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The Republic of Azerbaijan is in the South Caucasus area of Eurasia, where Asia joins Europe. Azerbaijan is bounded by Armenia, Georgia, Iran, and Russia. It is situated on the western banks of the Caspian Sea, across from Turkmenistan. The enclave of Nakhchivan is separated from Azerbaijan by southeastern Armenia.

Azerbaijan was part of the Persian Empire in the 6th Century BC and was part of the region where Zoroastrianism developed. Caucasian Albanians, the original inhabitants of northeastern Azerbaijan, established an independent kingdom.

Around 252 AD, the Sasanian Empire conquered Caucasian Albania, although it remained a semi-autonomous state, with a king, but one who was subservient to the Sasanian emperor. The Caucasian Albanian king made Christianity the official religion in the 4th Century. Several churches were built during this time, and the ruins of some exist yet today.

When the Arabs advanced into the region in the 7th Century, taking control of Persia, Islam gained prominence, while Christians retreated into the foothills of the mountains. Before long, Islam had become the major religion, as it is today. Although the region came under the control of several rulers, it was a succession of Muslim rulers, except for a brief period under Russian control.

By the 1700s, Azerbaijan was again under Persian control, although Persia was also known as Iran. In 1804, Russia invaded the Iranian town of Ganja, which was the beginning of the Russo-Persian War, which ended in a Russian victory in 1813. As a term of the treaty, Iran gave up its sovereignty over the area that included Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, there are more ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran today than there are in Azerbaijan.

When the Russian Empire collapsed temporarily during World War I, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic was formed in 1918, including what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. That same year, about 12,000 Azerbaijanis and other Muslims were massacred in Baku and the surrounding area by Bolshevik Armenians, which led to the dissolution of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic and the creation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, using a name that had previously been applied to the adjacent northwestern region of Iran.

The ADR only lasted two years, however. As the Baku region of Azerbaijan was rich in oil, the Soviet Union invaded in 1920, forcing border changes in favor of Armenia, leaving the Nakhchivan cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan. Approximately 20,000 Azerbaijanis were killed trying to fend off the Russian invasion. In 1925, more than 100,000 Azerbaijanis were shot or sent to concentration camps, from which they never returned, during Stalin's purge.

In the late 1980s, border tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia resulted in the return of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, while Armenians fled Azerbaijan. Tensions remained high between the two countries, and pretty much continues today. In January of 1990. the Soviets intervened in Baku, killing dozens of civilians in an incident that turned public opinion against Russia. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The early years of the Republic of Azerbaijan were characterized by war with Armenia over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, in southwestern Azerbaijan, as well as internal strife. Although peace between the two countries was signed in 1994, border conflicts remain unresolved.

The Azerbaijan constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but human rights monitors report that this is not the case in practice. Foreign broadcasts are banned, and the internal media is heavily controlled. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Azerbaijan as the fifth most censored country in the world.

Economically, Azerbaijan is heavily dependent upon its rich oil and natural gas deposits. The country also has a large agricultural basin, with nearly 55% of its land in agriculture.

In the 1980s, Azerbaijan was a popular tourist destination, due to its historical, cultural, and natural heritage. Although wars and internal political conflict have damaged its tourist industry, the country is making strides toward recovery, and hopes to make tourism a large contributor to its economy once again.

Most of the country's population is ethnic Azerbaijanis, with most of its Armenian population residing in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The official language is Azerbaijani, which is spoken by more than 90% of the country. Russian and English are common second or third languages. About 98% of the population adheres to Islam, mostly Shia.

The literacy rate in Azerbaijan is nearly 100%, and a high percentage of Azerbaijanis have participated in higher education.


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