Sofi Hamid Cemetery
Sofi Hamid Cemetery is the most
unique graveyard that we know of - not just in Azerbaijan, but
any place in the world. No exaggeration. The practice of choosing
meaningful symbols to represent one's life, carving them on gravestones
and painting them in pastel colors seems to us to be extremely
One's first impression about Sofi Hamid is that it is a delightful open-air museum - full of symbols, carved out in stone - often a bit primitive in the execution of their design - and painted in pastel colors. Sofi Hamid represents a triumph of personality and individuality. And it can be sincerely enjoyed and appreciated on this level. A stroll through the cemetery is a bit like going on a Treasure Hunt as you try to answer questions such as: Who was this person? What does this symbol or object represent? Why is that person represented in this way?
Sofi Hamid is a unique place for many reasons. It does not resemble any other cemetery in Azerbaijan, as there is a juxtaposition of so many trends and styles incorporating ethnographic, religious and even communist motifs. All of them are the production of folk culture and fantasy. During the Soviet period, Communist rule weakened the traditional religious Islamic framework and encouraged folk fantasy and national culture to reveal itself in this funereal art.
One of the major defining characteristics of Azerbaijan's history this past century was the reversal of political systems that took place over and over again. Again, this is evident here in the cemetery and becomes one of its most defining characteristics. The pre-Soviet era (prior to 1920) was defined by Islam. By the 1930s, with the Soviets in firm control, many of the mosques and cathedrals were dynamited.
Efforts to establish an atheistic state were put into motion. For example, two of Baku's most prominent places of worship - Bibi Heybat Mosque and the Alexander Nevski Russian Orthodox Cathedral - were both demolished in the early 1930s. Despite the official stance against religion, Sofi Hamid proves that ambivalence about religion continued to persist in society. There are many graves that provide evidence of belief in God during the Soviet period.
Context of Religion
To understand the phenomenon of Sofi Hamid, it is important to analyze the graves at Sofi Hamid within the context of Islamic beliefs related to death and burial. Islam discourages memorializing the corpse after death. It holds that the grave is only a temporary sanctuary for the human body in this "Fani Dunya" (ephemeral, temporary, material world). When a person dies, his soul passes on to the next World. All remnants of this existence here on earth, including the grave itself, must be allowed to disintegrate and gradually disappear.
According to Islamic law, graves must be modest and the gravestone should not be very large. Traditionally, the grave is marked by a large rock (about one meter in height) on which the name of the deceased is identified, along with dates of his birth and death. Often a few verses from the Quran are inscribed on the grave.
As is true in most societies, it is the closest relatives that continue to visit the graves of their loved ones. Sometimes, grandchildren continue this practice but, invariably, the following generation tends to forget and the grave is left abandoned. From the Islamic point of view, this process is natural and right. Islam does not encourage the maintenance of the grave too long. Within a few generations, the soil that has been dug and heaped up over the grave must sink in and become level with the ground again. Construction of ornate gravestones, burial tombs or luxurious mausoleums is considered to be a sin of arrogance or pride.
This is not to suggest that Muslim rulers did not built elaborate burial sites. Ample evidence exists indicating that kings in the Middle Ages did construct ornate mausoleums for themselves and family members. For example, the 12th century grand mausoleum for Princess Momina Khatun in Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) or the Taj Mahal Mausoleum in Agra (India) are well known examples of such trends among medieval Muslim monarchs. However, these exceptions were characteristic of royalty or totalitarian despots, not average citizens.
In general, cemeteries for ordinary people adhered strictly to Islamic law. Prior to the Soviet period, nearly all cemeteries in Azerbaijan were quite modest in appearance. Such traditional cemeteries still exist in Azerbaijan. They look like an open field with many gravestones, in various states of disintegration - some are new; others show evidence of age with lichen growing atop or wild bushes of the camel thorn and tumbleweed nearby. Some are beginning to sink into the ground, lean to one side, or fall over. The ornamentation and inscription are nearly illegible, having become eroded by natural elements - wind and water.
So, in such Muslim cemeteries, you might say that you can distinguish between the "generations" of grave stones: (1) the straight, tall, "youth" represented by light, cream-colored stone recently hewn from local quarries, (2) the gray and slightly eroded gravestones of "middle ages", (3) darkened gravestones and lop-sided "elders", (4) lame "centenarians" and finally, the (5) "dead graves" which have mostly disappeared underneath the ground.
Things are somewhat different at Sofi Hamid. First of all, many gravestones are painted in pastel colors, especially blue, green and yellow. Some gravestones are multi-colored, sometimes even resembling tropical African art. Even some of the very old gravestones still have traces of color. These characteristics predate communism and seem to be influenced by ethnographical characteristics of the local population.
At Sofi Hamid, objects are carved out on the various sides of the gravestone and head stone that relate to the gender, interests or profession of the deceased. For example, it may be a rifle if this person were a hunter, a ship for a sailor, a bus for a driver.
Sofi Hamid is unique in that the depiction of images of both humans and animals is not typical in Muslim cemeteries. In Islamic art, only plant ornamentation (images of flowers, herbs and trees) is permitted. It is true that images of humans and animals do exist in Islamic art, such as the illustrated miniatures in books of the Middle Ages. However, such depiction was possible only in books.
Sculptures depicting humans or animals were strictly forbidden because they were considered to be akin to idols of the pagan religions. Therefore, carving images of humans or animal on sculptures was equivalent to rejecting Islam and pursuing pagan belief. During the Middle Ages, such a person could be declared "murtad" (apostate) and sentenced to death.
Depiction of human images, including photographs or etchings on gravestones, is not permitted in Islam. The grave was considered the final sanctuary or resting place for the human body. According to Islam, on the Judgment Day, all those who are dead will be resurrected and will rise up out of their graves to be in the presence of God to answer for their sins.
But graves at Sofi Hamid often include photos of the face of the deceased person. There are even black headstones, characteristic of the Soviet period that began just before Gorbachev's era (around 1980s), where an entire full-length view of the person, front and back, is etched out. Such photographs are not confined only to Sofi Hamid.
Though statues or carvings of animal life are forbidden in Islam, you'll find many carvings of animals at Sofi Hamid. For example, there are many scenes of camels, usually portrayed in caravans. Azerbaijan served as a crossroads for trade routes between east and west, as well as north and south and transportation via camels was very common.
The very existence of Sofi Hamid as a place of holy pilgrimage has its roots in the use of camels as a mode of transportation. Sofi Hamid, according to the stories that circulate today, was an Arabian merchant in the 14th century who visited the region, more or less, like an itinerate mullah. As the story goes, when Sofi Hamid realized that he was dying, he instructed his traveling companions to bury him where his camel would come to rest. And thus, camels are often featured as a great part of the iconography on the gravestones there. Also, camels provided the primary mode of transportation for Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca.
Not only are camels depicted on the graves, but inside the courtyard where the Pir (sepulcher) of Sofi Hamid is located is a stone statue of a camel. Folk practices have grown up around the statue. For example, if a woman cannot become pregnant, it is believed that if she crawls under the belly of the camel, she will become fertile. She should repeat this three times for it to be effective. In addition to camels, you'll find many depictions of horses on the graves. They are depicted with saddles or hitched to covered carriages. There are also scenes of nature, which feature animals such as mountain deer or pastoral scenes with sheep. You'll also find an occasional cow. Also pairs of lovebirds can be found on gravestones especially if the person died at an age that people associate with weddings more than with funerals.
Worshipping snakes dates to pre-Islamic times in Azerbaijan. Such animistic beliefs were held by ancient Caucasian Albanians and medieval Turks. In pre-Islamic times, the snake was a totem of some ancient tribes. Pictures of snakes and dragons were featured on the flags of ancient Turks. Many villagers still consider snakes to be sacred creatures.
The influence of ancient legends is still evident at Sofi Hamid. Superstitions pre-dating Islamic beliefs still exist among the local population. For example, people living in the vicinity of Sofi Hamid consider snakes to be sacred. They believe that no snake will harm them on the cemetery grounds if they are pure. For good measure, they often take a handful of earth from Sofi Hamid to their own residence to ward off snakes.
There are even carvings of snakes depicted on gravestones. We were so surprised to see such an image portrayed. Our first thoughts were, «Poor man, he must have died of a snake bite». But a closer look showed the snake being offered what appears to be a small bowl of milk. Was this venom that someone had milked from the snake? Was this person a caretaker of snakes? There used to be a snake farm on the Absheron Peninsula where vipers were raised for therapeutic uses of venom.
When we inquired of one of the stone carvers what the meaning of snakes carved on the tombstones indicated, he told us that it simply meant that that person was not afraid of snakes; and that he was perceived as being extremely kind and gentle, to the extent that, at least, metaphorically, snakes would eat out of his hand.
In Azerbaijani folk tales such as "Beautiful Fatma", "Hunter Pirim" and "Wood Sword", we can see traces of ancient animistic beliefs where snakes and such creations are portrayed in a positive light.
At Sofi Hamid, one might expect that with thousands of graves, each one would be different. Well, of course, there is some variation in the execution of the many designs; after all, there are six surfaces on the gravestone that must be designed - front and back of the headstone, plus the four sides and the top table surface of the gravestone itself. So, you might say that there are six canvases that the artist must fill in a cogent and related manner. It's no wonder that many symbols are repeated.
One of the stone carvers told us that people usually look at the other carvings on the graves and choose from them what they would like for their own. For example, during the mid-20th century, many of the graves of women, depict a simple sewing machine and necklace and earrings. Of course, the carvings can be expressed differently, but the content is often quite the same. There seems to be more variety on men's graves, than on women's. But this may only reflect that more options were open for careers for men, and that women were more closely associated with the home.
You don't have to know Azeri, Russian or Arabic to glean enormous meaning from a visit to Sofi Hamid. However, taking someone with you who knows some of these languages will make your visit more meaningful and help you understand it more deeply. The typical grave in Azerbaijan features inscriptions and prayers from the Quran. But at Sofi Hamid, you'll also find secular inscriptions that can be traced to medieval Azerbaijani or Eastern poets, such as Nizami Ganjavi, Hafiz of Shiraz, and Omar Khayyam. Friends or relatives, especially parents or children of the deceased often author these lines. Typically, they are in the Azerbaijani language, and may be written in Cyrillic, Latin or even Arabic scripts.
Some verses glorify the most exemplary characteristics of the person who has died. Other verses may be reflective and philosophical about the transience of life or they may express regret that life has been snuffed out or that a person's fate met such a tragic end.
Inscriptions related to Islam are invariably chiseled out in Arabic, though at Sofi Hamid, the Arabic is often very poorly written and misspellings are frequent.
Typical expressions from Islam include verses from the Quran such as: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his Prophet", or expressions such as: "May God rest his soul".
Sometimes, attributes about God are expressed, such as the following inscription:
In the name of Allah, the Merciful One,
Who has no Beginning, nor End,
He has neither parents, nor children.
Some implore God to forgive
A few anticipate a better life after death:
Welcome to your house after
Daughter, age 1:
Daughter, age 4:
Daughter, age 6:
Daughter, age 16:
Others graves express a cynicism
about life. A woman (1957-1982) whose grave was decorated with
necklace and earrings expressed the following:
All people in this world will
surely pass away,
Future Face of Sofi
Staff members Gulnar Aydamirova,
Aytan Aliyeva and Aydan Najafova along with Nigar Abbaszade and
Rovzat Gasimov contributed to this article.