Azerbaijan on Sunday holds snap parliamentary elections denounced by opposition parties as a feint aimed at further strengthening authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev’s tight grip on power.
Here are key facts about the Caspian Sea nation.
- The Land of Fire –
Owing to abundant natural flames coming from the country’s huge underground gas deposits, Azerbaijanis often call their homeland “The Land of Fire.”
The expression is rooted in Zoroastrianism, a fire-worshipping religion that dominated the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan before it adopted Shia Islam.
The castle-like Baku Temple of Fire, built in the 17th century, had an altar with constantly burning flames fed by underground gas coming to surface.
Azerbaijan’s state emblem features red flames at its centre.
Dynastic rule –
The Azerbaijani constitution holds the country to be a democratic republic, but in fact it has been ruled with an iron fist for more than three decades by the Aliyev family, accused by critics of crushing the opposition and using its power to amass wealth and fund a lavish lifestyle.
Heydar Aliyev, the former Communist leader of the ex-Soviet republic became its first president after the breakup of the USSR. Following his death in 2003, his son Ilham Aliyev took over. Cementing his family’s grip on power, he appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president in 2017 — after awarding her the country’s highest honour, the Order of Heydar Aliyev.
Azokh Cave –
One of the country’s most important landmarks, the imposing Azix Magarasi six-cave complex, is located on the territory of Nagorny Karabakh which has been under Armenian control since it was seized during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The labyrinthine limestone caves adorned with stalactites and stalagmites are considered by archaeologists to be one of the oldest living sites of prehistoric humans in Eurasia, dating back 1.5 million years.
Mugham music –
Mugham is an ancient style of music unique to Azerbaijan, blending traditional musical improvisation and classical poetry.
The complex art form reflects influences on Azerbaijan’s culture from contacts with other Turkic peoples as well as Persians, Armenians and Georgians.
Cultivated by members of Sufi orders and by performers of religious dramas, the genre features a male or female singer accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments such as a long-neck lute, a four-string spike fiddle and a large tambourine.
Karabakh horse –
Azerbaijan’s national animal is the Karabakh horse, a racing and riding breed noted for its speed, intelligence and red-gold colour.
The Karabakhs’ agility makes them ideal for Azerbaijan’s national sport, chovgan, a horse-riding game similar to polo played on a flat, grassy field by two competing teams.
One of the world’s oldest, the breed currently numbers below 1,000 and is threatened with extinction. — AFP