The countries of the South Caucasus have always been the “lands in-between”. In between the Black and Caspian seas, Europe and Asia, Russia and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam and, more recently, democracy and dictatorship. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and the territories around them have the mixed blessing of being at the crossing-place of different cultures and political systems. However, in my memory, those 3 nations were a part of one country I was born in – USSR. The beauty of the land, hospitality and heroism, three things that are always associated with Caucasus, I learnt in childhood by reading Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy and watching the all-time famous Soviet comedy by Leonid Gaidai “Kidnapping, Caucasian Style”.
I don’t think I’d ever considered visiting the Caucasus until I met an Azeri girl at the all-inclusive resort in Cancun who, in very favorable manner told me about her home town, Baku, and how it was becoming the “new Dubai”, backed by world’s growing demand for Azeri oil and gas. Thank you, Ulviya, for kindling my interest and assisting me with planning this trip to the “Land of Fire”. Azerbaijan wasn’t my only destination, as I was thrilled by an idea to swim in both seas – Caspian and Black – on the same trip. That is how my 11 day “Baku to Batumi” journey came about and until now, it is one of my favorite trips.
- Lonely Planet. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
- Charles King. “The Ghosts of Freedom: A history of Caucasus”
- Thomas de Waal. “The Caucasus: An Introduction”
- Nikki Kazimova. “Azerbaijan. The Essential guide to customs and culture.“
- Kurban Said. “Ali and Nino. A Love Story”
- Thomas de Wall. “Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war”
- Henry James Dodds. “Baku. An eventful history”
- Alexandre Dumas. “Tales of the Caucasus”
- Alexander Pushkin “A Prisoner in the Caucasus” (A.C. Пушкин “Кавказский пленник”),
- Mikhail Lermontov “Mtsiry” and “A Hero of Our Time” (Михаил Лермонтов “Мцыри” и “Герои нашего времени”)
- Lev Tolstoy “Hadji Murad” (Лев Толстой “Хаджи-Мурат”)
The ancient history of the Caucasus is fairly mysterious. However, two statements can be made with confidence: the region is a treasure trove for archeologists, and its ancient past has very little bearing on the present. Some of the earliest-ever skulls, dating back 1.8 million years and named (with more than a hint of patriotism) Homo georgicus were discovered by archeologists in Dmanisi in southern Georgia. A Neanderthal jawbone found in a cave at Azykh in Karabakh has been dated as over 300,000 years old. There was a flourishing Stone Age culture in the region around 6,000 B.C. that may have invented wine-making. There are rock engravings at Qobustan (Gobustan), south of Baku, that are almost 4,000 years old. All these indicate continuous patterns of settlement since ancient times.
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the South Caucasus, with a population of almost nine million people, of whom about 90% are ethnic Azeris. It is also the least studied and its name is much less recognized internationally than its two neighbors, Armenia and Georgia, whose historical narratives are more easily told. Many more cultural threads have formed the weave that makes up contemporary Azerbaijan. The name “Azerbaijan” has been traced back to Atropatenes, a Persian lord in the time of Alexander the Great or, more poetically, to azer, the Persian word for fire, on the grounds that it describes the Zoroastrian fire-temples of the region. Until modern times, the word “Azerbaijan” was more often applied to the northern Turkic-populated part of Iran than to the modern-day state of Azerbaijan. Before the 20th century, outsiders tended to call Azerbaijanis either “Shirvanis”, “Caucasian Tatars”, “Turks”, or just “Muslims”. Their own self-identification was flexible. In the 19th century, Brenda Shaffer writes,“Azerbaijanis could consider themselves as both Turks or Iranians, or Russian subjects, with little conflict. Some where active in political movements in all three of the regions, concurrently or at different times of their carriers.”
The earliest evidence of human settlement in the territory of Azerbaijan dates back to the late Stone Age and is related to the Guruchay culture of the Azykh Cave – which is considered to be the site of one of the most ancient proto-human habitations in Eurasia. Remnants of the pre-Acheulean civilization, found in the lowest layers of the cave, are at least 700,000 years old. It was here, in 1968, Mammadali Huseynov discovered a 300,000-year-old partial jawbone of an early human. Carved drawings etched on rocks in Qobustan demonstrate scenes of hunting, fishing, labor and dancing, and are dated to the Mesolithic period.
Following the overthrow of the Median Empire, all of what is today Azerbaijan was invaded by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. This earliest Persian Empire had a profound impact upon local population as the religion of Zoroastrianism became ascendant as did various early Persian cultural influences. Many of the local peoples of Caucasian Albania (no link to the present-day Balkan republic) came to be known as fire worshipers. This empire lasted for over 250 years and was conquered later by Alexander the Great which led to the rise of Hellenistic culture. The Seleucid Greeks, who inherited the Caucasus following Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., ultimately allowed local Caucasian tribes to establish an independent kingdom for the first time since the Median invasion. However, the Albanian kingdom wasn’t given much time to coalesce around a native Caucasian identity and to forge a unique state. Already in the 2nd or 1st century B.C. the Armenians considerably curtailed the Albanian territories and very soon the region became an arena of wars when Romans and Parthians began to expand their domains. Most of Albania came, very briefly, under the domination of Roman legions under Pompey – rock carving of what is believed to be the most-eastern Roman inscription survives at the site of Qobustan. It is inscribed by Legio XII Fulminata at the time of emperor Domitian. Subsequently, Caucasian Albania came fully under Persian rule.
Ruins of many churches confirm that from A.D. 325 Albanians started to convert to Christianity. Albanian king Urnayr was baptized by Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia and accepted Christianity as his kingdom’s official religion, however Christianity spread only gradually, and a large part of Albanians and Persians remained Zoroastrian until the Islamic conquest.
While fully subordinate to Sassanid Persia, Albania retained its monarchy and remained an entity in the region until the 9th century. In the first half of the 7th century, the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate repulsed both the Sassanids and Byzantines from the Caucasus region and turned Caucasian Albania into a vassal state after the Christian resistance, led by King Javanshir, was suppressed in 667. The decline of the Abbasid Caliphate resulted in the inception of numerous local dynasties such as the Sallarids, Sajids, Shaddadids, Rawadids and Buyids. However, at the beginning of the 11th century, the territory was gradually seized by waves of Turkic Oghuz tribes from Central Asia. The first of these Turkic dynasties was the Ghaznavids from northern Afghanistan, who took over part of Azerbaijan by 1030. They were followed by the Seljuqs, a western branch of the Oghuz who conquered all of Iran and the Caucasus and pressed on to Iraq. The Seljuqs became the main rulers of a vast empire that included all of Iran and Azerbaijan until the end of the 12th century and Azerbaijanis consider the 11th and 12th centuries to be a golden age in their history. During the Seljuq period, the influential vizier of the Seljuq sultans, Nizam ul-Mulk helped to introduce numerous educational and bureaucratic reforms; great progress was achieved in different sciences and philosophy, the region experienced a building boom and the unique architecture of the Seljuq period was epitomized by the fortress walls, mosques, schools, mausoleums, and bridges of Baku, Ganja and Absheron. This period gave birth to such notable figures of Azerbaijani culture as poet Nizami Ganjavi, the scholar Khatib Tabrizi and the architect Ajami. Locally, Seljuq possessions were ruled by Atabegs, who were technically vassals of the Seljuq sultans, but de facto – rulers themselves. Under their rule from the end of 12th to early 13th centuries, Azerbaijan emerged as an important cultural center of the Turkic people. Important to mention that the pre-Turkic population that lived on the territory of modern Azerbaijan spoke several Indo-European and Caucasian languages, which were gradually replaced by a Turkic language, the early precursor of the Azerbaijani language of today.
The next ruling state of the Jalayirids, that came to power in 1225, was short-lived and fell under the conquests of Timur. The local dynasty of the Shirvanshahs became a vassal state of Timur’s Empire, and assisted him in his war with the ruler of the Golden Horde Tokhtamysh. Following Timur’s death, two independent and rival states emerged: Kara Koyunlu and Ak Koyunlu, but not for long. The Shirvanshahs returned, maintaining a high degree of autonomy as local rulers and vassals from 861 until 1539. The state of the Shirvanshahs was famous for its exports of silk and gave rise to a material and intellectual culture that was highly respected in its time and whose creators are major figures in the history of Azerbaijan. Among them was a poet Nasimi, who wrote his ghazels (poems) in Azeri language, unlike his predecessors who wrote in Persian and Arabic. In 1501 the Iranian dynasty of Safavids, who ruled the territory of Azerbaijan, imposed Shia Islam upon the formerly Sunni population, as it was battling against the Sunni Ottoman Empire. This, in combination with another series of events, laid the foundation for the fact that both the contemporary Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran are the only Shia majority countries ever since. Despite efforts of the Safavids, the Ottomans briefly managed to occupy swaths of present-day Azerbaijan twice over the centuries.
In the early 18th century, a collection of autonomous Muslim khanates emerged across Azerbaijan. De jure these khanates were the subjects of the Iranian Shah; however they exercised self-ruling control over their affairs via international trade routes between Central Asia and the West. To preserved their independence against a rebounding Persia, several khanates united and asked Russia for assistance, the Empire, that by the late 18th century and forward, led a more aggressive geo-political stance towards its two neighbors (and rivals) to the south, namely Iran and Turkey. Following a chain of events that started with the re-subjugation of Georgia into Iran in 1795, Russia actively contested and battled with Iran over possession of the Caucasus region. The successful Russian campaigns in the later stages of the Russo-Persian War (1804–13) were concluded with the Treaty of Gulistan, in which the shah’s claims to some of the Khanates of the Caucasus were dismissed by Russia on the ground that they had been de facto independent long before their Russian occupation. Per Gulistan Treaty, Iran was forced to concede suzerainty over most of the khanates to the north of the river Aras (alongside Georgia and Dagestan) to the Russian Empire. Under the subsequent Treaty of Turkmenchay which finalized the Russo-Persian War, Iran was forced to recognize Russian sovereignty over the Erivan Khanate, the Nakhchivan Khanate and the remainder of the Lankaran Khanate. After incorporation of all Caucasian territories from Iran into Russia, the new border between the two was set at the Aras River, which, upon the Soviet Union’s disintegration, subsequently became part of the border between Iran and the Azerbaijan Republic. One of the results of that cession was a separation of the Azerbaijani ethnic group between two nations: Iran and Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the present number of ethnic Azeris in Iran (20 million people) far outnumbers that in neighboring Azerbaijan (9 million).
Azerbaijan can lay claim to being the most historic oil region in the world as in 1848 the first oil well in the world was drilled in Bibi Eybat near Baku, which was soon followed by the Azeri equivalent of the Gold Rush. The discovery of oil didn’t come as a surprise. Travelers had recorded the oil seeping through the ground on the shores of the Absheron Peninsular by the Caspian Sea for centuries. Azerbaijan’s ancient Zoroastrian fire-temples burned on flammable gas issuing from oil deposits underground. Oil-impregnated sand, scrapped of the beaches, was a valuable fuel send by camel for hundreds of miles around. In 1872, the czarist government allowed the oil-producing land to be auctioned off to private companies, and businessmen from around the world flocked to Baku to make their fortunes. The Swedish businessmen Robert and Ludvig Nobel invested in a small refinery and laid the groundwork for the rise of the Nobel brothers’ petroleum empire. The industry would soon attract financiers such as the Rothschilds and international firms such as Shell. The world’s first oil tanker “Zoroaster” sail off the Caspian coast in 1878 and the Baku-Batumi pipeline was built in 1897-1907. By the beginning of the 20th century, half of the world’s oil production was located in Baku. The oil boom led to a period of unprecedented prosperity and growth in the years prior to World War I but also created huge disparities in wealth between the largely European businessmen and the local Muslim work force. Today, Baku owes its European looks to the magnificent buildings built with early oil money in the late 19th- early 20th centuries. New York Times wrote in October 28, 1900: “As a business center, Baku was acquired considerable wealth, and the new city, which had naturally extended in all directions, contains substantially built, indeed elegant, stone houses and large shops, which would do credit to any city of Europe. The streets are rapidly being paved, and they will soon be better, in this respect, that any other town in Russia, with the exception of St. Petersburg. Evidences of wealth are not only to be seen in the appearance of the city itself, but also among many of its inhabitants.” By 1900, the population of Baku increased from 10,000 to roughly 250,000 people as a result of worker migration from all over the Russian Empire, Iran, and other places.
At the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, an independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was proclaimed in Ganja on May 28, 1918 following an abortive attempt to establish a federal Transcaucasian Republic with Armenia and Georgia. This was the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. In July 1918 the local coalition collapsed and was replaced by a British-controlled government known as Central Caspian Dictatorship. Researching the history of Azerbaijan I was surprised to see Brits there, however, their stakes in Azeri oil were very high. British forces under General Dunsterville occupied Baku and helped the mainly Dashnak-Armenian forces to defend the capital from the ongoing Turkish invasion. However, Baku fell on September 15, 1918 and an Azeri-Ottoman army entered the capital, causing British forces and much of the Armenian population to flee and massacring ethnic Armenians who couldn’t escape. The Ottoman Empire, however, capitulated on October 30, 1918 and the British occupational force re-entered Baku. Azerbaijan was proclaimed a secular republic and its first parliament opened on December 5, 1918. Among the important accomplishments of the Parliament was the extension of suffrage to women, making Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. Another important accomplishment of ADR was the establishment of Baku State University, which was the first modern-type university founded in Muslim East.
Independent Azerbaijan lasted only 23 months until the Soviet Red Army invaded it, establishing the Azerbaijan SSR on 28 April 1920. It was incorporated into the Transcaucasian SFSR along with Armenia and Georgia in March 1922 and by an agreement signed in December 1922, the TSFSR became one of the four original republics of the Soviet Union. The TSFSR was dissolved in 1936 when its three regions became separate republics within the USSR. Like other union republics, Azerbaijan was affected by Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. During that period, sometimes referred to as the “Red Terror”, thousands of people were killed, including notable Azeri figures such as Huseyn Javid, Mikail Mushvig, Ruhulla Akhundov, Ayna Sultanova and others. Directing the purges in Azerbaijan was Mir Jafar Baghirov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. His special target was the intelligentsia, but he also purged Communist leaders who had sympathized with the opposition or who might have once leaned toward Pan-Turkism or had contacts with revolutionary movements in Iran or Turkey. As a result of Baghirov’s brutal purges, over 100,000 Azeris were shot or sent to concentration camps, never to return.
During the 1940s, the Azerbaijan SSR supplied three-quarters of the Soviet Union’s gas and oil during the war with Nazi Germany and was thus a strategically important region. When Hitler’s German invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Germans identified Baku oils as a vital asset. In August 1942, the Germans occupied the western side of the North Caucasus and planned a push south to Azerbaijan. Saying “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler diverted divisions away from the battle of Stalingrad toward the Caucasus. That summer, Hitler’s staff famously had a cake made for him that had a shape of a Caspian sea in the middle. Film footage shows delighted Hitler taking a slice of the cake, which had the letters “B” “A” “K” “U” written on it in white icing and chocolate made to look like oil spooned over it. The debacle at Stalingrad in the winder of 1942-1943 meant that Germany never invaded the South Caucasus, but even the threat of attack was a death-sentence for the Baku oil industry. Stalin, who knew the Baku oil fields from his revolutionary days of 1905, had the oil wells shut down so they would not fall into German hands. Almost the entire Azerbaijani oil industry and its experts were transferred to the oil wells of Volga and Ural. After the war, Russian’s oil fields received the major investment, and Azerbaijan suffered. The on-land fields dried up and in order to reach the trickier offshore fields a small town of Oily Rocks (Neft Daşları, Нефтяные Камни) was built 55 kms out in the sea – reached across the causeway built on sunken ships. Cramped and polluted, Oily Rocks eked out what could still be drilled of Azerbaijan’s oil within the capacity of Soviet technology. By the time Soviet Union ended, Azerbaijan was producing only 3% of the Soviet oil output. Important to note that even though the battles of WWII didn’t reach Azerbaijan, a fifth of all Azeris fought in the war from 1941 to 1945 and some 250,000 people were killed on the front.
Policies of de-Stalinization and improvement after the 1950s led to better education and welfare conditions for most of Azerbaijan. This also coincided with the period of rapid urbanization and industrialization. During this period of change, a new wave of сближение (reapprochement) policy was instituted in order to merge all the peoples of the USSR into a new monolithic Soviet nation. However, in the 1960s, the signs of a structural crisis in the Soviet system began to emerge. As Azerbaijan’s crucial oil industry lost its relative importance in the Soviet economy, republic had the lowest rate of growth in productivity and economic output among the Soviet republics, with the exception of Tajikistan. Ethnic tensions, particularly between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, began to grow, but violence was suppressed. In an attempt to end the growing structural crisis, in 1969, the government in Moscow appointed Heydar Aliyev as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. A Major-General of KGB, he would later become the non-replaceable leader (or likely – “khan”) of post-Soviet Azerbaijan.
Perestroika (Перестройка) in the late 1980s was also a time of increasing tension with Armenia. Tit-for-tat ethnic squabbles between Armenians and Azeris over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh bubbled over into virtual ethnic cleansing (pogroms of the Armenian population in Baku and Sumgait), as minorities in both republics fled escalating violence. On 20 January 1990, the Red Army made a crassly heavy-handed intervention in Baku, killing dozens of civilians and turning public opinion squarely against Russia, a sentiment that is still very much alive in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union on 18 October 1991, and the Soviet Union itself officially ceased to exist just a few months later, on 26 December 1991. Even though, the dissolution of the USSR was the most peaceful break-up of the state in the history of humanity, it did have violent repercussions in Caucasus. The sovereign borders established by Russian Empire in the 19th century and by Soviet government in the 20th century were so artificial that multiple wars for land broke up as soon as there was no more central government. The early years of Azerbaijan’s independence were overshadowed by the Nagorny-Karabakh war with the ethnic Armenian majority of the region backed by Armenia. By the end of hostilities in 1994, Armenians controlled up to 14% of Azerbaijani territory, including Nagorny-Karabakh itself. As a result, an estimated 17,000 people had been killed and more than a million Azeris and Armenians (750,000 Azeris and 350,000 Armenians) had been displaced. The truce was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan over two decades ago but until present day, the news of the escalating tension and military provocations show up from time to time. Sadly, the most culturally and religiously diverse republic in the Caucasus became very homogeneous as many Russians and Armenians left Azerbaijan in the 1990s. I would like also to note that it wasn’t the first intercommunal bloodshed on the territory of Azerbaijan. The 20th century saw several attempts of Azerbaijanis to annihilate their Armenian neighbors, the most appalling events happened in February and September of 1905 (well documented in Henry’s book “Baku. An eventful history”), as well as events of 1988 – 1990 (Sumgait pogrom), resulting in the first wave of Armenian refugees leaving Azerbaijan. Despite the centuries of peaceful co-existence, no Azeri would tolerably speak of Armenians anymore. Sad.
Another thing I would like to mention before moving on to the fun stuff is the Aliyev’s clan. In 1993 Heydar Aliyev overwhelmingly won a presidential election and his position as supreme leader was now secure, although armed uprisings, which the president harshly suppressed, threatened social stability. Actual or alleged coups d’état became an almost annual occurrence – in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998 – but in the aftermath of each one, Aliyev was able to augment his power over both rivals and old associates. He preferred not to experiment with democracy and began to built a strong semi-authoritarian state to replace the fragile but pluralistic country he had inherited. Unlike his many opponents, Aliyev stood at the center of a vast network of friends and colleagues from his days as Communist Party leader and, even more crucially, from his earlier career as head of the Baku branch of the KGB. The president began building a base of support within the legislature through the creation of his own pro-presidential organization, the New Azerbaijan Party. During the years following Aliyev’s rise, the party emerged as the preeminent faction in successive elections, none of which was believed by international observes to meet democratic standards. However, party politics turned out to be far less important than the clan politics that encouraged loyalty to Aliyev. His base of support remained the cadre of old friends and personal connections from the particular part of Azerbaijan – Nakhichevan, his home region.
Due to the limited reforms and the signing of the so-called “Contract of The Century” with British Petroleum in October 1994 (over the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli giant oil field) that led to increased oil exports to western markets, the economy began improving. Aliyev’s loose community worked to secure control over state institutions, and its members also emerged as critical players in the booming energy sector. Aliyev’s son, Ilham, became vice-chairman of the state oil company, which negotiated with Western investors for access to Azerbaijan’s oil fields. Backroom machinations, not the dialectic of reform and reaction, defined Azerbaijani politics well into the early 2000s. Political and economic success was largely a function of personal loyalty to the president. During his tenure Aliyev created a personality cult – his image still adorns billboards across Baku and the countryside, his visionary leadership was credited with bringing Azerbaijan back from the brink of civil war and nurturing international interest in the country hydrocarbon reserves. None of this was exactly untrue as Aliyev’s iron hand no doubt played a role in preventing chaos. However, in the process of preserving order he forged the most clearly authoritarian state in the south Caucasus.
When Aliyev announced that he would not run for another term in 2003 (he died later that year), he chose a method of political succession familiar to authoritarian leaders around the world – he handed power to his son. Ilham Aliyev was duly elected president in a race that was again viewed by both local and international monitors as deeply flawed. Shortly, the long-awaited Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline opened up in 2005 and 2006 respectively, and Azerbaijan’s position as a stable country with oil/gas resources shoot up. However, extreme levels of corruption and nepotism in the state system created by Aliyev’s clan prevent Azerbaijan from more sustained development, especially in the non-oil sector. The plummeting oil prices decreased Azerbaijan’s growth from a whooping 16% in 2008 to -3.5% (negative) in first quarter of 2016. So, welcome to the country where Aliyev’s giant photo will stare at you from every corner, and where oil rigs at sea and land will never let you forget what makes up the large chunk of Azerbaijan’s GDP.
I flew Minsk-Baku via Moscow and would like to mention a pretty cool campaign ran at that time by the WWF.ru called “Feed the fish, make a wish” where for 100 rubles ($1.5) you can throw some food into a giant aquarium, full of gold fish. I think we need more interactive initiatives like this to raise money and awareness about our planet.
I arrived to the Heydar Aliyev International Airport and was pleasantly surprised to find out that some of the oil money went to build one of the most impressive airports I’ve got to travel through – uber-modern, glassy and sleek, it looked like many other giant modern buildings in Baku, which, unlike Dubai, weren’t lacking the national element. At the airport, I was greeted by my Baku hotel co-owner who took me to the hotel (22 manat ($21) to the city center).
Along the highway, I got a glimpse of other examples of Azerbaijan’s new architectural bang – from Baku Olympic Stadium to Baku Expo Center, from Buta Palace to the new 2015 European Games Athletes Village and from SOCAR Tower (to be the tallest building in Azerbaijan after its completion) to Zaha Hadid‘s Cultural Center named after Heydar Aliyev, of course.
“Baku” is derived from the Persian words باد-کوبه Bād-kube, meaning “the city where the wind blows”, referring to a place where wind is strong and pounding. Indeed, the city is renowned for its fierce winter storms and harsh winds even in summer, that’s why its nickname is “City of Winds”.
Rock carvings discovered near Bayil, as well as a bronze figure of a small fish found in the territory of the Old Town have led some to suggest the existence of a Bronze Age settlement within the city’s territory. Further archeological excavations revealed various prehistoric settlements, native temples, an observatory, statues and other artifacts within the territory of the modern city and around it. Roman inscriptions found in Gobustan dating from 84-96 A.D. prove that in the 1st century, Romans reached Baku too. The remnant of this period is the village of Ramana in the Sabunchu district of Baku. In the Life of the Apostle by Bartholomew, Baku is identified as “Armenian Albanus” called Albanopolis. Local church traditions record the belief that Bartholomew’s martyrdom occurred at the bottom of the Maiden Tower within the Old City, where according to historical data, a Christian church was built on the site of the pagan temple of Arta. A record from the 5th-century historian Priscus of Panium was the first to mention the famous Bakuvian fires, due to which Baku became a major center of ancient Zoroastrianism.
There is little or no information regarding Baku in medieval sources until the 10th century, when Baku was a domain of the Arab Caliphate and later of Shirvanshahs. After a devastating earthquake struck Shamakhy, the capital of Shirvan, Shirvanshah’s court moved to Baku in 1191. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, a massive fortification was undertaken in the city and around it. The Maiden Tower, castles of Ramana, Nardaran, Shagan and Mardakan, and also famous Sabayil castle (Bayil Castle) on the island of the Baku bay were built during this period. Despite the attacks by Mongols, the biggest problem of Baku during this time was the transgression of the Caspian Sea. The rising levels of the water from time to time engulfed much of the city and the famous castle of Sabayil went completely into the sea in the 14th century. These led to several legends about submerged cities such as Shahriyunan (“Greek city”). After visiting the part of the exhibit at the Shirvanshahs Palace dedicated to the Bayil Castle and seeing the artifacts recovered from the sunken island, I asked a few locals about it and sadly, no one knew what I was talking about. The Shirvan dynasty was ousted in 1501 when Shah Ismail I sacked Baku and then forcibly converted the previously Sunni city to Shia Islam. When Peter the Great captured the place in 1723, its population was less than 10,000, its growth hamstrung by a lack of trade and drinking water and for the next century Baku changed hands several times between Persia and Russia, before definitely ceded to the Russians.
Oil had been scooped from surface diggings around Baku since at least 10th century. However, when commercial extractions was deregulated in 1872 the city rapidly became a boom town. Workers and entrepreneurs arrived from all over the Russian Empire and Europe, swelling the population by 1200% in under 30 years. In the wake of two Russian revolutions Baku’s history became complex and very bloody with a series of brutal massacres between formerly neighborly Armenian and Azeri communities. When the three South Caucasus nations declared their independence in 1918, Baku initially refused to join Azerbaijan’s Democratic Republic, a position bolstered by a small British force that secretly sailed in from Iran hoping to defend the oilfields against the Turks (Britain’s WWII enemies). In the end game of WWI, the Turks were forced to evacuate too and Baku became capital of independent Azerbaijan for almost two years until, on 28 April 1920, it became the capital of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, within USSR.
In 1935 the search for oil moved into the shallow coastal waters of the Caspian. A forest of offshore platforms and derricks joined the tangle of wells and pipelines on land. Investments dwindled after WWII and only really resumed in earnest after Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Since 1994, however, foreign oil consortia have spent billions exploring these resources and for reasons as much political as economic and Baku has boomed once again – fountains and enormous flagpoles, countless towers and futuristic skyscrapers have mushroomed while those grand older buildings have been cleaned and up-lit. The city’s resurrection is truly one of the most impressive in the modern history.
Baku’s old town and the neighboring areas deserve to be explored on foot and in detail. Luckily, the main places of interest are very accommodating in regard to pedestrians and could be visited within a few days. I stayed at the Baku Palace hotel and Hostel, a 5 mins walk to the old town. It was a very decent accommodation considering the location and price, however, the owners came across as a bit shady. The hotel is run by two brothers, one of whom was constantly partying and drinking in the hotel’s common room, which sadly happened to be next to my room, and another brother, who was very helpful but still tried to scheme a deal out of me and my www.booking.com reservation. Displeased but not surprised by his tricks, I refused to bend. Despite all, I had 3 full days in Baku and I wanted to take a full advantage of my time.
The streets and buildings closest to the hotel were in an artistic state of dilapidations. There were many old uninhabited houses with broken windows and untidy courtyards, many 3-4 stories walk-up buildings with neon signs advertising massages that turned out to be the places for men looking for “happy ending”, some bars with forever closed doors, etc. However, the area didn’t lack charm, as every morning a lonely shoe master set up his sewing machine right on the street and busied himself with work till very late night, as well as multiple “hole-in-the-wall” eateries with check-out windows or 2-3 small tables. I ate the most delicious food at those tables and met the most amazing hosts there too. The Baku Palace was located just a few blocks from the Fountain Square (Fəvvarələr meydanı, Площадь Фонтанов), an endlessly popular leafy boutique-ringed piazza. In 1864, the plan of Baku assigned this place for the exercise and as a parade ground. Until now known and referred to as “Parapet”, it was built in 1868 by the city architect Kasim Bey Hajibababayov and served as the business and social center of Baku. Along the square there were two-storey caravanserais (now the “Araz” cinema and the Museum of Azerbaijan Literature), residencies and two hotels – “Grand Hotel” and “Metropol”. During the Soviet times, the square of Karl Marx (as it was called then), turned into a spacious, well-landscaped area. The current name of the square derives from the presence of dozens of fountains throughout the square constructed during the 1980s and it is an attractive tourist and local destination with many boutiques, restaurants, shops and hotels.
Outside the large McDonald’s (whose faithfully transliterated menu includes dabl cizburqers), there is a bronze statue of a young lady with an umbrella, bare midriff and a cell phone, I guess representing a modern Bakuvian.
Approached down a wide tree-shaded fountain-adorned stairway from the southwestern side, the square is given an artistic aspect by the Nizami Literature Museum (Nizami Gəncəvi adına Azərbaycan ədəbiyyatı muzeyi, Музе́й азербайджа́нской литерату́ры и́мени Низами́ Гянджеви́), whose exterior facade is a series of the nation’s literary giants – Muhammad Fuzuli, Molla Panah Vagif, Mirza Fatali Akhundov, Khurshidbanu Natavan, Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, and Jafar Jabbarly. The museum contains one of the greatest and richest treasuries of Azerbaijani culture, as its collection has more than 3000 manuscripts, rare books, illustrations, portraits, sculptures, miniatures, memories of poets and other exhibits stored in 30 general and 10 auxiliary halls of the museum’s exposition.
The main place of interest for a history junkie like myself was Icheri Sheher (İçəri Şəhər, Old town, Ичери́-шехе́р, Внутренний город) – the historic heart of Baku that in December 2000 became the first location in Azerbaijan to be classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The name Icheri Sheher literally means Inner City (I will refer to it in the blog also as Old City), and the modern Baku grew outside and around this area. It is the crown of the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan and the capital of the ancient state of the Shirvanshahs. The walled area of 22.1 ha encompasses hundreds of historical sites, 4 of which are included in the list of World Heritage Monuments and 28 of which are listed as national heritage. There are 1300 families presently residing in Icheri Sheher, several museums, 18 hotels and more than 100 businesses, shops and restaurants. This carefully-restored and well-maintained unique site is one of the best places to glimpse into life of ancient city.
It is widely accepted that Icheri Sheher, including its Maiden Tower, date at least to the 12th century, with some researchers contending that construction dates as far back as the 7th century. However, the peculiar bronze fish figure discovered at an archeological excavation on the northern side of the Maiden Tower suggests that Icheri Sheher was populated many centuries before Christ. Located on a beautiful natural bay at the crossroads of caravan trade routes, and rich with natural resources of oil, copper, iron ores and other minerals, the Inner town has attracted traders from all over the world since ancient times. Extracted oil and salt, as well as saffron exported to various Eastern countries were a major impetus for the growth of Baku. The population of ancient town was comprised of a feudal aristocracy (who ruled the city and owned oilfields, crop lands and salt lakes) and the urban population – craftsmen, merchants and priests, considered to be the third most important profession after the ruler and the Commander in Chief. Thanks to its unique location, Icheri Sheher contained a rich diversity of different cultures which impacted the Turkic origin of its architecture with the elements of Zoroastrian (Muhammad Mosque), christian (Bartholomew’s Church) and islamic art (mosques, caravansarais, madrasas etc). In the second half of the 11th century, as a result of the collapse of the Abbasids’ caliphate, an independent state of Shirvanshahs emerged as one of the most significant with its new capital in Icheri Sheher. It was the time of prosperity, development of new crafts and construction of architectural monuments that still adorn the old town today – two rows of fortress walls, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, multiple mosques, hamams, etc. During the 16th-18th centuries, handicraft, including carpet weaving developed which in 2010 was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In 1806, when Baku was occupied by the Russian Empire during the Russo-Persian War. There were 500 households,707 shops, and 7,000 inhabitants in Icheri Sheher (then the only neighborhood of Baku), almost all of whom were ethnic Tats. Once the port was re-opened for trade, and in 1809 a customs office was established, Baku started to extend beyond the city walls, and new neighborhoods emerged, as well as the terms Icheri Sheher and Bayir Sheher (Outer city). Referring to the early Russian rule, Bakuvian actor Huseyngulu Sarabski wrote in his memoirs:”Baku was divided into two sections: Ichari Shahar and Bayir Shahar. The Inner City was the main part. Those who lived in the Inner City were considered natives of Baku. They were in close proximity to everything: the bazaar, craftsmen’s workshops and mosques. There was even a church there, as well as a military barracks built during the Russian occupation. Residents who lived inside the walls considered themselves to be superior to those outside and often referred to them as the “barefooted people of the Outer City”. With the discovery of oil the traditional architectural look of the Old City changed. Many European buildings in Baroque and Gothic styles were constructed during the 19th century and early 20th century, which, in my view, added to the charm and diversity of Icheri Sheher.
During my 3 days in Baku, I kept coming back to Icheri Sheher over and over again, browsing its narrow crooked streets and discovering more hidden gems. I found the Icherisheher audio-guide (rent at the booth next to the Maiden Tower, allow 2-3 hours, 5 manat – $4.75) to be very useful to get a comprehensive and detailed information about the old city. It came with a precise map and well-marked sites throughout the city. Well, I have to admit that despite its history that goes to the times before Christ, Icheri Sheher doesn’t look very old, au contraire, it has a very modern feel to it. I guess after being “schooled” by the UNESCO for the poor conservation and “dubious” restoration efforts, Azerbaijan’s attempt to “make it right” went so far as to convert the old city into authentic yet a movie set.
I start the exploration of Icheri Sheher from the most recognizable (and convenient) place – The Maiden Tower and follow the route given by the audio-guide.
The Maiden Tower (p.2 on the map) (Qız Qalası—Гыз галасы, Девичья башня) – 2 manat ($1.90), allow 20-30 mins. Built in the 12th century, this 29.5m high tower is one of Azerbaijan’s most distinctive national emblems and a UNESCO Historical monument. There are a number of competing explanations for the name, the most prominent of which is the legend of a wealthy ruler (Khan of Baku) who fell in love with his own daughter and asked her to marry him. Revolted by the thought of incest but unable to disobey her father she commanded that he build her a tower high enough to survey the full extend of his domain. On a wedding day, when the tower was finally completed, she climbed to the roof and threw herself off to her death in the waves below. In some sources she is said to be the sister, rather than the daughter, of the king who came to be incarcerated by her brother. A better translation of Qiz Qalasi would be “virgin tower”, metaphorically alluding to military impenetrability rather than any association with tragic females. It was certainly an incredibly massive structure for its era, with walls 5 m thick at the base and an unusual projecting buttress.
One of the oldest buildings in Baku, it was believed that the tower foundations, which extend 15m below ground level and the bottom three stories above ground, were originally built between the 4th-6th centuries and then later in the 12th century. However, recent discoveries of the wooden girders at the base of the tower, used to resist earthquakes, imply that the tower was built at one go. Scientists and historians have long been unable to reach common ground concerning the Maiden Tower’s purpose, which still remains a mystery.
- Its location at the center of Baku Bay, its hight and thickness of its walls, the protected entrance area and several other factors lead scientists to believe that the tower was built, along with the city walls, during the Shirvanshahs rule for defensive purposes. At the same time, the Maiden Tower lacks certain features characteristic of defensive buildings, such as floors within the tower.
- The space, as well as the positioning of the windows and the structure as a whole, indicates that it was a religious building, important for rituals and ceremonies. The bird-eye view of the tower recalls the shape of a “buta”, a symbol of fire, light and sun which has been in wide use in Azerbaijan since ancient times. Further, the placement and layout of the upper four windows allow sun rays to penetrate directly into the tower on December 22, the winter equinox. Some theories propose that on that day, the shortest day of the year, the augurs (local rulers) held rituals at the tower to restore the sun’s power and renew its cycle. Historians who pursue this point of view insist that the tower was built in the 8th century B.C. by local tribes who worshipped fire and the sun.
- According to some hypothesis the Maiden Tower was an astronomical observatory. Proponents of this theory believe that the current Tower was built on the remains of a 2,500-3000 old construction. It is suggested that the tower was built mainly to observe the annual cycle of the sun and to study the most important moments in this process, such as the winter and summer solstices and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes. Thus, it may be that the fact that some structural features of the tower – its windows and buttress – face the rising sun on important dates is no coincidence at all. Since there was no fundamental difference between science and religion in those times, the observatory hypothesis doesn’t contradict the belief that the tower was used to carry out rituals or had a defensive function.
The tower’s 8 stories are divided by stone floors which are connected by a staircase in the south-eastern section of the wall (once there was no staircase between the first and second floors). There are two vertical shafts within the tower wall. One is a stone-cased water-well opening onto the third floor. The second narrow shaft, running down from the top floor through the whole tower, includes ceramic pipes slotted into each other; their purpose is still unclear. Today, the Maiden Tower interior contains some old photographs, a souvenir shop and a costume photo opp, but its highlight is the rooftop viewpoint surveying Baku Bay and Icheri Sheher.
To the right of the Maiden Tower is one of the most beautiful buildings of old Baku – House of Isabek Hajinsky (İsa bəy Əbdülsalam bəy oğlu Hacınski, дом Исабека Гаджинского) – built in the years 1910-1912 in the style of German Gothic. At the time, the building was quite shocking and stood out against the background of the flat roofs of Baku’s traditional houses. There is a funny story associated with this building. It is said that during its construction the workers forgot to build a sewer and this unfortunate mistake was discovered only during the inauguration of the building. Hadjinsky’s architect admitted the mistake and promised to correct it however, for a long time, the building was called “the house without a sewer.” By the way, important to mentioned that Charles de Gaulle stayed at this very building during his visit to the Soviet Union. It is said that on the occasion of the visit, a huge French tricolor of Sheki silk was woven to impress an important guest.
Haji Bani Hammam (p.3 on the map) (Hacı Qayib hamamı, Баня Хаджи Гаиба) is a bathhouse built in the late 15th century that carries the name of its architect. In the old city, each mahalla (community) had its own hammam. According to their architectural design, the lower half of the hammam was underground to ensure that the building was warm in winter and cool in summer. The hammam also served as a place for conversations and in many ways assumed the role of a social club. In addition to their sanitary and hygienic functions, hammams were also the best place to spend relaxing, leisure time. For long time, this bathhouse had remained underground and was discovered during the archaeological works of 1964.
Close to the Maiden Tower, the remains of Saint Bartholomew Church (p.4 on the map) (Церковь Святого Варфоломея) can be found. Bartholomew was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, who in the 1st century A.D. came to Baku to evangelize the Gospel. He preached Christianity where fire-worship traditions had been deep-rooted and for that in A.D. 71 he was crucified in front of the Maiden Tower. In 1892, Saint Bartholomew Church was built on the area of an ancient temple, but unfortunately it was destroyed during the Soviet period, as were many other religious monuments. However, fragments of the chapel foundation still remain to this day.
Market Square, Arcades and Burial Places (p.5 on the map) (Khanegah, Bazar meydanı, Базарная площадь). This is the place where Sufi sheikhs lived and preached. Khenegahs were typically situated on caravan trade routes and included a complex of monuments such as mosques, tombs, hammams, caravaserais and other religious and public buildings. After their death, sheikhs were usually buried here and their followers were often buried next to them. After time, Khanegah were perceived to be sacred and became the places of pilgrimage. During archeological digs conducted on this site in 1964, more than 50 graves were discovered here. Presently, you could see multiple tomb stones placed on the square as well as funerary slabs orderly displayed on the walls. It reminded me more of a meditative Japanese garden than a Sufi burial place, many of which that I visited in India.
Bukhara and Multani Caravanserais (p.6 on the map) (Buxara karvansarayı, Multani karvansarayı, Бухарский и Мултанский Караван-сараи). These caravanserais, or medieval hotels, were situated on caravan routes and were temporary places of trade and residence for Multani (present Pakistan) and Bukharan (present Uzbekistan) merchants. Built for the travelers protection but also for the newcomers who were trying to fit together or get to know the region better, this kind of caravanserai served as embassies and cultural hubs, as well as one or another of the region’s market places. By the 20th century, Multani Caravanserai was completely destroyed but fully restored to its original plan in 1973-74, while original parts of the west facade, south-west rooms and entrance portal remained of Bukhara caravanserai.
The Multani Caravanserai (dating from the 14th century) is located on Qulle (Tower) Street and was built in a traditional style as an octagonal courtyard (35m by 35m) with a simple facade and isolated living quarters. Its name is related to the frequent visits of fire worshippers from Multan city to Baku and their construction of the “Ateshgah” temple in Surakhany on Absheron. Caravanserai had a total of 10 rooms – some of which were covered with a hexagonal arched canopy that went through the courtyard, while others were of the same height, width, and had their own balconies. Multani caravanserai cellar is one of the most interesting parts of this monument – now in the basement of the house, it used to be the first floor of the caravanserai – and was designed to keep animals and store merchandise. Decorated with the ancient Azeri carpets, jewelry, carpets and kilims, old cisterns and paintings, this place makes you become a part of the story of Ali Baba and forty thieves.
The Bukhara Caravanserai, located opposite the Multani Caravanserai, was built in the late 15th century along a commercial road passing through the Shamakhy Gate. This is a one-storey caravanserai, but it is assumed that other floors remained underground. The Bukhara caravanserai, which consists of 17 rooms, has a circular shape with an original 15th century pool in the middle of the courtyard. It is a perfect place to sit down and enjoy some traditional Azerbaijani tea.
Moving further along Qulle Street (house #18), you can visit the House Museum of Kamil Aliyev (Дом-музей Камиля Алиева), who was a national carpet artist of Azerbaijan. It is impossible to express the uniqueness of the Azerbaijani carpets with words! The riot of colors, the motives rich in ornaments, and unique mixture of themes are all hallmarks of the detailed, long time work of Azerbaĳani carpet makers. In every Azeri home, carpets are always in plain view, whether displayed on a floor, hung on a wall, provided as a dowry, inherited or given as a gift for a special occasion. Carpets are also presented to diplomats and heads of state. Exactly the carpets of this kind were woven by Kamil Aliyev (1921-2005). His house-museum is situated in a four-storeyed stone building where the artist lived only for 11 months before his death at the age of 83. The museum displays 127 of Aliyev’s carpets, including miniatures and patchworks as well as some works that were never completed.
“House with Chains” and “House of Sailor” (p.7 on the map) (Дом с цепями и Дом моряка). The estate named “The house with chains” (because of the statue with chains decorating the roof of the building) was constructed in late 19th – early 20th centuries and owned by a merchant Hadji Mammadhuseyn Mammadov. In 1928 the estate was bought by famous brothers merchants Melikov, however, already in 1930 the estate was confiscated by the government and converted into a clothing factory. However, it is still commonly known as the Melikovs’ estate. Owing to the architectural style and aesthetic appearance the “House with chains” has special place among the architectural monuments constructed in Icheri Sherer in early 20th century. Presently the building serves as the Museum of Archeological and Ethnography Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Right next to the house of Melikov, on the left side, there is a “House of Sailor” of Abdul Manaf Alekperov. Abdul Manaf was a military navigator who spent so much time at sea, that he decided to built his house in a form of a ship’s deck. They say that he was very strict with his children, making them salut him and raised the flag every time he returned home from the sea.
The narrow street between “The House with Chains” and “The House of Sailor” is also home to the well-known “house with cats”. Story goes that this house once belonged to a judge, who was very cruel. One day his two children were playing at home with a cat who ran out and jumped out of the window. Children tried to stop the cat and fell out of the window themselves. The cat, of course, survived, but children didn’t, which led people believe that God sent a punishment to the judge for his cruelty. Again, these are legends of the Icheri Sheher and whether it is true or not, no one knows …
On the same side with the “House of Sailor” are the remains of the Baku Khans Residence (p.8 on the map) (Bakı xanlarının evi, Дом бакинских ханов), an architectural monument of the 18th century. This complex, consisting of five enclosed courtyards, gardens with pools and flowers, was a residence of the last Baku khan – Husayn Quli Khan, his family members – Abdurrahim bey and Mehdigulu bey between 1747 to 1806. The entrance, in the form of a curved arch, still exists and contains an inscription with the alleged date of its construction. In 1806 when the Baku Khanate was annexed to Russia, general Bulghakov lived at the residency; he ordered the gilded oil paintings on the walls of the Khans residence to be removed. Now only the entrance portal and a small restored mosque have survived. The underground bathhouse in the low part of the fortress walls in the territory of the Khans’ palace still remains unearthed. The latest excavations of 1985- 86 revealed a lot of cultural samples, a water supply system and underground architectural constructions. Sadly, the Palace Complex is in ruins and presently serves as a workers’ warehouse while the Official Administration of State Historical-Architectural Reserve “Icherisheher” informed media that they have whatsoever no intentions to repair the palace.
Building of National Encyclopedia and remains of St. Nicholas Church (p.9 on the map) (AMEA- Milli Ensiclopediya, Здание Национальной Энциклопедии, Müqəddəs Nikolay kilsəsi, развалины Собора Св. Николая Чудотворца). The Soviet-looking building of AMEA isn’t of much interest to us, but it stands on/or near the site where the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas was built between 1850-1857. Until 1818 Baku had no permanent church, except for one mobile military parish, called the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Miro-Lycian, and housed on the site of mosque in the so-called “dark ranks” in the fortress. In January 1831 the Orthodox population of the city petitioned for the construction in Baku of the new stone church of St. Nicholas and two decades later, on March 18, 1950 a ceremonial laying of the temple finally took place. Constructed and completed in 1858 by the Tbilisi architect Belov the St. Nicholas church was made of surface-tooled stone in an Eastern architectural style. The cathedral was about 45m high, built in the shape of a four-armed cross in the Georgian-Byzantine style and had an altar to the north and two thrones. The church had five bells on a three-tiered bell tower and was able to accommodate 500 prayers. Unfortunately, in 1930 the church was partially destroyed and only its lower part has survived.
And finally I got to the main attraction of the walled Icheri Sheher – the actual City Walls (Городские стены) and The Double Gates (Qosha Qala Gapisi, Shamakhy gates, Şamaxı qapıları, Шемахинские ворота) (p.10 and p.11 on the map). Of the 500-m section of Baku’s fortress walls (8-10m in height and 3-3.5m in width) which remains intact, the grandest and stateliest feature stands at the junction of Nizami Square and Youth Square. The very well-preserved Double “Shamakhy” Gate connects two of the city’s most beautiful areas – ancient Baku and the “Outer City”. And even today, the sumptuous mansions built outside the city walls by Baku millionaires during the “oil boom”, compete for their wealth of appearance, the delicacy of their architecture and the beauty of their wall motifs with the houses inside Icheri Sheher. The fortress walls, which now separate medieval city from capitalist city, have a unique history. The most ancient part of these walls was erected in the 12th century, by order of Shirvanshah III Manuchehr (A.D. 1120-1160). This was discovered during restoration work when a three-line text was found on a stone of the wall. Written in Arabic script, it read: “The construction of this wall was ordered by the glorious, wise, just, victorious, ruling monarch… supporter of Islam and of Muslims, the great Shirvanshah Abdul Khoja Manujohr”.
So, the fortress wall encircled Baku three centuries before the famous Palace of the Shirvanshahs was built. And until the middle of the 19th century, the city was surrounded by a double fortress wall on land and a single earth barrier on the sea side. In addition, in the southern part of the earth barrier, there were two further walls, perpendicular to the barrier – bent towards the sea and extended into the Caspian, they created a very reliable sheltered harbour for ships. The outer part of the walls was surrounded by moats, and in case of an attack, the moats were filled with water through special canals. In addition, there was also a moat between the outer and inner fortress walls. The moat was filled with oil and set afire during enemy attacks. Thus, in order to try to capture the city, one had to go through fire and water. While the inner wall of the Baku fortress, the higher of the two, was built in 12th century, the lower outer barrier was erected in 1608-1609, during the reign of Shah Abbas, of the Safavid dynasty by the then ruler of the city, Zulfuqar khan. However, from 1826 Baku’s fortress was no longer used for its original purpose and the walls were “renovated” to facilitate the installation of artillery mountings (the current merlon crenellations were restored in the 1930s).
The “oil boom” of 1872 brought an influx of workers and migrants that the ancient Oriental fortress city could no longer accommodate, hence a question of the city’s extension emerged. At first it was planned to tackle the problem by means of an apparently simple expedient – demolishing Baku’s ancient fortress walls, to which his Majesty Tsar Aleksandr II responded “on 1 August of the same year, 1870, showed high courtesy and allowed: the filling of the ditch and demolition of the field fortification… in front of the Baku fortress; and to preserve the old walls as a monument of the ancient period”. Now, we can only imagine the external appearance of the Baku fortress walls, however, certain traces of them still remain. The Shah Abbas gate (the right-hand side of the present-day Double Gate) located right in front of the Shamakhy gate in the inner wall was the main gate in the outer wall. After instructions were received to demolish the outer wall, city craftsmen, in order to preserve the Shah Abbas gate, decided to move it to the inner wall of the Baku fortress. Nowadays, when you look closely at the fortress’s double gate, you can see that the color of the coating stone in the left-hand arch is lighter. This is the only sign that it was built later.
The craftsmen were able to preserve the bas-relief, Baku’s medieval symbol, on both gates. This symbol existed long before the development of industry in Baku and the flurry generated by oil extraction. Down to the present day, on both – the Shamakhy gate and the Shah Abbas gate – there is a stone “clew” with two small circles around it, made by a skillful artisan. This graphic and very interesting sample of medieval oriental heraldry contains many elements. When the German traveller and scientist Engelbert Kaempfer was in Baku in 1683, he tried to unravel the meaning of this ancient city coat of arms with the help of local experts. Kaempfer believed that the bull’s head depicted on the coat of arms is a symbol of the ancient city of Baku itself. Since the land was very dry here and it was often crossed by very strong winds, people living in the city were unable to grow crops and so they bred cattle instead. Many scientists believe that the bull and the cow were the most ancient totems of the Absheroni population. These images can be found in rock paintings, in places where people lived and, later, on money. Therefore, the image of a bull’s head on the ancient coat of arms is a local symbol. As for the lions, their depiction on Baku’s coat of arms is probably designed to maintain West Asia’s heraldic traditions and links to oriental culture. The unique feature of the lions on Baku’s coat of arms is that they have no swords in their hands. However, this does not detract from their grandeur at all. Along with the bull, the Sun and the Moon are also often depicted on ancient city heraldry. The Sun is a symbol of day and the Moon is a symbol of night, it could be that the small circles near the bulls’ head bear the same meaning. Hence, according to Kaempfer, the meaning of the coat of arms on the main entrance gate to the fortress is as follows: “The lions (meaning the fortress walls) guard the Bull (meaning the city) both at night (the Moon) and in the day (the Sun)”. Take a walk along those walls as they represent a living historical thread, linking ancient Baku with old and modern Baku.
If you are facing The Double Gate, you are probably standing in a wide open square known as Meydan. The Old Customs Building (Здание старой таможни) (p.9 on the map) was situated here, just to the left of the Gate. In the old days, in addition to customs procedures, travelers and animal caravans were allowed to enter the city through these gates only after going through the sanitary and hygienic procedure of washing: people were required to take a bath, while animal legs were treated with goudron (tar oil).
While leisurely walking and admiring the walls along the Kilchik Qala, pay attention to the water wells, dating back to 16th-17th centuries. They were discovered during the wall restoration in 2012-2013, proving that Icheri Sheher has its water supply system in the 9th-13th centuries that was later improved and enlarged. The wells turned out to be treasure troves for the archeologists as they contained lots of tangible items dated to the 11th-17th centuries – clay polychrome and monochrome plates, bowls, pans, as well as fragments of other dishes, etc. The walls, the wells, the tea-houses, the carpet and souvenir shops and art, all located on the same street, could definitely win your heart and make you come back again and again.
Once you reach a very attractive square, where well-manicured garden, jolly decorated with pieces of Modern Art, diversifies the landscape of round domes of mosques and The Flame Towers, it means you arrived to the second most important historical place in Icheri Sheher – Palace of the Shirvanshahs (Şirvanşahlar Sarayı, Дворец ширваншахов) (p.12 and 13 on the map). Entrance – 2 manat ($1.9)/6 manat ($5.7) with a private guide, allow at least 1 hour. This golden, hard to miss, limestone complex was the seat of northeastern Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty during the Middle Ages. Mostly 15th century in essence, the Palace was painstakingly over-restored in 2003.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs was the last residence of the rulers of Shirvan State, a dynasty with a thousand year history. At medieval times Shirvan was the most powerful state, and while in the south of Azerbaijan old and new feudal states frequently replaced each other, in the north, the borders of Shirvan state continued to grow. History of Shirvanshahs’ state could be divided into four periods: the first Shirvanshahs, Mazyadids, Kesranids and Derbendis. There is very little know about the first Shirvanshah dynasty. Mazyadids dynasty, founded by Heysam ibn Khalid, in 861, was of Arabic origin but it quickly assimilated with local nobility and gradually turned into Kesranids dynasty known for its traditional way of life. Shirvanshahs of that dynasty – Manichohr, Akhsitan, Fariburz – were wise and well-educated rulers. The last ruler, Shirvanshah Hushenge ibn Kavus, left no heir after his death in 1382 and according to tradition, feudal lords of Shirvan elected his distinct relative Sheikh Ibrahim as the new Shirvanshah. This poor, but well-known feudal lord from Sheki founded the last Shirvanshahs dynasty of Derbendi. Sheikh Ibrahim ruled in very uneasy period linked with the wars of Timur with Tokhtamish for the seizure of Azerbaijan. Military campaigns passed through Shirvan and inflicted serious damages and losses to the country. However, a wise ruler and smart diplomat, Ibrahim I took the side of Timur, and was entrusted with the protection of the northern borders of the country. In 1405 after the death of Timur, Ibrahim I achieved the independence of Shirvan state and for thirty five years of his reign, not only did he manage to keep Shirvan independent, but also he expanded the territory of the country to the great extend.
The first capital of Shirvanshahs’ state was the city of Shamakhy. However, after the devastating earthquake of 1197, Shirvanshah moved the capital to Baku. The 12th and the first half of the 13th centuries saw the great economical, political and cultural development in Shirvan state. Baku also developed as a port city, while Sabayil castle, fortress walls, Shirvanshahs’ Palace were constructed. During the reign of Sheikh Ibrahim I (1382-1417), Khalilullah I (1417-1462), Farrukh Yasar (1462-1500) military fortifications of Derbend, Akhti, Tsakhur were restored, Farrukhiyye madrasa was built in the Mosque complex of Derbend. However, in 1538 Shirvan state was conquered by the Safavids.
The Complex of Shirvanshahs’ Palace, occupying 1 ha, was erected on one of the highest points of Icheri Sheher, in a densely populated area. The construction work was not confined to the single architectural plan. However, taking into consideration the purpose of each building of the Complex, the masters could place them in order of importance creating a beautiful scenery. If you look carefully, you can see that the buildings don’t contrast with each other, au contraire, they complete and complement each other. Because of rough topography of its area, the territory of the Complex was purposefully divided into three functioning courtyards with the level difference of 5-6m. So, lets go and explore the Complex.
- Dwelling House
- Divan Khana
- Dervish Tomb
- Foundation of Key-Gubad mosque
- Eastern Portal
- Palace Mosque
- Shirvanshahs’ family tomb
- Palace Bath-house
- Shah’s Ovdan
The upper courtyard, where Dwelling house and Mausoleum of Farrukh Yassar or Divan Khana are located, is called ceremonial yard. My very young but talented female guide and I started our tour from the masterpiece of the Complex – Memorial Tomb (Mausoleum) of Farrukh Yassar or Divan Khana (Khan’s Court) (p.2) – reached via a small gateway on the left from the main courtyard. Until now, historians can’t decided whether this building was a court house (and a very small one), used to accept the visitors and delegations or it was a mausoleum of Farruck Yassar, the last Shirvanshas. It is located in a quadrangular yard enclosed by arched pillar gallery from three sides. In the center, comfortably elevated on the high stylobate there is an octangular rotunda, surrounded by the open arched arcade. Its main western entrance is emphasized with the magnificent richly ornamented portal, decorated with oriental carpets’ carved ornaments. The ribbed semi cupola of the portal is rested upon seven rows of stalactites adorned with a foliage motif. The portal is framed on both sides with the hexagonal medallions which look like simple geometrical decorations but in fact, are full of meaningful inscriptions. The left inscriptions, written in very ancient Kufic Arabic script, read: “There is no God but Allah”, “Prophet Mohammed is the messenger of Allah” and “Imam Ali is close to Allah”. The hexagonal medallion on the right, which contains twelve small rhombs, reads “Allah is single” and the name “Mohammed” 6 times each.
The portal leads to small quadrangular vestibule. In the corner of this vestibule there are two premises laid one on top of another with both halls delicately decorated with leaves of fig and grape, typical to the flora of Azerbaijan. There is another inscription written in Arabic, which is the dictum from Koran: “The highest and most honest God said – may He be praised – Allah calls people to the world of peace, to the paradise. He directs whoever he chooses to the blessed road. Those who do good will get the good, and neither dust nor infamy will not cover their faces. They will be rewarded with paradise, in which they will stay for ever”. This inscription referring to the life hereafter, forgiveness of sins, etc led the historians believe that Shirvanshah Farrukh Yassar got this building constructed as his own mausoleum. The architectural structure of the monument also supports this idea as it was built in a style similar to Timur’s own tomb. What is evident is that the last Shivanshas Farruck Yassir was not buried there as in 1500-1501 his army lost a battle with Savafids and captured Farruck was later burned with arms and legs tied.
The octangular hall is covered with a beautiful cupola of unusual outline. Originally all six doorways were decorated with stone lattices -“shebeke”. In winter they were covered with carpets, and in summer – with curtains. The outside frames of these doorways are also decorated with plant and geometrical ornaments. At the sharp point of arch of each door there is one hexagonal medallion with the name of Imam Ali repeated six times: three in raised form and three in sunk. However, if you pay attention to some capitals, basis of the columns and doorway frames, you notice that the carving work was left unfinished, probably due to the war of 1500-1501.
Two-storeyed Dwelling House (p.1) is the oldest building of the Complex, built in late 13th – early 14th century. In this two-storied palace of irregular form, floors are connected by three stone staircases built in the thickness of the walls. Originally the palace had 52 rooms; 27 of them were on the ground floor, 25 were on the second floor (presently, only 16 rooms on the second floor were reconstructed). The ground floor with narrow windows was intended for servants and as a storehouse. The Shirvanshah and his family lived in the rooms on the second floor with large windows decorated by “shebeke”. The main entrance into the Palace is emphasized with high pointed arch. Its high, modest portal is distinguished by the play of light and shade, caused by the masterful rotation of masonry rows which made stones acquire different tint. In comparison with the richly ornamented portal of Divan Khana, the simple portal of Dwelling house looks very sordid and signifies the inviolability of this Palace as a fortress.
The portal leads to the octangular entrance hall topped with a high cupola. This hall served as the reception room of Shirvanshahs. Narrow holes in the walls were intended for communication with the ground floor (and I was encouraged to shout something out in it). The main rooms of the Dwelling house are Throne hall and Banquet hall. Throne hall, located to the left of the reception room has an inscription from Zilzar sura of Koran over its entrance door: “People who do good things will get it back at the end”. The Throne Hall was the center of State representation. Badr Shirvani, the court poet who lived here in the 15th century wrote: “It is blue as the sky and golden as the sun here. When light passes through the windows to fall upon the ceiling full of decorative designs, the stars shine from within the blue glow of the dome”. Archeological finds made historians believe that the palace was covered with cupolas decorated with blue tiles. In the Banquet hall the windows covered with stone lattices “shebeke” overlook the beautiful panorama of the bay. Presently, both rooms display items discovered during the archeological work within the Palace and Icheri Sheher, such as musical instruments of the 15th century, various household items, coins of 12-15th centuries, copper utensils, weapons and ornaments of the 19th century. Also among the exhibits are female costumes and embroidery of the 19th century, Shamakhy carpets and carpet woven in the 17th century in Baku. Look for the “mustache keeper”, I bet you’ve never even imagined that thing existed!
Among all the buildings of the Complex, the Dwelling house suffered the most destruction. After the death of Shirvanshah Farrukh Yassar in 1501, the Palace was seized and looted by the troops of Safavids. Until now, it is not known who occupied the palace between 16th and the 18th century. In 1723 when the troops of Peter the Great bombarded the city from the sea, the upper part of Dwelling house was damaged and its cupolas were destroyed. After becoming a part of Russian Empire in 1828, the Complex was handed over to the Russian military department who transformed the palace into the storehouse for military equipment and ammunition. At that time when the repair-construction works were carried out in Dwelling house, its cupola decorated with glazed tiles of turquoise color, some walls, as well as the mosaic plaster of arches were completely demolished. In the late 19th century the Place was destroyed and derelict, until 2004 when it was re-constructed and rebuilt as close to its original plan as possible.
Dervish’s tomb, remains of Sabayil castle, foundation of Key-Gubad mosque are located at the middle courtyard. Eastern Portal (p.5) is the last construction of the Complex. Known as “Murad’s gate”, it was erected by the architect Amirshah Valiankuhi in the 16th century during the occupation of Baku by Ottoman Turks. The upper part of the Portal is decorated with the inscription written in Arabic: “Ulu Radgab baba Bakuvi ordered to build this noble building during the reign of fair and majestic Sultan Murad khan in 994 year of hijri history” or in 1585-86. Judging by the wording of the inscription (“building” and not the “gate”), the portal is likely to have been the entrance of the building which either didn’t survive, or was not built at all. The semi cupola with stalactites forms a deep hollow at the bottom of the portal.
Remains of Sabayil Castle. In the middle courtyard there is a great number of stone slabs with the inscriptions and images. They were discovered at the bottom of Baku bay and represent all that remains of Sabayil castle, one of the unique architectural monuments of medieval times hidden under the water for many centuries. Archaeological work carried out in 1946 and 1962 years, established the existence of a small island known as “Sabayil city” within 300 m of the coast. The oblong rectangular castle, resembling a Gulustan fortress, was erected on this island between 1234-1235 during the reign of the Shirvanshah Fariburz III. Castle was 175m long and 35m wide, with 1.8m thick walls connecting 3 circular and 12 semi-circular towers. Three towers in the corners served as entrances into the castle. However, in 1306, as a result of earthquake the level of the Caspian Sea rose, the island was flooded, and Sabayil castle collapsed and submerged under the water for more than 4 centuries. As the level of the Caspian Sea began to drop in 1722 till present time, stones and rocks emerged out of the sea. As a result of a 30 year long work, about 700 stone slabs were lifted from the bottom of the bay. All these slabs with inscriptions and images were in frieze which encircled the upper walls of the castle from outside. Even though the inscriptions written in Arabic, mostly in Persian were badly preserved, the researchers could read names of some cities – Baku, Shamakhy, titles – shah, sultan, names of Shirvanshahs ruled till that time – Muhammed ibn Yazid, Khalid, Ali, Manuchohr, Gushtasb, Fariburz and so on. The inscription carved on two stone slab reads: “That is the work of the master Zeinaddin ibn Abu Rashid Shirvani”. Besides the stone inscriptions, there are a lot of stones with images of animals, realistic and symbolic, human heads and pictures of fabulous creatures carved in bas-relief. Images of lion and bull carved on the stone slabs are the heraldic symbols of Shirvan state. Pictures of realistic animals depicted on the stones might be served as a calendar of that time – showing the years of reign of Shirvanshahs (it is known that at medieval times in Near East each year was named after a certain animal). Human heads carved on the stone slabs could be identified as the portraits of Shirvanshahs. The research of the castle also proved the fact that it was a defensive fortress with a fleet moored at its walls. During the archaeological excavation scientists also found here the remains of rooms, fire places, pottery and coins.
Dervish’s Tomb (p.3) is wrongly considered to be the mausoleum of a medieval scientist and philosopher Seyid Yahya Bakuvi. The dervish buried in this tomb lived and worked as a “muezzin” in the Palace of Shirvanshah Ibrahim I long before the arrival of Seyid Yahya Bakuvi to Baku. The octangular tomb is covered with 7.5m high pyramid-like cupola. The mausoleum consists of subterranean (the vault of the dervish) and upper parts, intended for religious ceremonies, and believed to be covered with grey plaster. On both sides of the mausoleum, there are three small windows carved in solid slabs of limestone, and, like in the old days, representing a cross-cutting stone lattice consisting of multi-rayed stars.
Foundation of Key-Gubad mosque (p.4) There was once a madrasa-mosque adjoining the dervish’s tomb. Named after Shirvanshah Key-Gubad, it was built in the 14th century and consisted of a rectangular prayer-hall with a small vestibule. In the center of the hall there were four columns on which the cupola was rested. The facade of the mosque was simple, strict without ornaments and inscriptions. Unfortunately, in 1918 Key-Gubad mosque burnt down, leaving only three bases of columns and a part of the wall to the roof untouched. In the 1920s, while examining the ruins of the old mosque, archeologist Pakhomov found that the pedestal of one of the column bases hid a narrow neatly plastered subterranean corridor leading to the mausoleum crypt. While the corridor contained several gravestones, an examination of the crypt revealed scattered bones of twenty human skeletons. It was concluded that a mosque was built on a site of a former cemetery and the digging of trenches for foundation disturbed a number of graves.
Shirvanshahs’ family tomb and Palace mosque are situated at the Lower court, called worship yard, while Palace bath-house and Ovdan are located in the lowest terrace of the Complex. The lower yard is separated from the other yards of the Complex by a blind wall with arched doorway.
Shirvanshahs’ family tomb (p.7) is a rectangular building topped with hexagonal cupola decorated with distinct polygonal stars. In the past, those star-shaped hollows were filled with light-blue glazed tiles. The entrance – a richly ornamented portal adorned with leaves and petals of oleander – considered to be one of the most beautiful models in Azerbaijan architecture. The top of the portal contains two inscriptions written in nash script. The first, the 12th sura of Koran, reads: “Allah, the holiest and highest, said, on that day he will forgive you, because he is the most merciful”. The inscription below is a hadissa: “The Prophet said, may Allah be blessed and greeted, You will certainly see your Lord with your own eyes”. On the tympans of the portal there are two tear-drop shaped medallions, wrongly considered to have the name of the architect carved inside. In fact, the inscription written here says: “Thanks to the God for the gifts that he gives us”. The inscription over the entrance informs about the functional purpose of the building: “The Highest Sultan the Great Shirvanshah, the namesake of the Prophet, protection of Islam, Khalilullah I, may his reign and power be immortalized by Allah, ordered to build this sacred burial vault for his mother and son, may Allah bless them”, dating to 1435-36. According to the divan written by poet Badr Shirvany, the mausoleum also served as a final resting place to Khalilullah I himself, his mother Bika khanum, his sons – Farrukh Yamin, Sheykh Saleh, Emir Bahram, Ibrahim and Khalilullah’s cousin, Chief Commander of Shirvanshahs’ Army, Emir Tahmuras. Archeological excavation of 1946 revealed another 14 untouched burials within the tomb, tentatively of people related to Khalilillah. The Family mausoleum consists of the burial hall and two small rooms to the right and to the left, that were intended for mullah. In 1500-1501, when the troops of Safavids occupied Baku, Shah Ismail Khatai destroyed all the graves in the Shirvanshahs’ family tomb, however, as it became clear later, he only managed to destroy the tomb stones, leaving the graves untouched.
Palace Mosque (p.6), the second monument located at the lower courtyard, is covered with two sharp-pointed cupolas and is emphasized by well-proportioned 22m-high minaret raised in the north-eastern part of the building. The top of the minaret is adorned with a balcony-sherefe, intended for muezzin and supported by stalactites with an inscription written in Arabic: “This minaret was built by order of Sultan Khalilullah I, may Allah exalt the days of his government”. (1441-1442). According to the Shariat law, no one can enter the mosque without doing ablution and taking their shoes off, hence always look for a small pool or water fountain near the mosque. It has three entrances – the main northern entrance, decorated with a portal and niches for shoes, leads to the praying hall for men. From the middle-level yard, there is the eastern entrance intended for the Shirvanshah. The western, most simplest one, entrance leads to the women’s praying hall. There is a simply decorated mihrab on the southern wall of the praying hall for men while an ordinary niche serves as a mihrab for women. To enhance the acoustics, the big clay jugs were built into the upper corners of the men’s praying hall, with their small necks turned to the hall. Notice the wall niches, they served to store prayer-mats, beads, Koran books and lamps. At some point, chandeliers, hung from the cupola, used to illuminate the mosque.
The 15th century Palace bath-house (p.8) is located in the lowest courtyard of the Complex and has no less than 26 rooms. Like all oriental bath-houses, it was built with half of the construction located under the ground to maintaining temperature regime. After the Shirvanshahs dynasty collapse, the Palace hammam was out of use and was gradually buried under the soil where it stayed for many centuries. Rediscovered in 1939, it underwent a thorough restoration work in 1960s. Originally all rooms of the bath-house were covered with cupolas with slits for day-light and ventilation, typical for the hammams of Baku and Absheron. It had two types of rooms: “bayir” for undressing and “Icheri” for bathing. The reservoirs of cold and hot water, called “Khazna” were connected with the soap rooms. Water came from the “Shah Ovdan” (p.9) (water reservoir) located behind the Palace walls – 70 steps deep, it was one of the largest ovdans in Absheron and supplied with drinking water both the Palace and some residential blocks of the city. In order to supply hot water, the cold water from Shah ovdan went through ceramic pipe to the boiler-room and after being heated by white oil, it was distributed among soap rooms via stone wash-basins cut at the walls. While steam canals under the floor of soap rooms heated the Icheri rooms, bayir rooms were warmed by hot air coming from the washing rooms. Until today, you can see the stone benches, round pools and holes for shoes. In the past, both the exterior and interior of the bath-house were decorated with glazed tiles.
Once you leave the Palace of the Shirvanshas, turn left and walk along its walls. Shortly, on your right, you will see The Museum of Miniature Books (free admission), opened in 2002, it is the only privately owned museum of this kind in the world. Mrs. Zarifa Salahova, its founder, has collected more than 6,000 miniature book from 62 countries. She started with a purchase of a book, that is cited and re-cited on daily basis by everyone who speaks Russian – Fables by Ivan Krylov, published in 1835. However, the museum also exhibits the works of prominent Azeri classical poets – Nizami, Fizuli and Nasimi, Koran and other religious books as well as books by Jack London, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, etc.
Following the same street, you will come to a handkerchief of Vahid garden dominated by one of Baku’s most imaginative busts, that of a poet Aliagha Vahid incorporating characters from his work in the lines of his hair. The simple stone cube behind him is the 1375 Chin Mosque (Çin məscidi, Чин-мечеть) (p.14), now used as a tiny coin museum. The mosque is called “Chin” (True), due to the belief that all the wishes and desires of its attendees will become true. The mosque portal is considered to be the oldest in the city made in eastern style.
From the square, there are several ways to explore Icheri Sheher, you can either continue along the city walls and visit, or at least see from the outside, Baku’s historical hammams, or dive into one of the multiple crooked streets for more authentic experience. Since I’ve visited the old town on a few occasions, I’ve done both. So, at first, I walked along a very pretty Kichik Qala – a perfect place for street photography with its old Soviet Zaporozhets, playing children and both, ferrel and domesticated, cats.
To you left, there is an old Gileyli mosque (Gileyli məscidi, Гилек-мечеть) with two domes and carved bars on the windows, it is located at the top of the fortress. Built in two stages – in 1309 during the period of the Shirvanshahs, and in 1805 by Haji Shams al-Din Beg, the grandson of Salim Khan – it received its name from the word “Gilan” – silk merchants who were primary residents of the area. Just a few meters further, there is Agha Mikayil Hammam (Ağa Mİkayıl hamamı, Баня Ага Микаила), a bath-house opened by the resident of Shamakhy, Hadji Agha Mikayil, in the 18th century. The area is popularly known as a “settlement of bathhouse attendants” and even though it has several hammams, Agha Mikayil is indisputably everyone’s favorite – open on Mondays and Fridays for women and the rest of the week for men. Before reaching the end of the city wall, on the left side there is another bathhouse – Gasim-Bek Hammam (Qasım bəy hamamı, Баня Касум-бека), that was constructed in 17th century near the Salyan Gate. It is popularly known as “Shirin” (Sweet), because it was famous for its tea served with delicious sweets. It has traditional layout that consists of a vestibule, dressing and washing premises as well as the treasure and fire chambers. Water supply and the heating system were implemented through the angle pipelines inside the walls and under the floor. Both hammams are functioning bath-houses and the official monuments of national value of history and culture of Azerbaijan protected by state.
If you continue straight, you will exit in front of the Four Seasons hotel, but instead, lets turn left and dive into the small, curved like oriental dagger, streets. The oldest monument of Islamic period in Icheri Sheher is the Mohammad Mosque (p.15 on the map) (Məhəmməd məscidi, Мечеть Мухаммеда). According to an Arabic inscription, it was built in the 1078-1079 and acquired its second name Synyk Kala – “Broken Tower” in 1723, when military squadron of Russian Army, consisting of 15 warships approached the city from seaside and demanded its surrender during the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723). When the Khan of Baku declined, Russian warships began to bomb the city until one of shells hit the minaret of Mohammad Mosque and damaged it. As the legend goes, immediately, the stormy winds, interpreted by Bakuvians as a divine scourge sent to the occupants, blew the Russian ships further out to sea, allowing the residents to rebuild the city walls. They still lost the war but until the middle of the 19th century, the minaret of the mosque wasn’t reconstructed, remaining a symbol of the persistence and courage of the defendants of the tower. Artifacts found at the time of the restoration work on the Mohammad Mosque in 1980s revealed that the mosque was constructed on the site of a fire temple which functioned during the pre-Islamic period. Formidable and slightly thinning minaret adjoins new mosque, which was constructed on the basis of the older one’s plan. Coarse and flat stalactites of tabling retain sherefe – muezzin’s balcony enclosed by stone plates. Ligature with Koranic inscription was traced under the tabling with archaic kufi alphabet. However, the Mohammad Mosque brought entirely different associations for me as I recognized it as a place from a famous Soviet movie “Бриллиантовая Рука” (“The Brilliant Hand”). A Russian production of 1969, this comedy gained cult status and people like to insert whole passages of dialogues in conversations. It is a story of clumsy Semyon Gorbunkov, who accidentally gets involved in a diamond smuggling, while on a trip to Turkey. But director Leonid Gaidai resolved to shoot several scenes in Baku – one of them right here, in front of the Mohammed Mosque.
Continue towards the sea and you appear at one of the largest and busiest pedestrian streets of Icheri Sheher – Asaf Zeynalli. You are probably standing at the T-shaped intersection with a historical monument in each corner – Juma Mosque, Madrasa and Small Caravanserai. Immediately on the right corner is Madrasah (P.16) (Mədrəsə, Медресе́). Built in the 15th century in the courtyard of Juma Mosque for educational purpose, presently, it serves as one of the chapels and no longer functions as a religious school for mektebs. Juma Mosque (p.16) (Cümə məscidi, Джума мечеть), located just across the street, has been repeatedly and radically restored and rebuilt. It is believed that the mosque was constructed over a fire-worshiping temple and later restored in 1309-10. In the 1437-38, during the reign of Shirvanshah Khalilullah I the present minaret was built to function as balcony for summoning the believers, however the text engraved on the gravestone at the foundation of the minaret discovered during archaeological work make us believe that the minaret was built even before the completion of Juma Mosque. Due to natural causes, the building of the first mosque was completely destroyed and in its place, in the 17th century, during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the second building was built. The lower part of the minaret until now contains the inscription of 1614 with the decree of Shah Abbas I about collection of taxes.
According to its floor-plan, the mosque was an irregular hexagon with truncated southern and western corners. It had a small room with a domed hall, which was designed for men, and prayer rooms for women. A distinctive feature of the Jama mosque was a conical dome, decorated with glazed tiles and imported decorative materials, a rare example in the Azerbaijani architecture, which really stood on the monotonous background of medieval Baku. They say, the building and the second mosque were destroyed by fire. At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the rich Bakunians – Sheikhan Dadashov Haji – had the mosque rebuilt and its version you can now enjoy in Icheri Sheher. You can follow my steps and visit the female section of the mosque (behind the minaret), just don’t forget to cover your head and leave your shoes out.
Small Caravanserai (p.16) (Xan karvansarayı, Ханский караван-сарай). Also known as “Khan’s caravansaray”, it was constructed in the late 15th -early 16th centuries, however some sources date it to the 12th century. A square building, it has a large quadrangular yard with cut corners inside. The entire perimeter is covered with balconies behind which the residential premises were located. It has 3 entrances, however, the main one, located in the Middle Ages on the seaside, looks nothing less but a formidable two-storeyed bastion. Before becoming a caravanserai, this building probably served as another madrasa of the Juma Mosque, however, once it was converted into the guest house its outer walls turned into a shopping gallery for residents and visitors.
Ashur Mosque (p.17) (Ləzgi məscidi, Ашур или Лезги-мечеть) was constructed by master Najaf Ashur Ibrahim in 1169. It acquired its own second name “Lezghin” during the oil boom of late 19th, when workers from Dagestan came to Baku in order to earn money and the inhabitants of Icheri Sheher allow them to pray in this mosque. The mosque is a parallelepiped with two small windows on its southern facade. The small cross-shaped entrance in the northeast part of the mosque leads to the one-chamber praying hall. During the archaeological work and restoration process in 1970s, two semicircle arches and rooms belonging to the Sassanid’s period were discovered under the southern part of the building. As many other religious building in the city, it is also believed to be built on the site of an ancient fire-worshiping temple.
Completing the historical circle around Icheri Sheher is Two-Storeyed Caravanserai “Mugham Theater” (p.19) located on the right side of Asaf Zeynalli street, right next to the Maiden Tower. This 17th century “hotel” presently functions as a restaurant and theater where visitors can experience traditional Azerbaijani cuisine and folk songs. I, frankly, didn’t go in so I can’t vouch for the quality of performance. After visiting all the sites, you can either continue exploring less visited streets of Icheri Sheher, as they are definitely full of charm and Soviet nostalgia, or you can check out the busy main avenue running along the Caspian shore – Neftchilier Prospekt. Since it was still a day time, I decided to take some pictures of the city from above, so I headed towards the Funicular. I have to warn you, that once you are in the open space by the sea, it becomes clear that the country suffers from “Azeri Flag-Mania”. Not only Azerbaijan, until recently, had the world’s tallest, according to the Guinness Book of Records flagpole, but also did they make sure you will have at least two (or maybe three) National flags in your line of sight at all times. I can guarantee you that the colors of Azeri flag will forever cement into your memory.
Another thing worth mentioning is drivers’ lack of respect for pedestrians, so if you don’t see a traffic light, look for an underpass, but do not try to run across the street, even if there is a “zebra” painted over it, because the cars would not stop. Well, I guess it was a way to make us all check out one of the wonders of Baku – “the white underpass” – as I called it. I thought I was pretty accustomed to marble subway stations of Moscow and Minsk, or to superb cleanliness of public spaces everywhere in Japan, but I’ve never used an underground path that looked like the inlaid with precious stones tunnel leading to Taj Mahal. I know I looked silly while taking pictures there but frankly, it was one of the most unusual and impressive things I’ve seen. However, I do suspect that Four Seasons Hotel located at the corner of the same street has something to do with it – how more can you impress your customers but letting them pass to Bulvar (Caspian corniche) via such a magnificent route. That would definitely make you believe in the might of Azeri oil and gas.
Funicular Lower Station (open 10.00 – 22.00, “dinner break” from 12.00-14.00) is located 500 m to the south of Icheri Sheher and in less than 4 mins and free of cost, it will take you to the foot of the Dağüstü Park offering spectacular panoramic views of the city and Baku bay.
Once you get there, you can explore the park, visit the Martyrs’ Lane – cemetery and memorial dedicated to those who were killed during the Black January and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, enjoy the close proximity with the current symbol and the tallest buildings of Baku – The Flame Towers, or simply take a moment to savor the scenery. At night, you can visit a very popular Dagustu Park Kafe and indulge yourself in very strong and very good tea with preserves (yes, this is how they do it)! I’m pretty sure on the evening we were there (with an American, Russian and Ukrainian guys I met at the hotel), the president Ilham Aliyev was in attendance.
As soon as you descend from the hill and safely cross the street towards the Baku’s waterfront – called Bulvar (corrupted French “Boulevard”) – you are going to see a few interesting things. If you are facing the sea, to your very right is the lotus-like building of Caspian Waterfront mall, occupying its own peninsular, then, in a form of unfolding carpet – Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, followed by Mugham center and a very strange Venice-inspired amusement park with canals and gondolas, and to your very left is be National Flag Square with the world’s second largest Flagpole. If there is one thing to bring home from Azerbaijan, then it would be a carpet (or a few, in my case). In 2010 Azerbaijani carpets were proclaimed a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage by UNESCO and they are definitely worth exploring and learning about. I couldn’t praise the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum more. Entry – 10 manat with audioguide, ($9.5), additional for picture permit, but you can take photos with a phone without a permit. You can easily spent 2-3 hours exploring the museum’s vast collections, reading detailed annotations, enjoying the wonderful space and leave heavily loaded with new knowledge. On the first floor, besides the regular museum shop, there is a carpet gallery where you can buy authentic Azerbaijani carpets, but keep in mind that you would need the Azerbaijan Ministry of Culture permit to take the carpets outside the country (not so hard to get!)
And of course, over 100 years-old, 6 km long well-paved Bulvar (official name is Dənizkənarı Milli Park) is a place to see and be seen and no matter how many days you stay in Baku, the lively water promenade will draw you every evening like a drug. I, advantageously, happened to come to Azerbaijan during the last week of Ramadan (or Ramazan as it is known here) when the corniche would fill in with families and attractions at the sundown. I might be wrong, but Azeri didn’t strike me as very pious Muslims and I assume that 70 years as a Soviet Republic have something to do with it, however, I was sure it was busier than ever. Oil rigs and yacht clubs, flagmasts and shopping centers, big-wheel and 5-D cinemas, lavish cafes and simple food stands, hotels and business centers, rich and not-so-rich all melange in its own authentic but strange way on Bulvar. And if you want to see Baku from the water, you can even take a 45 mins pleasure-boat cruise (3 manat, $2.85), but make sure to stay away from the oil-filmed waters of Caspian sea. Everything comes with a price!
Since I was traveling alone, I didn’t get to eat in many restaurants but I definitely tried many street-served qutabs (gutab) – very thin round tortilla folded in two and filled either with ground lamb or with greens – and drunk plenty of tea served in small pear-shaped armudi stakan (“stakan” means “glass” in Russian). One night, American Andy, Ukrainian Volodymyr, Russian Igor and I went out for dinner at Firuze restaurant located right on the Fountain Square and I don’t think I’ve ever tried Azeri plov that was as tasty as theirs (we took 4 pictures and on all of them, Igor had food in his mouth, this is just how delicious it was!)
Qobustan (Gobustan). If you have a few days in Baku, a half-day trip to the Qobustan’s mud volcanoes and rock petroglyphs is a must, as you probably have never seen anything like it. I’ve heard it’s possible to get there by public bus and a taxi, however, when I asked the owner of my hotel about the trip, he offered to take me there for 80 manat ($76). Allow 6-7 hours.
Qobustan National Park (Qobustan Milli Parkı, Гобустанский государственный историко-художественный заповедник) is a hill and mountain site occupying the southeast end of the Greater Caucasus mountain ridge about 64 km south of Baku. Its entire territory is cut up with numerous, rather deep ravines, called “gobu” in Azerbaijani, which suggests the origin of the name. After the accidental discoveries of ancient rock petroglyphs and inhabited caves by miners in 1930, the area was declared a national historical landmark of Azerbaijan and in 2007, it was added to a UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Throughout many centuries under impact of the sun, wind, seismic activity and various atmospheric precipitation, blocks of stones broke away from the edges of a vast limestone layer and rolled down the slopes, forming about 20 big and small caves and the canopies serving as a natural shelter for the inhabitants. In 1930 a group of miners went there to quarry gravel and noticed the elaborate carvings and man-made caves. Apparently, around 12,000 years ago, when the Caspian coast was a lush savannah and sea levels far higher, Stone Age hunter-gatherers settled in a series of caves that they etched with around 6,000 stone engravings. The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and around 40 kurgans (burials), all reflecting an intensive human use during the wet period between 10th millennium B.C. and the 5th-15th centuries. Now, high above the shore, the cave sites, which cover an area of 100 km2, have crumbled into a craggy chaos of boulders but the ancient petroglyphs remain, protected as a part of the Qobustan Reserve.
When we arrived, firstly, I visited The Petroglyph Museum (entry – 1 manat), where an eager English-speaking guide took me around a very well-designed exhibit consisting of a dozen halls. Many walls were decorated with the photographs of the rock engravings found in the Reserve and information – from the general knowledge about prehistoric rock art to the “dissections” of particular Qobustan petroglyphs – was detailed, educational and far from boring. Derived from the Greek words “petros” (rock) and “glyphe” (carving), petroglyphs, in a wider sense, are images engraved or drawn on the rock. Scientists would use this word exclusively for denoting engravings in the rock, and not paintings or drawings. It is considered to be a very fragile form of art as it is located in the natural environment and exposed to the forces of nature. In addition, people intentionally or inadvertently damage the painted or engraved surfaces of the rocks, microorganisms and man-made pollution of the air and water wear the ancient art down too, so it does require protection. A few museum rooms were dedicated to the discovery and exploration of the site, while others explore in details recording, tracing, photographing, outlining, measuring and mapping petroglyphs. Most of the rock engravings in Qobustan depict primitive men, animals, battle-pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands, camel caravans, pictures of sun and stars. The petroglyphs are an exceptional testimony to a way of life that has disappeared, graphic representations of activities connected with hunting and fishing at a time when the climate and vegetation of the area were warmer and wetter than today, that is why they require deep analysis and interpretation. The museum guide pointed out a few places where rock engravings were easy to miss and sent me off.
If you need to use bathroom, do it in the museum, another opportunity (at the site) might not be too comfortable to even consider. After we left, we drove for another 10 minutes before we reached the so-called “Roman Graffiti” – a small plaque with inscription in Latin – surrounded by fence and a dozen of happy grazing bulls and cows of Qobustan. This petroglyphs is considered to be the easternmost Roman inscription ever discovered and it is believed to be chipped out by Julius Maximus, a centurion of the 12th Legion, probably on a reconnaissance mission from Roman Syria during the reign of Emperor Domitian (A.D. 51-96).
After 5 minutes of driving and we finally reached the main entrance to the Petroglyph Reserve. An outdoor cafe, a policeman, who also checked out tickets, and a paved path through the Reserve – everything was done to facilitate my pleasant time here – all I needed to do was to keep my eyes wide open. It is impossible to get lost, but very possible to miss the petroglyphs. Please allow 1-2 hours there and watch out for snakes.
Along the path, I’ve discovered at least 30-40 petroglyphs and a few caves, some of which were marked and some weren’t. I have to admit that every rock carving came to me as it was I who discovered it, that is just how excited I was to located them on the flat surfaces of the huge boulders. Some of them were very obvious and easily stood out on the yellow background of the stone, but many weren’t, so I had to twist my head left and right, up and down all the time. Well, at no moment was I disappointed!
As I pointed out earlier, it is not everything to find a rock carving, it is also important to “decipher” it in order to understand the people who carved it. Although it is very hard to interpret individual petroglyphs, there is good reason to assume that many of them had a complex spiritual meaning for their creators and played some role in the ritual behavior of prehistoric people. Religions in the modern sense of the word didn’t exist in the Stone Age but there are aspects of petroglyphs that can be interpreted as religious. Just like in contemporary traditional cultures, people of prehistoric societies probably believed that their environment was inhabited by different kinds of spirits. They were not the gods of later religions, nor were they humans. Some of the petroglyphs depict spirits in the shape of animal-like or human-like figures. Evidence indicates that several rocks near the Firuz settlement on Kichikdash Mountains served as place of worship. There is a large concentration of petroglyphs here, especially images of boats. Archeologists have discovered several solar images with remains of fire close to them which suggests it was a place for solar rituals; a hole in the rock nearby could have been used for sacrificed or other ritualistic purposes. Even though many of petroglyphs were found near the settlements, it is still impossible to tell whether all of theses images could be seen or worshipped by everybody or the sacred places and rituals were hidden from a large part of the community. Magic is one of the most ancient forms of religious belief – the possibility of influencing the worlds not directly, but by indirect and supernatural means – particular words, ritualistic behavior, objects and images like petroglyphs that are believed to possess supernatural power. It is possible that hunting magic was particularly “popular” among prehistoric people. Veneration of spirits and the placed they dwell often included sacrifices and other votive rituals. Evidence of these rituals can also be found in Qobustan. It is most likely that prehistoric humans considered the well-being and benevolence of local spirits to be crucial for their own survival. One of the most debated contemporary hypotheses on the meaning of petroglyphs is the so-called “shamanic theory”. According to it, petroglyphs depict the experiences of a shaman during the state of trance. Supporters of this hypothesis point to the similarities in prehistoric images around the world. For ex., spirals like the ones of Kichikdash Mountain can be found in many other petroglyph sites and might represent a place of passage between this and other worlds. Although prehistoric people perceived the whole universe as inhabited by spirits, there were some special places where the presence of the supernatural world could be especially vivid. It seems that Qobustan was and to a certain extent is still considered to be such a place.
I chose three Qobustan petroglyphs to show how they were interpreted by the archeologists and scientists. For example, there are 4 interpretations of a “Boat” petroglyph:
- These are depictions of something like the technological achievements of the group. Since fishing was important for the survival of the inhabitants of Qobustan, knowledge of making boats was very important and was celebrate in the petroglyphs.
- Boats are often appear in ancient myths as a vehicle for transporting the dead to the afterworld.
- It is possible that these images represent some important ritual in the life of the prehistoric people of Qobustan. There may not be boats for everyday use, suggested by the symbol of the sun at one end of the boat.
- The symbol of the sun also suggests as interpretation of the petroglyph having had a mythological and cosmological meaning. The everyday trip to the sun from the East to the West is represented by various cultures in many different ways, including as a journey in a boat.
Or 6 interpretations of “Aurochs” petroglyph:
- Images of aurochs have been discovered in caves where prehistoric people actually lived, so it is possible that these petroglyphs were not meant for worship but rather represented the world prehistoric people were engaged with and the animals they were most familiar with and hunted.
- Prehistoric people didn’t make petroglyphs of all animals they encountered, they concentrated on some particular animals they considered significant for some reason. It is possible they represented their totem. A totem isn’t something people worship, it is rather an animal or plant that the particular group of people identify themselves with. Usually, this totem is considered an ancestor in some sense. Therefor, it is possible people who lived in Qobustan considered themselves people of the auroch.
- Aurochs or ancient oxen are often depicted together with female figures in the petroglyphs of Qobustan. It is possible that aurochs were associated with fertility, and their representation served some magic role in ensuring the fertility and well-being of the group.
- Some scientists have suggested the possibility of images of animals having a magical function, in the sense that they were meant to foster the fertility and well-being of the animals that were important for the survival of the particular group of people. These petroglyphs were an attempt to ensure that the numbers of animals in the area wouldn’t decrease.
- Many archeologists have considered images of animals to be part of hunting magic. Ancient hunters began their hunting expeditions with a ritual in front of the images of animals they were looking for. Some of the petroglyphs in Qobustan have little cuts in the rock which could have been created during such a ritual.
- In Ancient religions the ox is associated with the sun and the supreme deity of the sky. In seems there was a cult of the ox in ancient Turkey, India, Egypt and Greece. It is possible the Stone Age petroglyphs of the oxen are evidence of the early development of mythological and religious beliefs about the ox.
And 4 interpretations for “hunters”:
- The petroglyphs literally depicts their creators – ancient hunters. It is possible such images could have been created to commemorate important events in the life of the group, and the deeds of its leaders.
- These images could depict the venerated ancestors of the group.
- Maybe these are not images of humans at all, but rather spirits; for example, spirits looking after well-being of animals.
- Contemporary scientists think than many of the petroglyphs were related to the myths and legends of the group and interpretation of these images is problematic simply because we don’t know the stories there images are based on.
Comparing all the Qobustani petroglyphs with similar ancient designs in Norway let controversial ethnologist Thur Heyerdahl to suggest that Scandinavians might have originated in what is now Azerbaijan. Interesting, huh? Anyway, even if you have no particular interest in ancient doodles, Qobustan’s eerie landscape displaying the fantastic scene of destruction, the huge blocks of stones and rocks chaotically pressed against each other, the hilltop views toward distant oil-wells and the prison of maximum security (at the bottom of the hill) are still fascinating. By the exit, there are a few muslim grave-stones sitting on top of the pavement, however, due to lack of information, I don’t know who they belonged to and why they were there.
Some 10 km south of Qobustan, the Caspian coast is home to nearly 400 “baby” mud volcanoes, (Palçıq vulkanları, Грязевой вулкан) more than half the total throughout the world. Mud volcano (or mud dome) refers to formations created by geo-exuded mud or slurries, water and gases. They may range in size from merely 1-2m high and 1-2 m wide, to 700m high and 10 km wide. However, mud volcanoes aren’t true volcanos as they don’t produce lava. The mud produced by these volcanoes is most typically formed when hot water, which has been heated deep below the earth’s surface, begins to mix and blend with subterranean mineral deposits, thus creating the mud slurry exudate. This material is then forced upwards through a geological fault or fissure due to local subterranean pressure imbalances, that is why mud volcanoes are highly associated with subduction zones. The temperature of any given active mud volcano generally remains fairly steady in a range from near 100 °C to occasionally 2 °C, some being used as popular “mud baths.”
In Azerbaijan, eruptions are driven from a deep mud reservoir which is connected to the surface even during dormant periods, when seeping water shows a deep origin. On the average, every twenty years or so, a mud volcano may explode with great force, shooting flames hundreds of meters into the sky, and depositing tonnes of mud on the surrounding area. In 2001, one mud volcano 15 km from Baku made world headlines when it started ejecting flames 15 m high. Historians and scientists connect the appearance of the Zoroastrian religion in Azerbaijan almost 2,000 years ago with these geological phenomena.
I consider any volcano to be a bit scary, but to see this geologically flatulent little conical mounds to gurgle, ooze, spit, bubble, and sometimes erupt with thick, cold, grey mud was pretty eerie.
While driving through Gobustan, I noticed black muddy pools everywhere as if it recently rained however, the rest of the desert remained dry. I asked my guide/hotel owner what it was and he told me that it was oil seeping from the ground. I honestly didn’t believe him because I thought it was already outrageous to have so much oil and gas underground and offshore, but it was true. He stopped the car so I can inspect a few “pools” myself. Petroleum seep is a place where natural liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons escape to the earth’s atmosphere and surface, normally under low pressure or flow. They generally occur above either terrestrial or offshore petroleum accumulation structures. Petroleum seeps are quite common in many areas of the world, and have been known to mankind since paleolithic times. In the 9th century, oil fields near Baku were already exploited and its existence was chronicled by the Arab geographer Abu al-Hasan ‘Alī al-Mas’ūdī in the 10th century, and by Marco Polo in the 13th century, who described the output of those wells as hundreds of shiploads. My guide told me that even during his grandparents’ time, people used to come and collect bitumen, pitch, asphalt and tar from the seeps into the buckets with bare hands. Well, I simply took a picture of it.
On the way back to Baku we passed the locals’ favorite Shikhov Beach (Şıxov çimərliyi, пляж Шиховa). It has been a traditional resort area for Bakuvians, though the polluted water and the view of large oil rigs both in the surrounding land area and offshore make it look very surreal. You have to be really brave to take a dip there. Then, we passed the Baku Shipyard, before stopping at Bibi-Heybat Mosque (Bibiheybət məscidi, Мечеть Биби-Эйбат), which was for centuries the region’s holiest mosque. The Bibi-Heybat Mosque built in the end of the 13th century over the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum – the daughter of the seventh Shiite Imam – Musa al-Kazim, who fled to Baku from persecution of caliphs, and today it is the spiritual center for the Muslims of the region and one of the major monuments of Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan. Famous French writer, Alexandre Dumas, who visited the mosque in the 1840s, in his book “Tales of the Caucasus” wrote: “The mosque of Fatima – a place of worship for infertile women, they come here on foot, worship, and within a year gain the ability to give birth.” The mosque was blown up in 1934 as result of the Soviet anti-religious campaign, however in 1994, after Azerbaijan gained independence, the Bibi-Heybat Mosque was re-constructed in the original plan and at the same place where it used to stand. In 2005 it was enlarged, new halls were added to insure the convenience of pilgrims.
The modern restored mosque is a classic example of the Shirvan architectural school. It has three domes, which have kept the traditional corrugated galvanised iron shape of the old mosque and two minarets. The domes are decorated with the green and turquoise mirrors, which are bordered with gilded inscriptions from Quran. The men’s praying room is located on the south side of the complex, while women – on the north side with mausoleum separating the rooms. Since I consider mosques to be the esthetically perfect architectural structures, I didn’t want to miss a chance to see its interior, so I removed my shoes, covered my head and went in. It was cool and peaceful inside, with half-dozen women quietly praying next to the tomb or in the corners of the room. Beautiful green-gold walls, decorated with calligraphic inscriptions looked all too new. Before leaving, a lady approached me in the mosque’s hall and gave me a handful of candies. I am not sure what it meant but it felt as sort of a blessing.
The Mosque’s square is a perfect place to explore the sea shore with its busy Caspian shipyard and oil wells, known as the James Bond Oil Field after it appeared in the opening scene of the movie “The World is not Enough”. The area has been considerably tidied up since then but there are still plenty of nodding-donkey oil pumps at work.
Unfortunately, the nearly perfect day-trip to Qobustan was offset by hours- long heated argument between me and my guide in regard to our different views of world politics, Muslim-Christian relationships and especially Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenians. You can’t win the argument with a man who thinks that he was made of special dough superior to women. Uh, Azeri men!
Absheron Peninsula (Abşeron yarımadası, Апшеронский полуостров), from Persian “place of salty water”, confounds easy definition. Former agricultural land is blanched by salt lakes, sodden with oil runoff and poisoned by pesticide abuse. Platoons of rusty oil derricks fill horizons with metallic carcasses, and everywhere you look, new gated compounds for ultra-rich are filling up the remaining areas of former sheep pasture. Still, despite all, Absheron peninsula remains Baku’s seaside playground and is still known for its flowers, horticulture, mulberries and figs. Several historic castle towers peep between the dachas (Russian for “country home”), fires that inspired Zoroastrian and Hindu pilgrims still burn, and beneath the cultural surface lie some of Azerbaijan’s oddest folk beliefs. It is a perversely fascinating place to spend a day or two.
On my last day in Baku I decided to visit a few sites on Absheron peninsula and more importantly, get into the waters of Caspian sea, as it was a part of my “Baku-Batumi” plan. After some research, I reached out to Yelchin from Gobustan Private Tours and I wish I have hired him earlier for the trip to Qobustan, as he was accommodating, friendly, humorous and very knowledgable. He also gave me by far the most compelling offer – 55 manat ($52). Yelchin frankly told me that due to lack of time we can’t visit all the places in Absheron. In addition, some of the local villages, like Nardaran, were very traditional, where even my long summer dress would be considered inappropriate; and natural-gas flames of Yanar Dag, mentioned by Marco Polo in the 13th century, according to Yalchin, were not worth visiting at all as they weren’t as impressive as they sounded. After all, I had just one day so we settled on Ateshgah Fire Temple, Qala and a visit to the beach.
Ateshgah Fire Temple (Atəşgah, Атешгях), located 26 km from Baku, is a unique part caravanserai, part fire-temple sacred to Zoroastrians and Hindus for centuries. The Persian toponym ateshgah literally means “home of fire”, referring to the fact that the site is situated atop a now-exhausted natural gas field, which once caused natural fires to spontaneously burn there as the gas emerged from seven natural surface vents. Until now, there is no consensus among the scientists and historians about the date and origin of the first temple. Fire is considered sacred in both Indo-Iranian branches of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism and there has been debate on whether the Ateshgah was originally a Hindu structure or a Zoroastrian one. Some say that Zoroastrians, who regarded the fire as holy attribute, built their temple at this place approximately in the 3rd century A.D. The inscription by high priest Kartir found at “Ka’ba ye Zartosht” in Iran asserts the spread of Zoroastrianism over the whole territory of Caucasian Albania (modern Azerbaijan) and resettlement of tribes of Persian-Zoroastrians here, for the reasons of strengthening of the new religion. In the 4th-5th centuries, when some Albanians became Christians, both Zoroastrianism and Christianity were simultaneously practiced. It all changed with the arrival of Islam when Zoroastrians who had not taken a new religion, were persecuted and had to leave the country. People gradually stopped visiting Zoroastrian temples which began to decline but the saddest fate fell on mobeds, the priest – keepers of the holy fire, who were obliged to protect and defend the fires by every possible mean, including the use of weapons. As Islam was conquering the country, many mobeds were killed while trying to shield the fires, and this was considered to be one of the main factors of the rapid decline of Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan.
However, Sanskrit or Punjabi inscriptions found in Ateshgah, the bustling Indian community of Baku in the late Middle Ages, as well as conclusions by some world-renown academics make us believe that it was a Hindu temple whose Brahmins (priests) used to worship fire. Or, Ateshgah Fire Temple could be both. The temple’s current incarnation was built in the 17th century by Indian Shiva devotees around the time of the fall of the Shirvanshah dynasty and annexation by the Russian Empire. In the early 19th century the temple acquired not only its final appearance that has remained unchanged since but also a world-wide fame, when various famous writers, travelers, scientists and painters came to see the unique fire phenomenon of Ateshgah. French author Alexandre Dumas was one of them and he dutifully recorded his experience in one of his books. The religious community of the Ateshgah was struggling, as the trade with India had gone in decline and the temple lost its most important patrons. In 1886, the Ateshgah ceased to function as a temple but continued attract visitors – for ex., in 1888 it was visited by the family of Russian Tsar Alexander III. It was not all gone when in 1964, the Temple was taken under the protection by the state and given the status of a historical and architectural monument.
We parked our car, got the tickets (2 manat – $1.9) and went in. Ateshgah Fire Temple didn’t look a moment older than the 2009-built walls of Icheri Sheher, but according to my guide, it was as authentic as you could get. The temple is surrounded by a dented wall with an intake portal leading to the pentagonal courtyard. Part caravansearai, it had 26 wall-cells which served as the accommodations for arriving pilgrims and merchants, but now it hosts the museum of the temple, displaying everything from the origins of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism to the oil boom that depleted the underground gas that for centuries fed the temple’s eternal flames. In some rooms, a number of mannequins depicts extreme ascetic practices of the temple’s devotees, such as lying on hot coals and carrying unbearably heavy chains. However, the temple’s centerpiece is the flaming stone altar with four stone side flues spitting “dragon breath” (which is now provided via main gas line from Baku).
At the Ateshgah Fire Temple, I also met a wonderful group of six Oxford dons who travel twice a year to different places around the world. One of them, a professor of Muslim architecture at Oxford, allowed me to join their group and listen to his fascinating story of Zoroastrianism and other, similar fire temples he visited in Iran.
It took us 20 minutes to get from the Ateshgah temple to the center of historic little Qala village (İkinci Qala), that since 2008 has been dominated by an impressive Ethnographic Museum Complex, a brand new box of Qala Antiques Museum and recently restored medieval-style stone Fortress. Allow 2-3 hours, entrance is 6 manat ($5.7) for all three sites. This open-air historical and ethnographic park, founded at an archaeological site located in the same-name village, is dedicated to the history of the Absheron Peninsula. Here, you can see how the Azeris lived, what they ate and drank and how they managed a household over the period from the 16th-19th centuries. The territory of 1.2 ha hosts portable tents made of animal skins, subsequently replaced by stone and beaten cob works with cupolas, an ancient blacksmith shop, market, pottery, bakery, threshing mill and other interesting medieval buildings. Most of the monuments and exhibits were acquired in different corners of the Absheron. The scientists have found the evidence of the first settlements on the site of Gala village dating to at least 5,000 years ago. Rare exhibits of antiquity as well as cave paintings of primitive people with pictures of hunting and ritual sacrifice, also found their place in the museum exposition. Altogether there are 216 monuments in the territory of Qala Village; among them are 5 mosques, 3 baths, 4 ovdans (water reservoirs), dwelling houses, agricultural premises, burials, tombs, tumuli, fortress ruins, etc.
The foundations for the Medieval Dwelling houses evidently demonstrate the centuries-old town-planning traditions existing in the village. From structural standpoint, these fundaments are rectilinear and rectangular constructions. In the rooms, there are niches, in the living-room – a hearth (kursu), in the kitchen– a clay oven for baking bread (tandir); there is also a bathroom (suakhan). Each room had its own exit to the yard.
The systematic scientific study of the Eastern Absheron’s monuments started in the 1960s and resulted in the discovery of petroglyphs dating back to the Bronze and Iron Age. They reflect the ideology and world-view of ancient people, describe scenes of hunting, human sacrifice, sacred marriage, etc., while central place of some petroglyphs is occupied by the female deity depicted in detail. The paintings of dog, lion and other wild animals are similar to the traditions of the ancient art of the Near and Middle East. Among these petroglyphs are many geometric symbols and diamond-shaped signs.
One of the most attractive parts of the Museum Complex is the archaeological gallery, which contains examples of the household ceramics dating back to the 3rd-2nd millennia B.C., antiquity and the Middle Ages. Among other exhibits are a stone idol, grain threshers, woman’s ornaments (a copper bracelet, copper earrings, glass and clay beads), coins of the Azerbaijan khanates and fragments of books.
Discovered at the primitive nomadic campsite of Agdashduzu not far from Shuvelan Village, the dolmen dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C. is one of the constructions proving that building stone was the most widespread material on the Absheron since ancient times. In addition, there are the ancient stone quarries located in different parts of the Absheron.
Due to the climatic conditions of the Absheron as well as to the local traditions, the medieval dwelling houses in Qala Village were enclosed by high stone walls. However, the timber imported from the Transcaucasus and Russia in late 19th – early 20th century resulted in the formation of new architectural compositions – two-story dwelling houses. The first story of the so-called Merchant’s House dates back to 1810, while the second – to the end of the 19th century. There is a stone reservoir in the small yard. The first story was used for everyday needs of a family while rooms of the second floor – for guests and as a bedroom. In these rooms, there are a hearth (kursu), niches (takhcha) and shelves (lyama). Located in a yard, the detached kitchen had a tandir (a clay oven for baking bread) and a hearth for cooking.
In Azerbaijan, the temporary dwellings of the nomadic tribes engaged in stockbreeding had different shapes. Ethnographic researches reveal that the Azerbaijan nomads preferred a tent-shaped dwellings that were mostly placed in pastures and were easily assembled and disassembled. They had either an oblong or a round form; straw, reed, animal skins and any wood were used as a building material.
The architectural style of the Absheron ancient settlements features a round shape of buildings. One of those constructions is the ancient settlement of Zira. The settlement reinforced on the north side by big stone slabs has a hearth in its centre. There are small detached constructions located outside, near the walls. The inner side of the walls is traditionally covered with topical petroglyphs depicting various scenes of religious rituals of the Absheron ancient inhabitants. Additionally, there are depictions of people, animals and different geometric symbols. The eastern side of one of the walls bears a depiction of a deer and a man with a staff in his hands. It is believed that a deer with branched horns symbolizes the sun and a figure of a man with a staff in the religious pantheon – one of the gods. The settlement dates back to the late 3rd – early 2nd millennia B.C.
The territory of Azerbaijan has an abundance of copper deposits and a part of the museum demonstrates all kinds of copper utensils, which, besides being practical and useful, exhibit high level of artistic skill. Here, one can see artifacts dating back more than 300 years.
The tumulus located between Govsani and Tyurkan Villages was explored in 2005. Before being cleared, the mound, surrounded by stones, was 15 m in diameter and 1 m in height. Presently, it is a 9-m-diameter circle of stones with a chamber in its center. An anthropomorphous 245cm-high stele dating back to the early Bronze Age (3rd-2nd millennia BC) is one of the most interesting finds with no analogues in the world. On the stele, there is petroglyph of an upper part of a human body, decorated with perforations, and a small oblong hollow, made in the belly area. Among other artifacts found in the tumulus are human bone fragments and small-sized pale red crockery.
Numerous burials differ from each other in a geographic location, building materials, social status, ethnic origin and religious beliefs of the deceased. The gorgeous and exquisite ornaments of stone art were revealed both in civil and sacred architecture where the Absheron tombstones are notable for their original forms, imitating stone sarcophaguses decorated with geometric and floral ornaments stylistically similar to the architectural décor of the Shirvan architectural school.
The Absheron ancient settlements date back to the 3rd millennium B.C. It can be confirmed by the tumuli discovered during the archaeological excavations, the remains of hearths and burials. One of the dwelling types – Khaki-khana (“clay room”) is such a monument dating back to 2000-1000 B.C. Visually, it resembles a tent whose lower part is located below ground level while the upper one slightly towering above the ground consists of a mix of clay and straw.
The blacksmith’s work was one of the most popular crafts in many regions of Azerbaijan, including Baku and its production was subdivided into agricultural tools, household utensils and tools for using in other crafts. Traditionally, 3-4 men worked in the blacksmith’s shop: a master, journeyman or journeymen-in-training. Their products were sold in the town and country markets. Among the blacksmith’s shops, those specialized in making horse-shoes were widely spread; located along roadsides, they were engaged in horseshoeing and minor repairs.
The Ethnographic Museum Complex also contains a replica of Market place, Tumulus in Dubendi, grain threshing floor, menhir (stone idols), the two-domed classical one-story dwelling houses and plenty of pottery. But besides viewing the exhibits, you can also participate and interact with them – by weaving a carpet or feeding a camel.
The three glassy floors of the Antiques Museum, which opened in 2011, contain various decorative and applied art objects from the private collection of Shahid Habibullayev, “an engineer, restorer and philanthropist” (according to the museum description). Only 800 items from his collection are presented at the museum. The 1st and 2nd floors display various collectables created by the Azerbaijani people, while items gathered in various regions of the country but produced in USA, Germany, Austria, Russia, France, England, Belgium, Iran, Uzbekistan, Poland, Turkey are exhibited on the 3rd floor. Yelchin told me to go inside and check out the samovars, as indeed, the museum collection has over 150 different samovars of all forms, shapes and styles, manufactured between the 18th and 20th centuries.
The last place to visit was a small Fortress with a tower. Its well-restored halls contain a small exhibit of petroglyphs, pottery and household objects. Simple mihrab points that perhaps the fortress also served as a mosque however, lack of any information, allows me only guess. Spiral staircase took me all the way to the top of the tower and I was blown away, not by the views of a small sleeping, modern Qala village, but by the mighty winds blowing from all directions. As my visit to Absheron was coming to an end, I truly understood the meaning of “the land of fires” and “a city of winds”.
Despite the strong winds, Yelchin lived up to his promise to stop by the beach for a swim. We drove to a long stretch of sand near Bilgah town, where a few adventurous locals fearlessly fought the huge waves. I shortly followed suit.
The very next morning, the hotel owner drove me to Baku’s bus terminal where he negotiated with a taxi driver a ride for me to Sheki. It was 35 manat ($33) for 4,5 hours drive and I was the only passenger. A word of warning, if you are taking a taxi, try to come to the station with a local, as the moment we stepped out of the car, we got surrounded by a few dozen of drivers and some of them looked pretty shady. I was very thankful to my hotel owner for negotiating with the drivers for me. The driver got me to Sheki in under 4 hours, this is just how fast he drove, luckily, the road was good. On the way, we passed the old Shirvanshah’s capital of Shamakhy, town of Ismayilli, and a few dry riverbeds. Meadows and hills slowly replaced the monotonous landscape of the desert, I could tell that we were approaching the Greater Caucasus mountains.
History of Sheki. Snoozing amid green pillows of beautifully forested mountains 675 m above sea level, Sheki (also spelled Shaki, Şəki, Шеки) is Azerbaijan’s loveliest town, dappled with tiled-roof old houses and topped off with a glittering little khan’s palace. Rich in Islamic architecture, Silk Road history, good food, and friendly people, it is an example of a small Caucasian town at its finest. Historic Sheki was originally higher up the valley around the site now occupied by Kiş, where traces of large-scale settlements date back to more than 2700 years ago. The Sakas (which gave Sheki its name) were an Iranian people that wandered from the north side of the Black Sea and settled in Asia Minor in the 7th century B.C. They occupied a good deal of the fertile lands in South Caucasus in an area called Sakasena, part of which was the city of Sheki.
Sheki was one of the biggest cities and an important political and economic centers of the Albanian states in the 1st century. The main temple of the ancient Albanians was located there as well. However, as a result of the Arab invasion, Sheki was annexed to the third emirate. Before the Mongol invasion, the city was ruled by the Kingdom of Georgia, the Atabegs of Azerbaijan and the Khwarazmian Empire. After the collapse of the Mongolian yoke in the first half of the 14th century, for over 100 years, Sheki was able to rule independently, before being annexed to the Safavid Empire in 1551. Sheki Khanate was established in 1743, during the reign of a powerful khan of Sheki, Haji Chelebi, and it was one of the strongest feudal states among the Caucasian khanates. During existence of Shaki khanate, the local population of the city was engaged in silkworm breeding, craft and trade. Khan built a second fortress as Nukha as well as a famous Khansarai. As a result of a flood in the river Kiş in 1772, the city of Sheki was partially ruined and the population was resettled in Nukha, which became a new capital. Sheki’s independence did not last long, it was absorbed into Russian Empire in the early 19th century, however it continued to flourish as a silk-weaving town and was a trading junction between caravan routes to Baku, Tbilisi and Derbent (Dagestan) with five working caravanserais at its peak. In 1960s Nukha was renamed Sheki. Due to the town’s rather tumultuous political history, the majority of city’s preserved historic and architectural monuments date from only the 16th to 19th centuries, however, they are definitely worth exploring.
Well, I spent only 24 hours in Sheki but I chose the right place to stay – Sheki Caravanserai Hotel. Staying there is justification enough to visit Sheki. It is one of the two remaining Silk Road caravanserais that still exist in town, but the only one that is functioning as a hotel. You shouldn’t consider it if you can’t live without European comfort and American amenities, but it was definitely one of the most exciting places I’ve ever stayed. Beautifully restored and maintained, it is a tourist’s attraction on its own. Swift development of trade in the Middle Ages enhanced importance of guest-houses existing in the territory of Azerbaijan at that time and favored construction of new ones. Generally caravanserai were built in form of castles with one gate, closing of which made them impregnable. “Caravanserai historical complex” in Sheki consists of two magnificent caravanserais, built in the 18th century and traditionally named “Yukari” (“Upper) and “Ashagi” (“Lower”) caravanserai.
The hotel since 1988, Yukari caravanserai has a rectangular (55m by 85m) shape with a large inner yard and a pool. It has 242 rooms and its total area is 8000m² with four entries leading to the courtyard from the corners of the buildings. Earlier there were merchant stores and storage rooms in the coaching inn, the upper floor was intended for guests. Each room had a manhole, connected to the ground floor with a stepladder, and it was very comfortable for merchants who wanted to control the safety of their products, stored underneath their accommodations. Small, and certainly not luxurious rooms have wonderful brickwork ceilings and for a day or two, they would take you back in time, making a wealthy merchant out of you. There is a garden, a tea house and a restaurant of Azeri cuisine at the hotel – plenty to do while you wait for your internet to start working. Just down the road is the larger trapezium-shaped Ashagi caravanserai which is now under renovation.
I arrived to Sheki at 11 am and after lunch and a thorough tour around the Caravanserai, I went out to explore the Haji Chelebi Nukha Fortress, that was just 5-7 minutes walk up the hill. The Nukha Fortress, built by Haji Chelebi Khan in the middle of the 18th century, is located on the southern foothills of the Caucasus and in the highest part of modern Sheki town. The fortress walls are 1,200 m long and over 2 m thick. Protected by numerous bastions, you can enter the fortress via two main gates – from the north and south. At the height of the khanate, the fortress contained a gated palatial complex and public and commercial structures of the city, while the residential quarter was situated outside its walls. It was restored extensively between 1958 and 1963. For many years Nukha fortress safeguarded approaches to the city, and bravery of its defenders is immortalized in many historical books. Even Leo Tolstoy selected Nukha fortress as a place of events for his well-known Hadji Murat novel. Presently, the sturdy stone perimeter wall of the Fortress encloses an 18th century khan palace, tourist office, craft workshops, several museums and a decent cafe-restaurant, all set in patches of sheep-mown grass.
I first visited the tourist office located in one of the 3 storied warehouse-like buildings on the right. It is hard to find, so look out for the signs. There, I had a very pleasant conversation (in Russian) with an employee who provided me with a very detailed map of the city and a few recommendations. I skipped the Historical-Regional Ethnography Museum and approached an unusual looking cylindrical Russian church. It was built in late 19th century, on the site of a 6th century Caucasian Albanian church, which explains its unorthodox shape. Now, it hosts a Museum of Falk and Applied Arts but the building itself was more interesting to me than what was inside of it. I walked around the church, noticing a few grave stones with Georgian inscriptions, but mostly enjoying the views and a cool mid-summer air of the mountains.
Further up the road, about 5 mins walk, there is Khan Sarai (Şəki xan sarayı, Дворец шекинских ханов) – the Palace of Sheki’s Khans. Admission – 2 manat ($1.9), wait in the courtyard of the palace till your name is called, visits are guided and only in Azeri language; no pictures allowed inside. This small but vividly colored palace is Sheki’s foremost site and one of the South Caucasus’s most iconic buildings. When completed in 1762 (alternate date – 1797), it was used as the khan’s administrative building (or as a summer residency), just one of around 40 royal structures within the fortress, though none of the other survived. It is set in a walled rose garden behind two huge plane trees supposedly planted in 1530.
The Khan sarai features decorative tiles, fountains and several stained-glass – shabaka – windows. The delicate facade combines silvered stalactite vaulting with strong geometric patterns in dark blue, turquoise and ochre tiles and the murals, colored with tempera and inspired by the works of Nizami Ganjavi. Note the lower floor panels with stylized images of once-sacred birds – peacocks, adorning the “tree of life”. Measuring 32 m by 8,5 m on the exterior, the Sarai is a two-story masonry structure covered with a wooden hipped roof with long eaves. The layout of both floors is identical; three rectangular rooms are placed in a row, separated by narrow, south-facing iwans that provide access to the rooms. The floors are accessed separately to accommodate their public and private functions. Entered from the south through the two iwans, the ground floor was used primarily by clerks and petitioners. Two stairways attached to the northern façade gave access to the top floor, which was reserved for the khan’s family and their guests.
The interior walls of the Khan Sarai are covered entirely with frescoes painted at different times during the 18th century. Remaining surfaces are decorated with floral tile panels and tile mosaics. It is believed that by using the rich interior decorations the architect was able to create the illusion of high spaces in relatively modestly – sized rooms. Most designs are floral but in the central upper chamber you’ll find heroic scenes of Haji Chelebi’s 1743 battle with Persian emperor Nader Shah complete with requisite swords, guns and severed heads.
After visiting the Khan Sarai, I wanted to learn more about the art of shabaka (Şəbəkə) made without any glue or nails, so I visited the Şəbəkə workshop. An apprentice came out to show me some of the examples of şəbəkə doors, windows and even table-tops. He explained to me how by slotting together hundreds of hand-carved wooden pieces, it is possible to create intricate wooden frames without metal fastening. Apparently, besides me and a few sleepy cats, no one else was interested in this laborious skill.
Well, it took me about 2 hours to see everything in Nukha Fortress, so I was ready to leave when I saw an old man carrying a stuffed wolf. The man was old and drunk, and the animal has also seen its best times perhaps a few decades ago. I stopped to have a chat with a man, but immediately a huge noisy crowd of Azeri tourists surrounded us, so I just handed a few manat to him hoping he would spend it on something worthy. He quietly thanked me in Russian. Azerbaijan’s oil has yet to reach the virgin corners of its land.
I returned to the hotel where friendly stuff explained to me what marshrutka I had to take for Teze Bazar located in the western part of the city. After a short tea break, I took a walk along Axundov pr, which was all prepped with halva and Azeri pottery shops. The stores closest to the Caravanserai and the Fortress were nicer and represented an eclectic mix of expensive Longines and Tossot boutiques and tourist-trinket merchant holes.
At one of the bus stops along the way, I boarded marshrutka #11 that took me to the Teze bazar. Looking at the modern Sheki through bus window, I realized that it looked just like any town of post Soviet republic – the same gray blocks of dilapidating high-rise buildings. Even though all I wanted to buy was saffron, I still took a walk around the bazar, checking out the stalls with fruits, vegetables, dry fruits (called “suhofrukty”), spices and asian sweets. I walked into a blacksmith’s shop and had a friendly conversation with the only blacksmith I’ve ever met in my life. I checked out a few carpet shops, but mostly enjoyed the ambience and nice little chats with vendors. For the very first time in my life, local people were very enthusiastic about my hometown – Minsk. It actually applies to both Azerbaijanis and Georgians in general because everywhere I went and mentioned that I was from Minsk, Belarus, no one felt indifferent about it. The older people either served in the Soviet army in BSSR or were engaged to Belarusian girls at some time in the past, and they always spoke Russian to me. The younger Azeris, spoke English, but didn’t regard me as an expansionist Russian, knowing that I came for a small but peaceful country with no oil. Young and old, all of them were blessed with a wonderful gift of Caucasian hospitality and generously shared it with me.
After I returned to the hotel, a manager helped me to arrange a taxi ride to Tbilisi (4-5 hours ride + time at the border) for 95 manat ($90). I was leaving early next morning, but I wished I could stay in Sheki for a few more days and hike one of its wonderful mountain trails, so famous in Azerbaijan. The night in Caravanserai was mystical, as my second-floor window was on the same level as a road, so I could hear all voices and noises that seemed to belong to the days of Khans and caravans.
My driver and I left Sheki at 7 in the morning the next day. The drive was easy and picturesque as we passed mountain rivers, beautiful Caucasian terrain and old churches perched on top of the hills. After town of Balakan we stopped for breakfast. I went to a small shop but couldn’t find there anything but chips and soda, so I asked the owner if he had something more breakfast appropriate. He invited me to his garden (on the private side of the house), where his wife served me a whole Azeri feast with freshly baked tendir chorek, home-made cheese, fried eggs and a pot of perfect freshly-brewed sweet Azeri tea. I knew that the driver and I were in a rush to cross the border with Georgia, but I couldn’t be rude and leave right after finishing my food, so I stayed for about an hour. When I finally got up to leave and asked the owner about how much I owed him, he simply but with great pride replied: “You are my guest from Belarus, may your route to Georgia be safe. Please come again.” I might visit many countries and encounter many kind people but nowhere in the world will I be greeted with such generosity and warmth as in the Caucasus.
At the Azerbaijani border, according to their procedure – I got out of the car, took my luggage and walked with it through the customs, meanwhile my driver took the car to a vehicle lane. Luckily, there were only a few people ahead of me so after my passport was stamped, I was free to go. Driver and I agreed to meet at the beginning of the bride separating Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the moment I stepped on the bridge, my driver pulled in too. The Georgian rules didn’t require from passengers to leave the car and walk, so the custom officer came over, inspected our car and the carpet that I bought in Sheki, asked if I acquired any gold or jewelry in Azerbaijan (which I thought was odd) and waved us in. Goodbye Azerbaijan and welcome to Georgia!
I would like to end my blog with a paragraph from Kurbain Said novel “Ali and Nino”. “We were a very mixed lot, we forty schoolboys who were having a Geography lesson one hot afternoon in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia: thirty Mohammedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians, and one Russian.
So far we had not given much thought to the extraordinary geographical position of our town, but now Professor Sanin was telling us in his flat and uninspired way:”The natural borders of Europe consist in the north of the North Polar Sea, in the west of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the south of the Mediterranean. The eastern border of Europe goes through the Russian Empire, along the Ural mountains, through the Caspian Sea, and through Transcaucasia. Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia’s cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.””