An Example of Unity: A History of Constructing and Reconstructing Religious Sites in Azerbaijan
Modern day Azerbaijan is a country with countless religious sites, including mosques, churches and ancient temples, and for centuries the representatives of various religious beliefs have been settled alongside each other without meeting any discrimination. When the President of the European Council and many others were shown a mosque, a church, and a temple merely 150 meters (roughly 500 feet) apart from one another in Guba city, they were astonished.
Haji Rufai Bey Mosque is a mosque in Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan. It was built in the 18th century. (Public Domain)
The attributes of tolerance and harmony of Azerbaijani people have differed in the East as well as in the world; its welcoming attitude has attracted many foreign visitors and had been praised by many famous individuals. This benevolent tolerance is still the driving force of Azerbaijan’s multiculturalism today.
Dialogue and Cooperation
The unique experience of Azerbaijan in the field of interreligious dialogue and cooperation has always been highly appreciated and recognized by foreign politicians, diplomats and officials of many international organizations. The historical visit of Pope John Paul II to Azerbaijan in May 2002 is a wonderful example of this. In his speech to the citizens of Azerbaijan, he especially emphasized the tradition of tolerance in the Republic. He ended his speech with a warm-hearted massage to all: “From this cosmopolitan land, may a hundred different languages raise their prayer to the living God, who listens above all to those who are poor and forgotten”. It is a historical fact that the missionaries of the Holy Roman Empire, upon the arrival to the Caucasian region, settled mainly in Azerbaijan.
Mosques and More
The government of Republic of Azerbaijan has paid special attention to the restoration of religious monuments and on the construction of new religious sites, and the state has also provided financial support for this venture. It is important to highlight that in Azerbaijan restoration of religious monuments does not insinuate the restoration of mosques specifically, but of all religious sites.
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The reconstruction of the cultural and historical heritage of Caucasian Albania the Kish temple (the largest temple in Baku) and of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception Church became a sensation not only in Azerbaijan, but also in several other countries.
Front view of the church in the village of Kish in Azerbaijan. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The beautiful domed interior of the Church of Kish, with ancient chandelier. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Christian Churches and Cathedrals
Some Azerbaijani millionaires have expressed their high regard towards the Christian religion by sponsoring the construction of several churches in the country. The Holy Myrrhbearers Cathedral of Baku city for example, was constructed in 1909, based on the design of architect Feodor Mihajlovich Verzhbitsky, with personal contribution from the renowned Azerbaijani industrialist and philanthropist Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev.
Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1821/23/38? – 1924) (Public Domain)
The well-known political and religious leaders of the time, as well as the Russian tsar’s ambassador, Count Illarion Ivanovich Vorontsov-Dashkov participated in the opening ceremony of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. In 1920, under the Soviet regime the Cathedral was one of the first religious sites to be closed down and its priest was shot dead. In the years that followed, the Communists turned the Cathedral into a storage facility, and afterwards it was given to athletes to be used as a sports hall.
Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov. (1837-1916) (Public Domain)
On January 20 th, 1990, when the troops of former Soviet Union attacked Baku, two missiles fell on the roof of the church. As a result of the explosion, the roof was completely destroyed and the walls had deep cracks. The wrecked building of the Cathedral was returned to the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991.
Seven Church monastery complex is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in Azerbaijan and in Caucasus, and is a Caucasian Albanian Apostolic monastery. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The reconstruction of the Cathedral started after the opening of the Russian Orthodox Episcopal in Baku. When Patriarch Alexy II, the former Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia visited Azerbaijan in 2001, he declared the Church ‘holy’ and gave it the status of a Cathedral. The renowned person who had a great role in the reconstruction work was Aydin Gurbanov, the former vice-president of the All-Russian Azerbaijanis Congress (AAC). He shouldered the responsibility of funding this project. He was awarded with "Orthodox Order" by the Russian Patriarch Alexy II for his contribution in the reconstruction of a Russian Church in Azerbaijan.
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The Archbishop of Baku and Caspian Eparchy Alexander also admitted Aydin Gurbanov’s great role and assistance: “Aydin Gurbanov had a strange attitude toward The Holy Myrrhbearers Cathedral. It was so strange that I would compare it with love for a child”. Aydin Gurbanov has been praised countless times for his generosity, charity and for his efforts to restore Holy Myrrhbearers Cathedral to its previous glory.
Holy Myrrhbearers Cathedral in Baku (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The believed bones of crucified Bartholomew the Apostle are said to be held in the Cathedral’s shrine for relics. According to Christian folklore, Bartholomew the Apostle is the protector of Baku city.
Featured image: church in the village of Kish in Azerbaijan (CC BY-SA 3.0)