History of Azerbaijan
Safavids and the rise of Shi'a Islam
The Safavid (Safaviyeh) were a Sufi religious order centred in Iran and formed in the 1330s by Sheikh Safi Al-Din (1252–1334), after whom it was eponymously named.
This Sufi order openly converted to the heterodox branch of twelver Shi'a Islam by the end of the 15th century. Some Safavid followers, most notably the Qizilbash, believed in the mystical and esoteric nature of their rulers and their relationship to the house of Ali, and thus, were zealously predisposed to fight for them. The Safavid rulers claimed to be descended from Ali himself and his wife Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad, through the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. Qizilbash numbers increased by the 16th century and their generals were able to wage a successful war against the Ak Koyunlu state and capture Tabriz.
The Safavids, led by Ismail I, expanded their base in Ardabil, conquering the Caucasus, parts of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and western parts of South Asia. During the same period, Ismail sacked Baku in 1501 and persecuted the Sunni Shirvanshahs. The territory of nowadays Azerbaijan was conquered by the Iranian Safavids, alongside Armenia and Dagestan, between 1500 and 1502.
During the reign of Ismail I and his son Tahmasp, Shi'a Islam was imposed upon the formerly Sunni population of Iran and Azerbaijan. Imposition of Shi'a Islam was especially harsh in Shirvan, where a large Sunni population was massacred. Safavid Iran became a feudal theocracy during this period and the Shah was held to be the divinely ordained head of state and religion. During this period, the Qizilbashi chiefs were designated wakils (or legal administrators) with offices in charge of provincial administration and the class of Shia Islamic Ulema was created.
The wars with the Sunni Ottoman Empire, the archrivals of the Safavids, continued during the reign of Shah Tahmasp. The important Safavid cities of Shamakha, Ganja and Baku were occupied by Ottomans in the 1580s.
Under the reign of Shah Abbas I the Great (1587–1630) the monarchy peaked and took on a distinctly Persian national identity that merged with Shi'a Islam. Abbas I's reign represented the high point of development of the state and he was able to repel the Ottomans and re-capture the entire Caucasus, including what is now Azerbaijan and Shirvan in 1603. Being aware of the interfering power of the Qizilbash, he continued the same policy as his predecessors namely fully integrated the Caucasus and its elements into Persian society. To fulfil this, he deported hundreds of thousands of Circassians, Georgians and Armenians to Iran, who rose to high and low ranks in the army, royal house, and civil administration, effectively killing the feudal Qizilbash as these converted Caucasians (often called ghulams) had full allegiance to the Shah, and not their tribal chiefs unlike the Qizilbash. Their descendants continue to linger forth in Iran, such as along the Iranian Armenians, Iranian Georgians and the Iranian Circassians.
The religious impact of the Safavids was furthermore huge on both contemporary Iran and Azerbaijan, as the population of Azerbaijan was forcibly converted to Shiism in the early 16th century at the same time as the people of what is nowadays Iran, when the Safavids held sway over it. And the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan therefore contains the second largest population of Shia Muslims by percentage right after Iran, and the two are the only nations where the population is by utter majority, nominally, Shia Muslim.
Khanates of 18th and early 19th centuries and Iran's forced cession to Russia
While civil conflicts took hold in Iran, most of Azerbaijan was shortly occupied by the Ottomans (1722 to 1736). Meanwhile, (from 1722 until 1735), during the reign of Peter the Great, the coastal strip along the Caspian Sea comprising Derbent, Baku and Salyan, came shortly under Imperial Russian rule through the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723).
After the collapse of the Safavid empire, Nadir Shah Afshar (Nadir Guli Bey), an Iranian military genius of Turcoman origin came into power. He wrested control over Iran, banished the Afghans for good in 1729, and proceeded to go on an ambitious military spree, conquering as far as east as Delhi, and having the dream of founding another great Persian Empire. Not fortifying his Persian base severely exhausted his army. Nadir had effective control over Shah Tahmasp II and then ruled as the Regent of the infant Abbas III, until 1736, when he had himself crowned as Shah. The coronation of Nadir Shah took place in Mughan, in the present territory of Azerbaijan. Nader was a military genius, conquering in a short amount of time a new native Iranian empire encompassing a territory it had not seen since the time of the Sassanids. He conquered all of the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, parts of Anatolia, large parts of Central Asia, and crushed the Mughals in the Battle of Karnal, having free entrance to their capital Delhi, which he completely sacked and looted, bringing huge wealth with him back to Persia. His empire however was quite short lived, but nevertheless he is considered the last great ruler of Asia.
After Nadir Shah's assassination in 1747, the Persian Empire under the Afsharids disintegrated. Several Muslim khanates, which had been established during the Safavids and Afsharids, gained various forms of independence. The former eunuch Agha Muhammad Khan of the Qajars could now turn to the restoration of the outlying provinces of the Safavid and Afsharid kingdom. Returning to Tehran in the spring of 1795, he assembled a force of some 60,000 cavalry and infantry and in Shawwal Dhul-Qa'da/May, set off for Azarbaijan, intending to reconquer all lost territories to the Ottomans and Russians, including the country between the rivers Aras and Kura, formerly under Iranian Safavid/Afsharid control. This region comprised a number of independent khanates of which the most important was Qarabagh, with its capital at Shusha; Ganja, with its capital of the same name; Shirvan across the Kura, with its capital at Shamakhi; and to the north-west, on both banks of the Kura, Christian Georgia (Gurjistan), with its capital at Tiflis, while remaining under nominal Persian suzerainty. The khanates engaged in constant warfare between themselves and with external threats. The most powerful among the northern khans was Fat'h Ali Khan of Quba (died 1783), who managed to unite most of the neighbouring khanates under his rule and even mounted an expedition to take Tabriz, fighting with Zand dynasty. Another powerful khanate was that of Karabakh, which subdued neighbouring Nakhchivan khanate and parts of Erivan khanate.
Agha Mohammad Khan emerged victorious out of the civil war that commenced with the death of the last Zand king. His reign is noted for the re-emergence of a centrally led and united Iran. After the death of Nader Shah and the last of the Zands, most of Iran's Caucasian territories had broken away and formed various Caucasian khanates. Agha Mohammad Khan, like the Safavid kings and Nader Shah before him, viewed the region as no different than the territories in Iran proper. Therefore, his first objective after having secured Iran was to reincorporate the Caucasus region into Iran. Georgia was seen as one of the most integral territories. For Agha Mohammad Khan, the re-subjugation and reintegration of Georgia into the Iranian Empire was part of the same process that had brought Shiraz, Isfahan, and Tabriz under his rule. As the Cambridge History of Iran states, its permanent secession was inconceivable and had to be resisted in the same way as one would resist an attempt at the separation of Fars or Gilan. It was therefore natural for Agha Mohammad Khan to do whatever was necessary in the Caucasus to subdue and reincorporate the recently lost regions following Nader Shah's death and the demise of the Zands, including putting down what in Iranian eyes was seen as treason on the part of the wali of Georgia, namely the Georgian king Erekle II (Heraclius II) who was appointed viceroy (wali) of Georgia by Nader Shah himself.
Agha Mohammad Shah was later assassinated while preparing a second expedition against Georgia in 1797 in Shusha (nowadays part of the Republic of Azerbaijan) and King Heraclius died early in 1798. Iranian hegemony over Georgia did not last long. In 1799 the Russians marched into Tbilisi. The Russians were already actively occupied with an expansionary policy towards its neighbouring empires to its south, namely the Ottoman Empire and the successive Iranian kingdoms since the late 17th/early 18th century. The next two years following Russia's entrance into Tbilisi were a time of confusion. The weakened and devastated Georgian kingdom, with its capital half in ruins, was easily absorbed by Russia in 1801. As Iran could not permit or allow the cession of Transcaucasia and Dagestan, which had formed part of the concept of Iran for centuries, it would also become the direct cause of the wars that took place several years later, namely the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813) and the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), which would eventually lead to the irrevocable forced cession and loss of what is nowadays Georgia, Dagestan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to Imperial Russia through the treaties of Gulistan of 1813 and Turkmenchay of 1828, as the ancient ties could only be severed by a superior force from outside. As a result, millennia old close ties between the region and Iran were severed during the course of the 19th century as Iran lost significant amounts of its territory to the Russians.
Natioanl museum of history of Azerbaijan: www.azhistorymuseum.az.