November 16, 2022

Travels Across Eurasia II: Baku to Shusha

Furqat Palvan-Zade

Still image from the rough cut of The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy by Furqat Palvan-Zade.

e-flux Notes is publishing a series of four travelogues by Furqat Palvan-Zade, the first from Tashkent to Termez, the second Baku to Shusha, the third Tbilisi to Amsterdam, and the fourth (to follow later) Tashkent to Kassel. They will also appear in book form as part of Beginning in the Middle: Conversations on the Post-Soviet, edited by Elsbeth Dekker and Robbie Schweiger, published by Jap Sam Books.

Author note: These travelogues were written while scouting and filming The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy (2022), a film which reveals my fascination with the eponymous Persian manuscript kept in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg. As an artefact, the manuscript caught my interest for two main reasons: first, I think that polo—which is considered to be a form of entertainment for rich white people—can serve as a metaphor, or a synecdoche, for the colonial history of the last few centuries. My analysis of the manuscript and polo not only aims to decolonize the game, but also to tell the stories of the violent geopolitical games of Western superpowers in Central Eurasia. Secondly, the multilayered nature of The Book of Ecstasy manuscript corresponds to what I consider to be a significant perception of reality. The kaleidoscope of stories and truths that are preserved in it serve as perfect material to challenge the idea of history and reality as something static or settled. My travel reports, orbiting around the manuscript, are illustrated by images taken on my journey through Central Eurasia.


Baku to Shusha, November 2021

Each time the pony was in sweat drenched
it began to rain and lightning … it flashed!

—from The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy by Arifi

To get to Azerbaijan during the pandemic, Uzbekistan citizens needed to obtain special permission from Azerbaijan’s Operational Headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers. My acquaintances in Baku told me it would not be such an easy thing to acquire. I started working on the task in August, and by October I still had not succeeded in getting the documents. Strangely enough, the fact that I was permanently living in the Netherlands became an advantage. Residents of some EU countries were allowed to travel to Azerbaijan without this additional permit. Unlike me, they still needed a visa. Three months of wasted effort—I should have just gone there without any official permits.

This trip to Baku was much more pleasant than previous trips I’d taken there and I don’t fully understand why—perhaps, somehow paradoxically, it had to do with the city and the whole country experiencing a kind of nationwide enthusiasm. There were flags and national Karabakh-related symbols hanging all over to celebrate the region’s “liberation” (as Azerbaijani patriots described it) less than a year before.

For some time I had been planning to come to Azerbaijan and stay longer than just a few days. The Oguz always seemed to me the most musical and vital Turkic people. This musicality is felt even in their very special Azeri accent—when a Baku citizen speaks Russian or English, their speech sounds very melodious. “The Oguz” is the name of/for the peoples who have historically inhabited the territory south of the Caspian Sea and around the Aral Sea. They also live in the far west of Uzbekistan, in Khwarazm. The official philological school of Uzbekistan defines their language as a dialect of Uzbek, but personally I do not understand why, as it differs so much from my (almost) native Uzbek. Khwarazm music is also known for being particularly melodious.

This time I had a completely legitimate reason to spend a little more time in Azerbaijan. I arrived there with a film crew to shoot footage of chovgan, a Turkic version of polo. Historically, this game was played at the courts of local princes and later spread to Europe through India. Never had I heard about this historical lineage until I came across a Persian miniature depicting the game. The contrast between the rich historical roots of polo and its contemporary perception as a form of entertainment for rich people led me to make a film about it. I envisioned using this sport as window into several centuries of colonial geopolitics in Central Eurasia.

In 2013, UNESCO—after being aggressively lobbied by Azerbaijani diplomats—recognized chovgan as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Azerbaijan. One specific feature of the game, according to a description on the UNESCO website, is the use of Karabakh horses. At the time of this decision, Karabakh was occupied by pro-Armenian forces, and the whole culture of breeding and taking care of Karabakh horses had long been abandoned. Thus the sport itself, as an object of cultural heritage, was—and still is—under threat.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage allows individual states to nominate objects and practices in need of protection and support, even if said objects and practices are the subject of disputes between states. States are supposed to follow a specific procedure in drawing up a joint request, but this is unfeasible if one of the states refuses to cooperate and asserts its claim to exclusive ownership of the heritage in question. There is no prohibition, however, against a state applying to include its own version of the same heritage. One state cannot unilaterally block an application submitted by another. The current situation in UNESCO allows several states to claim the same object of cultural heritage without recognizing any existing connection between them.

Interstate conflicts related to intangible heritage can be viewed as a manifestation of competing claims to nationalism and identity politics. The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was created as a way to address globalization and promote cultural diversity. The permission to apply for one’s own national variant of an already listed practice is intended to counteract cultural expropriation. Being put on the list primarily has a symbolic value—countries do not receive any direct funding to support their cultural heritage. Filing an application unilaterally allows states to use the heritage object in cultural diplomacy and national politics, transforming heritage into soft power, which results in UNESCO’s stamp of approval serving the aims of political legitimation.

In many cases, disputes over applications to recognize various objects as the intangible cultural heritage of particular countries clearly reflect existing national and political conflicts (for example, there is a long-standing debate between Azerbaijan and Armenia about the recognition of the culinary tradition of making dolma). Another example is Turkey’s application regarding the holiday of Nowruz—a continuation of the state’s internal national policy, as all the Kurdish elements have been systematically excluded from this tradition to reconstruct it anew.1

The game of chovgan was recognized as intangible cultural heritage in 2013 following a UNESCO conference in Azerbaijan. Despite the objections of Iran, whose representatives asserted that the game was actually of Persian origin with a thousand-year tradition and thus couldn’t be exclusively Azerbaijani heritage, the mono-national application of Azerbaijan was approved. Tehran representatives, trying to challenge Azerbaijan’s application, worked hard to establish relationships with players associations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Before the final decision, the Iranian press spoke about the unscrupulous attempts of Azerbaijan to influence the UNESCO committee. After the decision was made in favor of Azerbaijan, Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars News reported that Azerbaijani politicians had falsely presented South Azerbaijan (two Iranian provinces with a predominantly Azerbaijani population—the regions of South and East Azerbaijan) as part of their territory, emphasizing their influence. Iran also referred to the fact that it was not the first time that its neighboring states had claimed Iranian cultural heritage as theirs: for example, the heritage of the poets Molan (Rumi) and Nizami had been previously claimed by Azerbaijan. Eventually, in 2017 Iran submitted an application requesting recognition of the game of chogan as its own Intangible Cultural Heritage. It should be mentioned that chovgan and chogan are actually the same game, just spelled differently.

In the case of Azerbaijan, the underlying motivation for its claim to the exclusive possession of сhovgan appears to be the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The geographic center of chovgan is the Karabakh region, and the symbolic weight of this cultural heritage serves as a grounds for the legitimation of the state’s stance on the disputed territory.2 For Iran, turning to the soft power of the Persian empire’s cultural heritage has become more relevant than ever, due to its difficult position in international politics. Thus, polo (or its more ancient predecessor, chovgan) serves as a metaphor not only for the history of colonialism, but also for its consequences, especially nationalism, under the conditions of which we have to function in the modern world.

The border between Iran and Azerbaijan runs along the Aras River. This border was defined in the nineteenth century after several wars and diplomatic agreements. Afterwards, certain regions (vilayat) of Iran—including numerous Muslim ones—became part of the Russian Empire, which over the previous two to three centuries had been expanding very much towards the south as well as the east. First, Privolzhye and Siberia were colonized, with the border reaching as far as the Caucasian ridge in the south and the Pacific Ocean in the east. But the contours of the country did not remain solid; the new border of the Russian Empire grew to pass along the Aras River, and today the historical influence of those borders still separates Iran from the republics of the South Caucasus, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan.

South Azerbaijan (the name used by Azerbaijanis themselves) is located to the south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border. Iran is still home to a Turkic population of many millions. It is interesting to observe the national imagination working across state borders. During last year’s conflict over the disputed territory of Karabakh, hundreds if not thousands of Azerbaijanis living in Iran began protesting against the use of the country’s territory for the transportation of weapons to Armenia.

In today’s Azerbaijan and Iran, some nationalists quite categorically differentiate one from the other. One can easily imagine complaints heard in a Tehran taxi—say, there are too many Azerbaijanis in the country (my peers from Azerbaijan who have travelled to Iran told me about just such experiences). Among the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, one can sometimes come across a resentment related to the “good old days” when the Turks used to dominate across the entire Persian empire. This nostalgia was evident when I interviewed an art historian in Baku. She talked at length about the book culture of the Safavids. Despite the fact that this dynasty ruled over all of Persia, ethnically they referred to themselves as Turks.

Additionally, she expressed extreme dissatisfaction with Western orientalists and collectors. According to her, in Iran itself and around the entire region there were practically no valuable manuscripts left; everything had been taken to England, France, Germany, Russia, and the US, often as a result of deception or trivial thefts. I was especially struck by a story about The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, a manuscript created in the same atelier and by the same masters as The Book of Ecstasy.

In the twentieth century, The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, considered one of the masterpieces of Persian art, was owned by the Rothschild family. Later, it was acquired by the American oligarch and bibliophile Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. Apparently, due to financial difficulties and another divorce, Houghton committed an act of vandalism: in the late 1960s, he decided to tear the book apart and start selling individual miniatures. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, his heir, in a bid to get more money, concluded a deal of exchange with Iran’s new authorities. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art agreed to give him a portrait of a nude woman by de Kooning (Iran’s new radical state was determined to get rid of this vulgar work of art) in exchange for the binding and the remaining manuscript folios.

The art historian reminded me of the book Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus by Georgi Derluguian, which I had read five years before. In the book, Derluguian, a disciple of Immanuel Wallerstein, applies world-systems analysis to the biography of a single individual, Musa Shanibov. Derluguian uses the story of Shanibov to present the history of the late USSR and reveal numerous contradictions about the country. A typical Soviet intellectual, Shanibov went from being a rather innocuous student activist in the 1960s to one of the leaders of the rebels in the war in Abkhazia in the late 1980s. In the introduction to the Russian-language edition of the book, Derluguian describes how he started his research into Shanibov:

Benedict Anderson’s parting words addressed to me before another Caucasus trip of mine were about the absolute necessity to write down personal observations. The author of Imagined Communities, a glorious Irishman who was born in Shanghai and who, by the way, once took Russian lessons from the emigrant Prince Lieven, inspired in me the assurance that global trends and structures had no reality without understanding the actions, ideas, and hopes of people who happened to be living among these structures and trends. Ben Anderson always appreciated a story illustrative of its era. He loves listening and is a good storyteller himself.

It was quite by chance that Pierre Bourdieu came across the letter, along with a photo of the Kabardian politician Musa (Yuri Mukhamedovich) Shanibov. Immanuel Wallerstein, the head of my dissertation committee at the State University of New York, preferred spending spring semesters in Paris. As a closing paragraph of my report, I cheerfully added that should he happen to run into Bourdieu somewhere on Boulevard Saint-Germain, he could puzzle his French colleague with a photo of his “secret admirer” in a papakha. It was only after sending the letter that I realized I had probably done something rather stupid. Nowhere in his extensive bibliographies did Wallerstein mention Bourdieu, and neither did Bourdieu ever refer to Wallerstein. It could hardly be an accident. The two famous sociologists did very different things and at completely different levels. In addition, Bourdieu was known for his hard and cocky character, while Wallerstein, on the contrary, was a principled polemic opponent. But around three weeks later, my doubts were relieved. In the mailbox I found an envelope with a simple label that said “Collège de France, Pierre Bourdieu.” In his quick handwriting, exclusively in French, very cordially and energetically, Bourdieu wrote that he was certainly curious to know what respectable Caucasian in a papakha was holding a Russian translation of his work.

But how could I, in a nutshell, explain to Pierre Bourdieu how a former prosecutor and Komsomol member, a lecturer on scientific communism from Kabardino-Balkarian State University, in perestroika times headed the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus and led detachments of volunteers fighters in Abkhazia—among whom were Shamil Basayev and Ruslan Gelayev—and then, withdrawing from active politics due to an accidental injury, showed a deep interest in Bourdieu’s political sociology when in the hospital? … A lot here would kind of painfully ring the bell for someone with a Soviet background—a “Sobchak of the Caucasus” type, as one of my Saint Petersburg friends immediately defined it. But precisely for that reason, any Western reader would find this story totally incomprehensible (as, by the way, our own children would also). Indeed, Shanibov is a typical representative of the generation of intellectuals of the 1960s who, in response to glasnost and perestroika, took the microphone and instantly turned into opinion leaders. How many of such people became famous publicists and people’s deputies—and what eventually happened to them? In the late 1990s, the same Shanibov returned to quiet teaching and obscurity.3

To get to Karabakh, we still had to obtain special permits. I was told that we would be assigned our own fixer—a veteran of the Karabakh war. He was supposed to accompany our crew and stay with us during the whole trip. I imagined him as someone similar to the individual described in Georgi Derluguian’s book—an elderly representative of the Soviet intelligentsia who used to be an amateur or even professional researcher of Azerbaijani poetry or traditional art. But when I finally met him, three or four days before our trip, I was surprised: the “veteran” turned out to be a twenty-year-old volunteer who had taken part in the liberation of Shusha. I was really curious to get to know this young man better and ask him some questions during our journey, but this plan, just like many other plans in Azerbaijan, was never meant to be realized. We started off with a regular driver who had not been to Karabakh since the early 1990s.

As of the end of October 2021, these areas were still considered war zones. Two months earlier, some journalists had died in one of the area’s many minefields. By this time, most of the Karabakh region had already been under Azerbaijan control for a year, but some Armenian residents of Stepanakert (the Azerbaijanis have a different name for it), the capital of the former unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, refused to leave their hometown. According to the agreements reached in January 2021, in order to ensure the safety of the civilian population and to prevent possible provocations from both sides of the conflict, it was decided that the area would be watched over by Russian peacekeeping forces.

We were forbidden to take pictures of the military. Initially I thought it had something to do with censorship, but then I realized it was mostly for their protection.

The strongest impression from this trip was left by the new road to Karabakh itself, most of which goes along the Aras River. It was built in less than a year. I was struck by the speed with which the Azerbaijani authorities were planning to bring back the refugees who had left these lands. According to international law, it is more correct to call them “displaced people,” since they remained within the territory of their own country. Our local guide said that the government’s plan assumed the return of all the residents in just eighteen months, which would mean the resettlement of tens of thousands of people.

For all Azerbaijanis, Shusha is the main city in Karabakh. It was here that the capital of the Karabakh Khanate was located, and it is also here that one can find the Jidir Plain, which in the past was a place for horse competitions. When we arrived in Shusha, some of the buildings were in ruins, while others were intact. I still do not understand how the Armenians decided which buildings to leave untouched and which to destroy—or, shall we say, which buildings to let destroy themselves, because if one wants a building to cease to exist over time, one can simply demolish its roof and it will fall to ruins on its own. This is what our guide in Shusha told us.

The most famous historical character from prerevolutionary Karabakh is princess Khurshidbanu Natavan. She was even mentioned by Alexander Dumas in the famous travel guide he wrote during his trip to the Caucasus. She also established and supported local horse breeding.

Shusha’s major architectural attractions are two local mosques, also built by the order of the princess. Not having children of her own, she said that one of the mosques was her daughter and the other her son. The mosque in the central square of Shusha was quite well-preserved. Our guide rationalized that it was the Armenians’ way of showing off their tolerance towards Muslims. However, the other mosque had been abandoned and was in poor condition.

As we reached the Jidir Plain, we saw a wonderful view of the whole area opening up, including the former Stepanakert, where Armenians still live—the Armenian flag could be spotted in the distance. Our guide said it was a provocation and that the person who had hung the flag, from the perspective of the law, was a separatist. He also added that in the future, when everything settled down and peace was restored, such people would be punished.

Our guide actually made quite a strange impression on me. His speech both in Russian and English sounded somehow too eloquent and persuasive. He also mentioned that the Armenians who recognized the right of Azerbaijan over these territories would be able to stay there and live in peace, which, according to him, would be good for Azerbaijan from the point of view of international communication. Apparently, only winners can afford generosity. This thought haunted me all the way back to Baku.


Bahar Aykan, “Whose Tradition, Whose Identity? The Politics of Constructing ‘Nevruz’ as Intangible Heritage in Turkey,” European Journal of Turkish Studies, no. 19 (2014).


Sarah Sargent, “Fractured Resemblances: Contested Multinational Heritage and Soft Power,” International Journal of Cultural Property 27, no. 1 (2020).


Georgi Derluguian, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus (Moscow: Territoria Buduschego, 2010), 7.

Caucasus & Central Asia, Russia

Furqat Palvan-Zade (b. 1986, Tashkent) is an independent curator, researcher, and filmmaker. In 2014 he cofounded the project—a community-run platform and an expanding archive of texts on society and art. This platform serves as an engine and a tool for launching various collaborative projects mapping an international community of writers, activists, artists, and designers. As a filmmaker and a researcher, Furqat is working on a series of projects investigating the transient geographies and overlapping cultures of Central Eurasia.

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