Written accounts of Azerbaijani literature from the earliest periods of history have not been preserved; however, it has been established that as early as the 5th century CE an alphabet existed in Caucasian Albania in the northeastern part of Azerbaijan and that this alphabet was used for the creation of literary works.
The 7th century epic (dastan), the “Book of Dede Qorqud” (Kitabi Dədə Qorqud), written in Azerbaijani, remains an original source for the culture and history of the Azerbaijani people. This dastan describes in 12 tales the struggle for freedom and independence by the Oghuz Turks, the ancestors of Azerbaijanis. Currently, two original manuscripts of the dastan are preserved in the Vatican Library and in the Saxon State Library in Dresden. The dastan has been translated into Russian, German, English, Persian, Georgian, Latvian, Serb, Hungarian and other languages (the English translation was provided by Geoffrey Lewis, which was published as ‘The Book of Dede Korkut’ by Penguin Classics in 1974). In 2000, on the initiative of Azerbaijan, the “1300th anniversary of the epic Azerbaijani legend Kitab-i Dede Qorqud” was celebrated by UNESCO.
Nizami Ganjavi (1140-1209), who was born in Ganja and spent his entire life there, is considered one of the greatest romantic epic poets of all times. His works represent a high point in Azerbaijani poetry during the 12th century. In addition to his lyrical poetry, from his pen we also have “Khamsa” or “Quinary,” a group of five long narrative poems which reflect the poet’s views on philosophical, aesthetic and ethical issues. Nizami campaigned vigorously against social injustice. The literary characters he created (Shirin, Farhad, Leyli, Majnun) have passed into world literature. The legacy of Nizami is widely felt in the Islamic world and his poetry has influenced the development of Azerbaijani, Persian, Arabic, Kurdish and Urdu poetry amongst many other languages. The legacy of Nizami is widely felt in the Islamic world.
The 14th century marked the spread of Hurufism, a religio-political movement that represented a form of protest against the radical religious dogmas prevailing at that time. Hurufi poet and thinker Imadaddin Nasimi (born in 1369 in Şamaxı) was the first great Azerbaijani lyricist to write philosophical poems (gazals) in the Azerbaijani language. Nasimi’s idea of a wise man was dedicated to simple people to realize their human rights, to free themselves from social vulgarity and base instincts, and to realize their potential as a person. Nasimi’s lyrical and elegant style makes him one of the most prominent early divan masters, assuring him an important place. Nasimi was executed in Aleppo (Syria) by his persecutors in 1417.
The 16th century was characterized by a long-lasting political, economic and cultural upswing in Azerbaijan. The statesman Shah Ismayil I (1486-1524), founder of the Safavid Empire, wrote in the Azerbaijani language under the pseudonym Khatai. In his works such as “Divan”, “Dahname” and “Nassihatname”, he employed motifs from folk poetry that give his works its characteristic simplicity.
This same period also marked the emergence of another best-known representative of Azerbaijani literature, Mahammad Fuzuli (1494-1556). The works for which he is famous include his melodic and sensitive rendition of the great romance “Leyli and Majnun.” This celebrated allegorical romance depicts the attraction of the Majnun (the human spirit) for Leyli (divine beauty). Fuzuli’s poetic expression, characterized by sincerity, passion, and a pervasive strain of melancholy, transcended the highly formalized classical Islamic literary aesthetic. His works influenced many poets up to the 19th century. Fuzuli’s name is closely connected with the enrichment and solidification of Azerbaijani literary language.
The 17th century gave rise to the heroic-romantic folk epics “Ashiq Garib”, “Shah Ismayil” and “Koroghlu”. Classical poetry was democratized through the influence of folk poetry of the 17th century. In the 18th century the most important currents in lyric poetry were determined by two great poets. The poetry of Vidadi (1709-1809) gave greater emphasis to social motifs, while the works of Vagif (1717-1797) are imbued with optimism for the future of the people.
Azerbaijani literature of the enlightenment grew stronger during the first half of the 19th century. The first representatives of the enlightenment were the scientist and poet Abbasgulu Agha Bakikhanov (1796-1847), the poet Mirza Shafi Vazeh (1792-18S6) and Ismayil bey Gutgashinli (1806-1896). The poems by Vazeh were translated into German by Friedrich von Bodenstedt and published in 1851 as «The Songs of Mirza-Shafi» in Germany where they quickly became quite popular. The translation has gone through 160 editions in Germany, and has been translated into almost all literary languages.
Mirza Fatali Akhundzade (1812-1878), a realistic writer, philosopher and father of the Azerbaijani theater, holds a special place among the representatives of the enlightenment. His comedies pillory the prejudices and backwardness of the ruling class. The playwright created literary characters who were honest representatives of the simple folk, Azerbaijani women and progressive representatives of his epoch who pressed for social progress.
One of the most important representatives of 19th century satirical poetry was Gasim bey Zakir (17841857), who denounced the corruption of the tsarist officials and the cruelty of the landowners. These themes were developed further in the poems of Seyid Azim Shirvani (1835-1888). In 1873 the dramatist Najaf bey Vazirov (1854-1926) founded the first dramatic theater in Bakı. In his plays “The Sorrows of Fakhraddin” und “Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire”, Vazirov further developed M.F.Akhundzade’s englightenment ideas. The dramas “Destroyed Nest” and “Boy without a Fate” by Abdurrahim bey Hagverdiyev (1870-1933) and “The Dead” by Jalil Mammadguluzade (1866-1932) reveal the unscrupulousness of the old surviving orders and the emergence of a new era.
The realistic narratives of these authors played a large role in the development of Azerbaijani prose. The publication that fought most energetically for the victory of democratic ideas was the magazine “Molla Nasraddin” published by Jalil Mammadguluzade at the beginning of the 20th century. The satirical poet Mirza Alakbar Sabir, known for his colorful language, knowing humor and acerbic ridicule, also worked on this magazine. The main purpose of the magazine was to satirically depict various social phenomena, Covers of the “Molla Nasraddin” magazine.
Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature in Bakı (built/rebuilt in 1850/1915) such as inequality, cultural assimilation, and corruption; and to ridicule backward lifestyles and values of the clergy and religious fanatics. In their articles, the columnists in an implicit way called upon the readers to modernize and accept more advanced Western social norms and practices. The New Yorker magazine called “Molla Nasraddin” “a magazine that almost changed the world.”
The romantic current in the Azerbaijani literature of the 20th century is reflected in the work of Huseyn Javid, Abbas Sahhat and Mahammad Hadi. They poeticized the dream of a better social order based on reasonable ‘rational’ laws.
Under the Soviet rule, during Stalin’s reign, Azerbaijani writers who did not conform to the party line faced persecution and repression. Bolsheviks sought to quickly destroy the nationalist intellectual elite established during the short-lived Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani writers such as Almas Yildirim, Mikhayil Mushfig, Ahmad Javad, Huseyn Javid and many others were killed or exiled.
After the end of the Stalin era a number of Azerbaijani writers of the 1960s were able to distance themselves from the inherited Socialist Realist model. In these years writers like Akram Aylisli, Mir Jalal Pashayev, Sabir Ahmadov, Ismayil Shikhli, Khalil Rza Uluturk, Mammad Araz, Bakhtiyar Vahabzade, Anar and others created works that liberated them from the usual framework and articulated general human, ethical and aesthetic values.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union a new era in Azerbaijani literature dawned. The newly won literary freedom allowed for the development of new literary directions such as free verse and realistic novellas. In addition to the authors mentioned above, well-known poets and writers of the post-Soviet period also include Chingiz Abdullayev, Elchin Afandiyev, Kamal Abdulla, Afag Masud, Ramiz Rovshan, Elchin Huseynbeyli, Sabir Rustamkhanli, Vagif Samadoghlu and Vagib Bayatli Oner among others.