Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan : Multiculturalism in architecture,art and social life

“A country becomes more powerful when it unites more nations, because every single one of them contributes universal culture and civilization…”

"Dövlət, ölkə nə qədər çox xalqı birləşdirsə, bir o qədər zəngin olur, çünki onların hər biri ümumdünya mədəniyyətinə və sivilizasiyasına öz töhfəsini verir"

Azerbaijan’s national leader Heydar Aliyev

Today, in many countries, it’s still under question that “Did Multiculturalism Fail?”. Though it was thought to be an answer to Europe’s problems, Multiculturalism is now considered as a “failure” in many of these European countries such as United Kingdom and Germany. But if the problem itself is not about Multiculturalism, but the wrong “model” of Multiculturalism that was applied in these countries?

The answer is not so hard to find, but the truth about it is far more complex than it seems, so I will try to talk about a society that has its own multicultural model and honestly claims that “Multicultural Society” and “Multiculturalism Policy” is the right democratic ideology and is still alive in Azerbaijan.

Multicultural ideologies are different in all countries, but the main idea, of course, Is about the equality between different nations, races, cultures and etc. The term ‘multiculturalism’, however, has not been used only to describe a culturally diverse society, but also to refer to a kind of policy that aims at protecting cultural diversity. As a philosophic and political theory, Multiculturalism can also be described as a democratic policy, but it is not a new experience for a civilized society and has a long historical passage in these communities : both in social and political life.

In 1968,Jerzy Zubrzycki, an academic gave a paper at a citizenship conference. He was a part of a movement consisting of various groups concerned about the welfare of migrants. In his speech he voiced the hopes and concerns of this movement and put forward their ideas of “cultural pluralism”. Cultural Pluralism challenged the idea of assimilation and instead suggested that different cultural groups maintain their ethnic traditions and share a country’s identity and institutions of democratic society at the same time.

But, in fact, the movement became known as “multicultural” movement after Canada adopted it as a “multicultural society” in 1971.

Of course, that was then when the idea of “multicultural society” was adopted as a law of the constitution. Till 1971,in fact, there were too many societies that were made of different cultural visions and different nations. But when we go back to history where there was no verb called “Multiculturalism”,we can find the main idea of tolerance and cultural unity in a country with so much to talk about.A country that has always been home to different cultures and nations,a place where gender equality was accepted before United States, where religions,races,languages,nationalities have no importance to unite a society and all of these acts become one under a word : Azerbaijan.

As we talk about the history of multicultural values in Azerbaijan, we must look at this philosophy from many aspects. Azerbaijan’s national leader Heydar Aliyev in one of his speeches said “Azerbaijan’s population’s multinationality is our wealth, our advantage. We value and will always preserve that”. His political vision had an important role in Azerbaijan’s development and building a bright future with a democratic society where equality comes first for every single citizen.

“Azərbaycan əhalisinin çoxmilli tərkibi bizim sərvətimizdir, üstünlüyümüzdür. Biz bunu qiymətəndiririk və qoruyub saxlayacağıq”

In today’s Azerbaijan, a large percentage of the population identify themselves as a Muslim (Statistics by CIA 91.2% by 2012). But the interesting situation is that religious affiliation is still nominal as it was in SSR and Muslim identity tends to be based on more culture and ethnicity than religion. A few surveys show that only 1 of 10 people in Baku city identify himself or herself as a strong believer.

Azerbaijan is a secular state; article 48 of its Constitution ensures the liberty of worship, to choose any faith, or to not practice any religion, and to express one’s view on the religion.

Azerbaijan is home to more than 400.000 Christians. Christianity is represented by Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism in the country. There are many beautiful architectural examples of churches in Baku, such as the Khatai Catholic Church,The Church of The Saviour or the German Church and the Russion Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael.Also there’s an Armenian Church of Saint Gregory which was built in 1869.Because of the Karabakh war, the church is not functioning since 1990, but Azerbaijani government and the people of the country protects the building as a respect to historical architecture and belief.

But the sad part is that, though Azerbaijan and its nation’s act of humanity and respect, the Armenian have destroyed all kind of Islamic and Turkic historical buildings in Irevan,including 8 mosques, more than 850 historical mansions, Irevan’s walls, Sardar Palace and etc.Only one of the mosques, which is named “Goy Masjid” (Blue Mosque) survived from Armenian vandalism, but today this building is being presented as a Persian mosque instead of Azerbaijani historical mosque.

When talking about religious differences in Azerbaijan, we should also mark the Jew community of the country.There are three communities of Judaism in Azerbaijan: Mountain Jews, Ashkenazi and Georgian Jews.

Multiculturalism is not only about religious differences, but every type of cultural or national diversities.

Ethnic diversity is the wealth of the country.

Lezgis, Armenians, Russians, Talyshs, Avars, Turks and Tatars are the main ethnic minority groups in Azerbaijan. Well, even in the ancient times Azerbaijan was noted as a region distinguished by its tolerance and today it’s an undeniable truth that tolerance and multiethnic society is not something easy to find in many countries. For example, though Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia are both situated in Caucasus region, Armenia’s policy and its society’s lifestyle is highly monocultural, racist and intolerant. About 97% of Armenia’s ethnic groups are Armenians, there’re only 29 Azerbaijani people by 2001 statistics, however Azerbaijan is home to thousands of ethnic Armenians and this is a true example of the peaceful society.

Of course, multiculturalism has a strong influence on every field. It’s not only a lifestyle, or an ideology, but also a great way to get inspiration. Multiculturalism provides a community with peaceful ideas, and these ideas harmonize various cultural values, music and fine art. It’s no secret that public safety plays a big role in a country’s artistic life, not just because of the comfort of being protected from religious, ethnic or cultural radicalism, but also it attracts bright ideas and brings colorful differences to build new bridges for a modern society. Today history shows us that creative people always tried to be and create in a country that is more safe for human beings, no matter if they were artists, musicians or etc. And I should consider that, in a realistic life,if public safety or equality rights’ protection was a movie, Multiculturalism would be the hero of that.

I think that the best fact would be Azerbaijan’s historical path of being a modern country. Yes, I’m talking about a country with the first opera in east and Muslim countries, a country that provided women equal politic rights with men in 1918, even before than USA and most of the Europe. It’s a proof that Multiculturalism keeps a community developing and creates an open minded society. That is the reason Azerbaijani nation have always been open to any kind of cultural values, and gave the world dozens of tangible and intangible heritage.

Of course, the first opera in the East, “Leyli and Majnun” is one of the best examples of success of Multiculturalism. In the 20th century Uzeyir Hajibayov with his own brother Jeyhun Hajibayov wrote the libretto for the opera based on an outstanding medieval Azerbaijani poet and thinker Muhammad  Fizuli’s poem “Leyli and Majnun”. 

Thus, the opera became a masterpiece and the founder of an unique new genre of the musical culture of the world, which synthesizes oriental and European musical forms, resembling a dialogue of two different musical cultures of East and the West. The opera has been shown more than 20.000 times in many countries, such as Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan since the first time it was performed in Taghiyev theatre in Baku in 1908.Unconditionally,that’s a beautiful example of cultural harmony, which is also a part of the success of Multicultural society in Azerbaijan.

On the other side, I should mention Vagif Mustafazadeh, a great Azerbaijani musician, jazz composer acclaimed for fusing jazz and Azerbaijani traditional folk music known as “Mugham”.

In 1940s and 1950s the playing of jazz was banned in the USSR, including Azerbaijan. Since there was no opportunity to find jazz records in the country, he listened to jazz pieces from movies and with his friend Vagif Samadoghlu, he attempted to recreate the music on the piano.

From the 1960s, prohibitions were lifted and thus Baku became a real center of locally inspired jazz. The “Locally Inspired Jazz” is what I mention here, especially, as a harmonized style of music and art, which is combined cultural masterpiece of two different music styles of East and West.

Jazz mugham movement started in 1960s and 1970s in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. Mustafazadeh, which was the founder of the movement, began searching for new ways to structure his improvisations by exploring modal music. His masterpieces such as “Fantasy” (“Fantaziya”), “Bayati Shiraz” (Jazz version of an Azerbaijani folk music Mugham), “Sense” (“Düşüncə”) and “Baku Nights” (Bakı Gecələri) are still playing in the hearts of millions of people.

Vagif had a personality and talent that it was nearly impossible not to love him and what he does. Even in 1966, conductor of the “Jazz Time” radio program Willis Conover said these words about him:

“Vagif is an extraordinary pianist. It’s impossible to identify his equal. He is the most lyrical pianist I have ever known”.

When Vagif was playing in Iveriya hotel in Tblisi, the famous American jazz pianist and master of blues, B. B. King heard him and remarked, “Mr. Mustafazadeh, they call me the ‘King of Blues’, but sure I wish I could play blues as well as you do.”

This is not only a praise for a talented person, but also a praise for a multicultural society, helping talented and creative people create incredible art forms by merging different musical values of different cultures.

But sure, the role of Multiculturalism in a society’s and country’s life is not limited with musical or lyrical art, but also it helps different cultures of different people join each other, harmonize current intangible values and even create new tangible cultural heritages such as architectural buildings.

“Multicultural architecture”- a term that is not so familiar to hear, but it is a meaning of a common landscape easily found nearly in every street of capital city. Baku is a place, where not only old and modern buildings, but slightly dissimilar architectural elements of different cultures harmonize together and become one in many instances. Sure, at this moment the subject comes to a part where I consider my profession.

Even as a modernist architect, who believes in architecture as a hero of contemporary visual art, it is also very important for me to understand and learn traditional elements of classic architecture. So, I started my research on finding historical buildings carrying both traditional and untraditional forms of architecture. The most interesting part about Azerbaijani architecture it’s not only a mosaic of the various cultures that form the nation, but also the cultures from all around the world.

“Nizami Literature Museum”

Before Azerbaijan became a part of Soviet empire, Baku’s outer city (outside the city walls) was just expanding and developing. Classical style buildings were being built by Azerbaijani millionaires and the Russian government from the end of the 18th and the start of 19th century.

Museum of literature carrying the name of the classic Azerbaijani poet Nizami Ganjavi is one of the first architectural buildings built in Baku city. The original building was built in 1860 in gothic architectural style by Azerbaijani architect Mashadi Gasim bay Hadjibababayov ,but in 1914 A.A.Nikitin made some changes to the project and it functioned as “Metropol” hotel for a long period of time. Though it was first built in the gothic style, it became a little bit oriental time after time and today this building is one of the first monuments in Baku with multicultural values.

The building of Mayoralty of Baku city is also a significant masterpiece that needs to be mentioned. Polish Architect Joseph Goslawski, who worked as the head of the architects of Baku from 1892 to 1904 designed the building in classical European style and used a lot of baroccon elements.

Though I.V Goslawski was polish, he was in love with Azerbaijani Oriental Architecture and he lived with his family till he died in Baku at age of 38.

Another polish architect that is the author of multiple buildings in Baku is Joseph Ploshko. He was working for Azerbaijani millionaires such as Musa Naghiyev, Murtuza Mukhtarov, Nuri Amiraslanov and others. That’s a fact, Ploshko’s biography is full of masterpieces, but among these buildings “Ismailliya Palace”, for me, comes first. Not just because of its marvelous design, but also its tearful story. In 1907 Agha Musa Naghiyev purchased an area in the center of Baku, in front of the city walls, on Nikolayevskaya st. (today’s Istiglaliyyat) and ordered Ploshko to build a charity building in memory of his earlier died son Ismayil. Well, Ismayil died in his 14s and they say that another Azerbaijani millionaire and philanthropist Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev told him to build a beautiful palace in commemoration of his deceased son. That’s why the building was named Ismailliya after him. The building was constructed in the Venetian Gothic Style, but had Azerbaijani Traditional elements on its façade and interior.

The reason I call these buildings Multucultural and show the role of Multiculturalism in development of Architecture is not only limited by the harmonization of different architectural styles, but also it has a quite necessary effect on the foreign architects who lived and created for Azerbaijan for many years. It’s undeniable that multicultural society attends talented people from every edge of the world and becomes home, motherland for everyone. Sure, it’s the reason this lifestyle has never changed in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani nation was always been tolerant to any kind cultural and religious diversity, there were Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists living together in peace and love for many centuries. 

Ilham Aliyev, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan told in his speech at the meeting of Cabinets of Ministers :

"Azerbaijan has done a lot of work for multiculturalism. Azerbaijan proves that multiculturalism lives. Despite some politicians claiming that multiculturalism has failed. Maybe it has failed somewhere else. But it is alive in Azerbaijan and these tendencies and ideas are getting stronger and receiving more support from public. We will continue on this path. Therefore, this year is declared "The year of Multiculturalism" in Azerbaijan"  

Yes, today it’s a sad truth that in many countries Multiculturalism has failed. The diversity of people of different nations, cultures, races or religious views become a real problem for an economically developing country, but the reality is that it is still alive in some countries, especially in a place, where East and West meets and becomes one, a country that has the most colorful culture in the whole world.

Fazil Humbatli 
Azerbaijan University of Architecture & Construction
2 September, 2016