From the rule of the Median Empire onwards Azerbaijan has been part of many Empires. In this section we discuss the key political events and follow the political development of Azerbaijan through these events.

Achaemenid and Seleucid rule

When the Median Empire was invaded by the Persian king, Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE, it became part of the Persian Empire. As a result, the religion of Zoroastrianism (fire worship) to become more popular. The Persian rule also naturally established many Persian cultural influences. Many of the local peoples of Caucasian Albania came to be known as ‘fire worshipers’; probably a sign of their Zoroastrian faith.

This Empire lasted over 250 years and was eventually conquered by Alexander the Great. The Seleucid Greeks inherited the Caucasus following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. However, they were ultimately ruined by pressures from Rome, the Greeks, and the Parthians – a nomadic Iranian tribe from Central Asia, which moved into northern eastern Seleucid domains. At this time, Caucasian tribes established their own independent kingdoms for the first time since the Median invasion.

Caucasian Albania, the Parthians, and the Sassanian conquest

What became known as the Albanian kingdom used a Caucasian identity to forge a unique state in a region of many other ‘Empire-States’.

However, in the 2nd or 1st century BCE the region became a centre of conflict. As the Romans and Parthians began to expand their own domains, most of Albania came, very briefly, under the domination of Roman legions alongside Parthian rule in other parts.

A rock carving of what is believed to be the eastern-most Roman inscription was found southwest of Baku, in Gobustan. It is inscribed by Legio XII Fulminata at the time of Emperor Domitian.  Eventually Caucasian Albania subsequently came fully under Parthian rule.

Islamic & Iranian rule: Islamic conquest

Muslim Arabs defeated the Sassanids and Byzantines as they marched into the Caucasus region. The Arabs made Caucasian Albania a vassal (run by a feudal leader) state after the resistance, led by Prince Javanshir, surrendered in 667.

Between the 9th and 10th centuries, after the invasion by the Arabs, the dominant religion became Islam in the 8th century BCE. 

Most of the Albanians did convert to Islam with only a minority retaining their former religion. 

Arab authors began to refer to the region between the Kura and Aras rivers as Arran. During this time, Arabs from Basra and Kufa came to Azerbaijan and seized lands that the indigenous peoples had abandoned.

Seljuqs and successor states

The Seljuq period of Azerbaijan’s history was as significant as the Arab conquest, as it helped shape the nationality of modern Azerbaijan.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the territory was gradually seized by waves of Oghuz Turkic tribes emanating from Central Asia. One of these tribes were the Seljuqs. The Seljuqs eventually became the main rulers of a vast Empire that included all of Iran and Azerbaijan. Their rule lasted until the end of the 12th century.

During the Seljuq period, the influential Vizier of the Seljuq Sultans,Nizam ul-Mulk (a noted Persian scholar and administrator) is distinguished for having helped introduce numerous educational and bureaucratic reforms.

Under their rule, from the end of 12th to early 13th centuries, Azerbaijan emerged as an important cultural centre of the Turkic people. Palaces of the Atabeg and the Shirvanshahs hosted distinguished people of the time, including many outstanding Muslim artisans and scientists.

In this period, great progress was achieved in different sciences and philosophy by Azerbaijanis like Bahmanyar, Khatib Tabrizi, Shahab al Din Surawardi and others. Azerbaijani poets such as Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) and Khaqani Shirvani, who lived in this region, epitomise the highest point in refined medieval literature.

In addition, the region experienced a building boom. The unique architecture of the Seljuq period is typified by the fortress walls, mosques, schools, mausoleums, and bridges, often found in Baku, Ganja and Absheron. These cities were originally built during the 12th century.

Due to this period of significant progress in the social and cultural consciousness, the 12th century is considered to be one of the greatest periods for the flowering of culture in the Caucasus region.

The Shirvanshah’s

The Shirvanshah was the title in mediaeval Islamic times of a dynasty of Turkic/ Turk origin. The Shirvanshah established a native Azerbaijani State and were rulers of Shirvan, a historical region of Azerbaijan. The Shirvanshahs established the longest Islamic dynasty in the Islamic world.

The role of the Shirvanshah was very significant for the development of Azerbaijan. They kept a high degree of independence and influence as local rulers from 861 until 1539. During this time, they provided a continuous ruling throughout.

However, there were two separate periods of Shirvan control of Azerbaijan. Ther first was in the 12th century, under Sultans Manuchehr and Axsitan who built the stronghold of Baku. The second, was in the 15th century under the Derbendid  dynasty. Between the 13th and 14th centuries, the Shirvanshahs were feudal leaders during the Mongol and Timurid empires.

The Shirvanshahs Khalilullah I and Farrukh Yassar presided over a highly stable period. They oversaw the construction of the “Shirvanshah palace” in Baku (that was also a burial site of the dynasty).

Mongols and Ilkhanid rule

The Mongol invasion of the Middle East and Caucasus was a devastating event for Azerbaijan and most of its neighbours. In 1231, the Mongols occupied most of Azerbaijan. In 1235 the Mongols destroyed many of Azerbaijan’s cities on their way to conquer Russia. By the 1236, all of Trans-Caucasia was in the hands of Ogedei Khan and the Illkhanid (Mongol) state.

The end of Mongol rule and the Kara Koyunlu-Agh Koyunlu rivalry

The last Mongol ruler, Abu Sa’id , died without an heir which led to the Ilkhanid state’s disintegration into small sultanates. The next state in the territory of Azerbaijan, in the 1330s, was that of the Jalayirids, who ruled Iraq, western Persia, and most of Azerbaijan. The Jalayirid Sultanate lasted about fifty years. The first Jalayirid ruler was Hasan Buzurg (d. 1356) who reined over Azerbaijan from 1360 to 1374 during a refreshing period of peace and stability.

However, peace was only prevalent within the region for a short period of time. In the 1380s, Tamerlane (Amir Timur) launched a devastating invasion of Azerbaijan. He succeeded in temporarily incorporated Azerbaijan into his vast domain that spanned much of Eurasia. Azerbaijan experienced social unrest and religious strife during this period due to sectarian conflict.

Following Timur’s death in 1405, his fourth son, Shah Rukh, came to power and reigned until 1446. Following the death of Shah Rukh, Turkic ruler, Uzun Hasan, created the Agh Konyunlu Empire which included the territories of Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq.

Relationship with Iran

Iran and Azerbaijan to a large extent, share similarities in history, religion, ethnicity, and culture.

 The territory of today’s geographical Republic of Azerbaijan has evolved over time with a cross over of rule and division. For example; in 19th Century after Russo-Persian wars Azerbaijan was divided into two empires; Russia capturing North Azerbaijan and Iran, the South.

Iran and Azerbaijan are furthermore the only nations in the world where the vast majority of the people are Shia Muslims. They have respectively the highest and second highest Shia population percentage in the world. Furthermore, the history of Shi’ism which is rooted in both nations from exactly the same moment in history. However, the majority of the neighbouring populations of both nations are either predominantly Christian or Sunni Muslims.

Despite this, the religious landscape in both countries is completely different. Iran is a theocratic state that actively promotes and imposes the faith on the people. In contrast, Azerbaijan is officially secular and discourages religious influence in the public sphere and state affairs. Additionally, religious observance is extremely low in the population due to decades of Soviet rule.

The world’s largest population of Azerbaijanis also live in Iran, far outnumbering those in the neighbouring Azerbaijan Republic.

Conflicts in the 18th Century

While civil conflicts took hold in Iran, most of Azerbaijan was shortly occupied by the Ottomans (1722 to 1736). Meanwhile, (from 1722 until 1735) the coastal strip along the Caspian Sea comprising Derbent, Baku and Salyan, came briefly under Imperial Russian rule.

After the collapse of the Safavid Empire, Nadir Shah from the Afshar tribe of Oghuz Turks came into power, taking control of Persia and other adjacent territories. After his assassination in 1747, the Empire disintegrated. Seeing an opportunity, Agha Muhammad Khan from the Turkic tribe Qajar assembled a force of some 60,000 cavalry and infantry and set off for Azerbaijan, intending to reconquer all territories lost to the Ottomans and Russians.

Azerbaijani Rule In The 19th Century

In the mid-nineteenth century, the country was split into 20 Azerbaijani Khanates. The Persian, Russian and Ottoman empires remained in conflict as each of them wanted to take advantage of favourable geopolitical position.

The Russo-Persian War (1804-1813) and The Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), helped force the cession of the Georgia, Dagestan and Armenia areas. This was in accordance with the Gulistan and Turkmenchay Treaties of 1813 and 1828, respectively. 

Gulistan Treaty

The signing of the Gulistan Treaty happened in 1812, when Russia tailed a war with Turkey and went on the offensive against Persia. During this objective territorial expansion, the British assisted the defending Persian territories, however boarders were greatly altered. Azerbaijan was divided as Russia took control of the northern area of Azerbaijan; while Southern Azerbaijan remained under the control of the Qajar state (Persia). Qajar signed the Gulistan Treaty to confirm the changes that had taken place and local khanates were either abolished (like in Baku or Ganja) or accepted Russian patronage.

Treaty of Turkmenchay 

The Treaty of Turkmenchay was signed in the second Russo-Persian war, in 1828; defining the current borders of Azerbaijan and Iran (Persia). In the newly Russian-controlled territories, two provinces were established that later constituted the bulk of the modern Republic: Ganja province in the west, and Shamakha province in the east. In accordance with the Turkmenchay Treaty a large number of Armenians from Turkey and Persia were resettled at the territories of the Irevan, Nakhchivan and Karabakh Khanates.

As a result of a catastrophic earthquake in 1858, the capital of the eastern province was transferred from Shamakha to Baku which attained greater importance over time.

Discovery of Petroleum

The discovery and exploitation of petroleum in the 1870s led to a period of unprecedented prosperity and growth in the years prior to World War I. However, it also created huge disparities in wealth between the largely European capitalists and the local Muslim work force.

Development of Baku

By 1900, the population of Baku increased from 10,000 to roughly 250,000 people as a result of worker migration from all over the Empire, Iran, and other places. The growth of Baku and the progression of an exploitative economy resulted in the emergence of an Azerbaijani nationalist intelligentsia that was educated and influenced by European and Ottoman ideas.

Influential thinkers like Hasan bey Zardabi and Mirza Fatali Akhundov spurred a nationalist discourse. They also rallied against poverty, ignorance, extremism and sought reforms in education and the emancipation of the dispossessed classes, including women. The financial support of philanthropist millionaires also bolstered the rise of an Azerbaijani middle-class.

After decades of stagnation the extraction of oil began to gain momentum. The impact of Russian control was a more mechanised process of oil drilling. The Azerbaijani control of oil was opened up to long term leases to drill owners. Russia’s great reforms in 1870’s Baku went through major changes the inflow of industry and new revenue turned back into a major boom city and a new form of transportation.

With the expansion of the oil industry, Baku became an ethnically mixed urban centre. The three largest population groups within Baku were the Russians, the Armenians and the Muslims, though no group dominated.

Workers Strikes

Following the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, an economic and political crisis erupted in Baku, starting with a general strike of oil workers in 1904. In 1905, class and ethnic tensions resulted in Muslim-Armenian ethnic rioting during the first Russian Revolution. The Tsarist governments had, in fact, exploited ethnic and religious strife to maintain control in a policy of divide and rule.

Early 20th Century Class & Ethnic Tensions

During Tsarist Russia it was uncommon that class tensions were recorded due to the ideology of the Communist society. The propaganda that there was not more than one class in society or religion(s) within The Russian Federation. However, this was an ideal that was not wholly true, especially in the Caucasus region. There were many changes that happened as a result of the ‘Oil Boom Baku’ in Azerbaijan. Not all were positive. Read more about the workers’ conditions and conflicts that arose here.

Following workers protests and riots at the turn of the century, the situation improved during 1906–1914. At this time a limited parliamentary system was introduced in Russia. Consequently, Muslim MPs from Azerbaijan were actively promoting Azerbaijani interests.

However, after Russia became involved in World War I, social and economic tensions spiked again. The Russian Revolution ultimately led to the granting of rights and self-rule to the local population of Azerbaijan. This autonomy also led to renewed ethnic conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Read about this conflict more here.

For further information, please read ‘Ethnic relations during the first oil boom’ by Parvin Ahanchi, Leading research fellow of Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences: