Urmia is the capital of West Azerbaijan Province and is located along the Shahar River on the Urmia Plain. Lake Urmia, one of the world’s largest salt lakes, lies to the east of the city, and the mountainous Turkish border area lies to the west.
The city’s inhabitants are predominantly Azerbaijanis who speak the Azerbaijani language. There are also minorities of Kurds, Persians, Assyrians, and Armenians. The city is the trading centre for a fertile agricultural region where fruits (especially apples and grapes) and tobacco are grown. Even though the majority of the residents of Urmia are Muslims, the Christian history of Urmia is well preserved and is especially evident in the city’s many churches and cathedrals.
An important town by the 9th century, the city has had a diverse population which has at times included Muslims (Shias and Sunnis), Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Nestorians, and Orthodox), Jews, Baháʼís and Sufis. Around 1900, Christians made up more than 40% of the city’s population; however, most of the Christians fled in 1918 when Ottoman Empire invaded Qajar Iran.
Richard Nelson Frye suggested Urartian origin for the name, while T. Burrow connected the origin of the name Urmia to Indo-Iranian urmi- “wave” and urmya- “undulating, wavy”.
During the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925–1979), the city was called Rezaiyeh after Reza Shah, the dynasty’s founder, whose name ultimately derives from the Islamic concept of Reza via the Eighth Imam in Twelver Shia Islam.
The name could also derive from the combination of the Assyrian Aramaic words Ur(a common name for cities around Mesopotamia; “city”) and Mia (“water”), “City of Water” referring to the great Lake Urmia nearby.
According to Vladimir Minorsky, there were villages in the Urmia Plain as early as 2000 BC, with their civilization under the influence of the Kingdom of Van. Excavations of the ancient ruins near Urmia led to the discovery of utensils that date to the 20th century BC. In ancient times, the west bank of Urmia Lake was called Gilzan, and in the 9th century BC an independent government ruled there, which later joined the Urartu or Manna empire; in the 8th century BC, the area was a vassal of the Asuzh government until it joined the Median Empire.
Assyrians who did survive the invasion of Baghdad by Timur fled through northern Iraq up into the Hakkari Mountains to the west of Lake Urmia and the area remained as their homeland until the 19th century.
During the Safavid era, the neighbouring Ottoman Turks, who were the archrivals of the Safavids, made several incursions into the city and captured it on more than one occasion, but the Safavids successfully regained control over the area. When in 1622, during the reign of Safavid king Abbas I (r. 1588–1629) Qasem Sultan Afshar was appointed governor of Mosul, he was forced to leave his office shortly afterwards due to the outbreak of a plague. He moved to the western part of Azerbaijan and became the founder of the Afshar community of Urmia. The city was the capital of the Urmia Khanate from 1747 to 1865. The first monarch of Iran’s Qajar dynasty, Agha Muhammad Khan, was crowned in Urmia in 1795.
Due to the presence of a substantial Christian minority at the end of the 19th century, Urmia was also chosen as the site of the first American Christian mission in Iran in 1835. Another mission was soon underway in nearby Tabriz as well. During World War I the population was estimated by Dr. Caujole to be 30,000, a quarter of which (7,500) were Assyrians and 1,000 Jews.
During the 19th century, the region became the centre of a short-lived Assyrian renaissance with many books and newspapers being published in Syriac. Urmia was also the seat of a Chaldean diocese.
At the beginning of the First World War, tens of thousands of Assyrians and Armenians from the Ottoman Empire found refuge in Urmia. During the war, the city changed hands several times between the Russians and the Ottoman troops and their Kurdish allies in the following two years. The influx of Christian refugees and their alliance with the Russians angered the Ottoman troops who attacked the Christian quarter in February 1918. The better armed Assyrians managed to capture the whole city following a brief battle. The region descended into chaos again after the assassination of the Assyrian patriarch Shimun XIX Benyamin at the hands of Simko Shikak one month later. Ottomans and Simko managed to take and plunder the city in June/July 1918. Thousands of Christians were massacred by Ottomans as part of the Assyrian and Armenian genocide; others found refuge under British protection in the neighbouring Iraq.