What Should I Know About Azerbaijan?

Brendan McGuigan

Azerbaijan is a mid-sized country in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe. It covers 33,400 square miles (86,600 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of Maine. It shares borders with Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey, and has coastline along the Caspian Sea. It also has a small exclave section, separated from its main body by Armenia.

Azerbaijan has a border along the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan has a border along the Caspian Sea.

The Azerbaijani people are generally thought to be an amalgamation of different people who settled in the region, most notably the Iranians, Turkic tribes, and Caucasian Albanians.

Azerbaijan has a small exclave section, separated from its main body by Armenia.
Azerbaijan has a small exclave section, separated from its main body by Armenia.

Caucasian Albanians are thought to have first settled in the area in the 9th century BCE. Persia conquered all of the region in the 6th century BCE, and Alexander the Great conquered the region in the 4th century BCE, while Armenia began exerting control over some parts of the land in the 2nd century BCE. The first kingdom was formed during this time by Caucasian Albanians, around the 1st century BCE, remaining independent until the 3rd century.

During the Age of the Caliphs, Azerbaijan was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century. During the next few centuries the majority of people living in the country converted from Christianity to Islam. Beginning in the 11th century, Turkic tribes took over large portions of the area, forming an empire that spanned much of Iran and Iraq as well. The area was much contested for the next few centuries, passing from Mongol rule to Turkic rule to Jalayrid rule.

The Ottomans began pushing into Azerbaijan in the 16th century, seizing portions of the country. Local Shia resistance was fierce, however, and the Ottomans were pushed back repeatedly. By the 18th century, however, the Ottomans controlled most of Azerbaijan, with the Russian Empire controlling the rest. Russia eventually expanded their territories, and by the 19th century controlled most of the country.

The Russians utilized a fairly hands-off approach in Azerbaijan, giving a great deal of local autonomy to the rulers and keeping the importation of Russian Christians to a minimum. Oil was discovered in the late 19th century, and it became an important strategic territory for Russia. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was granted independence in 1918, and reformed as a democratic republic, the first Democratic Republic in the Islamic world. This new state was short-lived, however, and in 1920 the Soviets invaded and conquered the country.

It remained a Soviet Socialist Republic until 1991, when it declared independence and joined the Commonwealth of Independent States. The next year a full war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, eventually resulting in a large loss of territory for Azerbaijan and the loss of many lives.

Since independence, Azerbaijan’s infrastructure has steadily improved, and it has built its oil-exploitation industry drastically. Gas exports make up a large portion of its GDP, and the discovery of new oil fields continues to grow the sector. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh has declared its own independence, which is currently unrecognized, and is highly unstable.

The sense of history is one of the most impressive things about visiting Azerbaijan, and most tourists find symbols of that past to be the greatest draw. Petroglyphs from the Bronze Age, such as those found in the outdoor Qobustan Museum, are one example of this history. Castles dating back to the medieval era, found dotting the Apsheron Peninsula, are another example. And the amazing religious history of the country is perhaps the best example. Mosques and minarets abound, but perhaps the most inspiring location is the Atesgah Fire Temple, a place that has been a site of worship for thousands of years. It is located on top of natural gas vents, and it is thought that Zoroastrians have been worshipping there for more than 1500 years.

Flights arrive regularly in Baku from major airports throughout Europe and Asia, and smaller airlines operate from other ex-Soviet republics. It's possible to enter the country by land, but the border to Armenia is absolutely closed, and trying to cross can get you into very serious trouble.

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