Azerbaijan: A People from the Mists of Time.

Azerbaijan’s name comes from the Persian words, azer, which means “fire” and baygan, which means “protector.” The name was first applied in ancient times to the area

Azerbaijan: A People from the Mists of Time. 1

Here, rich deposits of natural gas and oil resting close to the surface meant that, in places, the soil was actually flammable. 

A temple was built to honor what the people considered to be the powerful forces at play and many came on pilgrimages to see the wonders the site offered.

Kingdoms rose and fell throughout the centuries as competing empires and cultures vied for dominance and influence. The current country, its people, language, religion, and culture are the result of a long evolution that reflects that history. Finally gaining independence in 1991, the young nation was immediately faced with immense hurdles, economic and territorial, that continue to affect its foreign and domestic politics.

Introduction to Azerbaijan: Geohistory


Azerbaijan and its neighbors. Nagorno-Karabakh is shown in pink.

The Caucasus Mountains are a high and rugged range that ends abruptly at the Caspian and Black Sea shores. Azerbaijan, on the Caspian end of this range, has drastic elevation changes that allow its climate to range from chilly alpine at its peaks to subtropical at the coasts, all in a space about the size of the US state of South Carolina. Azerbaijan has long taken advantage of this climate diversity to grow an array of crops that today range from tobacco and cotton to vegetables and citrus fruits to grains and grapes.

Mountain ranges ring the nation and the Kura River runs through the country’s central plains and southeastern lowlands. Thus, central Azerbaijan is home to most of the nation’s arable farmland, of which it has a comparative bounty, but which is fed by a dearth of water resources when compared to other Caucuses nations. Further, poorly planned Soviet irrigation projects, meant to push the soil to greater productivity, led to erosion and high soil salinity.

Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, lies in its extreme east, filling the natural hook of the Absheron Peninsula that spikes prominently into the Caspian. This shape makes Baku one of the Caspian’s best natural ports and Azerbaijan has long drawn strategic military and economic advantage from this. Baku and its metropolitan area are home to over 2.3 million residents – one quarter of the country’s population. Much of Azerbaijan’s extensive oil and natural gas production is located on and around the peninsula with additional major points dotting the Kura River.

Although its borders are mountainous, Azerbaijan faces multiple security issues. Approximately 13% of its territory is occupied by Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway republic allied with neighboring Armenia that is defacto independent but unrecognized by the international community. Despite ongoing peace talks over two decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in an arms race over recent years as tensions escalated again.

Another 6% of Azerbaijan’s territory lies in the exclave of Nakhchivan. Although productive in agriculture and relatively rich in minerals, Nakhchivan is isolated from Azerbaijan by mountainous Armenian territory. Given the current conflict, transport between the exclave and the mainland is difficult and several mines are closed as the processing facilities that once served them are now inaccessible. Some Armenian nationalists claim that Nakhchivan is part of historical Armenia and should be reclaimed. Today, however, more than 99% of the exclave’s population is now Azerbaijani.

Azerbaijan from Pre-history to the Early 1800s

The Azerbaijani people are descended from the Caucasian Albanians. The Albanians were, along with Armenia and Georgia, once a third great Christian kingdom located in the Caucuses. However, in the great clashes between the Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Turks, the Albanians, unlike the Armenians and Georgians, were subsumed into other cultures.

This was a long process that took several centuries. While some splinter groups of Albanians merged into the Armenian and Georgian cultures, much of what had been Albania adopted Islam under the Arabs ca. 700-800 AD, a Persian language under the Persians (which became known as “Old Azeri”) by about 1100, and, beginning in the 12th century, would become “Azerbaijani Turks” when the Oghuz Turks began arriving in large numbers from Turkmenistan, on the other side of the Caspian, as part of the Mongol migrations. These same Oghuz Turks would settle as far West as the Anatolian peninsula, founding the Turkic culture of modern day Turkey. Through this evolution, the modern Azerbaijani language and culture (which are Turkic) emerged in the 16th century.

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A topographical map of Azerbaijan, showing the high mountains, deep valleys, and relatively small rivers.

In the early 16th century, the area of modern Azerbaijan was ruled by the Safavids, a Persian dynasty that originated in a Shiite religious order known as Safaviyya, named for its charismatic leader, Safi ad-Din. Safaviyya was founded in Azerbaijan. Its leaders were Kurdish and Azerbaijani. Further, Azerbaijani was an important language of religion and culture throughout the empire, although Persian remained the dominant state language. The Safavids made Shiite Islam their state religion and converted the Azerbaijanis and Iranians away from Sunnism, which is still the dominant branch of Islam among Azerbaijan’s neighbors.

The Safavids eventually crumbled under external and internal pressures. The Ottomans and Uzbeks had long been foreign threats to the west and east, and they were now joined by the Russians who began pressing into Persian possessions in the North Caucuses. In addition, the Dutch East India Company pressed Persia out of its traditional and lucrative trade routes to Africa and the Middle East. Ethnic and religious tensions were also at play as Safavid deportations of ethnic Georgians left parts of its Caucuses holdings depopulated and Safavid attempts to forcibly convert Sunni Afghans eventually led to an insurrection that led to the final destruction of the dynasty in 1736.

Although the empire was largely maintained under the Afshar and Zand Persian Dynasties, these were both short-lived and the northern territories, including the territory of modern day Azerbaijan, came to be de-facto ruled by increasingly independent Turkic khanates or tribes.

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Azerbaijan (red) lies between Turkey and Turkmenistan, two other Turkic countries. To the south lies the Middle East, which also contributed greatly to Azerbaijan’s history.

The Qajars then came to power in Persia in 1789. The Qajars were an Azerbaijani people that had played a central role under the Safavids. They raised the importance of the Azerbaijani language and culture within their new government and seemed poised to consolidate and strengthen the country. However, present-day Azerbaijan was annexed away from the Qajars by the Russians in 1813-1828, shortly after the Qajars came to power. The Qajars themselves fell in 1925 under pressure from old enemies and from political divisions that formed as the government tried to reform and rebuild its institutions to function in a more modern, international world.

Azerbaijan under the Russian Empire

As the local khanates began exercising more sovereignty, the Georgian Kingdoms of Kartli-Kakheti and Imereti, which at the time covered most of the central northern Caucuses, declared independence from Persia and became Russian protectorates in 1783. The Qajars, however, were set on rebuilding the empire and re-subjugated the Georgians in a bloody battle in 1795.

Russia wanted to maintain influence in the region, however, which they saw as a strategic launching pad from which to attack and defend against the Ottomans and Persians. Thus, in the early 1800s, a series of conflicts broke out between Russia and Persia. Russia, largely through better armaments and tactics, defeated the Persians in almost every battle and, by 1828, the Russians came to dominate nearly all of the Northern and Southern Caucuses.

The Tsar allowed the local khanates in Azerbaijan a considerable deal of autonomy until the 1870s, when Azerbiajan’s massive oil reserves were developed. Baku, where most of those reserves are, saw its population grow rapidly from 10,000 to about 250,000 as immigrants flocked to the city to work at the refineries and transit facilities. Western tycoons, such as the Rothschilds and Nobels, were invited to use Azerbaijan as a proving ground for their latest oil technologies. Baku became the terminus of the world’s first oil pipeline. The Nobel family ordered construction of the Zoroaster, the world’s first oil tanker, to carry black gold from Azerbaijan’s rich wells.

The Trans Caucasus Railroad was begun in 1865 in Poti on the Black Sea and reached Baku in 1883. The rails ensured that Russian troops could move swiftly through the rugged mountains should they be needed to defend against external or internal threats. The railroad also allowed Russia to develop the Caucasus regions economically and became another important route for transporting Baku’s oil west.

This rapid development created massive disparities between the mainly Christian, European rulers and tycoons and the mainly Muslim populace. The radical political movements of the early 20th century swept the new, impoverished urban centers. The tsarist government, to redirect aggression away from Russia, stepped up efforts to play various groups off each other, particularly the Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians, who both claimed that the other had oppressed them in their long and intertwined histories. Thus, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 saw the Azeris and Armenians fighting the Russians, the capitalists, and themselves.

Modern Azerbaijan

In 2003, Heydar Aliyev stepped down from the presidency at the age of 80. He had suffered a collapse on live television and died that same year. He was succeeded by his son, Ilham Aliyev, in an election in which international observers cited violence and vote rigging. Critics say that oppression, corruption, and electoral fraud remain widespread and that oligarchs are now the real source of political power. Reporters without Borders cites common instances of harassment or arbitrary detention for journalists in Azerbaijan.

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The Aliyevs, Heidar (right) and his son Ilham (left), have ruled Azerbaijan since 1993.

The Aliyev regime, however, is not without supporters. Ilhman Aliyev has largely continued his father’s domestic and foreign policies. While Nagorno-Karabach has remained disputed territory, fighting has been limited to brief border incidents. The conflict itself has become a source of nationalism that the government has tapped. Economically, GDP has increased nearly 10-fold since 2003 according to the World Bank. While economic development has been uneven and poverty remains a major issue, the overall economic situation has substantially improved.

The regime face approaching economic problems, however. Crude petroleum accounts for some 88 percent of the nation’s exports. With falling oil prices, GDP will fall as will government spending as revenues subside. Baku is thus pushing for economic diversification. Information technology is being developed and the tourism industry has been advertised in international mass media. Shipping and transportation is being supported, as the state hopes to grow as a hub between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Citing food security issues, the government is supporting agriculture, moving production from soil-intensive cash crops towards basic grains and produce. This may help stabilize food inflation, a common source of public discontent, as the nation’s oil-dependent currency falls in value and imports become more expensive.

Azerbaijan’s history and location have given it many advantages and many problems. Its strategic position on the hydrocarbon rich Caspian, between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are economic boons. Its turbulent history has given it a unique culture but also security issues on and within its borders. Its current political system has made friends at home and abroad, but also drawn criticism for many of its strong-handed policies implemented in the name of bringing stability to the young country. Thus, moving forward, there are many reasons to hope that Azerbaijan’s future will be bright, and many reasons to hope for continued improvement for the sake of the prosperity and freedom of the Azerbaijani people.

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