Torch of Enlightenment from the Land of Fire

It is our great honor and pleasure to greet our friend Araz from Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire as co-author of Poemas del río Wang who opens us a door to the treasure-house of the history and civilization of his region.

Recently there was an interesting discussion around a Poemas del río Wang post entitled The Little Prince about the last king of Qajar dynasty – Ahmad Shah of Iran (Persia). The beautiful selection of illustrations including old photos, postcards and postmarks with the young prince and royal family members would not be complete without the cartoons.

Passage to the Gardens of Eden

This cover page cartoon from one of the first issues of satiric Molla Nasreddin magazine depicts the prince passing through صراط sirat – the hair thick bridge over the blazing inferno with معلم müellim – teacher giving him a hand from Gardens of Eden while مرثیهخوان mersiyyekhans – elegy-singers are trying to pull him down.

Portrait of Jalil Mammadguluzade by famous Azerbaijani Soviet painter Najafgulu Ismayilov (1923-1990)
Molla Nasreddin was founded in 1906 by the famous writer Jalil Mammadguluzade (1866-1932), a bright member of the early 20th century Azerbaijani intelligentsia. Born in Nakhchivan, Mirza Jalil (as he was respectfully called by people) was at the front line of the struggle for enlightenment of society. With the Prince Ahmad depicting Iran this cartoon clearly represents the belief of many progressive people in Azerbaijan that the salvation for Iran as well as many other neighboring nations is in modern education, culture and literature as opposed to the rotten scholastic traditions and “elegy-singing”.

The magazine was named after a popular personage in the humoristic folklore of many nations from Balkans to China. Named as Anastratin by Greek, as Nasrettin Hoja by Turkish and Nasurdin Afandi by Uyghurs, this witty man is called Molla Nasreddin in Azerbaijan. * Just as this ingenious personage, the magazine also earned popularity in a wide geography and is considered as the founder of tradition of satiric publications and cartoon art in many countries including Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.

The first issue of Molla Nasreddin was published on 7 April 1906 in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) and in the spirit of this great cultural centre in Caucasus it was a product of highly intelligent and truly international teamwork. During the Tiflis period in the history of the magazine (1906-1917) cartoons were drawn among others by Oskar Schmerling (1863-1938) and Josef Rotter, two representatives of the Saint-Petersburg and Munich schools. Born in Tiflis, Schmerling was one of the founders of the art school, which in a sense was precursor of now famous Tbilisi State Academy of Arts in Georgia.

Another Molla Nasreddin cartoonist, Baku-born Azim Azimzade (1880-1943) is considered as the founder of Azerbaijani satirical graphic art and Baku Art School where he lectured for more than twenty years is named after him. He is often called Sabir of Azerbaijani art after the poet Mirza Alakbar Sabir (1862-1911), who was famous for writing sharp satire on social issues. In fact many cartoons were illustrations to the poems by Sabir being published in Molla Nasreddin. The cover of the first issue well illustrates his satiric poem starting with the following verse:

Cover of the first issue of Molla Nasreddin

Tərpənmə amandır bala, qəflətdən ayılma!
Açma gözünü, xabi-cəhalətdən ayılma!
Laylay, bala, laylay!
Yat, qal dala, laylay!

Don’t move, watch out, my dear, don’t wake up from unconsciousness
Don’t open your eyes, don’t wake up from the dream of ignorance
Sweet dreams, my dear, sweet dreams
Sleep and remain behind, sweet dreams!

Over the 25 years it did exist, through its 748 issues Molla Nasreddin touched upon all kinds of issues asking for urgent solution, but education and modernization were always its priorities.

We will not let you go forward

The inscription on the locomotive says üsuli-jadid – new style, meaning new methods in education. Two persons staying on its way bear inscriptions köhne üsul, köhne elm, köhne adet – old methods, old knowledge and old traditions. The caption says Qoymariq qabagha gedasan – We will not let you go forward.

The struggle for enlightenment was stretching beyond the borders of Northern Azerbaijan, * which then was a part of the Russian Empire, towards other Turkic nations of Russia.

Honorable Bukhara

The inscription on the patient says Bakharayi-Sherif that is Honorable Bukhara meaning Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920) in Central Asia. The inscription on the doctor reads most probably as fireng hekimi – Frech (Western) doctor, and the label on medicine says anjaq zemane marifi – only modern education. Below is a dialog between the doctor and Emir of Bukhara:

Emir: Doctor, what is his illness? Doctor: The brains of poor man dried out long ago. He needs a cure at once, otherwise will be lost soon. Emir: What is the cure? Doctor: Should be cleaned with the medicine in this bottle. Emir: I should consult my ministers and clerics.

Ismail Gasprinski of Crimea

This cartoon depicts Ismail Gaspiraly (Gasprinski) (1851-1914) a famous Crimean Tatar intellectual, educator, publisher and politician with the newspaper Terjuman – Translator and his textbook Khoja-i-sübyan – The Teacher of Children in his hand. Two men threatening him look like a Tatar and Azerbaijani clerics. Inscriptions on the papers they hold say Üsuli-cedide khilaf sherietdir – What is against the New Methods is Islamic Sharia law and Tekfir – apostasy, declaration of him as unbeliever.

This movement for enlightenment was irritating for Russian Imperial administration, too.

At the Rushdiyya School in Crimea

The caption of this cartoon says Qrimda Rüşdiyyə məktəbində – At the Rushdiyya School in Crimea. Director confiscating the equipment says: You can teach whatever you want e.g. The Holy History, but you have no right to teach science.

Good school, bad school

Almost the same topic is a theme for other two cartoons depicting Northern Azerbaijan. The caption for the first one says: “That is what it should be; I have nothing to say about it, way to go”. In the second soldiers remove desks from the school: “You don’t need such new schools. Dismantle this quickly”.

Political and social issues in the Russian Empire as well as in the world were often the themes for Molla Nasreddin cartoons, featuring many familiar faces.

Mikhail Menshikov

This cartoon with Caucasians fighting with each-other in the background depicts Mikhail Menshikov (1859-1918) – a famous Russian intellectual, publisher and public figure, one of the ideologists of Russian nationalism as a Russian peasant lady with Novoye Vremya – New Age newspaper as her kerchief crying: “Disaster!… Caucasus is getting away!…

The issue of settlers

The caption in Russian for this cartoon with Kyrgyz family reads as The issue of settlers. Government official says: “Get out and move from here: our khokhols need some land”. The inscription for the people coming in background says rus mühajirler – Russian immigrants.

Leo Tolstoy

You have recognized the white bearded gentleman in this cartoon for sure. He is graf Tolstoy, the world known Russian writer Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). One “religious” Azerbaijani in the background says to the other one: “Meshedi Pirvedi, this Russian sure would be a decent man would he have his beard colored, huh!” The cartoon probably refers to a not widely known fact that Tolstoy was taking interest also in Islam and had read some Islamic religious texts, even published a book with selected sayings from the prophet Muhammad.

Railway party

In this cartoon the Ottoman gives demir yol qonaqlighi – a “railway party” to Germany and Austria. The caption on the saucepan says Osmanli memleketi – Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman says: “Be patient for the time being: I will give some to you, too” to Italy, Bulgaria and Serbia waiting in background.

Many cartoons also were criticizing different traditions and negativities in Azerbaijani society from domestic violence to the social and political participation of women in community.

Free love

Forced marriage is the theme for the cartoon with caption in Russian Svobodnaya lyubov – Free love. One important note is that you should read the images from right to left as in Arabic script being used in Azerbaijan at that time. So the first picture in the right says: “Should you not want to go voluntarily, I will take you by force”. In the next picture the akhun – cleric says: “Lady, since you don’t say anything, it seems that you agree. By the order of God I marry you to this gentleman”.

Russian wife

The dialog between a passing-by old lady and gentleman is as below. – “My dear! Why do you keep a Russian wife leaving Muslim girls unmarried (avoiding single Muslim girls)?” – “Auntie! What should we do, to marry a Muslim girl I need at least a thousand manats, I would be down collecting that money”.

A Muslim intellectual and his wife

The caption for this cartoon says Müselman inteligenti ve arvadi – A Muslim intellectual and his wife. One image is “in Paris”, the other one is “in his village in Caucasus”. I suppose you can easily guess which one is which.

Molla Nasreddin was the flagship of the movement for enlightenment in early 20th century Azerbaijan, which left many remarkable achievements: 1901 – the first secular school for Muslim girls; 1908 – the first opera in the East combining the classical European music with national musical tradition; and eventually 1918 – Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim East, with women having rights to vote and be elected even earlier than many modern democracies as United States (1920) and France (1944). Although it lasted less than two years before the Bolshevik Russia invaded in 1920, its fruits were reaped by many generations ahead.

This posting was inspired by Tamás Sajó of Studiolum and his postings at Poemas del río Wang. Most of other scanned cartoon images were found on the flickr page by Mohamad Tavakoli. Few images were taken from the website of Helix Art Center, San Diego.

Other interesting links
• Century old Georgian postcards with drawings by Oskar Schmerling:
Baku’s Art School Named After Self-Taught Artist – an article about Azim Azimzade:
Dr Altay Goyushov describes the historical period in his recent article in Russian Еще раз об истории формирования секуляристских тенденций в Азербайджанском обществе (Once again on formation of secular trends in Azerbaijani society):,14,393-zhurnal-chast.html
Dr Bayram Hajizade writes about contribution of artists of different nationalities in the history of Azerbaijani cartoon art in his article in Russian Вклад художников различных национальностей в историю азербайджанской карикатуры:

20 comentarios:

Julia dijo...

¡Bienvenido! Una entrada triunfal!

Araz dijo...

Muchas gracias, Julia! Rather a humble entrance, I would say, and I really mean it, seeing all the beauty you have here at Rio Wang. Can't thank Tamás enough for instigating me to write this.

Effe dijo...

Rio goes to Baku.
Welcome Araz, from Italy.

Perpignan dijo...

A great post! Messages from an unknown and lost world.

The third cartoon (“We will not let you go forward”) reminded me the Islamic Revolution of 1978. Yes, they did it.

The last cartoon as well as the references to the “Munich connection” and the German artist born in Tiflis has made me wonder: Was the Caucasus in such a tight connection with the West at that time? Did Muslim intellectuals go that often to Paris and Munich artists to Tiflis?

akb dijo...

excelent post!

M. Czerny dijo...

Wikipedia writes that after the Bolshevik takeover Jalil Mammadguluzade moved to Tabriz and continued to publish the journal. Why did it finally stop? And are there any descendants of it in modern Azerbaijan (either in the Republic or in the South)?

M. Czerny dijo...

And yes, what was the reception of Tolstoy in contemporary Azerbaijan?

Studiolum dijo...

For Araz, a new comment to the Hungarian version of the post: “I have found a peculiar world here at the Wang river, and this is why I regularly read it. It allows me to have a glimpse into worlds about which I have almost never heard. At these times the European feels how small place he/she occupies in this world, but also how good this world is… thank you!”

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

Congratulations on this, Araz. It beats me how you guys find such fabulous pictures.

Orlando dijo...

A great selection of pictures indeed. I would be happy to see more with the translations of their commentaries.

Araz dijo...

Thank you very much for thoughtful comments. Actually each question could result in a separate posting here, so I will try to answer briefly:

For Perpignan: Geographical position (being on the Silk Road) suggests historical relations with Europe. As for the cultural influences of modern period, Russia certainly played a role of "the window to Europe" for Azerbaijan. Many intellectuals as Ahmed bey Agaoglu had European education. As Dr Goyushov notes in his article mentioned above many Northern Azerbaijani intellectuals of early 20th century were "pan-Islamists, pan-Turkists and social-democrats at the same time", which was reflected in tricolor blue-red-green flag of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918. Some of them moving to Iran or Ottoman Empire to escape the repressions of Tsarist regime became prominent members of democratic/anti-monarchic movements there.

Speaking of traveling to Europe, one story is about Murtuza Mukhtarov who built in Baku a copy of Gothic style building that his wife liked during their travel to France as expression of his love. This building is the main wedding palace of Baku today.

As for Europeans traveling to Caucasus, not widely known fact is that famous Alexander Dumas (the author of the three musketeers) has been to Azerbaijan in 1858 and he described his voyage in his book Impressions de voyage: Le Caucase (Adventures in the Caucasus, 1859). And the oil boom in Baku of early 20th century brought many including the Nobel brothers there.

Speaking of Germans, there was a quite big German community living in Baku and North-Western Azerbaijan, dealing mainly with metallurgy and wine-making, as well as in Georgia. The grandmother of my wife had a German milk-sister. As far as I know, most of them survived the Bolshevik invasion, but they were almost completely deported to Siberia of Kazakhstan during the World War II. The Lutheran Church in Baku is now a German cultural center.

For M. Czerny:
Molla Nasreddin passed through three periods: Tiflis (1906-1917), Tabriz (1921) and Baku (1922-1931). It was banned already in 1917 in Russian Empire. There were only 8 issues published in Tabriz. So Molla Nasraddin stopped in 1931 probably because Mirza Jalil passed away in January 1932 in Baku. I don't think that he would survive the second wave of soviet repressions in 1930s that swept out the best of Azerbaijani intelligentsia. I think there is a great need for Molla Nasreddin in Republic of Azerbaijan right now.

Speaking of his descendants, Dr Isa Habibbayli who researches Mirza Jalil heritage met with some of his grand and grand-grand children in Iran, Poland and France.

As for Tolstoy, his reception in Azerbaijan is not probably different from his reception anywhere else. The message of the cartoon above is probably that "Tolstoy is more Muslim than any of those false Muslims", criticizing ignorance of uneducated. Molla Nasreddin was respecting the famous Russian writer very much, you can see it from the black and white cover dedicated to Tolstoy's death in 1910.

Julia dijo...

Humble attitude, extraordinary results, Araz! Congratulations!

iyusubov dijo...

Tebrik edirem, Araz, oxunaqli ve mezmunlu yaziya gore. Bezi sherhlere verdiyin cavablar da yazin qeder mukemmeldi. Yeni ugurlar dileyirem(belli sahelerde).

ismihan yusubov

Aman dijo...

Was the journal bilingual (Azeri and Russian) or only Azeri? If the latter, then was there an Azeri-reading public in Tiflis large enough to keep the journal alive?

Araz dijo...

Thank you very much for encouraging words, Julia!

Çox sağ olun, hocam. Sizə layiq olmağa çalışırıq.

For Aman: Molla Nasreddin was published in Azeri, but there were also occasional Russian entries. Russian captions for many cartoons were obviously making them to appeal also to Russian readers.

Tiflis being a historical capital of Georgia had also a substantial Azeri population in a quarter of the city around Sheytan-Bazar. Even after many of them left, there are more than 10000 Azeris living in Tbilisi now. Overall Azeris are currently the biggest ethnic minority (6.5%) in Georgia.

Tiflis was an administrative center of Caucasus under the Russian Empire, and an important cultural center, indeed. Many Azeri intellectuals such as the founder of modern Azerbaijani drama Mirza Fatali Akhundzade (Akhundov) (1812-1878) spent most of their creative life in this beautiful city.

Elena dijo...

How interesting! Thank you very much

walter dijo...

Wonderful post - so much to reflect on. Thank you Araz. At the exhibition of maps at the British Library, I found myself focusing on the regions around the Black Sea & the Caspian Sea, so much has my interest shifted since I started reading the rio Wang. So much to learn. Many thanks to all.

Araz dijo...

Dear Elena and Walter, thanks a lot for encouraging words! Rio Wang is where you can feel the flow of Time, so all thanks go to Studiolum.

Studiolum dijo...

This post has been quoted on the Iranian-Azerbaijanian Molla Nəsrəddin blog. Thank you!

Araz dijo...

Thank you, Studiolum for making me to write it and then translate it to my native language.