Novruz – celebrating the Zoroastrian New Year

Novruz (translation from Persian language: New Day) is celebration of the first day of the year, according to the Persian calendar, and the coming of Spring. This secular festivity derived from the Zoroastrian heritage (fire worshippers) is celebrated on the day of the astronomical Northward equinox, which usually occurs on March 21, and is preceded by weeks of traditional preparations. In old days the holiday marked the first day of calendrical year but after Azerbaijan came under the Soviet rule New Year’s Day was introduced as January 1, and Novruz celebrations were prohibited. However, after the fall of the USSR the new government put it back in the calendar and today Novruz is the most important holiday celebrated in the country. Apart from Azerbaijan, the traditions of Nowruz are also strong among people in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and Turkey.

Traditions of Novruz

In this section we include just a few of the most important Novruz customs. For more detailed information please click on the links below.

news.az

Novruz table. Image by: news.az

Symbols of Spring

Typical Novruz table is prepared with various items including: candles, fresh flowers, nuts, sweets, local pastries, dried fruits, dyed eggs, and the samani, a newly sprouted wheat. Samani symbolizes the beginning of new life, prosperity and abundance. Almost every family grows one but you can also buy them in bazar. To ensure that samani is ready for Novruz, it should be sown about 2 weeks in advance.  

Cleansing and rebirth

Novruz is also a good time to buy new clothes or clean the house and the garden. Many treat it as well as an opportunity to renew relationships. People who have had quarrels and refused to speak with each other often choose this occasion to forgive one another.

tree pruning

Tree pruning.  Source: Saturday Evening Post

Family and friends

In anticipation of Novruz, people prepare lots of food and sweets and visit each other at home. There is a certain hierarchy related to the visits –  the oldest members of the community receive guests first. In addition, gifts and food are shared with the needy, poor, and sick (Source: Azerbaijan International). On the eve of Novruz, many Azerbaijani people visit the cemetery where their parents are buried.

Children

Another important custom related to Novruz is the Halloween-like candy hunting. Children go around their neighbors’ homes, knock at their doors, and leave their cups or little baskets while hiding, waiting for treats.

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Source: az-dc.blogspot.com

Jumping over bonfires

Chahar Shanbe Suri or jumping over bonfires is celebrated on the night of the last Wednesday of the old year. During this night people traditionally gather and light small bonfires in the streets and jump over the flames shouting ”Zardie man az to, sorkhie to az man”, which in Persian means ”May my sickly pallor be yours and your red glow be mine”. With this phrase, the flames symbolically take away all of the unpleasant things that happened in the past year. Nowadays, due to safety issues, many people simply light the bonfire in the street and shout the special phrase without getting too close to the flames (Source: Celebrating Novruz. Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Harvard University).

Useful links:

Celebrating Nowruz. A Resource for Educators. The Outreach Center. Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Harvard University

Novruz. Celebration that would not die. Azerbaijan International.

Spirit of hospitality in Azerbaijan

Caucasian hospitality is famous worldwide and during your stay in Azerbaijan you will have plenty of opportunities to experience it for yourself. You might, for example, get invited to someone’s house for ”tea”. However, if you think that you’ll just spend a couple of hours drinking tea with your host  – think again. Azeri people are very modest and they will never admit that they had just spent a day preparing for you a small feast of delicious, home-made, traditional local dishes. You’d better show up hungry!

gift

Before the visit

Although it’s not expected, it is always in good taste to bring some gifts for the host. A small bunch of flowers for the lady, sweets for children and a bottle of liquor for the head of the family will do just fine. However, if due to religious reasons alcohol is out of the question, sweets  are a prefect alternative. Azeris love to have their tea with a candy or two so you cannot go wrong. Finally, make sure your outfit is appropriate and tidy as local people pay a lot of attention to appearance. You will find more information about Azerbaijani customs here.

The meal

Appetizers

A typical meal consists of appetizers, main courses, tea and sweets. Before the main dishes are served, the table is usually set with plenty of appetizers – fresh herbs (chives, dill, parsley, coriander etc.) and vegetable (mainly tomato and cucumber), mixed pickles and salads, cheese, olives, aubergine with nuts etc. They all look delicious but try not to indulge in them too much as they’ll be followed by a huge meal!

Main courses

The choice of main dishes varies. The hostess may prepare vine leaves, aubergine, tomatoes and/or peppers stuffed with rice, meat and spices (dolma), fish filled with nuts and served with pomegranate sauce,  lamb stew, delicious kebab or plov, which is considered a particular delicacy and served only on special occasions. Sometimes the main courses are preceded by a soup – dushbere with tiny dumplings on a cold day or dovga (yogurt soup) in the summer. If you feel full, leave some food on your plate as otherwise it’ll get refilled instantly. More information about traditional Azerbaijani food you will find here.

Table

Image: thetravelmanor.com

Tea

It is common to mix two types of tea – black and thyme. Drink will always be accompanied by dry fruit, varene, cookies or cake. To read more about the great tea drinking tradition in Azerbaijan, visit our past post.

After the meal

Once the meal is finished – don’t leave immediately. After the feast you will need to rest a while anyway, and it’ll also be a good chance to finally speak to the ladies of the house, who most likely spent the whole evening preparing and serving food. Also, if you’re lucky, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise of traditional singing and dancing.

Welcoming the New Year in Azerbaijan

After the long New Year holidays we finally get back to work with lots of energy and motivation for these coming months. However, before telling you about New Year celebrations in Azerbaijan, we’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best in 2014 and beyond. We hope this coming year will bring you lots of happiness and success both in your personal and professional lives, and plenty of exciting travel opportunities to new, inspiring places. We also hope to see you in Azerbaijan sometime soon!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Baku’s New Year tree made of plastic bottles. Source: azernews

Celebrating the New Year in the Land of Fire

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the New Year (Nowruz) was celebrated in Azerbaijan in March in accordance with the Persian tradition. However, after Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union, the new authorities introduced the more widely used Georgian calendar and banned celebration of the Persian New Year. From then on, the coming of the New Year began to be celebrated on December 31. After Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991, Nowruz was restored as a public holiday but the end of the calendar year continues to be celebrated on December 31.

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Ded Moroz & Snegurochka. Source: wikispace

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka

Nowadays the New Year’s Eve in Azerbaijan is very much a family holiday although often celebrated together with friends. Typically, a Christmas-like New Year tree is decorated in the house before December 31, and then removed after the Old New Year (14th of January), an Orthodox holiday. Another important tradition is the visit of the Ded Moroz (in Azerbaijani Shakhta Babah), the equivalent of Santa Claus, and his granddaughter, Snegurochka, who come on the New Year’s Eve to give presents to children. Finally, right before midnight family and friends with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine give a toast to the passing year and then at midnight another toast is given to the incoming New Year.

For more information click here

Khash – the Caucasian cure for a late night out

khash news.az

Khash. Image: news.az

Peruvians have their cuy colorado, Brits have black pudding, Japanese have shirako and people of Azerbaijan have khash.  Khash (written xaş in Azerbaijani) is a traditional winter soup eaten all over the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia. The key ingredients vary from country to country but in the Land of Fire the dish is usually prepared from sheep’s entire head (yes, including brain, eyes and tongue) as well as hooves and stomach, which are boiled overnight and eaten for breakfast. Thanks to its high fat content and the timing of serving (early morning), the dish is said to be a perfect hangover cure.

Preparation

Khash is not a quick dish to prepare. First it is necessary to flame sear the head and hooves, then chop them and mix with the stomach. Afterwards all of this has to be boiled and chilled to remove any possible impurities. Now the real cooking begins! The ingredients are simmered in water with some carrots and onions, usually overnight to separate the meat from the bone and to change the water into a jelly-like liquid. Only then the dish is seasoned with spices, including cinnamon and lemon.  This is, of course, only one of the recipes – some cooks don’t add vegetables at all while others throw in some garlic and hot peppers similar to jalapeno. The soup is usually accompanied by lavash, Azerbaijani thin flat bread, which is often torn into small bits and threw into it.

Serving

Due to the time-consuming preparation followed by hours of cooking, the dish is rarely cooked at home. However, if someone makes the effort to prepare it, it will surely be shared with friends or extended family. Otherwise there are restaurants that specialize in khash and they are often opened at night or in early morning hours. In the past it used to be common to invite guests for khash the morning after the weeding and this tradition prevails in some villages of the country. Typically, khash is consumed by men and accompanied by vodka, which is believed to help digestion.

Anecdotes

As the story goes, sometime in the 1970s the famous Baku-born cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, on the way to a performance in Azerbaijan informed a friend of his that he’ll be arriving from Moscow around 6am. When asked why he chose such an early flight, he replied that he wanted to have a bowl of khash as soon as he gets to the city. And so he did.

Useful links:

A song of sheep-face stew. Road & Kingdoms.

His majesty Khash. visions of Azerbaijan. 

Khash recipe. News.az

Ivanovka – the remnants of the USSR

Ivanovka is a village of about 3,000 inhabitants located in the region of Ismailli, in northern Azerbaijan, less than 3 hours drive from Baku. The place is well-known in the country not only for the beauty of the landscape but also for the unique local culture. Despite over 20 years since the fall of Communism in Azerbaijan, the village still has got a functioning kolkhoz (collective farm) and is inhabited by a community of Molokans, religious dissidents that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church over 300 years ago.

Ivanovka

Typical houses in Ivanovka. Image found on Pinterest

The Molokans

Origins of the name

There are various hypotheses about the origin of the name ”Molokan”. Some claim that it was used for the first time in the 1670s in reference to the people who ignored the 200 fasting days by drinking milk.  However, another theory claims that the name comes from the river Molochnaya in today’s  Ukraine, where the Molokans were first exiled by the Russian tsarist authorities.

Molokans

Azerbaijani Molokans. Image by Vladic Ravich

The history

In the middle of the 16th Century in Russia a man called Matviei Simeon Dalamatov began spreading a new religious doctrine, which rejected the divine origin of tsar’s rule, the cult of icons and the cross, the concept of the Holy Trinity, baptism with water, the liturgy and the clergy. It proclaimed as well the unconditional Christian pacifism (Molokans rejected the military service) and a number of ritual rules relating to ‘clean’ foods. All of this was considered a heresy by the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and Dalmatov was soon arrested, tortured and killed. Over the next centuries the followers of the evolving religious movement continued to be persecuted over their values. In the 19th century, the government’s policy was to send the heretics away from the center of the country into the Caucasus and Central Asia, and this is how some of them ended up settling in Azerbaijan. Ivanovka was founded in 1847, and the initiator of the application for the village was a peasant named Ivan Pershin, in honor of which the village got its name.

The kolkhoz

Ivanovka by Ahmed Mukhtar

The beautiful region of Ismailli where Ivanovka is situated.

Molokans were considered hard workers who introduced the protestant work ethic into their labor. Thanks to their efforts, the collective farm set up by them in Ivanovka was thriving until the end of the II World War when most of the young local men died in combat. After that the kolkhoz went through a serious crisis and was on the verge of collapse but in 1953 a 20 years old man called Nikolai Nikitin was chosen its new chairman and brought it back to its prime. Under Nikitin’s management, which lasted 41 years,  the economic indicators of the Ivanovka’s collective farm were much higher than elsewhere in Azerbaijan. As a sign of appreciation he was proclaimed the “Hero of Socialist Labour”, and later became a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of Russia. After the fall of Communism he was promised  by the late President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, that as long as the people of Ivanovka want to remain collective, it’ll be so. This rule has been respected  as well by the current President.

What to do in Ivanovka

Apart from visiting the kolkhoz and exploring the Molokan culture, you can also check out the Monolit winery (Shato Monolit) next to the 5* hotel of the same name and taste the local spirits. The farming products of Ivanovka are famous all over Azerbaijan for their high quality so don’t forget to try the local delicacies. The area is also very picturesque and provides lots of hiking opportunities. Ivanovka is also a great stop-over during a trip to northern cities of Azerbaijan, such as Qabala and Sheki.

wine ivanovka

Château Monolit , Ismailli region. By Steve Hollier

Useful links:

Princeton, Molokans.

Steve Hollier: Azerbaijan days – Ivanovka, a little piece of the Soviet Union

CNN World View: Ivanovka, Azerbaijan – Back in the USSR

Sheki Azerbaijan blogspot: Land of plenty. 

Frenchies in Baku: Discovery of Ivanovka and Ismaily wines

The last of the Molokans, preserved in all its Soviet glory. 

Steve Hollier’s Blog: Azerbaijan Days: Chateau Monolit and Ismailli Wine. Quality Vino from Azerbaijan!

Molokane.org: Ivanovka and Kiululli

Visions of Azerbaijan: Ismailli wine and the Milk Drinkers

 

Azerbaijani carpets – centuries of weaving tradition and perfection

18th century

Azerbaijani carpet from the 18th century

The rich history

Carpets are one of the most ancient artisanal handicraft in Azerbaijan and, according to scholars, the beginnings  of this unique art go back as far as the Bronze Age. Many famous historians, including Herodotus, Claudius Elian or Xenofontus, mentioned Azerbaijani carpets in their writings. The art of carpet weaving had blossomed during the times of the Sasanian Dynasty (III-VII Century), a powerful Iranian empire that ruled parts of today’s Azerbaijan before the rise of Islam, when carpets began to be woven from silk.  Sometime around the XIV-XVII centuries carpets began to be made with incorporated gold and silk threads and adorned with precious stones. Such carpets were produced in Tabriz, Shamakhy and Barda, and due to their high cost were usually purchased by rich feudals. Around the XIII-XIV Century local carpets became famous abroad for their high quality and beauty, and  began to be exported worldwide in great numbers. The uniqueness of the carpets and weaving tradition was recently appreciated  by the UN’s cultural body that included it in the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Carpets in art

Azerbaijani carpets were praised in the writings of Persian poets, Khagani (1121-1190) and Nizami (1141-1209). They were also captured in paintings by famous XV Century artists, including: Hans Memling ( “Mariam with baby”, Shirvan carpet), Van Eyck (“Saint Mariam”, Zeyva carpet), and Hans Holbein (”Ambassadors’’, Gazakh carpet).

ambassadors

Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

Regional differences

Latif Karimov (1906-1991), a renowned Azerbaijani scholar and carpet maker, researched the history of Azerbaijani carpets and systematized 144 styles based on geographical regions (cities, towns, villages). These were in turn subgrouped under 4 major regional groups, which include: 1. Guba-Shirvan (includes Baku); 2. Ganja-Kazakh; 3. Karabakh (includes Shusha and Jabrayil); 4. Tabriz (southern Azerbaijan in Iran, includes carpet styles of Ardebil). Information by Azerbaijan International. Click here for images of carpets from different regions of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan carpet weaving

By UNESCO

The Carpet Museum

The visitors to Azerbaijan Carpet Museum have the chance to admire ancient and modern local carpets, and can learn how to distinguish different styles of local weaving art. The museum was established in 1967 and has changed its location a few times since then. It first opened in Friday’s Mosque in Icheri Sheher but in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was moved to the Lenin Museum, while the mosque was returned to its original purpose of worship. However, over the last years a new, modern museum has been constructed on the Boulevard, close to the Four Seasons Hotel, and the whole exposition is gradually being moved there.

carpet museum

The old Carpet Museum still located in the former Lenin Museum.

Where to buy Azerbaijani carpet

All over the country, and especially in the regions famous for carpet weaving, you will be able to buy beautiful local carpets. Arguably, the easiest thing is to head to one of the little shops in Icheri Sheher in Baku, which offer a wide choice of artwork together with an explanation regarding the origin of the item. Avoid buying old, expensive carpets as you’ll have to obtain a special export permission from the Carpet Museum. If the Museum will reject your request, the carpet will be confiscated by the customs guards.

flying carpet

A carpet selling shop in Icheri Sheher. Source: mustafazade.blogspot

Useful links

Carpets made to last. A walk through Baku’s National Carpet Museum. Azerbaijan International

Azerbaijan. Travel tips. click on the last icon on the bottom of the page for information regarding export of artwork etc.

Azerbaijan. About carpet.

But does it fly? Azerbaijani carpets. By Travbuddy.

Azerbaijani Carpets. UNESCO.

Azerbaijani carpet included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.   Azernews.

The Festival of Sacrifice – next week Azerbaijan will join the Muslim world to celebrate Qurban Bayram

Bibiheybat mosque

Bibi Heybat Mosque, Baku

As a secular country, Azerbaijan has only few religious festivities that are oficially celebrated, and among them are Ramazan and Qurban Bayram. The latter became public holiday after Azerbaijan gained independence in October 1991.

What is it?

Qurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha in Arabic) commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his oldest son, Ismail (Ishmael), as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham (Ibrahim) with a lamb sacrifice instead. Today, in remembrance of Abraham’s act, Muslims worldwide sacrifice sheep, lamb, camel or cow. The ritual is typically performed by the head of the family.

When is it celebrated?

Qurban Bayram occurs the day after the pilgrims conducting Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, descend from Mount Arafat. It happens to be approximately 70 days after the end of the month of Ramadan. In the Georgian Calendar the dates vary from year to year, and in 2013 the celebrations fall on the 16-17th of October.

qurban

Qurban Bayram

How is it done?

Allah’s name is recited along with the offering statement and a supplication. According to the Quran, the meat is divided into three shares, which are afterwards distributed among the poor, the relatives and neighbors, while the last share is eaten by the family during a feast. A large portion of the meat must be given to the poor and hungry so they can all join in the feast.

Some references in Quran

Quran says: “And the camels! We have appointed them among the ceremonies of Allah. Therein ye have much good. So mention the name of Allah over them when they are drawn up in lines. Then when their flanks fall (dead), eat thereof and feed the beggar and the suppliant. Thus have We made them subject unto you, that haply ye may give thanks. (36) Their flesh and their blood reach not Allah, but the devotion from you reaches Him. Thus have We made them subject unto you that ye may magnify Allah that He hath guided you. And give good tidings (O Muhammad) to the good.” (Chapter 22, verses 36-37).

Useful links

Eid al-Adha Wikipedia

Abraham and the child of sacrifice – Isaac or Ishmael? 

Eid Al-Adha

Kurban Bayramı or the Feast of the Sacrifice in a Nutshell by Witt Istanbul

Kurban Bayram by Baku Pages