Chovquan, Chovqan (Azerbaijan)
Name of sport (game)
Name in native language
Place of practice (continent, state, nation)
Chovqan is practiced especially in rural areas, mostly in the western, northwest, central and eastern regions of Azerbaijan. Depending on the availability of Chovqan facilities, the game is also played in some cities of such regions, e.g. Gazakh and Agstafa in the Ganja-Gazakh region, Sheki - in the Sheki-Zaqatala (Northwestern) and Baku region. In Sheki, Chovqan competitions are organized annually for Public Horse Breeding Center competitors from the village of Dashuz.
Generally, Chovqan is practiced in 16 regions of Azerbaijan: Sheki, Aghdam, Agstafa, Gazakh, Balaken, Zagatala, Gakh, Oguz, Ismayilli, Baku, Yevlakh, Goranboy, Goygol, Barda, Dashkesen, and Tovuz. Rarely, competitions are organized in Ganda, Karabakh, Khyzy, Shamakhi, and Gedabey.
Currently, Chovgan is also practiced in Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Chovqan is the predecessor of modern polo. Historians believe that chovqan was created in the middle of the first millennium and was popular in Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and neighboring countries for several centuries.
Chovqan is a traditional equestrian sport played in Azerbaijan as a migrant sport since ancient times. Its name comes from the word "chovqan" (or "chovgan", "chomakh") referring to the bent tip of the stick used by shepherds and herd breeders in the past. This stick was the main tool for grassing flocks of sheep, horses or other animals, later it was also used to hit balls made from sheepskin, in pairs and later in teams. Others believe that the word "chovqan" has Turkish origin, which means "to hit, swing with a stick."
Photo: Game of polo – miniature from the manuscript of the Divan by Hafez.
Fragments of the game were periodically presented on ancient manuscripts, as well as detailed descriptions and rules of the game. Various antique prints and ceramics suggest that sport has a long history. For example, a vessel with images of Chovgan was found during archaeological excavations in the Oran-Gala area, indirectly suggesting that the game existed in the 11th century around the city of Beylagan. Mention of Chovgan also appears in 'Khosrow and Shirin', a poem by the writer and thinker Nizami Ganjavi, and on the pages of the epic tales 'Kitabi Dede Korkut' and 'Kitabi Dede Gorgud'. Miniatures for the poem "Khosrov and Shirin" dated to the ХI century, as well as miniatures of Tabriz, illustrate various game scenes.
Photo: A 16th century miniature depicts a chovqan game the story of Khosrow and Shirin of Nizami Ganievi
Source: Singh Jaisal (2007), Polo in India, London: New Holland, p. 15.
Historically, Chovqan was widely played by the aristocracy of Azerbaijan and members of the Shah family. The game required specifically trained fast and short horses. That is the reason why it was so popular in Karabakh, where breeders focused on producing the best horse breeds, including the famous Karabakh breed. The first international Chovqan competition among the Middle East took place in the 2nd century in Baghdad.
Photo: Shah Mahmud, A polo game: an illustration from the poem Guy u Chawgan (the Ball and the Polo-mallet) (F1935.18, manuscript). Dafavid dynasty. Color and gold on paper, H: 19.4 W: 12.3 cm. Tabriz, Iran.
Source: The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution
The Silk Road has popularized Chovqan in India. The English played a great role in the distribution and development of the game in Europe and around the world. Chovqan came from India to England in the nineteenth century and became very popular, and the addition of new rules promoted the rapid spread of this game in Europe and the USA. English have been responsible for creating name of the game – polo. It was included in the program of the Olympic Games in 1900 in Paris. Five teams from the three countries took part in the competitions.
During the Soviet period, competitions of Chovqan often took place in Karabakh and other regions of Azerbaijan. In Karabakh, Chovqan was popular until the 1980s.
Chovqan was practiced from the end of the ninth to the end of the nineteenth century during various folk holidays, as well as part of the entertainment of the local nobility. From the end of the 19th century, a number of factors influenced its lower popularity, including decrease the number of players and good trainers, urbanization and exodus - pull out of Chovqan players from traditional places of practicing this sport, as well as a serious shortage of Karabakh horses and the liquidation of breeding horses used by Chovqan practitioners. As a result, the number of Chovqan players and the frequency of Chovqan competitions has decreased significantly.
Photo: Polo game (Chovqan) – miniature from Tabriz.Source: Л. С. Бретеницкий, Б. В. Веймарн. Искусство Азербайджана IV—XVIII веков. — М., 1976.
Chovqan's practice has been significantly reduced due to the departure of many outstanding trainers over the past 30 years, such as Mahammad Musayev, Isa Suleymanov, Adil Badalov, Akbar Abbasov, Sabir Hasanov, Fikret Huseynov and others. Mahammad Musayev, Fikret Husayn and Isa Suleymanov were among the most enthusiastic trainers of Chovqan, they tried to attract young people, trained them and organized regular competitions. Their departure led to the complete disappearance of the Chovqan teams in Ganja, Karabakh, Khyzy, Shamakhi and Gedabey. In the Soviet period and early post-Soviet times, it was difficult to pay attention to Chovqan, because it was not treated as a heritage. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the abolition of the kolkhoz system, most of the Chovqan players in Ganja, Karabakh, Khyzy, Shamakhi and Gedabey began to migrate massively to urban areas where it was easier to get an education and earn for a living.
Two competing teams of players (called "tagymes") participate on a flat grass field 200 meters long and 120 meters wide. Each team consists of five (rarely six) riders and one in reserve. A team of five players has two defensive players and three attackers. For six players, each team has two people in the back, one in the middle and three strikers. Chovqan is umpire by three referees (main referee and two side referees), usually chosen from among the most experienced players. At the opposite ends of the field, two 3 m wide goals are placed, a half-meter drawn line of the penalty area has 6 m long . Players use specific wooden hammers (chovqans) prepared from elm, pomegranate, mulberry, dogwood or hornbeam. During the game, players try to strike a small (leather or wooden) ball into the opponent's goal with a hammer. The game starts from the center of the pitch or from where the goal was scored. The duration of the game is two halves of 15 minutes with a 10-minute break.
Chovqan competitions are usually accompanied by music performed on folk instruments such as zurna (in the form of a pipe), saz, nagara and def (a kind of drums). This instrumental folk music, called janghi, is played at the beginning and end of the game, and sometimes - after scoring each goal. Janghi musicians are actually folk musicians who are quite numerous in Azerbaijan. Accompanying music, an atmosphere of joy and Christmas (a time when competitions often take place) contribute to the popularization of Chovqan.
Chovqan players and trainers are mostly local farmers who only practice Chovqan as an amateur activity. To participate in the competition, each player must have sufficient skills. Sometimes trainers are also responsible for creating teams. The sport requires a lot of experience and physical strength. It is not easy to sit in the saddle, grab the bridle, lean and try to hit the ball at the same time. The player must feel his unity with the horse to gain full control over the situation. There is no age limit for Chovqan players, as long as they have a good health condition. Chovqan players traditionally wear a large Astrakhan ("shepherd") hat, chukha (outerwear worn on the shoulders), arkhalyg (long tight coat with a short waist and gathered on the belt), belt, special pants, socks and shoes (charygs). In summer, players wear lighter clothes (silk shirts with national ornaments, pants made of delicate materials and light shoes). During the competition, Chovqan players can choose traditional clothes of the same color to show their team affiliation.
Knowledge of Chovqan, its detailed rules, skills and techniques are transmitted by experienced players ("trainers") for beginners verbally, through training conducted among players in local farms and riding facilities. Every future competitor must already be good enough in horse riding before starting training in Chovqan (riding skills are usually passed on to farmers' families). Coaches teach beginners how to play in a team, how to maneuver during the game, better hold the stick, hit, move forward and hold the ball, how to better control the horse and ensure a proper balance of physical strength of both the player and the horse. Since the rider's success also depends on the horse's health, fitness and speed, Chovqan training also includes learning how to care for horses and how to improve riding skills: how to make him move quickly and stop before the ball, how to efficiently turn left and right, how fast return to the starting position.
Chovqan has evolved and developed in close connection with the breeding of Karabakh horses because Karabakh horses are considered physically best suited to Chovqan. The Karabakh breed of horses is distinguished by a compact silhouette, medium height and agility. These horses are not very tall (about 144-154 cm), well-muscled and have strong and short legs. Due to the height of Karabakh horses, Chovqan players can use a stick which is 125-130 cm long. A taller horse would cause his rider to use a longer one, which would technically complicate the game (which is also avoided for safety reasons). Using longer sticks would mean a departure from the traditional Chovqan principles.
The competition takes place in empty grassy fields, and players take care of the horses to avoid injury to animals and degradation of the environment as a whole. The duration of the game (two halves of 15 minutes each) is ideal to avoid excessive horse fatigue.
Currently, this sport appears on the occasion of folk holidays, as well as individual interest of enthusiasts of it, mainly once a year during the annual Chovqan competition in Sheki. This competition was initiated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as an idea to support Chovqan. In 2005, the first Chovqan competition was organized in Sheki (at a horse-breeding center), the idea was to revive the public interest of this sport by involving other practitioners from various regions of the country as part of the annual competition. Since 2005, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan, in cooperation with its regional representatives and the National Horse Breeding Center, has been organizing the annual Chovqan competition in Sheki under the name "Presidential\Championships of Chovqan". Yanghi musicians also take part. Currently, the competition usually takes place in December, and 16 teams from different regions participate in it - Sheki, Aghdam, Agstafa, Gazakh, Balaken, Zagatala, Gakh, Oguz, Ismayilli, Baku, Yevlakh, Goranboy, Goygol, Barda, Dashkesen and Tovuz . Usually, these competitions congregate dozens of people of all ages who come to watch traditional sport and support their teams.
Sport is practiced, especially by members of the regional Chovqan teams. The most famous are two organizations: KHAA (Karabakh Horses Amateurs Association) and AEF (Equestrian Federation of Azerbaijan). The most experienced players are Alovsat Rajabli, Tamerlan Mehdizade, Nuraddin Atayev, Mushviq Mahmudov, Elvin Islamov, Elnur Husejnow, Kheyal Adburahmanov, Ilgar Mammadov, Etibar Mammadov, Mammad Aliyev and Natiq Orujov. It is worth mentioning other distinguished players and trainers, e.g. Rashad Samadov, Shamseddin Atayev, Ramil Nadirov and Namiq Orujov. Chovqan practitioners can also be found among members of the Karabakh and Eurasian Horses Association, as well as equestrian clubs such as "Gunay", "Sarhadchi" and "Murad".
Even if the organization of annual Chovqan competitions attracts the interest of local audiences and the media, participation statistics are not fully satisfactory.
According to the Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Azerbaijan, in 2010 the group of Chovqan practitioners in Azerbaijan numbered only 137 people (including trainers). Updated data provided by the regional departments of the Ministry at the beginning of 2012 show that this number has decreased to 118 people.
Such experienced Chovqan trainers as Rashad Samadov, Elvin Islamov (Gazakh), Elnur Huseynov and Natiq Orujov (Sheki) organize Chovqan training in various public and equestrian centers. However, they note that the interest of young people is decreasing and it is difficult to organize Chovqan teams. At the same time, coaches point out that many potential players avoid playing Chovqan because they believe that game security must be enhanced. The availability of training information is also low, and the training accessories and clothing of the Chovqan player are often quite expensive, which is also a big problem for players.
Players believe that an important threat Chovqan is currently facing is the rapid decline of the Karabakh horse race - the best for this game. It was caused by a number of events in the 20th century, such as the closing of the horse-breeding farm in Khan and the Agdam hops in Karabakh, mechanization of work and agriculture, and (as a consequence) a sharp decrease in demand for horses, reduction of grazing areas and very poor veterinary services. At the same time, a number of Soviet government activities in 1930-1950, namely collectivization and Soviet tax policy (aimed at reducing the number of horses) caused almost complete neglect of horse breeding in Karabakh. Another factor was the lack of respect for the features of the breeds in the selection because this breed was too often crossed with Arabian and Dilbaz races. As a result, today the purebred Karabakh horses in Azerbaijan are estimated at 300; about 20% of them are used in Chovqan. The shortage of Karabakh horses available to Chovqan forced players to use mixed breed horses, which make a longer stick required, thus exposing the rider to danger and departing from traditional practice.
Photo: Karabakh horse.
The liquidation of the Agdam hop factory in Karabakh in 1993 had a huge impact on Chovqan practice because it was the center of Karabakh horse breeding in their historical surroundings. The factory was then settled in the Barda region, but the agro-ecological conditions of the latter are not the same. In addition, Barda (compared to Agdam) does not have so many Chovqan fields available because local horse club/breeding centers have not created such fields.
The number of Chovqan practitioners dropped from 137 to 118 in 2012 compared to 2010. However, since then it has been showing increasing dynamics. In 2013, the number of players, coaches and referees Chovqan was estimated at 255 people, and in 2017 at 280 people. In addition to 16 existing teams, in 2013-2017 new ones were created, e.g. "Polad", "Govsar", "Serhedchi", "Lachin". Janghi musicians are also enjoying increasing popularity in competitions.
Chovqan strengthens the sense of identity rooted in nomadic culture and associated with the perception of the horse as an integral part of everyday life. Chovqan's detailed rules, skills and techniques are passed from experienced players to beginners through collective training.
For both the public and players, Chovqan is part of the national living heritage. It strengthens the sense of identity, rooted in the nomadic culture, in which one of the important aspects is the perception of the horse as an integral part of everyday life. For Chovqan practitioners, the game is not just a physical exercise inherited from their ancestors: they say that the game strengthens the sense of cultural belonging, makes them lead a healthy lifestyle, achieve harmony with horses and develop determination in individual development.
Being constantly practiced and based on the principles of equality, Chovqan serves to connect people, teaches teamwork and helps to respect the success of others. As Chovqan practitioners note, it is important to understand that in Chovqan, the rider and his horse complement each other and form a unity. The problem arising from one part of this unity is already a threat to the whole.
In the years 2007–2008, the Azerbaijani government passed an act on the development of horse breeding and adopted the "National Horse Breeding Program", which qualified the Karabakh horse breed as endangered. The program provides long-term measures to protect horses in Karabakh as a race. These measures include pedigree analysis, gene pooling and selection, and prohibit their export or sale abroad. One of the expected results of the Karabakh horse breeding program is to increase their number by 30% in ten years, as well as to increase their participation in traditional equestrian sports.
The protection of this traditional sport is also demonstrated by the classification of Chovqan as a living cultural tradition and its inclusion in an action plan for the protection of the intangible cultural heritage in Azerbaijan (ordinance No. 259 in 2009).
On April 28, 2010, based on inventory data provided by the Chovqan group of practitioners, this traditional sport was included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Register, prepared and maintained by Azerbaijan's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, under registration number FT010100007.
Chovqan's inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List has been received with great enthusiasm by many communities in Azerbaijan. This increased interest of the sport, as well as a sense of identity, cultural belonging and recognition of the nomadic culture. This breed of horses in Karabakh is perceived as an integral part of this culture.
This inscribing was received with great enthusiasm also because it is seen as a symbol of the cultural reunion with the occupied territories, many people believe that sport was born in Karabakh. In this sense, this process strengthened the sense of cultural belonging of practitioners, many of them considered the need to leave Karabakh as a forced eviction.
Chovqan audience is increasing because the sport is gaining more popularity among young people. In 2014, the total number of spectators was estimated at 5,000-6,500, in 2016 Amateurs Karabakh Horses Association reported about 7,500-8,500 spectators coming to watch the Chovqan competition the following year.
The shortage of horses in Karabakh, best adapted to Chovqan and valued for strength and agility, remains one of the major challenges for the development of the sport. Despite the efforts of public institutions and NGOs, Karabakh horses are still very difficult to breed, which is important for keeping the breed clean.
In the 1960s, some experienced Chovqan practitioners began promoting this sport by organizing and participating in competitions at the national level. These activities lasted only a few years.
The Azerbaijan Equestrian Federation (AEF) was founded in 1996, and the Karabakh Horses Amateurs Association (KHAA) in 2006, where Chovqan practitioners are a key group, which ensures the continuity of its activities.
The main goal of Chovqan players from both organizations was to gather, on an amateur basis, players from neighboring regions around Sheki who are still practicing Chovqan and organizing competitions (regardless of the age of the players). An important aspect of organizations' activities is also passing on the Chovqan tradition by organizing training in local horse breeding centers (in total there are 4 centers).
In addition to KHAA and AEF activities, many experienced players from Chovqan have initiated their own training sessions. In Gazakh and Sheki, trainers like Rashad Samadov and Elvin Islamov organize group sessions for young Chovqan players.
Karabakh Horses’ Amateurs Association
144 A Azadlig avenue, Baku, AZ1106
Tel. (+99412) 4998622
Fax (+99412) 4998624
Azerbaijan Equestrian Federation
Bina settlement, Mardakan highway, Bina Equestrian Center, Baku AZ 1045, Azerbaijan
Tel. (+99 412) 565-31-51
Fax (+99 412) 565-31-52
Sarhadchi Equestrian Centre
Novkhani settlement, 2017
+ 994 12 448-20-17
Sources of information
● Çövkan oyunu (yarış qaydaları) (The Chovqan Game (traditional game rules)), Kirovabad, 1960.
● Akif Aliyev “Azərbaycam Milli İdman oyunlarının tarixi” (“History of traditional games of Azerbaijan”), Baku, 2001
● X. Rajabli, A.Orujov, E.Gadirov and others “Qarabağ cinsli atların Dövlət Damazlıq Kitabı” (State Gene Pool Book of Horses of Karabakh Breeds ) Baku, 2006.
● Hajibala Agayev “Azərbaycan Milli xalq oyunları” (National games of Azerbaijan), Baku, 1992
● Dadashzade Mammad “Azərbaycan xalqının orta əsr mənəvi mədəniyyəti” (Spiritual culture of the people of Azerbaijan in the Middle Ages), Bakı, 1985
● A. Sh. Hashimov, F.V. Sadiqov “Azərbaycan xalq pedaqogikası” (Azerbaijan folk pedagogic), Bakı, 1993
● Fikret Hüseynov “İgidlik və gözəllik oyunları” (Bravery and beauty games), Bakı, 1966
● Fikret Hüseynov “Azərbaycan atçıları və atüstü milli oyunlar” (Azerbaijani Horsemen and National Horse Riding Games), Ecology printing house, Ganja, 1998.
● Kh. Agayeva, 1976, “Gənclər at çapmağı sevirlər” (Youth is good at galloping), İdman newspaper, N 55
● A. Guliyev, 1970, “Cıdır meydanında” (“On the racing field”), Sovet kəndi newspaper, N 76, 30 June, page 1
● Parviz Aliyev, 1983, “Yürüş ənənəvi olacaq” (“Competition will be legendary”), İdman newspaper, N 123, 14 October
● Nizami Gəncəvi “Xosrov və Şirin” poeması – the Khosrov and Shirin Poem of Nizami Ganjavi
● Firdowsi Zamanov, 1972, “Qır atın şöhrətini yaşadaq” (Let us keep the rural fame alive), Kommunist newspaper, N 226, 26 September
● Ahmad Isayev, 2004, “At belində keçən ömür” (Live spent on a horse), N 58, Azerbaycan newspaper, 7 September
● Sabutay, 2008, “Çövkən - ərənlərin oyunudur” (Chovken: a game for the brave ones), Medeniyyet journal, 25 December
● Jeyhun Zarbaliyev, 2011, “Çövkən: at belində şücaət” (Chovken: courage of the horse-rider), Medeniyyet journal, 11 May