Azerbaijan: Good for the Jews?

The true story of Jewish Azerbaijan past and present has Hollywood written all over it. Two ancient cultures meet on the same land. One is Muslim and one is Jewish. But here is the twist: The land is overflowing with natural riches, from fruits to “black gold” (oil), and the cultures work and live harmoniously. Not only that, but they forge new, vital forms of culture, government and commerce. And pay attention Hollywood: Almost no one outside of Azerbaijan has heard this story. Those who have are amazed and want to know more.

What is today the Republic of Azerbaijan, bordered by Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Armenia, has been home to Jews since Late Antiquity. Many of these early Jewish settlers came during the Persian Empire and settled in the north of what is today Azerbaijan, in an area called Guba.

Over the centuries, Jewish practices, beliefs and traditions held the Jews together even during low points. Shared family lives and business relationships, particularly in agriculture and trade, kept the neighboring Jewish and Muslim towns functioning as close neighbors.

After breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan found quick recognition by Turkey and then by Israel. The Azerbaijan-Israel strategic partnership today plays a vital role in the security of both countries.

A venerated and beloved figure in Azerbaijan is a young Jew named Albert Agarunov. Agarunov fought valiantly in the battle for Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that continues to plague the country today. Agarunov died at the hands of Armenian forces during the 1992 occupation of the town of Shusha, a center of Azerbaijani culture. Azerbaijani authorities buried Agarunov in Martyrs’ Lane in Baku and posthumously awarded him the title of National Hero of Azerbaijan, the country’s highest honor.

Surely Hollywood would accord Agarunov top consideration for a Jewish Azerbaijani lead. But other Jewish Azerbaijanis too have a place on the big screen; a movie about colorful Baku-born Nobel Prize-winning (1962) physicist Lev Landau is already in the making.

In Azerbaijan, the close, even seamless relationships among residents are a powerful balm against any perceived societal ills. Friendships, weddings, businesses, all show signs of Jewish-Muslim closeness and solidarity.

When pressed about Azerbaijan’s unique cultural oasis, many Azerbaijanis cite “Ali and Nino,” the romantic novel based in Baku from 1918 to 1920. The book, virtually embedded in Azerbaijani consciousness, is believed to have been authored by 20th-century writer/historian Lev Nussinbaum, a man of mixed Jewish-Russian background from Baku who adopted a Muslim pen name, Kurban Said, and assumed Azerbaijani identity.  In this Baku of old, East and West, Muslim, Christian and Jew and ancient and modern appear in a seemingly impossible yet complementary weave of elements. To many contemporary visitors and residents, that is Baku.

Hollywood, are you listening?

Diana Cohen Altman is executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. cultural charity focused on Azerbaijan.


  1. hikmet says

    Azerbaijan very convenient country for Jews.I`m Jew.Today 35.000 Jew lives Azerbaijan.Azerbaijan a Land Of Magic Colors.The Azerbaijani and Jewish peoples have a long tradition of tolerance and interaction. Today´s friendly relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Israel are built on centuries of shared Jewish-Azerbaijani existence. Alexander Murinson looks at the history of Jews in Azerbaijan, a history that dates back to Nebuchadnezzar and the fall of Jerusalem.

  2. Mariam says

    Great article. Indeed, there is a great potential for developing cultural links between these two ancient cultures. Azerbaijan is probably the only majority Muslim country in the world that maintains stable friendly relations with Israel, and I hope the trend continues.

    Richard, if she is a lobbyist, then what are you? You mention 400,000 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, but say nothing about over 1,000,000 Azeri refugees and IDPs from Armenia and occupied parts of Azerbaijan, most of which were pogromed and expelled by Armenians long before “the majority of the population voted to secede” in that sham of a referendum. You mention that there are 6,000 (in reality, 9,000) Jews left in Azerbaijan (which is quite natural; not because Azeris are evil, but because there was intense emigration of Jews from all over the USSR in the 1990s, not just Azerbaijan), but you say nothing about the fact that the number of Jews in Armenia never exceeded 1,000 and today there is only a handful of them left, thanks to the Jewish-“friendly” policy of the ragingly anti-Semitic Armenian government. In Azerbaijan, there are still majority Jewish settlements and an elected Jewish MP in the parliament; are there any in Armenia?

    George, nobody cares where Tigran took his summer vacation in the year dot. Today Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan; it is a widely recognized fact and no Armenian-published history textbook is a counter-argument strong enough to disprove it.

  3. George says

    The authors of this article have sold their souls to devil. Arstsakh/Karabagh is an Armenian Land.
    In the 1st century BC, the ruler of the Armenian Kingdom Tigran II the Great founded one of four cities, named “Tigranakert” after himself, in Artsakh/Karabakh. Artsakh was the 10th province of the ancient kingdom of Armenia.

    Genetic Atlas of Human admixture history of 2014 does not even state Azerbaijanis as a nation. Transparency International states curruption index of Azerbaijan is highest in the Caucases, Azerbaijan’s prisons are full of political prisoners and the capital Baku in 2008 was found to be the dirtiest city on earth.

  4. Richard says

    Nice piece of propaganda from a paid lobbyist. Nagorno Karabagh is a historically Armenian region. When the majority of the population voted to secede, Azeri forces attacked and were defeated. Some 400,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee Baku and other Azerbaijani cities prior to and during the conflict.

    From a peak of over 40,000 Jews in Azerbaijan in the 1970s, the population has declined to perhaps 6,000 today.

    Azerbaijan today is one of the most authoritarian and corrupt places on Earth, controlled by and for the Aliyev family who use the country’s oil wealth for their own benefit.

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