We didn’t really know what to expect of Azerbaijan, much less its capital, Baku. We knew it was a southern European post-Communist-bloc country (for which our primary reference was a previous trip to Bulgaria) and had an on/off war with neighboring Armenia over the border area of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was never on our travel agenda and never would be had we not planned to visit its Georgia neighbor. But since it is literally next door, we decided it was worth a brief exploratory stop.
A City Of Surprises
After a delayed flight from Istanbul, our plane touched down at 2:30 AM in Baku and taxied past and arrived at a very modern terminal building. Then came a 30-minute cab ride where the driver never managed to start the meter and tried to charge us three- to four-times the normal rate—until our hotel intervened. We understand that is a standard airport taxi practice and you need to agree upon a price before getting into the taxi.
Our ride to the hotel took us past downs of sleek, modern high-rise buildings, many illuminated with brightly flashing lights and images. Our hotel was similarly located in a modern tower in a sea of modern towers near the city’s Port District, whose huge, doughnut-shaped (standing on its edge) glass hotel is one of the most modern in the city. This was totally unexpected.
Around the central city are immaculate neighborhoods of modern and very nicely maintained, mostly 1980s-2020-era towers, modern and neo-Classical towers, U.S./European-style stores and commercial buildings and occasional affluent homes.
What about the drab, Communist-style buildings that we are used to seeing in former Soviet Bloc countries? We certainly saw a few, primarily residential areas in more remote parts of the central city area, but very few. We were more likely to see more relatively (mostly well maintained) modern Italianesque, Baroque, Islamic and even Zoroastrian-style buildings.
As one would expect, most younger people dressed contemporary European—jeans, teeshirts, some of which were edgy. Every other person was on a smart phone. Once in a while we did see an older woman in a hijab. One iconic bronze statue in the popular Fountains Square showed a very contemporary girl with bare midriff speaking on a cellphone.
While trim, young, contemporarily-dressed children and young adults in parks and commercial areas are texting or speaking with each other on smartphones, we found a very different scene among older people in more working-class neighborhoods. Old-style work cloths, a number of big bellies, women many in hijabs or with headscarves, walking quietly in groups, and men either sitting in chairs or playing dominoes or backgammon.
This contradiction is also somewhat apparent in commercial establishments. Street side stores often look like those in Western stores, although often a style a cycle or two behind and somewhat less flashy. But, when you walk through the underground passages that provide the primary mean of crossing the city’s many busy multi-lane roads, you enter a 50-year-old world of small shops and booths selling rather utilitarian clothes and home products.
The Influence of Oil and Politics
Where did the prosperity required to build these parks and buildings and to fund contemporary lifestyles come from? The answer has its roots in 1848 when Azerbaijan became the site of the world’s first oil well (predating the drilling in the U.S. by 11 years) and especially in the 1870s when new uses of petroleum were discovered and worldwide demand soared. By 1910, Azerbaijan accounted for half the world’s oil supply and the ancient city of Baku became a boom town. Petroleum-based products (especially oil, but as its oil supplies begin to fall, natural gas) are again playing a critical role in the country’s economy.
The country, however, has been coveted by other regional powers well before the discovery, much less the value of oil. It became part of the Persian Empire in the 6th Century BC, followed by conquest by Arabs (7th Century AD), Mongols in the 13th century, and Iran in the 16th. Tired of this foreign domination, the county turned to Russia for help in freeing it from Iran’s yoke and gaining its independence. Big mistake. Russia ended up annexing growing swaths of Azerbaijan and began settling its own citizens (not to speak of religion) into its new conquest.
When the Russian Empire collapsed in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Azerbaijan’s internal (partially oil and religious) conflicts boiled to the surface and led to virtual civil war before brief period of self-governing democracy in 1918. This ended when the Bolshevik Army invaded and instituted border changes that favored Armenia (in a conflict that continues through hot and cold periods to today). While Germany failed in a bid to capture Azerbaijan’s oil resources during WWII, a post-war Russia brought the country into its orbit until 1991 when Azerbaijan declared independence. Its increased investments in its oil industry, combined with OPEC-led price increases led to a surge in growth which continues today.
All these political changes also brought changes in religious priorities (from Zoroastrianism to Christianity, to Sunni Islam, to Shia Islam to Orthodox Christianity) , which has created a still Islamic-centric religious mixing pot.
Old Town Baku
The city’s recreational, historic, and cultural sights have been shaped by a combination of the country and city’s diversity and especially by its oil and natural gas wealth. Yet it still retains many historic sites that deserve a visit.
Baku’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of its oldest and most well-preserved sections. It is surrounded by partially original, but mostly reconstructed sections of the initial city wall. Among the Old City’s most important historic sites are:
The cylindrical structure was constructed in the 12th century. It served as various functions including as an astronomical observatory and a watch tower. The Tower is built on the on the foundations of a 4th-century Zoroastrian fire temple.
Maiden Tower Double Gates
The gates served as one of the city’s primary caravan entrances to the wall fortress that surround Maiden Tower. The first gate was built in the 12th century followed by the second in the 17th century.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
The 15th century sandstone palace was the residence of the rulers of the Shirvan region of Azerbaijan from the 9th to the 16th century. It contains a 15th century mosque and the mausoleum of Seyyid Yahya Bakuvi, a prominent 15th century scholar.
This active place of worship dates back to the 12th century and has undergone renovations and additions over the years.
Historic Oil Baron Villas
With oil came money and mansions built from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that are are located just outside the Old City. Among the most lavish of these is the rather Gothic-looking 1913 Ismailiyya Palace which was built to house the Muslim Charity Society and is now home to the Academy of Science. Others include Villa Abdurrahman and Villa Petrolea.
The Modern Side of Baku
Although the city certainly has some important historic, the city is a very modern, and increasingly, post-modern city. It is dominated by high-rise office and residential buildings and is home to a large and growing number of Post-Modern buildings—a number and concentration that ranks with Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai. Many are brightly lit and often display LED-based moving images at night. Among the most prominent of these in the downtown area are:
- Deniz Mall, which is shaped something like a giant flower, with petals surrounding a central stamen.
- Park Bulver Mall, which in addition to stores and a large children’s entertainment area, houses the city’s planetarium.
- Port Area which contains the Crescent Hotel, an upright glass donut that is resting on its edge and other modern buildings.
- Flame Towers, three flame-shaped towers that display ever-changing LED-based images at night, including images of leaping flames.
Many other such post-modern structures are located along the highway between the central city and the airport. These include the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, a convention center, football stadium and dozens of office and residential buildings such as the International Mugam Center, Baku Business Center and many more.
Taking to Baku Bulvar
Baku Bulvar is a multi-mile stretch of green spaces and parks along the sea coast that contains numerous parks and squares. Both tourists and residents can be seen enjoying the attractions and fresh air.
Seafront Promenade (Bulvar Park) is a beautifully landscaped waterfront park that offers different experiences depending on which of the parallel walkways you choose. One side of the busy, noisy, multi-lane street, provides the direct access to underground passages to the business district. Another along the seafront rewards you with unobstructed views of the Caspia Sea. Other paths are used for walking, running, and electric skateboarders. Post-Modern buildings are at either end —the Marine Terminal at one end, the somewhat flower-shaped Deniz Mall and Three Flame Towers at the other, with the Park Bulvar Mall in the center
Fountains Square is a popular square with fountains and children’s entertainment area in the center and and multiple private-company rented booths (primarily fast foods and treats). For those looking or more “substantial” meals, opposite corners of the square provide homes to McDonalds and KFC.
Upland Park or Dagustu Park is another park atop a funicular-accessible hill. It has a panoramic view over most of the city and its surroundings, It is also home to a more solemn site, Martyrs Lane, a cemetery dedicated to Abizi people killed by the Soviets in 1990 and to those killed in the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War.
This museum focuses primarily, although not exclusively, on the history, evolution, and regional variations among Azerbaijani carpets. It explains the steps of carpet weaving starting with clipping the wool from the sheep, then washing, combing, spinning the wool into yarn and dying it. It shows different grades of wool and yarn and how ornamentation evolved from that used on clay and bronze pots—and how it evolved from images of reality to symbolic representations to artistic designs. How carpets were used were explained and demonstrated, such as floor coverings, wall hangings, tents, and use on pack animals such as saddles, handbags and even as luggage.
The museum then leads visitor’s through the evolution of carpets from basic one-color Bronze Age-era mats to rugs with simple striped patterns and then through flat-woven kilims, to more complex inter-warped shaddas the artistic designs of varnish to the flat-woven Zilis on top of which more elaborate ornamental patterns are added and finally to the more complex, alternative warping and fishbone-pattern weaving of sumakh carpets.
The second floor examines the different techniques and styles among key Azerbaijani carpet-making regions and how these styles evolved, focusing on the differences in symbolic and artistic representations, weaving techniques and styles. The displays include several regions including: Guba. Xaica, Tabriz (which is in present-day Iran, but many of whose carpets are made by those who were born in and learned carpet weaving in Azerbaijan), Garabekh and Ganja. It discussed and showed examples of common symbols used in carpet design, such a crosses, dragons, the Tree of Life, Buta (peacocks), Gyol hooks and so forth.
Other forms of Azerbaijani crafts, such as bronze casting, embroidery, and window treatments, were explained in their relationships with carpet making.
Azerbaijan State Art Museum
The museum provides examples the evolution of Azerbaijani art from the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age, the Middle Ages (interestingly covering from the 11th through the 17th centuries), 19th century (especially for carpet making) and through much of the 20th century. Apart from the museum’s insistence to begin with the Stone Age and a small portion of their Bronze Age Collections, then skip to the 20th century and then work back, we generally appreciated the perspective.
The Stone Age contained images of animals and in one case, a human-like creature, examples of the 13th-century (not exactly Stone Age), frieze of the Sabayil Fortress, and pottery and ceramic artifacts from archaeological expeditions.
Then skipping to the 1960s and 70s (which was our primarily interest), we were intrigued by the blend of figuration and abstraction, the bold, often disturbing imagery and the intensity of the emotions expressed on canvas. Moving backward to the early 20th century, the displays reflected the comparatively rigid portrayals of late 19th and early 20th-century life. We were less impressed with the 18th and 19th-century sections. While it contained some interesting porcelains, bronzes and woodblock prints, we found what appeared to our untrained eyes, formulaic portraits and extensive display of armor and weapons. Many of the carpets from this period demonstrated the technical and artistic skills that carpet makers had developed over the ages.
The incredibly long period covered in the museum’s Middle Ages (not to speak of the reverse chronology we were forced into) made it difficult to track the progress though this period. The influence of the caravan trade, however, is clear from the range of decorative items produced and the integration of neighboring (especially Arabic, Muslim and Iranian) cultural and artistic influences.
Its sidewalk sculpture garden entices one to go inside to see art in the 21st century.
Unseen Out-of-Town Sights
We planned hire a car and driver to go to 3 sites outside of the city. Unfortunately road closures due to a marathon would have made this difficult. But if you do get to Baku, plan time to visit these places.
Burning Mountain (Yanar Dag). Natural gas seeps through porous sandstone at this hillside outside of Baku to keep 1-foot high flames continuously burning.
Mud Volcanos. Baku has about 350 mud volcanos (half the world’s total) of all shapes and sizes spread across the country. About 50 of them have erupted (a total of more than 200 times) since the early 19th century. Fueled by massive pockets of sub-surface gas, some eruptions have been quite strong, accompanied by massive explosions that shoot flames more than 3,000 feet in the air.
Petroglyphs. The ancient rock carvings represent everything from plants and animals to the heavens and representations of hunting, rituals, camel caravans and other daily activities date from prehistoric through medieval times.
Sumahk. We had some interesting variations on traditional dishes at this upscale restaurant. We weren’t particularly impressed by the watery, not very tasty minty rice and grilled lamb dolma. However, we were quite pleased with the minced lamb dumplings and a half chicken stuffed with walnuts, onions and dried fruit. The wine, which went well with the best dishes, was a 2019 Meysuri Innabi, a blend of Carignan, Grenache Noir, Cinsault, Mouvedre and Saparavi—a south eastern European variation on a southern Rhone blend.
Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant is really a restaurant with extensive displays of the country’s traditional rural life. Since it is primarily a restaurant, we’ll begin with the food. Our rice and lamb dolmas were very good (much better than at Sumahk) as was the plain grilled, but very tasty quail kebab. Our grilled chicken kebab was less enjoyable and was primarily bone and skin with little meat. But the reason to go here is for the museum and entertainment. Our lunch was accompanied by a musician playing traditional music on a tar, a long, slender string instrument. The museum was spread out across dozens of rooms across three large floors, most of which (including the arched brick half-basement floor were we ate) were occupied by diners. The displays consisted primarily of the agricultural goods that had been produced in the country, the tools that had been used, the types of clothes that were warn and even the buggies which the used for transport.