Present-day Azerbaijanis north of the Araxes River regard themselves as descendants of the ancient Caucasian Albanians (Albania is the former name of the area), whose kingdom occupied eastern Caucasia from antiquity to the Muslim conquests; they also claim descent from Turkish nomads who first migrated to the steppe north of the Caspian in pre-or early Christian times and thereafter penetrated and mingled with the existing population of Azerbaijan. Decisive Turkicization occurred in the eleventh century. In Iran, however, as a result of the Persianization campaigns of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), official history insists that the Turks of the Azerbaijan provinces are "Turkicized Aryans." Because of the restrictions on higher education and publishing in Iranian Azerbaijan, there has been little exploration of this contention in Iran; Soviet Azerbaijani scholars have denounced it. Over the centuries, Azerbaijan has been overrun by its neighbors (Byzantium and Iran) and more distant invaders (Khazars, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, Timurids, and Russians). For much of its history, Azerbaijan has been ruled as part of Iran by successive groups including the Sasanids (third to seventh century); the Arab caliphate (at various times); the Turkish Seljuks (eleventh century); the Chingizid Ilkhanids (thirteenth-fourteenth centuries); the Central Asian Timurids (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries); and Safavids from southern Azerbaijan (sixteenth-eighteenth centuries).
Among historically important cities are Barda, Ganje, Ardebil, Tabriz, and Maragha. Local dynasties have occasionally exerted considerable independence, notably the Shirvanshahs of the north, who ruled during the sixth to sixteenth centuries despite the loss of suzerainty to imperial rulers in Iran or Central Asia. The region they ruled was known simply as "Shirvan" or "Sharvan." After a period of fragmentation into semi-independent khanates in the eighteenth century, northern Azerbaijan was conquered by the Russians early in the nineteenth century. The border was fixed in 1828 at roughly its present position. Northern Azerbaijan constituted two provinces of the Russian Empire (the Baku and Elisavetpol provinces) and part of the Erevan Province. It experienced rapid (if one-sided) industrial development as Baku's oil wealth was exploited from the last quarter of the nineteenth century well into the twentieth; because of the "oil rush," northern Azerbaijan received thousands of Russians, Caucasian mountaineers, Armenians, and southern Azerbaijani Turks as workers, many of whom were organized into the Socialist movement. Northern Azerbaijan became an independent republic in 1918, in the wake of the Russian Revolution and World War I, but it was reconquered by the Red Army in 1920. Southern Azerbaijan was one of the richest provinces of Iran and, under the Qajars, was ruled by the heir to the Iranian throne. It became a center of protests against the shah's foreign concessions in the 1890s and of the Constitutional Movement (1905-1911) that led to the short-lived constitutional period. This history of protest, however, so weakened the old regime that the path was paved for the coup by Reza Khan (later Shah) Pahlavi in the 1920s. Cross-border relations remained strong. During World War II, Soviet troops occupied part of southern Azerbaijan, but they withdrew in 1946. Thereafter an autonomous local government was destroyed by the Shah's troops.
The culture of Azerbaijan has historically been a rich and complex admixture of pre-Islamic Turkish, Iranian, and Islamic elements. The mix is reflected in the dastan, or "ornate oral history," which preserves history, customs, values, and the language itself. Later forms (dating from about the fourteenth century) of these ancient works are known today: The Book of Dede Korkut and Köroglu. "High culture" is also strongly in evidence in the form of poetry, scholarship, visual arts, and architecture. The eleventh to thirteenth centuries were the golden age, during which the poets Khagani Shirvani (1120-1199) and Nizami Ganjevi (1141-1209) and the scholar Muhammad Nasr al-Din Tusi (1207-1274) lived and worked. Later luminaries included the poet Fuzuli (1498-1556). They were internationally known and many traveled far beyond the borders of Azerbaijan. Maragha, in the south, boasted a fourteenth-century observatory and library. Mausoleums, bridges, and other structures survive from the eleventh century and later. Some remaining structures are even older. Russian influence had some impact on the upper classes in the north during the nineteenth century and far more under Soviet power. Certain members of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were educated in France, Germany, or the Ottoman Empire; those desiring religious training went to Iran or Ottoman Iraq. Under Soviet rule, the Azerbaijan SSR became increasingly insulated, and cultural policies were determined by the Soviet Communist party. In addition to the alphabet changes, many works of oral and written literature were banned and denounced as "feudal-clerical" or "bourgeois." Writers, composers, and poets perished in the purges. In the south, Persianization was emphasized and Azerbaijani Turkish culture regarded as primitive, "folk" culture. Major historical personages were called "Persian" regardless of their place of birth, parentage, or self-identification. Literacy in Turkish was not counted in the 1962 Iranian census.