Azerbaijan: What’s in a Name?
Pondering the etymology of the word “Azerbaijan.”
Naturally occurring gas aflame, like here at Dashgil mud volcano, supports the association of fire with the mysterious word “Azerbaijan. Gobustan, Azerbaijan. Denis Sv/Shutterstock
Where did the name Azerbaijan come from? While there are multiple conflicting theories and ongoing disagreements between Turkologists and Iranianists, I believe that the study of history and etymology has unifying potential. The origin of Azerbaijan essentially remains a mystery, but the study of the word reveals more common ties in the region than it does disputes. The widespread version in many textbooks is that “Azerbaijan” is an Arabicized form of the Persian “Atropatakan” - “the country of Atropatos.” But to me, that’s not at all convincing.
As Hellenistic (Greek) as it is Persian, the term Atropatacan (aka Atropatena or Atropatene) is a name through which we can trace the direct consequences of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia in the 4th century BC. It was first mentioned in chronicles of those Macedonian invasions and used for some time after to describe the territorial structure of the Macedonian, Parthian and Sassanid empires that followed from those invasions. It was called “the land of Atropates.” Whether the word Atropat was a personal name, a title, or a religious rank is unknown and remains a subject of controversy. Anyway, there is no evidence that the use of this name was ever widespread. Attempts to call the territory the Media Atropatena (named after the ancient Persian Kingdom in the northern part of modern-day Iran) are probably artificial, politically motivated constructions invented by “historians.” It is a name designed to connect the idea of Azerbaijan to the world of Persian civilizational and cultural heritage.
Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock
Such heritage is undoubtedly of great importance as a part of the Azerbaijani cultural DNA, but it is not the only influence, nor indeed the main one. I see the word “Atropatena” as a personified form of the word Azerbaijan, rather than vice versa.
Let me explain.
As Azar as Az
Some trace the name Azerbaijan to the root “azer,” which means fire in old Indo-European languages. This makes sense since fire cults have always been an inherent part of Azerbaijani history. Even the theory I questioned above about Atropat can be seen as indirect confirmation of this if we take Atropat as an etymologized form of “fire keeper.” Since the roots of ‘Azer’ and ‘Ater’ reference fire in Indo-European and Altaic (Turkic, Mongolian, and the Manchu Tungus languages), the etymology of Azerbaijan could stretch back into antiquity.
There’s also the etymology built around “As/Az” that appears as a starting syllable in several important geographical names on the continent, from the Sea of Azov to the entirety of Asia. Some speculate this to stem from a mythical ancient “As” tribe.
Another interesting fact is that Turkmens call Azerbaijan “Khazarbaijan,” apparently integrating the Turkic name of the Caspian Sea (Khazar) with our own toponym. Dropping the ‘Kh’ sound and transforming ‘Khazar’ into ‘Azar’ would be legitimate according to the phonetic rules of the Oghuz-Turkic languages.
Turkmens call Azerbaijan “Khazarbaijan,” apparently integrating the Turkic name of the Caspian Sea (Khazar) with our own toponym.
In a sense, all of the above theories are likely to have at least an element of truth: the ethnonym “As,” the hydronym “Khazar,” the root word “Azer,” and the religiopolitical title “Atropat” each reflect different strands of a series of historical transformations. Together with the name Azerbaijan itself, what we might be seeing is a series of clues to an even earlier historical heritage whose traces, I believe, must be sought across the large civilizational area centred on the Fertile Crescent.
A Speculative Journey in Search of Pre-ancient Civilization
The Fertile Crescent describes a geographical arc stretching from the Nile in Egypt via today’s Lebanon, northern Syria and southeastern Turkey to Mesopotamia, which is today’s Iraq and western Iran (see map above). The first written texts appeared in this region some 5000 years ago, but perhaps 10,000 years ago, there was a population that tamed goats, domesticated cats and dogs, learned to cultivate the land, built temples, and founded cities.
Covered archeological site of Gobekli Tepe in Sanliurfa, Turkey. March 24, 2018. 0meer/Shutterstock
The study of such “pre-ancient” history has only recently begun in earnest. For political and security reasons, much of the Fertile Crescent region has been inaccessible. However, the recent discovery of the Gobeklitepe megalithic site in Turkey has thrown doubt onto much that has been previously accepted. Considered the most significant archaeological discovery of the last hundred years, it suggests an organized civilization comparable to ancient Egypt, yet preceding it by at least five thousand years. It even hints that great flood ideas proposed by maverick ‘Atlantis researchers’ like Graham Hancock, considered a crackpot in his day, might have had some basis in science. All this despite the fact that excavations have yet covered only 5% of Gobeklitepe’s suspected total area.
Most early civilizations in the region, such as the one which would grow into the Azerbaijan we know today, were influenced by what flowed out of the Fertile Crescent. Every year, more and more evidence surfaces that it was from this region that the civilizational waves of migrations, conquests, cultural and technological exchange and enrichment spread across the ancient world.
Fellow Feeling with the Fertile Crescent
The ties between Azerbaijan and the Fertile Crescent are stable and have their roots in at least the Early Bronze Age, probably much earlier.
A significant proportion of human genetics in our country (about a quarter) suggests direct relationship with the Fertile Crescent region. This is one of the highest rates in the world and is not less than Syria, Iraq and Turkey: all countries that themselves lie directly within that historic arc.
The volcanic, lunar and solar cults of antiquity, once widely practiced in Azerbaijan, reflect similar beliefs from the Fertile Crescent.
The volcanic, lunar and solar cults of antiquity, once widely practiced in Azerbaijan, reflect similar beliefs from the Fertile Crescent. Place names like Albania, Gabala, Baku, Astara and several others are most likely the result of Middle Eastern civilizations expanding into the territory of today’s Azerbaijan. Were they trading colonies, regional cultic centers, refugee settlements, or military takeovers? It’s impossible to say.
In this light, the root “Azer” is worth special consideration, not only within the terms of the Indo-European reading “fire” but also as a “Nostratic linguistic root” – i.e., dating back to a time before the disintegration of a pre-ancient Eurasian language into the current subset of linguistic families. In mythological terms, that’s before the construction of the Tower of Babel.
The Names of the Gods
The name of the Egyptian god Osiris is a Greek transcription of the root word ‘Azer.’ Osiris is the husband and brother of Isis, also a Greek rendition of an older name: Asa (note the reoccurrences of ‘Az/As’). The process of promoting male gods over the older female ones seems to be a universal development in ancient history, associated with the strengthening of patriarchal cults. Therefore, the female root “Asa” is likely more ancient and later morphed into the male “Azer.”
Could the name of the Egyptian god Osiris be derived from the same root as the “Az” in “Azerbaijan?” Queen Hatshepsut Temple, Thebes, Egypt. Dmitri Kalvan/Shutterstock
One of the gods of Mesopotamia, with pronounced patriarchal signs, was Assur, husband to the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar is also the name of the city from which the entire Assyrian Empire grew.
The classic theory says that although the name of the Assyrian Empire did not survive in Mesopotamia itself, it moved to the west and became the name of the country Syria.
Is Osiris the Egyptian form of Assur? Do they both have to do with the “Azer” root in the name of our country?
Is Osiris the Egyptian form of Assur? Do they both have to do with the “Azer” root in the name of our country? Are the ethnonym Israel and the mythologism Azrael (Islam’s angel of death) related names? After all, Azrael “escorts” people from this world to another world, a role very similar to that of Osiris. I believe they are related. However, with the knowledge we possess today, it is difficult to determine the mechanisms by which cults and geographical names were spread.
Even the generally accepted etymology of the name Syria, as a distorted “Assyria,” is not convincing. Instead, Syria and Assyria (and neighbouring Israel) are constituents of the same historical area, connected by countless cultural threads for thousands of years. These connections and common roots are ultimately reflected in the names of countries and cities.
Shirvan Gets its Turn
There’s one more important local toponym that I’d like to add to this etymological magic circle. Shirvan. That was the name given to the medieval state that occupied much of what we now know as independent Azerbaijan. Couldn’t the “Shir” in Shirvan be the root of the same group of names? The Sir in Syria. The Sur in Assur (aka Ashur). And the Zer in Azer.
Assyria/Azerbaijan, Syria/Shirvan, Aleppo/Albania, Jebel/Gabala - there are dozens – if not hundreds – of other such names whose source we might tentatively link to the Middle Eastern group of ancient geographical toponyms. These parallels are often supported by significant archaeological, genetic and historical evidence.
Our historical sciences are full of flaws whose framework often leads to fruitless controversies between Turkologists and Iranianists... in reality, our common ties are far broader than our disagreements over details.
We are still very far from the precise etymology of Azerbaijan’s name, and I certainly will not unearth it in a single article. My message is this: We must start to take a fresh look in new directions. Our historical sciences are full of flaws whose framework often leads to fruitless controversies between Turkologists and Iranianists. It’s a shame: in reality, our common ties are far broader than our disagreements over details. My ideas expounded upon above neither contradict nor favour Turkic or Persian readings of history. Indeed, supporting a particular side is not my aim, but is simply to fuel excitement toward the “fiery” and “volcanic” names for our ancient country.