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Neither Europe nor Asia, Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan) is a tangle of contradictions and contrasts. A nexus of ancient historical empires, it’s also a ‘new’ nation rapidly emerging on a petroleum-funded gust of optimism. Surrounded by semidesert on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, the cosmopolitan capital, Baku, rings its Unesco-listed ancient core with mushrooming new skyscrapers. Yet barely three hours’ drive away are timeless rural villages, clad in lush orchards and backed by the soaring Great Caucasus mountains. Here, aimlessly wandering cattle trump Baku’s flashy limousines while potbellied bureaucrats scratch their heads in confusion on finding that an outsider has wandered into their territory.

Epic History
 Dede Korkut is a heroic dastan (legend), also known as Oghuz-nameh among the Oghuz Turk people, which starts out in Central Asia, continues in Anatolia and Iran, and centers most of its action in the Azerbaijani Caucasus. According to Barthold, "it is not possible to surmise that this dastan could have been written anywhere but in the Caucasus". For the Turkic peoples, especially people who identify themselves as Oghuz, it is the principal repository of ethnic identity, history, customs and the value systems of the Turkic peoples throughout history. It commemorates struggles for freedom at a time when the Oghuz Turks were a herding people, although "it is clear that the stories were put into their present form at a time when the Turks of Oghuz descent no longer thought of themselves as Oghuz. Now it is known that the term 'Oghuz' was gradually supplanted among the Turks themselves as Turkmen, 'Turcoman', from the mid-10th century on, a process which was completed by the beginning of the 13th century. The Turcomans were those Turks, mostly but not exclusively Oghuz, who had embraced Islam and begun to lead a more sedentary life than their forefathers. In the 14th century, a federation of Oghuz, or, as they were by this time termed, Turcoman tribesmen, who called themselves Ak-koyunlu established a dynasty that ruled eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq and western Iran. But even before that at least one of the stories (Chapter 8) of the Dede Korkut epic existed in writing, at the beginning of the 14th century, from an unpublished Arabic history, Dawadari's Durar al-Tijan, written in Egypt some time between 1309 and 1340. Since the early 18th century, the Book of Dede Korkut has been translated into French, English, and Russian. However, it was not until it caught the attention of H.F. Von Diez, who published a partial German translation of Dede Korkut in 1815, based on a manuscript found in the Royal Library of Dresden, that Dede Korkut became widely known to the West. The only other manuscript of Dede Korkut was discovered in 1950 by Ettore Rossi in the Vatican Library. Until Dede Korkut was transcribed on paper, the events depicted therein survived in the oral tradition, at least from the 9th and 10th centuries. The Bamsi Beyrek chapter of Dede Korkut preserves almost verbatim the immensely popular Central Asian dastan Alpamysh, dating from an even earlier time. The stories were written in prose, but peppered with poetic passages. Recent research by Turkish and Turkmen scholars revealed, that the Turkmen variant of the Book of Dede Korkut contains sixteen stories, which have been transcribed and published in 1998. The twelve stories that comprise the bulk of the work were written down after the Turks converted to Islam, and the heroes are often portrayed as good Muslims while the villains are referred to as infidels, but there are also many references to the Turks' pre-Islamic magic. The character Dede Korkut, i.e. "Grandfather Korkut", is a widely-renowned soothsayer and bard, and serves to link the stories together, and the thirteenth chapter of the book compiles sayings attributed to him. "In the dastans, Dede Korkut appears as the aksakal [literally 'white-beard,' the respected elder], the advisor or sage, solving the difficulties faced by tribal members. ... Among the population, respected aksakals are wise and know how to solve problems; among ashiks [reciters of dastans] they are generally called dede [grandfather]. In the past, this term designated respected tribal elders, and now is used within families; in many localities of Azerbaijan, it replaces ata [ancestor or father]. The historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (d. 1318) says that Dede Korkut was a real person and lived for 295 years; that he appeared in the time of the Oghuz ruler Inal Syr Yavkuy Khan, by whom he was sent as ambassador to the Prophet; that he became Muslim; that he gave advice to the Great Khan of the Oghuz, attended the election of the Great Khan, and gave names to children. The tales tell of warriors and battles and are likely grounded in the conflicts between the Oghuz and the Pechenegs and Kipchaks. Many story elements are familiar to those versed in the Western literary tradition. For example, the story of a monster named "Goggle-eye" Tepegoz bears enough resemblance to the encounter with the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey that it is believed to have been influenced by the Greek epic or to have one common ancient root. The book also describes in great detail the various sports activities of the ancient Turkic peoples: "Dede Korkut (1000- 1300) clearly referred to certain physical activities and games. In Dede Korkut's description, the athletic skills of Turks, men and women, were described to be "first-rate," especially in horse-riding, archery, cirit [javelin throw], wrestling and polo which are considered Turkish national sports.

The traditional cuisine is famous for an abundance of vegetables and greens used seasonally in the dishes. Fresh herbs, including mint, cilantro (coriander), dill, basil, parsley, tarragon, leeks, chives, thyme, marjoram, green onion, and watercress, are very popular and often accompany main dishes on the table. Climatic diversity and fertility of the land are reflected in the national dishes, which are based on fish from the Caspian Sea, local meat (mainly mutton and beef), and an abundance of seasonal vegetables and greens. Saffron-rice plov is the flagship food in Azerbaijan and black tea is the national beverage. Azerbaijanis often use traditional armudu (pear-shaped) glass as Azerbaijan have very strong tea culture. Popular traditional dishes include bozbash (lamb soup that exists in several regional varieties with the addition of different vegetables), qutab (fried turnover with a filling of greens or minced meat) anddushbara (sort of dumplings of dough filled with ground meat and flavor).

Cultural Depth
The earliest evidence of human settlement in the territory of Azerbaijan dates to the late Stone Age and is related to the Guruchay culture of the Azykh Cave. The Upper Paleolithic and late Bronze Age cultures are attested in the caves of Tağılar, Damcılı, Zar, Yataq-yeri and in the necropolises of Leylatepe and Saraytepe. Early settlements included the Scythians in the 9th century BC. Following the Scythians, Iranian Medes came to dominate the area to the south of the Aras. The Medes forged a vast empire between 900–700 BC, which was integrated into the Achaemenids Empire around 550 BC. The area was conquered by the Achaemenids leading to the spread of Zoroastrianism. Later it became part of Alexander the Great's Empire and its successor, the Seleucid Empire.

Why I Love Azerbaijan
By Fiona Maclachlan: I´m an expat living in Baku and I would like to share with Visions readers a little of my enthusiasm for this wonderful city, and about how I came to like it. Behind its oil image of nodding donkeys, you can find another side of Baku, and another, and another... And I think this is why I like it here. A city of contrasts, and always something new to discover. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani people are rediscovering their language and culture with pride. The pace of change is rapid, and living amongst this awakening can take your breath away. A lot of Baku´s visitors come here for business reasons, often in connection with the oil industry. This means that the city caters fantastically well for visitors on expense accounts, with a number of very modern international standard, top class hotels and restaurants. And business visitors who take a little time-out find themselves in a fascinating city. And increasingly, Baku is becoming known as a tourist destination. Mature travellers, young backpackers and friends and family of expats working here are coming to Baku in greater numbers. I believe there are plenty of good reasons to visit Baku.

Landscapes & Activities
Across the centuries, the north-east corner of Azerbaijan has served as the gateway between Europe and the Middle East. Here, in the shadow of the majestic Caucasus Mountains, hides untold natural beauty. Pristine glaciers and deep ravines, stunning mountain lakes and canyons, and an ecological treasure trove of plants and animals. This is Shahdag in all its splendour. With a climate favouring year-round sports and leisure, Shahdag ranges from winter lows of -20°C to pleasant summer evenings of 20°C. An incomparable location for one of the world’s largest national parks, and within it, one of the region’s largest ski resorts. Breathtakingly beautiful, a haven hidden from time, Shahdag is an experience not soon forgotten.