Following their ambiguous geographic location, Azeri’s have their feet in both Islamic and European cultures, the latter mostly Russian and Turkish, struggling with deep divisions between the old and the new. About 90% of the population is ethnic Azeri, with a smattering of Dagestanis, Russians, Armenians, Jews and other groups. Most Azeri’s speak Azeri, a close cousin of Turkish, though many also speak Russian. The younger generation is now very keen to learn English. Even more than with Turkey, 9.5 million Azeri’s living in the Republic of Azerbaijan feel closer to the 10 million (more Islamic) Azeri’s living in Iran, in what is usually called “South Azerbaijan”. Although at state level there is no conflict, there are important movements in civil society on both sides of the border, advocating a united Azerbaijan.
Literature of “longing” for reunification has also developed during the last half century (e.g the works by Mirza Ibrahimov, Balash Azeroghlu or by Suleyman Rustam), with a folklore based in recent heroes, such as Semed Behrangi and Jafar Pishevari. Despite years of Soviet attempts to wipe it out, Islam remains the most popular religion with the Azeri’s, followed distantly by various Orthodox Christian branches. Like in Iran, the majority of Azeri’s are Shia Muslims (70%), where as Sunni Muslims make up most of the Islamic population of the rest of the former Soviet Union. Sunnis, the more secular branch, practice leadership by consensus, whereas Shia leadership derives its authority by divine right.
In spite of the divisions elsewhere, in a spirit of tolerance, the mosques in Baku serve both the Shia and the Sunni communities. The Azeri Shia community practices the Jafarite rite.
Azerbaijan is one of the most liberal Muslim-majority states, although arranged marriages are common among the urban population, and marriage via kidnapping is not rare in the country side.
The country’s musical traditions are preserved by ashugs, or poet-singers, who often strum the kobuz (a stringed instrument) while singing of the deeds of ancient heroes. Another popular form of music in Azerbaijan is mugham, which is improvised by voice and wind and stringed instruments and is often compared to jazz.
The country has a healthy literary heritage, much of which derives from an oral tradition of poems and ancient epics (e.g. by Nizami). Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzada was a literary light in the 19th century, helping to develop a modern literature, especially in drama. During Stalin’s reign, many of the country’s writers and artists were victims of the purge.
Azeri architecture went through many different stages over the centuries but the lasting legacies belong to the medieval period, especially the Maiden Tower and the palace of the Shirvan shahs in Baku. The capitals ornately decorated subway stations are its most recent architectural marvels.
Azerbaijan is famous for its carpets, but also for its embroidered textiles. Artists use colorful threads (sometimes made of gold or silver) and beads to create geometric patterns on a thin wool fabric called tirme. The country’s many bright-plumed birds and other animals have also featured in designs. Other popular Azerbaijani textiles include rugs, veils, shawls and towels.
Azerbaijan is a country where national traditions are well preserved. In Azerbaijan where are a lot of traditions. The holidays on Moon calendar, “Gurban bayram” (the Feast of Sacrifice), “Ramazan” holiday (holiday after fasting) are marked as before. “Novruz” holiday (novruz is translated as “a new day”) is the most ancient and cherished holiday of a New Year and spring. It is celebrated on the day of vernal equinox – March 21-22. Novruz is the symbol of nature renewal and fertility. Agrarian peoples of Middle East have been celebrating Novruz since ancient times.
Preparations for Novruz start long before the holiday. People do house cleaning, plant trees, make new dresses, paint eggs, make national pastries such as shakarbura, pakhlava and a great variety of national cuisine. Wheat is fried with kishmish (raisins) and nuts (govurga). It is essential for every house to have “semeni” – sprouts of wheat. As a tribute to fire-worshiping every Tuesday during four weeks before the holiday kids jump over small bonfires and candles are lit. On the holiday eve the graves of relatives are visited and tended. Novruz is a family holiday. In the evening before the holiday the whole family gathers around the holiday table laid with various dishes to make the New Year rich. The holiday goes on for several days and ends with festive public dancing and other entertainment of folk bands, contests of national sports. In rural areas crop holidays are marked.