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Chovqan, a traditional Karabakh horse-riding game in the Republic of Azerbaijan

Chovqan is a traditional horse-riding game played on a flat, grassy field by two competing teams of players mounted on Karabakh horses. Each team has five riders, with two fullbacks and three forwards. The game starts at the centre of the field and players use wooden mallets to try to drive a small leather or wooden ball into their opponents’ goal. The game is interspersed with instrumental folk music called ''janghi''. Chovqan players and trainers are all local male farmers and skilled riders. They traditionally wear large astrakhan hats, long tight-fitting coats with a high waist, and special trousers, socks and shoes. People of all ages come to watch this traditional game and to support their teams. 

Chovqan is the predecessor of modern polo. The word “chovqan” has a Turkic origin which means “to strike, waving a stick”. Historians believe that chovqan was born in the middle of the first millennium and was popular in Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and neighboring countries for several centuries.

There’s documentary evidence in Azerbaijan showing that chovqan was popular on its soil. During archeological excavations near Beylagan, which is located in the south-east of Azerbaijan, a vessel depicting images of the game was found. This discovery confirms the existence of the game in Beylagan in the ХI century.  The chovqan game is mentioned in prominent Azerbaijani poet and thinker’s poem “Khosrov and Shirin”, as well as in the epic “Kitabi Dede Gorgud”. Miniatures to the “Khosrov and Shirin” poem dated to the ХI century, as well as Tabriz miniatures, illustrate different scenes of the game. Detailed descriptions of the rules of the game are also found in ancient manuscripts. 

     Historically chovqan was widely played by Azerbaijan’s aristocracy and members of Shah’s family. The game required specially trained quick and short horses, which is why it was so popular in Karabakh where breeders concentrated on producing best breeds of horses, including the famous Karabakh breed. Karabakh horses stand out because of their beauty, grace, and how suitable they are for chovqan. The first international chovqan competition among Middle East countries took place in ХII century in Baghdad.

Through the Great Silk Road, chovqan became popular in India. In ХII century the game spread to Europe, and later to America where it gained wide popularity. The British gave it the name “polo” and included it, in 1900, in the II Olympic Games held in Paris.

During the Soviet period, chovqan competitions were often held in Karabakh and other regions of Azerbaijan. They were routinely included in festivals at national and union level. In Karabakh, chovqan was popular up until the ‘80s of the last century.  

The game was revived in 2000s, when the talks about the need to reintroduce the game started to raise its actuality. In 2006, teams from eight regions of the country competed for the President’s Cup. In September 2013, Polo World Cup was held in Baku. An exhibition game between the polo team and the chovqan team of Azerbaijan was held on the margins of the event. National chovqan tournaments are being held in many part of Azerbaijan to date. 

The emerging causes of the recent years that removed the game from the native lands, as well as the challenges in breeding Karabakh horses, which make it difficult to preserve this entertaining game raised the need for its safeguarding. “Chovqan, a traditional Karabakh horse-riding game in the Republic of Azerbaijan” was inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding at the 8thsession of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2-8 December, 2013, Baku, Azerbaijan).The inscription itself proves the damage caused to the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan by the perpetrators.