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The official language is Azerbaijani, a Turkic tongue belonging to the southern branch of the Altaic languages. In 1994 it was estimated that some 82 percent of Azerbaijan's citizens speak Azerbaijani as their first language. In addition, 38 percent of Azerbaijanis speak Russian fluently to accommodate Russian domination of the economy and politics. Although official Soviet figures showed that about 32 percent of Russians living in Azerbaijan spoke Azerbaijani, the Russian population generally was reluctant to learn the local language.

The Azerbaijani language is part of the Oghuz, or Western Turkic, group of Turkic languages, together with Anatolian Turkish (spoken in Turkey) and Turkmen (spoken in Turkmenistan). The Oghuz tribes of Central Asia spoke this precursor language between the seventh and eleventh centuries. The three descendent languages share common linguistic features. Dialectical differences between Azerbaijani and Anatolian Turkish have been attributed to Mongolian and Turkic influences. Despite these differences, Anatolian Turkish speakers and Azerbaijanis can often understand one another if they speak carefully. Spoken Azerbaijani includes several dialects. Since the nineteenth century, Russian loanwords (particularly technical terms) and grammatical and lexical structures have entered the Azerbaijani language in Russian-controlled Azerbaijan, as have Persian words in Iranian Azerbaijan. The resulting variants remain mutually intelligible, however.

In the immediate pre-Soviet period, literature in Azerbaijan was written in Arabic in several literary forms that by 1900 were giving way to a more vernacular Azerbaijani Turkish form. In 1924 Soviet officials pressured the Azerbaijani government into approving the gradual introduction of a modified Roman alphabet. Scholars have speculated that this decision was aimed at isolating the Muslim peoples from their Islamic culture, thus reducing the threat of nationalist movements. In the late 1930s, however, Soviet authorities reversed their policy and dictated use of the Cyrillic alphabet, which became official in 1940. Turkey's switch to a modified Roman alphabet in 1928 may have prompted Stalin to reinforce Azerbaijan's isolation from dangerous outside influences by switching to Cyrillic. This change also made it easier for Azerbaijanis to learn Russian.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the alphabet question arose once again. Most Azerbaijani intellectuals ultimately rejected switching to Arabic. Instead, the intellectuals preferred a modified Roman alphabet incorporating symbols for unique Azerbaijani language sounds. In December 1991, the legislature approved a gradual return to a "New Roman" alphabet.


The prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who was born in the seventh century B.C. in what is now Azerbaijan, established a religion focused on the cosmic struggle between a supreme god and an evil spirit. Islam arrived in Azerbaijan with Arab invaders in the seventh century A.D., gradually supplanting Zoroastrianism and Azerbaijani pagan cults. In the seventh and eighth centuries, many Zoroastrians fled Muslim persecution and moved to India, where they became known as Parsis. Until Soviet Bolsheviks ended the practice, Zoroastrian pilgrims from India and Iran traveled to Azerbaijan to worship at sacred sites, including the Surakhany Temple on the Apsheron Peninsula near Baku.

In the sixteenth century, the first shah of the Safavid Dynasty, Ismail I (r. 1486-1524), established Shia Islam as the state religion, although large numbers of Azerbaijanis remained followers of the other branch of Islam, Sunni. The Safavid court was subject to both Turkic (Sunni) and Iranian (Shia) influences, however, which reinforced the dual nature of Azerbaijani religion and culture in that period. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the two branches of Islam came into conflict in Azerbaijan. Enforcement of Shia Islam as the state religion brought contention between the Safavid rulers of Azerbaijan and the ruling Sunnis of the neighboring Ottoman Empire.

In the nineteenth century, many Sunni Muslims emigrated from Russian-controlled Azerbaijan because of Russia's series of wars with their coreligionists in the Ottoman Empire. Thus, by the late nineteenth century, the Shia population was in the majority in Russian Azerbaijan. Antagonism between the Sunnis and the Shia diminished in the late nineteenth century as Azerbaijani nationalism began to emphasize a common Turkic heritage and opposition to Iranian religious influences. At present, about three-quarters of Azerbaijani Muslims are at least nominally Shia (and 87 percent of the population was Muslim in 1989).

Azerbaijan's next largest official religion is Christianity, represented mainly by Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic groups. Some rural Azerbaijanis retain pre-Islamic shamanist or animist beliefs, such as the sanctity of certain sites and the veneration of certain trees and rocks.

Before Soviet power was established, about 2,000 mosques were active in Azerbaijan. Most mosques were closed in the 1930s, then some were allowed to reopen during World War II. In the 1980s, however, only two large and five smaller mosques held services in Baku, and only eleven others were operating in the rest of the country. Supplementing the officially sanctioned mosques were thousands of private houses of prayer and many secret Islamic sects. Beginning in the late Gorbachev period, and especially after independence, the number of mosques rose dramatically. Many were built with the support of other Islamic countries, such as Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, which also contributed Qurans (Korans) and religious instructors to the new Muslim states. A Muslim seminary has also been established since 1991. As in the other former Soviet Muslim republics, religious observances in Azerbaijan do not follow all the traditional precepts of Islam. For example, drinking wine is permitted, and women are not veiled or segregated.

During World War II, Soviet authorities established the Muslim Spiritual Board of Transcaucasia in Baku as the governing body of Islam in the Caucasus, in effect reviving the nineteenthcentury tsarist Muslim Ecclesiastical Board. During the tenures of Leonid I. Brezhnev and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Moscow encouraged Muslim religious leaders in Azerbaijan to visit and host foreign Muslim leaders, with the goal of advertising the freedom of religion and superior living conditions reportedly enjoyed by Muslims under Soviet communism. In the early 1980s, Allahshukur Humatoglu Pashazade was appointed Sheikh ul-Islam, head of the Muslim board. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Muslim board became known as the Supreme Religious Council of the Caucasus Peoples. In late 1993, the Sheikh blessed Heydar Aliyev at his swearing-in ceremony as President of Azerbaijan.


In the second half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, Azerbaijan underwent a cultural renaissance that drew on the golden age of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and other influences. The patronage of the arts and education that characterized this movement was fueled in part by increasing oil wealth. Azerbaijan's new industrial and commercial elites contributed funds for the establishment of many libraries, schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations. In the 1880s, philanthropist Haji Zeinal Adibin Taghiyev built and endowed Baku's first theater.

Artistic flowering in Azerbaijan inspired Turkic Muslims throughout the Russian Empire and abroad, stimulating among other phenomena the establishment of theaters and opera houses that were among the first in the Muslim world. Tsarist authorities first encouraged, then tolerated, and finally used intensified Russification against this assertion of artistic independence.

Several artists played important roles in the renaissance. Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzade (also called Akhundov; 1812-78), a playwright and philosopher, influenced the Azerbaijani literary language by writing in vernacular Azerbaijani Turkish. His plays, among the first significant theater productions in Azerbaijan, continue to have wide popular appeal as models of form in the late twentieth century. The composer and poet Uzeir Hajibeyli (1885-1948) used traditional instruments and themes in his musical compositions, among which were the first operas in the Islamic world. The poet and playwright Husein Javid (1882-1941) wrote in Turkish about historical themes, most notably the era of Timur.

Under Soviet rule, Azerbaijani cultural expression was circumscribed and forcibly supplanted by Russian cultural values. Particularly during Stalin's purges of the 1930s, many Azerbaijani writers and intellectuals were murdered, and ruthless attempts were made to erase evidence of their lives and work from historical records. Cultural monuments, libraries, mosques, and archives were destroyed. The two forcible changes of alphabet in the 1920s and 1930s further isolated Azerbaijanis from their literary heritage. Never completely extinguished during the Soviet period, however, Azerbaijani culture underwent a modest rebirth during Khrushchev's relaxation of controls in the 1950s, when many who had been victims of Stalin's purges were posthumously rehabilitated and their works republished. In the 1970s and 1980s, another rebirth occurred when Moscow again loosened cultural restrictions. Under Aliyev's first regime, publication of some mildly nationalist pieces was allowed, including serialization of Aziza Jafarzade's historical novel Baku 1501.


In the pre-Soviet period, Azerbaijani education included intensive Islamic religious training that commenced in early childhood. Beginning at roughly age five and sometimes continuing until age twenty, children attended madrasahs, education institutions affiliated with mosques. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, madrasahs were established as separate education institutions in major cities, but the religious component of education remained significant. In 1865 the first technical high school and the first women's high school were opened in Baku. In the late nineteenth century, secular elementary schools for Azerbaijanis began to appear (schools for ethnic Russians had been established earlier), but institutions of higher education and the use of the Azerbaijani language in secondary schools were forbidden in Transcaucasia throughout the tsarist period. The majority of ethnic Azerbaijani children received no education in this period, and the Azerbaijani literacy rate remained very low, especially among women. Few women were allowed to attend school.

In the Soviet era, literacy and average education levels rose dramatically from their very low starting point, despite two changes in the standard alphabet, from Arabic to Roman in the 1920s and from Roman to Cyrillic in the 1930s. According to Soviet data, 100 percent of males and females (ages nine to forty-nine) were literate in 1970.

During the Soviet period, the Azerbaijani education system was based on the standard model imposed by Moscow, which featured state control of all education institutions and heavy doses of Marxist-Leninist ideology at all levels. Since independence, the Azerbaijani system has undergone little structural change. Initial alterations have included the reestablishment of religious education (banned during the Soviet period) and curriculum changes that have reemphasized the use of the Azerbaijani language and have eliminated ideological content. In addition to elementary schools, the education institutions include thousands of preschools, general secondary schools, and vocational schools, including specialized secondary schools and technical schools. Education through the eighth grade is compulsory. At the end of the Soviet period, about 18 percent of instruction was in Russian, but the use of Russian began a steady decline beginning in 1988.

Azerbaijan has more than a dozen institutions of higher education, in which enrollment totaled 105,000 in 1991. Because Azerbaijani culture has always included great respect for secular learning, the country traditionally has been an education center for the Muslim peoples of the former Soviet Union. For that reason and because of the role of the oil industry in Azerbaijan's economy, a relatively high percentage of Azerbaijanis have obtained some form of higher education, most notably in scientific and technical subjects. Several vocational institutes train technicians for the oil industry and other primary industries.

The most significant institutions of higher education are the M.E.Rasulzade Baku State University, the Institute of Petroleum and Chemistry, the Polytechnic Institute, the Pedagogical Institute, the Mirza Fatali Akhundov Pedagogical Institute for Languages, the Azerbaijan Medical Institute, and the Uzeir Hajibeyov Conservatory. Much scientific research, which during the Soviet period dealt mainly with enhancing oil production and refining, is carried out by the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences, which was established in 1945. The Baku State University, established in 1919, includes more than a dozen departments, ranging from physics to Oriental studies, and has the largest library in Azerbaijan. The student population numbers more than 11,000, and the faculty over 600. The Institute of Petroleum and Chemistry, established in 1920, has more than 15,000 students and a faculty of about 1,000. The institute trains engineers and scientists in the petrochemical industry, geology, and related areas.


Monuments of architecture and art of Azerbaijan reflect the history of the country located on the junction of world trade ways linking up East and West.

Rock paintings in Gobustan depicting scenes of work, everyday life, rituals go back to the 7-8 millenniums B.C. Remains of pre-historic housing, materials of excavations and burials are indicative of rich artistic culture of Eneolithic and early Bronze epochs. Metal, plastic, ceramic and glass articles and vessels represent foothills of Minor Caucasus, Nakhchivan, primarily northern regions of Azerbaijan. Remains of Kabala, fortress Chirag-Gala (6 century), as well as cult structures, including Basilica temple in the village of Kum and round temple (5-6 centuries, lime-stone and burnt brick), survived to our days.

The Arab conquest of the 7 century and spreading of Islam accounted for the emergence of new types of structures (mosques, minarets, madrasa, mausoleums), also, lack of pictures of men and animals predetermined the development of ornamental forms of decorative art.

Artistic traditions of Azerbaijan received a new impetus for their development in the 14-16 centuries. At this period big states emerged, towns grew, stone architecture developed. Note that the stone architecture was noted for its designs, tectonic substantiation, filigree carving, ceramic decor, etc. A complex of palace structures enriched the residence of Shirvanshahs (Baku), sky-blue domes of Blue Mosque (1465) adorned Tabriz with its splendid decor. Viability of local architectural traditions manifested itself in the forms, design and attire of tower mausoleums in Barda, Karabakh, Lachin, Gubadly, castle in the village of Ramany, rock tomb in the village of Maraza.

The Tabriz school (commencing from the 13 century) had a great influence on the development of miniature painting, calligraphy, design of manuscripts. The works of Tabriz miniaturists of the 15-16 centuries are notable for perfection of the design, sophisticated drawing, nuances of coloured palette.   

Architectural building traditions are maintained in folk architecture, account for specificity of planning, originality of buildings. Wall paintings, primarily vegetation motifs, sometimes pictures of birds, animals, men, first appeared in the houses of rich citizens in the 18 century. Folk art is represented by noble and refined copper utensils, highly decorated weapons from the village of Lagich, compositionally diversified carpets from Guba-Shirvan, Gyandja-Gazakh, Karabakh and Tabriz areas, embroidery from Shaki and so forth.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, little monumental architecture was created, but distinctive residences were built in Baku and elsewhere. Among the most recent architectural monuments, the Baku subways are noted for their lavish decor.


It  is astonishing that rock drawings report on the earliest stages of the development of musical art on the territory of Azerbaijan in the 5-3 millenniums B.C. There is a peculiar percussion musical instrument of the Stone Age - "gaval-dash" (stone-tambourine) in Gobustan. Musical instruments, which came as a result of excavations, as well as ancient folk legends, narrate about the musical culture of the past epoch.

Throughout centimes, the Azerbaijani music dominated in the folk art. Classic melodies with refined fret and intonation structure, vocal and instrumental form, polyphony were nursed in the entrails of the Azerbaijani music. Handicraftsmen created musical instruments - forefathers of modern tar, saz, canon, kamancha, tutek, balaman or balaban, zurna, nagara, gosha-nagara, daf, tambounne, etc. In music an ancient tradition was carried into modern times by ashugs, poet-singers who presented ancient songs or verses or improvised new ones, accompanied by a stringed instrument called the kobuz. Another early musical form was the mugam, a composition of alternating vocal and instrumental segments most strongly associated with the ancient town of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh.

An independent area of the Azerbaijan musical folklore is a dancing music distinguished by its diversity and relief of rhythmic figures.

Note that it was the development of urban culture that gave impetus to the emergence of mugams in the Middle Ages - these vocal and instrumental plays with contrast combination of improvisation and recitative sections and strict, well-rounded song and dancing melodies (tesnif - song in mugam, reng - instrumental episode).

In the early 20 century, great Uzeir Hadjibekov laid the foundations of modern musical culture. His opera "Leyli and Majnun" by Fuzuli's poem was based on folk tunes and thus gave impetus to the development of mugam opera. The same is true of other works by U.Hadjibekov ("Ash and Karim", 1912), M.Magomayev ("Shah Ismail", staged in 1919), Z.Hadjibekov ("Ashyg Garib", staged-in 1916).


The history of Azerbaijani folk dance goes back to the ancient tunes. Ritual and hunting dances were the first steps on this track. And again, rock drawings of Gobustan tell us about them, especially, the so called "Hunting Scene", "Silhouettes of Dancing People" resembling the ancient round dance "Yally". Ritual dances survived from the time immemorial. It should be noted that dancing ensembles, famous for their skills, performed at the palaces of nobility.

Professional dancing art is related to the development of national
opera and operetta with their traditional choreographic turns. In 1940, Afrasiab Badalbayli staged the first national ballet "Maiden's Tower", in 1950, Soltan Hadjibekov staged "Gulshan", in 1952 and 1960, Gara Garayev staged "Seven Beauties" and "Thunder Path" respectively.


Theatralized scenes were typical for folk holidays and dancing. Components of theatricality were present in calendar holidays - "Novruz" (coming of spring), etc.

Creative work of ashugs was also theatralized; the same was true of collective men's dancing "Yally", performance of rope-walkers, conjurers, dervishes, etc. The Azerbaijani folk theater "Oyun Tamasha" enjoyed great popularity among people. Audience of puppet theater "Kilim Arasy" (beyond the carpet) was also great. Actors made fun of ugly rituals, exposed social inequality and unfair. The Azerbaijani religious mysterial theatre was widely spread in the Middle Ages and later as well.

In the end of the 19 century, the plays in Azeri were staged in Gyandja, Shusha, Nakhchivan. The repertoire included plays written both by local and foreign playwrights.

The 20 century was notable for marked development of theatrical art. The Russian dramatic theater was founded in Baku, 1923; theatres of young spectators and puppets; the theatre of Azerbaijan drama named after Jafar Jabbarly in Gyandja, musical dramatic theatre named after Mamedkulizadeh in Nakhchivan.


The first feature Azerbaijani film "In the Kingdom of Oil and Millions" by I. Musabekov with the participation of prominent actor H.Arablinsky was staged in 1916. In 1923, the Azerbaijan photo-cinema department was established.

The Azerbaijani films are noted by their national color, oriental profundity, completion of topics.

"On Far Seashore" (producer T.Tagizade, 1959), "If Not This, Then That" (producer H.Seidzade, 1959), "Arshin Mal Alan" (producer T.Tagizade, 1966), "Interrogation" (producer R.0djagov, 1972), "Nizami" (producer E.Guhyev, 1982), "Seven Days After Murder" (producer R.0djagov, 1990), "Murder At Night Town" (producer A.Makhmudov, 1990) are among the best films of the Orient.

Works of Azerbaijani cinematographers have repeatedly been awarded, announced winners of competitions and festivals.

Success of the Azerbaijani cinema is due to the names of remarkable actors Fakhraddin Manafov, Rasun Balayev, Hamida Omarova, Amaha Panakhova, Shafiga Mamedova.


Different artistic crafts and industries have been popular in Azerbaijan since ancient times. Among them is copper chasing used for the production of articles of diverse form and purpose.

Copper wares were produced with great mastership from local ores in Azerbaijani ancient and medieval towns, including Baku, Nakhchivan, Lankaran, Shamakha, Gyandja, Shusha, Shaki and Guba. The most famous Caucasian center for the production of chased copper ware was Lagich located near the ancient cultural center of Ismailly, widely known for its art achievements. It has been established that in late 19 and early 20 centuries Lagich disposed of about 180 copper shops.

Copper items produced by Azerbaijani masters were noted for their variety of form, lavish ornamentation and unique design.

The ornament is usually based on a rather complex composition, which includes different themes and is executed in the form of straight and broken lines with a multitude of dots, triangles and rhombic figures. Apart from geometrical figures the  ornaments incorporated floral subjects, depiction of birds and animals, and later the sun and people.

Most of the ornamented articles bear their master's mark, date of completion and, sometimes, owner's name. The diverse inscriptions, including verses, were usually engraved in Arabic. Ornaments were often intertwined with inscriptions executed in different types of Arabic alphabet which contributed to the beauty of the ornament.

Copper wares, which were highly popular among the population, fell into several groups: vessels, cauldrons (gazan) for cooking meals, tableware, different objects of every-day use and bathing attributes.

A comparative analysis of forms and ornamentation employed in working with copper and in other applied arts shows an original and widespread character of the Azerbaijani national ornament.


Carpet-weaving is a very old and highly developed craft. Archaeological finds bear evidence that it was already  in existence back in the 9 century B.C. Written sources of later periods, for instance, writings by antique Greek,   Roman and Arab authors (Herodotus, Xenophon, Al- Mugaddasi), also indicate that carpet-weaving is indeed a very old craft in Azerbaijan. It has developed over centuries to reach its perfection. Azerbaijan craftsmen have produced magnificent specimens - from simple pileless carpets to the exquisite khalcha variety.

It is accepted to divide Azerbaijan carpets into four types:
1.Guba-Shirvan (with manufacturing centres in Guba, Shirvan and Baku);
2.Gyandja-Gazakh (with manufacturing centers in Gyandja and Gazakh);
3.Karabakh (with manufacturing centers in Karabakh, Shusha and Jabrail),
4.Tebriz (with manufacturing centers in Tebriz and Ardebil)

They are distinguished mainly by 3 following features: ornament, manufacturing technique and the kind of article in question.

Azerbaijan carpets are manufactured in various techniques. Basically, they are divided into piled and pileless.

Pileless ones include palas, kilim, sumakh, zili, shadde and vemi. Palas and kilim are simply woven, while sumakh, zili, shadde and vemi have an intricate weave.

Azerbaijan carpet makers use yarn dyes of basic seven colors of varying shades. Over centuries they have developed compositions of dyes obtained from local plants. Unlike chemical dyestuffs, natural colorants do not erode the structure of wool fibbers, but lend them sheen and succulence. Having mastered manufacturing techniques to perfection, Azerbaijan carpet makers began producing sets (dast) consisting of a large central carpet, two-sided rugs and one-headed piece, all united in a single composition; prayer rugs (namazlyg); pictorial and other types of carpets.

Carpets were to meet both aesthetic and utilitarian requirements. As an object of household use, which was its main purpose, the carpet served to keep the house warm. Carpet bags and coverlets of different types were widely spread. These included pileless mafrash, khurdjun and kheiba (travelling bags); chuval (sacks for holding loose products); chul (all kinds of coverlets); yakhar ustu (saddle cover) and other objects.


The underwater and coastal archaeological excavations on the Azerbaijani coast of Caspian have brought to light and localised the historical region of Shirvan-Gushtasfi which occupied an extensive area in the Kura delta. Archeological monuments - ancient settlements Byandovan I and Byandovan II - have been discovered along the ancient riverbeds and the Caspian coast.

The first monument (Byandovan I) dating to the 11-13 centuries pinpoints the site of the medieval town Gushtasfi, the second (Byandovan II) dating to the 9-12 centimes - the medieval town Mugan. These were centers of large-scale ceramics production. Several kilns have been discovered and a large number of plain and glazed ceramics (9-13 centuries) collected.

Plain ceramics is presented by all types of daily and kitchen utensils: different-purpose pitchers, household vessels, pots and lamps. They were made chiefly on the potter's wheel from well-kneaded greyish and reddish clay and show precise workmanship. Many of the objects, especially lids of vessels, are decorated with imposed, incised or stamped ornaments.

The discovered fragments of pottery, kilns, other related materials testify to the local production of plain ceramics in Byandovan I and Byandovan II though it is similar to pottery-production in other centres of this kind in medieval Azerbaijan (Bailakan, Shamakha, Kabala, Shabran) and has identical traditions.

The most ancient find off the Azerbaijan coast was a hilt of a bronze sword with a saddle-like knob and the remains of an iron blade (rhombic shaped cross-section) discovered at Mount Zayachya. The sword is related to the Astrakhanbazar type, Talysh-Mugan culture, and dates back to the 8-7 centunes B.C.

The excavation work earned out off the Azerbaijan coast helped specify information on the legends-covered "Caspian Atlantis".

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