Azerbaijan – history and religion

Kanan Aghasiyev is a native Azerbaijani born in the remote village of Qaziqumlaq in 1995, 251 km away from the capital Baku. He is deeply interested in Azerbaijani literature, culture, and history. Currently, he is studying English Language and Literature in Turkey and Poland. Kanan shares his passion for English literature and language in his blog. And now he’ll share the magic of his homeland with us.

Azerbaijan is a country in the Caucasus and a bridge between Europe and Asia. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Azerbaijanis used to think that they were part of the Oriental Muslim world but after some time it became not only a part of Asia but at the same time part of Europe. In short, we can describe the geographical and cultural location of the country as the last station of Europe and the beginning of Asia and the Middle East.

Being located in a geography that is so controversial and important to the great neighbors of this country such as Russia from the north and Iran from the south, Azerbaijan has had many historical changes that affected the whole geography of the South Caucasus and its neighbors, Georgia, Armenia and Turkey from the west.

A bridge from the first railway in the Caucasus built by Siemens brothers, photo by Kanan Aghasiyev

History of Azerbaijan

Starting from the history of the country, it is necessary to mention that the word “Azerbaijan” covers quite a large geographical ideology starting from Darband in Dagestan of Russa till Hamadan of Iran from the South.

The history of this land goes very deep, according to the archaeologists, the history of this geography is older than 5000 years. The first state bodies appeared in late 4000 BC, but normal states came out in 1000 BC such as Manna, Seyth, Skit, Skim and after some time strong countries such as Caucasian Albania and Atrapotena (today’s North West of Iran) appeared.

Atrapotena and Albania established the main ideology of culture, religion, and unity of the nation. But in the 3rd century AD, Azerbaijan was occupied by Iranian Sasanids and then in the 7th century by the Arabic Khalifat.

Arabs did very big changes in the history of Azerbaijan and its nations. For some historians the word Azerbaijan was made by Arabs due to the wrong pronunciation of the word Atropatena. In the 8th century, from the word Atropatena the word Adrobadena, Adarbaykhana, and finally, Azerbaijan appeared.

After the ruling of the Arabs, there was a great change in the religious and nationalist ideas of Azerbaijan. At the end of the 9th century, new Azerbaijani states appeared in the north (Albania) starting from Darband until Hamadan, the south (Atropatena). The State of the Shirvanshahs and the State of the Sheddadis covered the north of Azerbaijan (today’s modern Azerbaijan and Dagestan of Russia), and the State of the Ravvadis, the State of the Sajis, and the Salaris covered the south of Azerbaijan (today’s West and East Azerbaijan Oblasts of Iran and Ardabil, Hamadan regions of Iran).

Xinaliq, Azerbaijan
Xinaliq village in the Caucasus mountains, Azerbaijan, by Nace Sapundjiev

These five states were ethnically Turkish apart from the Ravvadis which were the Turkish-Kurdish dynasty.

In 12-13 centuries, the State of Eldaniz or Azerbaijani Atabekhis ruled the whole Caucasus until the Persian Gulf. The state of Eldaniz was one of the biggest and most important states in Azerbaijani history. After Atabekhis two empires, Ak Koyunlu (white sheep) and Kara Koyunlu (black sheep) appeared in Azerbaijan.

The period of Ak Koyunlu is very important for the Azerbaijani women because the first diplomatic woman of Azerbaijan, Sara Khatun, was the mother of the ruler of the empire, Uzun Hasan.

In 1501, Shah Ismail Khatai, the grandson of Uzun Hasan, came to the throne repelling the hard and corrupted leadership of the territory and established the greatest empire of Azerbaijan in its whole history, the Empire of Safavid which was completely Shiite. He and the whole generation after him ruled the whole of Azerbaijan and Iran until India (for a short period).

After collapsing of Safavid, each city of Azerbaijan became small khennets, around 25. Meanwhile, the wars between Russia and the Ottoman Empire and Iran were tossing in the lands of Azerbaijan to share Azerbaijan. In 1828, Azerbaijan was divided into two between Russia and Iran. The river Aras was made as the border between two ”Azerbaijans”, North Azerbaijan (north of the river Aras, today’s Azerbaijan, Armenia, Dagestan, and Borchali of today’s modern Georgia) and South Azerbaijan (Todays North-West Iran, West and East Azerbaijan Oblasts of Iran, and Ardabil, Hamadan regions of Iran).

Now, today’s modern Azerbaijan was established in 1918 after the first World War. Azerbaijan was the first oriental Muslim state that was formed as a democratic, parliamentary state.

After two years of Independence from the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan (North of the river Aras, south Azerbaijan, Atropatena, is still an official part of Iran) was occupied by Russia and forced to accept the ruling of the Soviet Empire (while Russia officially accepted the freedom of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic) as Lelin said: “The Empire could not go on without the oil of Baku”.

In 1991, like the other former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan got its liberty from the Soviet Union and became free as before. But this independence was not that easy. On 20 January 1990, in Baku, the Soviet army did a horrible crime against its own citizens that were gathered in the center of the city to be free from the corrupted system of the union. Azerbaijanis call this day “Qara Yanvar” (Black January).

Religions of Azerbaijan

In terms of religion and culture, Azerbaijan is quite a lot mixed just like a soup with so many vegetables and spices.

The majority of the population is Shiite Muslims in Azerbaijan, and then it is easy to see Christians and Jewish towns in the north of the country.

If we go back to history, to the times when people used to live in the caves, we can see that there were so many primary religions in Azerbaijan as it was in every part of the world.

Close to Baku Gobustan National Park has one of the oldest stone arts in the world. These drawings on the stones show the very first living style and religious rituals of people that date back to 40.000 years, even to the Ice Age.

Going back to the times before the Arabic occupation, we can see two main religions, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, in Azerbaijan.

Atropatena (South Azerbaijan) located in today’s northwest Iran was the center of the first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism. And even the meaning of the word Atopatena is “Land of Fire”. The prophet of this religion was Zoroaster who made the idea of the existence of only one god in the whole universe. The main idea was to worship the god of fire. The holy book of the religion is known as Avesta. By the time this religion spread to the North of Azerbaijan, to Albania, and became a very important religion there.

Ateshgah of Baku (Fire Temple), Azerbaijan
Zoroastrianism symbol in Ateshgah Fire Temple in Baku, by Nace Sapundjiev

Starting from the IX century, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian historians write that in Baku (Bakuye is the old name of the city) they saw people that were gathering around the fire to pray the God. Even the greatest rulers of the world came to the eternal fire of Baku to make sacrifices. Leo Nussimbaum (known as Kurban Said as well as Essad Bey) wrote in his book Blood and Oil in the Orient about the visits of Macedonian Iskandar and Chengis Khan to the eternal fire of Baku.

After the Ismalic invention, Zoroastrianism got weaker and most of the worshipers tried to escape as far as they can until India, but still, they were visiting the eternal fire once a year. In 1713, the Indian merchant Khonchankhava built a temple on the eternal fire and named it “Ateshgah” (Fire Temple). There are only two of them in the world.

Even though praying to fire and sacrificing for it is not in Islam, the local Muslims come to this temple to pray and sacrifice and remember their ancestors that were praying in front of this fire.

Christianity started in Azerbaijan from the very early times of the A.D. We may say that the Caucasus is the second oldest place of Christianity after the Middle East. North Azerbaijan-Albania (today’s modern Azerbaijan) was one of the earliest Christian states in the world. Even today, respect for the rulers of Albania is quite a lot. Javanshir and Babek who were Christian leaders of Albania are the historical heroes of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis give their names to their kids and believe that if they carry the same name, they will be as strong as and as loyal as the rulers of Albania were.

Modern Christianity in Azerbaijan is a bit affected by the Russian Orthodox Church (Russian Provaslav Church). But in the north, west of the country near Ganja (the second biggest city of Azerbaijan), and in Garabagh (which is occupied by its neighbor Armenia since 1994) there are several old Christian towns and so many historical Christian churches from the time of Ancient Albania.

The existence of the Caucasian Albanian Church could stand until 19 century, but later it was given to the Armenian Church by the Russian Empire after the Turkmenchay contract between Iran and Russia (mentioned above).

While you travel around these Christian temples, you may see the local Muslims come to the churches to pray. If you ask them why they visit these places, they will have only one answer: “because it is holy”. Above, if you remember we said that even they visit the temple of the Eternal Fire…

Another Christian culture is about Azerbaijani Germans who come to Azerbaijan in 1818. Germans left their lands to get rid of the war and poverty that were tossing in Europe. 200 thousand Germans came to the Caucasus and started to live there. Ganja was their first Azerbaijani home later they started to build cities around Ganja: Georqsfeld, Qrünfeld, Ayxenfeld, Traubenfeld, and Yelizavetinka. The most famous ones are Helenedorf (known as Göygöl) and Shamkir.

But unlucky Germans could not live in Azerbaijan for more than 122 years due to Stalin’s will in 1935.

German Church in Goygol, by Hans-Jurgen Maurer (German Publisher)
German Church in Goygol, by Hans-Jurgen Maurer (German Publisher)

In 2017, I and my German publisher friend, Hans-Jurgen Maurer who is deeply interested in Azerbaijan and is one of the very few collectors of the works of the writer Leo Nussimbaum (known as Kurban Said as well as Essad Bey) visited Helenedorf. Happily, we could meet with Mr. Fikret Bey, the closest friend of the last German in the city who died in 2007, Viktor Klayn.

Mr. Fikret showed us the whole house of Viktor Klayn and was telling us the stories of his friend. He said that he was willing to make a museum of Viktor Klayn in that house.

Today, If you go to the west of Azerbaijan, to Göygöl and Shamkir, you will only see German architecture everywhere. While walking on the large streets of these towns, you will think about how they knew that in the future so many people and cars would pass these streets so that they make them large enough.

North of the country is very well known for its multicultural environment. Almost every mountain hill has its own language, its own religion, and nation. One of the religions of the north of Azerbaijan is the religion that Mountain Jews have, Judaism.

Azerbaijani Jews are known as Ashkenaz, Gurjim, and Juwari (or Juhuro). In other words, several tribes are living in Azerbaijan, but the most known one is the Mountain Jews living in Kirmizi Kesebe of the Kuba region. This Mountain Jews community is the most populated Mountain Jews community in the World.

Jewish town Kirmizi Kesebe, by Johannes Plate
Jewish town Kirmizi Kesebe, by Johannes Plate

Jews came to Azerbaijan and to the north of the Caucasus in the 8th century BC. The Assyrian king Asur deported Jews from Assyria. Bypassing the Persian state Midia, they came to the Caucasus and settled there since then. Even Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan say that they are one of the Ten Lost Tribes from the kingdom of Israel.

After coming to the Caucasus, they made a very good relationship with the local people and even the Khazar Empire accepted Judaism as the state religion.

Between 1918-1920, in the time of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, Jews and their organizations had any kind of right. They opened schools and participated in many events of the government.

Even today, Jews have a very big role in Azerbaijani society. The national hero of Azerbaijan Albert Agaranov is a Mountain Jew.

Mirza Khazar is another Jew from Azerbaijan who exposed the bloody killings of Garbachov (the last Soviet leader) in Baku on the 20th of January, the day that is known as Black January.

A very well-known writer of Azerbaijani and German literature Leo Nussimbaum (known as Kurban Said as well as Essad Bey) is a jew from Ukraine (some say from Baku) that wrote the book Ali and Nino which describes all the historical and cultural background of Azerbaijan of the early 20th century.

The practice of religion is not that famous in Azerbaijan. The idea of religion is so different there. It might be shocking but if you ask someone about any religious holiday, no one would have a certain answer. So fewer people know how to pray. I myself, my family, and the whole village of mine do not have any exact idea about praying but only believing. Everyone believes in God, but no one does know how to practice it.

For the first time, when I came to Turkey it was very strange for the others around me that I did not know anything about religion. When I saw that the shops were closed, I asked a lady worker about the restaurant, where I was doing my breakfast, why it was closed everywhere, she responded that it was because of the holiday. And when I asked her which holiday it was, she was shocked and asked instead of answering: “Do no you celebrate Kurban Bayrami in Azerbaijan?”

Are you charmed by Azerbaijan? Read more about the country in the other article by Kanan! And see how you can spend a week in Azerbaijan.

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