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  • Writer's picturePolymath Weekly

Legacy in the shadows: the story of Natavan

I often find myself contemplating why so many historical figures who, during their lifetime, shone with ambition and brilliance, ended up left out of modern mainstream historical dialogue. In plain terms, three key aspects come into play as we let certain people into the spotlight: the scale of impact, the nature of the achievement (good, bad, etc.), and the enduring legacy.

Setting aside the scale of impact, reflecting on the concept, I like to highlight the symbolic dimensions of a person's legacy (going beyond the practical implications); when illustrating how the idea manifests in reality, I always have one specific person at the front of my mind.

Portrait of Khurshidbanu Natavan (1832-1897), unknown date [Credit: Oqtay Sadikhzade, National Museum of Art of Azerbaijan]

While widely recognized among Middle Eastern literary scholars as a gifted author of her deeply personal ghazals centered around the themes of love, longing, and beauty,

19th-century Khurshidbanu Natavan's impact on her community stretched beyond her poetic craft.

The sole heir to her father's extensive properties, including over a thousand households and several villages surrounding her hometown of Shusha, Natavan would emerge as a distinctive driving force in the socio-cultural development of the Karabakh khanate (one of the numerous smaller semi-independent states that now make up much of modern Azerbaijan).

After delving into Natavan's life and literary work a few years ago, I drew remarkable inspiration from her ability to radiate empathy and resilience in scholarly and philanthropic endeavors, including establishing the first inclusive literary societies in Azerbaijan and laying the first aqueduct in her hometown of Shusha. So while Khurshidbanu is often addressed by her pen name, Natavan ("powerless" in Farsi), which she adopted later in her life as she crumbled under the pressure of the alleged unhappiness in her family, loss of her teenage son and systemic patriarchy, she has lived to embody the complete opposite.

While Natavan's name may not echo as loudly as those of Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, or Marie Curie, her enduring literary legacy, profound community impact, and resilient spirit contribute to a broader truth. Within the narratives of these exceptional women lies a number of invaluable insights into reshaping the course of history for the better, be it in their local community or the world. All that remains is to cast their stories into the spotlight.


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