Visiting Azerbaijan is a must. I say this with deep personal connection and conviction. Whether you’re Jewish, a seasoned traveler, a lover of sightseeing, or simply a Bukharian who grew up immersed in the soulful melodies of the Silk Road, you’ll discover that the music that shaped your childhood is deeply rooted in Azerbaijan’s rich heritage.
But these are just the reasons from my perspective. There are millions more. I will now share my first experience visiting this remarkable place, which, in many ways, felt like home.
In May, I joined the Bukharian Delegation of the USA and Canada on a weeklong trip to Azerbaijan. The delegation was organized and led by my dear friend and colleague, Rafael Nektalov, Editor-in-Chief of the Bukharian Times. We were accompanied by the Bukharian Times’ English Editor Erin Levi; business mogul Leon Nektalov, who serves as President of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center in Queens, New York; and another businessman, Benjamin Benjamini.

Before the trip, my knowledge of Baku was brief and short—through the lens of music. I love Azeri music and have been listening to it since childhood. My siblings play tar and clarinet. My uncle Uriel Gavrielov Z» L was a kamanche player, and Rafik Gavrielov is a clarinet player.
Upon arriving at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport, the positive energy was palpable. We were greeted by a welcoming smile from the immigration officer, who ushered us to the VIP Hall, where our checked luggage was brought to us. There, we met our host, Zaur Salmanov, from the Diaspora Committee. His first approach was an apologetic gesture; his smile surrendered his kindness and welcoming attitude.

Rafael, being a frequent traveler to Baku, informed us that the Azeri people know how to welcome guests. Their arms are open to all visitors. Hearing this, I was a bit shocked. After all, we are talking about a Muslim-majority country, home to Shia Muslims, as well as minorities of Armenians, Jews, Persians, Russians, and other nationalities. As our host said, «We are a secular society with tolerance for any religion. You will find no hate for any faith or creed here. We have all religions in Azerbaijan, and you can enjoy the freedom to worship your god.»
I have to say, he meant it. Muslims are committed to praying five times a day. Living in Israel and New York, you see them laying out their prayer carpets wherever they are. But here, during my week in Baku, I can’t recall seeing one person doing so. You don’t hear the muezzin (the imam) calling in the streets.

Azerbaijan’s Jewish Martyr

We arrived at the hotel after a short ride in our private van. A refreshing shower helped me recover from the long flight. An hour later, Zaur presented our day’s schedule. We started by visiting the memorial site Alley of the Martyrs, an outstanding complex dedicated to all the lives lost in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the Black January conflict, a violent crackdown on Azerbaijani nationalism and anti-Soviet sentiment.
Among the monuments is one for Albert Agarunovich Agarunov (1969-1992), a Jewish man from the city of Shusha who fought in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1992. Albert was shot by a sniper while leading his tank towards the Armenian army assaulting the city of Shusha.

Baku’s Old Town: «Little Jaffa»

Our next stop was the Old Town. You must know the famous line by the brilliant actor Yuri Nikulin from the Soviet film ‘The Diamond Arm,’ in which he screams, «чёрт побери!» (G-d damn it!) Well, that scene was filmed in Baku’s Old Town in 1968, and as we walked up Kichik Gala Street, we saw several people sitting themselves down in the middle of the cobblestones across from the pharmacy to re-enact the scene for a souvenir photo.
Overlooking the Caspian, Baku’s walled old quarter, with its alleys, charming cafés, and sea views, glowed with an amber hue and reminded me a lot of Israel, particularly Jerusalem and Jaffa. The Azeri music that flowed from the restaurants added to its magical and familiar atmosphere. Plus, visiting the famous street from ‘The Diamond Arm’ was a blast!

«Can you weave a carpet?»

I had always been told and believed that Persian carpets were the finest and the best. It’s a known fact. However, our next stop proved me wrong.
The Carpet Museum, inside a cylinder-shaped building meant to resemble a furled carpet, turned out to be a revelation. It is, in fact, the first carpet museum in the world! Azerbaijan prides itself in making the world’s finest carpets, and the museum showcased a variety of motifs and techniques. Our guide explained their different meanings, including Hebrew and Jewish elements. Carpets were traditionally a valuable asset, often used as a dowry for marriage. During a meeting to assess her suitability as a wife, a young woman serving aromatic Azeri tea to her potential in-law and suitor typically faced the question: «Can you weave a carpet?»

Questions of Cultural Ownership

Exhausted from jetlag, we all retreated to the hotel for an early night after a whirlwind first day. Dinner featured dolma, a signature dish in Azeri cuisine is dolma. In Bukharian cuisine, we call it ‘Toki’.
This culinary connection reminded me of a scene from the 1977 film «Mimino» by director Georgiy Daneliya. The iconic Armenian actor Frunzik Mkrtchyan asks his Georgian counerpart Vakhtang Kikabidze, «Do you like dolma?»
Now, I won’t delve into debates about cultural ownership—whether its dolma or toki—but a lot can be said about many overlapping elements in Turkic, Armenian and Persian cultures. I mean, who deserves credit for instruments like the Duduk, Oud, Kemanche, and Tar? Let’s leave these discussions to the music historians. I was here to have fun, and so I did—the dolma was delicious!
Armed with a list of recommendations, thanks to my older brother Dr. Rafael Roubinov’s frequent visits to Baku, I left dinner and headed to Mugam Club & Restaurant—not to eat, but to listen to authentic Azeribjanian music. There, I encountered the immensely talented tar player Vusal Iskenderzadeh, considered of the finest in Azerbaijan. Vusal, who had enthralled audiences in NYC two years ago with his Shur Trio group, was performing that night. His tar playing was extraordinary, a captivating display of skill and emotion. Through his music, I could feel his heart and soul.
A true musician expresses himself not just through technical motions, but through the sound itself, weaving rhythm and beauty from the instrument. While I only heard a couple of pieces that night, but I promised to return for another session before leaving Baku.

Surprising Allies

As an Israeli-American and Bukharian Jew, I was flattered to learn about Israel’s excellent bond with Azerbaijan. Yes, I was aware of Israel’s role in supplying military equipment and technology during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. But during our visit, I also discovered that high-tech firms and pharmaceutical companies are investing and manufacturing most of their products in the new Alat Free Economic Zone on the outskirts of Baku. This zone offers tax incentives similar to those in Ireland and China, attracting significant business interest.
I was also pleased to hear that we shared many of our Jewish values with them, which brings me to the stunning Heydar Aliyev Center. This modern architectural masterpiece by Zaha Hadid is home to a variety of cultural events. While visiting the center, we toured a special exhibition of Uzbekistan textiles, highlighting the affinity we, as Bukharian, share with Azerbaijan.
Exploring this complex was intriguing, with each corner offering unique visuals to inspire your imagination. One room displayed a collection of gifts presented to Azerbaijan by world leaders, including prominent gifts from Israel. However, my favorite section was the musical instrument level. I found old musical pieces I’m familiar with: Duduk, Tar, Daf, and my all-time favorite, the Oud. I have deep affection for this beautiful instrument; not only does its beautiful appearance captivate me, but its warm and pleasant sound does as well. For both Rafael and me, it was an exciting experience. Rafael, with his musical background, recalled his youth in the old city of Samarkand, listening to and writing about Bukharian music and some of its best performers such as Michael Tolmasov, Gabriel Mulokandov, Elias Malaiev, Ezra Malakov, and, of course, Abraham Tolmasov. Meanwhile, I had flashbacks of growing up in Israel, surrounded by Bukharian music.
We concluded our tour with a tasty coffee at the bar on the first floor, where three fabrics colored blue, red, and green, representing the flag of Azerbaijan, danced in the air above us, giving a relaxing feeling of fulfillment after visiting the center.

Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant

If you visit Baku, there is one place you definitely can’t miss: Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant. As a lover of food and music, this place is the perfect way to end your day. Each floor and room are designed with a unique setup and theme, seamlessly blending music and cuisine. We enjoyed a delicious dinner with friends from the Diaspora Committee, and capped off the evening with a personal performance by a musical group that entertained the crowd.

Inside Karabakh

For Azerbaijan, Karabakh is an essential part of the republic, its liberation a core national concern. Following Armenian occupation since the 1992 war, conflict erupted in efforts to reclaim the region. Cities like Fuzuli and Shusha were captured, displacing the population and, in the worst cases, leading to tragic loss of life. A brutal massacre of Azeri people left thousands of families torn from their homeland.
Recently, I encountered a powerful film titled «The Word» by Israeli-Azeri documentary filmmaker Leyli Magerram. The film chronicles the liberation of Karabakh through the eyes of an Azeri soldier named Alik. Cities like Hadrut, Fuzuli, Khojaly, Demirchiler, Lachin, and Shusha were recaptured, but found devastated. Notably, these districts had been virtually devoid of Armenian residents for three decades, remaining abandoned.
We drove for nearly five hours, traversing villages and soaking in the sights of rural Azerbaijan. The road teemed with local livestock, and roadside stands offered fresh meat, the slaughtering of the cattle done right in front of our eyes—a stunning display.
Despite the extended travel time, it flew by thanks to the constant soundtrack of authentic Azeri music, as well as maqam and mugam music, on the radio. Sharing these musical gems with Ali, the driver, was a bonding experience. His amazement at my familiarity with some songs underscored the unifying power of music across cultures and faiths. Not to mention, Ali was a reckless driver, so I sat next to him to make sure we were safe.
We stopped for lunch at a small village near the Iran border; here, the kabab meat was not cut or mixed by machine, but by a human, a detail that undoubtedly contributed to their exquisite flavor.
Our first official stop was the city of Fuzuli, liberated by the Azerbaijani army in a swift one-day operation in 2022. Yet, the scene that greeted them was heartbreaking. Houses lay in ruins, booby-trapped with mines. Fields were littered with unexploded munitions. Armenian cruelty knew no bounds as it became evident that their forces had abandoned these cities with the intention of ensuring they remained uninhabitable. Wanton destruction of buildings and landmark sites marked the landscape, a chilling reminder of the conflict’s brutality.
Departing Fuzuli, a glimmer of hope flickered on the horizon. A new airport, soon to open for commercial flights, promised easier access for future visitors. As an Azerbaijani official’s spokesperson aptly stated, «The region will flourish again with life and happiness for the Azerbaijani people.»
Our next stop, Shusha, holds sacred value for Azerbaijanis. Considered the «Pearl of Karabakh,» this city served as the birthplace of numerous historical figures who shaped Azerbaijan’s social, political, and cultural landscape. Rich in historical and cultural treasures, Shusha held strategic military importance as a fortress and is a symbol of both the spiritual and progressive aspects of Azerbaijani society.
At the heart of this monumental city stood three statues – of the 19th-century poet Natavan, the 20th-century opera singer and musicologist Bulbul, and celebrated composer Uzeyir Hajibayli – their bullet-riddled forms a stark reminder of the conflict. These very statues, once removed by Armenian forces in a humiliating act and sold on the Georgian black market, were triumphantly reclaimed by the Azeris.
Before returning to Baku, we visited the valley where the Azerbaijani army made its way for five grueling days, relying hand-to-hand combat and sheer determination to liberate the city. Today, the people of Azerbaijan celebrate their liberation at a music festival called ‘Xaribulbul,’ which takes place right on the mountain with a view of the famous road. I hope to attend it with Rafael next year.

Film festival
in Guba?

My last day was a visit to Guba, where a significant all-Jewish community has lived for centuries. We visited the famous Six-Dome Synagogue, from the outside, and the 20th-century Karchogy Synagogue, which was transformed into the world’s only Museum of Mountain Jews. The museum explores the history and the contribution of Mountain Jews not just to Azerbaijani society, but the whole world.
Before entering Red Village, we met with the city’s mayor, Shahin Israfilov, in his office. During the meeting, Rafael tossed an idea into the air, which the mayor greatly liked. Rafael said that almost every city in the world has a film festival. «It’s about time to have one in Guba!»
As part of my duty in the delegation, I had my camera gear with me and captured the whole trip with my lens. «We hope,» says Rafael, «to premiere this film as the opening film for the upcoming first film festival in Guba.»


I fell in love with Azerbaijan. There’s no doubt about it. Returning to my studio in New York City, I played the music I had heard repeatedly, especially the Mugam, its melodies tugging at my heartstrings and giving me the urge to go back.
This was not my first and last visit to Azerbaijan. I vow to return again, hopefully for the film premiere, and with my brothers.
Visit Baku—I guarantee you will not be disappointed! And you may even get hooked, like me.

Ariel Roubinoff. Photo by Ariel Rubinov and Rafiq Sharki