affected emotionally. Curiously, you leave, thinking more about
life, than about death; your mind filled with more questions,
In the final analysis, Sofi Hamid, in its present state, is really
a celebration of life, not death. Contrary to expectations, it
is inspirational and uplifting - a reaffirmation of life. And
it gently nudges us to ask the ultimate question: What symbols
would best define my life and the path that I have chosen to
Staff members Gulnar Aydamirova,
Aytan Aliyeva and Aydan Najafova along with Nigar Abbaszade and
Rovzat Gasimov contributed to this article.
From Azerbaijan International (13.1) Spring 2005.
© Azerbaijan International 2005. All rights reserved.
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