Learn some basics about Azerbaijan. In this short article we will cover 1) Azerbaijan’s basic geography, 2) an overview of the language, 3) some of its culture, and 4) more links to further explore.
Azerbaijan is in West Asia, more specifically the Caucasus. The Caucasus refers to the land which makes up the Upper and Lower Caucasus mountain ranges between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Other countries part of the Caucasus include: Georgia, Armenia, and parts of Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Azerbaijan has a coast along the Caspian Sea. Its country border neighbors starting north and going counter clockwise include: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, and Iran.
Part of Azerbaijan is the exclave Naxchivan.
The majority of people in Azerbaijan consider themselves to be Azeri (ethnicity) however there are also many other ethnicities within the country including Lezgins, Russians, Talysh, Jewish, and Tat to just name a few.
Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire for its naturally occurring flames that continue to omit from the ground. Now, we know these flames are from the high volume of natural gas. Because of the seemingly spiritual existence of this fire, it was a sacred hub for one of the oldest religions, Zoroastrianism.
The capital, Baku, was a big player in the history of the oil industry and there’s suggestions trade involving oil existed as far back as the 3rd or 4th century. Azerbaijan lead the world in the industry and built the first oil extraction on the sea. They even built an entire city on the water! This wealth from oil is apparent when you visit the capital, Baku, which is adorned with a growing number of unique architectural marvels attracting an increasing number of tourists.
Azerbaijan was part of the Silk Road trading route, linking the East to the West. You can even stay at a karavansaray (where travelers stopped along the route) in Sheki, Azerbaijan.
The language spoken here is ‘Azerbaijani‘ which is a Turkic language. The map above shows the spread of the Turkic language family. Read our in-depth article about tips for learning the Azerbaijani language, which also covers its similarities and differences with Turkish. Since there’s no Duolingo for Azerbaijani, you could go through the Turkish lessons to understand the sentence structure and many overlapping words. After a while you’ll start to learn the patterns of differences. Knowing Azerbaijani connects you to the whole pan-Turkic world.
Because of once being a part of the USSR, many people in Azerbaijan also speak Russian fluently, and a growing number of people also know English. It is not unheard of to meet someone in Azerbaijan who’s fluent in at least 4 languages. It’s common for example to watch shows and Youtube videos in Turkish, Russian, or English.
Azerbaijan is a unique place. We like to say it doesn’t quite fit into any box. To oversimplify to a newcomer, you will find aspects of Turkic, Persian and Russian here in the culture (in terms of food, traditions, customs, religion, mindsets, etc.).
It often gets labeled as the place where “East meets West” as it historically adopted many ‘Western’ aspects first in the Muslim-majority world. Azerbaijan was established as a Republic in 1918. At this time it was the first secular democratic government in the Muslim world, and also incorporated women’s right to vote at this time (note: 2 years before the United States did).
This duality of East vs. West is apparent in many of their artistic contributions in the early 20th century. The book, “Ali and Nino” (also made into a modern film) is a Romeo and Juliet style love story between Ali of Azerbaijan and Nino of Georgia (both names are popular and represent the religion/culture in their respective countries).
Azerbaijan also had the first Opera in the Muslim world with a similar concept, Leyli and Majnun. The opera uniquely incorporated the traditional Azerbaijani music, mugham, and still is performed globally today.
These values of plurality still exist. While on paper Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country, it also is one of the least religious countries in the world. (According to a 2015 Gallop poll, only 34% of respondents in Azerbaijan considered themselves religious). On top of being secularly governed, many people consider themselves to be non-religious with a relaxed attitude. This could be influenced by being part of the Soviet Union for so long where religious practice was discouraged. Perhaps ironically, women who choose to wear a headscarf for religious reasons have reported being marginalized/discriminated against (not in overt ways, but having trouble finding jobs in the service industry as an example).
Azerbaijanis are hospitable people, and take a lot of pride in making sure their guests are well fed and taken care of.
4. Extra links
We hope this overview of Azerbaijan geography and culture helps give a general idea about the country.
Thanks for reading!