Azerbaijani girls in traditional dresses
Total population
c. 30–35 million (2002)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Iran 15 million (Encyclopædia Britannica)[2]
10.9–15 million (CIA factbook,[3] Knüppel,[4] Ethnologue,[5] Swietochowski)[6]
12–18.5 million (e.g. Elling,[7] Gheissari)[8]
6–6.5 million (Arakelova)[9]
 Azerbaijan 8,172,800[10][11]
 Russia 603,070[12][13]
 Turkey 530,000–800,000[13]
 Georgia 233,178[14]
 Kazakhstan 85,292[15]
 France 70,000[16]
 Ukraine 45,176[17]
 Uzbekistan 44,400[18]
 Turkmenistan 33,365[19]
 United States 24,377–400,000[20][21][22]
 Netherlands 18,000[23]
 Kyrgyzstan 17,823[24]
 Germany 15,219[25]
 United Arab Emirates 7,000[26]
 Canada 6,425[27]
 United Kingdom 6,220[28]
 Belarus 5,567[29]
 Sweden 2,935[30]
 Latvia 1,657[31]
 Australia 1,036[32]
 Austria 1,000[33]
 Estonia 940[34]
 Norway 806[35]
 Lithuania 648[36]
 Italy 552[37]
Predominantly Shia Islam, minority Sunni Islam and Baháʼí Faith[38]
Related ethnic groups
Turkish people,[39] Turkmen people[40][41]

Azerbaijanis (/ˌæzərbˈæni, -ɑːni/; Azerbaijani: Azərbaycanlılar, آذربایجانلیلار‎) or Azeris (آذریلر‎), also known as Azerbaijani Turks (Azerbaijani: Azərbaycan Türkləri, آذربایجان تۆرکلری‎),[42][43][44] are a Turkic people living mainly in northwestern Iran as well as a smaller population in the sovereign Republic of Azerbaijan, with a mixed cultural heritage, including Caucasian, Iranian and Turkic elements.[2][45][46][47] They are the second-most numerous ethnic group among the Turkic-speaking peoples after Turkish people[48] and are predominantly Shia Muslims.[49] They comprise the largest ethnic group in the Republic of Azerbaijan and the second-largest ethnic group in neighboring Iran and Georgia.[50] They speak the Azerbaijani language, belonging to the Oghuz branch of the Turkic languages.

Following the Russo-Persian Wars of 1813 and 1828, the territories of Qajar Iran in the Caucasus were ceded to the Russian Empire, and the treaties of Gulistan in 1813 and Turkmenchay in 1828 finalized the borders between Russia and Iran.[51][52] After more than 80 years of being under the Russian Empire in the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was established in 1918 which established the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani language is closely related to Turkish, Qashqai, Gagauz, Turkmen and Crimean Tatar, sharing varying degrees of mutual intelligibility with each of those languages.[53] Certain lexical and grammatical differences formed within the Azerbaijani language as spoken in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran, after nearly two centuries of separation between the communities speaking the language; mutual intelligibility, however, has been preserved.[54] Additionally, the Turkish and Azerbaijani languages are mutually intelligible to a high enough degree that their speakers can have simple conversation without prior knowledge of the other.[55]


Azerbaijan is believed to be named after Atropates, a Persian[56][57][58] satrap (governor) who ruled in Atropatene (modern Iranian Azerbaijan) circa 321 BC.[59][60]: 2  The name Atropates is the Hellenistic form of Old Persian Aturpat which means 'guardian of fire'[61] itself a compound of ātūr (Aturpahlavi.svg) 'fire' (later garbled into ādur (آذر) in (early) New Persian, and is pronounced āzar today)[62] + -pat (Patpahlavi.svg) suffix for -guardian, -lord, -master[62] (-pat in early Middle Persian, -bod (بُد) in New Persian).

Present-day name Azerbaijan is the Arabicized from of Āzarpāyegān (Persian: آذرپایگان) meaning 'the guardians of fire' later becoming corrupted to Azerbaijan (Persian: آذربایجان) due to the phonemic shift from /p/ to /b/ and /g/ to /dʒ/ which is a result of the medieval Arabic influences that followed the Arab invasion of Iran, and is due to the lack of the phoneme /p/ and /g/ in the Arabic language.[63] The word Azarpāyegān itself is ultimately from Old Persian Āturpātakān (Persian: آتورپاتکان)[64][65] meaning 'the land associated with (satrap) Aturpat' or 'the land of fire guardians' (-an, here garbled into -kān , is a suffix for association or forming adverbs and plurals;[62] e.g.: Gilan 'land associated with Gil people').[66]


Painting of Atropates, meeting with Alexander the Great. Historical Azerbaijan (also known as Iranian Azerbaijan) is believed to be named after him.

The modern ethnonym "Azerbaijani" or "Azeri" refers to the Turkic peoples of Iranian Azerbaijan and the Republic of Azerbaijan. They historically called themselves or were referred to by others as Muslims, Turks, Turkmens[67] or Ajam (meaning Iranian in Turkish), using the term incorrectly to denote their religious rather than ethnic identity.[68] – that is to say that religious identification prevailed over ethnic identification. When the Southern Caucasus became part of the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century, the Russian authorities, who traditionally referred to all Turkic people as Tatars, defined Tatars living in the Transcaucasus region as Caucasian Tatars or more rarely[69] Aderbeijanskie (Адербейджанские) Tatars or even[70] Persian Tatars in order to distinguish them from other Turkic groups.[71] The Russian Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, written in the 1890s, also referred to Tatars in Azerbaijan as Aderbeijans (адербейджаны),[72] but noted that the term had not been widely adopted.[73] This ethnonym was also used by Joseph Deniker (1900):

[The purely linguistic] grouping [does not] coincide with the somatological grouping: thus the Aderbeijani of the Caucasus and Persia, who speak a Turkic language, have the same physical type as the Hadjemi-Persians, who speak an Iranian tongue.[74]

In Azerbaijani language publications, the expression "Azerbaijani nation" referring to those who were known as Tatars of the Caucasus first appeared in the newspaper Kashkul in 1880.[75]

During the early Soviet period, the term "Transcaucasian Tatars" was supplanted by "Azerbaijani Turks" and ultimately "Azerbaijanis".[76][77] For some time afterwards, the term "Azerbaijanis" was then applied to all Turkic-speaking Muslims in Transcaucasia, from the Meskhetian Turks in southwestern Georgia, to the Terekemes of southern Dagestan, as well as assimilated Tats and Talysh.[76] The temporary designation of Meskhetian Turks as "Azerbaijanis" was most likely related to the existing administrative framework of the Transcaucasian SFSR, as the Azerbaijan SSR was one of its founding members.[78] After the establishment of the Azerbaijan SSR,[79] on the order of Soviet leader Stalin, the "name of the formal language" of the Azerbaijan SSR was also "changed from Turkic to Azerbaijani".[79]

In the words of Arthur Tsutsiev (Yale University Press, 2014):[80]

In the 1770s, Turkic tribal groups from Kartli to Derbent were identified by, in particular, Gil’denshtedt (Puteshestvie po Kavkazu) using the overall category of Terekeme Tatars (as distinct from Kumyk Tatars). After the appearance of the term “Transcaucasia” in the 1830s the category “Transcaucasian Tatars” came gradually into use, generally for speakers of “Turkic-Azerbaijani languages” who populated the Russian provinces “beyond the Caucasus.” By the 1860s the qualification of the language of the Transcaucasian Tatars as a Turkic-Azerbaijani language, distinct from Kumyk, Nogai, or Crimean, was clearly being used as the basis for ethnic categorization. By the late nineteenth century “Transcaucasian Tatars” (sometimes called Azerbaijani Tatars as a designation for speakers of Tatar languages, i.e., Azerbaijanli-Turk) were still being distinguished from “Turks” (as a designation of speakers of Turkish or Osmanli-Turk). During the period of Azerbaijani independence (1918–1920), the first category evolved into simply “Turks,” which had been inherited by the early Soviet ethnic nomenclature (having in the process subsumed Osmanli Turks remaining within Soviet borders). Later, in 1921–1930, this category was slightly refined as “Azerbaijani Turks” (which also encompassed the Meskhetian Turkic-speaking population in Georgia) to match political realities. Finally, in 1939, it was transformed simply into “Azerbaijani,” a result that underscores not so much the linguistic distinction between the Anatolian (Osmanli) Turk and the Azeri Turk as the deterioration of Soviet-Turkish relations.


Ancient residents of the area spoke Old Azeri from the Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages.[81] In the 11th century AD with Seljukid conquests, Oghuz Turkic tribes started moving across the Iranian Plateau into the Caucasus and Anatolia. The influx of the Oghuz and other Turkmen tribes was further accentuated by the Mongol invasion.[82] Here, the Oghuz tribes divided into various smaller groups, some of whom – mostly Sunni – moved to Anatolia (e.g., the later Ottomans) and became settled, while others remained in the Caucasus region and later – due to the influence of the Safaviyya – eventually converted to the Shia branch of Islam. The latter was to keep the name "Turkmen" or "Turcoman" for a long time: from the 13th century onwards they gradually Turkified the Iranian-speaking populations of Azerbaijan (historic Azerbaijan, also known as Iranian Azerbaijan) and Shirvan (Azerbaijan Republic), thus creating a new identity based on Shia and the use of Oghuz Turkic. Today, this Turkic-speaking population is known as Azerbaijani.[83]

Ancient period

Caucasian-speaking Albanian tribes are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the region where the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan is located.[84] Early Iranian settlements included the Scythians (Ishkuza Kingdom) in the ninth century BC.[85] Following the Scythians, the Medes came to dominate the area to the south of the Aras River.[86] The ancient Iranian people of the Medes forged a vast empire between 900 and 700 BC, which the Achaemenids integrated into their own empire around 550 BC. During this period, Zoroastrianism spread in the Caucasus and in Atropatene.

Alexander the Great defeated the Achaemenids in 330 BC, but allowed the Median satrap Atropates to remain in power. Following the decline of the Seleucids in Persia in 247 BC, an Armenian Kingdom exercised control over parts of Caucasian Albania.[87] Caucasian Albanians established a kingdom in the first century BC and largely remained independent until the Persian Sassanids made their kingdom a vassal state in 252 AD.[88]: 38  Caucasian Albania's ruler, King Urnayr, went to Armenia and then officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century AD, and Albania remained a Christian state until the 8th century.[89][90] Sassanid control ended with their defeat by Muslim Arabs in 642 AD,[91] through the Muslim conquest of Persia.

Medieval period

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.[88]: 71  Between the ninth and tenth centuries, Arab authors began to refer to the region between the Kura and Aras rivers as Arran.[88]: 20  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.[92]: 48  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 Azerbaijan from 816 to 837, led by a Persian Zoroastrian commoner named Babak Khorramdin.[93] However, despite pockets of continued resistance, the majority of the inhabitants of Azerbaijan converted to Islam. Later, in the 10th and 11th centuries, parts of Azerbaijan were ruled by the Kurdish dynasty of Shaddadid and Arab Radawids.

In the middle of the eleventh 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. The emerging dominance of the Turkic language 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.[88]: 45  Turkic dominion was interrupted by the Mongols in 1227, but it returned with the Timurids and then Sunni Qara Qoyunlū (Black Sheep Turkmen) and Aq Qoyunlū (White Sheep Turkmen), who dominated Azerbaijan, large parts of Iran, eastern Anatolia, and other minor parts of West Asia, until the Shi'a Safavids took power in 1501.[88]: 113 [92]: 285 

Early modern period

Shirvan Tatar (i.e. Azerbaijani). Engraving from book of Jean Baptiste Benoît Eyriès. Voyage pittoresque en Asie et en Afrique: résumé général des voyages anciens et modernes... T. I, 1839

The Safavids, who rose from around Ardabil in Iranian Azerbaijan and lasted until 1722, established the foundations of the modern Iranian state.[94] The Safavids, alongside their Ottoman archrivals, dominated the entire West Asian region and beyond for centuries. At its peak under Shah Abbas the Great, it rivaled its political and ideological archrival the Ottoman empire in military strength. Noted for achievements in state-building, architecture, and the sciences, the Safavid state crumbled due to internal decay (mostly royal intrigues), ethnic minority uprisings and external pressures from the Russians, and the eventually opportunistic Afghans, who would mark the end of the dynasty. The Safavids encouraged and spread Shi'a Islam, as well as the arts and culture, and Shah Abbas the Great created an intellectual atmosphere that according to some scholars was a new "golden age".[95] He reformed the government and the military and responded to the needs of the common people.[95]

After the Safavid state disintegrated, it was followed by the conquest by Nader Shah Afshar, a Shia chieftain from Khorasan who reduced the power of the ghulat Shi'a and empowered a moderate form of Shi'ism,[92]: 300  and, exceptionally noted for his military genius, making Iran reach its greatest extent since the Sassanid Empire. The brief reign of Karim Khan came next, followed by the Qajars, who ruled what is the present-day Azerbaijan Republic and Iran from 1779.[88]: 106  Russia loomed as a threat to Persian and Turkish holdings in the Caucasus in this period. The Russo-Persian Wars, despite already having had minor military conflicts in the 17th century, officially began in the eighteenth century and ended in the early nineteenth century with the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828, which ceded the Caucasian portion of Qajar Iran to the Russian Empire.[60]: 17  While Azerbaijanis in Iran integrated into Iranian society, Azerbaijanis who used to live in Aran, were incorporated into the Russian Empire.

Despite the Russian conquest, throughout the entire 19th century, preoccupation with Iranian culture, literature, and language remained widespread amongst Shia and Sunni intellectuals in the Russian-held cities of Baku, Ganja and Tiflis (Tbilisi, now Georgia).[96] Within the same century, in post-Iranian Russian-held East Caucasia, an Azerbaijani national identity emerged at the end of the 19th century.[97]

Modern period in Republic of Azerbaijan

Map of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic presented by the Azerbaijani delegation Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
First flag of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (till 9 November 1918)[98]
Soldiers and officers of the army of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918

After the collapse of the Russian Empire during World War I, the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic was declared, constituting what are the present-day republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. This was followed by March Days massacres[99][100] that took place between 30 March and 2 April 1918 in the city of Baku and adjacent areas of the Baku Governorate of the Russian Empire.[101] When the republic dissolved in May 1918, the leading Musavat party adopted the name "Azerbaijan" for the newly established Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was proclaimed on 27 May 1918,[102] for political reasons,[103][104] even though the name of "Azerbaijan" had always been used to refer to the adjacent region of contemporary northwestern Iran.[105][106] The ADR was the first modern parliamentary republic in the Turkic world and Muslim world.[99][107][108] Among the important accomplishments of the Parliament was the extension of suffrage to women, making Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men.[107] Another important accomplishment of ADR was the establishment of Baku State University, which was the first modern-type university founded in Muslim East.[107]

By March 1920, it was obvious that Soviet Russia would attack the much-needed Baku. Vladimir Lenin said that the invasion was justified as Soviet Russia could not survive without Baku's oil.[109][110] Independent Azerbaijan lasted only 23 months until the Bolshevik 11th Soviet Red Army invaded it, establishing the Azerbaijan SSR on 28 April 1920. Although the bulk of the newly formed Azerbaijani army was engaged in putting down an Armenian revolt that had just broken out in Karabakh, Azeris did not surrender their brief independence of 1918–20 quickly or easily. As many as 20,000 Azerbaijani soldiers died resisting what was effectively a Russian reconquest.[111]

The brief independence gained by the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918–1920 was followed by over 70 years of Soviet rule.[55]: 91  Neverthelesss, it was in the early Soviet period that the Azerbaijani national identity was finally forged.[97] After the restoration of independence in October 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan became embroiled in a war with neighboring Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.[55]: 97 

The First Nagorno-Karabakh War resulted in the displacement of approximately 725,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000–500,000 Armenians from both Azerbaijan and Armenia.[112] As a result of 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijan took back 5 cities, 4 towns, 286 villages in the region.[113] According to 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, internally displaced persons and refugees shall return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.[114]

Modern period in Iran

In Iran, Azerbaijanis such as Sattar Khan sought constitutional reform.[115] The Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906–11 shook the Qajar dynasty. A parliament (Majlis) was founded on the efforts of the constitutionalists, and pro-democracy newspapers appeared. The last Shah of the Qajar dynasty was soon removed in a military coup led by Reza Khan. In the quest to impose national homogeneity on a country where half of the population were ethnic minorities, Reza Shah banned in quick succession the use of the Azerbaijani language in schools, theatrical performances, religious ceremonies, and books.[116]

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

Upon the dethronement of Reza Shah in September 1941, Soviet forces took control of Iranian Azerbaijan and helped to set up the Azerbaijan People's Government, a client state under the leadership of Sayyid Jafar Pishevari backed by Soviet Azerbaijan. The Soviet military presence in Iranian Azerbaijan was mainly aimed at securing the Allied supply route during World War II. Concerned with the continued Soviet presence after World War II, the United States and Britain pressured the Soviets to withdraw by late 1946. Immediately thereafter, the Iranian government regained control of Iranian Azerbaijan.

According to Professor Gary R. Hess:

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 domination 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.[117]

Origins of the Azerbaijanis

In many references, Azerbaijanis are designated as a Turkic people, due to their Turkic language.[39][118] The origin of Azerbaijanis has been described as "unclear",[119] mainly Caucasian,[120] mainly Iranian,[121][122] mixed Caucasian Albanian and Turkish,[45] and mixed with Caucasian, Iranian and Turkic elements.[46] Russian historian and orientalist Vladimir Minorsky writes that largely Iranian and Caucasian populations became Turkic-speaking:

In the beginning of the 11th century the Ghuzz hordes, first in smaller parties, and then in considerable numbers, under the Seljuqids occupied Azerbaijan. In consequence, the Iranian population of Azerbaijan and the adjacent parts of Transcaucasia became Turkophone while the characteristic features of Azeri Turkic, such as Persian intonations and disregard of the vocalic harmony, reflect the non-Turkic origin of the Turkicised population.[123]

The Azerbaijanis of Iran are believed to be descended from various groups, including Mannaeans, an ancient people who lived in the territory of present-day northwestern Iran to the south of Lake Urmia at around the 10th to 7th centuries BC, and spoke a dialect related to Hurrian (a non-Semitic and non-Indo-European language related to Urartian), and the Medes, an ancient Iranian ethnic group which, under the rule of King Cyaxares, established the Median Empire and came to dominate the region.[124] The Median Empire is believed to have conquered and assimilated the Mannaeans by the 6th century BC.[125][126][127] Historical research suggests that the Old Azeri language, belonging to the Northwestern branch of the Iranian languages and believed to have descended from the language of the Medes,[128] gradually gained currency and was widely spoken in said region for many centuries.[129][130][131][132][133]

Some Azerbaijanis of the Republic of Azerbaijan are believed to be descended from the inhabitants of Caucasian Albania, an ancient country located in the eastern Caucasus region, and various Iranian peoples which settled the region.[134] They claim there is evidence that, due to repeated invasions and migrations, the aboriginal Caucasian population may have gradually been culturally and linguistically assimilated, first by Iranian peoples, such as the Persians,[135] and later by the Oghuz Turks. Considerable information has been learned about the Caucasian Albanians, including their language, history, early conversion to Christianity, and relations with the Armenians and Georgians, under whose strong religious and cultural influence the Caucasian Albanians came in the coming centuries.[136][137]


Turkification of the non-Turkic population derives from the Turkic settlements in the area now known as Azerbaijan, which began and accelerated during the Seljuk period.[39] 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 Turkic nature of Azerbaijan increased with the influence of the Qizilbash, an association of the Turkoman[138] nomadic tribes that was the backbone of the Safavid Empire.

According to Soviet scholars, the Turkicization of Azerbaijan was largely completed during the Ilkhanid period. Faruk Sümer posits three periods in which Turkicization took place: Seljuk, Mongol and Post-Mongol (Qara Qoyunlu, Aq Qoyunlu and Safavid). In the first two, Oghuz Turkic tribes advanced or were driven to Anatolia and Arran. In the last period, the Turkic elements in Iran (Oghuz, with lesser admixtures of Uyghur, Qipchaq, Qarluq as well as Turkicized Mongols) were joined now by Anatolian Turks migrating back to Iran. This marked the final stage of Turkicization.[39]

Iranian origin

The Iranian origins of the Azerbaijanis likely derive from ancient Iranian tribes, such as the Medes in Iranian Azerbaijan, and Scythian invaders who arrived during the eighth century BC. It is believed that the Medes mixed with Mannai.[139] Ancient written accounts, such as one written by Arab historian Al-Masudi, attest to an Iranian presence in the region:

The Persians are a people whose borders are the Mahat Mountains and Azarbaijan up to Armenia and Arran, and Bayleqan and Darband, and Ray and Tabaristan and Masqat and Shabaran and Jorjan and Abarshahr, and that is Nishabur, and Herat and Marv and other places in land of Khorasan, and Sejistan and Kerman and Fars and Ahvaz... All these lands were once one kingdom with one sovereign and one language...although the language differed slightly. The language, however, is one, in that its letters are written the same way and used the same way in composition. There are, then, different languages such as Pahlavi, Dari, Azari, as well as other Persian languages.[140]

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism was prominent throughout the Caucasus before Christianity and Islam.[141][142][143] It has also been hypothesized that the population of Iranian Azerbaijan was predominantly Persian-speaking before the Oghuz arrived. This claim is supported by the many figures of Persian literature who came from regions now populated by ethnic Azerbaijani and who wrote in Persian prior to and during the Oghuz migration, such as Qatran Tabrizi, Shams Tabrizi, Nizami Ganjavi, and Khaghani. It is also supported by Nozhat al-Majales anthology, 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.[81][failed verification]

Encyclopaedia Iranica says:[144]

The Turkish speakers of Azerbaijan (q.v.) are mainly descended from the earlier Iranian speakers, several pockets of whom still exist in the region. A massive migration of Oghuz Turks in the 11th and 12th centuries gradually Turkified Azerbaijan as well as Anatolia. The Azeri Turks are Shiʿites and were founders of the Safavid dynasty. They are settled, although there are pastoralists in the Moḡān steppe called Ilsevan (formerly Šāhsevan) numbering perhaps 100,000; they, as other tribes in Iran, were forced to adopt a settled life under Reza Shah. Other Turkic speakers—Turkmen, Qajars, Afšārs, etc.—are scattered in various regions of western Iran. The number of Turkic speakers in Iran today is estimated about 16 million. Most of the Azerbaijanis call themselves and are referred to as Turks but also insist on their Iranian identity, buttressed not only by the religious bond—being mostly Shiʿite in contrast to the Sunni Turks of Anatolia—but also by cultural, historical, and economic factors.

Caucasian origin

Azerbaijani girl from Shusha in silk national garments.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica:

The Azerbaijanis (peoples of the Republic of Azerbaijan) are of mixed ethnic origin, the oldest element deriving from the indigenous population of eastern Transcaucasia and possibly from the Medians of northern Persia.[145]

There is evidence that, due to repeated invasions and migrations, aboriginal Caucasians may have been culturally assimilated, first by Ancient Iranian peoples and later by the Oghuz. Considerable information has been learned about the Caucasian Albanians including their language, history, early conversion to Christianity. The Udi language, still spoken in Azerbaijan, may be a remnant of the Albanians' language.[146]


Iranian Azerbaijanis have stronger genetic affinity with their immediate geographic neighbors than with populations from Central Asia.[147]

Contemporary Western Asian genomes, a region that includes Azerbaijan, have been greatly influenced by early agricultural populations in the area; later population movements, such as those of Turkic speakers, also contributed.[148] However, as of 2017, there is no whole genome sequencing study for Azerbaijan; sampling limitations such as these prevent forming a "finer-scale picture of the genetic history of the region."[148]

A 2002 study which looked 11 Y-chromosome markers suggested that Azerbaijanis "are more closely-related genetically to their geographic neighbors in the Caucasus than to their linguistic neighbors elsewhere."[149] Iranian Azerbaijanis are genetically more similar to northern Azerbaijanis and the neighboring Turkic population than they are to geographically distant Turkmen populations.[150] However, it is also significant that the evidence of genetic admixture derived from Central Asians (specifically Haplogroup H12), notably the Turkmen, is higher for Azerbaijanis than that of their Georgian and Armenian neighbors.[151][failed verification] Iranian-speaking populations from Azerbaijan (the Talysh and Tats) are genetically closer to Azerbaijanis of the Republic than to other Iranian-speaking populations (Persian people and Kurds from Iran, Ossetians, and Tajiks).[152] Several genetic studies suggested that the Azerbaijanis originate from a native population long resident in the area who adopted a Turkic language through language replacement, including possibility of elite dominance scenario.[153][147][149] However, the language replacement in Azerbaijan (and in Turkey) might not have been in accordance with the elite dominance model, with estimated Central Asian contribution to Azerbaijan being 18% for females and 32% for males.[154] A subsequent study also suggested 33% Central Asian contribution to Azerbaijan.[155]

A 2001 study which looked into the first hypervariable segment of the MtDNA suggested that "genetic relationships among Caucasus populations reflect geographical rather than linguistic relationships", with Armenians and Azerbaijanians being "most closely related to their nearest geographical neighbours."[156] Another 2004 study that looked into 910 MtDNAs from 23 populations in the Iranian plateau, the Indus Valley, and Central Asia suggested that populations "west of the Indus basin, including those from Iran, Anatolia [Turkey] and the Caucasus, exhibit a common mtDNA lineage composition, consisting mainly of western Eurasian lineages, with a very limited contribution from South Asia and eastern Eurasia."[157] While genetic analysis of mtDNA indicates that Caucasian populations are genetically closer to Europeans than to Near Easterners, Y-chromosome results indicate closer affinity to Near Eastern groups.[149]

Iranians have a relatively diverse range of Y-chromosome haplotypes. A population from central Iran (Isfahan) shows closer similarity in terms of haplogroup distributions to Caucasians and Azerbaijanis than to populations from southern or northern Iran.[158] The range of haplogroups across the region may reflect historical genetic admixture,[159] perhaps as a result of invasive male migrations.[149]

In a comparative study (2013) on the complete mitochondrial DNA diversity in Iranians has indicated that Iranian Azeris are more related to the people of Georgia, than they are to other Iranians, as well as to Armenians. However the same multidimensional scaling plot shows that Azeris from the Caucasus, despite their supposed common origin with Iranian Azeris, "occupy an intermediate position between the Azeris/Georgians and Turks/Iranians grouping".[160]

A 2007 study which looked into class two Human leukocyte antigen suggested that there were "no close genetic relationship was observed between Azeris of Iran and the people of Turkey or Central Asians."[161] A 2017 study which looked into HLA alleles put the samples from Azeris in Northwest Iran "in the Mediterranean cluster close to Kurds, Gorgan, Chuvash (South Russia, towards North Caucasus), Iranians and Caucasus populations (Svan and Georgians)." This Mediterranean stock includes "Turkish and Caucasian populations." Azeri samples were also in a "position between Mediterranean and Central Asian" samples, suggesting Turkification "process caused by Oghuz Turkic tribes could also contribute to the genetic background of Azeri people."[162]

Demographics and society

Azerbaijani-speaking regions
Russian Empire postcard depicting Tatars (i.e. Azerbaijanis) from Alexandropol (Gyumri)

The vast majority of Azerbaijanis live in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan. Between 8 and 18.5 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran, mainly in the northwestern provinces. Approximately 9.1 million Azerbaijanis are found in the Republic of Azerbaijan. A diaspora of over a million is spread throughout the rest of the world. According to Ethnologue, there are over 1 million speakers of the northern Azerbaijani dialect in southern Dagestan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russian proper, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.[163] No Azerbaijanis were recorded in the 2001 census in Armenia,[164] where the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resulted in population shifts. Other sources, such as national censuses, confirm the presence of Azerbaijanis throughout the other states of the former Soviet Union.

In the Republic of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijanis are by far the largest ethnic group in The Republic of Azerbaijan (over 90%), holding the second-largest community of ethnic Azerbaijanis after neighboring Iran. The literacy rate is very high, and is estimated at 99.5%.[165] Azerbaijan began the twentieth century with institutions based upon those of Russia and the Soviet Union, with an official policy of atheism and strict state control over most aspects of society. Since independence, there is a secular system.

Azerbaijan has benefited from the oil industry, but high levels of corruption have prevented greater prosperity for the population.[166] Despite these problems, there is a financial rebirth in Azerbaijan as positive economic predictions and an active political opposition appear determined to improve the lives of average Azerbaijanis.[86][167]

In Iran

Ashiks performance in Tabriz
Iran's highest-ranking official, the supreme leader Ali Khamenei is Iranian Azeri on his father's side.

While population estimates in Azerbaijan are considered reliable[citation needed][dubious ] due to regular censuses,[citation needed] the figures for Iran remain questionable. Since the early twentieth century, successive Iranian governments have avoided publishing statistics on ethnic groups.[168] Unofficial population estimates of Azerbaijanis in Iran are around the 16% area put forth by the CIA and Library of Congress.[3][169] An independent poll in 2009 placed the figure at around 20–22%.[170] According to the Iranologist Victoria Arakelova in peer-reviewed journal Iran and the Caucasus, estimating the number of Azeris in Iran has been hampered for years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the "once invented theory of the so called separated nation (i.e. the citizens of the Azerbaijan Republic, the so-called Azerbaijanis, and the Azaris in Iran), was actualised again (see in detail Reza 1993)".[9] Arakelova adds that the number of Azeris in Iran, featuring in the politically biased publications as "Azerbaijani minority of Iran", is considered to be the "highly speculative part of this theory".[9] Even though all Iranian censuses of population distinguish exclusively religious minorities, numerous sources have presented different figures regarding Iran's Turkic-speaking communities, without "any justification or concrete references".[9]

In the early 1990s, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most popular figure depicting the number of "Azerbaijanis" in Iran was thirty-three millions, at a time when the entire population of Iran was barely sixty millions.[9] Therefore, at the time, half of Iran's citizens were considered "Azerbaijanis".[9] Shortly after, this figure was replaced by thirty millions, which became "almost a normative account on the demographic situation in Iran, widely circulating not only among academics and political analysts, but also in the official circles of Russia and the West".[9] Then, in the 2000s, the figure decreased to 20 millions; this time, at least within the Russian political establishment, the figure became "firmly fixed".[9] This figure, Arakelova adds, has been widely used and kept up to date, only with a few minor adjustments.[9] A cursory look at Iran's demographic situation however, shows that all these figures have been manipulated and were "definitely invented on political purpose".[9] Arakelova estimates the number of Azeris i.e. "Azerbaijanis" in Iran based on Iran's population demographics at 6 to 6,5 millions, that is, at a maximum, less than 5% of Iran's total population.[9]

Azerbaijanis in Iran are mainly found in the northwest provinces: West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan, parts of Hamadan, Qazvin, and Markazi.[169] Azerbaijani minorities live in the Qorveh[171] and Bijar[172] counties of Kurdistan, in Gilan,[173][174][175][176] as ethnic enclaves in Galugah in Mazandaran, around Lotfabad and Dargaz in Razavi Khorasan,[177] and in the town of Gonbad-e Qabus in Golestan.[178] Large Azerbaijani populations can also be found in central Iran (Tehran # Alborz) due to internal migration. Azerbaijanis make up 25%[179] of Tehran's population and 30.3%[180] – 33%[181][182] of the population of the Tehran Province, where Azerbaijanis are found in every city.[183] They are the largest ethnic groups after Persians in Tehran and the Tehran Province.[184][185] Arakelova notes that the wide-spread "cliché" among residents of Tehran on the number of Azerbaijanis in the city ("half of Tehran consists of Azerbaijanis"), cannot be taken "seriously into consideration".[9] Arakelova adds that the number of Tehran's inhabitants who have migrated from northwestern areas of Iran, who are currently Persian-speakers "for the most part", is not more than "several hundred thousands", with the maximum being one million.[9] Azerbaijanis have also emigrated and resettled in large numbers in Khorasan,[186] especially in Mashhad.[187]

Generally, Azerbaijanis in Iran were regarded as "a well integrated linguistic minority" by academics prior to Iran's Islamic Revolution.[188][189] 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".[168]

Resentment came with Pahlavi policies that suppressed the use of the Azerbaijani language in local government, schools, and the press.[190] 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. Islamic theocratic institutions dominate nearly all aspects of society. The Azerbaijani language and its literature are banned in Iranian schools.[191][192] There are signs of civil unrest due to the policies of the Iranian government in Iranian Azerbaijan and increased interaction with fellow Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan and satellite broadcasts from Turkey and other Turkic countries have revived Azerbaijani nationalism.[193] In May 2006, Iranian Azerbaijan witnessed riots over publication of a cartoon depicting a cockroach speaking Azerbaijani[194] that many Azerbaijanis found offensive.[195][196] The cartoon was drawn by Mana Neyestani, an Azeri, who was fired along with his editor as a result of the controversy.[197][198] One of the major incidents that happened recently was Azeris protests in Iran (2015) started in November 2015, after children's television programme Fitileha aired on 6 November on state TV that ridiculed and mocked the accent and language of Azeris and included offensive jokes.[199] As a result, hundreds of ethnic Azeris have protested a program on state TV that contained what they consider an ethnic slur. Demonstrations were held in Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil, and Zanjan, as well as Tehran and Karaj. Police in Iran have clashed with protesting people, fired tear gas to disperse crowds, and many demonstrators were arrested. One of the protesters, Ali Akbar Murtaza, reportedly "died of injuries" in Urmia.[200] There were also protests held in front of Iranian embassies in Istanbul and Baku.[201] The head of the country's state broadcaster Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Mohammad Sarafraz has apologized for airing the program, whose broadcast was later discontinued.[202]

Azerbaijanis are an intrinsic community of Iran, and their style of living closely resemble those of Persians:

The lifestyles of urban Azerbaijanis do not differ from those of Persians, and there is considerable intermarriage among the upper classes in cities of mixed populations. Similarly, customs among Azerbaijani villagers do not appear to differ markedly from those of Persian villagers.[169]

Azeris are famously active in commerce and in bazaars all over Iran their voluble voices can be heard. Older Azeri men wear the traditional wool hat, and their music & dances have become part of the mainstream culture. Azeris are well integrated, and many Azeri-Iranians are prominent in Persian literature, politics, and clerical world.[203]

There is significant cross-border trade between Azerbaijan and Iran, and Azerbaijanis from Azerbaijan go into Iran to buy goods that are cheaper, but the relationship was tense until recently.[191] However, relations have significantly improved since the Rouhani administration took office.


There are several Azerbaijani ethnic groups, each of which has particularities in the economy, culture, and everyday life. Some Azerbaijani ethnic groups continued in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Major Azerbaijani ethnic groups:



Azeri female from Baku (1900 postcard)

In Azerbaijan, women were granted the right to vote in 1917.[204] Women have attained Western-style equality in major cities such as Baku, although in rural areas more reactionary views remain.[86] Violence against women, including rape, is rarely reported, especially in rural areas, not unlike other parts of the former Soviet Union.[205] In Azerbaijan, the veil was abandoned during the Soviet period.[206] Women are under-represented in elective office but have attained high positions in parliament. An Azerbaijani woman is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Azerbaijan, and two others are Justices of the Constitutional Court. In the 2010 election, women constituted 16% of all MPs (twenty seats in total) in the National Assembly of Azerbaijan.[207] Abortion is available on demand in the Republic of Azerbaijan.[208] The human rights ombudsman since 2002, Elmira Süleymanova, is a woman.

In Iran, a groundswell of grassroots movements have sought gender equality since the 1980s.[169] Protests in defiance of government bans are dispersed through violence, as on 12 June 2006 when female demonstrators in Haft Tir Square in Tehran were beaten.[209] Past Iranian leaders, such as the reformer ex-president Mohammad Khatami promised women greater rights, but the Guardian Council of Iran opposes changes that they interpret as contrary to Islamic doctrine. In the 2004 legislative elections, nine women were elected to parliament (Majlis), eight of whom were conservatives.[210] The social fate of Azerbaijani women largely mirrors that of other women in Iran.[citation needed]


In many respects, Azerbaijanis are Eurasian and bi-cultural. The Azerbaijanis of Azerbaijan Republic have absorbed Soviet and Eastern European influences, whereas Iranian Azeris have retained their culture which to a large extent is identical to the culture of other Iranian peoples including Persians and Kurds.[211] Modern Azerbaijani culture includes significant achievements in literature, art, music, and film.

Language and literature

Portrait of Muhammad Fuzûlî by Azim Azimzade (1914). Fuzûlî is considered one of the greatest Azerbaijani poets.[212]

The Azerbaijanis speak Azerbaijani, a Turkic language descended from the Western Oghuz Turkic language that became established in Azerbaijan in the 11th and 12th century CE. Early Oghuz was mainly an oral language, and the later compiled epics and heroic stories of Dede Korkut probably derive from an oral tradition. The first accepted Oghuz Turkic text goes back to the 15th century. The first written, classical Azerbaijani literature arose after the Mongol invasion.[213] Some of the earliest Azerbaijani writings trace back to the poet Nasimi (died 1417) and then decades later Fuzûlî (1483–1556). Ismail I, Shah of Safavid Iran wrote Azerbaijani poetry under the pen name Khatâ'i.

Today I have come to the world as a Master. Know truly that I am Haydar's son.

I am Fereydun, Khosrow, Jamshid, and Zahak. I am Zal's son (Rostam) and Alexander.
The mystery of I am the truth is hidden in this my heart. I am the Absolute Truth and what I say is Truth.
I belong to the religion of the "Adherent of the Ali" and on the Shah's path I am a guide to everyone who says: "I am a Muslim." My sign is the "Crown of Happiness".
I am the signet-ring on Sulayman's finger. Muhammad is made of light, Ali of Mystery.
I am a pearl in the sea of Absolute Reality.

I am Khatai, the Shah's slave full of shortcomings. At thy gate I am the smallest and the last [servant].

Modern Azerbaijani literature continued with a traditional emphasis upon humanism, as conveyed in the writings of Samad Vurgun, Shahriar, and many others.[214]

Azerbaijanis are generally bilingual, often fluent in either Russian (in Azerbaijan) or Persian (in Iran) in addition to their native Azerbaijani. As of 1996, around 38% of Azerbaijan's roughly 8,000,000 population spoke Russian fluently.[215] An independent telephone survey in Iran in 2009 reported that 20% of respondents could understand Azerbaijani, the most spoken minority language in Iran, and all respondents could understand Persian.[170]


The majority of Azerbaijanis are Twelver Shi'a Muslims. Religious minorities include Sunni Muslims (mainly Shafi'i just like other Muslims in the surrounding North Caucasus),[216][217] and Baháʼís. An unknown number of Azerbaijanis in the Republic of Azerbaijan have no religious affiliation. Many describe themselves as Shia Muslims.[86] There is a small number of Naqshbandi Sufis among Muslim Azerbaijanis.[218] Christian Azerbaijanis number around 5,000 people in the Republic of Azerbaijan and consist mostly of recent converts.[219][220] Some Azerbaijanis from rural regions retain pre-Islamic animist or Zoroastrian-influenced[221] beliefs, such as the sanctity of certain sites and the veneration of fire, certain trees and rocks.[222] In Azerbaijan, traditions from other religions are often celebrated in addition to Islamic holidays, including Nowruz and Christmas.

Performing arts

Azerbaijanis express themselves in a variety of artistic ways including dance, music, and film. Azerbaijani folk dances are ancient and similar to that of their neighbors 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."[223] Solitary dances are performed by both men and women and involve subtle hand motions in addition to sequenced steps. Lezginka, a dance shared by all Caucasus-derived or Caucasus-influenced ethnic groups, is also popular amongst Azerbaijanis.

Azerbaijani musical tradition can be traced back to singing bards called Ashiqs, a vocation that survives. Modern Ashiqs play the saz (lute) and sing dastans (historical ballads).[224] Other musical instruments include the tar (another type of lute), balaban (a wind instrument), kamancha (fiddle), and the dhol (drums). Azerbaijani 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 Azerbaijanis, notably Vagif and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, mixed jazz with mugham. Some Azerbaijani musicians have received international acclaim, including Rashid Behbudov (who could sing in over eight languages), Muslim Magomayev (a pop star from the Soviet era), Googoosh, and more recently Sami Yusuf.

After the 1979 revolution in Iran due to the clerical opposition to music in general, Azerbaijani music took a different course. According to Iranian singer Hossein Alizadeh, "Historically in Iran, music faced strong opposition from the religious establishment, forcing it to go underground."[225]

Azerbaijani film and television are largely broadcast in Azerbaijan with limited outlets in Iran. Some Azerbaijanis 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 Iranians have been prominent in the cinematic tradition of Iran, which has received critical praise since the 1980s.


Chess player Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
Two-time Paralympic judo champion (2004, 2008) Ilham Zakiyev

Sports have historically been an important part of Azerbaijani life. Horseback competitions were praised in the Book of Dede Korkut and by poets and writers such as Khaqani.[226] Other ancient sports include wrestling, javelin throwing and fencing.

The Soviet legacy has in modern times propelled some Azerbaijanis to become accomplished athletes at the Olympic level.[226] The Azerbaijani government supports the country's athletic legacy and encourages youth participation. Iranian athletes have particularly excelled in weight lifting, gymnastics, shooting, javelin throwing, karate, boxing, and wrestling.[227] Weight lifters, such as Iran's Hossein Reza Zadeh, world super heavyweight-lifting record holder and two-time Olympic champion in 2000 and 2004, or Hadi Saei is a former Iranian[228] Taekwondo athlete who became the most successful Iranian athlete in Olympic history and Nizami Pashayev, who won the European heavyweight title in 2006, have excelled at the international level. Ramil Guliyev, an ethnic Azerbaijani who plays for Turkey, became the first world champion in athletics in the history of Turkey.

Chess is another popular pastime in the Republic of Azerbaijan.[229] The country has produced many notable players, such as Teimour Radjabov, Vugar Gashimov and Shahriyar Mammadyarov, all three highly ranked internationally. Karate is also popular, where Rafael Aghayev achieved particular success, becoming a five-time world champion and eleven-time European champion.

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External links