For many people, especially who are unfamiliar with Azerbaijan, Azeris are one of many ethnicities around the globe. However, in Azerbaijan, ethnic identity is still a matter of debate.

According to Constitution of Azerbaijan, all citizens of Azerbaijan are called “Azerbaijani” regardless of their ethnicity. This type of solution to identity problem was often linked to Turkey, since Turkish laws label all citizens of Turkey as “Turks” even though they can be Armenian, Kurd, Assyrian and so on. However, it is not same in Azerbaijan. For many, “Azerbaijani” as a term is fictional. Many nationalists feel oppressed by this label, because law refuses them to call themselves “Turk”, thus alienates them.

Latest national census was in 2009. Only Meskhetian and Turkish emigres were regarded as “Turks”. Over 15.000 people in Saatli rayon counted as “Turks” – which is the main Meskhetian boiling pot. So, who are we? Turks? Azerbaijani Turks? Azerbaijanis? Or just Azeris?

Main Turkic speaking population of Azerbaijan used to label themselves with their clans and tribes until Soviet takeover. With rapid urbanization, collectivism and a little bit enlightenment most forgot about their origins or don’t care. However, there are major tribes who play important role in society – even nowadays.

Their dominance over various tribes can be seen from xenonyms used in Caucasus. This xenonym practice also stems from mindset of nations. Unlike Armenians who calls us just “Turks”, many Caucasus people call us in many names. In my opinion it is because how Armenian saw themselves. There are no any brotherly ethnicity to Armenians, no linguistic cousins, just Armenians. So it would be logical for them to call bunch of horse riding dudes who all speak same language in one word – “Turk”. It is same for Russians who used to call us “tatar” and Georgians – “tatrebi”.

In reality, Azerbaijanis are composed of many tribes and subtribes:

  1. EL – it is the biggest denomination. Direct translation to English would be “state” or “people”. It is the highest order of tribal hierarchy. One of historical examples is “Afshar”. Some people might remember this name from famous dynasty in Iran which followed Safavids. However, Afshar is just a name for an “el”. Dynasty itself was a branch of “Qiriqlu”, an “oymaq” of the “el”.
  2. OYMAQ – it is the second order after an “el”. It is the equivalent of “clan”. For example, khans of Yerevan, Ganja and shahs of Iran were all Qajars, but were from different clans. Ganja and Yerevan khans were of “Ziyadli” clan, however Qajar shahs were members of “Qoyunlu” clan. Irans ambassador to Germany and Ottoman empire – Mirza Mahmud khan Qajar was born to “Davali” clan.An “oymaq” could become an “el” over the course of history. Such as “el” of Javanshir. Initially they were a clan of “Otuziki”. However, they went numerous in size and became an “el” on their own right. Karabakh khans were of “Sarijali” stock,  a clan of Javanshir. Vice-versa could also be possible. “Otuziki” was downgraded to be clan of “Javanshir” in time.
  3. TAYFA – “Tayfa”s were subgroups of “oymaq”s. They were often named after a common ancestor.
  4. TIRA (tirə) – Direct translation into English would be “ridge”. They were smaller groups who often lived in neighboring villages.
  5. TÖRƏK – Direct translation would be “descendant”. They were often superfamilies whose members often lived together in a village.
  6. AİLƏ – It is a basic family which is composed of direct members like your mother, son and cousin.

For example, Valiyev family is a member of Nurmammadli torak, which is part of Khalafli tira, which member of Havsalli tayfa, which is a subgroup of Yaghlavand oymaq, which is clan of Javanshir el. This type of classification helped people to keep track of genealogy even though there were not a written tradition about it.

Dynamics of nomadic life often led some subclans to rise and be an “el” – a state in their own right; should they fall down, they would often disintegrate or be a part of rising clan. This provided a trouble for turkologists – because same clan would be shown as a part of many different “el”s. If gets stronger, they would even claim the spoken language as their own. Same goes for Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan was a melting pot many different Turkic tribes thanks to Seljuk and Mongol invasions. Many people (including my family) in Azerbaijan who live in rural villages still consider themselves a part of a tribe or clan – Ayrum, Shahsevan, Javanshir, Qarapapaq, Qushchu or Padar (latter two were rival clans who migrated to Azerbaijan during Mongol conquests, I belong to the last one, which is an “el” now, not a clan).

I would like to say “neither”! In my opinion, “nation” is a West-centered term and it causes many troubles in academia and society. All these tribes speak same language yet they do not have a single identity to carry. Even Turkmens in Syria and Iraq call themselves with different names – “Mosullu”, “Pornak” or “Dhulqadar” – yet linguistically they speak exactly same language as I speak.

So, you are right, “Azerbaijanis are younger than Coca-Cola”. But what to do? In this Western imposed world, how we should name ourselves?

Turks? But we are not same people with Turkish citizens, yet we are not same people like Gokturks or any other Turkic speaking group in Central Asia.

Azeri? There was and there is no ethnic group like that. It is widely believed in academia to be a fake identity invented by Ahmad Kasravi in order to serve Iranian nationalism. It would be okay to embrace this name if there was not a controversy.

Azerbaijani? It looks like the optimal one and currently used as such, but provides a confusion because a Talysh, as a citizen, is also an Azerbaijani.

Turkologists should invent a new method to deal with nomadic Turkic populations. Salars in China were subgroup of Uzbeks but they are a nation in their own right now. Uzbeks were actually Karluks, Karluks were actually Uyghur and Uyghurs were actually Dingling, they were actually Tiele, who were actually Gaoche and who were actually a part of Xiongnu.

Seems complicated right? Also you might feel like I am a kind of nationalist. Nope. Actually, the more you learn about Turkic history, less nationalist you get. Because “nationalism” is also a Western concept. Those who boast about their “Turkicness” are the most ignorants as well.

Capture of Tiflis by Agha Muhammad Shah. A Qajar-era miniature from Fath 'Ali Khan Saba's Shahinshah Nama. The British Library.

Capture of Tiflis by Agha Muhammad Shah / A Qajar-era miniature – The British Library.

bez121 - Few words about Azerbaijani identity

An Uyghur donor – We see a man, probably royalty or a noble, shown standing holding a flower in his hand. He is a Buddhist devout who keeps the temple running with donations.

Wassilij Wassiljewitsch Wereschtschagin 0011 - Few words about Azerbaijani identity

Dervishes in Festive Attire – Vasily Vereshchagin