A nation is known, recognized and distinguished among the world nations by certain characteristic features. The highest and the greatest of these features is culture.

HEYDAR ALIYEV
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Exploring Baku, land of magic carpets

The Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum reflects the spiritual values of carpet-weaving in this cradle of old civilisation.

Azerbaijanis have an old saying, 'My home is where my carpet is spread.' Way before oil and glitzy modernity swept its shores, this former Soviet state was known as the final frontier of carpet weaving. Legend has it that the intricately-crafted, highly intimate rug (often, woven fondly by women of the family) accompanies a person from birth to death, playing a key role in daily life and helping shape an Azeri's aesthetic perception of the world. 

"In Azerbaijani culture," says Dr Shirin Melikova, director of the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum, "the carpet is more than just an element of home decoration or a part of the festivities and ceremonies. Rather, it reflects the uniqueness of one's character and artistic taste, incorporating many historical epochs and styles." 

Along with the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by the world-renowned starchitect Zaha Hadid, the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum looms large as a cultural landmark on Baku's gleaming skyline. Some call the Azeri capital 'Paris of the Caspian' and it's easy to see why. 

Adding to the city's charm are the Soviet-era blocks flanked alongside post-modern architecture, the cultural bridge of the past paving the way to the future. It's pretty remarkable how the medieval and modern co-exist so peacefully here. 

First established in 1967 to preserve the centuries-old tradition of carpet-weaving, the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum was the first of its kind in the world. More than five decades later, it is housed in a strikingly-designed building that resembles - no prized rug for guessing - a flying carpet. Its collection includes tens of thousands of items, mostly carpets of all hues and kinds, but also embroideries, traditional costumes and rich jewellery worn by both men and women from the Middle Ages.

Apparently, there is no place in Azerbaijan where carpets are not woven, insists Dr Melikova, as she takes our small group of visitors on a guided tour of the carpet museum. Boasting dozens of compositions, every region differs in its design, which is composed of ornaments connected with people's faith and belief. "No design is ever repeated," one guide chips in, proudly. 

More than a hundred different compositions of carpets are woven all across the nation, including in Baku, Shirvan, Tabriz, Guba, Ganja and Qazakh. Both technique as well as subject matter vary from region to region. Guba carpets, for example, are woven from soft, shiny wool with rhythmically alternating cross-shaped images, highlighting geometric, floral, animal and bird motifs. On the other hand, carpets from the Tabriz region draw from classical literature, historical characters and religious themes. 

Visit any Azeri home and you will find the rug not only prominently displayed on the floor but also hung on the walls as an artwork. Elsewhere, they will show up as curtains or tablecloth and tents. Known for their asymmetric nature and geometric patterns, Azerbaijani carpet designs are inspired by nature, local folklores, culture and literature. 

Visitors are free to marvel at the museum's rare treasures, which include a 17th-century Ajdahali (dragon) carpet, a late 17th-century Shamakhi carpet, a late 17th-century Karabakh group Nakhchivan carpet and a 19th-century Baku group Khila-Buta and Guba group Sirt-Chichi carpets. The late 17th-century Karabakh Dragon carpets, for instance, are remarkable for their unusual 'tree of life' motif. Its khatai (an indigenous Azeri tribe) composition represents one of the most interesting branches of Azerbaijani carpet weaving. Due to their popularity abroad, they were said to have been exported widely during the Safavid dynasty. Thus, fewer remained in its country of origin. 

Unlike the ancient Zoroastrian tradition where a dragon would often symbolise evil, in Central Asia, the creature was associated with heaven, virility and fertility. Dr Melikova singles out the zili carpets bearing the symbols of Absheron, which extol "the sacred land, at the crossroads of four elements of the universe, where the remains of ancient temples are found, where the land breathes fire and a powerful wind stirs the waters of the Caspian Sea". 

"On this carpet, one can see the image of a peacock - a symbol of fire," she adds. One of my personal favourites from the museum display was an astonishing rug based on the classic star-crossed fictional romance of Layla and Majnun. It's vividly panoramic, depicting the love-struck Majnun handcuffed against scenes of a bustling street life as Layla awaits his return. 

The Azerbaijani carpets are produced by women at home who take inspiration from their everyday lives and local culture and weave them into their creations. An Azeri bride makes her own rug as a dowry, goes one popular saying, and her husband's family cherishes her creation more than any other possession.

Dr Melikova weighs in, "Azerbaijani carpets differ from the rest primarily with their turkbaf technique, symmetrical knot, designs closely related to the cultural and geographical background of the region, wool quality (nine of the 13 Caucasian breeds of sheep are, in fact, cultivated in Azerbaijan), pile height, as well as a variety of natural dyes. Our carpets reflect all stages of the history of Azerbaijan, its folklore, literature and beliefs associated with tribes living in this territory." 

"The carpet," she concludes, "has become the chronicle of our entire history, the quintessence of its spiritual incarnation." 

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