I’m a big fan of checking out a culture’s literary history for a window into their past. It turns out that Azerbaijan feels the same way. Or, at least, the unchecked production of Nizami statues populating the country would indicate as such. It could be the case that Azerbaijanis just like statues and monuments, features which dot every landscape in Azerbaijan. In any case, there are actually quite a few influential writers from this area of the world going back centuries. A few notables are Nizami Gəncəvi, Füzuli, Natavan, and Sabir. I asked my Azerbaijani language teacher, Mahirə, for some resources about these folks and I’ve done a little reading into their history. Unfortunately, it’s more than fair to say that my language skills will not be good enough to enjoy their magnificent works just yet. But for today, let’s discuss Nizami. Somehow he has managed to command a statue in every city I’ve visited, and he also towers over his own literature museum in Baku.
So what’s the deal with Nizami Gəncəvi? Well, he was born in 1141 in Gəncə, a city towards the northwest of modern-day Azerbaijan (note his name, he’s from Gəncə). Gəncə was considered a cultural hotspot at the time, and still plays that role to a degree, second only to Baku, in the area. During the middle ages, it was home to many poets and artists famous throughout this area. Because Persian was the language of the day, it is the language in which Nizami wrote his poetry. He is particularly famous for his works collectively known as The Five Treasures, five epic poems written in a style comprising of an epic amount of couplets. Khosrow and Shireen alone is at least 7,000 couplets. Epic.
Beyond Khosrow and Shireen, the other four pieces are The Storehouse of Mysteries, The Book of Alexander, Leyla and Mejnun, and The Seven Beauties. Khosrow and Shireen is considered his most impressive masterpiece. The Book of Alexander is a poem about Alexander the Great, and Leyla and Mejnun is a story of star-crossed lovers, like an earlier, Arabic Romeo & Juliet.
There are a lot of details about Nizami, so check out some concise sources here at the obligatory Wikipedia link, as well as here and here. The last piece I’ll contribute is actually a debate that took place at home last week. My host brother is a pretty sharp guy, so I wasn’t surprised to hear this from him. Everyone else in Azerbaijan adores Nizami as an Azerbaijani poet. You can check out his Mausoleum in Gəncə and you can check out the Nizami Museum of Literature in Baku. And, of course, the monuments. But my host brother insists that Nizami is not a true Azerbaijani poet because he wrote everything in Persian. How could he be considered an Azerbaijani poet if not a word of his literature is in Azerbaijani? This caused quite a row. My new host grandmother loves Nizami, and they went back and forth for an hour about Nizami’s status as the most prominent Azerbaijani poet. The only thing I know, though, is that Nizami is credited with using his Persian words in a distinctly Azerbaijani style of writing. Called the Azerbaijani or Trans-Caucasus school, it differs from the Khurasani (Eastern) style that was prevalent in what we know as Iran and Afghanistan. My brother instead prefers Füzuli, a writer who wrote primarily in Azerbaijani, and included some Persian and Arabic in his works. We can talk more about Füzuli soon.