Azerbaijan and its people and culture rarely fail to impress and surprise those who venture to these ancient lands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Situated on the historic Silk Road, Azerbaijan has for centuries been a melting pot of different cultures, traditions, peoples and religions that have given it a rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Over millennia, Azeri culture developed under Turkish, Islamic, European, Russian, and Persian influences and today all of these elements can be found. “Azerbaijan’s culture and heritage is very diverse,” explains minister of culture and tourism Abulfaz Garayev, “ranging from Stone Age petroglyphs and burning mountains to the 12-hectare Old City with its city walls, bastions, gates, narrow streets and unique architectural patterns.”

Many sites and traditions have been recognised in recent years by UNESCO, with the Old City of Baku, including Shirvanshah’s Palace and the Maiden Tower, and the Gobustan petroglyphs added to the World Heritage list. Similarly the mugham and ashugs dances, the tar performance art, Azerbaijani carpets and the Nowruz spring holiday are all on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The government has moved to recognise these aspects of Azeri culture by building a carpet museum and mugham centre as Baku experiences an oil-fuelled cultural renaissance.

Azerbaijanis are justifiably proud of their cuisine and foreign visitors will likely be treated to their legendary hospitality at family feasts involving an array of delicious foods, from grilled meats to unique Caspian Sea fish, giant organic vegetables and herbs, the ever-present plov rice dishes and all washed down with sweet Azeri wine, fresh green lemonade and the ubiquitous tea, poured straight from the samovar.

Azerbaijan seized its chance in 2012 to put its country and culture in the spotlight by hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, watched by an estimated 200 million people. “The country understood that this was a unique chance to present to Europe its culture, arts and traditions,” reflects Garayev. “Since the event Azerbaijan’s tourism industry has not had to explain what Azerbaijan has to offer to foreign visitors.”

Azerbaijan is also one of the world’s few genuinely secular Muslim states and religious and social tolerance is a key part of its culture. Walk around Baku and you will pass mosques, synagogues, churches and Zoroastrian temples. Women were given the right to vote in 1918 – the same year as in Germany, and ahead of the UK.

“The Azerbaijani government is determined to protect and promote its secular approach to right of worship,” says Christopher Pincher MP, chair of the Azerbaijan All-Party Parliamentary Group. “The place has a rich culture and history and the people are fiercely proud of that.”

A varied culture

Eurovision madness

Am Eurovision

Baku’s Crystal Hall hosted the glitz and glam of Eurovision in 2012. The event was designed around a fire theme as a reference to the country’s nickname ‘The Land of Fire’. Forty-three countries participated, with Sweden eventually winning first place with ‘Euphoria’.

Alim Qasimov

Am Alim Qasimov Culture

Winner of the 1999 International Music Council-UNESCO Music Prize, internationally-renowned Alim Qasimov is Azerbaijan’s best-known mugham singer and featured as part of the opening act of the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.

Azerbaijan carpets

Am Carpets

Azerbaijan is an ancient centre of carpet weaving, and in November 2010 the Azerbaijani carpet was proclaimed a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage by UNESCO.

Traditional instruments

Am Instruments

Azerbaijan’s musical traditions date back to antiquity. Today, the mugham trio (tar, kamancha and gaval) play a significant role in the development of the country’s musical heritage.

Azerbaijan’s troubadours

Am Azerbaijan Troubadours

The art of Azerbaijan’s troubadours, the Ashugs, combines poetry, storytelling, dance and vocal and instrumental music into a traditional performance art. Characterised by the accompaniment of the saz, a stringed musical instrument, the classical repertoire includes 200 songs and nearly 2,000 poems. It was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.

Celebrations

Am Celebrations

Each year, on the first day of spring, Novruz Bayram is celebrated throughout Azerbaijan with music, food and games.