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Azerbaijan is an independent country, a republic located strategically at the intersection of Western Asia and Eastern Europe.  The largest country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, Azerbaijan has a total land area of 33,436 square miles, and is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Armenia and Georgia to its west and northwest respectively. 
 
Located at the heart of ancient civilizations, Azerbaijan has a rich and vibrant history, and is thought to be one of the birthplaces of mankind.  Fortunately, historical pride has in no way impeded the development and advancement of this progressive country.  Today it is one of the few secular and truly democratic Islamic societies, and one of the first to host operas, plays and other productions for its people to enjoy.  Tolerance is not only preached in Azerbaijan, but demonstrated at all levels.  In 1918, it was the first to establish a democratic and secular republic, but was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1919, which is how it remained for 40+ years until the country regained independence in 1991.
 
The total population of Azerbaijan is just over 9.1 million, with about half of the permanent residents living in urban neighborhoods and the other half living in areas that are more rural.  According to the 2011 census, population growth in the country is roughly 0.85% annually, compared to 1.09% worldwide.  Experts say this variance is largely due to the estimated 3 million Azerbaijani citizens that are currently living in Russia as guest workers.  Ethnically, while native Azerbaijanis account for over 91% of the population, the remaining 9% is made up of people with many different ethnicities, including Lezgins, Armenians, Russians Talysh, Avars, Turks, Ukrainians, Georgians and Kurds. Roughly 95 percent of the population is Muslim, and of those, 85% or Shia Muslims and 15% are Sunni Muslims.  Azerbaijan has the second largest population of Shia Muslims in the world, after Iran.
 
The music and dance in Azerbaijan builds on 1000-year old folk legends.  Written to the themes of ancient stories and poems, Meykhana, the traditional Azeri folk song, is sung in harmony by several performers, and usually has a very fast beat or rhythm.  These songs are performed at formal celebrations throughout the country, while dancers, usually donned in clothes like the Chokha, the traditional male dress for people of the Caucuses, demonstrate the traditions and characteristics of this proud nation.
 
Education in Azerbaijan
 
When Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1919, the average literacy rate in the country was initially very poor, particularly compared to countries in the West.  This less-than-stellar educational position would change rapidly after incorporation, and can be directly attributed to the importance the Soviets placed on education and reading.  These advances were even more impressive, when you consider there were two major changes in the alphabet during that time—from Perso-Arabic script to Latin in the 1920s and from Roman to Cyrillic in the 1930s. 
 
After gaining independence in 1991, education continued to be a crucial part of the Azerbaijani fabric, and the significance and value they placed on it is still very evident today.  Azerbaijan is an extremely well-educated nation, with a high percentage of its residents having obtained some form of higher education, particularly in science and technology.  Moreover, according to a 2009 report from the United Nations Development Program, the literacy rate in Azerbaijan is now 99.5 percent, one of the highest in the world.
 
Only a primary education is legally mandated in Azerbaijan, which consists of 8 years of schooling (grades 1-8), for children aged six to fourteen. While the basic structure of primary school has not changed much since the Soviet era, there have been a few noteworthy alterations, including a switch to Azerbaijani as the language of instruction; the elimination of Soviet ideological teachings; and the reestablishment of religious education, which was banned during the Soviet period.  Instead the curriculum is now very diverse, and includes instruction in subjects such as mathematics, science, technology, language, history, music and art. 
 
While secondary education is not required, the majority of Azerbaijani students do go on to attend either a “general secondary school” or a “vocational secondary school.”  The curriculum for the general secondary schools is wholly academic, and designed to help prepare students for university admission.  At vocational schools, which are split between “specialized secondary schools” and “technical secondary schools,” students still receive basic instruction in academic subjects, but the bulk of the curriculum is designed to impart knowledge, and train students in the skills required to enter an occupational/technical career field upon graduation.
 
Higher education is open to any student who has obtained a diploma from a general secondary school, although certain advanced programs may also require a qualifying score on an entrance examination.  Higher education takes place at one the many colleges and universities in Azerbaijan, where students can pursue undergraduate (Bachelor), graduate (Master’s) and post-graduate (Doctorate) degrees in a variety of academic specialties.  Certain programs, such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and law, usually take 2-5 additional years to complete depending on the specialty, and are conducted through specialized programs either within or outside of the university.

Map of Azerbaijan

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