BAKU (Pers. Bādkūba), capital city of the Republic of Azerbaijan [the former Azerbaijan SSR]  and one of the chief ports on the Caspian sea.

i. General.

ii. History, in the 19-20th centuries.


i. General

Name and origin. The form Bākū, used both in literary Persian (see Dehḵodā) and in European languages, goes back to medieval Islamic sources where it existed alongside the forms Bākūya, Bākūh, and Bākoh (Sara Ashurbeĭli, Ocherk srednevekovogo Baku, Baku, 1964, pp. 35-37). The colloquial Persian form Bādkūba, which popular etymology suggests to be the original name derived from the natural conditions of the site (“wind-beaten”), appears to be of relatively recent date (ibid., pp. 37-38, mentioning texts from the 17th century onward). Finally the local Turkish-speaking population pronounces the word as Bakï, a form that became official with the adoption of Azeri Turkish as the literary language of the republic.

The etymology of the word Bākū, like the antiquity of the settled site itself, is unclear; the country later known as Šervān, an area of which Baku was the port and eventually the capital, lay to the east of Arrān, the classical Caucasian Albania, of which it was sometimes considered to be a part and the easternmost extension; the original population of Arrān was of non-Iranian and non-Turkic stock; in Šervān, however, there was considerable Sasanian influence and political control, especially along the coastal strip through Baku to Darband (for the purpose of defense against invasions from the north), so that theories such as that linking Baku to the form Bagawān = “God’s Place” (possibly due to a fire temple on one of the petroleum sites) are not implausible (ibid., pp. 39-41).

History. In written sources, Baku first appears as a distinct, inhabited place only in the Islamic period, when the 10th-century geographers and travelers mention its two principal assets: petroleum and position on the coast with a natural harbor that favored both fishing and merchant shipping. These qualities made Baku one of the targets of Varangian-type maritime raids by the Rūs of Tmutorokan mentioned by Masʿūdī (Morūj II, p. 21, for the year 301/913-14).

Politically, Baku was throughout the Islamic Middle Ages part of the province of Šervān and, with Šamāḵī, one of the two residences of the long-lasting dynasty of the Šervānšāhs. While petroleum was the single most remarkable article of Baku’s consumption and export, the city also benefited from its role as a hub of long-distance maritime as well as caravan trade. Silk and silk-products, carpets, salt, and saffron are, after petroleum, among the articles most frequently mentioned as passing through its port and gates. These circumstances as well as Baku’s role as the later capital of the Šervānšāhs, when the political center of gravity shifted there after the damage suffered by Šamāḵī from earthquakes, also spurred a lively local manufacturing industry (especially carpets); and civil and religious building carried out chiefly by the rulers, local or suzerain (such as the city walls, the celebrated palace of the Šervānšāhs, the formidable Borj-e Doḵtar [Maiden’s tower], or the intriguing ḵānaqāh-type structure in the bay of Baku usually referred to as “Bailov rocks”; see A. S. Bretanitskiĭ, Zodchestvo Azerbaĭdzhana XII-XV vv. i ego mesto v arkhitekture Perednego Vostoka, Moscow, 1966, pp. 78-90, 215-46 and passim).

The prosperity of medieval Baku as a busy port and trading and manufacturing center as well as a residence of the Šervānšāhs has been mentioned by a number of contemporary sources; these also reveal the position of Persian and Arabic as the dominant vehicles of political and cultural expression. Thus the 12th-century poet Ḵāqānī, in a panegyric to the Šervānšāh Aḵsetān b. Manūčehr, praises Baku as a great city collecting customs from Persia and the Khazars (Dīvān, Tehran, 1978, p. 34). A description of Baku as a busy oil-exporting port has been left by one of its natives, ʿAbd-al-Rašīd Bākovī (fl. 1403), in his Ketāb talḵīṣ al-āṯār wa ʿajāʾeb al-malek al-qahhār written in Arabic (ed. Z. M. Bunyatov, Moscow, 1971, pp. 120-22 [Ar. text] and 89-90 [Russ. tr.]; an abridged French tr. by De Guignes, in Notices et extraits II, Paris, 1789). Bākovī mentions, among other things, an oil well producing over two hundred camel-loads a day, and another, producing a special white petroleum, whose [daily] lease brought [the ruler] a revenue of 1,000 dirhams; a curious animal addition to this mineral oil was that obtained from seals which the people of Baku hunted on a nearby island (the present-day island of Zhiloĭ); they also used the skins of these seals to pack the mineral oil and export it. On the religious front, Bākovī states that the people of Baku were Sunni Muslims of the Shafeʿite creed, while there were some Christian villages in the countryside.

Throughout this period Šervān, like the rest of former Arrān, continued to be distinct from medieval Azerbaijan, whose territory’s northern limit was the rivers Aras and Kor. We can infer that the population of Baku continued to speak for some time the indigenous language mentioned by Arab authors as the original idiom of Arrān. With the spread of the Saljuq Turks in the 5th/11th century and their suzerainty over the Šervānšāhs, there began a process of Turkicization that brought a common linguistic denominator to both the paleo-Caucasian population of Šervān and the Iranian population of Azerbaijan.

Baku, like the entire principality of Šervān, was annexed to Iran by the Safavids in several stages during the 10th/16th century, so that the long reign of the Šervānšāhs, along with the region’s independence, came to an end. Persian rule was briefly replaced by the Ottoman one (1578-1607), and then continued until the middle of the 12th/18th century when a weakening of central control made possible, in the Caucasian provinces, the formation of several smaller khanates, among them that of Baku.

In the meantime the growing strength and proximity of the Russian empire began to affect Baku as well. This is already palpable in the account of the 11th/17th-century Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi (Awlīāʾ Čalabī), who stresses Baku’s importance as the Persian shahs’ bulwark against the “King of Moscow”; he also mentions the attacks of Russian Cossacks raiding the area of Baku with their boats from bases in the Volga estuary—a noteworthy analogy to the 4th/10th-century raids by the Rūs. At the same time, however, the Turkish traveler’s account reveals that the participation of Russians in Baku’s long-distance trade rose to a privileged position: Russian merchants brought sable and gray squirrel skins, walrus tusks, and Russian leather, mostly to be re-exported to Persia, and bought petroleum, salt, saffron, and silk (Sīāḥat-nāma, Istanbul 1314/1896-97, II, pp. 300-02).

An expedition led by Peter the Great in 1723 led to a temporary Russian occupation of Baku; this occupation ended in 1735 with the treaty of Ganja. Definitive Russian annexation, carried out in October, 1806, was ratified in 1813 by the Treaty of Golestān. The first decades of Russian rule changed little in the traditional physiognomy of Baku, but a dramatic growth set in from the middle of the century onward: This was caused by a rapid modernization of both the technological and commercial exploitation of its high quality petroleum, and by the designation of Baku as the capital of the guberniya (principal administrative unit in Tsarist Russia) of the same name in 1859. Thus Baku, a town inhabited by some 3,000 people in 1806, had 222,000 inhabitants in 1909; by 1901, the region’s oil fields produced over one-half of the world’s output of petroleum.

The upheavals of the October Revolution in 1917 led to a collapse of Russian rule and, by September, 1918, to the establishment of a republic dominated by the Turkish-speaking majority of the area. This republic, with Baku as its capital, assumed the name of Azerbaijan, until then used only for territories south of the Kor and Aras. The fragility of this political formation, made precarious also by the presence of large minorities (chiefly Armenian and Russian, each of whom formed one third of the population of Baku), was demonstrated in April, 1920, when the Soviet forces put an end to its existence. Soviet administration, however, retained the Turkish linguistic identity of the region’s majority population and in this sense also the aspirations of the short-lived independent republic, a step that removed it even further from the Persian cultural orbit of which Šervān had been a part throughout the Middle Ages. Since 1936, Baku has been the capital of one of the sixteen constituent republics of the Soviet Union, and a modern city of over 1,700,000 inhabitants (in 1985), with Azeri Turkish and Russian as the two official languages.



Classical sources: Eṣṭaḵrī, p. 190.

Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 60.

Ḥodūd al-ʿālam, tr. Minorsky, p. 145.

Moqaddasī, p. 376.

Abū Dolaf, al-Resāla al-ṯānīa, facs. ed. and Russ. tr. P. G. Bulgakov and A. B. Khalidov, Moscow, 1960, fol. 184b and p. 36; ed. and tr. V. Minorsky, Abū Dulaf Misʿar b. al-Muhalhil’s Travels in Iran, Cairo, 1955, pp. 35 and 72.

Studies: Sara Ashurbeĭli, Gosudarstvo Shirvanshakhov, Baku, 1983, passim.

W. Barthold, tr. S. Soucek, An Historical Geography of Iran, Princeton, 1984, pp. 227-28, 236.

EI2, s.v. “Baku,” Azärbaijan Sovet Ensiklopedijasy I, Baku, 1976, pp. 550-57.

(S. Soucek)

ii. History in the 19th-20th Centuries.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Russian autocrat Alexander I (1801-25) used both diplomatic pressure and military force to bring the semi-independent principalities and khanates of Transcaucasia under Russian suzerainty. After the annexation of Eastern Georgia in 1801 and the establishment of a permanent Russian presence south of the Caucasus, the commander of Russian troops, General Tsitsianov, began a series of campaigns into Caucasian Azerbaijan, taking Ganja in 1804, Karabakh (Qarabāḡ) and Šervān in 1805, before being killed outside Baku early in 1806. That fall Baku was captured by General Bulgakov, and Iran later gave up its claims to Baku, as well as to Georgia, Šervān, Karabakh, and Ganja, in the Treaty of Golestān (12 October 1813). The city was placed under the Russian military governor in Derbent, and the oil lands, salt ponds, and fish industries were taken over by the state. Much of the Persian system of landholding and peasant-landlord relations was maintained by the tsarist authorities, though the Russian treasury appropriated the lands of the former khans and of the dīvān. The peasantry was divided into state peasants and landlord serfs, with the latter a distinct minority.

After the conclusion of the second Russo-Persian War in 1828 (Treaty of Torkamāṇčāy), Baku and eastern Transcaucasia enjoyed nearly a century of peace. The local economy revived, and Baku emerged as the most important Caucasian trading port on the Caspian. At the beginning of the 1830s, the variety of currencies left by the khanates was replaced by a single Russian monetary system, and a decade later the imperial Russian standards of weights and measures were introduced. The first secular Russian school was opened in Baku in 1832, and instruction was carried on in both Russian and Azeri. At first the oil industry developed slowly, as lands were leased by the state to local entrepreneurs. In 1848, so Soviet sources claim, a Russian technician, F. A. Semenov, drilled the first oil well in the world. But it was only in the last thirty years of the century that the rapid expansion of drilling, refining, and shipping of oil products helped create an upper class of oil industrialists. Foreign entrepreneurs like the Swedish brothers Ludwig and Robert Nobel were instrumental in making Baku the world’s leading producer of oil by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Military governance of Transcaucasia ended in 1841, and the territory was divided into two provinces: the Georgian-Imeretian guberniya and the Caspian oblast’. But this division was short-lived, and, with the appointment of Prince Mikhail Vorontsov as Viceroy of the Caucasus (1844), four provinces were created (1846) with Baku and much of Caucasian Azerbaijan falling into Shemakh province. As part of his policy to attract local elites to supporting Russian rule, Vorontsov convinced Nicholas I (1825-55) to legitimize the landholding structure in Muslim Transcaucasia, and in 1846-47 the hereditary rights of Muslim landlords over their lands and peasants were recognized in law. Even after the Emancipation Decree of 1861 was extended to Caucasian Muslim areas in 1870, the landlords retained much of their authority over both peasants and properties.

Baku became the administrative center of the province (renamed Baku province) after an earthquake devastated Shemakh in 1859. The municipal reform of 1864 was applied to Baku in 1878, and a duma and a mayor, elected by the urban propertied class, were permitted to administer local affairs within strict limits. While ultimate authority in the city remained in the hands of appointed governors and police officials, the upper middle class of industrialists and merchants gained considerable influence by the end of the century. The few Azerbaijani magnates, like Tagiev and Topchibashev, competed for dominance both in the economy and in local politics with the well-placed Armenian and Russian bourgeoisie. The Russian state often gave preferential treatment to the Christian population, and in 1892 the non-Christian representation in the Baku duma was limited to one-third of the membership.

At the other end of Baku society the oil industry had spawned a multinational working class, which by the early twentieth century was engaging in strikes and demonstrations, organizing illegal trade unions, and responding positively to Social Democratic appeals. In 1904 Baku oil workers and their Marxist leaders negotiated the first general labor contract in Russian history. During Russia’s first revolution (1905), Baku workers formed a soviet of workers’ deputies but restricted much of their activity to economic, rather than political, concerns. Relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the city degenerated into riots and massacres while tsarist officials either sat passively or encouraged the inter-ethnic bloodletting. For his apparent involvement in the events the governor of the city, Prince Nakashidze, was assassinated by Armenian revolutionaries.

Even with the restoration of a harsh political order in 1907-08, the oil economy did not regain its earlier levels, and on the eve of World War I workers again launched massive strikes. Three years later revolution ended tsarist rule, and the resurrected Baku soviet became the de facto governing institution in the city for almost two years. From April through July, 1918, the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Stepan Shahumian held power in the city (the Baku Commune) and initiated a series of social reforms. But this brief experiment ended by summer, and in September Turkish troops occupied the city. Baku was declared the capital of independent Azerbaijan, and a nationalist government moved there from Ganja. Turkish occupation was replaced by British at the end of the World War, and the fragile Musavatist (Mosāwātī) regime tried to maneuver between the Allied Powers, from whom it hoped for recognition; Soviet Russia, whose Bolshevik loyalists threatened the government’s existence from both within and outside; and the independent Armenian state with which Azerbaijan had conflicting territorial ambitions. Once the British evacuated (August, 1919), the enthusiasm of many Baku workers for Soviet power and the presence of the Red Army on the border became irresistible. On 28 April 1920, Baku became the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. That year it hosted the famous Congress of the Peoples of the East.

Baku underwent a rapid and far-reaching transformation under Soviet rule. Its population grew from 439,100 in 1926 to 1,022,000 in 1979, and the central parts of the city were modernized to look like a Western municipality. At first governed by Bolsheviks of Russian, Armenian, as well as Azerbaijani nationality, by the 1930s the leading cadres of Baku and Azerbaijan were almost entirely Azerbaijani. During the Stalinist period an associate of Lavrenti Beria, M. Bagirov, dominated party and state in Azerbaijan, presiding over the economic development of Baku and the political demise of the older generation of Soviet leaders. In the quarter-century since the death of Stalin (1953), Baku has developed into the seventh largest city in the Soviet Union, a major industrial center, and the cultural crucible for the Azerbaijani people.


A. Altstadt-Mirhadi, “The Azerbaijani Bourgeoisie and the Cultural-Enlightenment Movement in Baku: First Steps Toward Nationalism,” in R. G. Suny, ed., Nationalism and Social Change in Transcaucasia: Essays in the History of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, Ann Arbor, 1983, pp. 197-208.

I. A. Guseĭnov, et al., Istoriya Azerbaĭdzhana II, Baku, 1960.

J. D. Henry, Baku: An Eventful History, London, 1905.

A. Mil’man, Politicheskiĭ stroĭ Azerbaĭdzhana v XIX-nachale XX vekov, Baku, 1966.

A. Novikov, “Zapiski gorodskogo golovy,” Obrazovanie, 1904, no. 9, pp. 94-146; no. 10, pp. 651-26; no. 11, pp. 131-64; no. 12, pp. 45-71.

R. G. Suny, The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution, Princeton, 1972.

T. Swietochowski, “National Consciousness and Political Orientations in Azerbaijan, 1905-1920,” in R. G. Suny, op. cit., pp. 209-32.

Idem, Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of National Identity in n Muslim Community, Cambridge, 1985.

Search terms:

 باکو Baku    


(S. Soucek, R. G. Suny)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: December 15, 1988