Historically Azerbaijan has been occupied by a variety of peoples including Persians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Russians. The region has been inhabited for at least 3,000 years. Bronze Age settlements have been found in and around the capital of Baku. The first state to emerge in the territory of present-day Azerbaijan was Mannai, in the ninth century B.C.E. It lasted until it was overthrown a century later by the Medes, who were Zoroastrians. They established an empire that included southernmost Azerbaijan. In the sixth century the Archaemenid Persians, under Cyrus the Great (585–29), took over the western part of Azerbaijan when the Persians subdued the Assyrians to the west. In 330, Alexander the Great (356–23) absorbed the entire Archaemenid Empire into his conquests, leaving behind Persian satraps (governors) to rule. According to one account, Atropates (c. 370–?21), one of Alexander’s Persian generals, whose name means “protected by fire,” gave his name to the region when Alexander made him its governor. Another legend explains that Azerbaijan’s name derives from the Persian words meaning “the land of fire,” a reference either to the natural burning of surface oil deposits or to the oil-fueled fires in temples of the once-dominant Zoroastrian religion.
In the first century C.E. the Romans assumed control, followed by the Persians in the fourth century once again. Arabs had gained control by the eleventh century, only to be replaced by the Seljuk Turks, who laid the foundation of modern Azerbaijan. Overrun much later by Mongols, the region was divided into several principalities after the fall of Taimur Lang (Timur the Lame, 1336–1405), ruler of the Timurid Empire (1370–1405) in Central Asia, which survived until 1506. Eventually Azerbaijan was acquired by Russia from Persia through the treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkamanchai (1828). During the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 Russian Azerbaijan joined Armenia and Georgia to form the anti-Bolshevik TransCaucasian Federation. After that federation was dissolved in May 1918 Azerbaijan proclaimed itself independent; but in 1920 it was conquered by the Red Army and made into a Soviet republic. In 1922 Azerbaijan officially joined the USSR as a member of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Republic. It became a separate republic again due to an administrative reorganization in 1936.
During the late 1980s, ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region pressed for its unification with Armenia, leading to a guerrilla war and violent conflicts between the two republics in 1992. The Armenian side gained effective control of the region and some adjoining Azerbaijani territory by 1994, when a cease-fire was reached with Russian mediation. Approximately one million Azeris were made refugees within Azerbaijan. Attempts to fully resolve the conflict have proved unsuccessful. Azerbaijan has offered the region a high degree of autonomy, but the Armenians there have insisted on independence or union with Armenia. Azerbaijan declared itself independent of the USSR in August 1991 and became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In 1992 Abulfaz Elchibey (1938–2000), leader of the Popular Front party, was elected president, but he was ousted by the parliament a year later after a military coup. Heydar Aliyev (?1923–2003 ), leader of the Azerbaijan Communist party from 1969 to 1982, assumed power and was confirmed in office by an election in 1993. Aliyev promoted the exploitation of the country’s oil resources in the Caspian Sea through agreements with Russia and several Western oil companies for development. A popular leader Aliyev was reelected twice. However the ailing president withdrew from the October 2003 election in favor of his son Ilham Aliyev (b. 1961), who was elected in a landslide victory.

Azerbaijan is located in the southeastern part of the Greater Caucasus Mountains on the shore of the Caspian Sea. It is divided into two parts: the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, which is separated from the main part of the country by about 30 miles of Armenia; and the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh, which, following a war with Armenia in the early 1990s, declared itself an independent republic. It is now mostly under Armenian control, as is much of the territory immediately surrounding it.
Azerbaijan is surrounded by mountains, except for its Caspian shoreline in the east and some areas bordering Georgia and Iran. To the northeast, bordering Russia’s Dagestan Autonomous Republic, is the Greater Caucasus range; to the west, bordering Armenia, is the Lesser Caucasus range. To the extreme southeast the Talysh mountain range forms a part of the country’s border with Iran. Baku, the capital, is located on the Apsheron Peninsula, which juts out into the Caspian Sea.
The highest peaks are in the Greater Caucasus, where Mount Bazar-dyuzi rises 15,551 feet above sea level. Eight large rivers flow down from the Caucasus ranges into the central Kura-Aras lowlands through alluvial flatlands and low delta areas along the coast of the Caspian Sea. The Mtkvari (“slow one”), the longest river in the Caucasus region, forms its delta and drains into the Caspian a short distance downstream from the confluence with the Aras, its main tributary. Most of the country’s rivers are not navigable. Only about 15 percent of the country’s land is suited to agriculture.
The climate of the country varies immensely, from subtropical and dry in its central and eastern parts to subtropical and humid in the southeast. It is temperate along the shores of the Caspian Sea, and cold in the higher mountain regions. Baku enjoys mild weather, averaging 39°F in January and 77°F in July.
Since most of Azerbaijan receives scant rainfall—an average 6 to 10 inches annually—agricultural areas require irrigation. The heaviest rainfall occurs in the highest elevations of the Caucasus and in the Lenkoran lowlands, in the far southeast, where the yearly average exceeds 39 inches.

Azerbaijan is industrially underdeveloped compared with the neighboring regions of Armenia and Georgia. It resembles the Central Asian states in its majority Muslim population, high rates of unem ployment, and low standard of living. The chief commercial products are oil, cotton, and gas. Production from the Caspian oil and gas fields declined during the 1990s, but things have been slowly returning to normal during the last few years. A number of major oil field agreements, worth about US$35 billion, were finalized in the early years of the 21st century.
Azerbaijan, like many of the other former Soviet republics, has gone through a difficult transition from a command- to a market-driven economy. Its considerable energy resources, however, make its long-term prospects look good. A major short-term obstacle to economic progress (including foreign investment) is the continuing conflict with Armenia over the Armenian-dominated region of NagornoKarabakh. Trade with Russia and the other former Soviet republics is declining in importance, while trade is increasing with European Union (EU) countries, as well as Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

About 90 percent of the Azerbaijani population is ethnic Azeri, supplemented by a smattering of Dagestanis, Russians, Armenians, and Jews. Most Azerbaijanis speak Azeri, (related to Turkish) and Russian. Despite attempts on the part of the Soviet regime to wipe it out, Islam remains the most popular religion with Azerbaijanis, followed by various Orthodox Christian sects. Azerbaijan is one of the most liberal Muslim-majority states.
The Azerbaijani have inherited a unique and harmonious blend of Islamic and European cultures. Around 1050 the country enjoyed a cultural renaissance, as exemplified by its many great architectural and artistic achievements during that time. Azerbaijani architecture has gone through many different stages since then, but the rich legacy of the medieval period has been preserved, as is evident in the Maiden Tower and the palace of the Shirvan Shahs in Baku. The capital’s ornately decorated subway stations are more recent architectural accomplishments. The country has a diverse literary heritage, much of which is derived from an oral tradition of poems and ancient epics. Perhaps the most wellknown work is the Book of Dede Korkut, an epic about the Oghuz Turks, a collection of tales that take place in pre-Islamic Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Written around the sixth or seventh century, it is valued both as literature and as an important historical document that provides insights into the language, way of life, religions, traditions, and social norms of the people who once inhabited this region. It has been translated into many languages.
Historically, Nizami Ganjavi (?1140–?1217) has been held up as one of Azerbaijan’s greatest poets, although Iranians can also claim him since he wrote in Persian. Perhaps his best-known play concerns Layla and Majnun, two lovers whose story is told as a religious morality play. The Sufis consider Layla and Majnun an especially important parable. Azerbaijani literature again flourished during the 16th century, when folk literature grew and minstrels and bards developed Ashiglar poetry. It was also during this time that Shah Ismail, using the pen name Khatayi, produced Divani Xetayi, his most famous work. He is also known for developing a unique literary style known as Qoshma, which was further developed by Shah Tahmasp, his successor. In the mid-19th century Mirza Fatali Akhundzada contributed to the beginnings of modern Azerbaijani literature, especially drama.
Azerbaijan is also famous for its embroidered textiles. Artists use colorful threads (often made of gold or silver) and beads to create geometric patterns on a thin wool fabric called tirme. The country’s flora and wildlife are featured in many designs and patterns. Other popular Azerbaijani textiles include carpets, veils, shawls, and towels. The country’s musical traditions are preserved by ashugs, or poet-singers, who play the kobuz (a stringed instrument) while singing ballads about their ancient heroes. Another popular form of music in Azerbaijan is mugam, a kind of improvisational music often compared to jazz, in which the voice, and wind and stringed instruments are prominent.

Azerbaijan is often called “the home of long life,” and scientific research attributes the longevity of the Azeri peoples not only to the excellent climate they enjoy, but also to their healthful and nourishing cuisine, which relies heavily on meat, fish, and vegetable dishes made of beets, cabbage, eggplants, and spinach. Many dishes use saffron, along with coriander, fennel, mint, and parsley. Soup is also a staple of Azerbaijani cuisine, often made with meat and sheep fat seasoned with greens and spices. While it resembles the cooking of its neighbors, Azeri food has a character all its own, and each region has its own specialties. As is the case with other Azeri arts, the recipes are refined and require time and practice to prepare correctly.
A salient trait of Azeri cooking is a combination of tart and sweet flavors, produced by mixing pomegranate juice, dried lemons, and sour plums with dried fruits (mainly apricots, quince, and raisins). Chestnuts are used to garnish meat and other dishes, and fresh pomegranate seeds may be scattered across the plate immediately before it is brought to the guests. More familiar items, such as kebabs, dolmas, and baklava reflect the influences of Turkish, Greek, and Lebanese culinary arts. Azeri pilaf has nearly a hundred variations but, instead of being prepared in one pot, the rice and seasonings are cooked in separate pots and then served separately, with melted butter in a jug. Azeri dolma, is usually made of minced lamb meat seasoned with coriander, dill, mint, pepper, cinnamon, and melted butter, and rice wrapped in grape leaves (Yarpag dolmasy), but it can also be wrapped in cabbage leaves (Kyalyam dolmasy). Numerous variations of dolma are also common, and aubergines (eggplants), potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, quince, and apples can also be stuffed with lamb meat. Sour milk can be used as a sauce. Kingal, a dish made with meat, fried onion, kurut (a dry cottage cheese), and flour, is popular in the northwest, whereas in the Lenkoran region, along the coast of the Caspian Sea, chicken stuffed with nuts, onion, and jelly, and then fried is a favorite recipe. The Apsheron peninsula is famous for its dushpara, small meat dumplings, and kutabs, meat patties wrapped in very thin dough. Bread is served with most meals, the most common being the round loaves called chorek and lavash, a flat bread. Tea (çay), primarily black tea, is central to all social, family, and even business occasions. It is served in small pearshaped glasses called armuds (literally, “pear”), and is often accompanied with various jams, nuts, or raisins. An unusual tea is also brewed with cinnamon (darchin) and ginger. Kvas (from Russian, “sour beverage”), unknown to most Westerners, is a nonalcoholic fermented drink made from malt. It is sold on the streets and is a refreshing drink on a summer day.

In the Islamic countries where circumcision (khitan) is practiced, the boy usually undergoes the operation between the ages of 10 and 12. This is a rite of puberty, separating the boy from childhood and introducing him to his new status and responsibilities as a man. In Azerbaijan’s Muslim families, circumcisions are attended by a great deal of festivity, music, food, and many guests.

Weddings in traditional Azerbaijan society involve many ceremonies and rites that are intended to protect the couple from harm, disease, and evil forces. Traditionally, the wedding cycle is divided into three stages: the prewedding period, the wedding itself, and the postwedding period. During the prewedding period, the family of a young man chooses a young woman and negotiates the match, securing the consent of the young woman and her family. The engagement (nischan) follows. The engagement ceremony is arranged in the bride’s house and the bridegroom’s relatives bring her gifts. These gifts include sweetmeats, shoes, silk and woolen stockings ( jorabs), and sugar loaves. A ring is given to the bride during the engagement.
The period between the engagement and the wedding can vary from two months to two years. A few days prior to the wedding, the ceremony known as parcha bichini (cutting the wedding dress) is observed, when women of both families come together to cut out the fabric for the bride’s wedding dress. The day before the bride is scheduled to leave for her husband’s home, the bridesmaids anoint her hands and feet (khna yakhti). This rite symbolizes the maiden becoming a woman. Dancing and singing accompany the bride’s last night in her parents’ home.
On the actual day of the wedding the bride is brought to the bridegroom’s house where she is showered with corn kernels and presented with sweets and coins. She steps over a piece of metal at the threshold of her new home, a symbolic act of tenacity and faithfulness. A little boy is then made to sit on her lap, the hope being that her firstborn will be male.
The postwedding rites include usa chihd, the first time the newlywed appears in public and removes her veil. The guests in attendance present the couple with valuables and domestic utensils. The final stage is the visit of the couple to the bride’s father’s house, three or four days after the wedding.