Before Russian rule

The ancient world knew of a mysterious place where flames would suddenly burst through the surface of the earth. This place was the Apsheron Peninsula on the Caspian coast—the peninsula on which now stands Baku. The source of the flames was oil that welled below the ground. The Persian name for the country was Azerbaijan, which means “land of fire.”

Inhabited for at least 10,000 years

The first organized state in the area, the principality of Zamoa, appeared in the 9th century BC, only to be conquered soon thereafter by the Assyrians. The decline of Assyria led to the inclusion of southern Azerbaijan into the Median Empire, and northern Azerbaijan became part ofCaucasian Albania (not to be confused with modern-day Albania) which by 600 BC ruled most of the southern Caucasus. Most Caucasian Albanians were absorbed by Armenia in the first half of the 18th century. Those who were not absorbed by Armenia today live in villages in northern Azerbaijan and are known as the Udi people.

Late 4th century BC to 3rd century

In the late 4th century BC, a Hellenic kingdom called Atropatenawas set up in Azerbaijan by one of the commanders of Alexander the Great. From the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD, except for an interval of Armenian supremacy in the 1st century BC, Azerbaijan was a battleground between the empires of Rome and Parthia. In the 3rd century, Parthia broke up. Persia then became the nearest great power, and the Albanians its vassals. The Persian Shah appointed local nobles as governors over parts of Albania—an arrangement that gave rise to autonomous local khanates.

Persia and Byzantium

In the centuries that followed, Persia and Byzantium waged a struggle for control over the region. This struggle had a religious dimension. The Persian state religion, Zoroastrianism, was based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra. Christianity reached Albania from Byzantium in the 3rd century, but had to compete for influence with Zoroastrianism.

Arab invasions

A third religion, Islam, came with the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries. The Albanian khans eventually accepted Arab rule, and some of them adopted Islam. When the Arab caliphate broke up in the 9th century, Albania was dominated by the two rival khanates of Shirvan and Arran.

Fifth century onward

From the fifth century onward, Turkic tribes had begun to settle in northern Albania. In 1025, one of these tribes, the Oghuz, took control of the whole country. In the second half of the 12th century, under the rule of a descendant of the Oghuz, Shams al-Din, Azerbaijan reached the height of its power.

12th century

This was also the period of classical Azerbaijani literature, science, and philosophy. Although an Azerbaijani literary language would eventually arise from the Oghuz vernacular, the Persian remained the language of culture and Arabic the language of religion and science. Nizami Ganjavi, who is considered the first great Azerbaijani poet, wrote his epics in Persian. Only in the 16th century would the other great classical Ottoman poet, writer, and thinker Muhammad bin Suleyman, better known by his pen name Füzuli, write in Azerbaijani as well as Persian and Arabic.

The Persian Empire

In the early 13th century, Azerbaijan came under attack from Georgia ruled at that time by Queen Tamar. Then the Mongol invaders swept through the region, leaving chaos and devastation in their wake in both Azerbaijan and Georgia. Internecine conflict among the local khanates ended only with there-emergence of a strong Persia in the 15th century. The Persian Empire was, in fact, rebuilt by Ismail I with the assistance of extremist Shiite militant groups, who established in 1502, the new capital in Tabriz. Ismail I expanded his territory during the next decade to include the Southern Caucasus, Persian Azerbaijan and most of Iraq. He created a feudal theocracy and made Shia Islam the official religion, a move that would separate Azerbaijan from the Sunni Ottoman Turks.

Ottoman-Persian war

An Ottoman-Persian war then ensued for 40 years. The Ottomans conquered Azerbaijan in the late 16th century, but were routed by Persia in 1605—the first time that they had been defeated anywhere. Azerbaijan was reincorporated into Persia.

17th century

Despite their roles as part of the Persian Empire's ruling class, the Azerbaijani lords were not content being in a subordinate position. Toward the end of the 17th century they rebelled against and overthrew their Persian rulers, but failed to unite the khanates into a single Azerbaijanistate.


In 1722 Czar Peter the Great invaded northern Azerbaijan, but a few years later was repelled by Persian troops. In 1747 the Azerbaijani lords again rebelled against Persia, and then began to fight against one another.


The khanates of Northern Azerbaijan fell to Russia between 1804 and 1806. Baku resisted and was reduced to ruins. By the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchai, the border between Russia and Persia was set along the River Aras, where it stayed until the end of the Soviet period. Persia renounced all claims over the Erivan khanate (most of present-day central Armenia), the Nakhchivan khanate (most of the present-day Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan), the Talysh khanate, the Ordubad and Mughan regions (now also part of Azerbaijan), in addition to all lands annexed by Russia in the 1813 Gulistan Treaty, which included Dagestan, Georgia, Karabakh, Ganja, Sheki, Shirvan, Quba, Derbent, and Baku khanates.

The Czarist government initially governed Azerbaijan through the existing khanates, but later switched to direct rule. Toward the end of the 19th century, Russification intensified with an influx of Russian settlers, mainly in connection with the oil boom that took off in the Baku area. Despite the fact Baku was connected to the Russian railway network, a great majority of Azerbaijanis neither benefited from increased trade nor from oil wealth; remained peasants and unskilled laborers.

Azerbaijani culture under the Czars

The two main Azerbaijani mid-19th-century cultural figures were the poet and historian Abbasgulu Bakikhanov and the novelist and playwright Mirza Akhundov.

Later in the century, some Azerbaijani newspapers and political organizations made their appearance. Political organizations were mainly nationalist in orientation and secret in organization — in particular,Hummet [Endeavor] and Musavat[Equality]. The communist movement became active in Azerbaijan in the first years of the 20th century, but its supporters were mostly ethnic Russians and Armenians.

Independent Azerbaijani Democratic Republic

The Russian Revolution of 1917 led in Azerbaijan, and especially Baku, toa confused mix of political and ethnic conflicts. The collapse of the Transcaucasian Federation led in May 1918 to the proclamation of an independent Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, led by the Musavat party. The republic lasted less than two years before falling to the Red Army. Armed resistance to Soviet rule continued until 1924.

Incorporation into the USSR

Azerbaijan was incorporated into the USSR in 1922 as part of theTranscaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. When this entity was eliminated in 1936, Azerbaijan became a union republic, the Azerbaijan SSR.