Day One, May 2, 2017
It was my honor to be invited by Mr. Nasimi Aghayev, the Consul General of Azerbaijan to the west coast USA to partake in two days ‘4th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue – Baku Process.’ The visit included 3 days of getting acquainted with the 20-year-old country, a former USSR satellite, that very few people know about or are familiar with.
I knew ahead of time that what makes the country so unique, in a world that coexistence is hardly possible, is that you are first and foremost a proud Azerbaijanian, regardless of your faith. In that small country of approximately 10 million people, the three monotheistic, or what the locals call Abrahamic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism live to tell a story of harmonious existence.
I flew with Turkish Airlines into Istanbul and from there a short two-and-a-half-hour flight into Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, or as the locals spell it Azerbaycan.
Azerbaijan, predominately a Moslem country, of Arabian culture influence, is rich with black gold, oil. It is located between Russia to the north, Iran to the south, Georgia and Armenia to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east.
At the very new Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, a city of approximately 4 million people, nestled on Caspian Sea shores, upon my arrival, just past midnight local time, a representative of the Ministry of culture and Tourism and a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed me and made sure that I entered the country with no hitch. A car with a driver was waiting for us outside to take me to my designated hotel, the Fairmount, a gorgeous five-star hotel on the hill, overlooking the bay. The approximately 20-minute ride from the airport to the hotel was on a highway empty of cars. The city streets were empty too. No car in sight. So far so good, top hospitality.
My schedule was prearranged by my hosts and I was put in the hands of Mr. Elgun Mehdiyev, a charming young man from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Since my visit’s emphasis is on intercultural dialogue and since I am Jewish, I am first to be introduced to the Jewish community which Azerbaijan is so proud of.
There are three Jews’ groups in Azerbaijan: The Mountain Jews, the Georgian Jews and the Ashkenazi Jews.
After a few hours of rest, I was to meet my Azerbaijanian fellow Jews, The Mountain Jews.
The Hidden 2500 Year History of the Jews of Azerbaijan
Accompanied by Mr. Mehdiyev, we picked up Mr. Milikh Yevdayev, the chairman of Baku Mountain Jews Community and we drove approximately 200 kilometers to Quba (Guba) the capital of the Quba Rayon (district) where a Jewish community of approximately 4,000 Jews live in what is known to be the Red Village, due to the red brick houses of the village.
As the story goes, these Jews’ ancestors were exiled from Judea to Babylon, after the first Jewish Temple was totally destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Some Jews returned from exile to the land of Israel, many did not and they spread all over the region.
The village, 300 years old, has narrow streets, and is burrowed by the Qudyalchay River. The Jews living there are Sephardic. In 1730, Huseyn Ali, the ruler of the Quba Khanate issued a decree according to which Jews could own property in the khanate and he invited them to settle there. The Jews accepted the invitation and the community grew. They created their own Jewish culture, some of which was Moslem tradition, such as taking one’s shoes off when entering their synagogues or learning centers, and they adhere to it with pride till today.
Mr. Yevdayev claims to be the product of the Soviet Union and his village’s synagogues and Jewish learning centers were desecrated by the Russian Communists. There were 14 synagogues before the Communists took over Azerbaijan and turned them into factories or destroyed them. But since Azerbaijan became independent on 30 August 1991, things are looking up for all the country’s citizens. The Mountain Jews’ Village is going through a revival and the synagogues there, are one by one, being restored.
We ended the day with a delicious Azerbaijan country-style meal. No need to seek organic food. The food is of the taste that we, the city kids, have long forgotten.
Azerbaijan is a new country and off to a very good start. You may ask why? Because if you know Jewish history you know that Jews are a symbol of persecution and victims of human rights crimes. But not in Azerbaijan. If Jews prefer and stick by living safely, happily and freely in a remote region of Azerbaijan you know that the country is off to a good start.
This is an open window to learn about a country that is only 20 years old. I will write other stories to whet your curiosity and perhaps help you take a vacation of a different flair. Go visit Azerbaijan, a country that is young but which has much to learn about and from.