Caspian Region

Unexpectedly Large Crowds Converge on Azerbaijan’s Milli Yaylaq Festivalı

The Caspian Post
Image: Orkhan Azim

In the beautiful foothills of Azerbaijan’s Lesser Caucasus Mountains, representatives of over 20 nations came together for the “Milli Yaylaq” festival on July 29, 30 and 31. The name translates roughly as the “National Grasslands Festival” or “National Highland Games,” though the word ‘yaylaq’ has a more specific meaning referring to the summer upland pastures used by semi-nomadic shepherds and their flocks.


The event is like an Azerbaijani take on Central Asian’s World Nomad Games, or Mongolia’s Naadam. Like those festivals, it helps rediscover the cultural traditions of the region’s nomadic Turkic peoples from past centuries, albeit with more theatre and less of the hunting-based pursuits than in Kyrgyz or Mongolian variants.  


Image: Orkhan Azim

In terms of ethnoculture, various performance areas gave space for ashug (traditional minstrel)  contests, local dances, theatrical skits and folk song performances from a wide variety of regional cultures. These performances included many of Azerbaijan’s indigenous minority groups, such as Avar, Lezgi, and Talysh.


Food stalls served archetypal meals, some cooked in timeless style over open fires. A very extensive ‘trade’ village sported a remarkable range of locally produced goods from carvings to tourist trinkets to local herbal remedies, hand-pressed felts, and mountain honey. There were lots of colourful costumes, traditional games and various sporting events.


In the latter category, the highlights included various equestrian contests, with horse races and stunt-riding displays. There were also a series of styles of wrestling and local martial arts, including Zorkhana, a curious combination of meditative practice with weight-twirling and pahlavan grappling.



In the 1920s, many of these sports were banned by Azerbaijan’s Soviet authorities, only becoming permitted again in 1958 when horse racing began again in Ganja. From 1961, Azerbaijani equestrian teams began to take part in pan-USSR competitions. Zorkhana was even more heavily repressed in the Soviet era as its spiritual elements led to it being branded a ‘religious’ practice that was incompatible with the atheism of the Soviet Union. However, Zorkhana continued in neighbouring Iran and has latterly developed an international following with rules standardized by the IZSF since 2005. Zorkhana has seen a steady resurgence in Azerbaijan since this period, and Baku organized a Zorkhana World Cup in March 2009.


Other displays at the festival included archery, rope-dancing and a series of participatory activities: tug of war, sack races (çuval qaçdı) and the board games nard (Azerbaijani backgammon) and qalaqapı (the Chinese board game, go, formerly played in Azerbaijan using red and green grapes rather than counters).


Image: Orkhan Azim

This year was the second iteration of the festival, held in a specially erected ‘ethno-village’ of thatch-roofed stalls and yurt-style tent structures. The 2022 festival site was Khan Yaylaghi, which translates as “King’s Highland,” a yaylaq hilltop pasture near Yeni Zod village (off the Ganja-Goygol-Kelbajar road). The site is normally a place of magnificent views with panoramas across the deep-cut Kurekchay Valley towards the snowy peak of Murovdag. However, on the first morning, low clouds gave the event an extra air of mystery, with glimpses of proceedings floating in and out of view. Unseasonal rain caused some difficulties for traffic on the unpaved lanes adding to logistical problems caused by unexpectedly large crowds of spectators. Evidently, the event organizers were caught off guard by its widespread appeal, but such underlying popularity augers well for future years.


The long-term aim is to make the Milli Yaylaq Festival an annual event, possibly developing the festival site into a historical/ethnographic park. It is hoped that it would act as both a regional tourist destination and a hub for rekindling interest and proficiency in traditional crafts as well as the sporting arts and equestrian skills of Azerbaijanis’ nomadic ancestors, as highlighted in the festival.