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The lost tribes of Azerbaijan

My neighbour in Baku fought in Karabakh a little over 20 years ago. He described all the horrors of a mostly close-quarter war in the beautiful but treacherous hills before telling me a story he must have thought summarised those horrors. After capturing three Armenian soldiers in the hills – a father and two sons – and being told by his commander that he could do what he wanted with them, he offered to let one of them go, provided they could all agree on which one. The two brothers picked their father, but the father could not bring himself to pick one of his sons.

“What do you think I did?” My neighbour, Rustam, asked rhetorically. I figured that Rustam wanted to impress on me how even in the worst times humanity is able to survive, so I answered he must have decided to free all three of them.

Rustam looked at me for a moment and laughed. “My friend, after your travels you need to see a doctor. Armenians killed my brothers and my friends and I would let them go?”

“You freed the two sons?”

“No, I killed all three of them. I gave them a chance to pick one. They did not take it.”

April 15, 2016 - Bruno Maçães - Articles and Commentary

IMG 2613 landscape

Photo by Bruno Maçães.

This is Azerbaijan, a place of told and untold horrors like this – perhaps apocryphal – story. It is also a country where horror has been sublimated into songs and poems covering the stratum of daily life more fully than anywhere else I know. I could see the two combine in a jazz concert that night, where Sevda Elekberzade sang mournfully about a lost love from Lachin. Taken literally this was perhaps a romantic song, but Lachin is also the city occupied by Armenia in 1992, so when she mentioned how she left her heart in Lachin, this brought very real pain to the audience, both personal and political. Is romantic loss meant to hide the loss of territory or is the love for a lost city meant to hide an even more dangerous and forbidden affair?

Sevda Elekberzade – “Lechin”

In Azerbaijan everyone is a distant successor to some lost world, whose pale image he is tasked to preserve. The whole country resembles a museum where each piece is there to represent a forgotten country of its own.

Jewish village 

One morning I took the minibus to Quba in the north. Most of the passengers were heading to the border crossing in Samur and onwards to Dagestan in Russia, even if Quba is by no means an insignificant town. In the small bus station I grabbed the nearest taxi and pronounced two words that turned out to work very much like a password: Qirmizi Qesebe. The taxi driver smiled knowingly and drove across the modern bridge over the Qudiyalçay. A few minutes later he dropped me at the door of the village synagogue.

What is notable about Qirmizi Qesebe is not of course that it hosts a working synagogue. Baku has three and Azerbaijan certainly prides itself on the way it has managed to integrate its Jewish community. But Qirmizi Qesebe is arguably the only Jewish village outside Israel. Everyone here is Jewish. The handful of exceptions are a number of Azerbaijani families which moved in after some villagers decided to leave for Israel after the Soviet Union relaxed its emigration rules. There is no mosque in the village and almost every house has the Star of David proudly displayed. Like hundreds or perhaps thousands of villages in the old Pale of Settlement, this was and remains a Jewish village. They have all disappeared, but Qirmizi Qesebe survived everything.

You get a very clear sense of its unbroken history by climbing to the Jewish cemetery on the steep hill overlooking the village. Some of the men and women buried here lived long 20th century lives, but a few of the tombs are undated and much older. When I ask in the village when Jews arrived in Quba, the answer is three, maybe four centuries ago. “First to the mountains, then we came down.”

The Jews here were mountain people, like everyone else used to be. They wore a sword belted at the waist and a pistol and cartridge belts around the chest. Mountaineering habits, more than cultural assimilation, probably explain why on entering the synagogue I feel for a moment that I am in a mosque, the floor covered with carpets and an injunction to remove your shoes before going in. As the rabbi of the Gorsky synagogue in Baku later explained to me, you certainly do not want to enter wearing your mud-covered boots. In the big city the injunction was dropped, but the carpets are still there, brought as gifts by the community.

I arrived in Qirmizi Qesebe on Sabbath, so was able to see the women wearing rich, traditional Caucasus costumes: an underdress topped by magnificent blue robes known as goba, tight at the waist and with a slit in each sleeve from the elbow downward. Even on weekdays they wear headscarves. My guide – a local Azeri – tells me he can more or less recognise Jewish women by the complex patterns and expensive fabric of the scarves. The men were gathered in the village teahouse playing a variant of backgammon called nard. On the wall there is a collage made from different sources with past town rabbis, going back some two centuries, next to an old photograph of the construction works for the first bridge connecting the two communities, built in 1854. It must have been a momentous occasion, when Muslims and Jews were no longer kept apart by the once-mighty Qudiyalçay.

But the village is mostly empty, as I expected. If some started to leave during the Brezhnev years, the exodus intensified after independence, with most young people leaving for Moscow or Israel, where they could find good jobs. Some have indeed made fortunes abroad and built luxurious mansions here in Qirmizi Qesebe, to which they return for a couple of months in the summer. Israeli money has been flowing in as well, allowing for the reconstruction of the oldest synagogue, which will soon become a museum and the construction of a spacious shechita slaughterhouse. I meet a group of truant teenage boys there, trying to hide away from their elders, but young adults are generally difficult or impossible to find. The village looks placidly beautiful in the morning sunlight, and may perhaps even expect some years of fast gentrification as the money keeps coming from abroad. But this is the time after the storm, where the energy of the past has been spent and everyone can finally collect himself. Before the Soviets, the village had no less than thirteen working synagogues. There are now two, but these are bigger and wealthier than ever before.

Lost Christians

Azerbaijan is a country of hidden secrets, where by being lost from view things have perhaps a greater chance of being preserved. Most of these secrets come to light in casual conversation. One night in a bar in old Baku someone told me about a second lost tribe. A short drive from Gebele in the small Nij village; lives the world’s only settlement of Udi people. Even by Caucasus standards their hospitality is wondrous. Closing the car door, I am already being called to join a group of men in the village teahouse. It may help that I come from an old Christian country, because the Udi are Christian.

Alexandre Dumas, who visited in the 19th century, called them the most mysterious people on earth. They have been living here for at least 3,000 years. In recent centuries their number seems to have remained always more or less fixed at 3,000. There is no feeling here, as in Qirmizi Quesebe, that the village lives mostly in the past. It is large because the houses are spread out over miles, as are the three Christian churches. The Udi keep themselves busy with cattle breeding (including, of course, pigs) and horticulture. They grow grapes for wine, for which the climate is more than fit. And they speak their own language, of course. It is not unusual for a single village in the Caucasus to have a distinctive language, but Udi seems to be only distantly related to other languages in Dagestan, so its claim to uniqueness is quite exceptional.


I visited two of the churches. The Jotari has been beautifully restored and houses church services for the village. Bulun, by the cemetery, lies in ruins. My new friends in Nij were not keen on letting me see it, but it is an imposing, noble building, with a high dome in the centre. When I went back to the village teahouse and showed my pictures, an old man pointed out where murals of the Archangel Michael used to be, but they are no longer perceptible to the uninitiated. It is not just the ruinous state of Bulun that discouraged my hosts from taking me there: Bulun was an Armenian Gregorian church. Udi Christians are keen to preserve their own separate history and identity.

The religious palimpsest is nowhere more present than in the Absheron peninsula, where the capital Baku sits. In my tour of the peninsula I am guided by two college students. They are sisters, but when it comes to matters of faith they could not be more different. One is a pious Shia, who can recite all the stories from the holy imams. The other is a self-professed atheist, who seems to have been through religious school without acquiring the small hint of piety or even information. We start our visit in Buzovna at the eastern end of the peninsula. Here stand both some of the poshest beaches in Azerbaijan and the most traditional and pious communities, such as Nardaran, where women wear chadors and Iran has been exercising growing influence. In the summer the bikini-clad daughters of the local oligarchs have to watch out, lest they walk too far west on the beach. Farther inland you reach Sumgayit, where Sunni Salafis have become something of a force lately.

Nothing is left intact

As you head towards the sea in Buzovna, though a labyrinth of narrow alleys, you enter a district called Nyazaranly, the Nazarene quarter. Nazarenes were the link between Jews and early Christians, a sect of followers of Jesus who were still very close to Judaism. My guides lead me to an old temple, of which only two arches remain. The villagers still speak of how a Christian cross was found here, hidden inside a nondescript plaster cover. This is a very early Christian temple, dating to a time when Jews and Christians were to some extent still overlapping.  As we approach the temple, Tarsa Pir as it is known, I notice how the ground is covered with broken glass. The walls are punctured with nails from which hang pieces of clothes left by pilgrims. And a group of two old women and a bemused young girl are circling the temple seven times, as tradition prescribes. All these rituals are meant to cure one from his or her deepest fears. Some I have seen in similar form elsewhere in Turkic Islam. But the way so many rituals have accumulated on top of each other is, I believe, something one sees only in Azerbaijan.

 Tarsa Pir

Lost between Europe and Asia, the Azerbaijanis have long ago learnt not to aspire to a civilisational blank slate. Everything should be left for those who will come later. Never try to learn from the past more than the past knew about itself. And thus everything lost can eventually be recovered. In Azerbaijan, the shatter zone, everything can survive, but nothing is left intact.

The woman in charge of Tarsa Pir hands me a glass bottle. I am supposed to smash it against the rock at the centre of the crumbling temple. That turns out to be a little more difficult than I expected. After my first throw is too careful to break a sturdy soda bottle and the second manages to only scratch the rock, I hear the improvised priestess say in Azeri that my fears must be too strong. That does it. My third pitch smashes the bottle in small shards, which now join the mountain of broken glass at Tarsa Pir.

The political earthquakes of the past created a human landscape in the Caucasus resembling geological sediments where the lower layers sometimes come to the surface in sudden and surprising ways and you are never sure when you have reached the bottom.

Bruno Maçães is the former Europe minister for Portugal and the author of the forthcoming book The new Eurasian supercontinent. You can follow him on Twitter at @MacaesBruno


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