In middle school geography when we were tested on all of the countries in the world, I'd remember Azerbaijan by thinking the 'point' that juts into the Caspian Sea was in the shape of an "A."
To be honest though the name is all I really knew about this country until a little over a year ago before meeting my partner who is from there. Now, I have a deepening appreciation for this small in size / big in history country and want to let everyone know how interesting it is! From what I've found rounding up information for this post there honestly is not that much content out there on the web written about Azerbaijan, which is a shame because there's a ton to say.
So with Onar's help (and the internet) I've compiled some of my favorite facts about Azerbaijan. This list is most likely going to be part of another project we have in the works, so stay tuned.
First two questions out of the way
The first two questions that come up about Azerbaijan is 1.) How do you pronounce it? and 2.) Where exactly is it?
If you ask someone from Azerbaijan (written Azərbaycan) the name it will surely have the correct pronunciation and flair it's meant to, but if you are a primarily English speaker asking how to pronounce it you could follow this and be totally fine: Ahs—air—bai—shun (emphasis on each is pretty equal).
Azerbaijan has its own culture of course, but by location alone you can get a sort of rough idea of the different histories in this part of the world. It is part of the Caucasus region (meaning between the Black Sea and the Caspian) with Georgia and Armenia, and the three largest countries it borders are: Turkey (Just barely from its exclave on the west side, but they share a good amount of cultural similarities), Iran (Azerbaijan borders used to end more south into Persia which is current day Iran), Russia (they were a part of the Soviet Union a couple times):
So now that you know the 'where', I present to you 30 Fascinating Facts about Azerbaijan:
(Scroll to the bottom for my resources and also a few more links/youtube videos I reccomend!)
The capital Baku is the lowest lying capital in the world, at 28 metres (92 ft) below sea level (If you're curious what is the highest, it is La Paz of Bolivia!)
Baku is known for being incredibly modern with architecturally impressive buildings (it is referred to as "The Dubai of the Caucasus") but unlike Dubai, Baku has a deep rooted history and is one of the oldest in the world- they put great care in preserving and cherishing its walled Old City (or "Inner City) that dates back as far as the 7th century (including a UNESCO World Heritage site) nestled in the middle of it all.
Their nation symbol is the "buta" which would be a singular paisley shape. It's used in a lot of their art, logos, tapestries, and rugs.
Azerbaijan is home to the most mud volcanoes in one country (400) - They are warm but not hot- you could swim in them but there'd be nowhere to shower off! (business idea?)
Azerbaijan has 9 different climates out of the possible 11! From snowy mountain hiking, to bright green rolling hills, to tropical, and semi-desert, there's a variety of climates to experience within this one country.
Because of these climates, each region in Azerbaijan is known for specializing in a produce. One area might be famous for their watermelon, another for their lemons. Other specialized produce include potatoes, pomegranates, grapes, apples, and cotton.
There is a cave in West Azerbaijan where evidence was found (tools, paints) from the very earliest of humans- 300,000 years ago! For comparison the famous Lascaux Caves in France are approx. 20,000 years old.
It was one of the leading countries to welcome equal voting rights for women in 1918- 2 years before the United States and the first country in the East.
It is a part of the stretch of land between the Caspian and Black Sea officially known as the Caucasus. People from here would be technically called Caucasian.
Its land once stretched further south into what is now Iran so it was part of the Silk Road Trading Route.
Because of this border receding, more Azerbaijanis live in Iran than Azerbaijanis that live in Azerbaijan
Their national fruit is the pomegranate (nar) and there are several festivals throughout the country dedicated to the delicious fruit that grow abundantly there
The language "Azerbaijani" is a Turkic language. (Meaning the language family that spans across pockets Eurasia). If you speak Azerbaijani, you can probably get by in other Turkic language-speaking countries from say Kazakstan all the way to Turkey. Since there is no Rosetta stone for Azerbaijani, you could study Turkish and you'd at least have an understanding of the sentence structures and concepts.
During the Soviet Union their alphabet was in Cyrillic, but when they got independence in 1991 (4 months before the USSR collapsed) they switched back to the original Latin-based alphabet. So some elderly Azerbaijanis have a hard time reading their own identification card since they used Cyrillic their whole life!
Many people in Azerbaijan are fluent in Russian, and increasingly more (especially the younger generations) are very good in English. It's not uncommon to meet someone able to speak in at least 4 languages. (Azeri, Turkish, Russian, English) Many will watch movies or YouTube channels for example in Russian or Turkish.
Azerbaijan was the first democratically run Muslim-majority country- the country is secular in terms of political operation and often historically lead the Muslim world in progressive politics.
The majority of citizens in Azerbaijan are Muslim but they pride themselves on being welcoming of other religions- they were a place of sanctuary for Jewish people in WWII and have Synagogues and Churches in addition to Mosques.
Tea is served often and always with some kind of sweet- commonly, if you go out for example, you will be served your tea with jelly.
Baku currently hosts Formula 1
Azerbaijanis pride themselves in their hosting if you are a guest in their home- they want you to feel comfortable and just like family. And, full of delicious food!
In Azeri culture, taking care of your family members is highly valued. It is respected and encouraged for example for young adults to live with their family after school and/or college until they get married. It might be seen as 'weird' if you live in the same city as your parents but in your own apartment.
Azerbaijan's east coast along the Caspian has a handful of unique natural phenomenons that hold strong historical significance. For example, on the 'beak' of the land that curves into the Caspian just north of Baku is a Zoroastrian fire temple. A constant source of natural gas in this area caused fire to spontaneously come out of the ground in 7 places. This 'eternal flame' has been recorded to exist as far back as 730 AD and just recently went out in 1969.
Food! Popular abundant produce and dishes: pomegranate, walnut, lots of "greens" (meaning fresh green herbs- dill, cilantro, parsley, mint, green onion...), grapes, figs, watermelon, cherry, eggplant, lamb, saffron, cucumber, tomatoes, dolma (stuffed cabbage, grape leaf, tomatoes, eggplant or peppers), shish kebab, homemade yogurt, garlic.... etc. In general there's quite a variety and the dishes have much more complexity and layers to them say compared to Italian cuisine which typically uses the same few ingredients in different variations. This can by tied to the large variety of foods available within the country due to having 9 climates.
Below is an Azerbaijani cook I love to follow, Feride Buyuran! She has an Azerbaijani cook book called "Pomegranates and Saffron":
The Caspian Sea on the east border of AZ is the largest lake (by surface area) in the world. Technically it's a lake not a sea. The northern Russian part of the Caspian is fresh water while the rest is salt water. Do you know what the largest *freshwater* lake (by surface area) is in the world? Lake Superior!
Innovators in oil- The oil wells drilled in 1846 at Bibiheybat in the Baku region were the first mechanically-drilled oil wells in the world. Much of the wealth from the country historically has come from oil.
Speaking of crude oil, did you know you could have a bath in it? There's a specialty spa in Baku that lets visitors soak for 10 minutes in warm Naftalan-rich crude oil (yes it is black and looks like chocolate syrup). It's believed the Naftalan has healing properties for ailments such as arthritis.
People in Azerbaijan typically celebrate Nowruz (known as the Persian New Year) which is in the first day of Spring and celebrates new life. The origins come from the religion Zoroastrianism, one of the world's most ancient religions that put a strong value on the life giving value of fire and water. For modern-day Nowruz, they will enjoy delicious foods and socialize while a large fire burns down to coals. Once this happens everyone takes turns jumping over them to get rid of bad luck. Below is a scene you will see at Nowruz with fresh grass and 4 pastries:
Baku is home to the Baku Museum of Miniature Books- the only museum of miniature books in the world.
Azerbaijan is known for their variety of rug designs. Just as the climate is diverse in different parts of the country- rug designs are as well. Some rugs might use bold straight color blocks of red, fuscia, and blue, while other rugs might have smaller details in the design such as patterns with the buta (paisley) and use darker earthier colors. There's actually a museum in Baku constructed in the shape of a rug that features the various styles and goes through the history of this important part of their culture.
Azerbaijanis have a 'saying' for everything. "In Azerbaijan there is a saying..." is something I'll hear almost every day. They all rhyme too, but in English of course they don't sound as cool: "You can't make a soup with cheap meat" (You can't build something quality without using quality 'ingredients') "You can't hold two watermelons in one hand" (One should focus and appreciate what they have, if they get greedy and try to have two things then they will inevitably loose both)
Of course there's many more I could write, like their tasty and beautiful handmade walnut cardamom desserts, and homemade cheeses, but I was getting tired and I assume all you are tired too if you made it this far.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for our next project related to Azerbaijan.
Here are some more resources to check out if you are interested!
Some of the mountanous nature of Azerbaijan:
The City in the Sky: http://gulustan.info/2016/02/6567677/
Geography Now episode about Azerbaijan: