Iranian Province of Azerbaijan and the Present-day Republic of Azerbaijan

  • Monday, December 7, 2015

By George A. Bournoutian

Professor of History

Iona College, New York.

It is about time that we, the scholars dealing with the history of Iran seriously respond to the unsubstantiated and dangerous claims by Azerbaijani historians regarding the Iranian presence in the South Caucasus and to the history of Iranian dynasties[1] in general. Such extreme nationalistic notions may be acceptable from politicians and even journalists, but not from members of the National Academy of Sciences and the History Institute of Azerbaijan.

Although the overwhelming number of nineteenth-century Russian and Iranian, as well as present-day European historians view the Iranian province of Azerbaijan and the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan as two separate geographical and political entities, modern Azeri historians and geographers view it a single state that has been separated by the occupying Russians and Iranians, who have separated their homeland into “northern” and “southern” sectors, which will be united in the future.

Despite the fact that politically Iranian Azarbayjan and the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (established only in 1918) rarely formed one entity, since the majority of the population of Iranian Azarbayjan spoke the same Turkic dialect as the overwhelming numbers of Muslim Tatars in the South Caucasus, Soviet historians, at Kremlin’s direction, began to view the people and the two regions as one.

In order to construct an Azerbaijani national history and identity based on the Soviet territorial definition of a nation, as well as to reduce the influence of Islam and Iran, Moscow devised an “Azeri” alphabet, which replaced the Arabo-Persian script. In the 1930s a number of Soviet historians, including the prominent Russian Orientalist, Ilya Petrushevskii, were instructed by the Kremlin to accept the totally unsubstantiated notion that the territory of the former Iranian khanates was part of an Azerbaijani nation.[2] Petrushevskii’s two important studies dealing with the South Caucasus, therefore, use the term Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani in his works on the history of the region from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries![3] Other Russian academics went even further and claimed that an Azeri nation had existed from ancient times and had continued to the present.[4] Since all Russian primary sources referred to the Muslims who resided in the South Caucasus as “Tatars” and not “Azerbaijanis, Soviet historians simply substituted “Azerbaijani” for “Tatars.”

One cannot argue that linguistically and, to a much lesser extent, ethnically and religiously (Shi`a form of Islam) the two regions are very similar. However, if linguisticethnic andreligious criteria justify the union of two politically separate groups, then a part of Belgium belongs to France and parts of Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine belong to Russia.

Thus, starting in 1937, Azeri historians began to view the almost three-thousand-year history of the region as that of Azerbaijan. The pre-Iranian, Iranian, and Arab eras were expunged. Anyone who lived in the territory of Soviet Azerbaijan was classified as Azeri; hence the great Iranian poet Nezami, who had written only in Persian, became the national poet of Azerbaijan.[5]

Although after Stalin’s death arguments rose between Azerbaijani historians and Soviet Iranologists dealing with the history of the region in ancient times (specifically the era of the Medes),[6] no one questioned the use of the term Azerbaijan or Azerbaijani in modern times. As late as 1991, the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, published a book by an Azeri historian, in which it not only equated the “Tatars” with the present-day Azeris, but the author, discussing the population numbers in 1842, referred to the entire region of the South Caucasus as Azerbaijan.[7]

Serious historians and geographers[8] agree that for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the khanates of the South Caucasus remained under Iranian suzerainty. Following the conquest of these former khanates, the Russians combined Shirvan, Baku, Talesh, Sheki, Karabagh into the “Military District of Muslim Provinces,” while Kuba and Derbent were made part of the “Daghestan Military District.” After General Yermolov formally annexed the khanates of Sheki (1819), Shirvan (1820) and Karabagh (1822), they remained part of the “Military District of Muslim Provinces.” Following the Second Russo-Iranian War (1826-1828), the khanates of Yerevan and Nakhichevan were combined to form the “Armenian Province.”

In 1840, tsarist policy, which favored a more uniform system for the region, consolidated all of South Caucasus into two provinces (guberniias): the Georgian-Imeretian and the Caspian. Georgia, together with the Armenian, Elisavetpol (Ganja) provinces were made part of the Georgian-Imeretian Province, while the rest of the former Iranian khanates formed the Caspian Province.

In 1844, Tsar Nicholas I ordered the consolidation of the entire region of the Caucasus and the South Caucasus into a single unit called the Kavkazskii krai (Caucasian Region) and appointed Prince Michael Vorontsov (1782-1856) as its Viceroy. In 1846, Vorontsov decided to split the South Caucasus into four guberniias: 1-Tiflis (the former Georgian kingdoms, the Armenian Province and the khanate of Ganja), 2- Kutais (Imeret`i, Akhlakalak and Akhaltsikh), 3-Shemakha (former Baku, Shirvan, Sheki and Karabagh khanates) and 4-Derbent (the former Kuba and Derbent khanates). In 1849, he separated the former Armenian Province (khanates of Yerevan and Nakhichevan) and the Alexandropol (Shuragel/Gumri) district from the Tiflis Guberniia and formed a fifth, the Yerevan Guberniia. In 1864, the new viceroy, Grand Duke Michael, initiated new changes. The Shemakha Province was divided into the Baku Province (the former Baku, Kuba, Karabagh, Sheki and Shirvan khanates) and the Daghestan Province (the former Derbent khanate and the lands of the various tribes of southern Daghestan), while the former soltanates of Jar, Belokan and Ilisu formed the small Zakatal district (okrug). By 1868, South Caucasus experienced yet another division. It was divided into five regions: The Elisavetpol Province (created from the former Ganja, Sheki and Karabagh khanates and the soltanates of Kazakh and Shamshadil), and the Yerevan, Tiflis, Kutais and Baku provinces; these last divisions remained until the collapse of the Russian Empire.

The history and geography of Iran is subject to attacks by Muslim fundamentalists, by the Arabs (trying to rename the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf) and by the Azeris. A number of American and European historians have joined the onslaught. When I criticized a colleague for attending a conference on Nezami in Baku, her response was that Nezami’s mother was a Kurd and his father was unknown. I reminded her that writers and poets are not identified by their ethnicity, but by the language they employ in their works. Joseph Conrad, a Pole, is considered an English writer; Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian, is considered an American writer; and William Saroyan and Michael Arlen, both Armenians, are considered English and American authors. 

Many of my colleagues dismiss the Azeri publications and laugh at their unscholarly claims. If we, as serious scholars of Iranian history and literature, do not stand up and vehemently criticize the works of those responsible we shall not only lose a great heritage, but also acquiesce in silence.


[1] History books printed in Baku refer to the Safavids and Qajars as Azeris.

[2] Minorsky, the other great specialist of the region, had left for Europe and did not follow this dictum; see his Studies in Caucasian History (London, 1953) and A History of Sharvan and Darband(Cambridge, 1958). 

[3] I. P. Petrushevskii, N. G. Bogdanova and Ya. M. Pritykin, eds., Kolonial’naia politika rossiiskogo tsarizma v Azerbaidzhane v 20-60-kh gg. XIX v., 2 parts (Moscow-Leningrad, 1936-1937) and I. P. Petrushevskii, Ocherki po istorii feodal’nykh otnoshenii v Azerbaidzhane i Armenii v XVI-nachale XIX vv. (Leningrad, 1949). Both sources wrongly include Nakhichevan (which was a part of the Armenian and Yerevan provinces from 1828 until 1921) as a part of “Azerbaijan.”

[4]For example see, A. E. Krymskii, “Stranitsy iz istorii severnogo ili Kavkazskogo Azerbeidzhana (klassicheskoi Albanii). Sheki,” Sbornik statei k piatidesiatiletiiu nauchno-obshchestvennoi deiatel’nosti Sergeio Fedorovichu Ol’denburgu (Leningrad, 1934), 369-384.

[5] The same policy has been adopted in Turkey; it views the Hittites as the ancestors of the Turks and ignores the Greek, Armenian and Kurdish historical presence. One can imagine the global outcry if the present-day Spanish-speaking nations of Central and South America not only erased their pre-Columbian history, but viewed it as belonging to the heritage of Spain. 

[6] See the recent article by Harun Yilmaz, “A Family Quarrel: Azerbaijani Historians against Soviet Iranologists,” Journal of the International Society for Iranian Studies, volume 48 (no. 5, September 2015), 769-783.

[7] D. I. Ismail-Zade, Naselenie gorodov Zakavkazskogo kraia v XIX-nachale XX v. (Moscow, 1991), 110. It is indeed mind-boggling that the Academy of Sciences, the highest scientific body of the Soviet Union, ignored such a blatant and purposeful falsehood.    

[8] The best and the most objective source of the geographical divisions is the recent atlas by Arthur Tsutsiev, Atlas of the Ethno-Political History of the Caucasus (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2014), see maps, 6-11.

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