An individual’s and a nation’s identity, reflexes, perception of and attitudes toward the events around them, and the way they act in response to those events, are largely determined by the way they perceive their historical narrative. Historical memory should be seen as one of the important factors that determine the behavior of the nation as a whole in the most natural way.
For example, all our childhood we heard from our parents telling us that Azerbaijanis are a forgetful nation, that Armenians had been preparing for the Karabakh war for years, while we unaware of what was happening. But why is this so? Why are we forgetful, why don’t we understand the animosity of our neighbors toward us, why don’t we feel deep hatred toward them, why are Azerbaijanis more inclined to be part of a larger identities (e.g., we Caucasians, Iranians, Turanians, and so on)? Why are we not prone to exclusivity, unlike our neighbors?
The answers to these questions must be sought in our history. A thorough understanding of our history sheds light on the unknowns of our national character. It makes our neighbors’ animosity more understandable, and, most importantly, it also determines how we must shape our future so that we can continue to live in the region.
Although Azerbaijan’s current official history acknowledges that we are Turks, the significant influence of the seventy years of the Soviet historical propaganda has led it to claim that we are both Turks and a native, indigenous people. Consequently, there are unfounded historical theories, such as the Urmia theory which claims that Turks originated in the Middle East, around Lake Urmia, circulating on our agenda, constantly confusing people and causing great damage to our self-awaraness. The historical narrative of Soviet Azerbaijan took away Turkicness from Azerbaijanis completely, portraying us as an indigenous people, who descended from a mixture of Medes and Albanians and who had always lived under the oppression of great empires. The Soviet historical propaganda was so strong that we cannot get rid of this narrative to this day.
Even knowing that we are Turks, we still cannot give up on our desire to be natives, and so we have done the impossible, merging the Soviet Azerbaijani history and the Turkic history and putting forward the concept of a composite hodgepodge of history.
This false historical narrative inhibits the identity of our people. If even the victory won in Karabakh could not completely eradicate the Azerbaijanis’ lack of self-confidence, the reason is the historical narrative imposed on us. All of this is the result of presenting us as a perennially subjugated people, incapable of building a state, whose national identity is a fiction.
Stolen Turkic history and forged Persian identity
Both in the Soviet period and in the Pahlavi Iran, there were purposeful attacks on the national identity and history of Azerbaijani Turks. If in the Soviet Union it was done to make us forget our roots and turn us into a small, insignificant Soviet people, then in Iran the goal was bigger. It was the revenge of the Tajiks (Persians), who lived under the Turkic rule for about 900 years and who seized power in Iran again sometime after 15 century. The Tajiks build their national identity on Western historical orientalism (i.e., interpreting the history of the East through the eyes of the West), and use the Aryan race theory to a large extent. They developed the thesis that “Persians are an extension of European civilization in the East and a continuation of the Aryan race”. They borrowed the exonym “Persia” (a name given to a country by foreign people), used since Ancient Greece and given to Iran by Westerners, and they called the whole Turkic history in Iran “Persian” and called us “Azeri”. On the basis of the Arian race theory laid down in the Pahlavi era, the Tajiks were able to steal history from the Turks and create for themselves a national identity and a historical narrative that was welcomed in the Western world. However, the history of calling the Tajiks Persians and their perception of themselves as Persians in the new era is not even 100 years old. The Turks gave the Iranian-speaking peoples the collective name of Tajiks, and over time the various Iranian-speaking peoples enthusiastically appropriated this collective name. In fact, there was no similarity between the so-called Dari, the written language used in the palace, and the everyday language used by ordinary Iranian-speaking people. Using Persian in the palace, the Turkic dynasties who ruled Iran did not associate this language with any particular people. Under them, Persian was the language of writing, and the use of this language seemed perfectly natural. Almost half of this language, called New Persian or Classical Persian, consisted of Arabic words, and its original name was Dari, that is, the “palace” language. After the Pahlavi reforms, the Arabic words in the language were partially curtailed. Among Iranian nationalists there are even those who claim that there is no nation called Persians. The people who are now using the Persian language was heterogeneous until about 80 to 100 years ago. That is, those were Iranian-speaking peoples who used different dialects and had different identities. If you ask some Persian-speaking people, they will say that their grandfather’s or grandmother’s native language was not Persian, but Sangsari, Sorkhei, Lasgerdi and so on. There were dozens of local Iranian languages in Iran that were completely different from Persian. The present-day official Persian was used in everyday life mostly by the educated and urban population, which constituted a very small portion of the total population. The local population spoke a variety of Iranian languages and dialects, Arabic and Turkic. The lingua franca across Iran was Turkic. The transformation of Persian, a literary language, into a common language is a phenomenon of the last 100 years. Thus, we can say that the present-day Iranian national identity and historical narrative based on the Persian identity in Iran are in fact a fiction of the last hundred years, and this narrative was built directly on, if I may say so, the theft of our history.
After our history was used to build the Iranian identity, it became necessary to create a narrative for the Turks. If the Turks are so great that their existence cannot be ignored, so great that Persian history is built on their history, then what about the Turks themselves? A narrative must be created for them as well! The following idea about the Turkic identity was created under the guidance of Ahmad Kasravi, himself a Turk: “You are not really Turks, you are genetically an indigenous people, Turkified and an extension of the local Azeri people.” These statements were aimed at assimilating the Turks, depriving them of their history and thus fundamentally resolving the Turk-Tajik conflict, which spanned almost a thousand years. However, the emergence of the Azerbaijani state, its independence, its claim to Turkic history in Iran and its transformation into a model for the Turks there run counter to the plans of the Iranian Tajik state. As long as the Turkic population of the Azerbaijani state, removed from the Iranian influence and enjoying a historical narrative of its own, the history of Iran’s national identity is under constant threat. This is why there is another claim that is often repeated by Armenians and Tajiks: “The toponym ‘Azerbaijan’ began to be used to refer to the lands north of the Araz only after 1918.” This propaganda is so strong that even among our intellectuals there are those who believe this lie. I am not going to prove that this claim is false. It is clear enough as it is. In the times of the Ilkhans, in the letters of Fazlullah Rashidaddin (13th century), in the travel diaries of Jean Chardin (17th century), in the decrees of Nader Shah (18th century), the lands north of the Araz are explicitly referred to as “Azerbaijan”.
But why is this lie being promoted and circulated?
First, because they want to undermine the legitimacy of the Azerbaijani state. They claim that Azerbaijan was broken off from Iran by Russia, that it became independent by mere chance, that it has no history of statehood, that even its name is fake, that Azerbaijan as a state is built on one big lie.
Just like Putin calls into question the statehood of Ukraine, the Tajiks (who call themselves Persians in Iran) and Armenians call into question our statehood.
Why are they doing this? What have we ever done to them? Therein lies the second reason. Because the legitimacy of their state depends on it. The intellectuals of these two nations know both their history and ours very well. They know it better than we do. If Azerbaijan begins to claim its true history, it will prove to be the heir to all the Turkic and Mongol states established in the territory of Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus, and Eastern Anatolia since the Battle of Dandanakan in 1040. It will turn out to be the main heir of all the material, cultural, spiritual, historical heritage created during the last thousand years under the Turkic-Mongol dynasties (the Ilkhans were subsequently Turkified). It can claim to be the founder of the modern Iranian state. This overturns the entire historical narrative of the current Tajik state.
It is from this point of view that a correct understanding of our history is important. We are not a people oppressed by other peoples, but the heirs of the nomadic Turks and partly of the Mongols, who migrated here from Central Asia, conquered these lands and ruled them for nine centuries. This is why people in Dagestan call us Moguls or Qajars, this is why people in Georgia call us Tatars, and this is why people in Armenia and Iran call us Turks. Seeing us as descendants of nomads, they constantly make cultural claims against us, attack our identity and history in Internet communities and form political alliances against us, because they cannot get over the fact that our ancestors ruled them. There is hardly any need to remind you how Iran acted during the Karabakh war.
The irony of life is that the Tajik Republic of Iran, which opposes the all Western paradigms, cannot and will not get rid of Western Orientalism when it comes to interpreting history. They enthusiastically adopt forged concepts like “Persian Empire”, “Persianate society” that Aryan race theorists or those who influenced them, or simply traditional Western Orientalists, have developed for them. The present-day national identity of Iran was developed under the influence of the Aryan race theory during the Pahlavi era. It is no coincidence that the Pahlavis were allies, friends of the Nazis. This is the reason why we are called Azeri and the name of our country is being called into question. The Tajik regime is fighting for legitimacy. The reason why the Tajiks reacted to the visit of the Azerbaijani MPs to the Blue Mosque in Yerevan with the vehemence of newly hatched nestlings is their struggle for legitimacy. They do not want to call this mosque, built by Huseyn Ali Khan Qajar, Azerbaijani, because if Qajar is Azerbaijani, a Turk, then who is the Qajar at the head of Iran? Do you see what I mean? Even our proving that the Blue Mosque in Yerevan is ours casts doubt on Iran’s historical narrative.
How should Azerbaijan’s historical narrative be written?
Since we dedicated the last 30 years to the Karabakh conflict with the Armenians, the lack of logic in Azerbaijan’s current official history can be excused. As a nation that had no say in its own history during the Soviet occupation, we have not been able to respond in a well planned manner to the Armenian attacks against our history after we gained independence. We were forced to respond to the Armenians by simply Turkifying the historical narrative imposed on us during the Soviet era. We found ourselves trapped in the Armenian narrative of antiquity and tried to respond to their claims in their paradigm, which is how we were effectively defeated by them in the conflict of historical narratives. There is no one today, except us, who believes Azerbaijan’s claims that “Turks have lived in this region since ancient times” or that all the churches that exist in our country are Albanian.
No one is buying our Albanian narrative. Everyone knows very well that Azerbaijan is using the Albanian history for political purposes. We cannot compete with Armenians when it comes to the history of Christianity in the region because we did not live here in the times of the Albanian state.
Our historical narrative should be built not on antiquity but on conquest. The Battle of Dandanakan on May 23, 1040 should be considered the symbolic beginning of the history of Oghuz Turks in Azerbaijan and Iran. The Seljuks, Oghuz Turks who won this battle against the Ghaznavids, then spread throughout the territory of Iran and Azerbaijan. This day can be considered the beginning of our history in the region. Naturally, Turkic peoples had come to the Middle East at different times before this date as well, but large-scale Turkic migrations began with the Seljuks.
The second important period of our history is the period of the Mongol invasions and the establishment of the Ilkhanate, which further boosted the flows of Turks and turned Azerbaijan into a perennial Turkic land. The Ilkhans were not Turks, they were Mongols, but it was Turkic tribes, not Mongols, who were brought to Iran by the Mongol conquests. The vast majority of the tribes who fought in the Mongol army were Turkic, and it is no accident that the Ilkhanate and its ruling class, who were Mongols, were later Turkified. Contrary to what the Tajiks claim, they were not Persianized, but Turkified, and it was during that very period that the first poems and official documents began to be written in the Turkic language. The Yassa of Qazan Khan, for example, is written in the Turkic language.
The third period of our history is the period of the Turkoman movement. It began with Qara Qoyunlu, continued with Aq Qoyunlu and reached its peak under the Qizilbash. It was the time when we became the ultimate dominant power in the region and had both military and demographic superiority in Azerbaijan and Iran. This period lasted from the 14th century until the end of the Qajar dynasty Iran in 1925.
The fourth and latest period is the Republican period. During this period the rule of the Turks ends in Iran, the Turks in Northern Azerbaijan shift to a republican form of government, a modern Azerbaijani national identity begins to take shape and the idea of the Azerbaijani Turk begins to emerge. This period continues to this day. I think it would be correct to mark the lives of Mirza Fatali Akhundzade and Hasan bey Zardabi as the starting point of this period. Admittedly, the Qajar state still existed at the time, and the republic was not yet established, but there are no clearcut lines dividing historical periods. As the Qajars were living their last days, the first seeds of the Republican era were being sown in Northern Azerbaijan.
Understanding our history in this or a similar vein spares us the competition in antiquity with the Armenians or Tajiks (who also call themselves Persians) and elevates us to the status of the conquerors of this region. To the position of the people who ruled these lands from the day we arrived here. And it is easier for the world to accept this historical narrative than the Albanian one. Rethinking, redefining, understanding our identity in the light of a new and correct historical narrative will also change our people’s attitude toward itself. The history written for us by others over the last hundred years paints us as an oppressed, identity-deprived, rootless nation. Our real history is the exact opposite. With this new historical narrative, the future goals and horizons of the Azerbaijani state will expand, and our history will not be used against us to let us ti intimidate us. For the Azerbaijani state, the new Turkic historical narrative is naturally very important in terms of creating long-term goals for the people. In the light of this history, we will see more clearly that the small Azerbaijani state is destined to be great, the Azerbaijani people are bound to think big, because we are the only owners of the rich culture of the last millennium. This is why we do not feel any deep hatred toward other nations. They simply have never been a threat to us throughout history, we have never taken them seriously, and we have no reason to hate them. Meanwhile, our neighbors had countless reasons to hate us for nine centuries. This is exactly why we can never fully understand the animosity, the hostile attitude of Armenians and Persians, and even Georgians and Dagestanis toward us.