Neither Europe nor Asia, Azerbaijan is an incredible tangle of contradictions and contrasts. It’s a fascinating nexus of ancient historical empires. Yet it’s also a new nation finding its feet as it emerges from a war-torn post-Soviet chrysalis on a petroleum-funded gust of optimism. Surrounded by semi-desert on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, the nation’s cosmopolitan capital, Baku, is a dynamic boomtown, where flashy limousines and mushrooming skyscrapers sweep around a picturesque Unesco-listed ancient core.
The most rugged terrain is in the Southeast of Azerbaijan, which of the three Caucasian states has the greatest land area. Azerbaijan is dominated by the shoreline of the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus mountain range, and flatlands in the middle of the country. Landscape is characterized by dramatic elevation changes over short distances, from lowlands to highlands, with nearly half of the country considered mountainous. The word Azerbaijan is a distortion of the Greek word Atropates, given by the successors of Alexander the Great to the region of ancient Iran and inhabited by mysterious people known as the Albans. The word Atropates means “protected by fire,” a reference to the fires in the Zoroastrian temples and to the to natural burning of surface oil deposits. Although the Albans disappeared from history, each and every ethnic group now present in the region claims ties to their ancient heritage.
Citrus fruits, tea, and rice are grown in the lowlands, while the slopes are covered with vineyards and orchards. Besides being a major producer of grapes, Azerbaijani agriculture is known for olives, saffron, pomegranates, nuts, vegetables, figs, and the sesame plant for seeds and oil. The fishing industry is important to the economy, with the catch consisting mostly of herring, carp, and sturgeon roe that is processed into caviar. Agriculture is the second largest industry after petroleum exploration, processing, and transportation, which is the backbone of the Azerbaijani economy.


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