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.
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.
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.
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.
Now for the actual cemetery. A striking feature we noticed was that the monuments were all facing the same way:
All faced towards Mecca…
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:
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.
Imagine that you’re walking through this cool cemetery, you turn your head to the right and see…
Keep walking, climb over some random shrubs and suddenly…
And there’s more…
But there’s something for every taste, even more subtle ones…
A majority of the grave sites had several images and motifs that indicated what that person accomplished in their life, such as a career.
My personal favorite was the samovar…I don’t know if that means they dealt with tea or made samovars; but it’s amazing.
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.
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.
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.
In some places, old women stationed themselves on the ground, granting blessings after pilgrims donated a manat.
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.
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… 😉