The Azerbaijani literary canon is dominated by the foundational figure of Nizami Ganjavi, despite the fact that most international scholars consider him to belong to the Persian tradition as one the the most striking exemplars of romantic epic poetry of 12th-century Iran. His formal name was Jamal ad-Dīn Abū Muḥammad Ilyās ibn-Yūsuf ibn-Zakkī; he was born c. 1141, most likely in Ganja, which was then in the Persian empire, and nowadays part of Azerbaijan. Having spent most of his life in the Southern Caucasus in what is currently Azerbaijan, he died in 1209 in Ganja, which at the time had a predominantly Muslim-Iranian population besides a small number of Christians.
In his own work, the poet tells us he was orphaned at an early age, with his uncle providing for his education. His mother was from a Kurdish family and his father (probably of Iranian background) hailed from the city of Qom. He studied Arabic and Persian poetry, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, Islamic theology and law. As a product of the Iranian culture of the time, he not only created a bridge between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran, but also between Iran and the wider ancient world.
One of Nizami’s most celebrated works was the poem Leyla ve Mejnun, based on a Romeo-and-Juliette-style story of Arabic origin. It helped establish his reputation as one of the most transnationally influential Persian poets in history. This was also the dominant perception in Russia and the early Soviet Union until the mid-1930s.
In 1921, the Soviet Union was established, and Azerbaijan was, after a short period of independence between 1918 and 1920, integrated in the USSR. In order to guarantee a smooth process of Sovietization and to avoid the taint of colonial imperialism, especially in the non-Russian periphery, the Bolsheviks stimulated the national cultures of the different peoples of the USSR. For Azerbaijan to hold its own with the neighbouring Soviet republics of Georgia and Armenia, who boasted a rich feudal-imperial past, a historicist legitimization policy was undertaken which coincided with an ethnogenetic re-branding of the population’s nationality.
Armenia and Georgia, with their long history of an autonomous past, had a language, alphabet and literary canon of their own, and separate churches (Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox). Things were less clear-but for Azerbaijan, which in 1936 became one of the three successor republics to the former Transcaucasian Federal Socialist Soviet republic, alongside Armenia and Georgia. Until the 1930s Azeri’s had generally been called Tatars, or sometimes Caucasian Turks; their language was called Turkish, Turkic, or sometimes Tatar. The religion, Islam, was likewise nationally unspecific. The political need for a deeply-rooted, authentically national Azerbaijani rendered the ‘Azerbaijanness’ of Nizami a matter of great significance.
In general, scholars from the Russian empire shared the international view that Nizami was a Persian poet with Kurdish and Iranian roots. This made its way into the first Soviet Encyclopaedia in the early 1930s: the article on Nizami was written by the Soviet Orientalist Yevgeni Bertels, who later would play a crucial role in the revision of Nizami’s past and nationhood.
When Stalin established the AzSSR in 1936 there was the additional strategic need to distinguish Azerbaijan both from Iran (with regard either to Iranian irredentism or to possible pan-Islamism) and from the Turkic world (with regard to the danger of pan-Turkism, which was prohibited as a dangerous ideology in the Soviet Union). Scholars from Moscow and Baku thus faced the need to prove the indigenous roots of the Azeri nation specifically in the region that was now Soviet Azerbaijan. This triggered the so-called “Nizami Campaign”: the process of launching Nizami as the first national poet of Azerbaijan.
Mir Jafar Bagirov, First Secretary of the Azerbaijani CP, led the efforts with support from Moscow. The Moscow Academy of Sciences organized a Decade of Azerbaijani Art, which started in 1938 with the translation of Nizami’s works, first into Russian (by the celebrated poet Konstantin Simonov); in the same year Pravda published an article on Nizami’s life, presenting him as the first great Azerbaijani poet and even as a brave champion of Azerbaijani freedom and independence in a period of feudal repression. Russia’s most famous Orientalist, Bertels, who had called Nizami a Persian poet before, now wrote articles about Nizami being Azerbaijani, both for a scholarly readership and in Pravda. The main champion of the Nizami Campaign was Stalin himself, who called Nizami a “victim of Persian and Turkic bourgeois colonizers” and presented himself as the first to return the poet to his rightful claimants: the Azerbaijani people.
As a matter of common Soviet policy, jubilees and centenaries were celebrated to elevate the various nations of the Union. In 1941 the 800th Anniversary of Nizami marked the apogee of the appropriation drive. A new Soviet Encyclopaedia had in 1939 begun to represent Nizami as Azerbaijani. The author was, again, Yevgeny Bertels, backtracking on the Persian appurtenance that he had espoused in several previous editions of the Encyclopaedia.
Between 1941 and 1948, the poet’s complete works were translated from the original Persian into Azerbaijani.In the capital Baku, a Nizami museum was established, with party leader Bagirov commissioning many artists to make portraits of the poet, and several composers to devote music to his life and works. Fikret Emirov composed his symphony ‘To Nizami’s Memory’ in 1947, Qara Qarayev based several ballets on Nizami’s poetry, and monuments were erected in Ganja and Baku in the late 1940s.
In 1948 the Campaign was successfully brought to an end. The appropriation drive subsisted in the guise of a new branch of scholarship in the USSR, Nizamovedenie or Nizamology. Soviet Nizamologists came to dominate oriental scholarship on the subject; hundreds of monographs on his life and works were published and thousands of articles. All of these represent him as an Azerbaijani poet who even in the 12th century dreamt of a modern, progressive and liberated Azerbaijan not unlike the AzSSR.
Nizami’s canonicity has continued unabated. In 1982 a film was made about him, starring the famous Azerbaijani singer Muslim Magomayev; in 1985 the Nizami metro station opened.
In international scholarship, the predominant view has remained and still is that Nizami was a Persian poet, who lived in Ganja, a Persian city with a mixed population, and identified himself as Kurdish-Persian. Things are more complicated in Russia. His entry in the important post-Soviet Russian Encyclopaedia Krugosvet, by the Azerbaijani writer Changiz Husseynov, calls him the father of Azerbaijani literature, whose use of Persian was dictated by political reasons. This view is also held among conservative nationalists in Russia and those who want to foster Russian-Azerbaijani ties – witness the erection of a monument in his honour in Saint Petersburg in 2002. Within Azerbaijan Nizami continues to occupy a crucial place as one of the main icons of the nation, and a spearhead of the country’s international cultural diplomacy.