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Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule

Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule

by Audrey L. Altstadt

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The first comprehensive account of Azerbaijan's rich and tumultuous history up to the present time.


The first comprehensive account of Azerbaijan's rich and tumultuous history up to the present time.

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The Azerbaijani Turks

Power and Identity under Russian Rule

By Audrey L. Altstadt

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 1992 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-9183-8


Origins of the Azerbaijani Turks

    When I saw ten thousand enemies, I attended to them,
    When I saw twenty thousand enemies, I dented them ...
    When I saw a hundred thousand enemies I thundered at them,
    I took up my unswerving sword ...
    Even then I did not boast: "I am a warrior, I am a prince":
    Never have I looked kindly on warriors who boasted.

    The Book of Dede Korkut

Soviet historians seek to clarify the ethnic and cultural roots of Azerbaijani Turks in the distant past. The land that constitutes present-day Azerbaijan has been inhabited since earliest times. Over the centuries this territory has been invaded and ruled by different peoples and influenced by a number of great civilizations, each passing on some of its legacy to posterity. Ancient Media, the land of today's Azerbaijan, was invaded by Persian king Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C.E., by Alexander of Macedonia two centuries later, and by Roman legions under Pompey three centuries after that. A boulder bearing what is believed to be the eastern-most Roman inscription survives just southwest of Baku.

In late Roman (Byzantine) times, Caucasia was invaded by constantly warring Sasanian and Byzantine forces as well as by various Turkish tribal confederations who controlled the steppes north of the Caucasus chain and often acted as Byzantine allies against Iran. The Islamic caliphate extended its domain as far as the Caucasus Mountains by the middle of the 7th century, but Muslim control was consolidated during the 8th century after wars with the Khazars to the north. Part of the population was gradually converted to Islam.

Eastern Caucasia was incorporated into a series of empires that included the Iranian plateau, portions of Central Asia, and often eastern Asia Minor: the Seljuk Turks' in the 11th century, the Chinghizid Ilkhanid, then the Timurid empires from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and the Karakoyunlu and Akkoyunlu states, with their base in southern Azerbaijan, in the 15th century. From the 16th to the mid-18th centuries, all Azerbaijan would be part of Safavid Iran, interrupted only by two occupations — first by Ottomans in the late 16th–early 17th centuries and then by Ottomans and Russians under Peter I during the early 18th century.


By the 4th century B.C.E., two states had emerged to whose history Azerbaijani Turks attach special importance — Caucasian Albania, on the territory of present-day Soviet or northern Azerbaijan, and Aturpatkan or Atropaten in southern, now Iranian, Azerbaijan. The word Azerbaijan may have been formed from Atropaten, named for Atropat, a satrap of Alexander of Macedonia in 328 B.C.E. His state lasted until circa 150 B.C.E. Azerbaijani scholars regard both states as predecessors of modern Azerbaijan and contend that the name Azerbaijan has been used since pre-Christian times for both areas, two issues of considerable controversy for historical and political reasons. (Because of its location Soviet scholars concentrated on Albania as a major predecessor state to the Azerbaijan SSR.)

Twentieth-century non-Azerbaijani scholars have argued that Azerbaijan is a recent, artificial creation (following to some extent Allied claims during World War I that it was created by the Ottomans) and that the Turks of Azerbaijan are such newcomers to the Caucasus that their claim to land — and indeed their living there — is not legitimate. Azerbaijani scholars have responded by writing histories of pre-Islamic and pre-Christian Caucasia in which they draw on works of Russian and European orientalists of the 19th century and on early works of Greek, Arab, Persian, Armenian, and other geographers and chroniclers and argue that modern Azerbaijan is an heir to the Albanian state and its territory. In a historical geography of Azerbaijan written in the mid 1980s, academician Ziya M. Buniatov, director of the Oriental Institute of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences and an internationally known scholar, maintained,

The idea of Azerbaijan ... is correctly used with respect to the territories of Northern and Southern Azerbaijan beginning with the 6th century [B.C.E.] ... According to Arabic and Persian sources ... from the 8th century, both Northern and Southern Azerbaijan were understood by the name Azerbaijan.

In writing about the Albanian state, Soviet scholars have cited Greek and Roman sources of the late pre-Christian and early Christian eras, including the works of Strabo, Ptolemy, and Pliny, which indicated that Albania lay between the Caspian Sea and Iberia (Georgia), from the country of the nomad Sarmatians (the steppe north of the Greater Caucasus range) in the North to the Araz River in the South. A rich country with diverse economic activity, it had gardens, orchards, viticulture, arable land, pastures, large herds of cattle and horses, fishing, and hunting. Around the 3d century, numerous cities famous for trading and crafts or as administrative and cultural centers were established: Ganje, Barda (Partva), Sheki, Nakhjivan, Baku, and others. Armenian and Albanian historians of the 5th to the 8th centuries described Albania as a large state having essentially the same borders described by Ptolemy. The Syriac Chronicle ... of Zachariah of Mitylene (mid-6th century) described Albania as a separate state, having its own language, people, and a king who was a vassal of the Persian shah.

Albania (sometimes called Aghvan; later, Aran) appears to have retained considerable autonomy despite formal vassalage to larger states, notably Sasanian Iran. The Albanians recognized the Sasanian rulers as their suzerains and paid them tribute but maintained political autonomy. Albanians reportedly joined Sasanian armies in fighting the Muslim Arabs in the 630s, but Albanian prince Javanshir finally negotiated his vassalage to the caliphate in 667. Although Arab garrisons were placed in several strategic towns — Ardebil, Barda, Nakhjivan, Derbend, Maragha — the Khuramit movement, led by Babek from 820 to 837, resisted their control.

Although Albania survived until the 9th century, the ruling dynasty lost power over the left bank of the Kura River in the Northeast early in the 6th century. According to Dr. Sara B. Ashurbeyli (Ashurbeili), in the region of Shirvan (Sharvan), "a small political entity called the state of the Shirvanshahs appeared." The state, initially created by the Sasanians to defend the frontier against the Khazars, expanded in later centuries to include Derbend, Sheki in the Northeast, and the Mughan steppe south of the Araz River.

The dynasty, however, was regarded by some medieval writers as being of great antiquity. Rashid al-Din (1247–1318), whose son married the daughter of the reigning Shirvanshah, placed the dynasty's origins in Achaemenid times: "It is already about two thousand years that rulership belongs to their lineage." Ashurbeyli cited Ibn Khordadhbeh, writing in the 9th century, that the first Sasanian shah, Ardashir I (ruled 224–240) elevated local rulers in Caucasia to the title shah:

In the name of Sasanian Khosrow I Anushirvan an organization of local vassal princes and significant settled colonies of their citizens was organized, especially from the Caspian regions, to fortify the northern borders against incursions of Turkish nomadic tribes. Among these kings who received the title shah, Arabic sources name ... Sharvan-shah.

Ashurbeyli and Russian orientalist Vladimir Minorsky agreed there were four dynasties that successively ruled as Shirvanshahs: the first, which the Sasanians used to defend the northern frontier, the Arab Mazyadids (9th–early 11th centuries), the Kesranids (so-called by Minorsky, 11th–14th centuries), and the Derbend Shirvanshahs, a branch of the Kesranids (1382–circa 1539).

The peak of Shirvan power appears to have been the 10th century when it expanded and reached its greatest size, incorporating major cities such as Ganje and Barda, the former capital of Albania. Shirvan was as wealthy as Albania had been, and according to 10th-century chronicler Ibn Hauqal, Shirvan paid 1 million dirhams tribute in 955, compared with 300,000 for the second largest state of Caucasia. During the 10th and 11th centuries, according to Arab sources, oil and salt were among Shirvan's most important economic assets.

The strength of the Shirvanshahs is perhaps best measured by their resilience and adaptability. Ashurbeyli traces the fortunes of Shirvanshah Ibrahim I ibn Sultan Muhammad (ruled 1382–1417), who accepted Timur (13??–1405) as his suzerain, minting coins with Timur's image, saying the Friday prayer in his name, supporting him against Tokhtamysh of the Golden Horde and the Ottomans, and thus retained his title. After Timur's death and the rise of Kara Yusuf Karakoyunlu in southern Azerbaijan, Ibrahim agreed to recognize Kara Yusuf as his suzerain in 1410, in exchange for which Kara Yusuf granted Ibrahim lands from Sheki to Derbend, enlarging Shirvan once again.

The end of the Shirvanshah state and dynasty is connected with the rise to the Iranian throne of the Safavids of southern Azerbaijan, who annexed Shirvan and incorporated it directly into the imperial administrative system. Resistance to Safavid rule lasted for several decades.

The first Safavid shah, Ismail I (ruled 1501–1524), emerged as a political leader within his prominent Ardebil family while still a young man. As shah, Ismail elevated Twelver Shi'ism to his state religion. Caucasian Muslims, like the rest of the empire, came under heavy pressure to accept Shi'ism. The conversion was accomplished during Ismail's lifetime and that of his first successor, Tahmasp I (1524–1576), whose sister was the wife of the last effective Shirvanshah, Halilullah (1524–1535). Shi'ism was adopted by Ismail at least partly as a political tool in his ongoing warfare with two neighboring Sunni Muslim Turkish empires, the Ottomans to the West and the Central Asian Shibanids on the Northeast. For the Turks of Azerbaijan, the result was twofold: (1) a strengthening of the bonds with the Iranian state and what was by the 16th century its Turco-Persian culture (the Safavid court language, according to various European scholars and travelers, was Turkish) and (2) a sectarian division from other Turks. Realignment along ethnic lines would become a serious issue for Azerbaijani Turkish intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries.


The time of arrival of the Turks in Caucasia and of the complete Turkization of eastern Caucasia, like the history of Caucasian Albania, is a controversial topic. Azerbaijani scholars strive to illuminate their early ethnographic history and to quash their neighbors' claims (based on different interpretations of historical documents and/or other sources) to land that the Azerbaijanis have long inhabited and regard as their patrimony.

The History of Azerbaijan noted incursions by Turkic-speaking groups from "the beginning of our era," which increased in the 5th to the 7th and the 9th to the 11th centuries. Ashurbeyli stated that "from antiquity" the Shirvan region had been a place where Caucasian-, Iranian-, and Turkish-speaking tribes mingled and argued that "in the 6th century intensive migrations of Turks into Aran, Shirvan, and Mughan occurred." Soviet Azerbaijanis often cite historians and chroniclers who seem to regard Huns and Khazars as purely Turkish confederations (rather than partly Turkish, which is more accurate). They quote historian Tabari's (d. 932) description of invasions of Caucasia from the North during the 4th and 5th centuries by Huns and Khazars, whom he called Turks, and his statement that by the mid-6th century, there was a significant Khazar presence in Albania. Also cited are Byzantine sources of the mid-6th century that refer to the "settlement of Khazars" in "left bank Albania" (the left bank of the Kura) and the 7th-century work of Ubeid ibn Shariyya al-Jurhumi, who told Muslim Caliph Mueviyyen I (661–680) that Azerbaijan "has long been a land of Turks. Having gathered over there, they have mixed with one another and become integrated." Albanian historian Moisey Kaghankatli referred to a "Hun state" on the left bank of the Kura River in the 7th century. This state established "brotherhood and friendship" with Javanshir, the Albanian prince who ruled on the right bank of the Kura, that is, between the Kura and Araz rivers.

Recently, some Azerbaijani scholars have argued for a direct ethnic link between the Albanians and Turks, both of whom have come to be regarded as ancestors of today's Azerbaijani Turks:

In the 3rd century, the names of the Albanian Basileus, Zoberin, and of one of the Hun leaders (Zobergan) were the same; in the book "Aghvan tarihi," that is Albanians' own historical tradition, one of the religious leaders who signed church laws in the year 488 also had a name of Turkish origin — Manas; Gazan and Gor (Gor + gut) which appear in the same work written in the 7th century, conform to the names of the Oghuz leaders in the dastan ["ornate oral history"] "Kitabi-Dede Gorgut."

Furthermore, on the basis of Moisey Kaghankatli's The History of Albania, it is argued that the Christian Albanians (Christian since the 4th century) had begun to take brides from the Turkish nomads to the north no later than the 7th century, for the History speaks of "condemning the Aghvan [Albanian] aristocracy for intermarrying with the Buddhists," and of members of eight aristocratic families who "married aliens and profaned themselves."

According to Professor Peter B. Golden, early sources are not sufficiently clear to form detailed and definitive conclusions. Only some pieces of information are certain. He has written that "genuine interaction" between Turkic peoples and the Caucasian population can safely be dated from the middle of the 4th century. Contacts in the succeeding centuries were part of the complex interplay of Byzantine-Sasanian-nomadic forces who waged war in Caucasia:

In the course of the seventh century, the two major tribal unions emerged in this region under the Türk banner: the Khazars and the Bulgars ... [there is] confusion in our sources of Khazar and Türk (the two are virtually interchangeable at this time) ... [and] it is not until the seventh century that we can trace the outline of Khazar involvement in Transcaucasian affairs with any degree of clarity. Prior to this they operated in close concert with their Türkic overlords. Thus the Khazars formed the bulk of the Türk forces used by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610–641) in this counteroffensive against the Sasanids in Transcaucasia.

These events do not refer to settlement by Turks. Complete Turkization of eastern Caucasia can be dated from the arrival of the Seljuks in the 11th century and more fully consolidated with Turkish migrations during the 13th-century Mongol eruption.

The Arab Muslim invasions brought Arabs and Islam to Caucasia in the 7th century. The settlement of Arabs in Albania and the fact that non-Muslims paid higher taxes led eventually to the Islamization of most of the Albanian population, a matter that is not without disputation. Nineteenth-century Russian caucasologist I. P. Petrushevskii argued that a majority of the Albanians converted to Islam; those who remained Christian became Armenianized. Some have argued further that Muslim Albanians merged more easily with recently Islamized Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, an idea that is sometimes coupled with the popular, but erroneous, notion that the Seljuks were the first Turks to come to Caucasia.


Excerpted from The Azerbaijani Turks by Audrey L. Altstadt. Copyright © 1992 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Devon Conlet
In her comprehensive account of Azerbaijan's rich and diverse history, Dr. Audrey Altstadt frames Azerbaijani national identity as a story of empires and the political nature of culture. From the early state of Caucasian Albania to the Soviet Empire, Azerbaijan has been subject to a diverse array of cultures, languages, and political systems. Tracing the evolution of the Azerbaijani Turkic cultural identity to a national consciousness, Dr. Altstadt documents the emergence of modern Azerbaijani national cultural awaking in the early 20th century under Russian, and later Soviet, rule. She demonstrates how the development of a modern, secular Azerbaijani Turkic identity led to the emergence of a united religious and cultural front. Politicized to form Azerbaijani identity in contrast to the russification and colonialism of the Russian and Soviet Empires, this identity was designed to form a cultural bulwark in a country increasingly independent of outside influences. Please listen to the 6 November 2011 interview with Dr. Altstadt on the Azerbaijani Radio Hour as she elaborates on her research and future projects.

An excellent account of Azerbaijan under Soviet rule, Dr. Altstadt meticulously compiles names, dates, and locations in her seminal work on Azerbaijan. The revival of Turkic culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played a vital role in establishing a legitimate Azerbaijani national identity to contend with colonial Russian/Soviet influences. Control over Azerbaijani culture and language further highlight the powerful nature of culture, as it posed a threat to the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and its communist doctrine. Language, ever a political topic, was subject to russification with the imposition of the Cyrillic alphabet on the formerly Arabic and Latin script language. However, after independence, Azerbaijani reverted back to a Latin-based script, which it had adopted briefly from 1929-1938. The imposition of communist-style collective farms and governing councils as well as the deportation, repression, and even execution of Azerbaijani intelligentsia further undermined traditional Azerbaijani culture.

Using both original research and official histories, Dr. Altstadt leads readers through the complex history that formed today's Azerbaijan. One interesting note is Dr. Altstadt's research regarding Azerbaijan's national cultural revival in the 1980s. In contrast to other authors' claims that the Soviet policy of glasnost (openness) re-opened and ignited long-repressed national identities, Altstadt points to former President Heydar Aliyev as the force behind Azerbaijan's national revival. Whether or not this directly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union remains a source of contention; however, the celebration of Azerbaijani culture provided a much-needed infusion of national pride into the national political consciousness, vital for the formation of an independent Azerbaijan.

Despite a rich collection of literature and cultural information, Dr. Altstadt glosses over the development and importance of the khanates that made up the territory of Azerbaijan before the Russian Empire.
While this simplifies the story, the omission fails to highlight the political structure of the Azerbaijani Turks before the Russian Empire. Moreover, Dr. Altstadt's book would benefit from an update to her authoritative compilation Azerbaijani history. Written immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, her story conveniently ends in 1990 and omits key challenges in Azerbaijan's post-Soviet history.

For readers unfamiliar with Azerbaijani history, this book can be overwhelmingly detailed, and difficult to read. Readers must keep in mind that history in this region has been subject to various waves of revisionism, and that different accounts and opinions of events in the book exist. Dr. Altstadt presents her rendition of history from an Azerbaijani point of view, using extensive research of historical archives to substantiate her point and understanding of Azerbaijani history. Despite these challenges, Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule remains a must-read for anyone interested in the region.

Meet the Author

Audrey L. Altstadt received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and has received postdoctoral fellowships from the Russian Research Center at Harvard University and the George F. Kennan Institute of Advanced Russian Studies. She conducted research in Baku, Azerbaijan, during the 1980–81 and 1984–85 and was the first American to gain access to the Azerbaijan State Historical Archives. She is currently a member of the history department at the University of Masschusetts at Amherst.

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