Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, lies 28 metres below sea level, making it the lowest lying national capital in the world and the largest city in the world below sea level.
It’s ancient golden era was the 1400s when it was the royal seat of a major Muslim khanate under the Shirvanshah dynasty. The Palace of the Shirvanshahs sits on the highest point of the Old City and includes the royal palace, the shah’s mosque and burial vault.
The palace complex and nearby Maiden Tower are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The tower is a national emblem of Azerbaijan and appears on many of its banknotes.
There’s lots of stories about how the tower got its name, most of which involve a siege of the city which at the 11th hour failed when a flaming block of wood landed on the tower and turned into a woman with long red hair who slays the enemy.
Even at its peak, Baku remained small – an impregnable palace surrounded by city walls within which lived the entire town’s citizenry. The area is now known as the Old City and it’s nice for wandering.
The problem in those days was water. Or more correctly, lack of it.
In the 1700s and 1800s, Baku, along with most of the rest of the region, was tossed back and forth between the Russian and Persian Empires, ultimately landing with the Russians. It remained a relative backwater with a population of less than ten thousand. But its fortunes changed in the 1870s when two things happened.
The motor car and industrialisation meant a world wide thirst for oil, and Baku had lots of it. Extraction brought workers and speculators from all over the Russian Empire. Secondly, to support that growth, a canal was cut all the way from the mountains on the Russian border to bring drinking water to the city.
In 1846, the first modern oil well in the world was drilled north-east of Baku. It’s still there, preserved as a testament to the importance of oil to the country.
By 1905, more than half of the oil sold in international markets worldwide was coming from Baku. Wealthy oil barons built mansions outside the Old City.
Capitalising on emerging Soviet Russia’s internal problems, Azerbaijan declared independence in 1918 with Baku as capital. But the Russians were never going to give up all that oil. The British declared support, but slunk out ignominiously when it came to delivering on their promise. Tiny Azerbaijan had no chance. The Russians had the country back by early 1920.
Baku remained a rich source of oil for the USSR economy until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s gave Azerbaijanis their independence again. Oil remains the mainstay of the economy but rampant government corruption means the little guy doesn’t necessarily see the benefits.
Former KGB head, Heydar Aliyev became president shortly after the break up of the Soviet Union, ruling until he passed away in 2003. His son took over, abolished the rule that a president could only sit for two terms, and – surprise, surprise – has been re-elected in every election since. To consolidate his power, he’s also appointed his wife as vice-president.
Aliyev Snr has a somewhat cult-like following. Every city’s main street is named after him, and has a park dedicated to him as well. There are statues, schools and public buildings bearing his name. He’s watching you in the metro station. You get the picture.
Probably the biggest tribute to him is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, a 57,500 square metre building complex which houses art exhibitions, concerts and, of course, Aliyev Snr’s vintage car collection. It is a truly stunning building.
Too much oil money and a despot in charge always seems to result in ‘statement’ architecture. Baku is no different.
There’s the yet-to-be-completed Crescent Bay development. Again, rather beautiful except, oops, it doesn’t actually work. After twelve years, several changes of contractors, a scaling back of the concept and many millions of dollars, it’s still not finished because there are technical engineering difficulties closing the arc at the top of the crescent.
And then there’s the Carpet Museum. Brilliant idea – a carpet museum which looks like a roll of carpet.
Just one inconvenient problem. Carpets are best observed flat, and a roll of carpet is… not. So there’s some practical problems with presenting the exhibits.
And there’s the Lotus Flower building, which looks quite unusual but is actually just a shopping centre.
Probably Baku’s most internationally recognised modern buildings are the Flame Towers, a group of three skyscrapers completed in 2012. Azerbaijan is known as ‘the land of fire’. In ancient times the main religion was Zoroastrianism, in which worshippers believe flames to be the symbol of the divine. And because there’s so much natural gas here, there’s flames about as well. More on that later.
At night the towers are lit up with the colours of the Azerbaijani flag.
The highest of the towers is 182 metres, and they are visible from lots of vantage points. But the ‘iconic’ images are ones from inside the Old City which contrast the ancient and the modern.
This next one shows it all: the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the foreground, the Soviet era high rise blandness in the middle and the post-independence Flame Towers behind.
There’s some interesting sites within easy reach of Baku as well.
In 1939-40 a local miner found some stick drawings of deer, goats and cattle as he was poking around in the rocks in the arid lands south of Baku. Archeological investigations revealed they were something remarkable. To date some 3,500 petroglyphs made in six distinct periods between the 12th and 8th centuries BCE have been documented.
An area of 537 hectares has been declared the Gobustan Rock Art Heritage Landscape. Some parts of the park are still under active investigation but one area is open. Our guide, a qualified archeologist was very helpful in identifying and interpreting the drawings.
We were a little sceptical about his claim that this image confirms ancient Azerbaijanis invented the boat. The Egyptians, and others, might have something to say about that!
Not too far away, there’s the ‘mud volcanoes’. It’s a rough twenty minutes from the highway in a 4WD. Buses cannot make the trip, so a few locals hang around with a bunch of decrepit Ladas ready to ferry passengers to the site. These old clunkers are one trip away from the scrapyard for sure.
Anyway, across this bleak landscape, natural gas percolates up through the muddy surface causing the ground to bubble.
They are an interesting phenomenon even if the name is rather misleading. Firstly, if ‘volcano’ conjures up images of mountains, you’d be surprised to find they are more like hillocks. We’ve seen termite mounds in central Australia that are bigger.
And that bubbling is not caused by volcanic activity. They are not even hot! Which is probably just as well. In the summer, some locals like to climb into them. It’s good for the skin, they think. But if our shoes were anything to go by, they must spend the next month getting that slinky, silky mud out of their hair, skin and bodily orifices.
To the north of Baku is Yanardag, which means ‘burning mountain’. It’s promoted as a ‘unique natural fire that blazes non-stop’. In truth it is not unique and it’s questionable whether it’s natural, but we went to check it out anyway.
Natural gas close to the surface seeps steadily through a thin porous layer of sandstone and burns continuously. So it’s similar to Mount Chimera in Turkey (for more, see our post on Lycian Way East). And of course no burning gas site is bigger than the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan (see our Darvaza Gas Crater post).
Promoters of Yanardag would like us to think it’s been burning since time immemorial but there’s a strong suspicion it kicked off in 1950 when a shepherd threw away a lit cigarette which ignited the gas. We think that’s a better story. We can imagine the shepherd: “What the #@*. Ok, roast lamb tonight then”.
It’s also quite small. Not really a burning mountain. More like a campfire at the base of a hill.
But as we’ve already mentioned, Azerbaijan is known as the land of fire, a reference back to its early history of Zoroastrianism. It makes sense that with so much natural gas close to the surface, there were quite a few sites with ‘inextinguishable’ flames. And so we found ourselves at Ateshgah Fire Temple. This was likely a Zoroastrian site long ago, but the current complex was built by Hindu fire worshippers in the 17th century.
It doubled as a caravanserai for traders on the Silk Road. Wealthy traders would pay to stay, which funded the fire worshippers to gradually expand the complex. They abandoned the site only in 1883 but the eternal flame continued to burn until 1969 when nearly a century of oil and natural gas extraction in the area caused the fire to finally go out. The complex has now been restored and the flame is lit with piped gas.
We really enjoyed Baku. Despite the country’s anti-democratic government and restrictions on free speech, the city does have a remarkably relaxed atmosphere. In the Old City there’s no rubbish in the streets, no litter, no mangy dogs. The new city is throbbing with high end fashion boutiques, coffee shops and dessert bars.
More than 90% of the population is Muslim and over 70% attend Friday prayers but the city is decidedly secular. Women dress modestly but those wearing headscarves are more likely to be tourists from Iran or Turkey. Alcohol is freely available although even in top end places most patrons are drinking tea. People are very friendly. There aren’t too many western Europeans visiting, and even fewer from the US or Australia. It’s a good time to visit.