Xenia in Baku

March, 2001

Greetings from Baku, Azerbaijan:

    March was the month of celebrations here in Azerbaijan. We celebrated four National holidays - days off from work, attended our first Azeri Wedding and, of course, continued our Lenten journey towards Pascha.

    Monday, March 5, was the first National holiday called Gurban Bayram or Feast of the Sacrifice. This is actually a Moslem holiday. However, being a predominantly Moslem Country, it has become a National holiday as well. Gurban Bayram commemorates, from the Old Testament, Abraham's sacrifice of a lamb instead of his son Isaac. Typically the devout on this day sacrifice a lamb and give a share of the meat to the poor. It is also traditional to buy new clothes for the family and sweets for the children. As we walked around Baku that day, you could see lambs being sacrificed in many yards and later the aroma of lamb shashlik could be smelled. On Thursday of that same week, March 8, we commemorated International Women's Day. This day is a holdover from the Communist era. This day celebrates the accomplishments and sacrifices that women have made. On this day it is traditional to give women flowers and other gifts.

   The next holiday was a two day affair called Novruz Bayram celebrated on March 20 and 21. This holiday is one of Azerbaijan's oldest surviving traditions and is the most important holiday of the year dating as far back as the year 500 B.C. when the religion of Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the first Persian Empire. The twin themes of the holiday are renewal and purification and coincides with the Spring Equinox. Novruz, which means "new day," marks the Spring Equinox and celebrates the awakening of life and the triumph of good over evil forces, which are represented by winter. In preparation for the holiday, many families make up burgeoning platefuls of grown wheat, dried fruits, pastries, sweets and painted eggs. A potent symbol of the holiday season is the growing of wheat and barley seeds on a special plate called samani. These seeds grow into healthy masses of vividly green grass and appear in containers all over Baku. The grass represents fertility of the soil and new life after the barren winter months. Although the holiday is celebrated over March 20 -21, the four Tuesdays leading up to Novruz are also very important. These days are celebrated the four basic elements - water, fire, wind and earth.

   On the eve of the holiday, families get together for the traditional dinner. The meal includes seven special items, in accordance with the Zoroastrian idea of celebrating the creation of new life by offering their god Ahura Mazda seven trays of symbolic items. These items, all beginning with "s" represent truth, justice, good thoughts, good deeds, prosperity, virtue, immortality, and generosity. Following dinner, the families get together and ignite huge bonfires over which many individuals jump over as a rite of purification. The Zoroastrians religious practice of fire worship is thought to be the origin of this tradition. All over Baku that night all one could see were massive bonfires burning away. The fires were located in open lots, in the middle of streets and anywhere a fire could be built. In a more modern tradition, the downtown area of the city was packed with revelers enjoying the holiday, drinking, and just partying. The next day you could see the remnants of all the bonfires everywhere. This is basically their "New Year" celebration.

   The Azeri wedding we attended was a very interesting affair. First of all the invitation said 6:00 PM so we decided to get to the restaurant at 5:45 PM. We walked in and were the only people there. People slowly started arriving at about 6:20 PM with the bride and groom finally arriving at about 7:30 PM. (That's 6 PM Azeri time.) It is traditional here for the groom to rent a limousine and ride to his bride's house where he ties a red ribbon around her waist as a symbol of his commitment and escorts her to the limo. They then proceed in a procession all over Baku, car horns soundings, on to the restaurant. The procession of cars is led by a taxi cab - there is a person in the trunk of the taxi filming a video of the procession. Once inside the restaurant, the couple are greeted by an official of the state who marries them. It=s basically a civil ceremony. They are asked if they are taking each other as man and wife, they sign the official documents and the proclamation is made. Many of the traditional Azeri customs have disappeared with Western customs now prevailing - the bride wore a white dress, the groom a tuxedo, and following the ceremony the wedding recessional is played. The tables were just packed with food and drink. You do not want to show that you are poor or have anyone say that they went away hungry, so everyone goes all out for a wedding. Money is the standard wedding gift. When you arrive, there is a gentleman seated at a table just outside the room where the wedding is held. You give him the money that you want to give as a gift, he registers your name in a ledger and that is it. There was a band playing traditional Azeri music as well as music from western singers/groups such as Steve Wonder, The Eagles and The Beatles. The really unique thing here was the closed circuit video that showed the wedding throughout the hall. They were video taping the wedding and playing it on the closed circuit TV. There were probably ten TV sets throughout the hall and you could watch the dancing, etc. as it was taking place.

   We have now made it through four weeks of Lent. Lets face it, Hierarchical Divine Liturgy coupled with the Liturgy of St. Basil makes for a long service. The good thing here is that since we live in an apartment in a city there are no real "household" chores that we have to do so you really can "Lay aside all earthly cares,.." and concentrate on the Liturgy. On the first Sunday of Lent, Orthodoxy Sunday, Divine Liturgy was delayed for one hour while a Molieben was said. From what I could understand from talking to one of the priests, the service is in thanksgiving not only for the triumph of Orthodoxy many years ago but also the triumph of Orthodoxy over the yoke of Communism. Following the Molieben prayers were also said for all those that died under the communist tyranny. The Third Sunday of Lent, Sunday of the Cross, brought back memories of Holy Cross Church both in Medford New Jersey and in Sacramento California. Hearing both "O Lord save Thy people,..." and "Before Thy Cross" in Russian was very moving. Since we had a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, during the time of the Thrice Holy, first "Before Thy Cross" was sung by the clergy, then the first choir sang another version with the second choir singing a third version. Following the service, bread in the shape of Russian Crosses were distributed to all the people.

   Xenia is now on spring break for two weeks. It was really odd, once Novruz Bayram came, the weather suddenly warmed up, the flowers started growing and buds appeared on all the trees. The nice weather is good because Nia and Xenia are able to get out of the house and do things. Last Saturday we all took a walk along the promenade along the Caspian Sea. It was just mobbed with people out enjoying the nice weather.

   Hope all is well with everyone. Only three more weeks and our journey through Lent will end with Pascha. We are anxiously awaiting our first Pascha in I guess what you could say a portion of former Imperial Russia.

Nick, Nia and Xenia


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