Two women, their heads covered, bend to walk through the low archway. Their steps are carefully measured: they have to step through with the right foot, and walk out with the left. As with all visitors to Səkkiz Qapı, they repeat this procedure eight times, one for each of the eight arches of this shrine in Mashtagha, a settlement about 30 kilometers north of Baku.
Shrines like Səkkiz Qapı have an enduring popular appeal in Azerbaijan, partly due to their informal status. There are few criteria to define them – location, whether in towns, cities, or the countryside, does not matter. Physically, they can be elaborate building complexes, piles of rocks or simply a ribbon on a tree. What matters is their spiritual significance – and popular belief in their healing powers.
These shrines combine Islamic beliefs with devotion to local “righteous men” and their burial sites. They have a long history in the country, a source of continuity amidst the different faiths that have washed over the Caucasus, from Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity to Islam as well as the atheism imposed by the USSR. Although no official list exists, there are reportedly hundreds of them in this ostensibly secular republic – and they appear to be thriving.
Veneration of holy men is an important feature of Shi’a Islam, which is followed by roughly 65 percent of the country’s population. To religious scholars, those claims say more about people’s identities than their religious observance. A relatively small proportion of the population attends mosques on a regular basis; the rest identify themselves as Muslim, but their knowledge of theology and ritual is thin.
That is largely a result of communism. In the Soviet Union, the state cracked down heavily on organized religion, targeting mosques, churches and synagogues alike. As Bruce Grant, a professor of anthropology at New York University who has studied shrines in Azerbaijan, has written, “over the entire Soviet period, the number of functioning mosques in the predominantly Muslim republic went from approximately two thousand to two dozen.” Inevitably, religious knowledge declined.
Paradoxically, the popularity of shrines in Azerbaijan today owes something to that crackdown. In the absence of organized religion, visiting shrines in the USSR became one way for people to cling to some element of their faith and assert their independence from the state.
The government’s present-day efforts to combat religious extremism in this majority-Shi’a country may also be a factor. Building mosques or going on the hajj, theIslamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims, are difficult for ordinary Azerbaijanis because of the bureaucratic hurdles erected by the state. In that context, visiting shrines offers a much easier alternative.
When speaking about religions, it is easy to divide believers into different categories, but shrines in Azerbaijan – as elsewhere – often defy such rigid division, blending elements of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, local beliefs and even Christianity.
But that is of little consequence to the women in Səkkiz Qapı. After they cross the last threshold, the guide hits the iron plate above. The noise startles visitors and is supposed to frighten away their worries.