LOCATION: Azerbaijan; Iran
POPULATION: 35–40 million worldwide: Republic of Azerbaijan, 7.5 million; Iran, 20-25 million (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Azeri (also called Azerbaijani); Russian; English
RELIGION: Islam (majority); Christianity (Orthodox and Evangelical); Judaism
Azerbaijan is located at the crossroads of Europe and Central Asia. Its territory lies in the region once called the Silk Route, a famous network of roads between China and Europe. Over the centuries, many kingdoms and empires have fought to gain control over the region.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the region was under Russian control. In 1918 Azerbaijan gained its independence and became known as the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. But freedom was very short-lived. In 1920, army troops from what was then the Soviet Union invaded and occupied the capital city, Baku. Azerbaijan then lived under the domination of the Soviet Union until 1991. That year, the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan was able to regain its independence as the Republic of Azerbaijan. Since 1988, Armenians have been fighting with the people of Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijanis. As of 1997, Armenians occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory.
The Republic of Azerbaijan covers 33,430 square miles (86,600 square kilometers), about the size of the state of Maine. It is a land of many contrasts, from coastal lowlands along the Caspian Sea to the high mountain ranges of the Caucasus. The mountain regions are extremely cold, but other parts of Azerbaijan are nearly as hot as the tropics.
The population of the Republic of Azerbaijan is approximately 7.5 million people. However, three times as many Azerbaijanis (an estimated 20 to 25 million) live to the south in Iran.
Azerbaijanis speak Azeri (sometimes called Azerbaijani). It is a Turkic language belonging to the Altaic-Turkic language group. For centuries, Azerbaijanis wrote their language using the Arabic alphabet. However, a Latin-based alphabet (the alphabet used to write English) was adopted in 1928. In 1939, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (1879–1953) ordered the Azerbaijanis to use the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used for the Russian language. Stalin wanted all the people under Soviet rule to use the same alphabet. All business communication and teaching was done in the Russian language.
When Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991, its parliament adopted a Latin-based alphabet. In the 1990s, it faced the enormous task of rewriting everything from street signs to computer keyboards, as well as teaching in a new alphabet. The Azerbaijanis are motivated to accomplish this task, however, because the adoption of the Latin-based alphabet represents their new, independent country. It also reflects their desire to develop friendships with people in the West who use similar Latin alphabets.
|Greetings! (or Hi!)||Salam.||sa-LAHM|
|Good morning.||Saharim kheyir.||sa-hah-REEM khay-YEAR|
|Good afternoon.||Junortan kheyir.||ju-nore-TAHN khay-YEAR|
|Good evening.||Akhshamim kheyir.||akh-shah-MOHM khay-YEAR|
|Thank you||Sag ol||SAHG OAL|
A rich tradition of oral folklore has developed in Azerbaijan. Songs, stories, proverbs, and sayings have been passed down over thousands of years.
One of the most famous Azerbaijani legends is about an ancient tower, called Maiden's Tower. This structure, which still stands today, is the most famous landmark in Baku. According to one version of the legend, a young girl ordered the tower to be built. When her father wanted her to marry against her wishes, she locked herself in the tower. In another version, she threw herself from its heights into the sea below.
Azerbaijanis have many proverbs, such as: "Wish your neighbor two cows so that you may have one for yourself" (wish good fortune for others so that you also may benefit); 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 Nasreddin" stories, which deal with social issues and basic human nature.
During the period when Azerbaijan was controlled by the former Soviet Union (1920–91), religious worship was discouraged. Most Islamic mosques and Christian churches were destroyed. Today Azerbaijan enjoys freedom of religion. Muslims (those who practice Islam), Jews, and Christians can all worship openly and freely. The state has no official religion, though most people are traditionally Muslim.
The most anticipated and joyful holiday of the year is Nawruz (meaning "New Year"). Celebrated on March 21, it marks the coming of spring. This holiday is celebrated not only by Azerbaijanis, but by other peoples throughout Central Asia.
One of the most vivid symbols of Nawruz is a plate of green wheat seedlings tied up with a red ribbon. On the Wednesday before Nawruz, young boys build bonfires in their yards and in the streets. They dare each other to jump over the flames without getting burned. Women make cookies and sweets, and friends and relatives visit each other at home. Shops and government offices are closed, as are schools.
January 1 is celebrated as New Year's Day in Azerbaijan. Since 1992, the Azerbaijan Republic has celebrated Independence Day on May 28. The occasion marks the short period of Azerbaijan independence from 1918 to 1920. Azerbaijanis also commemorate the day they declared independence from the Soviet Union on October 18, 1991. The saddest public holiday of the year for Azerbaijanis is January 20. It commemorates "Black January" when Soviet troops attacked Baku in 1990.
The most significant Azerbaijani rites of passage are connected with birthdays, marriage, and death.
Weddings are important celebrations. In rural areas, weddings can continue for three days.
Thursdays are days for visiting cemeteries. Mourners place an even number of red flowers, usually carnations, on the grave. When a person dies, the funeral is usually held the next day. Friends also gather again one week later, forty days later, and then annually on the date of the death. When a person who has never married dies, a broken mirror wrapped with a red ribbon is often placed near the grave.
Azerbaijanis generally express their emotions openly. People feel very comfortable holding hands and touching. When people of the same sex meet, they generally kiss each other on the cheeks. Young girls often walk down the street holding hands. Parents often hold the hands of their children, even older ones.
The average life expectancy in Azerbaijan is lower than that in the industrialized nations of the West. However, Azerbaijanis living in the Caucasus mountains and certain other regions are famous for their longevity. Many live to be over one hundred years old. Their diet usually consists of yogurt and vegetables that they grow themselves. Most say they have spent much of their lives involved in hard physical work.
The war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory in Azerbaijan has resulted in more than 25,000 deaths and many permanent injuries to people who stepped on land mines.
Much of the water supply in Azerbaijan is unsafe due to high levels of chemical and biological pollution. In Baku, for example, it is essential to boil any water intended for drinking.
Extended kinship and the bonds between generations keep the elderly from feeling unneeded or alone. Older people are greatly respected in Azerbaijan and play a prominent role in the family and the community. Children are greatly revered among the Azerbaijanis as well.
Clothing is very similar to Western styles. Azerbaijani women stopped wearing the traditional Muslim veil (chador) in 1928. This event is actually commemorated by various statues in Baku.
The Azerbaijani diet consists primarily of bread, grains, fruits, and vegetables. As a light meal or snack, Azerbaijanis enjoy dipping pieces of fresh fruit into plain yogurt.
The staples are supplemented by meats such as lamb, chicken, and fish. In Iran, Azerbaijanis eat rice nearly every day. In Azerbaijan, the cuisine reflects a Russian influence, with greater 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 or more hours.
The Soviet period (1920–91) placed great emphasis on education. Azerbaijanis have a high level of literacy, estimated at about 99 percent. In recent years, the educational system has suffered due to the country's serious economic problems.
Until 1991, Russian was the predominant language taught in Azerbaijan. Today, young people have the greatest chances of getting the best jobs if they speak three languages: 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 the highest esteem. The city of Baku has many statues devoted to Azerbaijani poets and literary figures.
Azerbaijanis are famous for their music. The majority of Azerbaijanis receive training either in Western music or on traditional Eastern instruments. These include stringed instruments such as the tar or kamancha, and wind instruments such as the zurna and balaban. It is common to enjoy music with guests after dinner in the evenings. Azerbaijani classical music combines eastern melodies, rhythms, and modes with Western forms like symphonies, ballets, and opera. Prominent Azerbaijani composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, is honored as the founder of classical music in Azerbaijan.
The major sources of employment are the oil industry and agriculture. Enormous reserves of oil have been discovered in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijanis excel at sports, especially 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. Only homes in remote mountain villages do not have TVs. In Baku, satellite dishes can be seen on many of the narrow balconies above the streets. Western television programs are well liked among the Azerbaijanis, as are Russian and Turkish programs. Other electronic conveniences, such as VCRs, CD players, and personal computers, are still rare.
In Azerbaijan more emphasis is placed on music than on crafts or hobbies. However, during the Soviet period (1920–91), many people enjoyed collecting postcards, stamps, and other souvenirs 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 Armenians of this region want it to separate from Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia. The fighting has caused a tragic loss of life (an estimated 25,000 people), and many more have been permanently injured.
Azerbaijan, Then and Now. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1993.
Roberts, Elizabeth. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1992.
Swietochowski, Tadeusz. Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.