You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Modern map of the region: blue dots: locations covered in this section; red names: ancient historical regions
Because those Europeans that have Travel'd before me, either were not so
curious, or had not perhaps the opportunity to learn the true number of the Provinces that compose the whole Continent of Persia, I have undertak'n, (..) to give the best account I can, finding
it necessary for the better satisfaction of the Reader, to take some notice of the
Names of Places according to the ancient Geography. (..) The sixth province contains Shirvan, all along the Caspian Sea , where stand the Cities of
Derbent, Baku, and Shamaki; and the Province of Edzerbaijan; wherein
stand the Cities of Tauris, Ardevil, and Sultany. Which two Provinces comprehend
the ancient Media.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier - Travels through Turkey and Persia (1630s-1650s)
The Persians affirm, that this Place was call'd Azer-beyan, that is, the Country of Fire; by reason of the famous Temple of Fire which was there erected, where was kept their Fire, which the Fire-worshippers held to be a God; and because the chief Pontiff of that Religion resided there. (..) The Etymology is true: for Az the Article of, the Genitive Er or Ur, in old Persian, as in most part of the Ancient Oriental Idioms, signifies Fire, and Bey signifies a Place or Country.
The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East Indies - 1686
This section covers locations visited during an organized tour of the Republic of Azerbaijan, a fully sovereign state which emerged from the 1991 breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, and of Iranian Azerbaijan, one of the twelve historical regions into which Iran was divided until 1950. It covers also the town of Qazvin, a former capital of Persia along the road between Azerbaijan and Tehran. The party consisted of only five travellers and the tour took place in October 2017. In Iran it was led by a highly professional guide whom I met in a previous journey in Central Iran.
(above) Mt. Damavend (5,609 m - 18,403 ft) in the Central Elburz range from the Baku-Tehran flight; (below) Western Elburz range from the Tehran-Istanbul flight
The Air of Tabris is cold and dry; very good and healthy: nor can any man complain that it contributes to any bad disposition of Humors. The Cold continues there a long time,
in regard the City is expos'd to the North, for the
Snow lies nine months in the year upon the tops of the Mountains that surround it. Chardin
This day's march was the most interesting since leaving Kazvin. To the north, on our left hand, towered the long range of the Elburz mountains, much loftier and bolder in outline here than at their western extremity; nor had we proceeded far when there burst suddenly on our view the majestic snow-capped cone of Mount Demavend.
Edward Granville Brown - A Year amongst the Persians - 1893
These mountain-ranges are seven or eight thousand feet in altitude, and rise to such noble peaks as Ararat, Sahend near Tabriz, Savalan near Ardebil, Alwand near Hamadan, and Damavand near Teheran, all ranging from twelve thousand to eighteen thousand four hundred and sixty-five feet, and several of them covered with perpetual snow.
Samuel Graham Wilson - Persian Life and Customs - 1895
The high mountains which characterize the region have not been an obstacle to invasions or trade.
Baku, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan: the harbour and Boyuk Zira, a small island, seen from the terrace of Bibi-Heybat Mosque
That sea whereof I spoke as coming so near the mountains is called the Sea of Ghel or Ghelan, and extends about 700 miles. It is twelve days' journey distant from any other sea, and into it flows the great River Euphrates (!) and many others, whilst it is surrounded by mountains. Of late the merchants of Genoa have begun to navigate this sea, carrying ships across and launching them thereon. (..) The said sea produces quantities of fish, especially sturgeon, at the river-mouths salmon, and other big kinds of fish.
The Travels of Marco Polo - translated by Henry Yule
The view of the Caspian at Astara had something of that peculiarly pleasing effect which an expanse of water generally produces, but the refreshing salt scent of the ocean was wanting, for the water was only brackish; and the absence of all shipping, save a solitary, strangely-rigged Russian craft in the distance, the want of sea-weed, and the general appearance of the coast, suggested the idea of a large lake.
William Richard Holmes - Sketches on the Shores of the Caspian - 1845
The crescent-shaped Baku Bay, protected as it is by a small island in front of it, affords a safe anchorage for shipping. It has good ship-yards and is the principal station of the Russian fleet in the Caspian. Since Baku became part of the Russian Empire in 1806 the harbour has been very strongly fortified.
A. Henry Savage Landor - Across Coveted Lands - 1902
The Republic of Azerbaijan has a more varied landscape than Iranian Azerbaijan. In antiquity parts of the country were known by the Romans as Albania (White Land), probably a reference to its snow-capped mountains. After the Arab conquest the region around Baku was called Shirvan and Shirvanshas were its rulers. In medieval times the Caspian Sea was referred to also as the Sea of Shirvan or the Sea of Baku.
Landscape along the Tabriz-Ardabil northern road
From Tabriz to Ardabil: We left Borringe at half past seven the next
morning, and proceeded in a northerly direction
towards a steep pass, through hills composed of red
sand-stone and granite. On emerging from this
pass, we travelled east, through a mountainous
country, almost totally uncultivated; the soil being
so strongly impregnated with salt that no vegetation exists, save some few plants peculiar to land
of that description. (..)
The rugged crests of some of the surrounding
mountains rose in wild confusion, while others of
a less severe character presented a beautiful variety
of colouring. They principally consisted of sandstone. (..) We continued
our route through numerous small plains, separated
by low rocky hills of the same formation and colouring as those already described. At distant intervals
patches of cultivation were to be seen, but in general the country presented a dreary and barren appearance. Holmes
At length we came out on the Azerbaijan highlands, a dun sweeping country like Spain in winter. (..) Small clouds are shining in the blue. We rise by gentle slopes to a panorama of dun rolling country, chequered with red and black plough, and sheltering grey, turreted villages in its folds; breaking against the far mountains into hills streaked with pink and lemon; bounded at last by range upon range of jagged lilac.
Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana - Macmillan 1937
The greatest wealth of the plains consists in their orchards which yield abundance of peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums of all sorts, cherries, pears, apples, grapes. There are also plantations of poplar and chinar, but the mountains and hills are generally devoid of wood.
The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information - 1840
Even today, notwithstanding the introduction of modern systems of irrigation, large areas of the Azerbaijan tableland are covered by a dry steppe and are unpopulated.
It is generally accepted that civilization first came into existence in the valleys of the great
rivers of the world, and thence spread gradually into the
mountains which bordered them. (..) The kingdom of the Medes arose in the centre of the
Zagros range and the fertile plains to the east of it, (i.e. Mesopotamia). It was formed (..) by the
union of the six most important tribes under one rule. (..) To the north-west it included the modern province of Azerbaijan. (..) In
B.C. 810, Adad-Nirari III (..) led an expedition into Media. It was the earliest of at
least four campaigns conducted by this energetic monarch,
who extended the Assyrian Empire until it included the
greater part of the western side of the Iranian plateau.
Sir Percy Molesworth Sykes - A History of Persia - 1915
British Museum: gypsum wall panel from the Assyrian royal palace at Nimrud, in Northern Irak (IXth century BC): King Ashurnasirpal II appears twice, dressed in ritual robes and holding the mace symbolising authority. In front of him there is a Sacred Tree and he makes a gesture of worship to a god in a winged disc. This god today is a symbol of the Zoroastrian religion and it can be seen also in reliefs near Persepolis; the Zoroastrians regard the cypress as a sacred tree
After the fall of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, in 612 BC, Media became an important empire on its own which however was easily conquered by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, in 550 BC. Eventually Azerbaijan became known as Media Atropatene, after Atropates, an Achaemenid governor of the region who was confirmed in his post by Alexander the Great in ca 328 BC.
Azerbaijan Museum of Tabriz: coins: 1) Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse in 485-478 BC; 2) Seleucus I, general of Alexander the Great and founder of an empire named after him; 3) Phraates III, Parthian Emperor in 70-57 BC, who fought against Pompey; 4) Phraates IV, Parthian Emperor in 37-2 BC, who fought aganst Antony; 5) Sapur II, Sassanid Emperor in 309-379 AD, who fought against Constantine's heirs; 6) Bahram V, Sassanid Emperor in 420-438, who fought against Theodosius II
The conquest of Asia Minor by Cyrus the Great led to the development of trade routes between the Greek and the Persian civilizations and at the same time it started a conflict between them which lasted for more than a thousand years. The rule of the Hellenized Seleucids over Media Atropatene ended in ca 148 BC when the region was conquered by the Parthians who managed to retain it, notwithstanding a long series of military expeditions by the Romans. They were succeeded by the Sassanids who continued the fight against the Romans.
Takht-e Suleiman: podium at the northern end of the lake leading to the Sassanid temples and palaces
In 623 AD Heraclius
marched to invade Armenia,
accompanied by large contingents of allies. (..) Khusru (Chosroes II in classical sources), who was probably taken
by surprise, proceeded with a force of 40,000 men to
Canzaca or Shiz (this is identical with ruins now termed Takht-i-Sulayman, or "The Throne of
Solomon", situated about one hundred miles south-east of Lake Urumia). (..)
The Great King evacuated his position, his army dispersed,
and he himself escaped only by moving about in the
mountains of the Zagros range. (..) These successes must have restored the prestige of Rome to no small extent, for everywhere
Heraclius destroyed cities and villages, including Urumia,
the birthplace of Zoroaster, and put out the sacred fires. Sykes
As the principal Zoroastrian sanctuary, Takht-e Soleyman is the foremost site associated with one of the early monotheistic religions of the world. (..) It represents an outstanding example of Zoroastrian sanctuary, integrated with Sasanian palatial architecture within a composition, which can be seen as a prototype.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Takht-e Soleyman which in 2003 was included in the World Heritage List.
The final confrontation between the Roman Empire and the Sassanid one ended with the defeat of the latter, but the conflict was so devastating that both empires were unable to check the advance of the Muslim armies in the 630s. While the (Eastern) Roman Empire managed to survive, the Sassanid one entirely collapsed. The Zoroastrian faith was completely eradicated by the new conquerors, exception made for some desertic areas in Eastern Iran.
Old Town of Baku: Mohammed Mosque and its minaret (see a similar Seljuk minaret at Nigde in Cappadocia)
Rising from the south shore of the Apsheron Peninsular at the western edge of the Caspian Sea, the Walled City of Baku was founded on a site inhabited since the Palaeolithic period. (..) The inner city (Icherisheher) has preserved much of its 12th-century defensive walls, which define the character of the property. (..) Earlier monuments of Icherisheher include the Mohammed Mosque, together with the adjacent minaret built in 1078.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of the Walled City of Baku which in 2000 was included in the World Heritage List.
While Apulia and Sicily were subdued by the Norman lance (in the XIth century), a swarm of northern shepherds overspread the kingdoms of Persia: their princes of the race of Seljuk erected a splendid and solid empire from Samarcand to the confines of Greece and Egypt.
Edward Gibbon - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - 1906
The death of Malik Shah in 1092 caused the split of the Seljuk Empire into a number of smaller states, including that of Shirvan, of which Baku was an important town and the capital after 1191.
There is always a pleasant sense of excitement and expectation in entering for the first time a foreign country. Especially is this the case when to visit that country has long been the object of one's ambition. Yet that which most sharply marks such a transition, and most forcibly reminds the traveller that he is amongst another race - I mean a change of language - is not observable by one who enters Persia from the north-west; for the inhabitants of the province of Azarbaijan, which forms this portion of the Persian Empire, uniformly employ a dialect of Turkish, which, though differing widely from the speech of the Ottoman Turks, is not so far removed from it as to render either language unintelligible to those who speak the other. If, amongst the better classes in the towns of Azarbaijan, and here and there in the villages, the Persian language is understood or spoken, it is as a foreign tongue acquired by study or travel; while the narrow, affected enunciation of the vowels, so different from the bold, broad pronunciation of Persia proper (..) serve to mark the province to which the speaker belongs. It is not till Kazvin is reached, and only four or five stages separate the traveller from Teheran, that the Persian distinctly predominates over the Turkish language. Brown
The migration of Turkish speaking tribes from Central Asia determined a very important feature of the national character of Azerbaijan, i.e. a linguistic divide between it and the rest of Iran.
Soltaniyeh: Mausoleum of Oljeitu aka Muhammad Khodabandeh (Servant of God), Ilkhan (Mongol ruler) of Persia in 1304-1316 and great-grandson of Hulagu, the founder of the Ilkhanate of Persia; a detail of its decoration is shown in the image used as background for this page
After they (the father and uncle of Marco Polo) had passed the desert, they arrived (in 1261) at a very great and noble city called Bocara. (..) The city is the best in all Persia. And when they had got thither, they found they could neither proceed further forward nor yet turn back again; wherefore they abode in that city of Bocara for three years. And whilst they were sojourning in that city, there came from Alau (Hulagu), Lord of the Levant, Envoys on their way to the Court of the Great Kaan, the Lord of all the Tartars (Mongols) in the world. And when the Envoys beheld the Two Brothers they were amazed, for they had never before seen Latins in that part of the world. And they said to the Brothers: "Gentlemen, if ye will take our counsel, ye will find great honour and profit shall come thereof." So they replied that they would be right glad to learn how. "In truth," said the Envoys, "the Great Kaan hath never seen any Latins, and he hath a great desire so to do. Wherefore, if ye will keep us company to his Court, ye may depend upon it that he will be right glad to see you, and will treat you with great honour and liberality; whilst in our company ye shall travel with perfect security, and need fear to be molested by nobody." Marco Polo
In ca 1230 Azerbaijan was conquered by the Mongols who already had occupied other parts of Persia. Although their name is often associated with barbarous and savage behaviour, their rule favoured the development of the Silkroad, a trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China which passed through the Anatolian tableland and Azerbaijan. The Mongols having conquered most of China, ceramics from that country reached Azerbaijan where they stimulated the local production. Eventually the facing of monuments with mostly blue tiles became a feature of Persian architecture.
Histories assure us that Soltaniyeh was once the Metropolis and biggest City of the Kingdom: not are there many Cities in the world, where there are vaster Ruins to be seen.
The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East Indies - 1686
(After a visit to Soltaniyeh) Few monuments in Persia can hope to survive many ages; for the kings, who succeed the founders, are anxious only to be founders themselves, and instead of taking a pride to preserve the works of their predecessors, as records of the genius or greatness of their monarchy, they take pains only to destroy them, that they may build new structures with the materials, and attach their own names also to great buildings; never considering how short-lived, by their own example, will be their reputation after their decease. (..) The danger of earthquakes has taught the inhabitants of Tabriz to build their houses generally as low as possible; and to employ more wood than brick and plaster, in their construction.
James Justinian Morier - A Journey through Persia, Armenia and Asia Minor in the years 1808-09 - 1816
The Mausoleum of Oljeitu is the most imposing monument of Azerbaijan and the remarks by Morier explain why the region does not retain a larger number of monuments of the many great empires it housed. The destruction of the monuments of the Medes, Parthians and Sassanids can be attributed to the iconoclast fury of the first Muslim invaders. Those of the later periods to the practice of demolishing previous buildings to erect new ones. Devastating earthquakes are another cause of the loss of many monuments.
We are informed by a native historian that in 1370 three hundred thousand died in Tabriz of the cholera; in 1384 Shah Shuja Muzaffari conquered it and spent four months in it; shortly afterward it was taken and
sacked by Tamerlane; yet in 1405 it had recovered and had two hundred
thousand inhabitants. During the XVth century it was ruled by the
Turkomans of the Black and White Sheep tribes. Of the former's
dominions it was the capital. Jehan
Shah, who was tributary to the Tartar shah, built the Blue Mosque in 1465. Wilson
While during most of its long history Azerbaijan was part of an empire which included the rest of Persia and Mesopotamia, during the rule of the Kara (Black) and Aq (White) Koyunlu (Sheep) it was united with today's Eastern Turkey and monuments erected by these two tribal confederations can be seen also at Mardin, Diyarbakir and Harput.
Ardabil: Sheikh Safi al-Din tomb (XVIth century and very similar to those at Shah-e Zinda in Samarcand)
The Safavi (family of Ardabil)
traced their descent from Musa Kazim, the seventh Shiite Imam. (..) Ismail the founder of the Safavid dynasty collected a small force in this province and his
first enterprise was the capture of Baku and Shamakha in
Shirwan. His success aided him to increase his following
to 16,000 men, by whose aid he defeated Alamut or
Alwand, Prince of the Ak-Kuyunlu dynasty. He then
marched on Tabriz, which surrendered in 1501, and was proclaimed
Ismael, the holy sheik of the Persians, was called by the Turks the "slave of the devil". Selim I defeated Shah Ismael at Khoi, took Tabriz in 1514, and sent away Armenian and Mussulman artisans to Constantinople. In 1548 Sultan Suleiman besieged Tabriz, forced it to surrender, but soon abandoned it. Osman Pasha (Grand Vizier of Sultan Murat III) again took it in 1585, and the Osmanlis held it for eighteen years, until driven out by Shah Abbas. Some say that he sent five hundred soldiers into the city dressed as merchants, who seized the fort and prepared for his attack. (..) It is not my purpose to treat of the doctrines and beliefs of the Shiah Mohammedans, nor of their history, nor of the numerous sects, new and old, to be met with in the country. (..) The ministers of their religion are called mollas and are of various grades. (..) Those who attain eminence in their respective sects by reason of their learning or sanctity are honored with various titles (..) and are by popular indication, without regular election, regarded as mujtehids (one who exercises independent reasoning in the interpretation of Islamic law). (..) The chief mujtehid of Tabriz is a man of marked ability. (..) He has much wealth, and is reported to own several hundred villages. His influence and honor are great. (..) Tabriz was the scene of a long-fought and bloody contest of Sunni against Shiah, in which it was considered more meritorious to kill one Shiah than to have killed seventy Christians. Wilson
Shah Abbas and his successors strengthened their rule over Azerbaijan by promoting a mass conversion to Shia Islam; by doing this they created a religious divide between the Turkish speaking inhabitants of their empire and the Turkish speaking Sunni inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire.
Tabriz Bazaar: (left) Mozzaffarieh, an alley which is devoted to handwoven rug; (right) another alley
The rich historical sources bear credible witness to the importance of the Tabriz Bazaar over history and to the permanence of its layout. The fabric of the Bazaar still exhibits the design, workmanship, and materials of the period when it was constructed after the 1780 earthquake. The Bazaar is still a lively and economically active place, attesting to its rich and long-lasting economic, social, and cultural exchanges.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of the Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex which in 2010 was included in the World Heritage List.
In 1639 a peace treaty fixed the border between the Ottoman and the Safavid Empires. Yet there were at least four major wars between the two empires in the period 1720-1823 and Tabriz was damaged by this continuing conflict. Because of its proximity to the border the capital of the Empire was moved from Tabriz to Qazvin and later on to more distant Isfahan.
Qazvin - Chehel Sotun, the only remaining pavilion of a XVIth century Safavid palace: details of the Qajar period (XIXth century)
In 1722 a series of rebellions weakened the Safavid Empire and led to a long period of unrest during which parts of Persia were ruled by local warlords. Towards the end of the century, the Qajars who had their power base in northern Iran managed to defeat their rivals and to reunite Persia. Fath-Ali, the second Qajar Shah and Abbas Mirza, the Crown Prince, embarked on two wars (1804-1813 and 1826-1828) against Russia, unaware of the technical and strategical improvements made by the armies of the Czar through their participation in the Napoleonic Wars. The outcome of these wars was that Persia ceded all its territories in the Caucasus area including Shirvan and the other regions which today make up the Republic of Azerbaijan. In addition the defeat made Persia at risk of becoming a colonial possession. If this did not happen is because of the rivalry between the British and the Russians, who chose to turn Persia into a buffer state between their spheres of influence. In 1911 a memorandum of understanding established a joint Russian-British condominium on Persia.
Oil fields near Ramana in the environs of Baku
Baku has "struck oil"; and before many years are
past, the world will hear much more of this obscure town -
this Petrolia in Asia. The engines of the Constantine - the
ship in which his imperial majesty the Shah traversed the
Caspian - were driven with petroleum. Coal, the captain
told us, costs eighteen and a half rubles per hour, while petroleum costs only one and a half rubles - a reduction from
fifty shillings to four shillings. In three years Baku will be
united by railway with Tiflis and the Black Sea, and then
probably all the Russian steamships on the Euxine will be
supplied with the same disagreeable but inexpensive fuel. Arnold
The discovery of huge oil fields had a dramatic impact on the political importance of today's Republic of Azerbaijan. Baku, where oil was discovered as early as 1846, became the terminal of a railway line which linked the town with Moscow. The country is still a great producer of oil and even more of gas. Its economy almost entirely depends on the oil industry.
Petroleum. In 1907, at a point thirty miles east of Shushtar in Khuzestan, successful borings were made and the industry is now being developed. This oil-bearing zone is believed to run from the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf, where there is oil in the island of Kishm. Sykes
Iranian Azerbaijan did not benefit from the discovery of oil in other parts of the country; its contribution to the overall national economy decreased. Tabriz, which used to be the second city of Persia, now ranks fifth or sixth.
Tehran: Azadi Tower (1971 by Hossein Amanat)
Both the Republic of Iran and that of Azerbaijan have erected huge monuments in their capitals to celebrate their national identity, but even a short stay suggests that both nations face great challenges in this respect.
Baku: Flame Towers (2013 by Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum)
Plan of this section:
Tabriz: The Blue Mosque
Tabriz: Azerbaijan Museum
Republic of Azerbaijan:
Baku: The Old Town
Baku: The New Town
Environs of Baku
Qobustan National Park