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Iran Claims To Thwart Azerbaijani Cultural Imperialism At UNESCO

An image from the Azerbaijani Culture Ministry showing riders in a typical "chovqan" match
An image from the Azerbaijani Culture Ministry showing riders in a typical "chovqan" match
Host Azerbaijan walks away a winner from this week's UNESCO conference on "intangible cultural heritage," successfully enlisting "urgent" help to preserve an archaic form of polo played on short-legged Karabakh horses.

The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization committee's listing of "chovqan" recognizes that the sport's continuity is "at risk" from a dwindling number of practitioners, precious little interest among young people, and urbanization.

It also recognizes the Azerbaijani state's role in safeguarding chovqan.

As it turns out, that doesn't sit so well with neighboring Iran, which claims the game -- rendered "chogan" -- as Persian.

Here's a video report on Iranian efforts to "revive an ancient Persian sport...that dates back to thousands of years ago:"

It's not the money that's at issue here, since there's no direct funding attached to the "List of Intangible Cultural Heritage In Need Of Urgent Safeguarding."

It's the principle.

So, as Baku was winning the battle for headlines, Tehran's envoys were busy wringing backroom concessions out of Azerbaijan and the committee on behalf of Iran's Western Azerbaijan and Eastern Azerbaijan provinces, as well as a silent coterie of purported chogan practitioners in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

While the UNESCO press release on December 3 referred only to "a traditional horse-riding game in the Republic of Azerbaijan," the "Tehran Times" the next day quoted an Iranian official as claiming victory.

"The efforts made by the Iranian delegation at the meeting convinced Azerbaijan to officially acknowledge verbally and in writing the fact that chogan is not an Azeri game," the director of the Department for Registration of Natural, Historical, and Intangible Heritage at Iran's Culture Ministry, Farhad Nazari, said.

He added that the two heavily ethnic Azeri provinces in northwestern Iran -- West Azerbaijan and East Azerbaijan -- had been described by Baku as "south Azerbaijan."

"It is through a trick that they presented South Azerbaijan as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan's territory and they even presented some historical evidence to this effect," Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.

On the eve of the UN vote, Fars had come right out and accused Baku of having tried "various means of international deception to register the Iranian game 'chogan' with UNESCO as Azerbaijani heritage," concluding that "Their methods demonstrate the greed of that country."

Fars went on:

Their action is against the UN fundamental principles of territorial integrity. It is not the first time that Iran's neighbouring countries claimed the possession of Iran's cultural heritage; for example their claims for Molana [Jalal-e-Din Mohammad Molavi Rumi, 13th-century poet] and Nezami [Ganjavi (Azeri: Nizami Gancavi), 12th-century poet] and now their claim over the Persian game of Chogan. They even use our territories as their evidence.

But cooler heads appear to have prevailed at the UNESCO meeting, and documents were amended after Iranian protests, Nazari said.

A further compromise was reportedly reached.

Iran "can also apply for registration of Iranian chogan on the list," Nazari said. "In addition, UNESCO experts in the meeting agreed that chogan would be registered as a multinational element on the UNESCO list."

Still, for now, it's "chovqan" that gets the UN's urgent assistance.

The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage meets annually to examine requests for inclusion on the UNESCO lists and steer efforts to protect such cultural activities.

We described the process in greater detail recently here.

-- Andy Heil

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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