Because the area has been conquered many times throughout history, and because the Soviet Union broke some regions of Azerbaijan into autonomous republics, the country’s citizens often view parts of the world that are not technically part of their country as being “emotionally” Azerbaijani. For example, the region of Iran south of the Aras River, which forms the border, is also known as Azerbaijan to many of the older people living in the country. The people on both sides of the border speak the same language and have the same religion. There are technically no territorial disputes, although the two countries disagree on determining their territorial limits in the Caspian Sea. Likewise, Azerbaijan currently is having a dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh area in the southwest corner of Azerbaijan. Under Soviet rule, the area was considered part of Azerbaijan, but it contains almost exclusively Armenian people. Armenians who live there, as well as the ones who live in Armenia, would like to see the area returned. Part of the area is occupied by Armenian troops, but politically it is still considered part of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is the largest of the three Caucasian nations. It is 33,440 square miles in area, about the size of Indiana, although its ragged borders give it a much larger appearance on a map. It is bordered by Russia on the north, Georgia on the northwest, Armenia on the west, Iran on the south, and the Caspian Sea on the east. A small area called Nakhichevan (pronounced Na-Hee-CHEE-Van) also is part of Azerbaijan but it is entirely separated from the rest of the country by Armenian land. The most interesting feature about Azerbaijan is the Baku peninsula. Home to the country’s capital city, Baku, it juts straight into the Caspian Sea for about 30 miles. This creates natural protection for harboring large sea-faring vessels. It also creates a natural staging area for the country’s abundant gas and oil reserves that sit just off the coast in the Caspian Sea. Slightly less than half the land area in Azerbaijan is mountainous.
The mountains form a horseshoe shape around the country, with the opening looking out at the Caspian Sea. The Greater Caucasus Mountains in the northeast, the Lesser Caucasus in the southwest, and the Kura River depression in between all converge in Azerbaijan. In addition to the Caucasus Mountains, the Talysh mountains are in the extreme southeast of the country.
The highest mountains contain many glaciers and fast-flowing rivers, while the mid-level mountains have deep gorges and valleys. The highest peak is Mount Bazardyuzyu (14,652 feet), in the Greater Caucasus on the border with Russia. As the Greater Caucasus Mountains spread eastward, they get slightly smaller and eventually drop off abruptly, becoming low hills. At this point, the climate is very dry and subtropical. The land continues to get more dry toward the east until it becomes desert near Baku. The average temperature in the summer is just under 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is not uncommon for it to reach 104 degrees during the hottest part of the day. The city has virtually no rainfall during the summer months and receives fewer than four inches for the entire year. Although much of Azerbaijan is desert, the country does not lack for water. Azerbaijan has more than 1,000 rivers coming out the mountains. Most are short—but 21 are longer than 60 miles—yet they contain enough water to irrigate other parts of the country. The Kura is the largest river in the Caucasian countries and flows northwest to southeast. It begins high in the Greater Caucasus Mountains and eventually empties into the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan also is dotted with very small lakes. The largest, Lake Hajikabul, is just six square miles and the next largest, Lake Boyukshor, is just four square miles. The large mountain ranges also bring fertile land on their lower slopes. As the mountains rose, they pushed the fertile land outward. These lands are filled with lush pastures and large broad-leaved forests that have a moderate climate much like that of the northern United States. The area is pleasantly warm in the summer yet cold enough in the winter to get large snowfalls. A broad plain lies in the center “horseshoe” area of the country. While it naturally contains few rivers, irrigation systems were built during Soviet times to bring water from the mountain rivers to create farmland perfect for growing cotton and grain.