Azerbaijani people

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Peoples

(Azərbaycanlılar آذربایجانلیلار)
Total population c. 20.5 to 33 million
Regions with significant populations Iran:
  12-23.5 million

   622,000 (2002 census).
   284,761 (2002 census)
United States:
   80,000 (1999 census)
   46,000 (2001 census)

Language Azerbaijani
Religion Predominately Muslim, Few adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and others.
Related ethnic groups Turkic people, peoples of the Caucasus, and Iranic peoples

The Azerbaijanis are an ethnic group mainly found in northwestern Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Commonly referred to as Azeris ( Azeri: آذریلر/Azәrilәr) or Āzarīs ( Persian: آذری), they also live in a wider area from the Caucasus to the Iranian plateau. The Azeris are typically Muslim and have a mixed cultural heritage of Turkic, Iranian, and Caucasian elements.

Despite living on both sides of an international border, the Azeris form a single group. However, northerners and southerners differ due to nearly two centuries of separate social evolution in Russian/Soviet-influenced Azerbaijan and Iranian Azarbaijan. The Azerbaijani language unifies Azeris and is mutually intelligible with Turkmen and Turkish (including the dialects spoken by the Turkomans of Iraq and by the Qashqai). All of these languages are traced to the Turkic Oghuz, who moved into the Caucasus from Central Asia in the 11th century. Following the Russian-Persian Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, Persian territories in the Caucasus (some merely under nominal control) were ceded to the Russian Empire. This included parts of the current Republic of Azerbaijan. The treaties of Golestan in 1813 and Turkmanchai in 1828 finalized the border between Russia and Persia (Iran).

As a result of this separate existence, the Azeris are mainly secularists in Azerbaijan and religious Muslims in Iranian Azarbaijan. Since Azerbaijan's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been renewed interest in religion and cross-border ethnic ties.


Azerbaijan is believed to be named after Atropates, a Median satrap (governor) who ruled in Atropatene (modern Iranian Azarbaijan). Atropates is derived from Old Persian roots meaning "protected by fire." Azerbaijan has seen a host of inhabitants and invaders, including Caucasians, Medes, Scythians, Persians, Armenians, Greeks, Romans, Khazars, Arabs, Oghuz, Seljuks, Mongols, and Russians.

Ancient period

Caucasian Albanians are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Azerbaijan. Early invaders included the Scythians in the ninth century BCE. Following the Scythians, the Medes came to dominate the area to the south of the Aras. The Medes forged a vast empire between 900-700 BCE, which was overthrown by the Achaemenids around 550 BCE. During this period, Zoroastrianism spread in Azerbaijan. The Achaemenids in turn were defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, but the Median satrap Atropates was allowed to remain in power. Following the decline of the Seleucids in Persia in 247 BCE, an Armenian Kingdom exercised control over parts of Azerbaijan between 190 BCE to 428 CE. Caucasian Albanians established a kingdom in the 1st century BCE and largely remained independent until the Sassanids made the kingdom a vassal state in 252 CE. Caucasian Albania's ruler, King Urnayr, officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century CE, and Albania would remain a Christian state until the 8th century. Sassanid control ended with their defeat by Muslim Arabs in 642 CE.

Medieval period

Image:Selçuklu kartalı.jpg
The Seljuk coat of arms: a double headed eagle

Muslim Arabs defeated the Sassanids and Byzantines as they marched into the Caucasus region. The Arabs made Caucasian Albania a vassal state after the Christian resistance, led by Prince Javanshir, surrendered in 667. Between the 9th and 10th centuries, Arab authors began to refer to the region between the Kura and Aras rivers as Arran. During this time, Arabs from Basra and Kufa came to Azerbaijan and seized lands that indigenous peoples had abandoned; the Arabs became a land-owning elite. Conversion to Islam was slow as local resistance persisted for centuries and resentment grew as small groups of Arabs began migrating to cities such as Tabriz and Maraghah. This influx sparked a major rebellion in Iranian Azarbaijan from 816–837, led by a local commoner named Bābak. However, despite pockets of continued resistance, the majority of the inhabitants of Azerbaijan converted to Islam. Later on, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Kurdish dynasties of Shaddadid and Rawadid ruled parts of Azerbaijan.

In the middle of the 11th century, the Seljuq dynasty overthrew Arab rule and established an empire that encompassed most of Southwest Asia. The Seljuk period marked the influx of Oghuz nomads into the region and, thus, the beginning of the turkification of Azerbaijan as the West Oghuz Turkic language supplanted earlier Caucasian and Iranian ones.

However, Iranian cultural influence survived, as evidenced by the works of then contemporary writers such as Persian poet Nezāmī Ganjavī. The emerging Turkic identity was chronicled in epic poems or dastans, the oldest being the Book of Dede Korkut, which relate allegorical tales about the early Turks in the Caucasus and Asia Minor. Turkic dominion was interrupted by the Mongols in 1227 and later the Mongols and Tamerlane ruled the region until 1405. Turkic rule returned with the Sunni Qara Qoyunlū (Black Sheep Turkmen) and Aq Qoyunlū (White Sheep Turkmen), who dominated Azerbaijan until the Shi'a Safavids took power in 1501.

Modern period

Early 20th century fruit market in Urmia, Persia
Early 20th century fruit market in Urmia, Persia

The Safavids, who rose from Iranian Azerbaijan, established a the modern multi-ethnic Iranian state, which lasted until 1722. Noted for achievements in state building, architecture, and the sciences, the Safavid state crumbled due to internal decay and external pressures from the Russians and Afghans. The Safavids encouraged and spread Shi'a Islam which is an important part of the national identity of Iranian Azerbaijani people as well as many Azerbaijanis from the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Safavids encouraged the arts and culture and Shah Abbas the Great created an intellectual atmosphere which according to some scholars was a new Golden Age of Persia. He reformed the government and the military, and responded to the needs of the common people.

After the Safavid state came brief Ottoman rule followed by the conquest of Nadir Shah Afshar, a chieftain from Khorasan who reduced the power of the Shi'a. The brief reign of Karim Khan came next, followed by the Qajars, who ruled Azerbaijan and Iran starting in 1779. Russia loomed as a threat to Persian holdings in the Caucasus in this period. The Russo-Persian Wars began in the 18th century and ended in the early 19th century with the Gulistan Treaty of 1813 and the Turkmanchai Treaty in 1828, which officially gave the Caucasian portion of Qajar Iran to the Russian Empire..

Iranian Azerbaijan's role in the Iranian constitutional revolution cannot be underestimated. The greatest figures of the democracy seeking revolution Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan were both from Iranian Azerbaijan. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 shook the Qajar dynasty, whose kings had virtually sold the country to the tobacco and oil interests of the British Empire and has lost territory to the Russian empire. A parliament (Majlis) came into existence by the efforts of the constitutionalists. It was accompanied in some regions by a peasant revolt against tax collectors and landlords, the only indigenous mainstay of the monarchy. Pro-democracy newspapers appeared, and Iranian intellectuals began to relish the modernist breezes blowing from Paris and Petrograd. The Qajar Shah and his British advisers crushed the Constitutional Revolution, but the demise of the dynasty could not be long postponed. The last Shah of the Qajar dynasty was soon removed by a military coup led by Reza Khan, an officer of an old Cossack regiment, which had been created by Czarist Russia and officered by Russians to protect the Qajar ruler and Russian interests. In the quest of imposing national homogeneity on the country where half of the population consisted of ethnic minorities, Reza Shah issued in quick succession bans on the use of Azerbaijani language on the premises of schools, in theatrical performances, religious ceremonies, and, finally, in the publication of books.

With the dethronment of Reza Shah in September 1941, Russian troops captured Tabriz and northwestern Persia for military and strategic reasons. Azerbaijan People's Government, a client state set up by the order of Stalin himself, under leadership of Sayyid Jafar Pishevari was proclaimed in Tabriz However, under pressure by the Western countries, the Soviet army was soon withdrawn, and the Iranian government regained control over Iranian Azerbaijan by the end of 1946.

According to Professor. Gary R. Hess:

Azerbaijani people
On December 11, an Iranian force entered Tabriz and the Peeshavari government quickly collapsed. Indeed the Iranians were enthusiastically welcomed by the people of Azerbaijan, who strongly preferred dominination by Tehran rather than Moscow. The Soviet willingness to forego its influence in (Iranian) Azerbaijan probably resulted from several factors, including the realization that the sentiment for autonomy had been exaggerated and that oil concessions remained the more desirable long-term Soviet Objective.
Azerbaijani people

While the Azeris in Iran largely integrated into modern Iranian society, the northern Azeris lived through the transition from the Russian Empire to brief independence from 1918-1920 and then incorporation into the Soviet Union despite pleas by Woodrow Wilson for their independence at the Treaty of Versailles conference. The Republic of Azerbaijan achieved independence in 1991, but became embroiled in a war over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.


In many references, Azerbaijanis are designated as a Turkic people, due to their Turkic language and partial descent from the Oghuz. However, there is a debate regarding the ethnic origins of the Azeris. The debate has to do with modern nationalism and historic claims over Azeri territory. The debate involves three viewpoints: whether the Azeris are of a Turkic background from Central Asia, are an Iranian people who simply changed their language following Turkic invasions, or are indigenous to the Caucasus and have adopted the Azerbaijani language, Persian culture, and Islam. Thus, determining whether a Turkic, Iranian, or Caucasian background defines the Azeris has much to do with the historical views of Azeribaijan's neighbors.

Azeris in downtown Baku, Azerbaijan
Azeris in downtown Baku, Azerbaijan

According to the Encyclopædia of Islam:

Azerbaijani people
[as consequence of Oghuz Turkic domination in the Caucasus, beginning the 12th century] the Iranian population of Ādharbāyjān and the adjacent parts of Transcaucasia became Turkophone while the characteristic features of Ādharbāyjānī Turkish, such as Persian intonations and disregard of the vocalic harmony, reflect the non-Turkish origin of the Turkicised population.
Azerbaijani people

The Encyclopædia Britannica states that Azeris:

Azerbaijani people
are of mixed ethnic origin, the oldest element deriving from the indigenous population of eastern Transcaucasia and possibly from the Medians of northern Persia. This population was Persianized during the period of the Sasanian dynasty of Iran (3rd–7th century AD), but, after the region's conquest by the Seljuq Turks in the 11th century, the inhabitants were Turkicized, and further Turkicization of the population occurred in the ensuing centuries.
Azerbaijani people

This view supports initial genetic studies conducted in the Republic of Azerbaijan that link the modern Azeris primarily to their neighbors in the Caucasus and, to a lesser extent, northwestern Iran. Further studies with Azeris in Iran may help determine to what extent the modern Azeris are related to Caucasian peoples (notably the Albanians and Armenians) and Iranians (primarily the Medes).

Turkic theory

Sattar Khan (1868-1914) was a major revolutionary figure in the late Qajar period in Iran.
Sattar Khan (1868-1914) was a major revolutionary figure in the late Qajar period in Iran.

The Turkic origin theory is based upon the Azerbaijani language and favored by those who believe that centuries of heavy Turkic settlement shaped Azerbaijan's Turkic identity. The Turkic theory does not alter the general view of the Azeris as a Turkic people, but discusses to what extent Turkic groups changed the demographics of the Eastern Caucasus and Iranian Azarbaijan.

Although, "Turkic penetration probably began in the Hunnic era and its aftermath," there is little evidence to indicate, "permanent settlements". The earliest major Turkic incursion began with Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1040) and accelerated during the Seljuk period. The migration of Oghuz Turks from present day Turkmenistan, which is attested by linguistic similarity, remained high through the Mongol period, as many troops under the Ilkhans were Turkic. By the Safavid period, the turkification of Azerbaijan continued with the influence of the Kizilbash. The very name Azerbaijan is derived from the pre-Turkic name of the province, Azarbayjan or Adarbayjan, and illustrates a gradual language shift that took place as local place names survived turkification, albeit in altered form.

The Book of Dede Korkut could be a document that supports a substantial Oghuz migration into Azerbaijan. UNESCO recently celebrated the 1300th anniversary of this epic work. Despite its purported age, most academics believe that the Book of Dede Korkut originated after the Oghuz entered the Caucasus, with its written text having been compiled in the 15th century. Most academics view this migration as the most likely source of a Turkic background, but one that most likely involved the turkification of predominantly indigenous peoples.

Iranian theory

Statue of Nezami Ganjavi, a 12th century writer and philosopher, in Baku, Azerbaijan. Nezami is a major literary figure to both Azeris and Persians.
Statue of Nezami Ganjavi, a 12th century writer and philosopher, in Baku, Azerbaijan. Nezami is a major literary figure to both Azeris and Persians.

The Iranian origin theory, favoured by some notable scholars and sources, is based upon the ancient presence of Iranic tribes, such as the Medes, in Iranian Azarbaijan, and Scythian invasions during the eighth century BCE. It is believed that the Medes mixed with an indigenous population, the Caucasian Mannai, a Northeast Caucasian group related to the Urartians.

Scholars see cultural similarities between modern Persians and Azeris as evidence of an ancient Iranian influence. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism was prominent throughout the Caucasus before Christianity and Islam and that the influence of various Persian Empires added to the Iranian character of the area. It has also been hypothesized that the population of Iranian Azarbaijan was predominantly Persian-speaking before the Oghuz arrived. This claim is supported by the many Azerbaijani literary figures, such as Qatran Tabrizi, Shams Tabrizi, Nezami, and Khaghani, who wrote in Persian prior to and during the Oghuz migration, as well as by Strabo, Al-Istakhri, and Al-Masudi, who all describe the language of the region as Persian. The claim is mentioned by other medieval historians, such as Al-Muqaddasi. Other common Perso-Azeribaijani features include Iranian place names such as Tabriz and Baku.

The modern presence of the Iranian Talysh and Tats in Azerbaijan is further evidence of the former Iranian character of the region. As a precursor to these modern groups, the ancient Azaris are hypothesized as the main ancestors of the modern Azerbaijanis. However, ancient historians, including Herodotus, Polybius and Strabo, mention the region as a mixed one, with Iranian and non-Iranian groups, such as the Utii, a Caucasian group that still exists in Azerbaijan.

Caucasian theory

Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1838-1924), a leading Azeri industrialist and philanthropist
Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1838-1924), a leading Azeri industrialist and philanthropist

There is evidence that, despite repeated invasions and migrations, aboriginal Caucasians may have been culturally assimilated, first by Iranians and later by the Oghuz. Audrey Alstadt notes in The Azerbaijani Turks that many Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan regard both the Oghuz and the Caucasian Albanians as their ancestors. Considerable information has been learned about the Caucasian Albanians including their language, history, early conversion to Christianity, and close ties to the Armenians. Many academics believe that the Udi language, still spoken in Azerbaijan, is a remnant of the Albanians' language.

This Caucasian influence extended further south into Iranian Azarbaijan. During the 1st millennium BCE, another Caucasian people, the Mannaeans (Mannai) populated much of Iranian Azarbaijan. Weakened by conflicts with the Assyrians, the Mannaeans are believed to have been conquered and assimilated by the Medes by 590 BCE.

The extent to which cultural assimilation took place is unclear. By examining the historical record, archaeological finds, and, in recent years, genealogical DNA testing, a team of researchers has put forth the view that indigenous peoples were often assimilated rather than being killed or driven out. In the case of the Azeris, this would mean that the majority today are descendents of the earliest settlers of the Caucasus. However, this view would require strong genetic evidence that peoples in the Caucasus are related despite their linguistic and cultural differences.


Though the population of Azerbaijan is culturally diverse, genetic testing has revealed common genetic markers that support an autochthonous background for most Azeris. A 2003 study found that: " Y-chromosome haplogroups indicate that Indo-European-speaking Armenians and Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanians are genetically more closely related to their geographic neighbors in the Caucasus than to their linguistic neighbors elsewhere." The authors of this study suggest that this indicates a language replacement of indigenous Caucasian peoples. There is evidence of limited genetic admixture derived from Central Asians (specifically Haplogroup H12), notably the Turkmen, that is higher than that of their neighbors, the Georgians and Armenians. MtDNA analysis indicates that the main relationship with Iranians is through a larger West Eurasian group that is secondary to that of the Caucasus, according to a study that did not include Azeris, but Georgians who have clustered with Azeris in other studies. The conclusion from the testing shows that the Azeris are a mixed population with relationships, in order of greatest similarity, with the Caucasus, Iranians and Near Easterners, Europeans, and Turkmen. Other genetic analysis of mtDNA and Y-chromosomes indicates that Caucasian populations are genetically intermediate between Europeans and Near Easterners, but that they are more closely related to Near Easterners overall. Another study, conducted in 2003 by the Russian Journal of Genetics, compared Iranians in Azerbaijan (the Talysh and Tats) with Turkic Azerbaijanis and found that,

Azerbaijani people
the genetic structure of the populations examined with the other Iranian-speaking populations (Persians and Kurds from Iran, Ossetins, and Tajiks) and Azerbaijanis showed that Iranian-speaking populations from Azerbaijan were more close to Azerbaijanis, than to Iranian-speaking populations inhabiting other world regions.
Azerbaijani people

The conclusion from this study further supports the view that groups within close geographic proximity to the Azeris are genetically similar despite linguistic differences. A recent study of the genetic landscape of Iran was completed by a team of Cambridge geneticists led by Dr. Maziar Ashrafian Bonab (an Iranian Azarbaijani). Bonab remarked that his group had done extensive DNA testing on different language groups, including Indo-European and non Indo-European speakers, in Iran. The study found that the Azerbaijanis of Iran do not have a similar FSt and other genetic markers found in Anatolian and European Turks. However, the genetic Fst and other genetic traits like MRca and mtDNA of Iranian Azeris were identical to Persians in Iran. These studies suffer from some drawbacks, including a lack of specific comparative studies between Azeribaijanis from Iran and Azerbaijan.


Historically the Turkic people of Iranian Azerbaijan and the Caucasus called themselves or were referred to by others as Turks and religious identification prevailed over ethnic identification. When Transacaucasia became part of the Russian empire, Russian authorities, who traditionally called all Turkic people Tatars, called Azeris Aderbeijani/Azerbaijani or Caucasian Tatars to distinguish them from other Turkic people, also called Tatars by Russians. Russian Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary also refers to Azerbaijanis as Aderbeijans in some articles. According to the article Turko-Tatars of the above encyclopedia, “some scholars (Yadrintsev, Kharuzin, Shantr) suggested to change the terminology of some Turko-Tatar people, who somatically don’t have much in common with Turks, for instance, to call Aderbaijani Tatars (Iranians by type) Aderbaijans”. The modern ethnonym Azerbaijani/Azeri in its present form was accepted in 1930s.

Demographics and society

There are an estimated 24 to 33 million Azerbaijanis in the world, but census figures are difficult to verify. The vast majority live in Azerbaijan and Iranian Azarbaijan. Between 16 and 23 million Azeris live in Iran, mainly in the northwestern provinces. Approximately 7.6 million Azeris are found in the Republic of Azerbaijan. A diaspora, possibly numbering in the millions, is found in neighboring countries and around the world. There are sizeable communities in Turkey, Georgia, Russia, USA, Canada, Germany and other countries.

While population estimates in Azerbaijan are considered reliable due to regular censuses taken, the figures for Iran remain questionable. Since the early 20th century, successive Iranian governments have avoided publishing statistics on ethnic groups. Unofficial population estimates of Azeris in Iran range from 20-24%. However, many Iran scholars, such as Nikki Keddie, Patricia J. Higgins, Shahrough Akhavi, Ali Reza Sheikholeslami, and others, claim that Azeris may comprise as much as one third of Iran's population.

A large expatriate community of Azerbaijanis is found outside Azerbaijan and Iran. According to Ethnologue, there were over 1 million Azerbaijani-speakers of the north dialect in southern Dagestan, Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as of 1993. Other sources, such as national censuses, confirm the presence of Azeris throughout the former Soviet Union. The Ethnologue figures are outdated in the case of Armenia, where conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has affected the population of Azeris. Ethnologue further reports that an additional 1 million South Azeris live outside Iran, but these figures most likely are a reference to the Iraqi Turkmen, a distinct though related Turkic people.

Azeris in Azerbaijan

By far the largest ethnic group in Azerbaijan (over 90%), the Azeris generally tend to dominate most aspects of the country. Unlike most of their ethnic brethren in Iran, the majority of Azeris are secularized from decades of official Soviet atheism. The literacy rate is high, another Soviet legacy, and is estimated at 98.8%. Whereas most urban Azeris are educated, education remains comparatively lower in rural areas. A similar disparity exists with healthcare.

Azeri society has been deeply impacted by the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has displaced nearly 1 million Azeris and put strains upon the economy. Azerbaijan has benefited from the oil industry, but high levels of corruption have prevented greater prosperity for the masses. Many Azeris have grown frustrated over the political process in Azerbaijan as the election of current President Ilham Aliyev has been described as "marred by allegations of corruption and brutal crackdowns on his political opposition". Despite these problems, there is a renaissance in Azerbaijan as positive economic predictions and an active political opposition appear determined to improve the lives of average Azeris.

Azeris in Iran

Azerbaijanis in Iran are mainly found in the northwest provinces: East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardebil, Zanjan, and Markazi. Many others live in Tehran, Fars Province, and other regions. Generally, Azeris in Iran have been, "a well integrated linguistic minority", according to academics such as anthropologist Patricia Higgins. In fact, until the Pahlavi period in the 20th century, "the identity of Iran was not exclusively Persian, but supra-ethnic", as much of the political leadership, starting from the 11th century, had been Turkic. The Iranian and Turkic groups were integrated until 20th century nationalism and communalism began to alter popular perception. Despite friction, Azerbaijanis in Iran came to be well represented at all levels of, "political, military, and intellectual hierarchies, as well as the religious hierarchy."

Resentment came with Pahlavi policies that suppressed the use of the Azerbaijani language in local government, schools, and the press. However with the advent of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, emphasis shifted away from nationalism as the new government highlighted religion as the main unifying factor. Within the Islamic Revolutionary government there emerged an Azeri nationalist faction led by Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, who advocated greater regional autonomy and wanted the constitution to be revised to include secularists and opposition parties; this was denied. Azeri nationalism has oscillated since the Islamic revolution and recently escalated into riots over the publication in May 2006 of a cartoon that many Azeris found offensive. The cartoon was drawn by Mana Neyestani, an ethnic Azeri, who was fired along with his editor as a result of the controversy.

Despite sporadic problems, Azeris are an intrinsic community within Iran. Currently, the living conditions of Azeris in Iran closely resemble that of Persians:

Azerbaijani people
The life styles of urban Azarbaijanis do not differ from those of Persians, and there is considerable intermarriage among the upper classes in cities of mixed populations. Similarly, customs among Azarbaijani villagers do not appear to differ markedly from those of Persian villagers.
Azerbaijani people

Andrew Burke writes:

Azerbaijani people
Azari are famously active in commerce and in bazaars all over Iran their voluble voices can be heard. Older Azari men wear the traditional wool hat and their music and dances have become part of the mainstream culture. Azaris are well integrated and many Azari Iranians are prominent in Farsi literature, politics and clerical world.
Azerbaijani people

Azeris in Iran are in high positions of authority with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei currently sitting as the Supreme Leader. Azeris in Iran remain quite conservative in comparison to most Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, since the Republic of Azerbaijan's independence in 1991, there has been renewed interest and contact between Azeris on both sides of the border.


In many respects, Azeris are Eurasian and bi-cultural, as northern Azeris have absorbed Russo-Soviet and Eastern European influences, whereas the Azeris of the south have remained within the Turko-Iranian tradition. Modern Azeri culture includes significant achievements in literature, art, music, and film.

Muhammad Fuzûlî, 16th century poet
Muhammad Fuzûlî, 16th century poet

Language and literature

The Azerbaijanis speak Azerbaijani (sometimes called Azerbaijani Turkish or Azeri), a Turkic language that is mutually intelligible with Turkish despite minor variations in accent, vocabulary and grammar. Other mutually intelligible Turkic languages include Turkmen and the Turkish spoken by the Turkomans of Iraq and the Qashqai. The Azerbaijani language is descended from the Western Oghuz Turkic language that became established in Azerbaijan in the 11th century CE. Early Oghuz was mainly an oral language. It began to develop as a literary language by the 13th century. Early oral Azerbaijani, derived from the Oghuz language, began with history recitations (dastans), including the Book of Dede Korkut and Koroglu, which contained Turkic mythology. Some of the earliest Azeri writings of the past are traced back to the poet Nesîmî (died 1417) and then decades later Fuzûlî (1483–1556). Ismail I, Shah of Safavid Persia wrote Azeri poetry under the pen name Khatâ'i. Modern Azeri literature continued with a traditional emphasis upon, humanism, as conveyed in the writings of Samed Vurgun, Reza Baraheni, Shahriar, and many others.

In addition to their mother tongue, many Azerbaijanis are equally at home in Russian and/or Persian.


The majority of Azerbaijanis are Shi'a Muslims. Religious minorities include Sunni Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and Bahá'ís. While only a small minority of Azeris in Iran are Sunni, between 25-40% of Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan identify as nominal Sunnis, and an unknown number show no religious affiliation. In the Republic of Azerbaijan traditions from other religions are often celebrated in addition to Islamic holidays, including Norouz and Christmas.

Performance art

Performing Azeri musicians
Performing Azeri musicians

Azeris express themselves in a variety of artistic ways including dance, music, and the media. Azeri folk dances are ancient and similar to that of their neighbours in the Caucasus and Iran. The group dance is a common form found from southeastern Europe to the Caspian Sea. In the group dance the performers come together in a semi-circular or circular formation as, "The leader of these dances often executes special figures as well as signaling and changes in the foot patterns, movements, or direction in which the group is moving, often by gesturing with his or her hand, in which a kerchief is held." Solitary dances are performed by both men and women and involve subtle hand motions in addition to sequenced steps.

Azeri musical tradition can be traced back to singing bards called Ashiqs, a vocation that survives to this day. Modern Ashiqs play the saz ( lute) and sing dastans (historical ballads). Other musical instruments include the tar (another type of lute), duduk (a wind instrument), Kamancha (fiddle), and the dhol (drums). Azeri classical music, called mugham, is often an emotional singing performance. Composers Uzeyir Hajibeyov, Gara Garayev and Fikret Amirov created a hybrid style that combines Western classical music with mugham. Other Azeris, notably Vagif Mustafa Zadeh and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, mixed jazz with mugham. Some Azeri musicians have received international acclaim, including Rashid Behbudov (who could sing in over eight languages) and Muslim Magomayev (a pop star from the Soviet era).

Meanwhile in Iran, Azeri music has taken a different course. According to Iranian Azeri singer Hossein Alizadeh, "Historically in Iran, music faced strong opposition from the religious establishment, forcing it to go underground." As a result, most Iranian Azeri music is performed outside of Iran amongst exile communities.

Azeri film and television is largely broadcast in Azerbaijan with limited outlets in Iran. Some Azeris have been prolific film-makers, such as Rustam Ibragimbekov, who wrote Burnt by the Sun, winner of the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994. Many Iranian Azeris have been prominent in the cinematic tradition of Iran, which has received critical praise since the 1980s.


Chess player Teimour Radjabov
Chess player Teimour Radjabov

Sports have historically been an important part of Azeri life. Numerous competitions were conducted on horseback and praised by poets and writers such as Gatran Tabrizi and Nezami Ganjavi. Other ancient sports include wrestling, javelin throwing and ox-wrestling.

The Soviet legacy has in modern times propelled some Azeris to become accomplished atheletes at the Olympic level. The Azeri government supports the country's athletic legacy and encourages Azeri youth to take part. Football is very popular in both Azerbaijan and Iranian Azarbaijan. There are many prominent Azeri soccer players such as Ali Daei, the world's all-time leading goal scorer in international matches and the former captain of the Iran national soccer team. Azeri athletes have particularly excelled in weight lifting, gymnastics, shooting, javelin throwing, karate, boxing, and wrestling. Weight lifters, such as Nizami Pashayev, who won the European heavyweight title in 2006, have inspired a new generation of Azeris to compete at the international level.

Chess is another popular pastime in Azerbaijan. The country has produced many notable players, such as Teimour Radjabov and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, both highly ranked internationally, and Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion.


Kerim Kerimov (1917-2003) was a leading scientist and figure in the Soviet space program.
Kerim Kerimov (1917-2003) was a leading scientist and figure in the Soviet space program.

Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan have developed distinct institutions as a result of divergent socio-political evolution. Azerbaijan began the 20th century with institutions based upon those of Russia and the Soviet Union, with strict state control over most aspects of society. Since, they have moved towards the adoption of Western social models as of the late 20th century. Since independence, relaxed state controls have allowed local civil society to develop. In contrast, in Iranian Azerbaijan Islamic theocratic institutions dominate nearly all aspects of society, with most political power in the hands of the Supreme Leader of Iran and the Council of Guardians. Yet both societies are in a state of change. In Azerbaijan there is a secular democratic system that is mired in political corruption and charges of election fraud. Azerbaijan's civil society is a work in progress:

Azerbaijani people
The lack of more 'modern' forms of self-organization and the experience of liberal democratic rule is the main reason why the building of civil society and the process of democratization in Azerbaijan takes place in a parallel rather than linear way. In the result, today Azerbaijan society may be characterized mostly as quasi civil and quasi democratic society the structures and institutions of which having signs of civil and democratic society from the standpoint of their level of development do not correspond to the modern criteria of the modern democratic society.
Azerbaijani people

Despite these problems Azerbaijan has an active political opposition that seeks more expansive democratic reforms. Azeris in Iran remain intertwined with the Islamic republic's theocratic regime and lack any significant civil society of a secular nature that can pose a major challenge. There are signs of civil unrest due to the policies of the Iranian government in Iranian Azarbaijan and increased interaction with fellow Azeris in Azerbaijan and satellite broadcasts from Turkey have revived Azeri nationalism.


Azeri girl from Shusha (late 19th—early 20th century)
Azeri girl from Shusha (late 19th—early 20th century)

Azeri females have historically struggled against a legacy of male domination but have made great strides since the 20th century. In Azerbaijan, women were granted the right to vote in 1919. Women have attained Western-style equality in major cities such as Baku, although in rural areas more traditional views remain. Some problems that are especially prevalent include violence against women, especially in rural areas. Crimes such as rape are severely punished in Azerbaijan, but rarely reported, not unlike other parts of the former Soviet Union. Azeri women were forced to "give up the veil," placing Azerbaijan in sharp contrast with Iranian Azarbajan. Women are underrepresented in elective office but have attained high positions in parliament. An Azeri woman is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Azerbaijan, and two others are Justices of the Constitutional Court. As of 6 November 2005, women constituted 12% of all MPs (15 seats in total) in the National Assembly of Azerbaijan. The Republic of Azerbaijan is also one of the few Muslim countries where abortion is available on demand.

In Iran, the continued unequal treatment of women has been met with increasingly vocal protests, including that of Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her strong advocacy for women's rights. A groundswell of grassroots movements have emerged seeking gender equality since the 1980s. Regular protests take place in defiance of government bans and are often dispersed through violence, as in June 2006 when: "Thousands of women and male supporters came together on June 12 in Haft Tir Square in Tehran", and were dispersed through, "brutal suppression." Past Iranian leaders, such as Mohammad Khatami, promised women greater rights, but the government has opposed changes that they interpret as contrary to Islamic doctrine. As of 2004, nine Azeri women have been elected to parliament ( Majlis) and while most are committed to social change, some represent conservative positions regarding gender issues. The social fate of Azeri women largely mirrors that of other women in Iran.

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