The Talysh is a tiny minority group of people in northern Iran and southern Azerbaijan who speaks a language called Talysh and has a unique identity.
At the base of the Caucasus Region, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, lives a minority group of people called the Talysh People, also known as the Talishi, or Talushon people.
Their language and culture are shared across the northern border of Iran and the southern border of Azerbaijan. They are Muslim in faith and culture and are Shiite in their beliefs. But they are unique in their identity.
Who Are the Talysh People?
The Talysh people live in the Talysh Mountains and southward in the Lankaran region of Azerbaijan, whose border goes along the Caspian Sea coast. This border goes as far south into Iran as Hashtpar, and southwesterly to Khal Khal, Iran, and back up northerly to Lerik, Azerbaijan, with Armenia on their western border.
The area they occupy is very diverse, beginning in forested mountains and descending into subtropical coastal land, with a network of rivers.
As most Talysh people live in Iran, they are considered an Iranian Ethnic Group with roots in Azerbaijan. The group is a remnant of the ancient Caucasian aboriginal population that spoke a very closely related language to the Old Azeri language, which is not related to Azerbaijani Turkish.
Their language is in the Indo-Iranian branch of languages. Today, it is called Talysh. Both Iranian and Azerbaijani Talysh people speak it. Many of them also speak Persian or Farsi, and some of them speak Russian. In Azerbaijan, their literary language is Azerbaijani, and in Iran, theirs is Persian.
Among the other peoples of the Caucasus Region, they are a small number. They live in South Caucasus, or “Transcaucasia.” One estimate today claims that the southern Azerbaijani Talysh people number at 112,000 and that in northern Iran, they are at nearly 630,000. Their language, as such, is divided between three dialects.
A northern dialect of Talysh is shared by all of the Azerbaijani Talysh and the very northern Iranian Talysh. The Central and Southern dialects are spoken in Iran as one heads deeper south. A tiny number of Talysh live in Russia and Ukraine as well.
A Very Ancient People
Talysh settlements have existed for a long time in the Transcaucasia region. As the name implies, the region is a bridge between more expansive areas, namely Asia and Europe. Russia is to its north, Turkey to the west, and Iran to the south. The Talysh are in the southeast corner of the region.
The possible mother language, Old Azeri, died off with the “Turkification” of Azerbaijan, probably at the beginning of the Safavid dynasty in 1501 when Turkic peoples from Anatolia arrived. Before that, the region had been parts of various ancient empires, including Achaemenid, Neo-Assyrian, Parthian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
Because of the location of the region, various religions have influenced the area. Earlier in its history, the Azerbaijani and northern Iranian region had been Christianized, including Christianity being declared as the state religion by earlier governments in the fourth century. But, when the Turkic peoples arrived, Shiite Islam became the predominant religion of Iran and Azerbaijan.
However, the neighbors of the Talysh people are somewhat diverse, with Christians, Muslims, and Jews living together in nearby Armenia and Georgia. The Talysh people are Shiite Muslims, as are most of Azerbaijan and Iran.
The culture of the Talysh people goes back to more ancient days. Many of its villages have preserved ancient culture very well, and visitors say it is like stepping back in time. Many homeowners still use uncut stone when building houses, and they’re prevalent in many villages.
A traveler can witness the making of tandoori (tənu) bread in huge, ancient-looking, outdoor stone ovens, or the weaving of “khasir” mats out of cane, using methods that are hundreds of years old. Several centenarians live in the region as well. The famous Shirali Muslimov reportedly lived for 167 years, from 1805 to 1973! While there is no one as old as Muslimov living today, many centenarians live there, and there is even a “Museum of Centenarians” at Lerik.
The old are honored in the Talysh culture. The village of Separdi in Azerbaijan is proud of its singing grandmothers, called “The Talysh Grandmas,” who make up the Khovon Ensemble. They go from town to town singing ancient songs handed down from their grandmothers and “folk poems” they write on television and at weddings.
A Simple Life
The lifestyles of the different Talysh people depend on where they live, but almost all of them are farmers and craftsmen. In some areas, the farmers grow rice. In other areas, they grow wheat and barley.
Those who live in the lowlands near the Caspian Sea grow tea and citrus fruits. Others in the inland part of that region cultivate fresh produce such as garlic, onions, pumpkins, melons, grapes, and peas. Their craftsmen make things like silk, rugs, felt, tin, shoes, or jewelry.
Their houses are also designed differently depending on the region in which they live. Uncut stone houses with flat rooftops bedeck the villages in the upper regions, high up in the Talysh Mountains.
In the coastal plains, they make clay houses whose roofs comprise reeds or sedge (grassy plants with solid stems). There was no furniture in Talysh homes for a long time, but some modern homes are adopting western furniture as part of their new lifestyle.
Although the people are Shiite Muslims, they are more modern in their dress. Today, many women no longer wear the Muslim veil, nor the more traditional dress for women, but wear Western-style clothing. In Azerbaijan, the government is constitutionally secular, so there is more freedom to choose.
Polls show that many in the region do not concern themselves with their religion as much as they used to, but the Talysh tend to be more religious and conservative than others. While Islam permits more than one wife, Talysh men typically only take one wife. A young man typically marries between 15 and 20, choosing a wife from among 12 to 16-year-old young women. They still are required to pay a kebin, or ‘bride price,’ but some kidnap their bride to avoid giving the requisite money and/or carpets or utensils.
Other than one Talyshian newspaper that is published once a month, and prints only limited copies because it is under government control, there is also only one radio show spoken in Talysh that broadcasts only for fifteen minutes two times per week. In 2012, the publisher of the newspaper was arrested and accused of treason. He was sentenced to five years in prison but released in 2016 after three.
There is no written history of the Talysh people, their culture, or their language, and there are no current studies to document these facets of their lives. Since Soviet rule, there has been a “Talysh Assimilation.” Because of this assimilation, Talysh people prefer not to be identified as part of that ethnic and cultural community.
They fear government suppression, specifically the police, for being linked to separatists groups and suffering retribution. Recently, an education director invited a Talysh poet to school to speak to the children received a warning he would get fired.
In 2018, Yusif Sardarzade fled to the United States and spoke in Denver, Colorado. He told of the plight of the Talysh people: “They want to make us, all of us, sorry we were born Talysh,” he said, explaining he and his friend were arrested and tortured in Azerbaijan for speaking their language and on behalf of their people.
Except for two hours per week in some schools, the Talysh language is not part of the middle- and high-school education. Nor is there any university that offers to teach the language anywhere in the world. The language of instruction among Azerbaijan people, including the Talysh, is Azerbaijani and has been so since the 1930s.
It is controversial why the Iranian and Azerbaijani governments are uncertain how many of the Talysh people live in their countries. In 1992, The Azerbaijan Talysh National Party was formed to protect the Talysh in the event of pro-Iranian separatists’ success. Since then, the Azerbaijani government has mounted a campaign of intimidation and repression against them, even though Azerbaijan is part of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the National Minorities.
The Talysh communities suffer from economic neglect by their respective governments, and in 2016 it was reported that they are possible victims of a genocide effort.
On December 27, at an event headlined “Talysh people: history and modern trends,” Ismail Shabanov, “A genocide is underway there [Azerbaijan] by the use of disseminating different types of diseases. A question arises. Why does the number of the Talysh people decline? It is not a natural phenomenon, and they should not think that these acts will remain unanswered. We receive hundreds of letters every day about the situation there. The law enforcement bodies spread narcotics and weapons among the Talysh populations in great quantities.” The press statement resulted from the joint efforts of YSU’s Department of Iranian Studies and the Talysh National Movement with the support of “Voice of Talyshistan” radio.
The simple life of the Talysh people, therefore, is under threat. Many countries worldwide are only just now learning of the plight and seeking to find ways to help.
The Talysh people are a unique, ancient, and interesting group of Iranian and Azerbaijani Shiite Muslims who need the world’s attention.
- Talysh people have been in the Southern Caucuses since antiquity
- Most Talysh people live in Iran, and some in Azerbaijan, but the numbers are not known
- Talysh is also the name of their language, spoken in both Azerbaijan and Iran
- There are possibly less than a million Talysh people left in the world
- The Talysh people are Shiite Muslims
- The Talysh people are farmers of grains and produce, and craftsmen
- The Talysh people are oppressed and in danger of extinction, along with their language and their culture
If you ever have the chance to visit Northern Iran or Southern Azerbaijan, make sure to visit the Talysh people’s rural villages, visit the Museum of Centenarians, and hear the Talysh Grandmas sing, so you can help to keep their culture alive.