Baku, the city where East meets West
In Roman times, Baku was on the principal trading route of the Roman Empire between the Central Asian steppe and Europe. The Bay of Baku affords shelter from adverse weather conditions for the best harbour on the Caspian Sea. Baku is a vital part of the Caspian maritime economy between the Volga, Trans-Caucasus, North Caucasus, Central Asia and Iran, which has an annual economic output of $2.5 trillion.
It is a Muslim nation but, unlike its southern neighbour Iran, it is also a secular polity which emphasises religious moderation. It is Israel’s closest Muslim partner and supplies energy to Israel in exchange for high-tech weapons systems. As an oil and gas producer, it supplies energy to southern Italy via its Southern Gas Corridor through Georgia, Turkey and Greece, thus contributing to price competition in Europe and reducing dependence on Russian energy. For these reasons, Baku is valued by Brussels and Washington.
In partnership with China, the Baku International Sea Trade Port in Alat, a Belt and Road Initiative project, is seeking to diversify away from its concentration on oil and gas through the development of cargo and transportation services.
As the capital of an energy-rich nation, Baku has demonstrated willingness for the country to be a good global citizen by supporting international institutions such as Unesco through the Silk Roads Programme, by hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, and by becoming the first country to host the
Throughout its history, Baku has been a hub for trade and cultural exchange between East and West, and this will continue to be its destiny in the centuries ahead.
Hot spots in the Land of Fire
Azerbaijan has six international airports, but most travellers from the UK will enter the country by way of Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport, which opened in 2004 and is named after the former president who was head of state for 35 years. In 2020 the airport was named for the fourth time as a five-star regional airport by international air transport rating organisation Skytrax.
The 24-hour Airport Express bus service runs every half an hour, makes three stops in the city, and the last stop is 30 minutes from the airport. Otherwise, there are plenty of taxis available as well as car rentals from Hertz, Aznur and Sixt. Hotel accommodation in all categories is plentiful.
Azerbaijan is appropriately known as the Land of Fire; it is the place where Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock for stealing the fire of the Gods. Under the surface (coincidentally) there happen to be vast reserves of natural oil and gas, which have not only transformed its economic fortunes but have also given the country a unique landscape twinned with a temperate climate
Ask any Azerbaijani living in the 20th century to write their country’s name down and, depending on their birth date, they may have done so in Arabic, Perso-Arabic, Turkic-Arabic (all three used until 1929), modified Cyrillic (used under the ensuing Soviet period) or Latin script (reintroduced from 1991 after a brief period from 1918 to 1920).
This is just one example of the melting pot of cultures that is modern-day Azerbaijan. Take a look around the capital, Baku, and you’ll see this linguistic history reflected back at you. Russian Imperialist institutions are stamped along the streets, there’s Masud Ibn Davud’s 12th-century Maiden Tower, while futurist glass-shell structures such as the Flame Towers, the SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) Tower, and the Azersu Tower decorate the skyline. There is also the Old City of Baku, or Walled City.
The Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, laps peacefully on its eastern edge and the city enjoys a temperate climate, with average highs around 30 degrees at the hottest time of the year, in July and August. The population is just over 2 million and 90 per cent are ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Baku is a city built on the profits of oil and gas extraction and it boasts a rich cultural heritage. There is a concert hall, an opera and ballet theatre, 15 other theatres, nine museums (including one dedicated to petroleum) and three major libraries. The city is host to an international film festival, an international jazz festival, a flower festival, and a theatre festival.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix took place for the first time in 2016 and is held on the Baku City Circuit, one of only five Formula 1 races held on a street circuit. It follows a twisty route through the Icheri Sheher old town, beneath Baku’s medieval city walls, and along the shoreline of the Caspian Sea.
One of the most impressive modern buildings in the city is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, which was designed by the world-renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and which won the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award in 2014. She used only fluid shapes, with no straight lines, and the building resembles a slice through a cresting wave. Inside, there are eight floor levels, a 1,000-seat auditorium, a conference centre, workshops and exhibition spaces.
Apart from the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, perhaps the most famous work of Azerbaijani literature is Ali and Nino, which was first published in Austria under the name Kurban Said in 1937 and since translated into 37 languages. It tells the story of a love affair between a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and a Christian Georgian girl and is set in the years 1918 to 1920, during the time of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Indeed, Ali dies heroically defending the republic against the Bolshevik invaders. If a nation can be said to have a national novel, this is it. But who exactly was its pseudonymous author Kurban Said? Was he really Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Essad Bey, a Jew who was born in Ukraine and lived in Baku as a child? Or was it the Azerbaijani novelist Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli? Or was it a pair of Austrians, the Baron and Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, who held the legal copyright from the beginning? There has been a vigorous debate in recent years, with different scholars championing the claims of each camp, and an investigation into the matter was the subject of a Dutch feature-length documentary Alias Kurban Said (2004). A feature film based on the novel was released in 2016, adapted by British playwright Christopher Hampton, directed by Asif Kapadia and starring the Palestinian actor Adam Bakri as Ali and the Spanish actress Maria Valverde as Nino.
Exploring beyond Baku
Qabala, north-west of Baku, is the ancient capital of Caucasian Albania. It is host to the Gabala International Music Festival in August (encompassing mugham, classical, chamber, jazz, and flamenco), and also the International Jam Festival (jams from fruits, vegetables and flowers), in which seven countries take part, again in August. The city is a good base from which to visit neighbouring districts. On one day, for example, you might drive to Sheki, where you can visit the Palace of the Sheki Khans, the Sheki Fortress, the Winter Palace and the Sheki Caravanserai, admiring the unusual decorative technique of shebeke, a wooden lattice of pieces of coloured glass. Around Qabala itself, you can visit the Church of Kish, go hiking around the Nohur Lake, and stop off at the Yeddi Gozel waterfall. On another day, you might head back towards Baku, stopping at the ancient village of Lahij, the Ismaili Forest, the city of Shamakhi, the Gulistan Fortress, the Seven Domes Mausoleum, the Juma Mosque and finally the Diri Baba Mausoleum.
A day-long excursion from Baku will take you to the city of Quba for lunch. Driving north along the M1 motorway which connects Baku with the largest cities in Russia, you will pass the mountain Beshbarmag, near the shoreline of the Caspian Sea, which, owing to its height and shape, has been a landmark for sailors since ancient times. The holy place “Pir Hydyr Zundzha” at the foot of the mountain is a destination for pilgrims.
Quba is a small city in a spectacular mountain setting, on one side of the Kudyal river, and can only be reached by car or bus. There are a couple of mosques, a disused hammam, and a house museum, otherwise there is the Quba Genocide Memorial Complex, which commemorates the 12,000 Muslims who were the victims of massacres by Armenians in 1918.
Across the Kudyal river is the all-Jewish mountain settlement of Qirmizi Qesebe, known as the “Caucasian Jerusalem” and also as the Red Town because of its red roofs. It is the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel and the United States, but its population lives in peaceful co-existence with the Muslim population of Quba.
Two other places that are worth a visit are Ganja and Lankaran. Ganja, in the west of the country, is Azerbaijan’s third largest city and former capital of the Ganja Khanate, which was ceded to the Russian empire at the end of the Russo-Persian War of 1804-13 and ruled from Tbilisi, Georgia. The main east-west railway from Baku to Tbilisi and Turkey runs through Ganja and there are domestic flights from Baku. With numerous parks and gardens, it contains an extraordinary mixture of architectural styles including a house made entirely out of glass bottles.
Lankaran is a coastal city in the far south of Azerbaijan, near the border with Iran, with a humid, semi-tropical climate. Again it is served by rail and domestic flights. There are several national parks nearby and the distinctive regional cuisine is derived from the period of the Persian Talysh Khanate, which ended in 1828.
The making of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is in the southern Caucasus, with Russia to its north, Iran to its south Georgia and Armenia to its west, and the Caspian Sea to its east. The Caspian Sea is well-named, since it constitutes 44 per cent of the world’s lustrine waters and each country that bounds it possesses maritime rights over the waters that extend 15 miles from the shoreline.
Throughout its history, Azerbaijan has experienced several cultural influences. Before the seventh century, Caucasian Albanian was the language and Christianity the dominant religion. It fell under the control of the Achaemenid (or First Persian) Empire, and after the Arab conquest of Iran it adopted Islam as its religion. It was later invaded by Seljuk Turks and in the 13th and 14th centuries it was part of the Mongol Empire. Azeri Turkic gradually overtook Persian as the dominant language, while the region retained the Shia Islamic faith of Safavid Persia. Back under Persian control for a few centuries, it was ceded to Russia after the Russo-Persian wars of the early 19th century. It was briefly the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic from 1918 to 1920, but thereafter became a Soviet republic until it gained independence once more in 1991.
During the brief period of the first republic, Azerbaijan was the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world and the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights to men. Although 20,000 Azerbaijanis died in resistance to the Soviets, which was driven by the lust for oil, the 71 years of Soviet rule were not all bad. Education and living standards improved, followed by urbanisation and industrialisation. A revival of the Azerbaijani literary language, which had largely been supplanted by Persian, was promoted with the help of writers, journalists and teachers from Soviet Azerbaijan.
In the Middle Ages, a number of Azerbaijani cities were situated on the Silk Roads and the region’s most well-known exports include carpets, silk, saffron and precious stones. Baku and Shamakhi were stops on the British routes to India and became sites of trade for spices and cashmere. As the United Nations explains: “In bringing together the East and West, the Silk Roads left traces in the political, economic and cultural development of the countries through which it passed. Travellers, merchants and missionaries exchanged cultural, scientific, educational and spiritual values.”
There was an oil industry in Azerbaijan in earlier centuries, but the industry took off in 1871, was exploited under Soviet rule and credited with supplying the Red Army’s war effort during World War II. Oil extraction is the country’s dominant economic sector.
In 1993, Heydar Aliyev, a former Communist Party official from 1969 to 1982, was elected president, and his party, the New Azerbaijan Party, has been in power ever since, with his son Ilham leading the country since 2005. Modern Azerbaijan has been keen to assert its secular history, its Western ties (it is a member of the Council of Europe) and its religious tolerance. Although 97 per cent of Azerbaijanis identify as Muslim and most of them are Shia, this has not prevented Azerbaijan developing close diplomatic links with Turkey, a majority Sunni country.
In the early 1990s and again in 2016 and 2020, Azerbaijan fought with neighbouring Armenia over disputed territory.
Bathing in crude oil
Some 333km due west of Baku is the city of Naftalan, on a plain near the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. There is a clue to what goes on here in its name, since the Greek word naptha means pertaining to oil and naft is Russian for oil. Naftalan is a city specialising in spa services and its unique selling point is crude oil baths. Touted as an historic practice with healing capabilities, bathing in crude oil was a practice first regularised in the 6th century. It grew in popularity during the Soviet era and at one time the city’s oil spas boasted an annual intake of 75,000 visitors. Today, the one remaining oil spa, the Naftalan Therapeutic Centre, has 1,000 beds.
Naftalan crude oil is too thick for commercial use, nor is it useful for burning, so it makes sense to use it for sanitary and therapeutic purposes. It is said to provide treatment for more than 70 skin, joint and bone ailments. The oil is warm when you immerse yourself in it – in terms of viscosity, it has been compared to a chocolate fountain. After your treatment, you’ll be scrubbed with a special brush and then led to a shower. This is a lengthy process and CNN reports that “the fragrance persists”. You’ll need another 40 minutes after this in order to rest, as bathing in crude oil is apparently highly fatiguing. Once your bath has been drained, the oil will be fed back into the central tank, ready for the next customer.