The three main capital cities of the region have their own distinct histories. A century ago, neither Tbilisi (Tiflis), Baku, nor Yerevan had a majority population of Georgians, Azerbaijanis, or Armenians, respectively. Tbilisi can lay claim to being the capital of the Caucasus, but its Georgian character has been much more intermittent. For five hundred years it was an Arab town, while the older city of Mtskheta was the old Georgian capital. Then, in the medieval period, the city was taken over by the Armenian merchant class. They were the biggest community in the nineteenth century and finally left en masse only in the 1960s. Famous Tbilisi Armenians have included the world chess champion Tigran Petrosian and the filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Baku became a cosmopolitan city with many different ethnic groups from the late nineteenth century. Russian became its lingua franca. Garry Kasparov, the Jewish Armenian world chess champion, who was born in Baku but is unable to return there because of his Armenian roots, describes his nationality as “Bakuvian” (Bakinets in Russian). Baku only turned into a strongly Azerbaijani city with the end of the Soviet Union, the Nagorny Karabakh war, and the mass emigration of other national groups.
By contrast, up until the First World War, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had a Persian flavor and a Muslim majority population. Its major landmark was a blue-tiled mosque, and there was no big church. […] More Armenians lived in Tiflis, Baku, Shusha, and Van. Yerevan became an Armenian city only after the mass flight of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and of Azerbaijanis from eastern Armenia in 1915–18.
Arguably, strong national identities only began to emerge in the three countries of the South Caucasus in the Soviet era. […]
Half a dozen smaller nationalities form sizeable communities in the South Caucasus. Kurds are spread throughout the region. So-called Yezidi Kurds are Armenia’s biggest minority, and there are large numbers of Muslim Kurds in Azerbaijan. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians (discussed in chapter 5) are both few in numbers. There are fewer than one hundred thousand Abkhaz in Abkhazia and even fewer Ossetians in South Ossetia—many more Ossetians live in Russian North Ossetia. Azerbaijan’s main two minority ethnic groups are the Lezgins in the north and the Talysh in the south. The two hundred thousand Lezgins (according to official figures) live in the north of Azerbaijan across the border from around four hundred thousand of their ethnic kin who live in the Russian republic of Dagestan. They are Sunnis, and they speak a language apparently indigenous to the Caucasus. The Talysh live in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border and speak a language related to Farsi.
A follow-up post, Origins of Azerbaijan, describes what happened to this complex coexistence in the course of the awful twentieth century:
In the early part of the new century, the new Armenian and Azerbaijani national movements inevitably collided. For centuries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis had coexisted as neighbors in a patchwork quilt of towns and villages across the Transcaucasus. They spoke each other’s languages, traded freely, and had a shared culture with strong Persian influences. Yet mixed marriage was rare, and differences of religion, social status, and now national ideology caused divisions. These tensions were contained by Russian colonial rule, but when that rule weakened in 1905 and 1917 (and again in 1988) the geography of mixed ethnic cohabitation turned peaceful communities into places of violence.
The revolutionary year of 1905 saw the outbreak of what was called the “Armeno-Tatar War.” The bloodshed spread the entire length of the South Caucasus, from Baku in the east to Nakhichevan in the west. Up to ten thousand people were killed, and whole urban districts and villages were gutted. The British author James Henry called Baku “the greatest blood-spot in the mysterious, rebellious and blood-stained Caucasus” after it saw two bloody pogroms in one year. The conflict horrified and puzzled both locals and outsiders. One Azerbaijani intellectual in Ganja, Ahmad bay Aghaoghli, “sternly lectured crowds in a Ganja mosque that ‘even wild animals do not devour their own kind’ reminding them that Muslims and Armenians had for centuries lived in peace before the coming of the Russians.” The Russian socialist author Maxim Gorky expressed shock at what happened, lamenting “how hard it is to believe that these simple noble people now stupidly and senselessly are killing one another, giving in to provocation by evil and dark forces.”
And of course that was only the beginning. How I hate nationalism, at least in its violent exclusionist form!