The country was among the birthplaces of mankind and is located at the heart of ancient civilizations. Furthermore the country is known to be among the most progressive and secular Islamic societies. Aside from having been the first Muslim country to have operas, theater plays, and a democratic republic, Azerbaijan today is among the Muslim countries where support for secularism and tolerance is the highest. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world, was established in 1918, but was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920.
Azerbaijan regained independence in 1991. The Constitution of Azerbaijan does not declare an official religion but the majority of people adhere to the Shia branch of Islam, although Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity rather than religion and Azerbaijan remains as one of the most liberal majority-Muslim nations. The pre-Turkic Azerbaijani population spoke an Iranian language called the Old Azeri language, which was gradually replaced by a Turkic language, now known as the Azerbaijani language from the 11th century onward until it became completely extinct in the 16th century.
To distinguish it from the Turkic Azerbaijani or Azeri language, this Iranian language, is designated as the Azeri language (or Old Azeri language), because the Turkic language and people are also designated as “Azeri” in the Persian language. Azerbaijan is in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia, straddling Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It lies between latitudes 38° and 42° N, and longitudes 44° and 51° E. The total length of Azerbaijan’s land borders is 2,648 km (1,645 mi), of which 1007 kilometers are with Armenia, 756 kilometers with Iran, 480 kilometers with Georgia, 390 kilometers with Russia and 15 kilometers with Turkey.
The coastline stretches for 800 km (497 mi), and the length of the widest area of the Azerbaijani section of the Caspian Sea is 456 km (283 mi). The territory of Azerbaijan extends 400 km (249 mi) from north to south, and 500 km (311 mi) from west to east. Three physical features dominate Azerbaijan: the Caspian Sea, whose shoreline forms a natural boundary to the east; the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the north; and the extensive flatlands at the country’s center. There are also three mountain ranges, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus, and the Talysh Mountains, together covering approximately 40 percent of the country.
The main water sources are the surface waters. However, only 24 of the 8,350 rivers are greater than 100 km (62 mi) in length. All the rivers drain into the Caspian Sea in the east of the country. Since the independence of Azerbaijan in 1991, the Azerbaijani government has taken drastic measures to preserve the environment of Azerbaijan. But national protection of the environment started to truly improve after 2001 when the state budget increased due to new revenues provided by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
Within four years protected areas doubled and now make up eight percent of the country’s territory. Since 2001 the government has set up seven large reserves and almost doubled the sector of the budget earmarked for environmental protection. Azerbaijan’s diverse landscape affects the ways air masses enter the country. The Greater Caucasus protects the country from direct influences of cold air masses coming from the north. That leads to the formation of subtropical climate on most foothills and plains of the country. Meanwhile, plains and foothills are characterized by high solar radiation rates.
Rivers and lakes form the principal part of the water systems of Azerbaijan; they were formed over a long geological timeframe and changed significantly throughout that period. This is particularly evidenced by fragments of ancient rivers found throughout the country. The country’s water systems are continually changing under the influence of natural forces and human introduced industrial activities. Artificial rivers (canals) and ponds are a part of Azerbaijan’s water systems. From the water supply point, Azerbaijan is below the average in the world with approximately 100,000 m? year of water per km?. The first reports on the richness and diversity of animal life in Azerbaijan can be found in travel notes of Eastern travelers. Animal carvings on architectural monuments, ancient rocks and stones survived up to the present times. The first information on the animal kingdom of Azerbaijan was collected during the visits of naturalists to Azerbaijan in 17th century. Unlike fauna, the concept of animal kingdom covers not only the types of animals, but also the number of individual species.
There are 106 species of mammals, 97 species of fish, 363 species of birds, 10 species of amphibians and 52 species of reptiles which have been recorded and classified in Azerbaijan. The national animal of Azerbaijan is the Karabakh horse, a mountain-steppe racing and riding horse endemic to Azerbaijan. The Karabakh horse has a reputation for its good temper, speed, elegance and intelligence. It is one of the oldest breeds, with ancestry dating to the ancient world. Azerbaijan’s vegetation consists of more than 4,500 species of higher plants.
Due the unique climate in Azerbaijan, the vegetation is much richer in the number of species than the flora of the other republics of the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan is divided into 10 economic regions; 66 rayons and 77 cities of which 11 are under the direct authority of the republic. Also, Azerbaijan includes the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan. The President of Azerbaijan appoints the governors of these units, while the government of Nakhchivan is elected and approved by the parliament of Nakhchivan Self-ruling Republic. Tourism is an important part of the economy of Azerbaijan.
The country’s large abundance of natural and cultural attractions make it an attractive destination of visitors. The country was a well-known tourist spot in the 1980s; yet, the Nagorno-Karabakh War during the 1990s crippled the tourist industry and damaged the image of Azerbaijan as a tourist destination. It was not until 2000s that the tourism industry began to recover, and the country has since experienced a high rate of growth in the number of tourist visits and overnight stays. In the recent years, Azerbaijan has also becoming a popular destination for religious, spa, and health care tourism.
Around 95 percent of the populations are Muslims. 85% of the Muslims are Shia Muslims and 15% Sunni Muslims, and the Republic of Azerbaijan has the Second highest Shia population percentage after Iran. There are some other faiths practiced among the different ethnic groups within the country. By article 48 of its Constitution, Azerbaijan is a secular state and ensures religious freedom. Of the nation’s religious minorities, Christians are mostly Russian and Georgian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic (almost all Armenians live in the break-away region of Nagorno-Karabakh).
The culture of Azerbaijan has developed as a result of many influences. Today, Western influences, including globalized consumer culture, are strong. National traditions are well preserved in the country. Some of the main elements of the Azerbaijani culture are: music, literature, folk dances and art, cuisine, architecture, cinematography and Novruz Bayram. The latter is the traditional celebration of the ancient New Year. Novruz is a family holiday. The traditional cuisine is famous for richness of vegetables and greens used seasonally in the dishes.
Fresh herbs, including mint, dill, basil, parsley, tarragon, leeks, chives, thyme, marjoram, green onion, and watercress, are very popular and often accompany main dishes on the table. Climatic diversity and fertility of the land are reflected in the national dishes, which are based on fish from the Caspian Sea, local meat (mainly mutton and beef), and an abundance of seasonal vegetables and greens. Saffron-rice ploy is the flagship food in Azerbaijan and black tea is the national beverage.
Azerbaijan–Turkey relations have always been strong with the two often being described as “one nation with two states” by the ex-president of Azerbaijan Abulfaz Elchibey due to a common culture and history, and the mutual intelligibility of Turkish and Azerbaijani. Turkey has been a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan in its efforts to consolidate its independence, preserve its territorial integrity and realize its economic potential arising from the rich natural resources of the Caspian Sea. The countries share a short border, with the Aras River separating Turkey from the Nakhchivan exclave for just a few kilometers.
Today, the relationship with Azerbaijan represents the “most important bilateral partnership” in current Turkish foreign policy while Azerbaijani foreign policy affirms its relationship with Turkey as one of its most enduring bilateral relationships, as evidenced in aligned political affairs, mutual cooperation in the areas of trade, commerce, finance, technology, academics, as well as the arts and sciences; the sharing of government and military intelligence, and joint combat operations and peace keeping missions carried out between Azerbaijani Armed Forces and Turkish Armed Forces.