Vol. 4, No. 11 (June 01, 2011)

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic: An untold history of efforts to preserve Azerbaijan’s Islamic legacy

Parvin Ahanchi
Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography
Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, established 93 years ago this past week as the first republic in the Muslim world, played an enormous role not only in the history of the Azerbaijani people, but in that of the entire Muslim world.  Materials in the Azerbaijan National Archive, however, make clear that the impact of the ADR on the Muslim world was so great that it deserves to be far better known—there and in Azerbaijan itself.

An important component of this influence involves the transfer of the Islamic Archives from Tiflis to Baku during the period of the ADR.  Those archives were maintained in what became the Georgian capital after 1917 by the Islamic Boards for Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Caucasus.  Those two bodies were established by the Russian Imperial government in 1872 to supervise Muslim parishes and educational institutions in the Caucasus.

The tsarist authorities viewed the South Caucasus as a strategically important region and hence were concerned with social, economic and political processes of all kinds there.  The two Islamic boards set up in Tiflis were viewed as the main keys as it were to controlling the Muslim population of the South Caucasus.  Not surprisingly, some Muslims and radical parties like the Social Democrats viewed these boards as part and parcel of the tsarist state and worked against them.  But the real situation was more complicated.

While both these boards took direction from the tsarist authorities, they also resisted tsarist power.  For example, the Russian government received two reprimands against its plans for a Tiflis railway because the authorities planned to build it through the main Muslim cemetery in Tiflis.  After a long discussion over this, the Shia Board officially rejected the plan in a letter to St. Petersburg, an indication that the board saw itself as quasi-independent, at least when specifically religious concerns were involved.

In 1905, at the time of clashes between Armenians and Tatars, the tsarist authorities sought to use religious leaders, Muslim as well as Christian, to calm the situation.  Both Shia Akhunds and Armenian parish priests were dispatched to conflict areas in order to promote law and order.  These religious leaders then took their peace mission to Tiflis in order, the archives say, “not to allow clashes there to expand.”  Unfortunately, both in the former and in the latter case, they were largely unsuccessful.

In addition to such activities, the boards collected statistical data on a wide variety of activities among the Muslims of the Caucasus, including the number of mosques, the size of vaqfs, marriages, divorces, shariat rulings, and causes of illness and death.  And the archives of the boards also contain information on numerous circular letters dispatched by St. Petersburg concerning the organization of prayers for the coronation of the tsar or a key life event in the court.  

Because the ADR took possession of the boards’ archives, the Azerbaijan National Archive now has files for the Transcaucasia Shia Ecclesiastical Board (1872-1919), the Office on Transcaucasia Sheikh-ul-Islam (1827-1890), the Transcaucasia Sunni Ecclesiastical Board (1872–1920) and Office of the Transcaucasus Mufti on Omar’s Doctrine (1850-1877).  All these materials are described in a guide to the archives compiled during Soviet times (Naidel 1958).  It is not only incomplete but fails to discuss the contents of the thousands of documents destroyed in Soviet times.  On September 1, 1942, for example, some 12,988 documents from these files were simply burned.

Nonetheless, these archives contain a wealth of important information, including correspondence with Russian Imperial officials concerning Russian conquest of Persian and Turkish fortresses, as well as detailed reports on the life of Muslims and Muslim leaders throughout the Caucasus.  Most of the documents are in Azerbaijani, Persian and Russian, but many are in more than one language, and a few are in Arabic.

That these archives should now be in Baku is related to Georgia’s declaration of independence from the Transcaucasia Federation on May 26, 1918.  Four days later, adherents of the two otherwise separate Muslim traditions formed a special committee and sent a letter to the new ADR government arguing that the boards, their documents and property should be transferred to “a more or less central place in Eastern Transcaucasia. [1] The letter specifies that “Tiflis, which has been established by the Russian Empire as the residence of the Ecclesiastical Boards, recently has been included within the territory of the Georgian Government…  This is an urgent demand of the Muslim leaders … [And] we request ten wagons and 5,000 rubles to move employees, property and archives.”

The head of the Omar board sent a letter to the Georgian interior ministry on June 18, 1918 stating that “as supporters of the Independence of Georgia, the ecclesiastical board asks for a ruling on its fate [and] about how it is to function either in Tiflis as in previous years or whether it must leave the city.” [2]

Meanwhile, the ADR government moved quickly to provide assistance to allow the ecclesiastical boards to move to Baku.  Some of the wagons and their contents were lost, but the ADR’s newly organized ministry for confessions, the Mashikhat, was able to reclaim many of them.  And it retained the archives until they were handed over to Soviet officials.  Between 1920 and 1923, Subkhan Verdikhanov, the first head of the Azerbaijan Archive, arranged to transfer the ecclesiastical board archives into the Azerbaijan Central State Archive. 

Today, historians have the opportunity to study this important source for investigations on colonial rule and the way in which the Muslims of the region responded to modernization.  The Islamic Board Archives allow us to see how these institutions functioned, and consequently, the role of the ADR in preserving them is critical.  There is no immediate threat to these archives, but because of their importance, it would be wonderful if the Azerbaijani government, the successor to the ADR, could provide additional resources to make further study of these archives possible.


Naidel, M.I., ed. (1958) Tsentralny Gosudarstvenny Istorichesky Arkhiv Azerbaijanskoy SSR, putevoditel, Baku.


[1] ARHA, f. 291, l. 1, record 5188, p. 3.

[2] ARHA, f. 291, l. 1, record 5188, p. 9.