Azerbaijan International

Spring 2005 (13.1)
Page 14

Myth and Imagination
Symbols Reveal Trends
by Betty Blair

You won't find many camels in Azerbaijan these days despite the fact that there are numerous caravanserais still left over from the Middle Ages, dotting the countryside. But, there is one camel that has gained quite a reputation. He's the stone camel at Sofi Hamid. These days he's got a glossy coat of white paint and a wreath of red yarn pom-poms hanging from his neck.

Legend has it that in the 14th century, Hamid, a Sufi from Arabia - a sort of itinerant mullah - told his followers to bury him wherever his camel came to rest. That location, now known as Sofi Hamid, is located outside of Baku, down beyond the Sangachal oil terminal on the wind-swept plains in what appears to be "the middle of nowhere".

Naturally, kids love to play around the statue and crawl under it. For some unknown reason, it has come to be associated with another popular tradition - providing hope to women who want to get pregnant. Crawl under the camel three times and soon the problem will be solved.

Some might laugh at such a simple folk remedy to a problem that has a scientific explanation and possible solution. But studying such phenomena gives insight into society. It helps us identify issues that are of deep concern. After all, in Azerbaijan, despite the fact that many youth are now getting their education in the West, there still is immense pressure from family and friends to "make a baby" during that first year of marriage. And a woman's inability to bear a child (no matter whose "fault" it might be) is still considered legitimate grounds for divorce.

Left: Sofi Hamid Cemetery leaves you thinking more about life than of death.

And, thus, the title of this issue: Myth and Imagination. Here, we mean "myth" in the broader sense of the word, as in general notions, especially those enveloped in some sort of narrative form, that get carried down generation after generation, that provide hope and sustenance to deal with the hurdles - the difficult days - in life?

When preparing our last issue: "Folklore: Ties that Bind", Winter 2004 (AI 12.4), we ended up gathering so much material that we decided to carry over some of the articles into this issue. Some people are quick to dismiss folklore as frivolous, make-believe narratives that are of little more consequence than fleeting entertainment. We see it differently. We think of folklore as a medium in which beliefs and values are passed down because they have been tested over time and found to be useful in providing practical guidance in everyday life. For this reason, we're convinced that folklore provides invaluable insight to understand some of the deep layers of the psyche of a nation, as well as trends, and thus it provides valuable content for our magazine.

Many pages here feature the Sofi Hamid cemetery, especially since this sacred place deals with issues related to pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism, which were forbidden to explore during the Soviet period. To our knowledge, we are the first to publish about it in any language - even Azeri or Russian.

Sofi Hamid is a cemetery unlike any that we've ever seen before. Here you'll find several thousand graves, carved in bas relief with symbols representing the interests and careers of those who have passed on. Many graves are painted in pastel colors - especially blues, greens, yellows, pinks. Women's graves often display jewelry - necklaces, earrings and sometimes rings. Sewing machines are ubiquitous - especially the early models before the invention of the foot treadle or reliance upon electricity.

Men's graves are often defined by occupations, many of them relate to modes of transportation - camels, horses, carriages and cars. You'll also find the occasional motorcycle, bus, and ship. And yes, there are many guns.
A great deal of the mystery of Sofi Hamid cemetery is due to the ambiguity of the symbols. Things are not always clearly defined. The result is that you leave this place with more questions, than answers. For example, what does a snake carved on a gravestone really mean? Did someone succumb to a fatal bite? Or did they happen to work on a snake farm where venom was milked for its medicinal properties? One of the stone carvers told us it meant that the person was perceived as being so kind that even snakes weren't threatened by him.

Amazingly, Sofi Hamid always leaves you thinking more about life than death. You can't help wondering: "And just what symbols would best reflect my life?"

Sofi Hamid is a living monument. People are still being buried there. Families are staking out plots on the outer perimeters of the cemetery, putting up concrete block walls and fences. And, therefore, just by studying and analyzing the designs on the graves, one is able to detect trends in society.

Sofi Hamid Cemetery would suggest that Islam is on the rise in Azerbaijan. It's one of newest trend evident among these graves. More and more stylized geometric and floral shapes are replacing photographs of the deceased and the symbols reflecting personal interests and careers on the graves. Islam forbids making sculptures of the human image - human or animal.

More and more these days, verses from the Quran are replacing the folk poetry that used to lament the passage of life. Islam, like Christianity, and many other religions encourages its followers to embrace life after death - even if people aren't too sure what that actually means.

Though Azerbaijan has been defined as Muslim since the Arab invasion of the 7th century; in reality, it has been quite secular, even after gaining independence from the atheistic Soviet State in late 1991. According to the latest Constitution ratified in 1995 under President Heydar Aliyev, Church and State are separate entities. There is no official State Religion, and other faiths such as Russian Orthodox, Christianity and Judaism are free to worship and practice their own beliefs. Religious extremism has been virtually nonexistent; tolerance, generally the norm.

If trends at Sofi Hamid are to be believed, more and more people are embracing Islam in Azerbaijan. Perhaps this is due to the large vacuum that existed during the first decade of independence (beginning in late 1991) when Azerbaijanis were asking themselves: What can we believe in now? Where can we put our faith? Whom can we trust? Most Azerbaijanis will admit that the West - especially the United States - has not lived up to expectations. Ten to twelve years ago, Azerbaijanis were so eager to embrace the West - to substitute it as the "father figure" of the failed Soviet state. But they are more cautious these days.

Now the West is viewed mostly as an entity in pursuit of its own selfish materialistic goals, not as a reliable source to help Azerbaijanis out of the mire of their own dilemmas. Instead of their lives being eased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, life for most people has become more complicated - more unsure - more tenuous.

And thus, slowly, gradually, Azerbaijanis are beginning to look for other means and other systems in which to align their future. At least, that's what the cemetery at Sofi Hamid would suggest. Go take a visit, check the dates for yourself. The symbols are there for all to read - not just for folklorists.

From Azerbaijan International (13.1) Spring 2005.
© Azerbaijan International 2005. All rights reserved.

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