For a country so small, there are a lot of surprising and interesting facts about Azerbaijan. The country is filled with unique sights and there are lots of fascinating things to see in Baku and Azerbaijan in general.
1. Is Azerbaijan in Asia or in Europe?
Pondering whether Azerbaijan is in Asia or Europe seems like a silly question. Surely, every country must be classified under one continent or the other. Actually, there are a lot of countries which straddle continents, many more than you may think. Russia and Turkey are well known examples.
Istanbul is an extreme, with the city half in Asia and half in Europe and both parts being visibly different in terms of level of modernisation and look and feel. Azerbaijan straddles Europe and the Middle East for similar reasons. The CIA World Factbook classifies the country in the Middle East which is generally considered as part of Asia.
However, the borders between Europe and Asia have been defined through the Caucasus Mountains and so a part of Azerbaijan in the north falls in Europe while the rest is technically in Asia.
However, when you visit Azerbaijan you realise they consider themselves European and this question only came to mind as I was researching for my Guide to Baku and Azerbaijan post. Truth is that the transcontinental geographical definition represents the country well as it genuinely straddles East and West. So, if you’re on an epic road trip across Europe, you can stop here.
2. The Land of Fire
Azerbaijan is referred to as The Land of Fire for etymological and symbolical reasons.
Etymologically, the region in which modern day Iranian Azerbaijan stands was originally called Atropatene and was ruled by the Atropates. The word Atropates comes from the Greek, or possibly Median, for The Land of the Holy Fire or The Protector of the Holy Fire or the Treasurer of the Holy Fire to indicate that the area was home to the Holy Fire and those who inhabited it were protecting it. From Atropates the word evolved into Azerbaijan through the centuries.
Although the etymological origin may well be related to the symbolical one, the country has adopted the symbolical meaning in their cultural identity through the centuries and, specifically, after achieving independence from the Soviet Union.
The symbolical origin could have been the reason why the area was called Atropatene in the first place and it refers to the many fire-related oddities and natural phenomenon that fill Azerbaijan, like the burning mountain of Yanar Dag or the Fire Temple of Ateshgah which I have written about in the Guide to Baku and Azerbaijan.
It is this natural fire and light phenomenon which attracted fire-worshipping Zoroastrians into the country and possibly gave it the name in the first place.
Fire is indeed used as the country’s main appeal in the international stage and was the motto for Eurovision 2014 which was hosted in Baku or for the country’s sponsorship of Atletico de Madrid’s jerseys – The Land of Fire.
3. Tea is drunk with jam
This is an interesting foodie fact about Azerbaijanis. They love drinking tea. No news, many countries do, from the UK to India or the Middle East. Anyone who has traveled Africa or Asia has enjoyed a glass of hot tea in a carpet store or steeped a bag in a pot. What makes the tea drinking ways in Azerbaijan unique is their combination with jam. Tea in Azerbaijan is served in small glasses like in Turkey or Egypt, and often times comes with a side of jam. This is not regular jam but more jammed fruit which has been cooked as if to make jam but not blended into a paste. One is meant to drink the tea with a piece of jam in the mouth, so the tea passes through the jam. Obviously, this should replace sugar for most, as the jam is indeed sugary and hyper-sweet, but it doesn’t. Sugar will still be offered. You can counter the sweetness with a slice of lemon which will most likely complete the tea serving. I very much enjoyed having tea this way.
4. The origin of the Nobel Prize
Not so much the place where the prize was founded, but the country where the family made their fortunes, through oil. There are not a lot of famous Azeris that made it to world stage, but one of the most interesting trivia facts about Azerbaijan is the fact that the Nobel family who funded the Nobel Prize made their money through oil digging and trading in the country. Their house-museum is open to visitors and it is also the first house in Azerbaijan that had air conditioning, which came in the form of ice from a glacier in Norway, and a telephone line. It is also interesting to know that their oil wealth was the result of having to pivot their business when the Crimean War ended and their original family business went bankrupt.
5. The birthplace of crude oil
We all know that a lot of countries have fuelled their development thanks to oil. Several countries in the Middle East are the quickest examples that come to mind. But it all started in Azerbaijan in 1847, where the first oil well was drilled three years before it started in the US. Azerbaijan lies over such reserves of oil and natural gas that 95% of its GDP comes from oil. That is right, oil is definitively important.
6. A crude oil spa
Building on my previous point, oil is so abundant in Azerbaijan that it is even used for washing!
We all remember the scene in James Bond’s Quantum of Solace when Gemma Arterton dies when covered in oil but in Azerbaijan you can do that and improve your health. The town of Naftalan is filled with spas where you can bathe in therapeutic crude oil and rip the benefits without a sudden death. It is not exactly the same oil that you put in your car, but not far from it.
The bath is short, about 10 minutes, for too long exposure can indeed kill, and more time is spent scrubbing the oil off your body than soaking like a true oligarch. The retreats in Naphthalan, the town where most of the spas are found and which carries the name of the specific type of crude oil used, are no posh wellness getaways but more of a Soviet style sanatorium so you might be inclined to bathe and leave as soon as you can, lest them not imprison you to years of hard labour.
I am exaggerating of course. The spas claim that oil cures pretty much anything from eczema to impotence, a major feat considering the main component in the bath (naphthalene) is most likely a carcinogenic element. Go on, book your ultimate wellness retreat.
7. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could start WWIII
Our tour guide claimed that the third world war will start in the Caucasus and in Azerbaijan in particular. An interesting thought he backed up by saying that this would be caused by the ongoing conflict in the Armenian occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region which proclaimed independence from Azerbaijan in the 90s.
His thinking was that Armenia is backed by the Russians while Azerbaijan has Turkey’s support, a country which is part of NATO and, as a result, US-backed. If the conflict escalated, both powers, the US and Russia will have to back their horses and another world war could explode.
8. 45% of the world’s mud volcanoes
Mud volcanoes are an oddity in themselves and one of the fun experiences around Baku. Although mud volcanoes are not exclusive to the country, an interesting fact about Azerbaijan is its dominance in mud volcanoes. Given its location above large gas reserves, the escaping gas channelled through soft soil has created these mud volcanoes.
Aside from being a unique site to visit, the locals believe the mud volcanoes are packed with goodness and spend time covered in mud, inside the volcanoes, enjoying their healing properties.
9. The inhabitants of Azerbaijan represent the original Caucasian race
The word Caucasian is today used to refer to “white” people and the word originated from the Albanian Caucasians who inhabited Azerbaijan centuries ago. The term was coined by German anthropologist and founder of anthropology as a discipline, Friedrich Blumenbach in his work in the late 18th century when he divided the Homo Sapiens race into five groups based on their physical characteristics: the “yellow” Mongolian race, the “red” American race, the “brown” Malayan race, the “black” Ethiopian race and the “white” Caucasian race.
To name the races, he mostly looked at the shape and form of the skull and considered the inhabitants of the area at the time (today’s Georgia then Caucasian Albania) the representation of his “white” race and named them after the Caucasus. He did not even use the color of the skin to refer to Caucasians but described mostly their physical traits.
The original Caucasians as per Blumenbach’s definition included anyone in Europe (except the Lapps In Finland), as well as most people of Middle Eastern descent all the way to the Caspian Sea, the Ganges and parts of Northern Africa (who were not considered Black). He was not racist in any way and did not attribute hierarchy to the races, but simply described and classified them.
Today, the term Caucasian is used in surveys and other classifications that require you to fill in the race or ethnicity to refer to white although the rest of the classifications are not necessarily following Blumenbach’s.
10. There are more Azerbaijanis in Iran than in the country
How is that for a fascinating fact: More Azeris live in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself! In fact, they have their own province called Azerbaijan.
Given the many empires that conquered the area in the past, the country is a melting pot of cultures and traditions but perhaps one of the most interesting facts about Azerbaijan is its diaspora in Iran.
When the Russian Empire annexed Azerbaijan (and the rest of the Caucasus) in the 19th century after the Russo-Persian war treaty, a lot of Azeris were on the other side of the border or were forced to flee and found refuge in Muslim Iran, just across the border, with whom they shared religion and customs after centuries of influence and trade.
Today, there are more Azeris in Iran than there are in Azerbaijan and although accurate figures are not available, it is believed that up to 14 million Iranians could be of Azeri descent, while Azerbaijan only has a 9 million population. In Iran, they have maintained their language and there are even TV stations broadcasting in Azeri.
Their numbers are such that my good friend Edwin who still works as a telecoms consultant, once worked on a possible project for a mobile company who wanted to launch services in Iran targeting this minority group.
11. A Shia Muslim but open and secular country
Azerbaijan is a primarily Shia Muslim country, the second largest one after Iran, but religion is not written in the constitution. In fact, its openness is known in the Muslim world as being the country with the first operas and theaters opened. Most Azeris will agree that religion is “not an important part of their lives”.
12. The largest flag in the world
Baku has the largest flag in the world and also used to have the tallest flag pole until Turkmenistan surpassed it. The flag is made of silk, weighs two tons and measures 100×50 meters, the size of a football field. On windy days, of which Baku has many, the flag is taken down as it is too risky for it to fly.
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