Hollywood, meet Azerbaijan

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The true story of Jewish Azerbaijan past and present has Hollywood written all over it. Two ancient cultures meet on the same land.

One is Muslim and one is Jewish. But here is the twist: The land is overflowing with natural riches, from fruits to “black gold” (oil), and the cultures work and live harmoniously. Not only that, but they forge new, vital forms of culture, government and commerce.


And, pay attention, Hollywood: Almost no one outside of Azerbaijan has heard this story. Those who have are amazed and want to know more.

What is today the Republic of Azerbaijan, bordered by Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Armenia, has been home to Jews since late antiquity. Many of these early Jewish settlers came from the Persian Empire and settled in the north of what is today Azerbaijan, in an area called Guba.

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Over centuries, this community of “Mountain Jews,” as this community fondly and colorfully became known, experienced, with varying comfort, the khanates – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and even Jewish (the famously converted Khazar empire) – that ruled the area. Jewish practices, beliefs and traditions held the Jews together even during low points.

Shared family lives and business relationships, particularly in agriculture and trade, kept the neighboring Jewish and Muslim towns functioning as close neighbors. Jews also participated as traders of textiles and other goods on the famed Silk Road.


European Jewish immigrants worked as engineers, musicians, business owners, lawyers and more alongside their Muslim neighbors during the 19th- and 20th-century oil booms. Jews even played an important part along with Muslims and Christians in forming and running the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-20) – the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim world.

During the communist period, including the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic years, the outlawing of personal property ownership and of religious observance brought hardship and tragedy to many. Whereas Azerbaijani Jews escaped the Nazi death machine, many, including at least five rabbis, fell to communist purges.

Some Muslim Azerbaijanis relate family stories about saving lives of Jewish fellow prisoners by teaching them Muslim prayers so as to pass as Muslim. After breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan found quick – even before the West – recognition by Turkey and then by Israel.

The Azerbaijan-Israel strategic partnership today plays a vital role in the security of Azerbaijan and of Israel.

A venerated and beloved figure in Azerbaijan is a young Mountain Jew named Albert Agarunov. Agarunov fought valiantly in the battle for Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that continues to plague the country today.

Agarunov died at the hands of Armenian forces during the 1992 occupation of the town of Shusha, a center of Azerbaijani culture. Azerbaijani authorities buried Agarunov in Martyrs’ Lane in Baku and posthumously awarded him the title of National Hero of Azerbaijan, the country’s highest honor. Surely Hollywood would accord Agarunov top consideration for a Jewish Azerbaijani lead.

But other Jewish Azerbaijanis too have a place on the big screen: a movie about colorful Baku-born Nobel-Prize-winning (1962) physicist Lev Landau is already in the making.

When pressed about Azerbaijan’s unique culture, many Azerbaijanis cite Ali and Nino, the romantic novel based in Baku from 1918 to 1920.

The book is believed to have been authored by 20th-century writer/historian Lev Nussinbaum, a man of mixed Jewish-Russian background from Baku who adopted a Muslim pen-name, Kurban Said, and assumed Azerbaijani identity.

In this Baku, East and West; Muslim, Christian and Jew; and ancient and modern appear in a seemingly impossible yet complementary weave of elements.

To many contemporary visitors and residents, that is Baku. Hollywood, are you listening?

The writer is executive director of the Washington-D.C.-based Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. cultural charity 501 (c) 3 foundation focused on Azerbaijan.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for an interesting article. This relationship, between Jews and Azeris, between Israel and Azerbaijan, is too little known, and is worthy of wider general knowledge in our community.

  2. It is always lovely to learn about Jews from all over the world, especially places with a Muslim majority. I remember my Birthright Israel trip years ago where almost all the participants where “gorsky” and I had no idea what that was. Fast forward six years and I’m happily married to a wonderful Azerbaijani man and I continue to be fascinated by the culture.

  3. Absolutely fascinating! With communities across Europe eroding, it’s great to read about a Jewish diaspora success story. Would love to learn more about this community.

  4. Azerbaijan is very tolerant country. People from different religions can live in Azerbaijan in a friendly atmosphere. So I am very proud that I am an azerbaijani. I invite people to visit Azerbaijan.

  5. Thank you so very much for helping to focus attention on the little known yet extraordinary community of Mountain Jews from Azerbaijan. They have a remarkable history and culture, and have made exceptional contributions all areas of arts and sciences.

  6. Impeccably written! A very interesting story that highlights how rich is the heritage of Jewish people living in Azerbaijan. It is true to mention that Azerbaijanis and Jews still live in a strong friendship and peace. They always stood close and helped each other during tough times in the past. In Soviet times, Azerbaijan was considered to be the best place to live among Jews and even today Jewish community continues to flourish, facing no religious or ethnic boundaries. And yes, Hollywood must pay attention to this!! :)

  7. This is an insightful article about the historic friendship and companionship between two cultures. Unfortunately our younger generation do not know how deep the friendship is between Azerbaijan and Jewish communities.

    About the Hollywood. With all the budget cuts, looming debt and declining economic output, I am not sure if ‘Hollywood’ has the capacity to ‘listen’ anymore. The only thing that listens in these days is the Мосфильм ;)

  8. An informative and insightful read about harmonious relationships little discussed or known. It is a message of cooperation, peace and undersstanding Thank you for sharing.

  9. Would love to see Hollywood – and more national newspapers! – pay attention to Azerbaijan, past & present. I would love to see the history of the Jewish community in Azerbaijan become a standard part of Jewish education.

  10. The place you describe is the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel existing in an almost entirely Muslim country. It is wonderful to identify a place in this world where there can be such harmony. Exemplary. Spread the word.

  11. In these troubled times, the history of Azerbaijan, past and present, demonstrates that the goal of peace and understanding between East and West, Muslim and Jew, may yet become a reality in the Middle East. Thank you for your enlightening report!

  12. Very wide and well described history of Azerbaijani Jewishes from past till today. Once more express how fates of two nations are interrelated through centuries.

  13. Thanks Diana for such a great and amazing information, I believe there’s lot more things about Azerbaijan we need to know

  14. Thanks for an uplifting and educational article! My curiosity is piqued and I’d like to learn more. Please keep expanding our horizons beyond the conflict-focused news that is so pervasive.

  15. With the ongoing conflicts involving Muslims around the world, this is a real eye-opener. We tend to forget that, in the distant past, Jews had far better relations with Muslims than with Christians. I strongly agree with MS Altman; this would be great pickings for Hollywood.

  16. Great job! We tend to forget that Muslims & Jews can live together in peace, if the will is there.

  17. There have been diplomatic relations between Israel and Azerbaijan for some 20 years. Azerbaijan is a strategically important country on Iran’s northern border. The majority of Israeli oil gets imported from Azerbaijan, and Israel sells Azerbaijan hundreds of millions of dollars worth of armaments. Qırmızı Qəsəbə in Azerbaijan is the only town outside of Israel where Jews constitute the majority. Anti-semitic demonstration that we see in Europe and elsewhere, does not exist in Azerbaijan, in fact anti-semitisim never existed there. For further information please add “Jews in Azerbaijan-יהודים באזרבייג’ן ” to your Facebook.

  18. Yes, Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, has been known in Soviet Union as one of the most multinational town. Red Village in Azerbaijan still has large Jewish population and is a gorgeous place to visit and live!

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