The University of Oxford will soon be home to a dedicated centre for the study of Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and Central Asia, thanks to generous philanthropic support from the British Foundation for the Study of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus (BFSAC). The gift was confirmed yesterday during a short signing ceremony at Oxford's Clarendon Building.

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and Professor Nargiz Pashayeva, Chair of the trustees of the BFSAC. Photo by Ian Wallman

The Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Centre

Although the University has a long tradition of individual scholarship in this field, it has never before had the means by which to draw this expertise together. Thanks to the foundation's generous gift however, it will now be possible for students and scholars from all over the world to collaboratively investigate and discuss the history, languages and cultures of Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and Central Asia, from ancient to modern times.

Named after the celebrated 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi, the new centre will be a joint initiative between the Faculty of Oriental Studies and the Bodleian Libraries. As such, it will play a key role in transforming Oxford into a centre of excellence for the study of this important geographical region.

Supporting students and scholars at Oxford

Within the Faculty of Oriental Studies, the foundation's gift will enable the creation of three DPhil scholarships, as well as providing support for visiting researchers, a programme of events and activities, and an administrator. It will also endow Oxford's Turkish Language Instructor post, making it possible for the faculty to introduce the teaching of Azeri – the official language of Azerbaijan – for students wishing to learn it.

Edmund Herzig, Masoumeh and Fereydoon Soudavar Professor of Persian Studies at Oxford, says: 'There is a long tradition of research on the Caucasus and Central Asia at Oxford, and of collecting books and manuscripts from the region in the Bodleian Library. Until now, however, there has never been a centre dedicated to the study of this region, which has tended to be overshadowed by the big empires and better-known countries around it.

'This gift will allow Oxford to make Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and Central Asia the focus of sustained study for the first time. It will attract the best research students and visiting researchers to work here. And it lays the foundation for further development of the field, not only in Oriental Studies, but across the University.'

Supporting acquisitions at the Bodleian

At the Bodleian Libraries, the gift will support the Subject Librarian for the Middle Eastern and Islamic Collections, making it possible for the post holder to add the Azeri language to their area of expertise. A dedicated reading room will also be created for the use of the DPhil students and visiting researchers supported by the Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Centre.

Furthermore, the BFSAC's gift will enable the Bodleian Libraries to increase its holdings of rare and important materials from Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. Being able to access funds at short notice will allow the acquisition of key items in a highly competitive market – a strategy that will prove crucial in transforming Oxford into an attractive place for scholars and students interested in this specialist field.

An academic 'Contract of the Century'

The BFSAC is the UK's first organisation devoted to the study and research of Azerbaijan's heritage and culture, including its languages, literature, arts, peoples and archaeology.

Professor Nargiz Pashayeva, Chair of the trustees of the BFSAC and Rector of the Baku branch of Moscow State University, says: 'The signing ceremony that took place at the University of Oxford is comparable to the Contract of the Century in terms of science, education and culture for Azerbaijan. As part of the Caucasus's historical heritage, Azerbaijan will gain a permanent place to be studied at this exceptional academic institution. By applying modern methodologies and approaches, future scholars will benefit from the knowledge collected here over the past nine centuries and will be at the forefront of current academic discourse.

'This proud day is dedicated to the dear memories of the people who founded the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic almost exactly 100 years ago. The creation of the first democratic republic in the Muslim world remains one of the brightest chapters of our history.'

The creation of the Nizami Ganjavi Centre builds on the success of the Nizami Ganjavi Programme at Oxford – a £1 million five-year research programme established in 2014 and designed to further the study of the languages and cultures of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. As well as providing vital support for graduate students in Oriental Studies and Archaeology, the programme has overseen the excavation of Barda in Azerbaijan, and the translation of major works of Azeri and Russian scholarship into English.