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Azerbaijan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Azerbaijan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Nikki Kazimova
For Westerners, the modern state of Azerbaijan may be hard to pinpoint. This small, oil-rich country in the southern Caucasus, on the southwestern shore of the Caspian Sea, only made its way on to the contemporary world map after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the world shrinks and competition for precious resources intensifies, the direction this


For Westerners, the modern state of Azerbaijan may be hard to pinpoint. This small, oil-rich country in the southern Caucasus, on the southwestern shore of the Caspian Sea, only made its way on to the contemporary world map after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the world shrinks and competition for precious resources intensifies, the direction this strategically and economically important country takes will affect us all.   The historically tolerant and pluralist Azeri people have an ancient history and a rich culture. Azerbaijan lay on the route of the Great Silk Road, the trade network that connected China with Europe, and its people have lived through centuries of conquests by different imperial powers. It was also situated in the heart of the Great Game, the struggle for control of Central Asia played out between Russia and the West at the turn on the nineteenth century, which seems to be going through a modern remake. Azerbaijan has been called “the quintessential borderland, many times over: between Europe and Asia, Islam and Christianity, Russia and the Middle East, Turks and Iranians, Shi’a and Sunni Islam.”   Azerbaijan was briefly independent after the First World War, when it was the first Muslim state to adopt progressive Western values. A democratic republic with full women’s suffrage, it boasted the first women’s high school, the first opera, and the first female opera composer, as well as the first ballet in the Muslim world.   There followed seventy years of Soviet rule. After a bitter war in 1991–94, areas of Azerbaijan were occupied by neighboring Armenia, and the country has absorbed a huge number of refugees. At the same time, it is experiencing a new oil boom and the economy is growing. Among the people, there is a growing sense of national identity. Culture Smart! Azerbaijan looks at the many facets of this identity and explains the complex workings of Azerbaijani society. It will equip you with vital information and advice about the customs, practices, and sensibilities of a society poised on the brink of change.

Editorial Reviews

Karabakh Foundation
Written in a simple yet direct manner, the book is designed for those conducting business in Azerbaijan or for serious tourists interested in more than a cursory cultural experience. The book provides a cheat sheet of customs, social norms, and values to integrate the reader into Azerbaijani society. For example, gender roles and relations are explained in the context of dating, family relations, and values. Tips like how to get around like a local and where to shop for groceries provide invaluable insights to a successful cultural experience.

Hospitality is also a cornerstone of Azerbaijani society, expressing the belief that generosity is one of life’s core values. Ms. Kazimova gives tips on how to successfully benefit from invitations and social interactions that form the basis of Azerbaijani relationships. Another insight she gives is the importance of relationships over deadlines and timeliness, another sticking point that often provides a stark contrast and frustration between Azerbaijanis and Westerners, particularly in business matters.

On a higher level, this is a simple expression of cultural diplomacy at its best. The book does not excuse or dismiss cultural issues, but merely seeks to promote mutual understanding. It portrays a cultural richly grounded in history, yet quickly adapting to the demands of modernity and foreign investment. In the years to come, Azerbaijan will become more of a global player in an increasingly interdependent world: without a doubt, this book is a valuable resource and a must-read for those who travel and do business in Azerbaijan.

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By Nikki Kazimova

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-548-4




Azerbaijan is the biggest of the three countries in the southern Caucasus, located on the southwestern shore of the Caspian Sea. As a rather small state that only made its way on to the contemporary world map in 1991, it may be hard to pinpoint. Some maps of Europe include Muslim Azerbaijan; others leave it out. It has been classified as being in "Europe," in "Asia," or in "the Middle East."

The country borders Russia and Georgia in the north, Armenia and Turkey in the west, and Iran in the south. The map of Azerbaijan resembles an eagle, with its beak pointing to the capital, Baku, on the Caspian peninsula.

The country's highest peak is Bazarduzu Dagi, 14,652 feet (4,466 m) tall in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains and its lowest point is the Caspian Sea, which lies 92 feet (28 m) below sea level.

The oil-rich Caspian Sea is bordered by five states — Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan — that have not yet arrived at a joint conclusion about its status. So far, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Kazakhstan have reached an agreement on the status of the Caspian, which has been rejected by Iran and Turkmenistan.

Although Azerbaijan is landlocked, Baku has an international port from which passenger ferries sail off across the Caspian to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and which also handles significant cargo traffic in petroleum products. Built in 1902, it is the largest Caspian port. Azerbaijan's two main rivers, the Kura and the Araz, flow into the Caspian.

The land near Baku is saturated with oil and gas, and a popular version of the origin of Azerbaijan's name is "The Land of Fire," from the Persian word azer, which means "fire."

The country's total area of 33,400 sq. miles (86,600 sq. km) includes the autonomous republic of Nakhchivan — the only part of Azerbaijan that shares a short, 5.6 mile (9 km) border with Turkey — which is separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a narrow strip of Armenia. It also includes a region called Daglig (Mountainous) Garabag in Azeri, or Nagorno Karabakh in Russian, which has been occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s, together with the surrounding villages.


From the dry sands of Baku to the lush hills of the Caucasus Mountains, Azerbaijan has a variety of climate types and Azerbaijanis like to boast that their small land has nine of the climate zones described in the Köppen-Geiger classification system.

In Baku, summers are long and hot, with average temperatures around 86°F (30°C). Winters are cold and windy, with temperatures rarely falling much below 32°F (0°C) but they feel much colder because of the strong winds. Autumns are mild, and springs are short. On average, the city gets one or two snowfalls in the winter, which cause havoc on its roads and streets, but the snow piles usually melt in just a few days.

Baku, which has an average of more than 300 sunny days a year, is also called the City of Winds, and lives up to this name most days of the year. The sunny and dry parts of Azerbaijan were used throughout the Soviet years for growing cotton, and they also lend themselves well to the cultivation of grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and other vegetables.

The densely forested areas in the north, south, and west of the country have climates conducive to growing a variety of fruits and nuts, as well as tobacco, silk, and subtropical citrus fruits. The western areas currently under Armenian occupation are hilly, green, and rich in mineral resources, including copper and gold.

The oil-producing land around Baku is arid and most trees in the Windy City were planted manually within the past 200 years. In his 1902 account of Baku, the British traveler Arnold Henry Savage Landor wrote, "The most depressing sight in Baku is the vegetation. The terrific heat of Baku, the hot winds and sand-storms are deadly enemies to vegetation. Nothing will grow. One does not see a blade of grass nor a shrub anywhere except those few that are artificially brought up. The sand is most trying. It is so fine that the wind forces it through anything, and one's tables, one's chairs, one's bed are yellow-coated with it...."

Water shortage is a perennial problem. In 1900 the New York Times reprinted this excerpt from the engineering monthly Cassier's Magazine about Baku: "The water used by this city of over 75,000 inhabitants is now either distilled from the sea water, brought in tank cars from the distant rivers, or borne in casks on the backs of horses or camels from very carefully preserved wells in the vicinity and fed by not too frequent rains."


Azerbaijan's population, as of early 2010, was 9 million. The birth of the 9 millionth citizen was widely publicized in the local media and he received an equivalent of US$25,000 in local currency and an apartment in Baku from the president.

The population is young — every third Azerbaijani citizen is a person between fourteen and twenty-nine years of age (more than 60 percent of the total population is younger than twenty-nine). Life expectancy is sixty-three years for men, and seventy-one for women.

The boy-to-girl birth ratio is slowly tipping in the direction of more boys and fewer girls born every year, a trend, experts say, that is influenced by late-term abortions performed after ultrasound results reveal the fetus to be female.

There are also an estimated 20 million Azeris living in neighboring Iran, although their exact number is disputed between Azeri activists, who inflate it to 25 to 30 million, and Iranian official sources, which say that, according to the latest census, there are no more than 10 million living in the four traditionally Azerbaijani provinces — Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan.

Ethnic Minorities

According to the official statistics, about 90 percent of Azerbaijani citizens identify themselves as ethnic Azerbaijanis. The remaining 10 percent include Lezghins, Talysh, Russians, Armenians, Avars, Metskhetian Turks, Tatars, Kurds, Tats, and many others. Various sources mention up to eighty minorities scattered around small villages throughout Azerbaijan. They include hundreds of thousands of Lezghins, 76,000 Talysh in the north and south, and about 4,000 Udins, descendants of the ancient Caucasian Albanians.

Azerbaijanis are proud of the fact that their country has historically been free of anti-Semitism. There are two distinct Jewish communities in Azerbaijan, called the "European" and the "Mountain" Jews.


The historian Tadeusz Swietochowski calls Azerbaijan "the quintessential borderland, many times over: between Europe and Asia, Islam and Christianity, Russia and the Middle East, Turks and Iranians, Shi'a and Sunni Islam."

Azerbaijanis trace their ethnic roots to the Oghuz Turkic tribes, who swept across the Central Asian steppes in the eleventh century. However, unlike the neighboring Turks, who are Sunni Muslims, the Azeris are Shia, having been converted in the sixteenth century by the Safavid dynasty.

The country's most recent history (the past two hundred years) is connected with Russia, which annexed the territory of present-day Azerbaijan from Persia in the early nineteenth century, dividing the Azerbaijani people who lived on both sides of the new border along the Araz River. Most of them remained south of the Araz, in modern-day Iran, where Azerbaijanis are the biggest ethnic minority, concentrated primarily in the north of the country, with a regional center in the city of Tabriz.

The Encyclopædia Britannica describes the area of Iranian Azerbaijan as a "geographic region that comprises the extreme northwestern portion of Iran ... bounded on the east by the Iranian region of Gilan and the Caspian Sea; on the south by the Iranian regions of Zanjan and Kordestan; and on the west by Iraq and Turkey ... about 40,000 square miles [100,000 sq. km] in area."

The territory of Azerbaijan lay on the route of the Great Silk Road, an ancient network of trade paths that connected China with Europe, and its people have lived through centuries of conquests by different imperial powers. It is also situated in the heart of the Great Game, the struggle for control of Central Asia played out between Russia and the West at the turn on the nineteenth century, which seems to be going through a modern remake. Azerbaijan, like the rest of the Caucasus countries, has to balance its relations with the greater powers vying for economic and political control of its territory.

Antiquity and Medieval History

The lands south of the Araz (in the parts of Iran where ethnic Azeris live today) were part of the ancient state of Mannea and then of the Medes (or Madai) from the tenth through the fifth centuries BCE.

In the fourth century BCE, the territory was conquered by Alexander the Great in battles with the Persian king Darius III, the last monarch of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. A local satrap (governor) under the name of Atropat (Aderbatag) negotiated autonomous ruling privileges for his province and eventually, after Alexander's death, it became an independent state under the name of Atropatene or Aderbatgan, which with time transformed into Azerbaijan. The population of the area practiced the Zoroastrian religion.

When Rome clashed with the Parthians in the first century BCE, Atropatene allied with Parthia and eventually became one of its provinces, in the year 20 BCE.

Much of the present-day Azerbaijan's territory, lying north of the Araz, was part of a different state. After the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire in the late fourth to early third centuries BCE, Albanian tribes living in what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan formed a new state called Caucasian Albania (not to be confused with the modern country of Albania in southeast Europe). Oghuz Turkic tribes, who arrived here soon after and mixed with the local population, called this land Arran.

Arran was conquered by the Romans in the first century CE and then by the Persian Sassanid Empire in the third century. By the fourth century, its population had adopted Christianity as the state religion.

Introduction of Islam

In the seventh and eighth centuries, Arab invaders swept through the region and converted the populations living north and south of the Araz to Islam, forcing out both Christianity and Zoroastrianism.

Early Shirvanshahs

By the ninth century, however, the Arab Caliphate was weakening. The lands under the name of Shirvan, which lay in the eastern part of Arran, came under control of the new rulers called the Shirvanshahs, who would remain the sovereign monarchs of Shirvan for centuries.

Turkic Influence

Meanwhile, the Oghuz Turkic tribes were settling in the territory of the Caucasus and northern Iran and created the Seljuk Empire in the eleventh century, a process that laid the foundation for the formation of Azeri ethnicity.

Another hundred years later, as the Seljuk Empire was declining, some of its territories were ruled by the officers of the Kipchak tribe under the name of Atabegs. In 1174, the city of Tabriz became the capital of this large thriving state, until it fell prey to a Mongol invasion in 1225 and remained under their control for two centuries.

Azerbaijanis consider the eleventh and twelfth centuries to be a golden age in their history. The period gave birth to such notable figures of Azerbaijani culture as the poet Nizami Ganjavi, the scholar Khatib Tebrizi, the architect Ajami, and many others.

In 1410, the territory south of the Araz became part of the Kara Koyunlu (Black Sheep Turkomans) state with its capital in Tabriz, in present-day Iran. At that time, northern Azerbaijan was still ruled by the Shirvanshahs.

In the middle of the fifteenth century, Tabriz became the capital of the new powerful state of Ak Koyunlu (White Sheep Turkomans). The founder of the dynasty, Uzun Hassan, waged war with the emergent Ottoman Turkey. He composed the Ganunname, a code of laws, and commissioned the translation of the Koran into Azeri. After his death, the Ak Koyunlu state split into two parts and ceased to exist.

According to some scholars, the most important Azerbaijani heroic epic, Kitabi Dede Gorgud (The Book of Dede Korkut), was written at around that time, though earlier versions of this narrative had been part of the oral tradition of the nomadic Oghuz tribes for centuries.


Meanwhile, in the fifteenth century the state of the Shirvanshahs was thriving. It was famous for its exports of silk and gave rise to a material and intellectual culture that was highly respected in its time and whose creators are major figures in the history of Azerbaijan. Among them was a poet named Nasimi, who wrote his ghazels (poems) in the Azeri language, unlike his predecessors who wrote in Persian and Arabic. The fifteenth-century Shirvanshahs' Palace is one of the landmarks of Baku's historic Old City.

Safavid Dynasty

In the early 1500s, the Shirvanshah state was forced to capitulate to the army of the Persian Savafid dynasty, which consolidated power over a vast territory in Asia, with a capital in Tabriz. The original Safavid dynasty were the Qizilbash, an ethnic Turkic (Azeri) tribe whose members demonstrated their devotion to Shi'a belief by wearing twelve red stripes on their turbans to commemorate the twelve imams revered in the Shi'a tradition.

Shah Ismail I, who ruled the Safavid state from 1501, unified the entire territory of present-day Iran. His reign was marked by the elevation of the status of Azeri to the official language of the royal court. Shah Ismail also wrote poetry in Azeri under the pen name of Khatai.

Another prominent writer who promoted the Azerbaijani literary tradition was Muhammad Bin Suleyman, known by the pen name Fuzuli. Science and the arts also thrived throughout the following century, producing such treasures as one of the largest libraries in the region in Tabriz, exquisite miniature paintings, and beautiful carpets.

The Safavid dynasty made Shi'a Islam the official religion of the state, although some Azeris remained Sunni.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Ottoman Turkey's attacks on the Safavid territories became more frequent and they conquered several provinces. The Iranian Shah Abbas I, who ruled the Safavid territory at the time, started drastic army reforms and eliminated many of the Turkic Qizilbash emirs before waging a war against the Ottomans and recapturing the provinces.

Independent Khanates

After the decline of the Safavids, the territory, although still nominally under Persian sovereignty, broke up into independently ruled provinces, or khanates.

Throughout the eighteenth century, Azerbaijan was torn by internal fighting between the khanates — mainly the Guba Khanate, the Sheki Khanate, the Karabakh Khanate, the Talysh Khanate, the Baku Khanate, the Ganja Khanate, the Nakhchivan Khanate, the Shirvan Khanate, the Derbent Khanate, and the Irevan Khanate.

A powerful khan of Sheki named Haji Chelebi fought and declared Sheki an independent khanate, which existed until Chelebi died in 1755. After his death, the Sheki Khanate lost its former might. Then, between 1758 and 1789, Fath-Ali Khan of Guba unified most of the khanates under his power, but after his death the wars continued.

In 1805, the Azerbaijani Karabakh khan Ibrahim Halil signed a treaty with Russia that made the Karabakh Khanate a Russian protectorate. After that, some Azeri Muslim families moved from their homes in Karabakh to Persia, while the Russian government encouraged Armenians living in Persia to move to Karabakh.

Russian Invasion and Russo-Persian Wars

In 1722, the Russian Czar Peter the Great brought his troops to the Caspian port of Astrakhan, from where they sailed off to Baku. After heavy shelling of the city walls by the Russian artillery, in 1723 Baku fell.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Iranian throne was taken by the Qajar dynasty, which reasserted its rule over Azerbaijan and reincorporated most of the khanates into Iranian territory. However, Russia soon took back many of the lost provinces. The Russian general Pavel Tsitsianov, who had led the siege of Baku, was assassinated near the city gate in February 1806. Six months later, Russian forces fully occupied Baku and its last khan, Husseyn Gulu, fled into exile.

During the Russo-Persian war of 1804–13, Russia conquered a part of Azerbaijan and in 1813 signed the Treaty of Gulistan with Persia, according to which the territories of all the khanates north of the Araz River were transferred to Russian control. Some Muslim landowners were granted Russian nobility status.

About the Treaty of Gulistan, which "ratified the status quo resulting from the Russian military presence," Swietochowski writes: "The shah's claims to the northern Azerbaijani khanates were dismissed on the grounds that they had been independent long before their occupation by Russia. This amounted to the first and only recognition of Azerbaijani independence, albeit in the past sense."

In 1828, after two more years of war, Persia signed another peace agreement with the advancing Russians, called the Treaty of Turkmenchay, which made the final transfer of the Irevan, Nakhchivan, and the remainder of the Talysh Khanates to Russian control. This treaty completed the division of the Azerbaijanis living north and south of the Araz River. While they at that time were defined as "Turki" in Iran, the Russians called them "Aderbeijani Tartars."

"Oil Boom"

After Azerbaijan became a part of the Russian Empire, its provinces, previously called khanates, became Russian gubernias, and Baku was included in the newly created Shemakha Gubernia. In 1859, after an earthquake leveled the city of Shemakha, the gubernia's center was transferred to Baku.


Excerpted from Azerbaijan by Nikki Kazimova. Copyright © 2011 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nikki Kazimova is a Baku-born cross-cultural trainer and freelance writer. Over the last ten years, she has been dividing her time between Azerbaijan and the United States, where she studied and worked in journalism and for media development organizations, including CNN International and the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC. Nikki has worked for ExxonMobil in Azerbaijan, was a regional correspondent for Bloomberg News and the International Journalists Network, and was consultant to a number of non-profit organizations in Baku and Washington. She also managed the communication campaign of the Council of Europe’s “All Different All Equal” program in Strasbourg, France. She was an adjunct lecturer at Khazar University in Baku, and conducted training courses for young journalists in partnership with international organizations. Nikki is an honors graduate from the Azerbaijan University of Culture and Arts, and has an MA in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She has also attended cross-cultural training, peace-building, and counseling courses at the American University in Washington, DC, the Catholic University of America, Argosy University, and the Interchange Institute.

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