views updated


PRONUNCIATION: ah-zer-bye-JAHN-eez
LOCATION: Azerbaijan; Iran
POPULATION: Estimated about 40-45 million worldwide: Republic of Azerbaijan, 8.2 million; Iran, estimated 30 million; Georgia, Dagestan, Russia, China, Iraq, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom, Canada, United States and Australia.
LANGUAGE: Azeri (also called Azerbaijani)
RELIGION: Islam (majority); Christianity (Orthodox and Evangelical); Judaism


The word Azerbaijan means "land of fire." Even today, it is possible to find places in Azerbaijan where fires ignite and burn spontaneously on the surface of the earth. These fires seem to burn eternally because they are fed by gas that seeps through cracks in the surface of the earth. The fires indicate that this land has vast oil reserves deep beneath the surface of the earth; geologists and geophysicists are discovering that Azerbaijan has more oil hidden below its surface than ever imagined before.

Azerbaijan is an ancient land. Some of the earliest evidence of all human civilization can be traced to this region. For example, in 1960 archeologists discovered a prehistoric cave (Azikh) that dates to the Neanderthal period. A human jawbone found there is believed to be 350,000–400,000 years old. Stone tools were also unearthed that date back to the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, which would make them approximately 1–1.5 million years old.

In ancient times, Azerbaijanis were believed to be skilled mariners who lived along the western coast of the Caspian Sea. The people of this advanced culture navigated, explored, and colonized many waterways, from the Volga and Dvina rivers in present-day Russia to the Black, Baltic, and North seas. Some archeologists believe that the ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis may have even traveled as far east as China and as far west as Norway and Sweden and that even modern Scandinavians themselves may have descended from ancient, fair-skinned Azerbaijani explorers and colonists.

Azerbaijan is located at the crossroads of Europe and Central Asia along what used to be called the Silk Road, which was a famous web of roads between Europe and China traveled by traders in mule and camel caravans. The Italian explorer and adventurer Marco Polo passed through Azerbaijan in about 1270. He wrote about the eternal fires burning from the earth and about a special oil that was used as medicine for skin diseases and other ailments in people and cattle. He observed that people came from neighboring countries, often from great distances, to obtain oil for their lamps.

Because visitors from many countries and nationalities passed through this region, not only were goods, such as silk and tea, traded, but also many ideas about music, literature, medicine, and science were exchanged. Even today, this openness to foreigners and this curiosity about other parts of the world is part of the Azerbaijani legacy.

Azerbaijan is a tiny country squeezed between three major economic and political powers—Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Azerbaijan is bordered by Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea to the east, Iran to the south, and Armenia and Georgia to the west. There is also a 10-km (6.2-mi) strip that touches Turkey on the western border of Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic in Azerbaijan. Each of these countries (except Georgia) has, at different times in history, tried to gain control over Azerbaijan and to benefit from its vast natural resources, especially oil. Some people say Azerbaijan lives in a "tough neighborhood" because of the political pressures it has to deal with from all sides but as writer Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli (1887–1943) described, Azerbaijan was located between "Two Fires"—Russia and Iran.

Over the centuries, many kingdoms and empires have fought to gain control over the region, including the Romans, Greeks, Mongols, Persians, and Russians. For example, Arabs from the south conquered this region in ad 642 and imposed the Muslim religion. Then Mongols from the east dominated the region from 1236 to 1498. The country was ruled by Safavids beginning in the 16th century. During the 18th century, Russians from the north began their territorial expansion into the region, only to be countered by Turks from the West.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the region was again under Russian jurisdiction. In 1918 Azerbaijan gained its independence and became known as the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. But, freedom was very short-lived. Less than two years later, in 1920, Soviet army troops invaded and occupied Baku. Azerbaijan then lived under the domination of the Soviet Union until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan was able to regain its independence. The country is now known as the Republic of Azerbaijan. Since 1988, the Armenians have been fighting with Azerbaijanis. As of 1994, Armenians occupied about 15% of Azerbaijan's territory.


Azerbaijan is a small country. The map of Azerbaijan somewhat resembles an eagle flying eastward. The Republic of Azerbaijan covers 86,600 sq km (33,430 sq mi), making it about the size of the U.S. state of Maine. The land has many contrasts in temperature and terrain, from coastal lowlands (along the Caspian Sea and at the basins of the Kura and Araz rivers) to high mountain ranges of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus and Talish mountain chains. The mountain regions are extremely cold, but other regions in Azerbaijan are nearly as hot as tropical or desert regions. These vast temperature differences mean that many kinds of foods can be grown here. Azerbaijan grows cotton, grapes for wine, and a wide range of garden vegetables. The population of the Republic of Azerbaijan is approximately 8.2 million people. However, three times as many Azerbaijanis live to the south in Iran (an estimated 30–35 million). More Azerbaijanis live in Iran because of a treaty signed between Russia and Persia in 1828, splitting the country into two sections, northern (now the Azerbaijan Republic) and southern (now part of Iran).

Azerbaijanis also live in other parts of the former Soviet Union, especially Georgia, Dagestan, and Russia. Azerbaijanis also live in China (Xinjiang Province) and Iraq. An estimated 200,000 Azerbaijanis used to live in Armenia, but according to UNHCR about 182,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia in 1988 before the war started between these two countries. In the 1970s, many Azerbaijanis immigrated from Iran to Western Europe (especially Germany, Sweden, and England) and to Canada (Toronto) and the United States (Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City). Also, a considerable number of Azerbaijanis from Iran have settled in Australia. An estimated 40–45 million Azerbaijanis live throughout the world.


Azerbaijanis speak Azeri (sometimes called Azerbaijani). It is a Turkic language belonging to the Altaic-Turkic language group, which also includes Anatolia Turkish and other Central Asian languages. For centuries, Azerbaijanis wrote their language using the Arabic alphabet. However, a Latin-based alphabet was adopted in 1923 in a purge by the Soviet government to rid Azerbaijan and other Muslim countries of the influence of Islam.

In the Muslim republics of the Soviet Union, the people were forced to burn books that were written in Arabic script into giant bonfires in the middle of their villages and towns; these books were not only religious books, but also books of poetry and medicine. It was tragic for Azerbaijanis and for the rest of the world that these books and manuscripts were destroyed. The Soviets wanted to destroy these books primarily because they associated the Arabic script with Islam (particularly the holy book, the Quran) and wanted to stamp out all religious influences in the region.

In 1939, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (1879–1953) feared that the people of Azerbaijan and the other Central Asian Turkic Republics, who spoke Turkic languages, might join together and rebel against the Soviet government. In order to make it impossible for them to communicate with each other through writing, he imposed the Cyrillic alphabet that was used for the Russian language. Azerbaijan and the other Turkic republics (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) in the Soviet Union had no choice. Almost overnight, works were published, not in Latin any more but Cyrillic script. Furthermore, to confound the situation, Stalin assigned different letters for some of the identical sounds in their Turkic languages that did not exist in the Russian language. For example, there were seven different letters created in Turkic Cyrillic script to represent the "ng" sound (as in "English"). Thus, it became nearly impossible for speakers of related languages to read each other's languages.

One of the first things that Azerbaijan's parliament did after Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991 was to readopt a Latin-based alphabet for their language. However, the enormous task of rewriting everything from street signs to textbooks to computer keyboards, as well as teaching in a new alphabet, has been daunting.

But, Azerbaijanis, who have changed their alphabet three times in the 20th century, feel that the new alphabet represents their new, independent country and that they are no longer under control of anyone else. It also reflects the desire of Azerbaijanis to develop friendships with people in Europe and the United States, countries where a similar Latin alphabet is also used.


Azerbaijanis have close family ties, spending much of their time talking with one another. Therefore, a rich tradition of oral folklore has developed in this region. Many songs, stories, proverbs, and expressions have been passed down over hundreds and thousands of years. The oldest known story in the Turkic languages is Dede Gorgud. It was first written down in the 11th century, but its origin dates to the 7th century. Dede Gorgud is believed to have been a real person who entertained others with stories, many of which bear a resemblance to tales in the Greek Odyssey.

Azerbaijanis have many legends. One of the most famous is about an ancient tower, called Maiden Tower, which still stands today as the most famous landmark in Baku. According to the legend, a young girl ordered the tower to be built and threw herself from its heights into the sea below when her father wanted to marry her off. Legends like this have become favorite themes in the works of many Azerbaijani artists and poets. There is even a ballet based on the Maiden Tower legend.

Azerbaijanis have many proverbs, such as: "Wish your neighbor two cows so that you may have one for yourself" (In other words, wish good fortune for others so that you also may benefit); "Laughter is the remedy for 1,001 illnesses;" "The dog barks, the caravan passes" (Don't get discouraged and distracted when people criticize you); "The more you know, the less you should talk;" and "Even the ground has ears" (There is no such thing as a secret).

Like other people of the region, Azerbaijanis love the humor and wisdom of Molla Nasraddin stories. There are hundreds of stories, many set in the 13th century, that deal with social issues that are fundamental to human nature. Molla Nasraddin stories often point to an obvious truth taken for granted. Molla appears to be the fool but, in reality, he exposes other people's foolishness. Some of the stories are very short and witty. For example, one story is as follows: "One day Molla was asked the secret to his long life. He replied, 'Keep your feet warm, your head cool, be careful what you eat, and don't think too much!'"


Some historians believe that Zoroastrianism (which involves the worship of sacred fire), which originated in the 6th century BC, was prevalent in ancient Azerbaijan because of the presence of underground oil and natural gas. Zoroastrianism is believed to have influenced Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

It appears that Christianity was popular in the region from the 2nd through 6th centuries when the area was called Albania. Numerous archeological sites and churches date to this period. Recently, Dr. Zaza Alexidze (born 1935) of the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi, Georgia, discovered a palimpsest manuscript in St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai, Egypt, that proves that early Christians in the region known as Caucasian Albania (now Azerbaijan) had parts of the Bible available in the Caucasian Albanian script. This alphabet dates back to 5th–7th century. There are still people known as Udins in Azerbaijan and Georgia who speak this language.

In the 7th century, when the Arabs invaded the region, Islam was imposed. By the end of the 9th century, it is believed that most Azerbaijanis had become Muslims of the Shi'ite branch (as in Iran).

During the Soviet period, religious worship was discouraged, and most mosques and churches were either destroyed or converted into cultural centers or music halls. Atheism was the official religion. Today, Azerbaijan enjoys freedom of religion—Muslims, Christians (Orthodox and Evangelical), and Jews can all worship openly and freely. The constitution ratified by the Azerbaijan Parliament in 1995 guarantees freedom of religion to all. The state has no official religion, though most people are traditionally Muslim. The Constitution provides for separation of the powers of church and state. A person does not have to belong to a certain religion to be elected or hold an office. However, especially since 2000, more and more Azerbaijanis are becoming devout, practicing Muslims, and more women are wearing head scarves and modest apparel associated with Islam.


The most anticipated and joyful holiday of the year is Novruz (meaning New Year). Novruz is an ancient tradition marking the Spring Solstice (March 21) or the coming of spring. This holiday is not only celebrated by Azerbaijanis, but by others throughout the region, including Iranians, Afghanis, Turks, and people in the Central Asian countries. During the Soviet period, Novruz was officially banned because the holiday was thought to be too nationalistic. Soviets wanted to emphasize the unity of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, not the distinctive characteristics of individual states. Nevertheless, many Azerbaijanis commemorated Novruz in the privacy of their homes. Since 1990, Novruz has been an official holiday in Azerbaijan and is celebrated openly.

Novruz is always associated with the colors red and green and the newness of spring. One of the most vivid symbols of Novruz is a plate of green wheat seedlings that each family grows (or these days, often buys) that is tied up with a red ribbon. On the Tuesday before Novruz, young boys build bonfires in their yards and in the streets and dare each other to jump over the flames without getting burned. Women bake cookies and sweets, and friends and relatives visit each other at home. Shops and government offices are closed, as are schools.

Azerbaijanis in the republic celebrate January 1 as New Year's Day, though in Iran, Novruz officially ushers in the new calendar year.

Since 1992, the Azerbaijan Republic has celebrated Independence Day on May 28, which commemorates the first period of independence from 1918–1920 before the Bolsheviks took power and Azerbaijan became a part of the Soviet Union.

The saddest public holiday of the year for Azerbaijanis is January 20. It commemorates "Black January" when Soviet troops attacked Baku in 1990 with tanks and machine guns and killed hundreds of civilians in the streets. Mikhail Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union, was afraid that Azerbaijanis would rise up and demand independence. He sent troops to Baku to squelch the rebel movement. Now on this day, people visit cemeteries and place red flowers on the graves of those who have died for Azerbaijan.


The most significant Azerbaijani rites of passage are connected with birthdays, marriage, and death. The birthdays of famous people, such as artists, musicians, scholars, or statesmen, are called Jubilees and become significant events in the life of the nation. Usually, jubilees occur on the person's 60th, 70th, or other decade birthdays. If a person has made an incredible contribution to the nation, his or her jubilee may be celebrated even after he has died. For example, the 120th jubilee of the famous composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, was celebrated in 2005 although he had died in 1948. Hajibeyov is honored as the founder of classical music in Azerbaijan.

The color red is associated with both marriage and death. Often, the bride wears a white wedding gown with a red sash tied around her waist. Weddings are important celebrations. In the countryside, weddings can continue for three days. In cities wedding celebrations usually take place in restaurants with big halls with ample space for dancing.

Thursdays are days for visiting cemeteries. Mourners place red flowers, usually carnations in pairs (for example, two or four) on the grave. When a person dies, the funeral is usually held the next day. Friends also gather again one week later, 40 days later, and then on the annual date of the death. When a person dies who has never married, a cracked mirror wrapped with a red ribbon is often placed near the grave. The red ribbon is a reminder that the person never had the chance to enjoy the joyous occasion of getting married and starting his own family.


Azerbaijanis are generally expressive with their emotions. They are not shy in expressing their love. People feel very comfortable holding hands and touching. When people meet each other, generally they kiss each other on the cheeks—men with men and women with women. Young girls often walk down the street holding hands, or arm in arm. Parents often hold the hands of their children, even older ones. Personal relations are highly nurtured and, in general, people are very courteous to one another.

Azerbaijanis are known for their kind hospitality to strangers. They love to invite guests from the international community to their homes for dinner. They enjoy traveling to other countries and making friends throughout the world. For about 70 years (1920–1991) Azerbaijan was under the control of the Soviet Union and lived behind what was called the "Iron Curtain," which restricted them from being able to meet or communicate easily with people from other countries. Since Azerbaijan became an independent country, Azerbaijanis have been able to continue their tradition of international friendship. Now they travel abroad frequently.


The average life expectancy for Azerbaijanis in the Republic is not as high as in established industrialized nations. As in many of the other former Soviet republics, there has been a shortage of modern medical equipment and pharmaceuticals in Azerbaijan, especially during the transitional years since the collapse of the Soviet Union as Azerbaijan works to establish a market economy.

Azerbaijanis, however, especially those living in the Caucasus Mountains, are famous for their extreme longevity. Many people live to be over 100-years-old. Throughout Azerbaijan, there are numerous regions where longevity is the norm, including Lerik, Lankaran, Gazakh, Tovuz, Ismayilli, Jalilabad, Shamakhi, Lachin, Kalbajar, and Aghdam. Azerbaijanis credit their longevity to a variety of factors best described as a combination of heredity, environment, and psychological, social, and cultural patterns. They believe longevity is basically inherited; many of the oldest Azerbaijanis had parents who also lived long lives. Centenarians living in the mountains typically are poor and eat yogurt and vegetables that they grow themselves. Most say they have spent much of their lives involved in hard physical work.

The leading cause of death in Azerbaijan is heart disease, followed by cancer, respiratory infections, and accidents. Diabetes, tuberculosis, hepatitis A, and acute respiratory infections also pose serious public health problems.

The war with Armenians over the Karabakh territory in Azerbaijan began in late 1988. It has resulted in more than 25,000 deaths and many permanent injuries to people who stepped on land mines.

Much of the water supply is unsafe due to high levels of chemical and biological pollution. Much of the pollution comes from oil leaks at petroleum plants and from the dumping of raw sewage into the Caspian Sea. In Baku, for example, it is essential to boil any water intended for drinking.


Older people are greatly esteemed in Azerbaijan and are given high positions in the family and community. The elderly are never left to feel useless or unneeded. Traditional Azerbaijani social organization, including extended kinship and inter-generational bonds, makes aging less stressful. Children are greatly revered among the Azerbaijanis, as well.


Clothing is very similar to Western styles. Women, especially, try to look as attractive as possible. Azerbaijani women rid themselves of the traditional Muslim veil (chador) in 1928. The event is even commemorated by various statues in Baku. However, the influence of Islam is becoming more evident, and more and more women do wear head scarves and long-sleeved jackets and long clothing.


Food consists primarily of bread, grains, fruits, and vegetables but is supplemented by meats, such as lamb, chicken, and fish. Pilaf (rice) and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with meat) is one of the favorite dishes. In Iran, Azerbaijanis eat rice nearly every day. In the Republic, the cuisine is patterned more on Russian-style food during the Soviet republics. In Russian meals there is more emphasis on bread, potatoes, and cabbage. The traditional beverage is black tea with sugar cubes. Azerbaijanis are excellent hosts and love to invite people to their homes to share meals. Dinners often last three hours or longer.


The Soviet period placed great emphasis on education. Azerbaijanis have achieved a high level of literacy, estimated at about 99%. Today, even though Azerbaijan has gained its independence, the education system is severely challenged. Nearly 800,000 refugees lost their homes in the early 1990s because of the ethnic conflicts with Armenia. This placed severe pressure on the education system. Many refugee children had no schools to attend. Sometimes, school buildings were used to house the refugees, which meant that children from families who were not refugees also suffered. Salaries for teachers and professors still have not been adjusted to reflect current living standards and, therefore, enormous bribing goes on in the education system at all levels. This is beginning to have an enormous impact on the society. Many Azerbaijanis admit that education standards were higher during the Soviet period.

During the Soviet period, Russian was the predominant language taught in Azerbaijan. Today, young people have the greatest chances of getting the best jobs if they are trilingual—fluent in Azeri, Russian, and English. Great emphasis is being placed on learning English. Popular music in English is played on local radio stations.


Since ancient times, Azerbaijanis have held their poets and literary figures in highest esteem. The city of Baku has many statues devoted to Azerbaijani poets and literary figures, such as Nizami, Fuzuli, and Nasimi.

Baku is a charming city known for its architectural diversity, which is a unique synthesis of both Eastern and Western styles. An incredible architectural transformation took place during the relatively short period of the oil boom years (1880–1920) that completely altered the physical features and character of Baku, converting it from a sleepy, medieval feudal city into a bustling international metropolis comparable to its European sister cities. One of the primary reasons so many Western-style buildings appeared was that a number of prominent European architects were hired by oil barons and brought to Baku from countries such as Poland, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Russia. Naturally, they drew upon their own experience and training. They introduced a wide range of European styles; for example, Neo-Classical, German, and Italian Renaissance Revival, French Islamic Maghrib, Venetian Gothic Revival, etc.

However, the architecture of the oil boom period in Baku is becoming overpowered by hundreds of modern apartment towers. The city has taken on a new skyline.

Azerbaijanis are famous for their music. It is impossible to truly understand Azerbaijani culture without understanding their deep love of music. The majority of Azerbaijanis have either been trained in music or perform it on Western or traditional Eastern stringed instruments, such as tar or kamancha, or wind instruments such as zurna and balaban.

Classical Azerbaijani music is a rich blend of eastern melodies, rhythms, and modes blended with Western forms and styles like symphonies, ballets, and opera. Azerbaijani world-class composers include Uzeyir Hajibeyov, Gara Garayev, Fikrat Amirov, and Agshin Alizade. The world-renown cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was also born in Baku


The greatest sources of employment are the oil industry, construction and agriculture. Enormous reserves of oil have been discovered in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea. Many international companies are already helping Azerbaijan drill for oil and gas and building pipelines that will transport the oil and gas to international markets.

New Azerbaijan oil began reaching the international market in 2005. Already Azerbaijan is exporting about 1 million barrels of oil per day. However, the recent conflicts between Russia and Georgia have already impacted oil export because Azerbaijan's BTC (Baku−Tbilisi−Ceyhan) pipeline travels more than 1000 miles from Baku to Tbilisi (Georgia) before it reaches the Mediterranean port in Ceyhan (pronounced Jeyhan), Turkey.

The most serious challenge facing the economy is to make sure that the proceeds from the oil benefit the entire country and that the infrastructure within the country is built up for the benefit of all. In other words, that wealth is not concentrated in the hands of only a few.


Azerbaijanis love sports and excel at wrestling. They are famous for chess, as well. World chess champion Garry Kasparov grew up playing chess in Baku.


It is a rare Azerbaijani home that does not have a television. The few exceptions would occur in remote mountain villages. Satellite dishes are becoming popular throughout the country, many of which are affixed to the narrow balconies above the streets. Western television programs are well-liked among the Azerbaijanis, as are Russian and Turkish programs. Azerbaijanis, especially elderly people spend their leisure time playing nard (backgammon), dominoes and chess. Educational institutions, work places are computerized. Many homes now have personal computers. More than half the population has mobile phones.


In Azerbaijan more emphasis is placed on music than on folk arts and hobbies, though during the Soviet period, many people enjoyed collecting postcards, stamps, and other memorabilia that made them feel more connected to the world.


Since the mid 1980s, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been fighting over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh within the borders of Azerbaijan. The region has a large percentage of Armenians who wanted to separate from Azerbaijan and join with Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh region has some of the most productive farmland in the area, favoring a wide cultivation of products including cotton, wheat, tobacco, grapes, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables. It also has gold mines. The fighting has caused a tragic loss of life (an estimated 25,000 people), and many have been permanently injured.

As of the late 1990s, the Armenian military occupied about 15% of Azerbaijan's territory. Approximately 800,000 Azerbaijanis who lived in this region were forced to flee their communities, their homes, their schools, and their workplaces. The refugees used to live scattered throughout the countryside in refugee camps, hostels, schools, and anywhere else they can find shelter but now there are no refugee camps left in Azerbaijan. Refugees move to special communities with buildings constructed by government. Azerbaijan wants to reclaim the Nagorno-Karabakh area so that the people can go back and rebuild their homes, schools, and factories that were burned down during the war. A cease-fire agreement has been in place since May 1994, but Azerbaijanis are eager to resolve the problem and bring about a permanent peace. At the same time, they are unwilling to give up their lands. The problem will probably take a long time to resolve.


Many women hold down office jobs as well as manage their households and raise the children. The work load on women is extremely heavy.


Alexidze, Zaza and Betty Blair, "Caucasian Albanian Alphabet Ancient Script Discovered in the Ashes," Azerbaijan International, Autumn 2003 (11.3), 38-41.

Azerbaijan International Magazine. Los Angeles: Azerbaijani International.

Goltz, Thomas. Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic. Sharpe: Armonk, New York, 1998.

Said, Kurban. Ali & Nino. New York: Anchor, 2000

—revised by B. Blair