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What's Yours Is Mine

Instead of drawing them closer, Azerbaijan and Iran’s shared heritage creates bad blood.

by Shahla Sultanova 23 April 2014

In early December, UNESCO included chovgan, an ancient precursor to polo, on its list of Azerbaijan’s intangible cultural heritage.


The agency said the game merited special preservation efforts. With people losing interest in the ancient sport, the number of players is dwindling. The Karabakh breed of horses on which it is played are becoming scarce, as is suitable pastureland for playing.


Chovgan strengthens feelings of identity rooted in nomadic culture and linked to the perception of the horse as an integral part of everyday life,” according to a UNESCO description of the game.


According to UNESCO, chovgan players are farmers traditionally outfitted in "large astrakhan hats, long tight-fitting coats with a high waist, and special trousers, socks, and shoes."


Those “feelings of identity” are rather strong already, judging by the dust cloud kicked up in Iran over UNESCO’s decision to label chovgan as belonging to Azerbaijan, and by other recent disputes over the countries’ cultural heritage.


Long at odds over religious, security, and ethnic issues – 16 percent of Iran’s 81 million people are ethnic Azeris – Iran and Azerbaijan have found another arena for conflict: who owns bragging rights to revered figures and rituals.




Even before the UNESCO decision on chovgan, Iran was crying foul. In October the country’s Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts, and Tourism Organization sent a letter to the UN agency claiming chovgan as an ancient Iranian game and protesting Azerbaijan’s attempt to list it. Soon afterward, Mohammad-Ali Najafi, who was then Iran’s vice president and director of the heritage office, sent a second letter to UNESCO suggesting that other countries where the traditional forms of the game originated should work on a multinational claim to it, the Fars news agency reported.


He cited as a precedent the Navruz new year holiday, added to UNESCO’s list in 2009 and ascribed to Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.


Chovgan is one of several cultural treasures caught in a tug of war between the countries. Five of the six items registered by Azerbaijan, including chovgan and Navruz, are part of Iranian culture, too, but Navruz is the only one with multinational billing on the UNESCO roster.


The tar, a long-necked lute, is another item in contention. When the instrument was inscribed for Azerbaijan in the UN’s list in 2012, it caused a ruckus among Iranian cultural organizations, which blamed national officials for the perceived slight and vowed to publish documents proving that the tar is essentially Iranian.


The figure-eight shaped body of the tar is made from mulberry wood, with nut wood used for the neck and pear wood for the tuning pegs. The body is then inlaid with mother of pearl, according to UNESCO.


Arif Yunusov, an Azerbaijani researcher at the Institute of Peace and Democracy who also studies Iran, backs Azerbaijan’s attempts to register cultural elements with UNESCO, but he acknowledges Iran’s claim to them as well.


“Azerbaijan and Iran had a common history for a long time. But these countries should distinguish between historical discussions and the UNESCO list. The UNESCO list is just first come, first served,” Yunusov said.


Javanshir Akhundov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Iran, told Iranian media last year that the tar had been refined significantly by craftsmen in Azerbaijan and so had become an Azerbaijani musical instrument.


The Azerbaijani tar has more strings than the Iranian version. It is widely used in mugham, a form of folk music that is also registered as a UNESCO cultural treasure – and which is also claimed by Iran.


Eldar Mamedov, an Azerbaijan-born citizen of Latvia who advises the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group on foreign affairs, said both sides have a legitimate claim to the instrument.


“Both claim that the tar forms part of their cultural heritage, and both are right because the two cultures are so closely intertwined that the distinction between them is very hard to make,” said Mamedov, who works on an EP committee for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran. 


“Azerbaijan will not win anything by claiming exclusive ownership of the tar or chovgan. But it can needlessly wound the national sensitivities of Iranians, which would be very unwise considering Azerbaijan's geostrategic situation as Iran's neighbor,” he said.


For its part, Azerbaijan nurses a grudge over the reputation of Nizami Ganjavi, a 12th-century poet usually referred to as Persian in foreign sources, including respected reference works.


Ganjavi lived in Ganja, a city in western Azerbaijan that was part of the medieval Seljuq Empire. He is remembered for his Khamsa, a series of five narrative poems totaling 30,000 couplets. Ganjavi wrote in Persian, adding weight to Iran’s claim to him, but the fact that his home city was in modern-day Azerbaijan supports the notion that his legacy belongs to that country.


“I feel terrible when I see Nizami Ganjavi described as a Persian poet,” said Teymur Kerimli, an expert on Ganjavi and director of the Institute of Manuscripts of Azerbaijan. “But instead of being offended, we should do our best to change it. Just being offended will get us nowhere. We should build a strong case that he’s an Azerbaijani poet. After that we should promote it throughout the world.”


Last fall, the replacement of Persian inscriptions on the Nizami Mausoleum in Ganja with Azeri ones caused a furor in Iran. Najafi, the former Iranian vice president, again wrote to UNESCO, urging it to pressure Azerbaijan to restore the Persian writing.


The Heydar Aliev Foundation, named for Azerbaijan’s late president, is charged with championing Ganjavi’s Azerbaijani identity abroad. It scored a coup in 2012 with the erection of a statue of Ganjavi in Rome’s Villa Borghese gardens with the inscription “A Poet from the Republic of Azerbaijan,” much to the irritation of Tehran.


Ganjavi is not the only historical figure whom Iran and Azerbaijan cannot seem to share. Others include Mohammad-Hossein Shahriyar, a 19th-century Iranian poet of Azerbaijani origin, and Shah Ismail Khatai, founder of the Safavid dynasty, which from 1501 to 1722 ruled a huge empire that included what are now Iran and Azerbaijan.


“Iran wants be the dominant owner of regional culture,” said Mesiagha Mehemmedi, an Iran expert at the Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank linked to the Azerbaijani president’s office. “Iran should accept that the culture that was formed in ancient times, in the medieval ages, and later was recognized as Iranian and Arabic culture is not the heritage of only Iranians and Arabs. It was shaped by all ethnicities, including Azeris. So they have a right to claim specific elements of that culture as their legacy.”


Mehemmedi noted that moderate Hassan Rouhani promised during his successful run for Iran’s presidency last year “to return the cultural heritage of Iran ‘embezzled’ by neigboring countries,” meaning Ganjavi and Rumi, a 13th-century thinker and writer claimed by Turkey.


“Iran is well aware of the reputation of those two historical people and wants to benefit from them,” he said.




Although Azerbaijan has pushed ahead with UNESCO registrations over Iranian protests, Baku has prefixed some of those treasures with names of places, perhaps as a concession – implying that Iran could register its own local versions.


Soon after the UNESCO registration of chovgan, Akhundov, the Azerbaijani ambassador, told Iranian media that his country does not claim to be the sole inheritor of the game, having registered it as a traditional equestrian sport of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. He said Iran could choose to register the game of polo played in its Isfahan province.


“Polo has been played in other countries like Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in addition to Iran, but we proposed [to] UNESCO Karabakh’s polo, just as we proposed Azerbaijan’s local tar musical instrument,” Akhundov said. Likewise, the UNESCO-listed musical form is inscribed as Azerbaijani mugham.


Azerbaijani historian and author Jamil Hasanli said the countries’ pasts, which has at times seen them joined together in states that emerged and collapsed, is partly to blame for the tension.


“They share one culture that has elements both in Iran and Azerbaijan,” Hasanli said. “The best for both countries is to acknowledge that their cultural heritage is common, since it doesn’t seem possible to delimit most of the cultural elements that each considers its own.”


But, he added, “the societies are not ready for this kind of discussion.”


Aside from their histories, and the Azeri community in northern Iran – which is viewed with suspicion by Tehran – the countries are linked by the religion of Shi’a Islam.


Hasanli said a popular saying used to describe Azerbaijan’s close linguistic, cultural, and religious ties with Turkey could, with a twist, describe the country’s relationship with Iran: “For Turkey we say one nation and two states. For Iran we should say one state, two nations, implying their common history.”


Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have been strained since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Baku objects to Iran’s warm relations with Armenia – with whom Azerbaijan is technically at war over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh – while Iran is suspicious of Azerbaijan’s ties to the West and Israel.


In 2013 Iranian police arrested an Azerbaijani scholar of Oriental literature who had traveled to Iran and held her for 32 days. After her release she told local media that her offense had been to not ask the Iranian Embassy in Azerbaijan for permission to do reasearch on the poet Shahriyar.


The previous year had been especially contentious, with noises in the Azerbaijani parliament that alarmed Tehran over the territorial integrity of its northern, Azeri-dominated provinces and a subsequent hacking of some Azerbaijani government websites. Then came the arrests in Baku of two Azerbaijani citizens who were accused of plotting to kill foreigners, supposedly led by a ringleader in Iran with ties to that country’s security services.


After that, two young Azerbaijani poets were arrested in Iran and held for five months on espionage charges. 


In May 2012, Iranian officials condemned Azerbaijan for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, which they said was immoral and inappropriate for a Muslim country. Baku responded with a protest outside the Iranian Embassy. A week later, a representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was barred from entering the country when he arrived at Baku airport.


Mamedov, the European Parliament adviser, called the dispute over culture absurd and unrealistic and said it plays into the hands of certain factions on each side.


“Culture is not a zero-sum game: it is historically illiterate to insist that if something is declared my heritage, it cannot be yours, and vice versa,” he said. “In this region all cultures are so intertwined that it is impossible to tear them apart from one another. These links should serve as a basis for peace and cooperation in the region, not as tools for elites to pursue nationalist agendas.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Baku. Photos from the UNESCO website, by M. Rahimov/Azerbaijan Culture and Tourism Ministry.

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