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Azerbaijan, The People of Azerbaijan

kobuz, Lezgins, Azeri language, Nagorno-Karabakh region, classical operas

Azerbaijan is more populated than the other Transcaucasian states, Georgia and Armenia. Its population was an estimated 7,798,497 in 2002, giving it an average population density of 90 persons per sq km (233 per sq mi). The most densely populated area is the Abseron Peninsula in the east, where Azerbaijanís major cities are located. Despite its larger population, Azerbaijan is the least urbanized country of Transcaucasia, as only 57 percent of its population lives in urban areas. The largest city is Baku, the capital. Other important cities include Ganca, the industrial center of western Azerbaijan, and Sumgait, located on the Caspian coast and the second most important industrial center after Baku.

Azerbaijan, including the autonomous exclave of Naxc?van, is populated mostly by ethnic Azerbaijanis, or Azeris. The Azerbaijani majority has increased dramatically as a result of recent population shifts; by the mid-1990s the proportion of Azerbaijanis in the republic had reached about 90 percent of the total population, an increase of nearly 10 percent since the 1989 census. The increase is due mostly to the armed conflict that broke out in 1988 between the government of Azerbaijan and Armenian secessionists in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. During the ensuing war, which continued until 1994, nearly the entire Azerbaijani population in Armenia fled to Azerbaijan and northern Iran, while many Armenians in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia. The Armenian community, which comprised slightly less than 6 percent of Azerbaijanís population before the war, dropped to about 2 percent of the total; Armenians now reside almost exclusively in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, where they constitute a majority. Meanwhile, many Russians and other Slavs in Azerbaijan emigrated to Russia and elsewhere after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, adding to the homogeneity of Azerbaijanís population.

Dagestanis and Russians are the largest minority groups in Azerbaijan, followed by Armenians. In the mid-1990s people from Dagestan, a Russian republic on Azerbaijanís northern border, represented an estimated 3.2 percent of the population. Russians constituted 2.5 percent of the population, a reduction of about 3 percent since the 1989 census. Other ethnic groups include Lezgins, Kurds, and Talysh, who are geographically concentrated in the north, east, and south of the republic, respectively. There are also small communities of Georgians, Ukrainians, and Avars. Most of the republicís ethnic groups have resided in the area for centuries, although Russians arrived in large numbers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The official language of Azerbaijan is Azeri, a Turkic language of the Altaic family that is closely related to the Turkish and Turkmen languages. Azeri originally developed in the Arabic script, but in the 1920s a Latin (or Roman) alphabet was introduced. In 1939 the Soviet regime mandated the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, the script of the Russian language. After Azerbaijan gained independence, the government abandoned the Cyrillic alphabet and adopted a Turkish version of the Latin script. Russians and Armenians primarily use their own native languages.

Azerbaijanis are traditionally Muslim. Islam was introduced in the area of present-day Azerbaijan during the 7th century ad, and Shia Islam was established as the official religion of the Azerbaijanis in the 16th century. During the Soviet period, religious leaders were persecuted, mosques were closed or destroyed, and religious practice was officially condemned. Islam has experienced a revival in Azerbaijan since the late 1980s, when political reforms allowed most of the Soviet restrictions on religion to be lifted. Nearly all Azerbaijanis now identify as Muslim, although few actively practice their religion. About 70 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims are Shias, and about 30 percent are Sunnis. Christianity is practiced to varying degrees among the Georgian, Armenian, and Slavic minorities.

Most adults in Azerbaijan can read and write. The countryís high adult literacy rate was achieved during the Soviet period, when an extensive, state-funded education system was developed. The first eight years of education are compulsory, but most students complete the full ten-year program of basic education, and many choose to continue their education at secondary or vocational schools. Baku is the seat of most of the countryís institutes of higher education, including Baku State University (founded in 1919 during Azerbaijanís brief initial period of independence), Azerbaijan Technical University (1950), and Azerbaijan State Petroleum Academy (1920).

Azerbaijanís cultural institutions, located primarily in Baku, include the State Museum of Shirvan-Shakh, which houses weapons and decorations from palaces of the khans (rulers), and the State Museum of Azerbaijan Literature. The culture of the peoples inhabiting eastern Transcaucasia developed during the ancient and medieval periods under a predominantly Persian influence, although Turkic influences also were present. Azerbaijanis contributed several notable literary and scientific works during the medieval period. After Azerbaijan became part of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, Azerbaijani intellectuals such as scholar and poet Abbas Qoli Agha Bakikhanov began the study of the Azeri language and attempted to set up schools that would teach literacy. At times during the Soviet period, artistic expression that conveyed any hint of Azerbaijani nationalism was brutally suppressed.

Music has long been an important aspect of Azerbaijani life. The ancient Azerbaijani musical tradition has been kept alive by musicians known as ashugs, who improvise songs while playing a stringed instrument called a kobuz. Other vocal and instrumental compositions called mugams are also part of the oral folk tradition. Modern Azerbaijani composer Uzeir Hajjibekov is known internationally for his classical operas.

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