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Azerbaijan Culture


Azerbaijanis have their feet in 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 Azerbaijanis speak Azeri, a close cousin of Turkish, though many also speak Russian. Despite years of Soviet attempts to wipe it out, Islam remains the most popular religion with Azerbaijanis, followed distantly by various Orthodox Christian sects. Azerbaijan is one of the most liberal Muslim-majority states.

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 mugam, 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. Mirza Fatali 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.

Azerbaijani 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 capital's ornately decorated subway stations are its most recent architectural marvels.

Azerbaijan is famous for its embroidered textiles. Artists use colourful 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 carpets, veils, shawls and towels.

Equal parts Georgian, Iranian and Central Asian, the national cuisine is heavy on meat - especially lamb, beef, mutton and poultry - and richly spiced. Common items are pilaf (rice fried with meat, fish, vegetables or even fruit) and fish, especially sturgeon. Not that you can't get your veggies - beets, cabbage, eggplants, spinach and others are common. Many dishes use saffron, though you'll often taste coriander, fennel, mint and parsley. Soup is a staple of Azerbaijani cuisine, often made with meat and sheep fat. Everything is washed down with black tea in little teardrop glasses; in the traditional chaykhanas (tea houses), you can linger over a pot all day if you like.

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