The Mountain Jews community has its roots in the Persian Empire, dating back to the 5th century of the Common Era. Their language, called Judeo-Tat, is an ancient Southwest Iranian language which integrates many elements of Ancient Hebrew.
It is believed that they had reached Persia from Ancient Israel as early as the 8th century BCE. They continued to migrate eastward, settling in the mountainous areas of the Caucasus. The Mountain Jews survived numerous historical vicissitudes by settling in extremely remote and mountainous areas. They were known to be accomplished warriors and horseback riders.
Mountain Jews never experienced anti-Semitism and lived in peaceful and respectful coexistence with their neighbors and thrived, especially in Azerbaijan where their main settlement and religious center, Qırmızı Qəsəbə, also called the Jerusalem of the Caucasus, is located. In Russian, Qırmızı Qəsəbə, believed to be the oldest Jewish town outside of Israel, was once referred to as Yevreskaya Sloboda (Jewish Village), but during Soviet times it was renamed Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Village).
Mountain Jews are distinct from the Georgian Jews of the Caucasus Mountains. The two groups are culturally and ethnically different, speak different languages, and have many different customs and traditions.
The first Ashkenazi Jews settled in Baku in 1811. Their immigration was relatively steady leading them to outnumber the local Mountain Jewish community by 1910. They settled mostly in the booming oil-rich city of Baku. The Caspian-Black Sea Company, one of the leading oil companies in the Russian Empire, was established in Baku by Alphonse James de Rothschild, a member of the French branch of the Rothschild banking family. Jevsei Gindes served as Minister of Healthcare and Social Security of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918-1919, and is considered the founder of modern pediatric medicine in the country.
Many Ashkenazi Jews emigrated from Azerbaijan in the post-1972 aliyah, with the result that by the mid-1990s Mountain Jews were the country’s largest Jewish group.
Like many immigrant communities of the Czarist and Soviet eras in Azerbaijan, Ashkenazi Jews appear to be linguistically Russified. Most Ashkenazi Jews speak Russian as their first language with Azeri being spoken as the second.
During the Soviet era, many Jews in Azerbaijan married outside their community. In 1989, 48% of the country’s Ashkenazi Jews and 18% of Mountain Jews were married to non-Jews.
Beginning in the 1960s, Azerbaijan's Jewish community experienced a cultural revival. Jewish samizdat publications started being printed. Many cultural and Zionist organizations were reestablished in Baku and Sumqayit since 1987, and the first legal Hebrew courses in the Soviet Union were given in Baku.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a yeshiva opened in Baku in 1994, and an Ohr Avner Chabad Day School was established in 1999. In 1994, Hebrew was studied at one state university and offered as a course choice in two secondary schools. On May 31, 2007, a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the Ohr Avner Chabad Centre for Jewish Studies took place in Baku.