Azerbaijan Country Profile
Between the towering Caucasus Mountains and turquoise waters of the Caspian Sea lies Azerbaijan, a country rich in oil, Turkic culture and heartfelt hospitality. Nicknamed ‘The Land of Fire’ for its possession of gas-spewing mud volcanoes, the continually burning Fire Mountain (Yanar Dag) and strong historical ties to the fire-worshiping Zoroastrian religion, the fiery spirit of this oft beleaguered nation has helped to transform it to a state of stability and prominence today.
To the curious traveler, Azerbaijan offers natural wonders and magnificent monuments of architecture - ruins of medieval cities, fortresses and towers, temples, mosques, palaces, mausoleums and caravanserais. Yet it’s the character of the people beautifully expressed through their music, dance, handicrafts, cuisine and sociable nature that color the fabric of the country’s tapestry. Take the first step into the Land of Fire with the Azerbaijan Country Profile to learn about its multi-faceted history, language and culture.
Azerbaijan Country Facts
Official Name: Republic of Azerbaijan
Capital of Azerbaijan: Baku
Azerbaijan Population (2019): 10.1 million
Total area: 86,600 square km
Land Boundaries: Georgia (north), Russia (north), Caspian Sea (east), Iran (south), Armenia (west); The Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic also borders Turkey
Climate: slightly continental and subtropical, but varies greatly depending on region
National Language: Azerbaijani
Ethnic Makeup of Azerbaijan: Azerbaijani (91.6%), Lezghin (2%), Russian (1.3%), Armenian (1.3%), Talysh (1.3%), other (2.4%)
Religious Affiliation: Islam, Shi’a (82.4%), Islam, Sunni (14.5%), Christian (3%), other (.1%)
Date of Independence: Independence from the USSR on October 18, 1991
Internet Domain: .az
President: Ilham Aliyev
Administrative Divisions: 66 districts, 11 cities, one autonomous republic (Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic)
National currency: Azerbaijani manat (AZN)
National GDP: 57 USD billion (2019)
Electricity: 230V AC, 50 Hz; type C and F round two-pin plugs are standard
Flag of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan’s flag was first unfurled when the country gained brief independence in 1918. The flag was later banned during the decades of Soviet rule and was officially re-adopted as the national flag shortly before Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991.
Azerbaijan’s flag consists of three horizontal stripes – blue on top, red in the middle and green on the bottom. In the center of the flag, transposed on the red stripe, is a white crescent moon and an 8-pointed star.
Blue is symbolic of freedom, the vast blue sky over the land, and the unity of Azerbaijan with all Turkic peoples.
Red represents progress and development, democracy and modern society.
Green denotes the environment and Azerbaijan’s ties to Islam.
The crescent moon was inspired by the same symbol on Turkey’s flag and is a testament to Azerbaijan’s association with Islam and Muslims all around the world.
The 8-pronged star is a reference to the eight Turkic tribes who are said to be ancestors of present-day Azerbaijanis and to each of the eight letters of the country’s name in Arabic.
Civilizations have existed in present-day Azerbaijan since at least the 6th century BC, when the Persians under Cyrus the Great gained control of the land. The Persians introduced Zoroastrianism and countless Persian customs to the territory.
Alexander the Great conquered the land and ruled until his death in 323 BC. As various rulers vied for power in the area, the existing tribes slowly developed into different nation-states, and the area became collectively known as Aghvan, Aran and Caucasian Albania. By the 2nd century BC, the first unified state had appeared on the territory.
The Sasanids gained control of Caucasian Albania in the 3rd century AD. Following Armenia’s example, Christianity was adopted as the kingdom’s official religion.
Arab conquest changed the course of the land in the 7th century. During their rule foundations were laid for the formation of a national language and cultural identity, and Islam became the official religion.
Seljuk Turks gained power in the 11th century, making Turkish the predominant language. Over time, the Turkish language in Azerbaijan slowly evolved into the present-day language spoken by Azerbaijan’s population.
The start of the 12th century was a bright point in Azerbaijan’s history as Azeri culture became become well-established before the invasions of the ensuing centuries. With the Mongol invasion of 1236, Azerbaijan was ushered into a period of foreign rule and conquest.
Around 1500, the Persian Safavid dynasty gained victory over northern Azerbaijan. The Safavids introduced Shi’a Islam, and today the majority of Azerbaijanis continue to follow this branch of Islam.
Azerbaijan’s Renaissance dawned in the late 15th-early 16th centuries when Sheikh Ismail Hatai united north and south Azerbaijan, creating the formidable Sefevid Dynasty.
In 1739 the Sefevid Dynasty began to crumble, and in the void Azerbaijani general Nadir-Shakh rose to power, managing to conquer lands as far away as India. After his death however, his short-lived empire collapsed.
Beginning in the mid-18th century, Northern Azerbaijan was broken into smaller states. Gradually the Gadzhars gained control, seeking to consolidate Nadir-Shakh’s territories and maintaining rule over Iran for a short time.
By the early 19th century the Persians had begun to invade northern Azerbaijan’s states, prompting the Azerbaijan population to turn to Russia for help. Russia, in response, began annexing Azerbaijan into its territory. After two humiliating defeats for Iran, it was forced to sign away further Azerbaijani land to Russia in the Treaty of Gulistan (1813) and Treaty of Turkamanchai (1828).
During the 1800s Russia sought to weaken Azerbaijan by forcibly moving minority Christian people groups into Azerbaijan’s cities, a practice that eventually led to the nation’s violent conflicts of the 20th century.
In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution transformed Russia into the Soviet Union. In backlash, the anti-Bolshevik Transcaucasian Federation of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan formed. It split up the next year, however, and North Azerbaijan began its fight for independence. With help from Turkey, it became the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on May 28, 1918, the first democratic republic in the Islamic world.
Just two year later, on April 28, 1920, Russia’s Red Army invaded Azerbaijan, bringing an end to its short-lived independence. In 1922 Azerbaijan officially joined the USSR. The Soviets slowly partitioned away its land to Armenia, and by the end of this reshuffling the Azerbaijan territory of Nakchivan was completely cut off from the rest of the country. In 1936, Azerbaijan became a separate republic within the USSR, and remained so until independence in 1991.
In 1988, ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region began to fight for unification with Armenia. The struggle developed into a war which lasted the next six years. Over one million Azerbaijanis were forced to flee their homeland of Nagorno-Karabakh, becoming internally displaced refugees within their own country. Azerbaijan lost six regions and almost 20% of its total territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan declared its independence from the USSR on August 30th, 1991, and their status as an independent republic was made official on October 18th of the same year.
A ceasefire with Armenia was signed in 1994, although the conflict has never been resolved and the countries remain enemies, with borders and trade routes between them closed off. Despite offers of high autonomy, Nagorno-Karabakh maintains their complete independence from Azerbaijan.
In the 21st century, Azerbaijan has developed into an oil-rich and influential nation in the Caucasus.
Government of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is a presidential republic, with its current constitution adopted in 1995.
The government is divided into three branches: the executive branch, consisting of the cabinet, prime minister and president; the legislative branch, comprised of a 125-member national assembly and a supreme court; and the judicial branch, divided into smaller constitutional courts.
Azerbaijan’s president is elected for 5-year terms, with the option of being re-elected multiple times.
From August 1991-June 1992, the presidential position changed hands five times as political parties and individuals vied for power.
In June 1992, Abdulfaz Elchibey was elected Azerbaijan’s president and served for over a year until the title was given to Heydar Aliyev after 1993 elections. Since 1993, Aliyev’s family has been in power in Azerbaijan, first through his 10 years of rule and then through his son, elected as president in 2003 shortly before his father’s death.
Heydar Aliyev had been a leader in Azerbaijan for more than a decade during Soviet rule, and his post-independence leadership brought the country to a ceasefire with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Aliyev formed contracts with powerful oil companies that saw the nation’s rich deposits of oil and gas develop into the country’s most successive industry.
In August 2003 Heydar Aliyev’s son, Ilham Aliyev, was appointed prime minister by his father, and he was quickly elected to the presidency from that position. He continues as president of Azerbaijan to this day.
Azerbaijan is a member of the United Nations (UN), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Nato’s Partnership for Peace, among others.
Geography of Azerbaijan
Although Azerbaijan may be small in land area, it’s the largest of the three Caucasian nations and graced with a beautiful variety of geographical features: Mountains cover almost half of the country, and wide swaths of lowlands nearly as much territory. In addition, there are wetlands, desert, steppes, valleys, forests and glaciers.
Three separate mountain ranges dominate the country. The Greater Caucasus in northern Azerbaijan are the most imposing and include the country’s highest point, Bazarduzu Peak (4,466m, 14,652ft). The Lesser Caucasus rim southwestern Azerbaijan, and the Talysh Mountains wind through southeast Azerbaijan before continuing into northern Iran.
Azerbaijan is bordered on the east by the Caspian Sea, considered the country’s lowest elevation at -28m (-99ft). The largest lake in Azerbaijan is the man-made Mingachevir Reservoir. Over 1,250 rivers can be found in Azerbaijan, most notably the Kura River and Araz River. In addition, over 1,000 mineral springs provide natural healing and relaxation, the most famous of which are Badamli, Istisu and Sirab.
Other notable land features are the Kura-Aras Lowland, nestled between the tangle of mountain ranges, and the western Karabakh Upland. The land surrounding the Kura River is particularly fertile and composes much of the arable land of Azerbaijan. Semi-desert flatlands are more prominent in the country’s center.
One of Azerbaijan’s most fascinating features is its collection of over 400 mud volcanoes, found primarily along the Caspian Sea coast. Produced by a buildup of gas beneath the earth’s surface, they spew a mixture of mud, oil and water upon explosion. They generally explode once every few decades and are rarely dangerous to humans. Although mud volcanoes are small compared to regular volcanoes, some of the largest in the world are located in Azerbaijan, including Boyuk Khaniadagh and Turaghai.
Climate of Azerbaijan
The country of Azerbaijan has no less than nine out of eleven recognized weather patterns, making it impossible to pinpoint the climate for the entire country. In general, however, the climate ranges from continental to subtropical, with the mountain ranges possessing climate zones all their own. The average temperature in July ranges from 5°C in the Alpine regions to +27°C in low-lying areas, and in January from -10°C to +4°C.
The Caspian Sea coast is arid and temperate, with hot, humid summers, cool winters and sunshine from late spring through mid-autumn. Absheron Peninsula along the Caspian coast receives as little as 200mm (7.9in) of precipitation each year.
The mountain ranges have a tundra climate. The downpours in summer and heavy snowfall in winter are a source for much of Azerbaijan’s drinking water.
Central and eastern Azerbaijan are subtropical and dry, experiencing mild winters but long, hot summers.
Southern Azerbaijan, under the influence of a humid subtropical climate, receives significant amounts of precipitation, especially in winter. The Lankaran Valley is known to be the wettest region in the country, receiving up to 1,700 mm (67in) a year.
Nakhchivan, separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory, has a dry continental climate with hot summers and cold winters.
Summer is the longest season of the year, lasting from May or June through September. The season is marked by hot, sunny and dry weather with occasional thunderstorms and flooding.
Winter begins in November or December and lasts through March. It’s marked by cold, dry weather with limited snowfall, with the exception of the snowy mountain ranges.
Spring is relatively short, arriving in full force by April and departing in May or June. Yet it brings beautiful weather and verdant mountain pastures, a welcome break from the long winter months.
Autumn is considered the most favorable season in Azerbaijan, lasting from mid-September through October or November. It brings exquisite weather and gorgeous colors, followed by a dull and rainy November. This season also sees strong winds, particularly along the Caspian coast.
Azerbaijan’s people personify all the admirable qualities of the wider Turkic culture. Polite and helpful, their friendly nature can quickly endear them to strangers. Laid-back and people-oriented, they know how to prioritize relationships over tasks. Their lavish hospitality extends to friends and strangers alike and is a heartfelt expression of their generosity.
Azerbaijan’s culture has been heavily impacted by Iranian, Turkic and Russian influence. A deep bond over a shared history marred by war, conflict and oppression continues to bind the Azerbaijani people and stir feelings of nationalism and determination.
Although over half of Azerbaijan’s population lives in urban areas and faces ever-increasing influence from the West, traditional values are still held in high regard. Family relationships are extremely important. Three generations may live together in one household, and extended family often support one another financially. Great respect and honor are shown towards the elderly, whose input in important matters holds great weight.
Azerbaijani people beautifully express their nature and cultural heritage through the arts. Carpet-weaving, ceramics and pottery are well-mastered crafts. The classic mugam is the foundation for much of Azerbaijan’s musical forms, a combination of poetry, music and impassioned spontaneity used to express the hopes and desires of the people. Ashiq poetry combines music, dance and rhyme to convey a story of cultural significance. In the early 1900s Azerbaijan became the first Islamic nation to compose and perform an opera, the famed Turkic story “Layli and Majnun”. The country’s high literacy rate further attests to the people’s love of literature and a well-crafted story.
At least 15 notable minority groups exist in Azerbaijan, many of whom have inhabited the land for centuries. These include the historically Persian Talysh, a conservative people predominantly found in Azerbaijan’s border areas with Iran. In the North Caucasus are Lezgins, Avars, Tats and the Georgian speaking Udin people. The remaining Armenian population is found almost exclusively in Nagorno-Karabakh, while the dwindling population of Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians are concentrated in the cities.
Economy and Industry
Like most of the newly independent post-Soviet nations, Azerbaijan struggled for economic and social stability through the early 1990s.
Fortunately, the country lay claim to extensive undeveloped oil fields in the Caspian Sea, and in 1994 Azerbaijan’s leaders signed a contract with some of the world’s largest oil companies to develop and exploit these fields. This contract became known as “The Contract of the Century” and significantly aided the development of Azerbaijan’s economy, leading to the economic upswing that lasted from 1998-2008. In 2017, this contract was extended until 2050, granting further favorable conditions to Azerbaijan.
Oil and gas are by far the nation’s largest sectors, accounting for nearly half of Azerbaijan’s income and over 90% of its total exported items. Yet only a very small segment of the population is employed in this industry, and in recent years the country has worked to strengthen other promising sectors. Economists are in high demand in Azerbaijan’s cities and industries such as ICT, tourism, engineering, food production, transportation and agriculture are on the rise.
In addition, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), a major stretch of the Southern Gas Corridor that will channel gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field to multiple European countries, is expected to be fully functioning by July 2020.
Grain and cotton are the most plenteous crop in Azerbaijan. The country is also famous for its sturgeon harvested from the Caspian Sea. Other natural resources include iron, salt, limestone, copper ore, lead and zinc. Major manufactured items include heavy equipment, appliances and chemical production.
Azerbaijan primarily trades with Italy, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Russia and the Czech Republic. Petroleum and gas are the primary export items and its main imports machinery, equipment, foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals.
Azerbaijani, the official language of Azerbaijan, is a Turkic language of the Southwestern Oghuz sub-branch, most closely related to Turkmen and to the Turkish, Crimean Tatar, Qashqai and Gagauz languages. Although a Turkic language, Azerbaijani also bears the imprint of a strong Arabic influence.
Turkish began to be widely spoken in the region after the invasion of the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, and over time it developed into the modern-day Azerbaijani language. Today, over 33 million people speak Azerbaijani, including 24 million native speakers. It’s the first language of more than 90% of Azerbaijan’s population, many of whom are monolingual.
Azerbaijani is divided into Northern and Southern Azerbaijani, which are regarded by some to be separate languages. Northern Azerbaijani is spoken by more than 6 million people within Azerbaijan and by 1.5 million people in the former USSR. Southern Azerbaijani is spoken by nearly 16 million inhabitants of Iran and 3 million people in the Middle East and United States. Although the two variations are often mutually intelligible, there are significant differences between the two. Farsi has strongly influenced Southern Azerbaijani, and many Russian words have been adopted into Northern Azerbaijani speech.
Within Azerbaijan itself over twenty dialects are present. These dialects are sometimes classified according to the speakers’ geographic location in north, east, south (including Nakkhchivan) and west Azerbaijan. The dialect of Baku is used for standard communication throughout the country.
Azerbaijani literature began to develop as early as the 13th century under the Persian Azeri language, predecessor of today’s Azerbaijani. Although written in the Arabic script for many centuries, in 1940 the alphabet was changed to Cyrillic under Soviet directive. Shortly after independence, in December 1991 Azerbaijan adopted a modified Roman script for its alphabet, which continues to be in use to this day. August 1st is now dedicated to celebrating the Azerbaijani language and alphabet.
While Azerbaijani is the official language of Azerbaijan, at least 15 minority languages are also spoken, several of which are endangered languages only spoken by distinct ethnic groups. There are a few Russian and Armenian schools, the latter nearly exclusively in independently functioning Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian is commonly used as a second language, with English slowly taking precedence in recent years.
Religion of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan has a long religious history – Zoroastrianism was observed in the land before Christianity arrived in the first century and remained the predominant faith of the land for several centuries. Islam was introduced by the Arabs in the 7th century and Shi’a Islam, the prevailing religion of Azerbaijan today, came with the Persian Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century.
Today over 80% of the population self-identifies as Shi’a Muslim. This branch of Islam is particularly dominant among minority groups near the Iranian border, such as the Tats and Talysh, and among most ethnic Azerbaijanis. While traditionally there are many similarities between Sunni and Shi’a practices, the Shi’a Muslims are known for their strong emphasis on martyrdom, showing great respect for saints by visiting their tombs to pay homage, and special observance of religiously significant holidays such as Ashura.
Azerbaijan has an officially secular government and is in fact the most secular nation in the post-Soviet region. While there is a growing number of religious individuals, the majority of the country maintains a religiously nominal outlook in life and practice. Traditional Islamic holidays are not widely observed, and many people attend mosques only for special occasions.
This overall preference for secularism over Islamic practice is in part a product of the nation’s history under Soviet rule and in part a reflection of the fact that many Azerbaijanis feel stronger ties to their nation and cultural identity than they do to any specific religious beliefs.
Sunni Muslims compose at least 15% of the population and are found mainly in northern Azerbaijan and Baku, where they worship side-by-side with Shi’a Muslims at the largest mosque in the Caucasus, Heydar Mosque. This reflects the peaceful interactions that Shi’a and Sunni Muslims generally maintain in Azerbaijan. Many Azerbaijanis are unclear of the differences in their beliefs, or view these differences as insignificant. The Azerbaijanis’ general disdain for the traditionally Christian Armenians also forges bonds between the two branches and further encourages nationalism over religious tradition.
Other minority religions are also present in the country. Azerbaijan was the first Muslim nation to build a Jewish synagogue, and there are now several in the land which serve the thousands of Jews who reside there. The Orthodox population consists mainly of Georgian Orthodox adherents whose ancestors converted from Islam. Today there are a handful of Orthodox and Catholic churches in the country.
Capital of Azerbaijan
Baku, Azerbaijan holds claim to being the world’s lowest lying capital at 28m (92ft) below sea level. Stretched along the Caspian Sea Coast, it’s rightly earned the nickname “City of Winds” for the frequent gusts that descend upon its streets. This oil capital impresses with its wide boulevards, waterways and captivating architecture from nearly every era, which stand today as visual reminders of the country’s colorful and complex history.
Baku’s charming Old City streets (Icheri Sheher) are as close as you can get to time travel, transporting you back to the Middle Ages with its castle-like fortress walls, 12th century Juma Mosque and mysterious six-story Maiden Tower with unknown origins. Synyk-Kala Mosque stands as the oldest Islamic structure in all Azerbaijan while Shirvanshah Palace, where in past times only nobility could set foot, is striking in its grandeur. Bukhara and Multani Caravanserais, which once housed Silk Road travelers from Europe and the Orient, now welcome travelers from the world over to ponder those who came before them.
Baku’s historical treasures are not just confined to the Old City. The storybook Mardakan Castle and Ramana Castle, situated just outside the city, are a testament to the country’s ties to the Yazidi Shirvanshah Dynasty. World famous Ateshgah Fire Temple, an ancient Zoroastrian place of worship believed to be re-erected by Hindus in the 17th century, is one of the capital’s most unique sites.
Stepping into the present day, Baku holds the underground wonder of a Soviet-era metro system, providing clean and speedy transportation throughout the city. Then there’s Little Venice, a labyrinth of waterways that can be explored in gondolas or admired along its walkways and bridges.
Italian imitations aside, Azerbaijan’s Baku has so many modern architectural wonders that it’s commonly compared with Dubai. Take the Heydar Aliyev Center, whose curvy construction is as fascinating as the exhibitions it holds. Then there’s the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, whose roof resembles a rolled-up carpet. The Flame Towers, resembling three enormous sparks, artfully tie modern-day Baku with its deep historical connections to fire.
For patrons of the arts, Baku will not disappoint with its theaters, opera houses and museums, most notably the National Museum of Azerbaijani Literature, Baku Museum of Miniature Books, Azerbaijan National History Museum and the Azerbaijan State Museum of Art. On a more somber note is Martyr’s Lane, a memorial to the victims of Soviet oppression in January 1990, now known as ‘Black January’.
Fountain Square and Baku Boulevard form the true heart of Baku today. Centered here are the Flame Towers, Baku Eye Ferris Wheel, shops, parks, cafes and soothing seaside and city views. A lively atmosphere permeates the area day and night as family, friends and couples gather to stroll the walkway and enjoy all that Baku has to offer.
January 1-2 – New Year holiday
January 20 – Martyr’s Day
March 8 – Women’s Day
March 21-22 – Navruz (Persian New Year)
May 9 – Victory Day
May 28 – Republic Day
June 15 – Salvation Day
June 26 - Armed Forces Day
October 18 – Independence Day
November 9 - Flag Day
November 12 – Constitution Day
November 17 – National Revival Day
December 31 – Solidarity Day, New Year’s Eve
Date varies - Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan celebration)
Date varies - Eid ul-Adha (70 days after Ramadan ends)
Notable Historical Figures
Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) – Poetical genius whose works have shaped the development of literature and poetry beyond Azerbaijan into Persia and the entire Islamic world
Fuzuli (1483-1556) – Born Muhammed Suleyman Oglu, he wrote masterpieces in Azerbaijani, Arabic and Persian. He’s considered one of Azerbaijan’s greatest poets of all time, most noted for his version of “Layli and Majnun”
MollaPanah Vagif (1717-1797) – Gifted author and political activist, his poems centered on love and earned him a spot as one of Azerbaijan’s most renowned and respected writers
Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878)- Playwright and Azerbaijan’s most famous atheist, he’s heralded as a founder of Azerbaijani drama, a renowned literary critic and the catalyst for Azerbaijan’s adoption of a new alphabet
Khurshid Banu Natavan (1830-1897) – One of Azerbaijan’s greatest lyrical poets of all time and the country’s most famous female composer, she was also an artist who focused on love and kindness in her works
Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925) – Political writer and statesman who helped the Soviet Union to establish power in the country and heavily influenced the nation’s course