Azerbaijani Turks - Orientation

Identification. Historic Azerbaijan is today divided into the independent Republic of Azerbaijan (Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic until 30 August 1991) in the north and the East and West Azerbaijan provinces of Iran in the south. The Araxes (Aras) River forms most of the boundary between the two sides.

Location. Azerbaijan occupies the western shore of the Caspian Sea, extending west to approximately 45° longitude (which runs through the middle of the Caucasian isthmus and west of Lake Urmia in Iran) and from the foot of the Caucasus Mountains in the north to just south of Lake Urmia (37° latitude) in the south. The Kura River crosses the republic from northwest to southeast. Elevation varies greatly, from the coastal lowlands and basins of the Kura and Araxes rivers in the east and southeast (at and below sea level) to the Greater Caucasus mountains (to 4,243 meters) in the north at the Daghestan border, and to the Lesser Caucasus (to 3,581 meters) in the west. In the lowlands, the climate is mild (average temperature is 14-14.5° C with 20-40 centimeters of precipitation annually), but in the mountains winters are severe (average temperature is 2-10° C; with extremes to -13°, and 100-160 centimeters of precipitation). The Azerbaijan Republic, with its capital at Baku, includes the (mostly Armenian) Nagorno-Karabagh region and the noncontiguous Nakh-jivan Autonomous Republic (separated from the rest of the republic by a strip of Armenia). Iranian Azerbaijan is entirely mountainous: elevations are over 2,000 meters, with some ranging as high as 5,000 meters near Ardebil in the east. Climate is correspondingly severe. It is separated from the Caspian coast by the Gilan region. In the south, the main city, Tabriz, is located near Lake Urmia.

Demography. The population of the Azerbaijan Republic was about 7 million in 1989; Baku had a population of 2.5 million. The birthrate is high (43.7 per thousand between 1959 and 1969, as contrasted with 19 per thousand for Russians), with the median age of the population in 1979 at 15. The Azerbaijan SSR had become more ethnically homogeneous in the last three decades, both because of the emigration of non-Azerbaijanis and because of the relatively higher birthrate of the Azerbaijanis. The other major groups in the republic are Russians and Armenians. These three groups account for approximately 90 percent of the population. Other groups are Georgians, Jews, and northern Caucasians. Comparable demographic data are not available for Iranian Azerbaijan. Tabriz has a population of over half a million, and East Azerbaijan Province, about 4 million. Estimates of the total number of Azerbaijanis in Iran, however, vary from 6 million to more than twice that figure. In West Azerbaijan Province, there is a large Kurdish population and also Assyrian and other Christian minorities. Some nomadic groups still exist, although their former migration patterns were disrupted by the restrictions on moving southward across the Araxes River. Most prominent among these groups are the Shahseven.

Linguistic Affiliation. Azerbaijani is a dialect of Turkish, although on the northern side of the border the Soviet state officially called it a separate language starting in 1937; on the Iranian side it is called simply "Türki," as are Turkish dialects in Central Asia. Azerbaijani is closely related to Turkmen and Anatolian Turkish; it is intelligible to most speakers of Turkish dialects and is a lingua franca in much of Daghestan. The Azerbaijan Republic has used the Cyrillic orthography since the late 1930s, after about a decade of Latin orthography, which replaced the earlier Arabo-Persian script. The republic's government plans to reinstate Latin orthography in 1993. Azerbaijani is a language with an important literature. Azerbaijanis have a low level of linguistic Russification, with over 98 percent claiming Azerbaijani as their first language. On the Iranian side of the border, the Arabo-Persian script is still in use. Prior to the creation of this script, Turkish had been written in other alphabets, the earliest of which was the so-called runic script of the eighth century Orkhon-Yenisei inscriptions.

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