From Rock Art to Hard Cash
The gentleman with the fetching moustache (above) is a key figure in Azerbaijan’s great wrestling tradition, which was summarised by its media during the recent European Games. His name was Sali Suleyman, he travelled the world during the early twentieth century, and he could reportedly tie iron rods into knots. The history of Azeri wrestling goes back at least 6,000 years – there is rock art which depicts the sport at the World Heritage site of Gobustan (below). The country is right to be proud of its achievements.
Wrestling in Azerbaijan even owes something to its religious history. Like its neighbour Iran, the country’s history has been shaped by the idea of the Zoorkhaneh, or “house of strength”, a place where moral discipline is gained through physical training and taking part in athletic contests. The concept seems to have roots both in Shia Islam and in the ancient forms of worship which preceded it. In Azerbaijan, it is known as Zorkhana and dates back to the sixteenth century when the country was part of the Safavid Empire centred on Persia, the old name for Iran. Modern Iran still has a large Azeri population, including the weightlifter, and winner of two Olympic gold medals, Hossein Rezazadeh.
However, let’s not get too carried away the past. When Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, congratulated his country’s wrestling team back in March, he did not use the words “tradition” or “Zorkhana” but rather the words “efficient organisation” and “infrastructure”. History is worth nothing unless it is combined with modern methods. Indeed, Azerbaijan had a long period in which its wrestlers performed much less well than they do now. As Aliyev himself put it, “But if to recall the Soviet times, one can note that we did not have any major accomplishments in sports. Only in the period of independence, Azerbaijan has been able to achieve high results in the world arena”.
Even this assessment is overgenerous to his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev. The wrestling venue at the European Games is named after him, but only because he had a cult of personality and liked to have things named after him, not because he was particularly interested in sport. It is only under his son, and president of the National Olympic Committee, that successes such as seven wrestling medals at London 2012 have been achieved. And like the spectacle in Baku itself, they were made possible by spending money. Tradition is not the enemy of progress but only if they work together.
Next week: Grappling between Azerbaijan and Armenia, on and off the wrestling mat.