‘Land of Fire’ has a new meaning

Azerbaijan’s’ Eurovision victory was seven years ago and a lot has happened for its changing image in Europe and the world.

Flag of Azerbaijan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Flag of Azerbaijan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A jubilant crowd in Baku celebrates Azerbaijan’s win at the Eurovision song contest. People with flags are driving through the roads of the city as their radios blast the winning entry over and over. One emotional youngster who can hardly hold back tears of happiness says, “We may be far from Europe but they have us in their hearts today.”
They all liked their entry to the competition, “Running Scared,” performed by Nigar and Eldar, but their real happiness comes from the fact that their country has won a victory promoting itself in the European popular culture arena. Eurovision has become a gateway for emerging nations to showcase themselves and maybe eliminate some prejudices mainstream European peoples have against them. When Turkey, Ukraine, Serbia and eventually Azerbaijan won the competition, crowds reacted as if their country had emerged victorious in a European football championship final. Politics, as in every aspect of life, is present in the contest, but music breaks barriers. It also gives a chance to expatriates to vote for their homelands’ entry and feel a bit closer to their country.
Azerbaijan’s’ Eurovision victory was seven years ago and a lot has happened for its changing image in Europe and the world. Former Soviet republics are always regarded with skepticism; a common belief in the West is that the corrupt habits of the decades of Communist rule are carried on to the new democracies. However, one crucial fact is always ignored: nearly all Former Soviet republics had high literacy rates, investment in science, sports and culture. This is also apparent in former Warsaw pact countries such as Romania, Poland and Hungary.
Azerbaijan, however, is located at a very interesting place on the worlds’ cultural map. A gateway to central Asia; it has been influenced by European arts and music as well as the spirit of the steppes. For centuries, the “Land of Fire” has been the border between powerful empires. The Ottoman Empire’s influence was balanced with that of the Iranian shahs. Azerbaijan’s’ population is 96% Muslim, but the country’s secular approach to politics has allowed both religious and modern art to flourish throughout the years.
An interesting and exciting combination has emerged. The tradition of pro-culture state ideology and the efforts of the young artists is seen everywhere in Azerbaijan.
If there is a paradise for young artists and art enthusiasts in the country, it surely is Baku, the capital. A jewel of the Caucasus facing the Caspian Sea, Baku has become a busy hub for galleries, museums and exhibitions. The city itself is a living museum of architecture, with its beautiful historic buildings, wonderfully illuminated in the evening giving it a magical aura. New buildings, such as the “Fire” building, symbolize the dynamism of the country, but perhaps the jewel of the crown of the contemporary architectural scene of the city is the Haidar Aliyev Cultural Center, designed by the world renowned late Zaha Hadid.
An exciting Art Space is “Yarat,” which translates as “create” in Azeri. One of the most active art organizations in Azerbaijan, the space now has multiple exhibitions, museums, educational centers and studios. An exciting exhibition titled “For in Your Tongue I Cannot Fit” by Shilpa Gupta attracted significant attention. Guptas’ works and the works of foreign artists also give Baku a strong position in the international art world, along emerging art destinations such as Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul and Kiev.
However, the most important aspect of the “Yarat” art space is the “Art Volunteer” program, where young students can spend their summer creating and having fun within the education center. Although a non-profit and non-governmental organization, Yarat and others like it are supported by the leadership of Azerbaijan. One such support is from a young and pioneering artist who established the Yarat Art Space in 2011: Aida Mahmudova. Coming from a strong art education background and with a talent for promoting the young artist potential in Azerbaijan, Mahmudovas’ work will influence other pioneers, and more art spaces like Yarat will be opened in Baku and other cities.
Probably the largest and strongest move made by the Azeri government in putting Baku on the world stage was the Expo 2025 candidacy. Inspired by the motto “Developing Human Capital, building a Better Future,” the organizers hoped to receive 18 million visitors and 30 million virtual visits to the Expo, but the country was not selected as a result of the voting. If Baku does host an Expo one day, it will have the opportunity to portray the country beyond its known role of being an energy-supplying country to one that is a platform for innovation in technology, information, culture and the arts.
If you visit Baku, which the author of this article strongly recommends, you will not be traveling to the capital of a former Soviet republic but to a global cosmopolitan center with galleries, cultural centers and restaurants serving the delicacies of world cuisines of the most superior quality. One can truly feel he or she is in a European city, either by taking a stroll by the Caspian Sea or enjoying a drink at one of the prestigious lounges.
Azerbaijan – and Baku in particular – have a lot to offer to a visitor both culturally and aesthetically. Prejudices and presuppositions can easily be broken thanks to the wonderful people of Azerbaijan, their hospitality and a government enthusiastic and supportive of culture, the arts, technology, innovation and progress. From investors and business people to art enthusiasts, tourists from Israel should consider the Land of Fire as a new destination full of alternatives.
The writer is a strategist, patron of arts, philanthropist and author of two books titled The Grandchildren of Hurrem Sultan and Constantinople 1918 and many articles published in prestigious news outlets. He was nominated to the Europa Nostra award for his efforts to protect the Yıldız Palace. He holds a Medal of Honor from the Taras Schevchenko University in Kiev.