For those unfamiliar with his legacy, Sayat Nova’s story can seem like the stuff of myth. His life is fascinating even in broad strokes: he was an ethnic Armenian musician and Orthodox Christian who lived in the Caucasus in the 18th century. He created a unique style of music, and wrote hundreds of songs in Armenian, Azeri, and Georgian. His talent was so great that even though he was born in a humble background, he rose to become the court musician of a Georgian king and founded his own school of musicians.
Sayat Nova was part of a tradition of bards known in Armenian as ashough — synonymous with the Turkish aşiq or Persian ashegh, terms used to refer to travelling musicians but literally meaning lover. Such bards worked across a vast cultural landscape that included the territory of modern Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and similarly transgressed the Persianate, Armenian, Azeri and Georgian speaking cultural worlds.
Just like other artisans, during this era being an ashough was like joining a class of professionals. But Sayat Nova’s style of music was unusual, he created new musical forms and compositions in all three languages.
Despite the formidable and cosmopolitan legacy of this bard, his appreciation has largely been confined to the domain of Armenian cultural heritage. Sayat Nova is mostly associated with and remembered for his works in Armenian. The reasons for this are largely due to what history has passed down to us (or failed to preserve), but that still begs the question: what more could we understand about Sayat Nova, if we were to further explore his story and music beyond his Armenian identity?
A Sayat Nova composition being performed by a modern ensemble.
To understand how an 18th century bard could create such a corpus of work, it helps to start with the basics of the musician’s biography. Although there is contention over the details of his life, Sayat Nova was likely born in the northwest of modern-day Armenia. Supposedly, he was to become a trained weaver only to instead travel to India and fight in one of Nadir Shah’s invasions of the Mughal Empire. He eventually returned to enter the ashough guild and officially gained the moniker Sayat Nova, from the Persian sayyad-i nava, or “hunter of songs.”
As he rose to fame for his musical ability, he became the court musician of King Heracle II of Georgia in Tiflis (modern-day Tblisi). He composed and performed his famous repertoire of work during this period, until legend has it he was kicked out of the court for falling in love with the King’s sister. He lived out his final years as a monk.
In the 17th and 18th century, despite conflict between empires of different ethnolinguistic makeup and demographics, linguistic and cultural cosmopolitanism was the norm in royal courts. Sayat Nova was particularly valued in the Georgian Court for his ability to contribute Persianate culture and Persian-style music (although the music he performed in the court was almost exclusively in Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri).
Fortuitous timing also gave Sayat Nova the space to create his particular repertoire and be appreciated. In the 17th century, Western and Eastern Armenia had been split by the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, respectively. The Safavid Empire fell to Afghan invaders in 1722 who were then overthrown by Nader Shah and his Afsharid dynasty — the rulers of the empire during the century between the Safavids and the Qajars.
The multiple transfers of power allowed the Kingdom of Georgia a chance to shake off years of Persian meddling, tribute taking, and general interference. While the Afsharids were occupied fighting against the Mughals in the East, Georgia had a chance to cultivate its own court culture — enter Sayat Nova.
A Sayat Nova composition in Georgian from a film biopic about his life. The Armenian version is titled “Dun el Glkhen.”
Many parts of Sayat Nova’s musical legacy survive to this day. His songs are still widely performed in Armenia, with countless recordings available in a variety of formats. But the nature of his enduring legacy doesn’t match the transcultural life and music of Sayat Nova: most of the available recordings of his music are exclusively in Armenian.
The significant cultural projects that attempt to continue his legacy are tied to the Armenian community and diaspora, including the upcoming Sayat Nova festival that will be held in Yerevan. While there are Sayat Nova monuments in Armenia and Georgia, there is no monument to Sayat Nova in Azerbaijan, even though the majority of his surviving poems are in the Azeri language. Most of his Azeri and Georgian poems, in their original language, are out of print or nearly-impossible to find.
Part of this is due to the difficulties of historical preservation. We have many of Sayat Nova’s lyrics in all languages thanks to his biographers and the documents gathered by his son, but his melodies are less well-preserved. Musical notation was not common in Sayat Nova’s time and milieu, so the Armenian melodies that survived were passed down orally for 150 years until they were finally notated. The projects to track down these melodies (that continues to this day) were mostly Armenian initiatives. While it is likely that Georgian and Azeri melodies of his still survive and are being performed, they are not as widely available as his Armenian repertoire.
It seems unfitting that Sayat Nova is solely remembered through the lens of Armenian culture. Of his surviving works, scholars have located 117 Azeri poems, 72 Armenian poems, 32 Georgian poems and six Russian poems. It is this cosmopolitan legacy that arguably makes Sayat Nova unique.
Sayat Nova compositions notably used Persian and Arabic poetic meters with Armenian melodic structures. With these techniques, Sayat Nova founded the Tbilisi “school” of ashough, a tradition that was notable at the time for performing Georgian music in the Persian style. Even people unfamiliar with these languages, when listening to a Sayat Nova composition, will notice that the final couplet of his ghazals often refer to Sayat Nova in the third person — a trademark of the ghazal form that many associate with Persianate poets such as Hafez and Rumi.
At the end of this song, Sayat Nova refers to himself in the final couplet. This is very common in the ghazal form in other languages as well, such as Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu.
Sayat Nova was unable to read the Perso-Arabic script, but his Armenian poems often blended Persian words with the language. This speaks to the role Persian played as a language of high culture: it was a language of literacy in the Caucasus that transcended ethnic boundaries.
In his handwritten manuscripts Sayat Nova would even switch between scripts mid-poem. Picture this: his Azeri poems are written in a mix of Georgian and Armenian scripts, and his Armenian poems are often written in both Armenian and Georgian scripts. His songs in colloquial Tbilisi Armenian were written in the Georgian script, and the Armenian script was reserved only for the classical Armenian language — widely considered “sacred” by devout Armenian Christians.
Why then, are the cross-cultural celebrations of Sayat Nova so few and far between? Azeris and Georgians have just as much to celebrate in Sayat Nova as the Armenian cultural mainstream.
Unfortunately a more pancultural perspective of Sayat Nova is not just difficult due to the historical record, but politically fraught. This video of an Azeri version of Sayat Nova’s song “Kamanche” highlights the vehemence of the arguments that often accompany celebrations of Sayat Nova.
An example of a Sayat Nova composition adapted into Azeri Turkish, framed by the uploader as an example of “plagiarism.”
The video shows clips of the song being used to celebrate Azerbaijan and Turkey’s form of pan-Turkic ideology that arose in the 20th century — an incarnation with anti-Armenian ideology — while criticizing Azerbaijan for cultural theft.
This is doubly confusing: Azerbaijani nationalists using Sayat Nova for pan-Turkic goals, while Armenian reactionaries respond by disavowing the fact that this bard actually had strong ties to Azeri culture. Comments on a video of a Georgian translation of an Armenian Sayat Nova song meanwhile try to excuse or explain his non-Armenian works, rather than acknowledge that they are a significant part of his canon.
This is a tragedy, as some of the most integral parts of Sayat Nova’s identity were linked to his non-Armenian cultural capital. For example, 19th century Sayat Nova biographer and documenter Akhverdian recorded a story in which the ashough, as a retired monk, hides his identity in order to meet a young new ashough visiting the city in search of the infamous Sayat Nova.
When the youngster meets a disguised Sayat Nova and asks where to find the renowned bard, Sayat Nova’s answers are a series of Azeri plays on words: bilmanam, tanimanam, and gormanam, Which could either be translated as “I don’t know,” “I don’t recognize him,” and I “have not seen him,” or, “know, I am him,” “recognize, I am him,” and “see, I am him.” The beauty of this word play brings the young bard to surrender his instrument to Sayat Nova, to show that he has been humbled in the face of the master.
These sides of Sayat Nova’s legacy are often forgotten or glossed over. It appears that Sayat Nova’s Georgian and Azeri sides have been both lost on accident and forgotten on purpose over the course of time.
There is great interest in reviving a multicultural Sayat Nova. Mountains of Tongues (formerly known as the Sayat Nova project), is a multicultural ethnomusicological research project that attempts to document the region’s musical heritage while breaking free of nationalist tropes. But that work has unfortunately become politically tenuous. The borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan remain closed in the face of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Funding for Caucasus-based musical research is often tied to a single culture and involves the explicit practice of nation and identity building. If Sayat Nova was alive today, far-right nationalists from all three communities in the Caucasus would likely denounce him for daring to perform in the languages of the “others,” whoever they may be.
But just as a modern Sayat Nova would be denounced, there would perhaps be those awaiting his return. Could there be a radical, transformative potential in remembering the multicultural Sayat Nova? Over three centuries on, the natural cosmopolitanism that Sayat Nova embodied seems lost to us. In the face of ethnic homogenization and conflict in the Caucasus, there are no easy answers. The clichés of past cultural fusions are no panacea for the contemporary political problems that the region faces. Cultural dialogue and civil society is important in such a situation, but it is important not to overemphasize the role of shared cultural heritage in examining contemporary political problems.
But at the very least, the very work of filling out our collective image of Sayat Nova could bolster a longstanding cultural unity in the region. The mix of knowledges it takes to appreciate Sayat Nova’s oeuvre is no longer easily found: people knowing Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Persian and Russian is no longer as common as it once was. Perhaps filling our mutual gaps of knowledge could bring fans of this famous ashough together to at least remember what once was, and dream of what again could be. Until then, the very least that fans of Sayat Nova can do is heed his own hand-written introduction to his second written song:
“This divani (type of song) is very good
If you learn it, pray for my soul.”
And here is the poem he was humbly boasting about:
Special thanks to Hasmig Injejikian’s dissertation on Sayat Nova. Please refer to her publication for more specific information on Sayat Nova’s life and the academic discourse surrounding his biography, works, and legacy.