Urmia (pronounced [oɾumiˈje]) (Azerbaijani: Urmu, Urmiyə, Persian: ارومیه, Kurdish: Wirmê – ورمێ, Armenian: Ուրմիա, Aramaic: ܐܘܪܡܝܐ,) is the second largest city in the Iranian Azerbaijan and the capital of West Azerbaijan Province. Urmia is situated at an altitude of 1,330 m above sea level, and is located along the Shahar Chay river (City 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.
Urmia city is the 10th most populated city in Iran. At the 2012 census, its population was 667,499 with 197,749 households. The city’s inhabitants are predominantly Iranian Azerbaijanis who speak the Azerbaijani language. There are also minorities of Kurds, Assyrians, and Armenians. The city is the trading center for a fertile agricultural region where fruits (especially apples and grapes) and tobacco are grown.
An important town by the 9th century, Urmia was seized by the Seljuk Turks (1084), and later occupied a number of times by the Ottoman Turks. For centuries the city has had a diverse population which has at times included Muslims (Shias and Sunnis), Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Nestorians, and Orthodox), Jews, Bahá’ís and Sufis. Around 1900, Christians made up more than 40% of the city’s population, however, most of the Christians fled in 1918 as a result of the Persian Campaign during World War I and the Armenian and Assyrian Genocides.
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. The excavations of the ancient ruins near Urmia city 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 ninth century BC an independent government ruled there, which later joined the Urartu or Mana empire; in the 8th century BC, the area was a vassal of the Asuzh government until it joined the Median Empire after its formation.
During the Safavid era, the neighboring 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 defended their 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 city. The city was the capital of the Urmia Khanate from 1747–1865. The first monarch of Iran’s Qajar dynasty, Agha Muhammad Khan, was crowned in Urmia in 1795.
Due to the presence of substantial Christian minority at the end of the 19th century, Urmia was also chosen as a site of the first American Christian mission in Iran in 1835. Another mission soon became operational in nearby Tabriz as well. During World War I the population was estimated at 30,000 by Dr. Caujole, a quarter of which (7,500) were Assyrians and 1,000 were Jews.
During the 19th century, the region became the center 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 the following two years.The influx of Christian refugees and their alliance with the Russians angered the Muslims who attacked the Christian quarter in February 1918, The better armed Assyrians managed however to capture the whole city following a brief battle. The region descended into chaos again after the assassination of the Assyrian patriarch Shimun XXI Benyamin at the hands of Simko Shikak one month later. Turkish armies and Simko managed to finally take and plunder the city in June/July 1918. Thousands of Assyrians were massacred as part of the Assyrian Genocide, others found refuge under British protection in Iraq,