Spring 2002 (10.1)
The Other "Koroghlu"
Manuscript Sheds Light on Medieval Azerbaijani Hero
by Farid Alakbarov, Ph.D.
For libretto and music pieces from Uzeyir Hajibeyov's "Koroghlu"
Opera, go to HAJIBEYOV.com,
click on Music
"Azerbaijanis still consider Koroghlu to
be a great national hero, but they don't think of him as an early
Bolshevik. Stalin and the Soviet propagandists helped to keep
the Koroghlu legend alive, but they didn't understand that for
Azerbaijanis, Koroghlu symbolized the universal quest for freedom
and independence." - Farid Alakbarov
For centuries, Azerbaijan's wandering minstrels - known as ashugs
- have told tales about a mighty warrior named Koroghlu. His
name, literally "Son of a Blind Man", refers to his
campaign to seek revenge on the cruel ruler who had blinded his
father, an opponent of his harsh regime. Much like the Robin
Hood of medieval English folklore, Koroghlu stole from the rich
and gave to the poor. Assisting him were a brave group of friends
and a miraculous flying horse named Girat.
Every Azerbaijani has heard stories about Koroghlu. But who,
in fact, was he? What was he fighting for? As legends like the
Koroghlu story are carried down through the ages, some of their
real-life details become embellished; others are simply forgotten.
Yet these stories that live on in the imagination usually are
based on some kernels of truth. The 17th-century legend of Koroghlu
is no exception.
Above: Afrasiyab Mammadov played the title
role in "Koroghlu", a 1960 movie about the 17th-century
epic hero. Photo: National Photo Archives.
An alternate Azeri manuscript of the Koroghlu epic, housed at
the Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts in the Republic of Georgia,
gives scholars a great deal of evidence about what may have been
the historical Koroghlu. Here Dr. Farid Alakbarov, chief scientific
officer for the Department of Arabic Manuscripts at the Baku
Institute of Manuscripts, describes how he and his colleagues
reestablished ties with the Tbilisi Institute in order to find
out more about this alternate version.
Northwest of Azerbaijan lies the Republic of Georgia, home to
5 million people, including about 285,000 Azerbaijanis. In fact,
Georgia's capital, Tbilisi (Tiflis), once served as a cultural
center for Azerbaijanis, especially during the 18th and 19th
centuries. Important Azerbaijani figures like writer and alphabet
reformer Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878) and government leader
Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925) used to live and work there. Uzeyir
Hajibeyov (1885-1948) attended Gory Seminary there.
Left: Tbilisi, Georgia has long boasted a large population
of Azerbaijanis, currently estimated at 285,000.
During the Soviet period,
strong links developed between the academic institutions in Azerbaijan
and Georgia. According to official Soviet ideology, this type
of cultural contact between individual Soviet Republics was welcomed,
so long as the interaction did not detract from socialism and
the Soviet state. In particular, there was close collaboration
between the Baku Institute of Manuscripts and the Tbilisi Institute
Many ancient Azeri, Arabic and Persian manuscripts were written
or copied in Tbilisi and collected by Georgian scholars. For
example, 10th-century Azerbaijani scholar Isa ar-Ragi Tiflisi
- known for his commentary to Ibn Sina's (Avicenna's) "Canon"
- lived and worked in this city. The Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts
still houses many valuable Azerbaijani works from the Middle
Ages, including 240 Turkic (including Azeri and Turkish) manuscripts.
(Baku's own Institute of Manuscripts houses more than 3,000 documents
written in the medieval Azeri Arabic script.)
Since the Tbilisi Institute has so many important rare Azeri
manuscripts, the Baku Institute often sent scholars to Georgia
to conduct research. This was much easier during the Soviet era
than it is today. Both Institutes were well financed back then,
and the cost of traveling between the two Republics was much
lower. Azerbaijani scholars were paid 10 to 15 times as much
as they are today and could travel easily throughout the Soviet
Union, so there were many opportunities to visit other manuscript
funds, including the ones in Yerevan, Moscow, St. Petersburg
and Tashkent [Uzbekistan].
Beginning in the mid- to late 1980s,
during Gorbachev's rule, this partnership between the Institutes
in Baku and Tbilisi began to unravel. When the Soviet economy
collapsed, the ruble lost its value and salaries practically
disappeared. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia became passionately
engaged in the struggle for independence.
Left: Author Farid Alakbarov with a seller
of Azerbaijani carpets in Tbilisi.
An ethnic conflict broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis
in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Georgia had its own struggles with
separatists in Abkhazia and Ossetia. At the time, there were
more important things to think about than ancient manuscripts
- just surviving as a nation and creating an independent state.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, there were even greater economic
difficulties, and scholars had to stay close to home. Traveling
to other former Soviet republics became much more expensive,
if not downright impossible. Consequently, for the first ten
years of independence, there was virtually no contact between
the two manuscript institutes.
Now that the economic situation has improved somewhat and there
is more political stability, Baku's Institute of Manuscripts
has been eager to reestablish the international links that were
broken during the transition period. First, it set up collaborations
with scholars in Iran and Turkey. Next, it decided to revive
its collaboration with Georgian colleagues.
Contacting the Tbilisi Institute wasn't easy. The phone number
we had on record for the Institute no longer worked. We didn't
have a fax number or an e-mail address. Nor were we sure about
the name of the director. We didn't even know if the Institute
went by the same name.
Finally, the director of our Baku Institute decided that we had
to find a way to contact them because there were many valuable
Azeri manuscripts in Tbilisi. He approached me and asked, "Why
don't you go and knock on their door. We have no other way to
So last summer, I set out for Georgia with an official letter
of invitation from the Baku Institute, asking the Tbilisi Institute
to renew its collaboration. We invited our Georgian colleagues
to collaborate in all fields. We proposed an exchange of microfilm
and copies of medieval manuscripts, as well as recently published
books and papers. I presented them with several books that had
been published by our scholars and our latest catalogues of manuscripts.
Visit in Tbilisi
I arrived in Tbilisi on July 3, 2001 - a hot summer day. Tbilisi
is a very attractive, charming city with a number of historical
monuments - not to mention a hospitable people. However, its
economic crisis is in evidence everywhere. As opposed to Baku,
one doesn't see any modern, Western-style buildings. Since the
collapse of the USSR, all construction work has stopped and the
city had retained much of his Soviet appearance - buildings,
stores and old models of cars. The central Rustaveli Prospect
and a few adjacent streets show a slight Western influence, but
they are the rare exceptions.
Walking along the calm streets of Old Tbilisi reminded me of
a magic journey into the past, as though I had returned to what
people often refer to as the "good old" Brezhnev era
of the 1970s.
These economic hardships have also severely curtailed work at
the Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts, which is housed in a very
beautiful building of the Brezhnev period that is in serious
disrepair. They desperately need to buy computers, faxes and
other modern equipment to preserve the manuscripts and books.
"Unfortunately, it's impossible. We have no money,"
the assistant director told me, though he was very pleased to
reestablish scientific collaboration with Baku. I presented him
with several books and catalogues that had been issued by our
Institute in the last year, including two of my own books. He
regretted that he had nothing similar to offer in return, as
the Institute had not published anything in the past several
There are several important Azeri manuscripts to be researched
at the Tbilisi Institute. For instance, there's a famous collection
of verses written in Azeri (Turkic) by mystical Azerbaijani poet
Imadaddin Nasimi (executed in 1417). Azerbaijani scholars are
also interested in a manuscript of the "Divan" written
by 17th-century Azerbaijani poet Ughurlu khan Ganjavi, who went
by the pseudonym "Musahib" (Interlocutor).
Perhaps the most important aspect of this renewed exchange is
access to a rare "Koroghlu" manuscript. Although the
Koroghlu saga is of Azerbaijani origin, it is also famous in
Iran, Turkey and Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan,
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The epic tells about the
life and heroic deeds of Koroghlu, a hero of the people who struggled
against unjust rulers in Azerbaijan.
All other Azeri versions of the Koroghlu saga are based on verbal
folklore that was recorded in the 19th century or later. Up until
a few decades ago, no one was aware of an alternate Azeri version.
But then in 1967, Georgian scholar L.G. Chlaidze made a sensational
discovery at the Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts: a unique manuscript
version of "Koroghlu". Azerbaijani scholars were astonished
to learn that the Tbilisi manuscript did not resemble the other
existing versions of this epic - instead, it revealed a very
According to the most frequently quoted Azerbaijani folklore
version of this epic, a leader named Mirzabey is blinded under
the orders of Bolibey, a cruel Ottoman governor. (The name "Bolibey"
means "Governor of Boli Province".) From then on, Mirzabey's
son Rovshan is known as "Koroghlu" (Son of a Blind
Enraged by Bolibey's actions, Koroghlu gathers together an armed
detachment of friends and relatives in order to take revenge.
His personal cause soon becomes a widespread campaign against
the area's cruel, unjust rulers. In a typical story from the
epic, Koroghlu's small detachment of men suddenly attacks a city
or fortress and defeats a huge garrison of enemy soldiers. Sometimes
Koroghlu's legendary horse, Girat, rescues him during the battle.
After the rout, Koroghlu and warriors return to their headquarters,
situated at the top of an extremely high, barely reachable mountain
named Chanlibel (Dew Mountain). There they feast and drink to
celebrate their successful raid, the spoils of which go to the
poor and oppressed.
Basis in History
The Tbilisi manuscript's version of "Koroghlu" portrays
the hero in much the same light, but this time his enemy is an
Iranian ruler, Shah Abbas Safavid II. Bolibey, the Ottoman governor
portrayed as the villain in the other Azeri versions, is depicted
as Koroghlu's friend and often helps him in his struggle against
The Tbilisi manuscript also tells us about Koroghlu's genealogy.
It says that he was from the Jalali clan, a historical warlike
Turkic tribe that inhabited Azerbaijan during the Middle Ages.
According to the Tbilisi manuscript, Shah Abbas is told by his
vizier: "The Turkic tribe of Jalali is especially glorious
and has many brave and courageous youths. Each of them is a second
Rustam [an ancient Iranian hero] on the battlefield. Besides,
Mirzabey is their leader. You blinded him. They'll never forget
it up until the Judgment Day."
Knowing that Koroghlu came from the Jalali branch of the Takalu
tribe helps us establish a historical context for his struggle.
The Takalu and their allies, the Shamlu, Ustajlu and Zulgadar
tribes (they were also called the Turkmans and Tarakama in Azerbaijan),
had great power in Azerbaijan beginning in the 11th and 12th
In the 14th to 15th centuries, they created the great empires
Garagoyunlu and Aggoyunlu and took under their control all of
Azerbaijan and Armenia and most of Iran and Iraq. At the end
of the 15th century and the beginning of 16th century, they helped
the Safavid rulers from the city of Ardabil in Southern Azerbaijan
gain power in Iran. The first two generations of Safavid shahs
trusted and relied on Turkic warriors completely. During this
period, the Turkic tribes of Azerbaijan helped the Safavids against
the Osmanlis and considered Shah Ismayil to be their national
However, the third generation of Safavid shahs started to fear
these Turkic tribes, viewing them as too independent, unrestrained
and dangerous. The last Safavid shahs seized power from the Turkic
leaders by arresting and killing them.
At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th
century, the Jalali tribe raised a great rebellion in Azerbaijan
and Turkey, now known as the "Jalali movement". The
"Koroghlu" epic has as its basis these historical events.
At first, the Jalali tribe fought mainly against Iran. But once
Azerbaijan was captured by the Ottoman army, the Jalali tribe
started to fight against the Osmanlis as well. Why would nomadic
Turks fight against Ottoman Turks? At the time, the Turkish sultans
didn't consider themselves to be Turks, but rather a cosmopolitan
people, the Osmanli. In fact, they preferred to follow Persian
and Arabic customs and offended the nomadic Turks by insulting
their traditions and culture. The Osmanlis behaved not as the
ethnic brothers of the nomadic Turks, but as their enemies and
So how do we account for these two very different versions of
the "Koroghlu" epic? One important thing to keep in
mind is that the Tbilisi manuscript is much older than the versions
of the epic that were recorded in Azerbaijan during the 19th
century. The manuscript itself has a watermark that shows its
paper was produced in 1856. Yet, the structure of the manuscript
and the specific features of its language reveal that its text
was written approximately 80 to 100 years earlier. Therefore,
the Tbilisi manuscript appears to be a copy of an 18th-century
"Koroghlu" manuscript, making it the oldest-known version
The Tbilisi version also seems to be more historically accurate.
Given the time period, it makes more sense for Koroghlu to be
fighting against Iranian rulers rather than Ottoman Turks. In
the 17th century, the Ottoman sultans were far away, whereas
Shah Abbas was a much closer, more dangerous threat for the Jalalis.
Over time, this interpretation apparently changed. In the later
folklore versions, the Osmanlis are the main enemies, not the
Iranians. Perhaps this has to do with the strengthening of Iranian
power and Shiite propaganda in Azerbaijan, which began in the
mid-17th century. It became dangerous to criticize the shahs,
so the Turkic ashugs changed the story to target the Osmanlis.
This less-controversial version coincided with the official position
of Iran, which was a traditional enemy of the Osmanlis from a
political and religious point of view. However, the epic's original
anti-shah element did not disappear completely, even from the
During the 20th century, the Koroghlu epic found a new fan in
the form of Joseph Stalin. He and other Soviet leaders were interested
in the development of controlled Azerbaijani nationalism. Such
nationalism was essential for separating Azerbaijan from Iran
and Turkey. Stalin believed that promoting an artificial sense
of nationalism would make it easier for the Soviet Union to swallow
and "digest" the small Azerbaijani nation. Using Marxist-Leninist
ideology as a "gastric juice", he told Azerbaijanis
that Turks and Iranians were their enemies.
The Koroghlu epic-with its theme of poor, oppressed villagers
rising up against rich khans and landowners - suited his political
agenda perfectly. Not only did Koroghlu fight against Turks and
Iranians, he drank wine and behaved as he wanted, not as a Muslim
would. Therefore, Soviet propaganda portrayed Koroghlu as an
early revolutionary and patriot who had struggled against rich
landowners, Muslim priests and cruel Turkish and Iranian conquerors.
In 1932, Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948) decided
to write an opera about Koroghlu. Curiously, in his version,
Koroghlu does not fight against Turks or Iranians, but against
unnamed rulers and landowners. Perhaps Hajibeyov was not interested
in spreading propaganda but simply wanted the Azerbaijani people
to remember one of their national heroes.
According to Mammad Sayid Ordubadi who wrote the libretto for
"Koroghlu", Uzeyir Hajibeyov had originally intended
to write an opera about "Blacksmith Haveh." After the
composer had spent about a year working on it, he suddenly dumped
the idea and opted to develop the opera around the theme of Koroghlu.
According to Ordubadi, Hajibeyov wanted to create a work of art
that would encourage his nation to heroic actions. "Our
nation has to see a real, famous hero on stage who organized
the people in a rebellion against the domination of feudal lords,"
When the opera was performed in Moscow in 1938 at the "Decade
of Azerbaijani Arts" festival, Stalin was in the audience.
He loved the opera so much that he honored Hajibeyov with the
Soviet Union's most prestigious awards: the Lenin Award (1938),
the Stalin Award (1941) and the "People's Artist of the
USSR" (1941). "Koroghlu" became Hajibeyov's crowning
Symbol of Freedom
Azerbaijanis still consider Koroghlu to be a great national hero,
but they don't think of him as an early Bolshevik. Stalin and
the Soviet propagandists helped to keep the Koroghlu legend alive,
but they didn't understand that for Azerbaijanis, Koroghlu symbolized
the universal quest for freedom and independence.
In the years just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union,
the Overture from Hajibeyov's "Koroghlu" opera served
as an unofficial anthem for Azerbaijan's independence movement.
While tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated in the streets,
its triumphant chords were played over loudspeakers, urging Azerbaijanis
to rise up and make their demands for independence known.
Once Azerbaijan gained its independence, the "Koroghlu"
Overture was even considered as a candidate for Azerbaijan's
new national anthem. Instead, the new nation decided to re-adopt
the national anthem that Hajibeyov had written in 1919 for the
short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920).
Even today, the inspirational "Koroghlu" Overture is
often used to open concerts in Azerbaijan. It reminds us of our
nation's audacious struggle for freedom in the face of impossible
odds. "Koroghlu" speaks of the empowerment of a people
and the hope for a new beginning. It is a legend that will not
Dr. Farid Alakbarov is a frequent
contributor to Azerbaijan International. He holds a Doctorate
of Sciences in History (1998) and a Candidate of Sciences in
READ MORE of his articles about medieval Azeri manuscripts, SEARCH
at AZER.com. To learn more about
Uzeyir Hajibeyov's "Koroghlu" opera, read its libretto
or listen to excerpts, visit HAJIBEYOV.com.
To read how the libretto for Koroghlu opera came to be written,
read the memoirs of Mammad Sayid Ordubadi, click on Biography
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