South Caucasus Minorities Within Minorities.

Joel at Far Outliers has been posting excerpts from Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus: An Introduction, and this one scratched my multicultural itch:

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!


  1. And it’s most vicious in the belts of mixed population, like this one and the one in the Balkans.

  2. By the way, origin of Azeri people is fascinating (and very controversial) topic.

    People who spoke language which became ancestor of Azeri language were Mongoloid Turkic nomads.

    Current Azeris are settled people who have typical appearance of Caucasus aborigines.

    So it stands to reason that Azeris are primarily descendants of non-Turkic Caucasian aboriginal population who just shifted to language (and Muslim faith) of Turkic invaders.

    Herein lies the big trouble – because these aboriginals were called Albanians and they were Christian (and Armenian Christian at that). Their native language was typical North-Caucasian. Its remnant survives in form of so called Udi language:

    The Udi language, spoken by the Udi people, is a member of the Lezgic branch of the Northeast Caucasian language family.[4] It is believed an earlier form of it was the main language of Caucasian Albania, which stretched from south Dagestan to current day Azerbaijan. The language is spoken by about 4,000 people in the Azerbaijani village of Nij in Qabala rayon, in Oghuz rayon, as well as in parts of the North Caucasus in Russia.

    Resemblance to Turkish-Greek conflict is striking. If we go a century or two back, all of Armenia was Azeri. If we go ten centuries back, all of Azerbaijan was Armenian Christian.

  3. @John Cowan: I think that most places are “belts of mixed population” until nationalism does its thing. So you might alternatively say that nationalism is most vicious until it succeeds.

  4. I think that’s an exaggeration. When the Roman Empire in the West broke up, the various Romance varieties were mostly sorted out by location. The borders may have been fractal, but the whole area wasn’t one big fractal. You didn’t get French-speaking villages next to Italian-speaking villages next to Romanian-speaking villages next to Sardinian-speaking villages (using the broadest understanding of those terms). There were occasional oddities due to small-scale migrations, like the Arpitan-speakers in Apulia. But a fractal language landscape is exactly what you did have in Eastern Europe.

  5. There are more than twice as many Azeri people living in Iran than in Azerbaijan which is a perennial source of nervousness in Tehran.

  6. In my view, Azeris in Azerbaijan and Iran are different peoples.

    Basically, Azeris of Azerbaijan are Turkified formerly Armenian Christian Caucasians and Azeris of Iranian Azerbaijan are Turkified formerly Zoroastrian Persian-speaking Iranians (Medes to be exact).

    Their relation to each other and to Turks of Turkey can be likened to relation between Mexicans and, say, Colombians or Peruvians – they all share language and cultural heritage of Hispanic invaders, but otherwise they are quite different peoples.

    Originally, the name Azerbaijan only applied to the Iranian Azerbaijan – known in antiquity as Media Atropatene,

    The region occupied by current republic of Azerbaijan was called Shirvan and Arran (ie, Albania). People of this region were called Tatars or Caucasian Tatars by Russians. Ethnic name Azeris was invented only in 1891 and became official in 1936.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Herein lies the big trouble – because these aboriginals were called Albanians and they were Christian (and Armenian Christian at that).

    They were very much not Armenian Christians, but Orthodox Christians (as apparently at least some Udi still are today). Which is why Armenia once waged a holy war on them and wiped this Albania* off the map.

    The plains were then settled by speakers of more or less Talysh; that’s where the name [azæri] comes from.

    * Actually Alwan.

  8. Subordination to Orthodox Church of Constantinople was a brief historical episode, their Christianity started with Armenia and still remains Armenian.

    Short version

  9. ə de vivre says

    When the Roman Empire in the West broke up, the various Romance varieties were mostly sorted out by location. The borders may have been fractal, but the whole area wasn’t one big fractal.

    Are we so sure? Today we have the advantage of more widespread literacy and audio-visual media to document the distribution of linguistic communities. For late Roman Europe we’re pretty much reliant on who was literate (and what languages were used for writing) and the occasional literate traveller interested in what commoners spoke. Sticking to Gaul, Hispania, and the Italian peninsula there were Romance languages replacing whatever was there before, which probably created en/exclaves. Then there were Germanic tribes in various states of linguistic assimilation, Arabic speakers moving into Hispania, and P-Celtic speakers settling in Armorica. Latin and its Romance descendants definitely had a homogenizing effect, but I don’t think the sorting out of linguistic communities into territorially-bound states was appreciably less violent than in the Balkans or Caucasus.

  10. ə de vivre says

    That should be “post Roman Europe”, not “late Roman Europe”, unless there were time-travelling Arabs. Be sure to give me credit for the idea if anyone writes a best-selling speculative fiction novel based on that premise.

  11. Enclaves and exclaves are one thing: places like Baarle and Cooch Behar are qualitatively, not just quantitatively different.

  12. Quite a few villages and clans in Azerbaijan consider themselves to be Arabs. There were also scattered old-time settlers from the North. For example the Tatar mosque in Tbilisi wasn’t commissioned by the Azeri-Tatars but by the Sunni Kazan Tatar merchants from Volga Basin (the other main mosque was named after Persia Shakh Abbas). And most old-settler Russians weren’t mainstream Orthodox, but belonged to the exiled Old Order sects such us the Molokans.
    As i understand the imperial practice of cultivating ethnic patchwork quilts is often credited to Shakh Abbas too, on a premise that an enclave of a minority would owe all its allegiance to the regime, as it stands to be decimated if the imperial powers fade. So they moved disloyal ethnic loyals to the restive borderlands where they were expected to side with the regime to survive.

  13. Ah, like the famous Poles of post-Soviet Lithuania.


  1. […] Hat highlighted a Far Outliers note about the demographics of the capital cities of the independent South Caucasus, […]

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