The term Azeri or Azerbaijani is usually a reference to people who speak a certain dialect of a Turkic language, who are generally Shia Muslims. Most live in Azerbaijan and Northern Iran, with some in adjacent areas of Georgia and Turkey. Before the Karabakh War, a significant number also lived in Armenia.
In many references, Azerbaijanis are designated as a Turkic people, due to their Turkic language and partial descent from the Oghuz. However, there is a debate regarding the ethnic origins of the Azeris. The debate has to do with modern nationalism and historic claims over Azeri territory. The debate involves three viewpoints: whether the Azeris are of a Turkic background from Central Asia, are an Iranian people who simply changed their language following Turkic invasions, or are indigenous to the Caucasus and have adopted the Azerbaijani language, Persian culture, and Islam. Thus, determining whether a Turkic, Iranian, or Caucasian background defines the Azeris has much to do with the historical views of Azeribaijan's neighbors.
Though the population of Azerbaijan is culturally diverse, genetic testing has revealed common genetic markers that support an autochthonous background for most Azeris. A 2003 study found that: "Y-chromosome haplogroups indicate that Indo-European-speaking Armenians and Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanians are genetically more closely related to their geographic neighbors in the Caucasus than to their linguistic neighbors elsewhere." The authors of this study suggest that this indicates a language replacement of indigenous Caucasian peoples. There is evidence of limited genetic admixture derived from Central Asians (specifically Haplogroup H12), notably the Turkmen, that is higher than that of their neighbors, the Georgians and Armenians. MtDNA analysis indicates that the main relationship with Iranians is through a larger West Eurasian group that is secondary to that of the Caucasus, according to a study that did not include Azeris, but Georgians who have clustered with Azeris in other studies. The conclusion from the testing shows that the Azeris are a mixed population with relationships, in order of greatest similarity, with the Caucasus, Iranians and Near Easterners, Europeans, and Turkmen. Other genetic analysis of mtDNA and Y-chromosomes indicates that Caucasian populations are genetically intermediate between Europeans and Near Easterners, but that they are more closely related to Near Easterners overall. Another study, conducted in 2003 by the Russian Journal of Genetics, compared Iranians in Azerbaijan (the Talysh and Tats) with Turkic Azerbaijanis and found that,
- the genetic structure of the populations examined with the other Iranian-speaking populations (Persians and Kurds from Iran, Ossetins, and Tajiks) and Azerbaijanis showed that Iranian-speaking populations from Azerbaijan were more close to Azerbaijanis, than to Iranian-speaking populations inhabiting other world regions.
The conclusion from this study further supports the view that groups within close geographic proximity to the Azeris are genetically similar despite linguistic differences. A recent study of the genetic landscape of Iran was completed by a team of Cambridge geneticists led by Dr. Maziar Ashrafian Bonab (an Iranian Azarbaijani). Bonab remarked that his group had done extensive DNA testing on different language groups, including Indo-European and non Indo-European speakers, in Iran. The study found that the Azerbaijanis of Iran do not have a similar FSt and other genetic markers found in Anatolian and European Turks. However, the genetic Fst and other genetic traits like MRca and mtDNA of Iranian Azeris were identical to Persians in Iran. These studies suffer from some drawbacks, including a lack of specific comparative studies between Azeribaijanis from Iran and Azerbaijan.
According to the Encyclopædia of Islam:
- [as consequence of Oghuz Turkic domination in the Caucasus, beginning the 12th century] the Iranian population of Ādharbāyjān and the adjacent parts of Transcaucasia became Turkophone while the characteristic features of Ādharbāyjānī Turkish, such as Persian intonations and disregard of the vocalic harmony, reflect the non-Turkish origin of the Turkicised population.
The Encyclopædia Britannica states that Azeris:
- are of mixed ethnic origin, the oldest element deriving from the indigenous population of eastern Transcaucasia and possibly from the Medians of northern Persia. This population was Persianized during the period of the Sasanian dynasty of Iran (3rd–7th century AD), but, after the region's conquest by the Seljuq Turks in the 11th century, the inhabitants were Turkicized, and further Turkicization of the population occurred in the ensuing centuries.
This view supports initial genetic studies conducted in the Republic of Azerbaijan that link the modern Azeris primarily to their neighbors in the Caucasus and, to a lesser extent, northwestern Iran. Further studies with Azeris in Iran may help determine to what extent the modern Azeris are related to Caucasian peoples (notably the Albanians and Armenians) and Iranians (primarily the Medes).
There is evidence that, despite repeated invasions and migrations, aboriginal Caucasians may have been culturally assimilated, first by Iranians and later by the Oghuz. Audrey Alstadt notes in The Azerbaijani Turks that many Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan regard both the Oghuz and the Caucasian Albanians as their ancestors. Considerable information has been learned about the Caucasian Albanians including their language, history, early conversion to Christianity, and close ties to the Armenians. Many academics believe that the Udi language, still spoken in Azerbaijan, is a remnant of the Albanians' language.
This Caucasian influence extended further south into Iranian Azarbaijan. During the 1st millennium BCE, another Caucasian people, the Mannaeans (Mannai) populated much of Iranian Azarbaijan. Weakened by conflicts with the Assyrians, the Mannaeans are believed to have been conquered and assimilated by the Medes by 590 BCE.
The extent to which cultural assimilation took place is unclear. By examining the historical record, archaeological finds, and, in recent years, genealogical DNA testing, a team of researchers has put forth the view that indigenous peoples were often assimilated rather than being killed or driven out. In the case of the Azeris, this would mean that the majority today are descendents of the earliest settlers of the Caucasus. However, this view would require strong genetic evidence that peoples in the Caucasus are related despite their linguistic and cultural differences.
The information on this page comes from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azerbaijani_people