Mystic Azerbaijan

During my undergrad studies I became fascinated with religious mysticism. Mysticism is religious practice off the beaten path; basically the idea that one is not dependent on a religious hierarchy/structure to have a relationship with the divine — whatever that means to the individual. It is universal; movements all over the world have shaken organized religions to their cores and I appreciate anything that challenges the status quo when it becomes stagnant.

And don’t think that mysticism, with its desert-living hermits and vision-having nuns, is a thing of the past. It’s a thriving element of spiritual life the world-over, including Azerbaijan, a country seeking a coherent religious identity as it navigates independence. The two places described below are full of mystic qualities, and are worth visiting as day trips if you get the chance.

Sofi Hamid Cemetery

Legend has it that in the 14th century, an Arabian merchant named Sofi Hamid was traveling southward through the arid steppes of modern-day Azerbaijan when he suddenly realized that he was dying. He asked his entourage to bury him wherever his camel rested; and today we have Sofi Hamid Cemetery.

Out in the middle of nowhere

Out in the middle of nowhere

Once we arrived (we hired a driver for the day, that was taken care of by one of my lovely colleagues), we went to the courtyard that housed Sofi Hamid’s body.

Sofi Hamid 2

Sofi Hamid 3

Right outside is a white camel. Women who want to have a baby crawl under the camel three times, but you can wish for other things too. I witnessed a group of women perform this ritual, and it’s fascinating.

Sofi Hamid Camel

Next to the camel is a bunch of small trees. Women tie tiny cradles made from cloth to the trees, again asking for God’s blessing to raise families. It immediately reminded me of the house of Mary in Ephesus (Turkey), the only other place I had seen people tie cloth as a symbol of their desires.

Tiny cradle

Tiny cradle

Hundreds of prayers

Hundreds of prayers

Now for the actual cemetery. A striking feature we noticed was that the monuments were all facing the same way:

Sofi Hamid 5

All faced towards Mecca…

Sofi Hamid 6

Differences abound in this cemetery compared to traditional Muslim cemeteries, and my local friends were great at pointing those out. For example, the plots you see above act as monuments and draw a lot of attention to that grave site. Traditionally, burial plots are meant to look this this:

A pile of stones, which in English we'd call "cairn" (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

A pile of stones, which in English we’d call “cairn” (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

Simple and basic. But those were in the minority…Sofi Hamid is famous for combining pre-Islamic traditions and themes to Islamic burial practices, which is better described in this article if you’re a nerd like me and want to know more details.

Colors

Imagine that you’re walking through this cool cemetery, you turn your head to the right and see…

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

Keep walking, climb over some random shrubs and suddenly…

An awesome shade of green

An awesome shade of green

And there’s more…

Like this...

Like this…

And that one

And that one

But there’s something for every taste, even more subtle ones…

Robin's egg blue, for example

Robin’s egg blue, for example

Gentle pastels...

Gentle pastels…

A breezy beach scene...

A breezy beach scene…

Motifs/Symbols

A majority of the grave sites had several images and motifs that indicated what that person accomplished in their life, such as a career.

This person was probably a driver

This person was probably a driver

Another driver? Construction worker?

Another driver? Construction worker?

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

My personal favorite was the samovar…I don’t know if that means they dealt with tea or made samovars; but it’s amazing.

Sofi Hamid 21

I want one on my grave stone when I pass

Sofi Hamid 20Then there are other motifs: snakes, deer, birds, fruit, etc etc…

Sofi Hamid 23

Sofi Hamid 24

Sofi Hamid 25

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid...

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid…

Sofi Hamid 28

Of course, I was fascinated by the combination of Arabic and Cyrillic scripts. Seriously, where else in the world would you see this?

Sofi Hamid 29

Sofi Hamid 30

Sofi Hamid 31And don’t worry, I didn’t just obsess over the graves, I enjoyed the company of my friends too:

Friends 1

Friends 2

Friends 3

 Beş Barmaq (Five Fingers Rock Formation)

On a separate day, the other ETAs and I connected with one of the Fulbright Scholars who set up a trip to Beş Barmaq. Beş Barmaq is a pilgrimage site mainly tailored towards those who practice Shiite Islam (i.e. Azerbaijan and Iran). I believe the rock formation, in pre-Islamic times, was a hub for ancestral/spiritual worship, and some of those traditions are still practiced today.

Besh Barmaq 1

A friend from home mentioned it looks like something from a Tolkien novel. I have to agree

Got a good work out too with these stairs

We met a woman on the stairs as she made her way down. She made sure we were covered correctly, and gave her scarf to Madeline without a second thought. I think we were each deeply touched by her willingness to help the obviously clueless tourists, and I’ll never forget her.

Bash Barmaq 3

Looking back

Looking back

Along the main path was a flatbed area where people stacked rocks. I’m sure there was some religious significance, but Dana mentioned that hikers often do this at the end of a long hike. So I’m going with that.

Besh Barmaq 5

Besh Barmaq 6

Then we climbed through the rock formation to reach one of the top peaks. Ladders and rails made from ersatz materials, and steps worn from heavy use made for a somewhat precarious climb. Not to mention having to worry about other people, especially the elderly women who somehow braved the trail. There was also a young woman who climbed in her wedge heels. Devout women, with the skirts of their chadors billowing behind them, drifted around the formation. We passed a couple others on the stairs and throughout the formation with faces uplifted, palms extended toward heaven, a friend conveniently nearby snapping pictures on her phone.

Hiking Besh Barmaq 1

Starting the ascent

It was intimidating, to say the least

It was intimidating, to say the least

View of the Caspian

View of the Caspian

In some places, old women stationed themselves on the ground, granting blessings after pilgrims donated a manat.

Besh Barmaq Offering

Or candy too, apparently

And like at Sofi Hamid above, people tied pieces of fabric in certain areas as they made a wish or said a prayer. Luckily our contact mentioned this detail to me, so I cut some strips for us to tie.

Make a Wish 1

Make a Wish 2

Of course, happy to be there  :)

Of course, happy to be there 🙂

And there you have it, another side of religious culture in Azerbaijan. I talked about the different mosques around Baku in this post, so I think it’s appropriate to add something different. Honestly, visiting Sofi Hamid Cemetery and the Beş Barmaq pilgrimage site are some of my top moments during my Fulbright year; and I encourage future Fulbrighters or adventurers in Azerbaijan to check them out.

Until next time…  😉

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3 comments

  1. Hi there! Wow, what a beautiful place to be.
    I’m sorry for a (slightly) unrelated question, but I just read your blog about your time as a student in Turkey. I am very, Very, VERY interested in doing an exchange to Turkey through my own school, but my parents are adamantly opposed, because they say it’s dangerous, especially for a girl travelling alone. My arguments are similar to the ones you gave for going, but they won’t budge. As somebody who has studied in Turkey and has stayed up-to-date on the news there, I’m hoping for your opinion. And, if you think it’s worth going, maybe a few words to help me convince them?
    Either way, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your experiences! I’m jealous as can be.

    1. Hello! Glad to hear that my Turkey study abroad blog is still helping people, crazy to think that was almost 3 years ago.

      I totally understand what you feel, and, in hindsight, I sympathize with your and my parents. I learned that it’s good to address concerns and have honest, open conversations about international travel with parents, relatives, and friends. Oftentimes, if you act as a sound board for worries, that helps alleviate them since they’re then out in the open. It does wear you down, and it’s surprising how draining it can be to hear comments like, “You’re going to be taken because you’re blonde/foreign/American/etc.” But what can we expect to hear when only 30% of Americans have passports, and of those people, how many of them go to places like Turkey or Azerbaijan to live, work, or study? Very minimal. So, be patient. Be consistent in your answers to concerns, but also be understanding. I often say things like, “I appreciate your concern, but I have confidence in my ability to handle whatever difficulties will come my way.” “It will be challenging but I feel I need such an experience to help me grow as a person.” “The world today is becoming evermore interconnected, and I want to be part of that.” etc etc

      Whenever Turkey is mentioned in international news in the U.S., it’s always about politics and protests, or about events developing with its neighbors, like Syria and Iraq. That’s likely the only source that people like our parents initially have of the country, and it forms an unfavorable impression. Encourage your family and friends to think of it this way: protests are a sign of active democracy, and of a passionate citizenry who want what is best for its country and society. Compared to countries in Eurasia, where protests might be allowed on paper but are suppressed by governments, Turks are exercising their freedoms because they possess them. This, in turn, is a good sign for the region — Turkey is proving that democracy is possible for a majority-Muslim nation (an idea that is still hotly debated), and acts as a role model of sorts for its neighbors.

      Since you’re doing a program similar to mine, you can mention that, even though you might be going there alone, you won’t be alone for long. Within a few days I connected with other international students and we ended up traveling together, exploring the city together, and are good friends today. Many expats live in Turkey, especially in Ankara, Istanbul, and the coastal cities. Chances are, you’ll never be too far from friends or connections, and Turkish people in general are extremely warm and helpful, especially when you attempt to speak Turkish. 🙂

      One more note: something to ask yourself is, “What do I hope to gain from visiting/studying in Turkey?” For me, it was a chance to experience non-European history, branch out into Middle Eastern and Eurasian studies, and see if I liked being abroad (I had never been overseas before). Today, I can’t stress enough the impact that studying in Ankara has had in my life. Without it, I wouldn’t have gone to Azerbaijan and I wouldn’t be going to Indiana University in the fall to study Library Science and Central Eurasian Studies. So think about what you would gain from being in Turkey, and hopefully those ideas can ease your parents too.

      I hope that helped; good luck with everything and please keep me posted if you can. 🙂

      1. Hi! Thanks so much for such a wonderful reply. I’m sorry its taken so long to get back to you. The email letting me know you’d replied came just before a deluge of other mail so I missed it. But, I took your advice, and it worked! Well, provided my school is still sending exchange students there, but I think that’s a pretty reasonable condition. Thank you again! I’ve been on exchange before, to Western Europe, but I’m really looking forward to expanding my comfort zone and my awareness of the Middle East.

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