The name “Azerbaijan” has been traced back to Atropatenes, a Persian lord in the time of Alexander the Great or, more poetically, to azer, the Persian word for fire, on the grounds that it describes the Zoroastrian fire-temples of the region. Until modern times, the word “Azerbaijan” was more often applied to the northern Turkic-populated part of Iran than to the modern-day state of Azerbaijan. Before the twentieth century, outsiders tended to call Azerbaijanis either “Shirvanis” (from around Baku and Shemakha), “Caucasian Tatars,” “Turks,” or just “Muslims.” Their own self-identification was flexible. In the nineteenth century, Brenda Shaffer writes, “Azerbaijanis could consider themselves as both Turks or Iranians, or Russian subjects, with little conflict. Some were active in political movements in all three of the regions, concurrently or at different times of their careers.”
A sense of historical continuity is further fractured by the fact that the Azeri language has been written in three alphabets since the third decade of the twentieth century: the script was changed from Arabic to Roman in the 1920s, to Cyrillic in the 1930s, and back to Roman in the 1990s. That makes it very hard for even an educated Azerbaijani to read his or her recent history. Armenians have forged a cultural identity that has been maintained through an alphabet and literature that is unchanged in different lands all over the world. Azerbaijani identity is the polar opposite of that—the land has remained the same, but the culture within it has been buffeted by constant change.
Azerbaijan’s strongest neighbor and ally is undoubtedly Turkey, but Azerbaijani-Turkish relations have gone through many difficult patches. Many Russian Azerbaijanis maintained a strongly Shiite and anti-Ottoman identity through much of the nineteenth century. Five Shiite Azerbaijani cavalry regiments fought with the Russian army against the Sunni Turks in the war of 1828–29 and were decorated by the tsar in gratitude. Alexander Pushkin saw the Azerbaijani Shiite “Karabakh regiment” in action fighting outside Kars in 1829 and dedicated a poem to a brave Karabakhi horseman. Later, in the Crimean War, the great-nephew of one of the last khans of Karabakh distinguished himself defending the Russian fortress of Sevastopol against the British, French, and Turks.
In political terms, the Azerbaijanis were the late developers of the three main nationalities in the region. In the 1880s, a European scholar wrote that Transcaucasian Turks “very rarely revolt against the rapaciousness of Russian civil and military officers, and they peacefully submit to all kinds of vexations, as long as their family and religious life is not touched upon.” Levels of education were low. According to the all-Russia 1897 census, only 4.7 percent of the “Tatar” population could read or write. Despite this, under the influence of Pan-Turkic thinkers, Azerbaijani intellectuals mobilized themselves with amazing speed. According to the historian of Azerbaijan Tadeusz Swietochowski, “In 1905 Azerbaijan was still merely a geographical name for a stretch of land inhabited by a people whose group identity consisted of being Muslims. The period between this date and the fall of the independent Republic in 1920 witnessed the rise of, for the Muslims, a novel type of community, the nation.” The new Azerbaijani national identity was a synthesis: Turkic but separate from Turkey, Shiite Islamic but rejecting the clerical establishment. The trick of combining these different aspirations within one movement led leading Azerbaijani editor and intellectual Ali bay Huseynzade to coin the slogan “Turkify, Islamize, Modernize.” The main Azerbaijani nationalist party, Musavat, was founded in 1911 and by 1918 had pulled off the feat of founding the first democratic Islamic republic in the world. The three colors of the republic’s flag—blue, red, and green—reflected Huseynzade’s slogan, symbolizing the Turks, modernity, and Islam, respectively.
In the early part of the new century, the new Armenian and Azerbaijani national movements inevitably collided. For centuries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis had coexisted as neighbors in a patchwork quilt of towns and villages across the Transcaucasus. They spoke each other’s languages, traded freely, and had a shared culture with strong Persian influences. Yet mixed marriage was rare, and differences of religion, social status, and now national ideology caused divisions. These tensions were contained by Russian colonial rule, but when that rule weakened in 1905 and 1917 (and again in 1988) the geography of mixed ethnic cohabitation turned peaceful communities into places of violence.
The revolutionary year of 1905 saw the outbreak of what was called the “Armeno-Tatar War.” The bloodshed spread the entire length of the South Caucasus, from Baku in the east to Nakhichevan in the west. Up to ten thousand people were killed, and whole urban districts and villages were gutted. The British author James Henry called Baku “the greatest blood-spot in the mysterious, rebellious and blood-stained Caucasus” after it saw two bloody pogroms in one year. The conflict horrified and puzzled both locals and outsiders. One Azerbaijani intellectual in Ganja, Ahmad bay Aghaoghli, “sternly lectured crowds in a Ganja mosque that ‘even wild animals do not devour their own kind’ reminding them that Muslims and Armenians had for centuries lived in peace before the coming of the Russians.” The Russian socialist author Maxim Gorky expressed shock at what happened, lamenting “how hard it is to believe that these simple noble people now stupidly and senselessly are killing one another, giving in to provocation by evil and dark forces.”
01 December 2015
Origins of Azerbaijan
From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 470-488, 888-914: