Country Profile: Azerbaijan

    Story highlights

    • Azerbaijan is a small nation that achieved independence from the USSR in 1991
    • The country hugs the shores of the Caspian Sea and sits upon vast oil and gas deposits
    • Azerbaijan's economy has grown rapidly in recent years

    (CNN)Azerbaijan is an oil and gas rich nation that hugs the western shore of the Caspian Sea.

    Bordering Iran, Georgia, Russia and Armenia, it has a population of 9.6 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook.
      Roughly a quarter of the country's residents live in the capital, Baku, a cosmopolitan urban center that combines ultra-modern skyscrapers with a historic Walled City that is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
        Islam is the most prominent religion in Azerbaijan although, according to the country's government, there are also minority Jewish and Orthodox Christian communities.
        Azerbaijan gained formal independence from the former USSR in 1991 after initially declaring its national sovereignty in 1988. Since then, it has been locked in an ongoing territorial dispute with ethnic Armenian separatists.
        A six-year conflict between 1988 and 1994 saw separatists, backed by troops from Armenia, and Azerbaijani forces fight over the Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakichevan regions in the southwest of the country.
          A ceasefire was agreed in 1994, but by then the separatists, who are seeking full independence from Azerbaijan, had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding provinces.
          Azerbaijan still claims sovereignty over these areas but has tried to resolve the issue by diplomatic means in the period since, according to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
          But violence continues, and at least three Armenian soldiers were killed in clashes with Azerbaijani troops near Nagorno-Karabakh in March.
          Much of Azerbaijan's history has revolved around its vast oil and gas reserves.
          Ancient fire-worshipping civilization the Zoroastrians erected temples in the vicinity of burning gas vents at various sites across the country as far back as the third century, according to the Azerbaijan tourist board.
          These temples are now popular tourist attractions, with one of the most well preserved situated in Surakhani on the outskirts of Baku.
          At the beginning of the 20th century, however, Azerbaijanis hit on a new use for their bountiful natural resources -- industrial fuel.
          Vast sums of money poured into the country to fund oil exploration, and at one stage it was one of the world's major oil centers.