Tbilisi Manuscript Sheds Light on Medieval Azerbaijani Hero
by Farid Alakbarov, Ph.D.
For libretto and music pieces from Uzeyir Hajibeyov's "Koroghlu" Opera, go to HAJIBEYOV.com, click on Music
"Azerbaijanis still consider Koroghlu to be a great national hero, but they don't think of him as an early Bolshevik. Stalin and the Soviet propagandists helped to keep the Koroghlu legend alive, but they didn't understand that for Azerbaijanis, Koroghlu symbolized the universal quest for freedom and independence." - Farid Alakbarov
For centuries, Azerbaijan's wandering minstrels - known as ashugs - have told tales about a mighty warrior named Koroghlu. His name, literally "Son of a Blind Man", refers to his campaign to seek revenge on the cruel ruler who had blinded his father, an opponent of his harsh regime. Much like the Robin Hood of medieval English folklore, Koroghlu stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Assisting him were a brave group of friends and a miraculous flying horse named Girat.
Every Azerbaijani has heard stories about Koroghlu. But who, in fact, was he? What was he fighting for? As legends like the Koroghlu story are carried down through the ages, some of their real-life details become embellished; others are simply forgotten. Yet these stories that live on in the imagination usually are based on some kernels of truth. The 17th-century legend of Koroghlu is no exception.
Above: Afrasiyab Mammadov played the title role in "Koroghlu", a 1960 movie about the 17th-century epic hero. Photo: National Photo Archives.
An alternate Azeri manuscript of the Koroghlu epic, housed at the Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts in the Republic of Georgia, gives scholars a great deal of evidence about what may have been the historical Koroghlu. Here Dr. Farid Alakbarov, chief scientific officer for the Department of Arabic Manuscripts at the Baku Institute of Manuscripts, describes how he and his colleagues reestablished ties with the Tbilisi Institute in order to find out more about this alternate version.
Northwest of Azerbaijan lies the Republic of Georgia, home to 5 million people, including about 285,000 Azerbaijanis. In fact, Georgia's capital, Tbilisi (Tiflis), once served as a cultural center for Azerbaijanis, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Important Azerbaijani figures like writer and alphabet reformer Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878) and government leader Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925) used to live and work there. Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948) attended Gory Seminary there.
Left: Tbilisi, Georgia has long boasted a large population of Azerbaijanis, currently estimated at 285,000.
During the Soviet period, strong links developed between the academic institutions in Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to official Soviet ideology, this type of cultural contact between individual Soviet Republics was welcomed, so long as the interaction did not detract from socialism and the Soviet state. In particular, there was close collaboration between the Baku Institute of Manuscripts and the Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts.
Many ancient Azeri, Arabic and Persian manuscripts were written or copied in Tbilisi and collected by Georgian scholars. For example, 10th-century Azerbaijani scholar Isa ar-Ragi Tiflisi - known for his commentary to Ibn Sina's (Avicenna's) "Canon" - lived and worked in this city. The Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts still houses many valuable Azerbaijani works from the Middle Ages, including 240 Turkic (including Azeri and Turkish) manuscripts. (Baku's own Institute of Manuscripts houses more than 3,000 documents written in the medieval Azeri Arabic script.)
Since the Tbilisi Institute has so many important rare Azeri manuscripts, the Baku Institute often sent scholars to Georgia to conduct research. This was much easier during the Soviet era than it is today. Both Institutes were well financed back then, and the cost of traveling between the two Republics was much lower. Azerbaijani scholars were paid 10 to 15 times as much as they are today and could travel easily throughout the Soviet Union, so there were many opportunities to visit other manuscript funds, including the ones in Yerevan, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Tashkent [Uzbekistan].
Beginning in the mid- to late 1980s, during Gorbachev's rule, this partnership between the Institutes in Baku and Tbilisi began to unravel. When the Soviet economy collapsed, the ruble lost its value and salaries practically disappeared. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia became passionately engaged in the struggle for independence.
Left: Author Farid Alakbarov with a seller of Azerbaijani carpets in Tbilisi.
An ethnic conflict broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Georgia had its own struggles with separatists in Abkhazia and Ossetia. At the time, there were more important things to think about than ancient manuscripts - just surviving as a nation and creating an independent state.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, there were even greater economic difficulties, and scholars had to stay close to home. Traveling to other former Soviet republics became much more expensive, if not downright impossible. Consequently, for the first ten years of independence, there was virtually no contact between the two manuscript institutes.
Now that the economic situation has improved somewhat and there is more political stability, Baku's Institute of Manuscripts has been eager to reestablish the international links that were broken during the transition period. First, it set up collaborations with scholars in Iran and Turkey. Next, it decided to revive its collaboration with Georgian colleagues.
Contacting the Tbilisi Institute wasn't easy. The phone number we had on record for the Institute no longer worked. We didn't have a fax number or an e-mail address. Nor were we sure about the name of the director. We didn't even know if the Institute went by the same name.
Finally, the director of our Baku Institute decided that we had to find a way to contact them because there were many valuable Azeri manuscripts in Tbilisi. He approached me and asked, "Why don't you go and knock on their door. We have no other way to reach them!"
So last summer, I set out for Georgia with an official letter of invitation from the Baku Institute, asking the Tbilisi Institute to renew its collaboration. We invited our Georgian colleagues to collaborate in all fields. We proposed an exchange of microfilm and copies of medieval manuscripts, as well as recently published books and papers. I presented them with several books that had been published by our scholars and our latest catalogues of manuscripts.
Visit in Tbilisi
I arrived in Tbilisi on July 3, 2001 - a hot summer day. Tbilisi is a very attractive, charming city with a number of historical monuments - not to mention a hospitable people. However, its economic crisis is in evidence everywhere. As opposed to Baku, one doesn't see any modern, Western-style buildings. Since the collapse of the USSR, all construction work has stopped and the city had retained much of his Soviet appearance - buildings, stores and old models of cars. The central Rustaveli Prospect and a few adjacent streets show a slight Western influence, but they are the rare exceptions.
Walking along the calm streets of Old Tbilisi reminded me of a magic journey into the past, as though I had returned to what people often refer to as the "good old" Brezhnev era of the 1970s.
These economic hardships have also severely curtailed work at the Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts, which is housed in a very beautiful building of the Brezhnev period that is in serious disrepair. They desperately need to buy computers, faxes and other modern equipment to preserve the manuscripts and books.
"Unfortunately, it's impossible. We have no money," the assistant director told me, though he was very pleased to reestablish scientific collaboration with Baku. I presented him with several books and catalogues that had been issued by our Institute in the last year, including two of my own books. He regretted that he had nothing similar to offer in return, as the Institute had not published anything in the past several years.
There are several important Azeri manuscripts to be researched at the Tbilisi Institute. For instance, there's a famous collection of verses written in Azeri (Turkic) by mystical Azerbaijani poet Imadaddin Nasimi (executed in 1417). Azerbaijani scholars are also interested in a manuscript of the "Divan" written by 17th-century Azerbaijani poet Ughurlu khan Ganjavi, who went by the pseudonym "Musahib" (Interlocutor).
Perhaps the most important aspect of this renewed exchange is access to a rare "Koroghlu" manuscript. Although the Koroghlu saga is of Azerbaijani origin, it is also famous in Iran, Turkey and Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The epic tells about the life and heroic deeds of Koroghlu, a hero of the people who struggled against unjust rulers in Azerbaijan.
All other Azeri versions of the Koroghlu saga are based on verbal folklore that was recorded in the 19th century or later. Up until a few decades ago, no one was aware of an alternate Azeri version. But then in 1967, Georgian scholar L.G. Chlaidze made a sensational discovery at the Tbilisi Institute of Manuscripts: a unique manuscript version of "Koroghlu". Azerbaijani scholars were astonished to learn that the Tbilisi manuscript did not resemble the other existing versions of this epic - instead, it revealed a very different story.
According to the most frequently quoted Azerbaijani folklore version of this epic, a leader named Mirzabey is blinded under the orders of Bolibey, a cruel Ottoman governor. (The name "Bolibey" means "Governor of Boli Province".) From then on, Mirzabey's son Rovshan is known as "Koroghlu" (Son of a Blind Man).
Enraged by Bolibey's actions, Koroghlu gathers together an armed detachment of friends and relatives in order to take revenge. His personal cause soon becomes a widespread campaign against the area's cruel, unjust rulers. In a typical story from the epic, Koroghlu's small detachment of men suddenly attacks a city or fortress and defeats a huge garrison of enemy soldiers. Sometimes Koroghlu's legendary horse, Girat, rescues him during the battle. After the rout, Koroghlu and warriors return to their headquarters, situated at the top of an extremely high, barely reachable mountain named Chanlibel (Dew Mountain). There they feast and drink to celebrate their successful raid, the spoils of which go to the poor and oppressed.
Basis in History
The Tbilisi manuscript's version of "Koroghlu" portrays the hero in much the same light, but this time his enemy is an Iranian ruler, Shah Abbas Safavid II. Bolibey, the Ottoman governor portrayed as the villain in the other Azeri versions, is depicted as Koroghlu's friend and often helps him in his struggle against tyrants.
The Tbilisi manuscript also tells us about Koroghlu's genealogy. It says that he was from the Jalali clan, a historical warlike Turkic tribe that inhabited Azerbaijan during the Middle Ages. According to the Tbilisi manuscript, Shah Abbas is told by his vizier: "The Turkic tribe of Jalali is especially glorious and has many brave and courageous youths. Each of them is a second Rustam [an ancient Iranian hero] on the battlefield. Besides, Mirzabey is their leader. You blinded him. They'll never forget it up until the Judgment Day."
Knowing that Koroghlu came from the Jalali branch of the Takalu tribe helps us establish a historical context for his struggle. The Takalu and their allies, the Shamlu, Ustajlu and Zulgadar tribes (they were also called the Turkmans and Tarakama in Azerbaijan), had great power in Azerbaijan beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries.
In the 14th to 15th centuries, they created the great empires Garagoyunlu and Aggoyunlu and took under their control all of Azerbaijan and Armenia and most of Iran and Iraq. At the end of the 15th century and the beginning of 16th century, they helped the Safavid rulers from the city of Ardabil in Southern Azerbaijan gain power in Iran. The first two generations of Safavid shahs trusted and relied on Turkic warriors completely. During this period, the Turkic tribes of Azerbaijan helped the Safavids against the Osmanlis and considered Shah Ismayil to be their national leader.
However, the third generation of Safavid shahs started to fear these Turkic tribes, viewing them as too independent, unrestrained and dangerous. The last Safavid shahs seized power from the Turkic leaders by arresting and killing them.
At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the Jalali tribe raised a great rebellion in Azerbaijan and Turkey, now known as the "Jalali movement". The "Koroghlu" epic has as its basis these historical events.
At first, the Jalali tribe fought mainly against Iran. But once Azerbaijan was captured by the Ottoman army, the Jalali tribe started to fight against the Osmanlis as well. Why would nomadic Turks fight against Ottoman Turks? At the time, the Turkish sultans didn't consider themselves to be Turks, but rather a cosmopolitan people, the Osmanli. In fact, they preferred to follow Persian and Arabic customs and offended the nomadic Turks by insulting their traditions and culture. The Osmanlis behaved not as the ethnic brothers of the nomadic Turks, but as their enemies and conquerors.
So how do we account for these two very different versions of the "Koroghlu" epic? One important thing to keep in mind is that the Tbilisi manuscript is much older than the versions of the epic that were recorded in Azerbaijan during the 19th century. The manuscript itself has a watermark that shows its paper was produced in 1856. Yet, the structure of the manuscript and the specific features of its language reveal that its text was written approximately 80 to 100 years earlier. Therefore, the Tbilisi manuscript appears to be a copy of an 18th-century "Koroghlu" manuscript, making it the oldest-known version in existence.
The Tbilisi version also seems to be more historically accurate. Given the time period, it makes more sense for Koroghlu to be fighting against Iranian rulers rather than Ottoman Turks. In the 17th century, the Ottoman sultans were far away, whereas Shah Abbas was a much closer, more dangerous threat for the Jalalis.
Over time, this interpretation apparently changed. In the later folklore versions, the Osmanlis are the main enemies, not the Iranians. Perhaps this has to do with the strengthening of Iranian power and Shiite propaganda in Azerbaijan, which began in the mid-17th century. It became dangerous to criticize the shahs, so the Turkic ashugs changed the story to target the Osmanlis. This less-controversial version coincided with the official position of Iran, which was a traditional enemy of the Osmanlis from a political and religious point of view. However, the epic's original anti-shah element did not disappear completely, even from the later versions.
During the 20th century, the Koroghlu epic found a new fan in the form of Joseph Stalin. He and other Soviet leaders were interested in the development of controlled Azerbaijani nationalism. Such nationalism was essential for separating Azerbaijan from Iran and Turkey. Stalin believed that promoting an artificial sense of nationalism would make it easier for the Soviet Union to swallow and "digest" the small Azerbaijani nation. Using Marxist-Leninist ideology as a "gastric juice", he told Azerbaijanis that Turks and Iranians were their enemies.
The Koroghlu epic-with its theme of poor, oppressed villagers rising up against rich khans and landowners - suited his political agenda perfectly. Not only did Koroghlu fight against Turks and Iranians, he drank wine and behaved as he wanted, not as a Muslim would. Therefore, Soviet propaganda portrayed Koroghlu as an early revolutionary and patriot who had struggled against rich landowners, Muslim priests and cruel Turkish and Iranian conquerors.
In 1932, Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948) decided to write an opera about Koroghlu. Curiously, in his version, Koroghlu does not fight against Turks or Iranians, but against unnamed rulers and landowners. Perhaps Hajibeyov was not interested in spreading propaganda but simply wanted the Azerbaijani people to remember one of their national heroes.
According to Mammad Sayid Ordubadi who wrote the libretto for "Koroghlu", Uzeyir Hajibeyov had originally intended to write an opera about "Blacksmith Haveh." After the composer had spent about a year working on it, he suddenly dumped the idea and opted to develop the opera around the theme of Koroghlu. According to Ordubadi, Hajibeyov wanted to create a work of art that would encourage his nation to heroic actions. "Our nation has to see a real, famous hero on stage who organized the people in a rebellion against the domination of feudal lords," Hajibeyov said.
When the opera was performed in Moscow in 1938 at the "Decade of Azerbaijani Arts" festival, Stalin was in the audience. He loved the opera so much that he honored Hajibeyov with the Soviet Union's most prestigious awards: the Lenin Award (1938), the Stalin Award (1941) and the "People's Artist of the USSR" (1941). "Koroghlu" became Hajibeyov's crowning achievement.
Symbol of Freedom
Azerbaijanis still consider Koroghlu to be a great national hero, but they don't think of him as an early Bolshevik. Stalin and the Soviet propagandists helped to keep the Koroghlu legend alive, but they didn't understand that for Azerbaijanis, Koroghlu symbolized the universal quest for freedom and independence.
In the years just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Overture from Hajibeyov's "Koroghlu" opera served as an unofficial anthem for Azerbaijan's independence movement. While tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated in the streets, its triumphant chords were played over loudspeakers, urging Azerbaijanis to rise up and make their demands for independence known.
Once Azerbaijan gained its independence, the "Koroghlu" Overture was even considered as a candidate for Azerbaijan's new national anthem. Instead, the new nation decided to re-adopt the national anthem that Hajibeyov had written in 1919 for the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920).
Even today, the inspirational "Koroghlu" Overture is often used to open concerts in Azerbaijan. It reminds us of our nation's audacious struggle for freedom in the face of impossible odds. "Koroghlu" speaks of the empowerment of a people and the hope for a new beginning. It is a legend that will not die.
Dr. Farid Alakbarov is a frequent contributor to Azerbaijan International. He holds a Doctorate of Sciences in History (1998) and a Candidate of Sciences in Biology (1992).
READ MORE of his articles about medieval Azeri manuscripts, SEARCH at AZER.com. To learn more about Uzeyir Hajibeyov's "Koroghlu" opera, read its libretto or listen to excerpts, visit HAJIBEYOV.com. To read how the libretto for Koroghlu opera came to be written, read the memoirs of Mammad Sayid Ordubadi, click on Biography at HAJIBEYOV.com.