History of Ancient Azerbaijan.
This course on ancient Azeri History will look at the following topics.
- The first human settlements
- What was life like in Azerbaijan during the Bronze Age?
- Scythians and Azerbaijan
Romans in Azerbaijan
- Gobustan rock art
- Kalbajar rock art
- What did people believe and worship in Azerbaijan?
- Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan
- The fire temple of Baku and “Yanar Dag”
- Our ancestors – the Caspians
- Scandinavian ancestry: tracing roots to Azerbaijan
- Did people in Azerbaijan use money?
- What were the ancient seals like?
- Mysterious Baku
- Ptolomey and Azerbaijan
The first evidence of people living in Azerbaijan has been traced to a cave called Azykh in the Fizuli district of Azerbaijan. Artefacts have been found there proving that early humans lived in that place.
Drawings have been found on caves walls in Qobustan, south of Baku. These drawings show scenes of hunting, farming, dancing and fishing. These cave drawings show that the people who made them used to hunt and fish to get food.
Roughly 5 000 years ago people in Azerbaijan stopped using stone tools and started to use bronze tools. The time when stone tools were used is called the Stone Age. THE time when bronze tools were used is the BRONZE Age.Bronze is a metal that is easy to find near the surface of the earth. It also melts at a low temperature which makes it relatively easy to heat up bronze and reshape it into a tool or weapon. Bronze is not such a hard metal. In time people moved on to using stronger metals.
About 5 000 years ago people in Azerbaijan began irrigating fields. This means digging ditches for water to flow from the river into fields. They also built houses and used copper weapons. They houses were mostly built out of wood but occasionally from stone. The house were normally one storey because they did not have the technology to build taller houses. People lived in very small communities. There were seldom more than 100 people in a community. It was difficult to find enough food within walking distance to support a community larger than this at that time.
In the Bronze Age people lived very simple lives with almost no technology. They were largely hunter gatherers. They did some farming too. Like expectancy was very low. Archaeologists have dug up sites were people used to live in the Bronze Age. Skeletons have been examined and from that we can find out how old people were when they died. Men had a life expectancy of 21 and women had a life expectancy of 18. This does not mean that every man died aged 21 or every woman died aged 18. Of course some people lived to a much older age than that. The average is brought down by many children dying. Women died earlier than men because women gave birth to too many children and this put a strain on their health. People had almost no scientific knowledge. People buried their dead with jars and food and so on. This suggests that people believed in life after death.
The word Azerbaijan did not exist at the time. It is not know if the Azeri language existed back then. Various other peoples passed through the territory that is now Azerbaijan. The Sumerian people (from what we now call Iraq) passed through Azerbaijan. The Sumerians are thought to be the first people to invent writing. Sumerian writing has been found from roughly 5 300 years ago. Elamites and Albanians also lived in the territory that was to become Azerbaijan. Note that these Albanians from the Caucusus are nothing to do with the Albanians from the country called Albania.
Questions on the above.
1 What was life like in the Bronze Age?
2. What cave art has been found at Qobustan and what does it show us about life at the time this art was produced?
3. Why did people live in caves in pre-historic times.
4. Why did the Bronze Age have that name?
5. Why did people die so young at that time?
The first recorded History in Azerbaijan.
Semi nomadic peoples such as Scythians spent time in Azerbaijan. So did the Cimmerians who were also semi-nomadic. The Scythians rode horses and they originated in Central Asia. The Scythians were renowned as good horsemen. The Scythians kept slaves. The Scythians blinded their male slaves so that these slave men could not fight against the Scythians. Assyrians from what we now call Syria and Iraq also spent time in Azerbaijan about 800 BC. We can learn about Azerbaijan at that time from reading Greek, Persian, Arab and Roman sources.
The Medes were a powerful people who live in what we now call Iraq and Iran. They conquered Azerbaijan and added it to their Median Empire. They had a system of laws that they thought was very good. The laws of the Medes were said to be, ‘changeless and unchanging.’
In the 6th century BC the Medes were defeated by the Persians and absorbed into the Persian Empire. The Persian king Cyrus the Great added Azerbaijan to his empire.
In about 560 BC the Achaemenids established control over Azerbaijan. The Zoroastrian religion spread in Azerbaijan. The Zoroastrians worshipped their one god and they took their name from their main prophet Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism started out in Persia (now called Iran). Zoroastrians are sometimes called Parsees (from Persia) because their religion began in Persia (or Iran as it is now called). However, nowadays almost everybody in Iran is a Muslim and Zoroastrianism is a very minor religion in Iran.
The Zoroastrians believe that there are four sacred elements – water, wind, fire and earth. They have fire temples where they pray in front of a sacred flame. People wrongly call them fire worshippers. They do not pray to the flame but the flame is a reminder of holiness for them. Because Zoroastrians believe in four sacred elements they do not want to contaminate any sacred element with a dead body. The Zoroastrians do not bury their dead because that would offend the earth. They do not cremate their dead because that would offend fire. They do not put their dead in a river because that would offend water. They build towers of silence for the bodies of the dead to be eaten by vultures.
The Zoroastrian motto about good behaviour is ‘do to others as you would like them to do to you.’
In the 5th century BC Greece was a rising power. Greece was divided into many states but they had the same religion and they spoke more or less the same language. Greeks traded in the Black Sea and some traveled over the CaucususMountains to Azerbaijan. Greeks saw the Caspian Sea but only the western shore of it. Greeks assumed that the Caspian Sea was part of the RiverOcean which they believed flowed all around the world. Greeks believed that the Caspian was connected to the Atlantic Ocean. For this reason the Greeks called the Caspian a sea and not a lake. For Greeks the Caspian was the limit of the known world.
By the 4th century BC a kingdom called Atropatene had been set up. This kingdom existed in what we now call north-west Iran. Atropatene is a named that led to the modern word ‘Azerbaijan’.
The Achaemenid kingdom in Azerbaijan was eventually defeated by the forces of Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great came from Macedonia in the north of Greece. Greece was not one country back then but was divided into several countries – all speaking Greek and worshipping the same gods. Alexander the Great defeated the other Greek states and united Greece. He fought against the Persian Empire which then ruled what we now call Turkey, Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq.
Alexander the Great was an outstanding military commander. Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. He kept marching east into India. He defeated some Indian rulers. Alexander the Great once broke down and cried because soon there would be no more countries left to conquer. His soldiers had been marching for years with him – moving further and further away from Greece. After 12 years of campaigning they wanted to go home. They refused to go further east and demanded to return home. Alexander the Great decided to turn back west. On his march back to Greece he fell ill and died in 323BC. His empire was divided between several generals. Some Greeks came to live in Azerbaijan.
In 190 BC Azerbaijan began fighting against Armenia because Armenia tried to take Azeri territory.
The Roman Empire conquered what we now call Turkey in about 100 AD. The Romans fought against the Parthians (Parthian is another way of saying Persian at that time). The Parthians still managed to rule the southern part of Albania. Albania at that time meant Azerbaijan. There was some contact between Rome and Albania. The Albanians traded with the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire ruled much of Europe, North Africa and West Asia at that time. The Romans conquered Georgia but they never conquered Azerbaijan.
Latin inscriptions have been found on rocks in Qobustan. It was written by some Roman soldiers in the time of the Roman Emperor Domitian. The Romans launched a military expedition to Azerbaijan but did not take control of the country.
In Kalbajar in Azerbaijan there is also Roman rock art. Kalbajar was an is part of Azerbaijan. It is now under illegal occupation by the forces of Armenia. Kalbajar means in Old Turkic, ‘fortress at the mouth of the river.’
The Arsacid dynasty ruled Albania. They were loyal to the Persian Empire. People in Azerbaijan appear to have been sun worshippers at the time. Some of them followed the ancient Persian religion. This religion was led by priests called ‘Magi’. The Magi sacrificed animals to their gods. According to a Greek historian alive at the time, Herodotus, this religion taught people to think of others. A person would pray that the gods would be a good to everyone. A person was not allowed to ask the gods for favours for himself or herself only.
Persia came to adopt a religion called Zoroastrianism. It was called this because it was led by the prophet Zarathustra. The Zoroastrians worshipped a god figure called ‘Ahura Mastra’ – meaning the Lord of darkness. The Zoroastrians were against a devil character called Angra Mainyu.
The Zoroastrianism believed that there were four sacred elements – water, wind, fire and earth. The Zoroastrians keep a flame burning in their temples at all times. This is why their places of worship are called ‘fire temples’. The Zoroastrians see the flame as a reminder of their religion. They are sometimes wrongly called ‘fire worshippers.’ In Iran and Azerbaijan oil leaked through the surface of the earth and the earth caught fire. Ancient people did not understand this and saw it as a miracle.
The Zoroastrians do not bury their dead because that would defile the earth. They do not burn their dead because that would defile the fire. They do not put their dead into water because that would defile the water. They take their dead to a building that they call a ‘Tower of Silence.’ The dead are attached to wooden poles and the corpses are dried out by the sun and the birds come and eat them.
A fire temple was established in Baku by the Zoroastrians. Azerbaijan came to be known by this name because it probably means ‘land of fire’. This is because of the land seeming to burn. At Yanar Dag (fire mountain) the oil escaping through the soil makes the land suddenly burn. This was a place of wonder for Zoroastrians.
Azerbaijan came to be ruled by Caucasian Albanians in the 1st century AD. For a while it was independent. Then the Sassanids made Albania a province of their empire. King Unayr of Caucasian Albania adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century AD.
In about AD 150 a man named Ptolomey wrote a book named ‘Georgraphy’. In fact he invented the word Geography. Ptolomey was a Greek-speaking man living in Egypt. At that time the upper class in Egypt spoke Greek and Ptolomey’s books were in Greek. Ptolomey wrote about many countries including Azerbaijan. Ptolomey described the fire mountains and fire temples of Azerbaijan as well as the Caspian Sea. He did not mention the eastern shore of it – he only knew about the western side of the Caspian. It is doubtful that he ever left his home town of Alexandria in Egypt. Ptolomey was probably relying on what travelers had told him.
Questions on the above.
- What do we know about the Scythians?
- What were the main beliefs of the Zoroastrians?
- What evidence is there that Romans visited Azerbaijan?
- Why was a man named Ptolomey so famous?
5. Why was King Alexander of Macedonia known as ‘The Great’?
Islam began in the 7th century AD in what we now call Saudi Arabia. Arabs brought Islam to Azerbaijan . Those who believe in Islam are called Muslims. Muslims can belong to any country. An Arab and a Muslim are not necessarily the same thing. The Muslim holy book is called the Koran and it is written in Arabic.
In 642 AD the Arabs defeated the Sassanids. The Sassanids continued to resist the Arabs until 667 AD when Prince Javanshir surrendered to the Arabs. The Sassanids who were ruling Albania (Azerbaijan) were allowed to rule on as long as they obeyed the Arab Muslim Empire. For a while Christianity remained the main religion of Albania. Later, in the 8th century and Islam replaced Christianity as the official religion. Christianity remained the religion of a minority. Islam took over as the dominant religion in the country partly by persuasion but also be military conquest.
The Muslims split into two main denominations in the late 7th century AD. The two main denominations were Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims.
Azerbaijan followed the Shia denomination of Islam and not the Sunni denomination of Islam. The Sunnis are the majority amongst Muslims in the world. About 85% of Muslims are Sunni and about 15% are Shia. However, in Azerbaijan the great majority of Muslims are Shia Muslims.
Zoroastrians were persecuted in Iran and in Azerbaijan. Most Iranians and Azeris abandoned the Zoroastrian faith and converted to Islam. Zoroastrians did not seek for other people to turn to the Zoroastrian religion. Very, very few ZoROASTrians were left in Iran and in Azerbaijan. The Zoroastrians also had a rule of endogamy – people can only marry within the group. A child may only be a Zoroastrian if his or her mother and father are both Zoroastrians. The rule was that a half Zoroastrian is no Zoroastrian at all. Soon there were not enough Zoroastrians to marry. Those who married outside the community were no longer part of the community. The number of Zoroastrians went into decline. Now it is not known if a single Zoroastrian remains in Azerbaijan. In Iran there is a tiny community of Zoroastrians left.
Most of those who kept to the old religion left Iran and went to live in what we now call India. The Zoroastrians in India mostly live in Mumbai. The Zoroastrians in India are known as Parsees because they came from Persia. There are a few Parsees in Pakistan especially in the city of Karachi. The Parsees tended to do very well in business and in the professions.
Arabs from Basra (in Iraq) came to live in Albania (Azerbaijan).
Other peoples passed through Azerbaijan such as Huns and Khazars. The Khazars were people who lived around the Caspian Sea. The Khazars had been pagans but converted to the Jewish religion. Azerbaijan built up forts to defend itself against invasions.
The Huns and the Arabs are among the ancestors of the majority of the population of modern Azerbaijan.
There is evidence that Vikings visited Azerbaijan and intermarried with local people. The Vikings came from Scandinavia. That means the lands we now call Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Greenland. Thor Heyderdahl was a famous Norwegian explorer and historian of the 20th century. Thor Heyderdahl found runes in Azerbaijan. He came convinced that Vikings settled in Azerbaijan and that the Azeri people are partly descended from Vikings.
For a time all Muslim lands were united under the Caliph. Caliph comes from the Arabic word ‘Khalifa’ meaning successor. A successor is one who takes over after the old ruler. The Caliph was the man who ruled on in the name of the Prophet. For a time the Abbasid family provided the Caliph. The united Muslim empire eventually split up into many countries that often fought against each other. Before the Islamic empire broke up coins issued by the Caliph were circulated in Azerbaijan. This was the first type of money used in Azerbaijan. Paper money was not used at that time.
Official seals were put on documents by the government. A seal is a piece of hot wax that has an image stamped on it. The seal proved that the document really was issued by the government and was not a fake. The seals had images on them and slogans in Arabic.
When the Abbasid family declined a period of disorder started for Azerbaijan. Many different rulers tried to grab a hold of the country.
Questions on the above text.
- When and how did Islam come to Azerbaijan?
- Why did the Zoroastrian religion die out in Azerbaijan?
- What is the Caliph?