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Hayley Pangle Interview

Hayley Pangle is dual degree graduate student in both Central Asian studies and Library Science. She spent nine months in Azerbaijan as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in 2014 – 2015. The following is an adaptation of a post from a blog that she kept during her stint.


I became fascinated with religious mysticism during my undergraduate studies. Mysticism is religious practice off the beaten path; basically, the idea that one is not dependent on a religious hierarchy/structure to have a relationship with the divine — whatever that means to the individual. It is universal; movements all over the world have shaken organized religions to their cores, and I appreciate anything that challenges the status quo when it becomes stagnant.


And don’t think that mysticism, with its desert-living hermits and vision-having nuns, is a thing of the past. It’s a thriving element of spiritual life the world-over, including Azerbaijan, a country seeking a coherent religious identity as it navigates independence. The two places described below are full of mystic qualities and are worth visiting as day trips if you get the chance.


Sofi Hamid Cemetery


Legend has it that in the 14th century, an Arabian merchant named Sofi Hamid was traveling southward through the arid steppes of modern-day Azerbaijan when he suddenly realized that he was dying (Bear with me, there are practically no good sources to explain the origins of this site). He asked his entourage to bury him wherever his camel rested and today we have Sofi Hamid Cemetery, out in the middle of nowhere in the desert-like conditions of the Absheron Peninsula. Once we arrived, we went to the courtyard that housed Sofi Hamid’s body, but a statue of a white camel commands the scene.  Women who want to have a baby crawl under the camel three times, but you can wish for other things, too. I witnessed a group of women perform this ritual, and it’s fascinating. Next to the camel is a bunch of small trees. Women tie tiny cradles made from cloth to the trees, again asking for God’s blessing to raise families.


In the actual cemetery, a striking feature we noticed was that the monuments were all facing Mecca. Traditionally, as it was explained to me by my local friends, Muslim cemeteries are simple, the plot marked with a pile of stone slabs. But what makes Sofi Hamid special are the colorful, decorative, flashy burial plots and monuments. Imagine that you’re walking through, you turn your head to the right and see BAM! A monument completely painted in a bright shade of blue or green. You climb over random shrubs, kicking up dust, and more colors and motifs suddenly meet your gaze. A majority of the grave sites had several images that indicated what that person accomplished in their life or what they did as a career. Cars and trucks were popular, as well as snakes, deer, camels, various fruit and nature scenes. But my personal favorite was the samovar, a type of water boiler.  I was equally fascinated by the combination of Arabic and Cyrillic scripts painted or etched onto the stone of several markers.


Besh Barmaq (“Five Fingers” Rock Formation)


On a separate day, the other ETAs and I ventured to Beş Barmaq, a pilgrimage site mainly tailored towards those who practice Shiite Islam (i.e. Azerbaijan and Iran). I believe the rock formation, in pre-Islamic times, was a hub for ancestral/spiritual worship, and some of those traditions are still practiced today. A friend from home mentioned it looks like something from a Tolkien novel, and I think that’s an apt description of this huge rock feature tucked up in the hills close to the Caspian Sea.


As we climbed up the stairs to approach the formation, a woman paused on her way down to make sure we were covered correctly and gave her scarf to my friend without a second thought. I think we were each deeply touched by her willingness to help the obviously clueless tourists. The sun peeked from the clouds as we finally approached the formation and followed pilgrims on a rather treacherous journey to reach one of the top peaks. Ladders and rails made from ersatz materials and steps worn from heavy use made for a somewhat precarious climb, not to mention having to worry about other people, especially the elderly women who somehow braved the trail. There was also a young woman who climbed in her wedge heels. Devout women, with the skirts of their chadors billowing behind them, drifted through. We passed a couple others on the stairs and throughout the formation with faces uplifted, palms extended toward heaven, a friend conveniently nearby snapping pictures of her on a phone. Along the way, we came across old women who had stationed themselves on the ground, granting blessings after pilgrims donated a manat or even candy. Similar to Sofi Hamid, people tied pieces of fabric in certain areas as they made a wish or said a prayer. Luckily we knew this detail beforehand, so I cut some strips for us to tie around some tree branches.


Both sites were extremely illuminating in terms of what religious practices and culture are like in Azerbaijan, so I encourage anyone who is able to go to check them out. Further, as we travel throughout Central Asia for research, teaching, or other academic and career pursuits, I hope we can take a day or two to explore sites that even locals have little knowledge of. Happy traveling!