Culture of Azerbaijan
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Layla and Majnun by NizamiFollowing their ambigous geographic location, Azeris have their feet in both Islamic and European cultures, the latter mostly Russian and Turkish, struggling with deep divisions between the old and the new. About 90% of the population is ethnic Azeri, with a smattering of Dagestanis, Russians, Armenians, Jews and other groups.

Most Azeris speak Azeri, a close cousin of Turkish, though many also speak Russian. The younger generation is now very keen to learn English. Even more than with Turkey, the 7 million Azeris living in the Republic of Azerbaijan feel closer to the 10 million (more islamicized) Azeris living in Iran, in what is usually called "South Azerbaijan".

Burning the Azerbaijan / South Azerbaijan borderAlthough at state level there is no conflict, there are movements in civil society on both sides of the border, advocating a united Azerbaijan. A literature of "longing" for reunification has also developed during the last half century (e.g the works by Mirza Ibrahimov, Balash Azeruglu or by Suleyman Rustam), with a folklore based in recent heroes, such as Semed Behrangi and Jafar Pishevari.

Azerbaijan - Baku: Ajdar Bey Mosque - 'Goy' Blue Mosque - S. Vurgun street -  photo by M.TorresDespite years of Soviet attempts to wipe it out, Islam remains the most popular religion with the Azeris, followed distantly by various Orthodox Christian branches. Like in Iran, the majority of Azeris are Shia Muslims (70%), whereas Sunni Muslims make up most of the Islamic population of the rest of the former Soviet Union. 

Sunnis, the more secular branch, practice leadership by consensus, whereas Shia leadership derives its authority by divine right. In spite of the divisions elsewhere, in a spirit of tolerance, the  mosques in Baku serve both the Shia and the Sunni communities. The Azeri Shia community practices the Jafarite rite.

Azerbaijan is one of the most liberal Muslim-majority states, although arranged marriages are common among the urban population, and marriage via kidnaping is not rare in the country side. There is an attempt by foreigners (Iranians, Pakistanis, Saudis, ...) to introduce Islamic fundamentalism.

Baku: Niyazi House Museum - Azeri women in traditional costume playing local instruments (photo by Galen Frysinger)The country's musical traditions are preserved by ashugs, or poet-singers, who often strum the kobuz (a stringed instrument) while singing of the deeds of ancient heroes. Another popular form of music in Azerbaijan is mugam, which is improvised by voice and wind and stringed instruments and is often compared to jazz.

The country has a healthy literary heritage, much of which derives from an oral tradition of poems and ancient epics (e.g. by Nizami). Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzada was a literary light in the 19th century, helping to develop a modern literature, especially in drama. During Stalin's reign, many of the country's writers and artists were victims of the purge.

Azeri architecture went through many different stages over the centuries but the lasting legacies belong to the medieval period, especially the Maiden Tower and the palace of the Shirvan shahs in Baku. The capital's ornately decorated subway stations are its most recent architectural marvels.

Azerbaijan - Baku / Baki: old town - carpet dealer by the old baths - photo by Miguel TorresAzerbaijan is famous for its carpets, but also for its embroidered textiles. Artists use colourful threads (sometimes made of gold or silver) and beads to create geometric patterns on a thin wool fabric called tirme. The country's many bright-plumed birds and other animals have also featured in designs. Other popular Azerbaijani textiles include rugs, veils, shawls and towels.

Azeris are good fans of the 7th art, and cinema made at the Azerbaijan Studios in Baku reached international prominence during the Soviet period, however difficulties after independence reduced significantly the number of Azeri feature films.

see also: literature, cinema, museums, places of worship, superstitions, religion, carpets, sex, images, summary
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