Ardebil is an ancient city in northwestern Iran and the capital of Ardebil Province. The dominant majority in the city are ethnic Iranian Azerbaijanis and the primary language of the people is Azerbaijani.
Ardebil is known for its trade in silk and carpets. Ardebil rugs are renowned and the ancient Ardebil Carpets are considered among the best of classical Persian carpets. Ardebil is also home to a World Heritage Site, the Ardebil Shrine, the sanctuary and tomb of Shaikh Safî ad-Dîn, eponymous founder of the Safavid dynasty.
The name Ardebil comes from the Avestan Artavil or Artawila which means “holy place”.
The pre-Islamic history of Ardebil is vague. Muslim historians attribute the foundation of Ardebil to the Sasanian King of Kings Peroz I (r. 459–484), who named it Shad Peroz or Shahram Peroz. The city may have corresponded to the Sasanian mint city known in Middle Persian as ATRA, albeit this remains uncertain. Ardebil suffered some damages caused by occasional raids of Huns from the 4th to 6th century CE. Peroz repaired those damages and fortified the city. Peroz made Ardebil the residence of the provincial governor (Marzban) of Azarbaijan.
Due to its proximity to the Caucasus, Ardebil was always vulnerable to invasions and attacks by the mountain peoples of the Caucasus as well as by the steppe dwellers of South Russia past the mountains. In 730–731, the Khazars managed to get past the Alan Gates, defeated and killed the Arab governor of Armenia named Al-Jarrah ibn Abdallah on the plain outside the town of Ardebil, and subsequently captured the town, as they continued their conquests.
During the Islamic conquest of Iran, Ardebil was the largest city in north-western Iran, ahead of Derbent, and remained so until the Mongol invasion period. Ardebilis fought the Mongols three times; however, the city fell after the third attempt by Mongols, who massacred the Ardebilis. Incursions of Mongols and subsequently the Georgians, who, under Tamar the Great, captured and sacked the city with some 12,000 citizens reputedly killed, devastated the city. The city however recovered and was in a more blossoming state than before, though by this time the principal city in the Azerbaijan region had become Tabriz, and under the later Ilkhanate, it had become Soltaniyeh.
Safavid king Ismail I, born in Ardebil, started his campaign to nationalize Iran’s government and land from there but consequently announced Tabriz as his capital in 1501. Yet Ardebil remained an important city both politically and economically until modern times. During the frequent Ottoman-Persian Wars, being close to the borders, it was often sacked by the Ottomans between 1514 and 1722 as well as in 1915 during World War I when the former invaded neighbouring Iran.
In the early Qajar period, crown prince Abbas Mirza, son of the then-incumbent king (shah) Fath Ali Shah Qajar (r. 1797–1834) was the governor of Ardebil. With Ardebil already once being sacked by the Russians during the Russo-Persian War of 1804–1813, and this being the era of the Russians steadily advancing into the Iranian possessions in the Caucasus, Abbas Mirza ordered the Napoleonic general Gardane, who served the Qajars at the time, to strengthen and fortify the town with ramparts. During the next and final war, the Russo-Persian War of 1826–28, the ramparts were stormed by the Russian troops, who then temporarily occupied the town. The town’s extensive and noted library, known as the library of Safi-ad-din Ardebili, was taken to St. Petersburg by General Ivan Paskevich with the promise that its holdings would be brought to the Russian capital for safekeeping until they could be returned, a promise never fulfilled.
After the Russo-Persian Wars, Iran ceded its territories in the Caucasus to Russia under the terms of the Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828). As a result, Ardebil was situated only 40 kilometres from the newly drawn border, becoming even more important economically as a stop on a major caravan route along which European goods entered Iran from Russia. After he visited Ardebil in 1872, German diplomat Max von Thielmann noted, in his book published in 1875, the extensive activity in the town’s bazaar, as well as the presence of many foreigners, and estimated its population at 20,000. During the early Iranian Constitutional Revolution, Russia occupied Ardebil together with the rest of Iranian Azerbaijan until the eventual collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917.