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AZERBAIJAN REPUBLIC, an independent country in western Asia, in Transcaucasia. Azerbaijan has an area of 33,440 square miles (86,600 sq km) and is bordered by Russia on the north, Georgia on the northwest, Armenia on the west, Iran on the south, and the Caspian Sea on the east (See Map 1). For general information about the Republic of Azerbaijan, see the Fact Box. The region of Iran south of the Araks River, which forms the border, is also known as Azerbaijan. The people on both sides of the border speak the same Turkic language, share the religion of Islam, and had a common history until the Russian conquest of Azerbaijan north of the Araks in the early 19th century. For general information about the Azerbaijan Republic, see the Fact Box.


Capital: Baku

Population : approx. 8 000 000

Density: 232 per square mile ( 90 per sq km )


Urban: 60 percent

Rural: 40 percent

Area: 33,440 square miles ( 86,600 sq km )


Highest point: 14,652 feet ( 4,466 meters )

Lowest point: 85 feet ( 26 meters ) below sea level

Principal language: Azeri ( Azerbaijanian Turkish )

Principal religion: Islam ( not an official religion )

Political divisions: 60 districts, 1 autonomous republic, 1 autonomous province

Currency unit: 1 Manat = 100 gapiks

National holiday: May 28, Independence Day

National anthem: Azarbayjan vatanimizsan (Azerbaijan, Our Homeland)

Azerbaijan or Azarbeijan (Azerbaijani: Azerbaycan, Azerbeycan) is historically and geographically Eurasian and stretches from the Caucasus region, which is adjacent to the Caspian Sea, to northwestern Iran. The region is something of a borderland between what is considered Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia. Azerbaijan is the ancestral home of the Azerbaijanis (Azeri Turks or Azeris, amongst other names) who number more than 8 million in the independent Republic of Azerbaijan, and about 20 million in the northwestern region of Iran referred to as Iranian Azerbaijan, or South Azerbaijan.


The heritage, culture and civilization of Azerbaijan has both ancient and modern roots starting from the Middle Paleolithic period through to the division of the region into Russian/Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijanis are believed to be the inheritors of various ancient civilizations and peoples including the indigenous Caucasian Albanians, Arattans, Mannai, Medians, and Oguz Turks among others. Perhaps to clarify who the Turkic-speaking Azeris are by way of ancestry, recent evidence from Genealogical DNA tests show that the modern Azeris genetically cluster the closest with the peoples of the Caucasus (such as the Georgians and the Lezgians), while the genetic contribution of Iranian peoples and Turkic tribes appears to be more minor than was initially expected.[1] This may be interpreted as evidence that the modern Azeris are largely the descendants of the Caucasian Albanians who then mixed with other invaders such as Medes, Scythians, Armenians, and Oghuz Turks. During Median and Persian rule, many Albanians adopted Zoroastrianism and then switched to Christianity prior to coming of Muslim Arabs and more importantly Muslim Turks. The Turkic tribes are believed to have arrived as small bands of ghazis whose conquests led to the turkification of the population as largely native Caucasian tribes adopted the Turkish language of the Oghuz and converted to Islam.

The area that now comprises the Republic of Azerbaijan and the predominantly Azeri provinces of Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Zanjan, Hamedan, Qazvin, and Markazi in Iran are viewed as historic Azerbaijan and most events relevant to the Azeri people take place in this region. The borders of ancient and modern Azerbaijan constitute a geographic area that starts at Derbent in present-day southern Dagestan (in southern Russia) and ends in Hamedan (present-day western Iran).

In the early 19th century, the historical territory of Azerbaijan was divided in half following wars fought between Russia and the Qajar Turks of Iran. The Russians annexed the northern parts of Azerbaijan, amid their expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia. Following the Turkmanchai treaty, signed in February 1828, Azerbaijan was divided along the Aras river (Araxus). The land north of the Aras river is now the Republic of Azerbaijan, and the land south of the Aras is referred to as South Azerbaijan and is under the administration of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

After more than 80 years of colonization under the Russian empire, northern Azerbaijan attained a brief period of independence in 1918, establishing the first democratic, Turkic-speaking republic, and the earliest secular state in an Islamic land. The state was invaded by Soviet forces in 1920, and remained under Soviet rule until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The Iranian portion of Azerbaijan, managed to gain autonomy twice in the 20th century; both movements were subjugated by the Iranian army. In 1937, South Azerbaijan was divided into two different provinces, and as of 2005, it is divided into the provinces of Ardebil, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Merkazi, Qazvin, Hamedan, and Zanjan by the administration of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ancient history

The cave of Azykh in the territory of the Fizuli district in the Republic of Azerbaijan is considered to be the site of one of the most ancient proto-human habitations in Eurasia. Remnants of the pre-Acheulean culture were found in the lowest layers of the Azykh cave. This culture is one of the oldest, and in many ways similar to the Olduvai culture in Tanzania, and Walloon culture in the southeast of France.

The Paleolithic (Homo Sapiens) period in Azerbaijan is represented by finds at Aveidag, Taglar, Damjily, Yatagery, Dash Salakhly and some other sites. Carved drawings etched on rocks in Qobustan, south of Baku, demonstrate scenes of hunting, fishing, labor and dancing, and are dated to the Mesolithic period. The Neolithic period (ca. 6th - 4th millennia BC) was the period of transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. Many Neolithic settlements have been discovered in Azerbaijan, and carbon-dated artifacts show that during this period, people built homes, made copper weapons, and were familiar with irrigated agriculture.

The influence of ancient peoples and civilizations including the Sumerians and Elamites came to a crossroads in the territory of Azerbaijan, and their ancient and distinct cultures still symbolize parts of Azerbaijan's modern character. The earliest written evidence of tribes inhabiting Azerbaijan (mostly in South Azerbaijan) is dated to ca. 2,300 BC. The inscriptions describe the tribes of Gutis, Lulubis, Kasis and Hurris who had civilizations in areas close to Tabriz. In particular, the Hurrian tribal union played an extremely important role in the history of the ancient east, and formed one of the great eastern civilizations. A variety of Caucasian peoples appear to be the earliest inhabitants of northern Azerbaijan with the notable Caucasian Albanians being their most prominently known representative.

In the 8th century BC, the semi-nomadic Cimmerians and Scythians settled in the territory of kingdom of Mannai. The Assyrians also had a civilization that flourished to the west of Lake Urmia in the centuries prior to creation of Media and Albania. Most of the ancient documents and inscriptions used for historical analysis of the area come from the Assyrians and from the kingdom of Urartu. In dealing with the history of Azerbaijan, most western scholars refer to Greek, Arab, Roman, and Persian sources.

Albania and Media

Ancient countries of Caucasus: Armenia, Iberia, Colchis and Albania
Ancient countries of Caucasus: Armenia, Iberia, Colchis and Albania

Throughout much of its pre-Islamic history, Azerbaijan's northern portion was what became known as the state of Caucasian Albania, and its southern portion was what became known as the state of Media Atrupatan (Atropatene).

Early Azerbaijan, at least in the north, was known as Arran and/or Albania and is the earliest known civilization of the region dating back to the 1st millennium BCE. This early culture is believed to have been dominant along the western coast of the Caspian Sea for centuries, until Hurrians and Urartu, who are possibly a related Caucasian people (such as Georgian and Abkhazians), arrived and further consolidated the role of native peoples of the Caucasus in the region. Other prominent local Caucasian tribes included the Hyperborean-related Caucasian Avars (not to be confused with the Eurasian Avars of Ural-Altaic origin) which dominated much of the region, linking it for a time to related Caucasian tribes in Dagestan. These and other Caucasian tribes are frequently mentioned by various Greek and Roman historians and geographers, including Strabo, Xenophon, and Herodotus, as the predominant groups of the region of Albania. Interestingly enough there are mentions of other more exotic tribes as Strabo, Theophanes, and Plutarch even place the warrior women known as the Amazons in ancient Caucasian Albania. An early Albanian state composed of these disparte and largely native Caucasian tribes would dominate ancient Azerbaijan until the coming of the Medes, an Indo-European-speaking tribe.

The Medes, an ancient Iranian people, led by Cyaxares conquered parts of the Caucasus region, including southern Caucasian Albania, in the 7th century BCE and incorporated it into their growing Median Empire that ultimately stretched from Asia Minor to ancient Afghanistan. Like their Persian rivals the Medes were greatly influenced by the southern kingdom of Elam that pre-dated both the Medes and the Persians. The Median Empire was ultimately quite short-lived as barely a century past before the Achaemenid dynasty of the Persian Empire arrived and conquered all of Caucasian Albania by the 6th century BCE.

Within what came to be known as Azerbaijan, the Caucasian Albanians dominated the north along the Caspian Sea, while the Medes and other Iranian tribes shaped the south. Some of these scholars also believe that Media (Mata, Media Atrupatan) and Albania (Agvan, Aran) shared similar historical characteristics due to geographic proximity. In ancient Azerbaijan the majority population before the 3rd century CE in the north consisted of tribes that spoke various Caucasian languages, while in the south Indo-European languages such as those of the Medes and various Eurasian nomads such as the Scythians were predominant. All of these civilizations were ultimately influenced by their early and later contemporaries including the Urartu, Manna, and Elamite kingdoms.

The First Persian Empire to the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Greeks

Achaemenid empire at its greatest extent
Achaemenid empire at its greatest extent

Following the overthrow of the Median Empire, all of what is today Azerbaijan was invaded by the Persian king Cyrus in the 6th century BCE. This earliest Persian Empire had a profound impact upon local population as the religion of Zoroastrianism became ascendant as did various early Persian cultural influences. Many of the local peoples of Caucasian Albania came to be known as fire worshippers, which may be a sign of their Zoroastrian faith.

This empire was also quite short-lived and was conquered barely two centuries later by Alexander the Great and led to the rise of Hellenistic culture throughout the former Persian Empire. A Median named Atropates was given autonomy to rule a semi-independent kingdom named eponymously Atropatene in what is today Azerbaijan during Alexander's reign and into the Seleucid period. The Seleucid Greeks inherited the Caucasus following Alexander's death in 323 BCE, but were ultimately beset by pressures from Rome, secessionist Greeks in Bactria, and most adversely the Parthians (Parni), another nomadic Iranian tribe from Central Asia, which made serious inroads into the northern eastern Seleucid domains from the late 4th century BCE to the 3rd century BCE and this ultimately allowed local Caucasian tribes in northern Azerbaijan to establish an independent kingdom for the first time since the Median invasion.

Independent Albania, Roman-Parthian rivalry, and Sassinian conquest

This Albanian kingdom coalesced around a native Caucasian identity and a Zoroastrian religious background to forge a unique state in a region of vast empire-states. Barely a century past however before the neighboring Armenians subjugated Albania from 95 to 66 BCE as a part of Tigranes the Great's short lived Empire, following the fall of the Hellenistic kingdoms. This state did not last as the Romans and Parthians began to expand their domains with the northern parts of Azerbaijan corresponding to most of Albania coming under the domination of Roman legions under Pompey and the south being controlled by the Parthians. A rock carving of what is believed to be the eastern-most Roman inscription survives just southwest of Baku at the site of Gobustan. It is incsribed by centurion of Roman legion at the time of emperor Domitian. The areas north of the Araks river however remained an independent Albanian state for decades prior to the 1st millennium CE, while the south changed hands between the Romans and Parthians. The now client-state of Armenia again exerted control over much of Albania under the banner of Rome as the coast of Caspian came under Armenian-Roman control from the late 1st century until 387 when the Sassinian Empire of Persia established it dominance over most of ancient Azerbaijan. During this early period, native Caucasian tribes probably remained the most numerous along with large minorities of Armenian and Scythian groups.

When Christianity arrived in ancient Azerbaijan in the 4th century CE, the main religion in Azerbaijan was Zoroastrianism and the population included, in addition to the local Albanian majority, Armenians, Iberian Georgians, and Scythians. While the southern regions under Persian control remained largely Zoroastrian with small minorities adhering to Shamanism and Buddhism, the northern region came under the Caucasian Albanians, Armenians, and Iberians of Georgia which had been converted to Christianity by the 5th century. Despite numerous conquests by the Sassinids and Byzantines, a small independent Albanian state remained in the region until the 9th century.

Iranian Azerbaijan's more eclectic religious past today includes churches in Tabriz, Urmia and Qarabaq as well as Zoroastrian fire temples are some of Azerbeijan's pre-Islamic religious monuments. At the time of the Islamic conquest, one of the terms of capitulation by the residents of Iranian Azerbaijan was an agreement by Arabs to respect the sanctity of their fire temples.

Origins of the name Azerbaijan

The name Azerbaijan is believed to be derived from Atrupatan or "Atropatena" (in its Greek form). Atrupat (Atropates) was a satrap (governor) of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, who gained the trust of Alexander the Great and was awarded the territory of south Azerbaijan as his semi-independent domain. His dynasty ruled over the principality of Atropatene for next two centuries. Hence, Atrupatan, later "Media Atrupatan" or Atropatena, the region stretching north and south of the Aras river, is believed to be named after Atrupat.

Another hypothesis suggests that the word Azerbaijan derives from Persian Azar-Baygan which literally means protector of fire (Azar for fire, and Baygan for protector) that may refer to fire temples of Zoroastrian belief in Pre-Islamic Iran. The word "Azarbaygan" has been arabized into Azarbaijan or Azerbaijan after Islamic conquest. Muslim Arabs referred to the region as "Adarbadjan" as early as IX century.

Other historians contend that Azerbaijan is a name with Turkic roots with the most common theory being that the name is corrupted form of Atrupatan.

The successive migration and settlement of Eurasian and Central Asian nomads continued to be a familiar pattern in the history of the Caucasus since ancient times, from the era of Sassanid-Persian empire to emergence of Azerbaijani Turks by the 11th century CE. In particular, groups of Huns, Khazars, Bulgars, Barsils, Sabirs, Gokturks, and Kumyks had been some of the Turkic people who invaded Azerbaijan over the centuries and helped shape its pre-Islamic past. These Turkic tribes largely vanished into the much larger native Caucasian populations around them and have left few traces of their coming. This was not the case however with the Oghuz Turks who arrived in Azerbaijan from what is today Turkmenistan in significantly larger numbers than previous Turkic invaders. Although, these Turkic tribes probably never outnumbered local Caucasian Albanians, they did convert them to Islam and the rule of the Oghuz Turks eventually transferred their language to the local population in ways similar to the Magyars in Hungary and numerous other instances of cultural assimilation. Modern Azeris place great emphasis upon their partial Turkic forebears as the modern eight-pin star in the current Azerbaijani flag represents the aforementioned eight Turkic tribes.

Many historians rely upon the historical record in order to understand the cultural transformation of pre-Turkic Azerbaijan into a Turkic-speaking region. For example, the historian Ashurbeyli in History of Azerbaijan writes that in Azerbaijan, "since antiquity there were incursions of Turkic groups from the beginning of our era which increased in the 5th to the 7th and the 9th to the 11th centuries," and also states that in the pre-Islamic period, there were elements of Caucasian and Indo-European tribes in the area as well.

In addition, Harvard Professor Richard Nelson Frye relates the following regarding the society of Media: "in Azerbaijan (Media) the Indo-European Medes were in contact with a settled majority of non-Indo European (non-Iranian) speakers represented by the Urartians, Mannaeans, Hurrians, Turks etc. possibly related to the peoples speaking 'Japhetic' languages" also spoken in the Caucasus (northern Azerbaijan, Albania)."

According to native Caucasian Albanian historian Moisey Kalankatu, in the period between 191-200 CE, hordes of Barsil and Khazar Turks crossed the Kura river. Further accounts of Turkic migration are related by Persian historian Tabari, as he describes numerous incursions into Azerbaijan by earlier Ural-Altaic tribes (Huns and Khazars) that occurred in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. Tabari also states that by the mid-6th century, there was a significant Turkic presence in Azerbaijan. Kalankatly also states that in the year 629 AD, the army of the Gokturks as well as a series of Khazar Turkic tribes entered Azerbaijan and declared the land to be "eternal possession" of Turks, however were driven out by Yazdegerd III. Byzantine sources of the mid 6th century refer to the "settlement of Khazar Turks" on the left bank of the Kura river, and Moisey Kalankatu, referred to a "Hun state" on the left bank of the Kura River in the 7th century.

These accounts of Turkic migration continue, according to the 7th century work of the Arab historian Ubeid ibn Shariyya al-Jurhumi, who explains that the Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiyah I (661-680) was informed that Azerbaijan "has long been a land of Turks. Having gathered over there, they have mixed with one another and become integrated." The Arab name of Azerbaijan was Bilad Al Qybchaq, which literally means the land of Kypchaks. Thus there are many indications that the Turks, although not necessarily of the Oghuz group, were a significant presence what became Azerbaijan by 10th and 11th centuries, even prior to Seljuk conquest. It must also be noted that the famous "Book of Dede Korkut" - the epic of the Oghuz Turks - was written in the 6th and 7th centuries, and compiled in 13 century.

Ultimately, the Turkic groups more than likely either vanished into the larger Caucasian population over time in Azerbaijan or remained somewhat autonomous and ruled the region until the coming of the Oghuz Turks. The Oghuz Turks, simply by way of language, culture and religion, appear to have made the greatest contribution to the modern ethnic identity of Azerbaijan by turkifying the local Caucasian majority and assimilating the remnants of earlier Turkic and smaller Iranian tribes to form the nationality of modern Azerbaijanis.

Islamic Azerbaijan

The Age of the Caliphs
The Age of the Caliphs

Throughout its pre-Islamic history, Azerbaijan was subject to numerous invasions, but none so profoundly influential as that of the Muslim Arabs. What is today Azerbaijan came under Muslim rule following the Arab conquest during the reign of the Caliph Omar, sometime between 639 and 643. The conversion of the local predominantly Christian population did not take place instantaneously, but took centuries. In the 7th century, in a series of conflicts that became known as the "Arab-Khazar wars", the Khazars sought to expel Arabs from lands they had previously conquered. One of the major battles fought between the Khazars and Arabs took place in the 7th century in Azerbaijan near the historic city of Ardabil, one of the largest cities of present-day South Azerbaijan, in northwestern Iran. A local historical figure named Javanshir, the last prince of Caucasian Albania in the early VIII century, is connected to the Christian resistance of the Arab invasion.

In the 9th century, the population of Azerbaijan (mainly in the South) came under the leadership of Babek (or Babak), whose forces resisted Arab rule for several decades. Babek's revolt became known as the Khurramid Movement. Although Arab garrisons were placed in several strategic towns the followers of the Khurram movement resisted their control for over 20 years. Eventually, Babek was betrayed by one of his closest generals, captured and publicly executed in 835. The story of Babek remains popular in contemporary Azerbaijan (particularly in Northern Azerbaijan) as he is considered a national hero.

During the course of Arab rule, various inhabitants of Azerbaijan converted to Islam for various reasons including the desire to avoid paying the jizya or head tax required from non-Muslims, while many elites converted to attain greater political power and still others were swayed by sufis and their philosophical and more congenial interpretation of Islam. Azerbaijan experienced two centuries of stability and even prosperity during the Arab period and eventually Arab rule was replaced by local islamicized elites, such as Mazyadids in Aran, who eventually went on to form the independent state of the Shirvanshahs.

Seljuqs and successor states

The Seljuq period of Azerbaijan's history was possibly even more pivotal than the Arab conquest as it helped shape the ethno-linguistic nationality of the modern Azerbaijani Turks.

After decline of Abbasid Khalifate, the territory of Azerbaijan was under the sway of numerous dynasties such as the Salarids, Sajids, Shaddadids, and Buyids. However at the beginning of the 11th century, the territory was gradually seized by waves of Oghuz Turkic tribes emanating from Central Asia. The first of these Turkic dynasties was the Ghaznavids from northern Afghanistan, who took over part of Azerbaijan by 1030. They were followed by the Seljuqs, a western branch of the Oghuz who conquered all of Iran and the Caucasus and pressed on to Iraq where they overthrew the Buyids in Baghdad in 1055.

The Seljuqs became the main rulers of a vast empire that included all of Iran, Iraq, and Azerbaijan until the end of XII century. During the Selquq period, the influential vizier of the Seljuq sultans, Nizam ul-Mulk (a noted Persian academic) is noted for having helped introduce numerous educational and bureaucratic reforms. His death in 1092 marked the beginning of the decline of the once well-organized Seljuq state that further deteriorated following the death of Sultan Ahmed Sanjar in 1153.

Locally, Seljuq posessions were ruled by Atabeqs, who were technically vassals of the Seljuq sultans, but sometimes became de-facto rulers themselves. The title of Atabeg was common during the Seljuq rule of the Middle East starting in the 12th century. Under their rule from the end of 12th to early 13th centuries, Azerbaijan emerged as an important cultural center of the Turkic people. Palaces of the Atabeq Ildegizids and the Shirvanshahs hosted distinguished people of the time, many of whom were outstanding Muslim artisans and scientists. The most famous of the Atabeg rulers was Shams al-din Ildeqiz.

Great progress was achieved in different sciences and philosophy by the likes of Bakhmanyar, Khatib Tabrizi, Shikhabaddin Sukhrawardi and others. Poets such as Nizami Ganjavi and Khaqani Shirvani, epithomize the highest point in refined medieval Persian and Azeri literature. In addition, the region experience a building boom and the unique of architecture of the Seljuq period is epitomized by the fortress walls, mosques, schools, mausoleums, and bridges of Baku, Ganja and Absheron which were built during the 12th century.

In 1225, the Shakh of Khorezm Jalaladdin put an end to the Atabeg State.

Mongols and Ilkhanid rule

Khanates of Mongolian Empire: Il-Khanate, Chagatai Khanate, Empire of the Great Khan (Yuan Dynasty), Golden Horde
Khanates of Mongolian Empire: Il-Khanate, Chagatai Khanate, Empire of the Great Khan (Yuan Dynasty), Golden Horde

The Mongol invasion of the Middle East and Caucasus was a devastating event for Azerbaijan and most of its neighbors. In 1231, the Mongols occupied most of Azerbaijan and killed the Khorezmshah Jalaladdin, who had overthrown the Atabeg dynasty. In 1235 the Mongols destroyed cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Tovuz, Shabran on their way to conquer Kievan Russia.

Following the break-up of the Mongol dominions, the Ilkhanid state was formed in South Azerbaijan and upon his return from the conquest of Baghdad and Khalifate in 1258, Hulegu Khan of the Ilkhan Mongols, chose the Azeri city of Maragheh as his capital. At about this time, a factional struggle between the Ilkhans and the rival Mongols of the Golden Horde raged on and off for the next 150 years. When Hulegu's successor Abaqa ascended the Ilkhanid throne, he moved the capital of the empire from Maragheh to another Azeri city, Tabriz.

During this period, Nasir-ad din Tusi (1201-1274), a noted scientist and philosopher helped to erect the renowned astronomical observatory at Maragha. A major library, reported to have contained perhaps 400,000 volumes, was attached to the Maragha observatory (built 1258-1261).

The end of Mongol rule and the Black Sheep-White Sheep rivalry

The last Il-khanid ruler, Abu Sa'id, died without an heir which led to the Ilkhan state's disintegration into small sultanates. The next state in the territory of Azerbaijan, in the 1330s, was that of the Jalayirids, who ruled Iraq, western Persia, and most of Azerbaijan. The Jalayirid Sultanate lasted about fifty years, until it was disrupted by Tamerlane's conquests and the revolts of the Kara Koyunlu or 'Black Sheep Turks'.

The first Jalayirid ruler was Hasan Buzurg (d. 1356) who ascended the throne in Tabriz in 1337. His son Shaikh Uvais defeated his most serious potential rivals, the Chobanids (descendants of Amir Coban (Chobanids)) to consolidate his rule. He reigned over Azerbaijan from 1360 to 1374 during a period of peace and stability. After the rule of the weak Sultan Husain, the Jalayrid state declined.

Tamerlane (Amir Timur) launched a devastating invasion of Azerbaijan in 1380s, and temporarily incorporated Azerbaijan into his vast domain that spanned much of Eurasia. The Shirvanshah state under Shirvanshah Ibrahim I were also vassals of Timur and assisted Timur in his war with the Mongol ruler Tokhtamysh of the Golden Horde. Azerbaijan experienced social unrest and religious strife during this period due to sectarian conflict initiated by Hurufi, Bektashi and other movements.

Following Timur's death in 1405, his fourth son Shah-Rukh came to power and reigned until 1446. To the west of Shah-Rukh's domain two new rival Turkic states emerged - the Kara Koyunlu based around Lake Van and the Ak Koyunlu (or White Sheep Turks) centered around Diyarbakir. Initially, it was the Kara Koyunlu who were ascendant when their chief Kara Yusuf overcame Sultan Ahmad, the last of Jalayirids, and conquered South of Azerbaijan in 1410, establishing his capital at Tabriz. Under Jahan-Shah, the Kara Koyunlu expanded their territory into central Iran and as far east as Khurasan. Later, however, the Ak Koyunlu came into greater prominence under Uzun Hasan, overcoming Jahan-Shah and the Qara Qoyunlu in 1468. Uzun Hasan ruled all of Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq until his death in 1478. Both Ak Koyunlu and Kara Koyunlu, continued the Timurid tradition of generous patrons of literature, poetry and the arts as the renowned Islamic miniature paintings of Tabriz illustrate.

The local Shirvanshahs

The role of the Shirvanshah state was important in the national development of Azerbaijan (especially of northern Azerbaijan). The Shirvanshahs maintained a high degree of autonomy as local rulers and vassals from 861 until 1539, and provided a continuity that lasted longer than any other dynasty in the Islamic world. There are two periods of an independent Shirvan state: first in 12th century, under sultans Manuchehr and Ahsitan who built the stronghold of Baku, and second in 15th century under the Derbendid dynasty. Between the 13th and 14th centuries, the Shirvanshahs were vassals of the Mongol and Timurid empires.

The Shirvanshahs Khalilullah I and Farrukh Yassar presided over a highly stable period in the history of the dynasty. The architerctural complex of the "Shirvanshah palace" in Baku (that was also a burial site of the dynasty) and the Halwatiyya Sufi Khaneqa were built during the reign of these two rulers in the mid-15th century. The Shirvanshah rulers were more or less Orthodox Sunni, and thus opposed the heterodox Shi'ism of the Safavid Sufi order. In 1462 Sheykh Junayd, the leader of Safavids was killed in battle against Shirvanishans, near town of Khachmaz - an event that shaped subsequent Safavid actions leading to a new phase in the history of Azerbaijan.

Safavids and the rise of Shi'ism in Azerbaijan

Main article: Safavids
Shah Abbas I of Safavid at a banquetDetail from a celing fresco; Chehel Sotoun palace; Isfahan
Shah Abbas I of Safavid at a banquet
Detail from a celing fresco; Chehel Sotoun palace; Isfahan

The Safavid (Safaviyeh) were a Sufi religious order formed in 1330s by Sheikh Safi Al-Din (1252 - 1334), after whom it was eponymously named.

This Sufi order openly converted to the heterodox branch of twelver Shi'ism by the end of the 15th century. Some Safavid followers, most notably the Qizilbash Turks, believed in the mystical and esoteric nature of their rulers and their relationship to the house of Ali, and thus, were zealously predisposed to fight for them. The Safavid rulers claimed to be descended from Ali himself and his wife Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, through the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. Qizilbash numbers increased by the 1500s and their generals were able to wage a successful war against the Ak Koyunlu state and capture Tabriz.

In May 1501, a young Safavid prince, Ismail I declared Tabriz his capital and himself the Shah of Azerbaijan. Ismail I continued to expand his base in northwestern Iran, sacking Baku in 1501 and persecuting the Shirvanshahs. Throughout the rest of the decade Ismail I further expanded his territory by taking Hamadan in 1503, Shiraz and Kerman in 1504, Najaf and Karbala in 1507, Van in 1508, Baghdad in 1509, and Khorasan and Herat in 1510. However, Ismail I suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Ottomans at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, which severely set back the Safavids. Ismail I was also a distinguished Azeri poet under the pen name of Khatai. He promoted use of Turkish at court and favored his Azeri Qizilbash tribesmen over the Persian beaurcracy.

During the reign of Ismail I and his son Tahmasp, Shia Islam was imposed upon the formerly Sunni population of Iran and Azerbaijan. However, Shi'ism did have a strong presence in South Azerbaijan, flourishing under different Mongol dynasties. Imposition of Shi'ism was especially harsh in Shirvan, where a large Sunni population was massacred. Iran became a feudal theocracy during this period and the Shah was held to be the divinely ordained head of state and religion. During this period, the Qizilbashi chiefs were designated wakils (or legal administrators) with offices in charge of provincial administration and the class of Shia Islamic Ulema was created.

The wars with the Sunni Ottoman Empire continued during the reign of Shah Tahmasp. The wars forced the Shah to move the capital from Tabriz, which was constantly being attacked by Ottoman troops, to the interior of Iran, specifically the city of Qazvin in 1548. The important Azeri cites of Shamakha, Ganja and Baku were occupied by Ottomans in the 1580s. These events marked the beginning of the decline of Azerbaijan within the Safavid state as Tabriz, a capital city for nearly 400 years, was never able to recover its previous status.

Under the reign of Shah Abbas I (1587 - 1630) the monarchy took on a distinctly Persian national identity that merged with Shi'ism. Abbas I's reign represented the high point of development of the state and he was able to repel the Ottomans and re-capture Azerbaijan and Shirvan in 1603.

Azerbaijan continued to decline after the reign of Shah Abbas as the Safavids divided the territory of Azerbaijan into four Beklerbekliks, or administrative areas: Tabriz, Shukhursada (Nakhchivan), Shirvan and Qarabaq. These were previously ruled by Qizilbash wakils, who were being replaced by a Persian aristocracy.

Except for Shah Abbas II, the Safavid rulers after Abbas I were often incapable rulers. The end of Abbas II's reign in 1666 marked the beginning of the end of the Safavid dynasty. By 1722 an Afghan army marched across eastern Iran, besieged, and sacked Isfahan and proclaimed a Ghilzai tribesman Mahmud (of the Hotaki Pashtuns) the 'Shah' of Iran. This marked the end of the Safavid dynasty in both Iran and Azerbaijan.

Independent Khanates in the 18th century

While civil conflicts took hold in Iran, most of Azerbaijan was occupied by the Ottomans in the 18th century. Meanwhile, the coastal strip along the Caspian Sea comprising Derbent, Baku and Salyan came under Imperial Russian rule, during the reign of Peter the Great, from 1722 until 1735.

After the collapse of the Safavid empire, Nadir Shah Afshar (Nadir Guli Bey), a former slave who had risen to military leadership within the Afshar Turkoman tribe in Khorasan (a vassal state of the Safavids) came to power. He wrested control over Iran from the Afghans in 1729 and proceeded to go on an ambitious military spree, conquering as far as east as Delhi, but not fortifying his Persian base and exhausted his army. Nadir had effective control under Shah Tahmasp II and then ruled as the Regent of the infant Abbas III, until 1736, when he had himself crowned as Shah. The coronation of Nadir Shah took place in Mugan, in the present territory of Azerbaijan, where the Azeri military and tribal aristocracy gathered.

After Nadir Shah's assassination 10 years later in 1747, Iran and Azerbaijan both disintegrated. Several independent states called khanates emerged within Azerbaijan and Shirvan. Northern Azerbaijani khanates included Shamakha, Quba Khanate, Ganja, Shaki, Baku Khanate, Talysh, Nakhchivan, and other smaller city-states. Iranian Azerbaijan included the Tabriz, Khoi, Ardabil, Maku, and Maragha khanates. They were engaged in constant warfare. The most powerful entity amongst the northern khanates was the Quba Khanate, under the Fath Ali Khan (d 1783). Fath Ali Khan managed to unite most of Shirvan and Aran under his rule and even mounted an expedition to take Tabriz and fought the Zand dynasty. However, Russian and Ottoman intervention and constant internecine strife prevented the formation of a Azeri unified state.

By 1796, Agha Muhammed Khan Qajar raided and conqured Azerbaijan and Georgia. Some khanates made the fateful decision to ask for Russian help, while other Azeris were content with Qajar rule. However, the Russians, who by this time controlled Georgia, had already subjugated most of the khanates in Northern Azerbaijan by 1806. The Qajars responded to these events by declaring war, which continued until 1813 when Russians invaded Tabriz.

The Partition of Azerbaijan

Following their defeat by Russia, Qajar Iran was forced to sign the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813, which acknowledged the loss of the territory to Russia. Local khanates were either abolished (like in Baku or Ganja) or accepted Russian patronage. Another Russian-Iranian war in 1826-28 resulted in another crushing defeat for the Iranian army. The Russians dictated another final settlement as per the Treaty of Turkmenchay, which split Azerbaijan's territory with the Qajars of Persia in 1828. The treaty established the current borders of Azerbaijan and Iran as the rule of local Azeri khans ended. In Northern Azerbaijan, two provinces were established that later consituted the bulk of modern Republic - Elisavetpol (Ganja) province in the west, and Shamakha province in the east. From this period forward, North and South Azerbajan evolved in different cultural and political directions.

Russian Empire

At the beginning of Russian administration, the Tsars did not significantly interfere with local affairs and the migration of the Christian population into Azerbaijan was minimal. As a result of a catastrophic earthquake in 1858, the capital of the eastern province was transferred from Shamakha to Baku which attained greater importance over time.

The discovery and exploitation of petroleum in the 1870s led to a period of unprecedented prosperity and growth in the years prior to World War I but also created huge disparities in wealth between the largely European capitalists and the local Muslim work force. By 1900 population of Baku increased from 10,000 to roughly 250,000 people as a result of worker migration from all over the Russian Empire, Iran and other places. The growth of Baku and progression of an exploitative economy resulted in the emergence of an Azeri nationalist intelligencia that was educated and influenced by European and Ottoman ideas. Influential thinkers like Zardabi, Mirza Fatali Akhundov and later, Mammadguluzade, Mirza Alakbar Sabir, Nariman Narimanov and others spurred a nationalist discourse and rallied against poverty, ignorance, extremism and sought reforms in education and the emancipation of the dispossessed classes, including women. The financial support of philanthropist millionaires such as Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev also bolstered the rise of an Azeri bourgeoisie.

Following the disastrous Russo-Japanese war, an economic and political crisis erupted in Baku, starting with a general strike of oil workers in 1904. In 1905, class and ethnic tensions resulted in Muslim-Armenian ethnic rioting during the first Russian Revolution. The Tsarist governments had, in fact, exploited ethnic and religious strife to maintain control in a policy of divide and rule.

The situation improved during 1906-1914, when a limited parliamentary system was introduced in Russia and Muslim MPs from Azerbaijan were actively promoting Azeri interests. In 1911 the Musavat Party, inspired by the left of centre modernizing ideology espoused by Mammed Amin Rasulzade, was formed. Founded clandestinely, the party expanded rapidly in 1917, after the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in Russia. The most essential components of the Musavat ideology were secularism, nationalism, and federalism, or autonomy within a broader political structure. However, the party's right- and left-wings differed on certain issues, most notably land distribution. The leader of the party was the left-leaning Mammed Amin Rasulzade.

After Russia became involved in World War I, social and economic tensions spiked again. The Russian Revolution of 1917 ultimately led to the granting of rights to the local population of Azerbaijan and the granting of self rule, but this autonomy also led to renewed ethnic confict between Azeris and Armenians.

Independence and The Civil War

At the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, an independent republic was proclaimed in Ganja on May 28, 1918 following an abortive attempt to establish a federal Transcaucasian Republic with Armenia and Georgia. In Baku, however, a coalition of Bolsheviks, Dashnaks and Mensheviks fought against a Turkish-Islamic army led by Nuru Pasha. This coalition known as the "Baku Commune" also inspired or tacitly condoned the massacres of local Muslims by well-armed Dashnak-Armenian forces. This coalition, however, collapsed and was replaced by a British-controlled Diktatura Tsentrokaspiya government in July, 1918. British forces under General Dunsterville occupied Baku and helped the mainly Dashnak-Armenian forces to defend the capital. However, Baku fell on September 15, 1918 and an Azeri-Ottoman army entered the capital, causing British forces and much of the Armenian population to flee. The Ottoman Empire, however, capitulated on November 30, 1918 and the British occupational force re-entered Baku.

Azerbaijan was proclaimed a secular republic and its first parliamient opened on December 5, 1918. British administration initially did not recognize the Republic but tacitly cooperated with it. By mid-1919 the situation in Azerbaijan had more or less stabilized, and British forces left in August, 1919. However by early 1920, advancing Bolshevik forces, victorious in Russian Civil War, started to pose a great threat to young republic, which also engaged in a conflict with Armenia over the Karabakh enclave.

Azerbaijan received de facto recognition by the Allies as an independent nation in January 1920 at the Versailles Paris Peace Conference. The republic was governed by five cabinets, all formed by a coalition of the Musavat and other parties including the Socialist Bloc, the Independents, the Liberals, the Social-Democratic Party Hummat (or Endeavor) Party and the Conservative Ittihad (Union) Party. The premier in the first three cabinets was Fatali Khan Khoyski; in the last two, Nasib Yusufbayli. The president of the parliament, Alimardan Topchubashev, was recognized as the head of state. In this capacity he represented Azerbaijan at the Versailles Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Aided by Azeri dissidents in the Republican government, the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan on April 28, 1920. It met with almost no resistance since the bulk of the newly formed Azerbaijani army was engaged in putting down an Armenian revolt that had just broken out in Karabakh. The same day a Soviet government was formed under Nariman Narimanov. Before the year was over, the same fate had befallen Armenia, and, in March 1921, Georgia as well.

Soviet Azerbaijan 1920-1941

After the surrender of the pro-British national government to Communist forces, Azerbaijan was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic on April 28, 1920. Although, formally an independent state, the Azerbaijan SSR was dependent upon and controlled by the government in Moscow. It was incorporated into the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic along with Armenia and Georgia in March 1922. By an agreement signed in December 1922, the TSFSR became one of the four original republics of the Soviet Union. The TSFSR was dissolved in 1936 and its three regions became separate republics within the USSR.

Like other union republics, Azerbaijan, was affected by Stalin's purges in the 1930s. During this period, sometimes referred to as the Red Terror, thousands of people were killed, including notable Azeri figures such as Ahmad Javid, Mikail Mushvig, Ruhulla Akhundov, Ayna Sultanova and others. Directing the purges in Azerbaijan was Mir Jafar Baghirov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, who followed Stalin's orders without question. His special target was the intelligentsia, but he also purged Communist leaders who had sympathized with the opposition or who might have once leaned toward Pan-Turanism or had contacts with revolutionary movements in Iran or Turkey.

World War II

During the 1940s, the Azerbaijan SSR supplied much of the Soviet Union's gas and oil during the war with Nazi Germany and was thus a strategically important region. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 reached the Greater Caucasus in July 1942, but the Germans never crossed into the territory of Azerbaijan. While many Azerbaijanis fought well in the ranks of the Soviet Army (about 600-800,000), at least 35,000 prisoners of war joined the German forces and were used both in combat and in the rear. About 400,000 Azeris died in WWII. The Germans also made fruitless efforts to enlist the cooperation of emigre political figures, most notably Mammed Amin Rasulzade.

An event that impacted Azerbaijan was the Soviet occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan in the summer of 1941. The Soviet military presence south of the Aras led to a revival of Pan-Azerbaijani nationalism. During the Soviet occupation a revival of the Azerbaijani literary language, which had largely been supplanted by Persian, was promoted with the help of writers, journalists, and teachers from Soviet Azerbaijan. In November 1945, with Soviet backing, an autonomous "Azerbaijan People's Government" was set up at Tabriz under Jafar Pishevari, the leader of the Azerbaijani Democratic Party. Cultural institutions and education in Azerbaijani blossomed throughout Iranian Azerbaijan, and speculation grew rife about a possible unification of the two Azerbaijans, under Soviet control. As it turned out, the issue of Iranian Azerbaijan became one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, and under pressure by the Western powers, the Soviet army was withdrawn. The Iranian government regained control over Iranian Azerbaijan by the end of 1946 and Democratic Party leaders took refuge in Soviet Azerbaijan. Jafar Pishevari, who was never fully trusted by Stalin, soon died under mysterious circumstances.

Soviet Union, 1945-1991

For further information see Azerbaijan SSR

Policies of de-Stalinization and improvement after the 1950s led to better education and welfare conditions for most of Azerbaijan. This also coincided with the period of rapid urbanization and industrialization. During this period of change, a new anti-Islamic drive and return to a policy of Russification, under the policy of sblizheniye (reapprochment), was instituted in order to merge all the peoples of the U.S.S.R. into a new monolithic Soviet nation.

In the 1960s, signs of a structural crisis in the Soviet colonial system began to emerge. Azerbaijan's crucial oil industry lost its relative importance in the Soviet economy, partly because of a shift of oil production to other regions of the Soviet Union and partly because of the depletion of known oil resources on land, while offshore production was not deemed cost effective. As a result, Azerbaijan had the lowest rate of growth in productivity and economic output among the Soviet republics, with the exception of Tajikistan. Ethnic tensions, particularly between Armenians and Azerbaijanis began to grow, but violence was suppressed. In an attempt to end the growing structural crisis, the government in Moscow appointed Heidar Aliyev as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in 1969. Aliyev temporarily improved economic conditions and promoted alternative industries to the declining oil industry, such as cotton. He also consolidated the republic's ruling elite, which now consisted almost entirely of ethnic Azeris, thus reverting the previous trends at "reapprochment". In 1982 Aliyev was made a member of the Communist Party's Politburo in Moscow, the highest position ever attained by an Azerbaijani in the former Soviet Union. In 1987, when Perestroika started, he was forced to retire by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reform policies he opposed.

The late 1980s, during the Gorbachov era, were characterized by increasing unrest in the Caucasus, initially over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. A political awakening came in February 1988 with the renewal of the ethnic conflict, which centered on Armenia's demands for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh (Qarabag) with Armenia. Armenians expelled hundreds of thousands of Azeris from Karabakh and Armenia by March 1988, while pogroms of the Armenian population in Baku and Sumgait took place. Russia forced enforced military rule on several occasions but unrest continued to spread.

The ethnic strife revealed the shortcomings of the Communist Party as a champion of national interests, and, in the spirit of glasnost, independent publications and political organizations began to emerge. Of these organizations, by far the most prominent was the People's Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), which by the fall of 1989 seemed poised to take power from the Communist Party. The PFA soon experienced a split between a conservative-Islamic wing and a moderate wing. The split was followed by an outbreak of anti-Armenian violence in Baku and intervention by Soviet troops.

Unrest culminated in violent confrontation when Soviet troops killed 190 nationalist demonstrators in Baku on January, 20 1990. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the USSR on August 30, 1991, and became part of the Commonwealth of Independent States. By the end of 1991 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh had escalated into a full scale war, which culminated into a tense cease-fire that has persisted into the 21st century. Although a cease-fire was achieved, the refusal to negotiate by both sides resulted in a stalemate as Armenian troops retained their positions in Karabakh as well as corridors taken from Azerbaijan that connect the enclave to Armenia.

Independent Azerbaijan 1991-2005

The declaration of independence was followed by the dissolution of the Communist Party, although most of its membership retained their socio-political positions. The last party secretary, Ayaz N. Mutalibov, was elected president of the republic in September 1991, and the Supreme Soviet formally implemented the declaration of independence on October 18. Meanwhile, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh continued despite efforts to negotiate a settlement. Early in 1992, Karabakh's Armenian leadership proclaimed an independent republic. In what was now a full scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Armenians gained the upper hand, with covert assistance from the Russian Army. Major atrocities were committed by both sides, with the Khojaly massacre of Azeri civilians having particular relevance to the Azeri side.

Mutalibov's failure to build up an adequate army, that he feared may not remain under his control, brought about the downfall of his government. In March 1992 the supreme court forced him to resign, after the fall of the town of Shusha. New presidential elections were held in June 1992. The former Communists failed to present a viable candidate and Abulfaz Elchibey, the leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan(PFA) and former dissident and political prisoner, was elected president with more than 60% of the vote. His program included opposition to Azerbaijan's membership in the CIS, closer relations with Turkey, and a desire for extended links with the Azerbaijanis in Iran.

Heydar Aliyev, who had been prevented from running for president by an age limit of 65, was doing well in Nakhichevan. He had to contend with an Armenian blockade of Nakhichevan. In turn, Armenia suffered when Azerbaijan halted all rail traffic into and out of Armenia, cutting most of its land links with the outside world. The negative economic effects of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict seemed to illustrate the interdependence of the Transcaucasian nations.

Within a year after his election, President Elchibey came to face the same situation that had led to the downfall of Mutalibov. The fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh steadily turned in favor of the Armenians, who seized around one fifth of Azerbaijan's territory, creating more than a million internally dispaced persons. A military rebellion against Elchibey broke out in early June 1993 in Ganja under the leadership of Colonel Surat Huseynov. The PFA leadership, found itself without political support as a result of the war's setbacks, a steadily deteriorating economy, and opposition from groups led by Heydar Aliyev. In Baku, Aliyev seized the reigns of power and quickly consolidated his position. A referendum in August deprived Elchibey of his post. On the 3rd of October 1993 a presidential election was held, and Aliyev won overwhelmingly.

By March 1994, Aliyev was able to get rid of some of his opposition including Surat Huseynov, who was arrested along with other rivals. In 1995, the former military police were accused of plotting a coup and disbanded. Coup plotters were linked to right wing Turkish nationalists. Later, in 1996 Rasul Guliyev, former speaker of parlament went into self-imposed exile. Thus, by end of 1996, position of Heydar Aliyev as an absolute ruler in Azerbaijan was unquestionable.

As a result of limited reforms and the signing of the so-called "Contract of The Century" in October 1994 (over Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli giant oil field), the economy started to improve due to increased oil exports to the western markets. However, extreme levels of corruption and nepotism in the state system created by Aliyev prevented Azerbajian from more sustained development, especially in the non-oil sector.

In October 1998, Aliev was re-elected as president for a second term, amid weakened opposition accusing him of voter fraud. His second term in office was characterized by stalled reforms, but also, increased oil production and the dominance of BP as a main foreign oil company in Azerbaijan. In early 1999, a giant gas field, Shah Deniz was discovered making Azerbaijan potentially a major gas exporter. A gas export agreement was signed with Turkey by 2003. Work on a long awaited Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline started in 2003.

Heydar Aliyev became ill and, in April 2003, collapsed on-stage and could not return to public life. By summer 2003 he was placed into intensive care in the US where he was pronounced dead on December 12, 2003. In yet another controversial election, his son Ilham Aliyev was elected president. The elections were characterized by mass violence and were criticised by foreign observers.

Currently, the political situation in Azerbaijan remains uncertain, although entrenced elites are being forced to democratize under Western (mainly EU) pressure. The proclaimed goal of Azerbaijan's leadership is to integrate with Europe and peacefully reclaim Karabakh.