The area of today’s Azerbaijan Republic has historically been known variously as Aran, Aghvan, Caucasian Albania and more recently Şirvan. Until the 20th century the ancient term Azerbaijan applied largely, as it still does, to the ethnically fraternal territory centred on Tabriz and Ardabil in Iran. Over the last two millennia it’s not just the country’s name and rulers that have changed but also its religion, language and even its predominant ethnicity. And having spent most of that time straddling the territories of competing empires, understanding this extraordinary saga really requires getting to grips with Persian, Arab, Turkish and Russian history. No wonder visitors (and even Azeris themselves) get confused. Even if all this seems dry and irrelevant to you, be aware that throughout the Caucasus, ancient history remains a point of day-to-day controversy and is constantly being re-remembered.
From the 6th century BC (and indeed for much of its later history) proto-Azerbaijan was part of the Persian Empire, with Zoroastrianism developing as the predominant religion. The area emerged around the 4th century BC as the ill-defined state of Aran or Caucasian Albania (no link to the present-day Balkan republic). Around AD 325 Albanians adopted Christianity, building many churches, the ruins of some of which still remain today. The history of the Caucasian Albanians is of great political importance to modern-day Azeris largely for the disputed ‘fact’ that they weren’t Armenian. This, local historians consider, is important in asserting Azerbaijan’s moral rights to Nagorno-Karabakh and beyond.
Islam became the major religion following the Arab advance into Albania in the 7th century followed by later waves of Oğuz and Seljuk Turks. For arriving Turkic herder-horsemen, proto-Azerbaijan’s grassland plains were much more inviting than the high mountains, so it was here that Turkic ethnicity became concentrated more than elsewhere in the Caucasus. Pockets of original Caucasian Christians lived on in the hills.
A classic era of Azeri culture bloomed in the 12th century. The cities of (old) Qəbələ, Bərdə and Naxçivan were thriving. Şamaxı bloomed as the vibrant capital of Şirvan. Gəncə’s pre-eminence was symbolised by the classical ‘national’ poet Nizami Gəncəvi. However, from the 13th century these cities were pummelled into dust by the Mongols, Timur (Tamerlane) and assorted earthquakes.
It took two centuries and an improving caravan trade to get Şirvan blossoming again. In battle its rulers, the Shirvanshahs, scored a home victory against Arbadil (southern Azerbaijan, now in Iran) in 1462 only to lose in the 1501 rematch. Converted to Shia Islam as a result of that defeat, Şirvan bonded with (south) Azerbaijan, sharing its glory as the Azeri Safavid shahs came to rule the whole Persian Empire.
Greater Azerbaijan thereafter suffered in tussles between Persia and the Ottoman Empires. As Persian power declined in the early 18th century, a collection of autonomous Muslim khanates emerged across Azerbaijan. However, Persia rebounded and several of these khanates united, hoping to preserve their independence. They asked Russia for assistance but got more than they bargained for. The Russian Empire swiftly annexed many northerly khanates. Then Persia’s bungled attempts to grab them back ended with the humiliating Gulistan Treaty (1813) in which it lost Şirvan, Karabakh and all navigational rights to the Caspian. A second war was even worse for the Persians, who were forced to additionally sign away the former khanates of Naxçıvan, Talysh and Yerevan in the 1828 treaty of Turkmenchay.
To consolidate their rule over their new Persian conquests the Russians encouraged immigration of Christians, notably non-Orthodox religious sects from Russia, Germans from Würtemburg and Armenians from the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. This indirectly sowed the seeds of ethnic conflicts that broke out in 1905, 1918 and 1989.
In the 1870s, new uses for petroleum suddenly turned little Baku into a boomtown and, amazingly, by 1905 it was supplying half the world’s oil. Immense wealth was created and a cultural renaissance bloomed. But appalling conditions for oil workers created a new, revolutionary underclass, exploited by a young Stalin. The result was a decade of revolutionary chaos that resulted in several horrific inter-ethnic clashes.
The Russian revolution of 1917 saw the end of the Tsarist empire. With WWI still undecided, Azerbaijan collapsed into internal conflict. Gəncə democrats declared Azerbaijan the Muslim world’s first ‘democracy’ in 1918, but Baku remained under the control of socialist revolutionaries until they were driven out with the help of the invading Turkish army. The Turks rapidly withdrew, leaving the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (Azərbaycan Xaiq Cümhuriyyəti) independent. It was a forward-thinking secular entity of which Azeris remain intensely proud. However, the republic lasted barely two years. The Bolshevik Red Army invaded in 1920, creating the short lived Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922 (along with Georgia and Armenia) as a prelude to the USSR. A series of border changes during this era progressively diminished Azerbaijan’s borders in favour of Armenia, and eventually left Naxçivan entirely cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan SSR. The passionate insistence of Azerbaijan’s ‘father of communism’, Nəriman Nərimanov, kept Nagorno-Karabakh within the nation, but for his pains Nərimanov was poisoned (on Stalin’s orders) in 1925. His replacement, Mir Jafar Bağirov, unquestioningly oversaw Stalin’s brutal purges, in which over 100, 000 Azeris were shot or sent to concentration camps, never to return. Following the Khrushchev ‘thaw’ Bağirov was himself arrested and shot.
During WWII, Hitler made no bones about his priority of grabbing Baku’s oil-wealth for energy-poor Germany. Luckily for Baku, the German army became divided and bogged down trying to take Stalingrad on the way. Nonetheless, realisation of Baku’s potential vulnerability encouraged Soviet engineers to develop new oilfields in distant Siberia after the war.
Perestroika (restructuring) in the late 1980s was also a time of increasing tension with Armenia. Tit-for-tat ethnic squabbles between Armenians and Azeris over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh bubbled over into virtual ethnic cleansing, as minorities in both republics fled escalating violence. On 20 January 1990, the Red Army made a crassly heavy-handed intervention in Baku, killing dozens of civilians and turning public opinion squarely against Russia. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Few moments have shocked the nation more than the massacre of Azeri civilians by Armenian forces at Xocalı on 26 February 1992. Public opinion turned against the dithering post-independence president, Ayaz Mütəllibov, who was ousted and replaced in June 1992 by Әbülfəz Elçibəy. He in turn fled a year later in the face of an internal military rebellion. This was come-back time for Parliamentary Chairman Heydar Әliyev, who had been Azerbaijan’s communist party chairman in the 1970s and a Politburo member in the 1980s. Shoehorned into the presidency, Әliyev stabilised the fractious country and signed a cease-fire agreement with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in May 1994. However, around 13% of Azerbaijan’s territory remained under Armenian occupation, with around 800, 000 Azeris left homeless or displaced. Azerbaijan was faced with a tragic impasse. Rehousing the refugees would be seen as an admission of defeat in Karabakh. But renewed conflict would prevent investment and economic recovery. The compromise was to do relatively little, and in the meantime an entire generation of Azeri refugee children have grown up without a proper home or education.