When the opportunity to travel to Azerbaijan arose, I jumped at the chance. I knew very little about the country except that a work by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid lay within city limits and I was eager to see for myself.
Baku, the capital, is a 3 hour flight from Moscow. Making my way through the visa process was painless and soon I was on my way. Touching down in Baku, we were greeted by cabbies trying to charge us double what we’d been quoted. The manet is the currency, worth roughly 75 cents on the dollar. We checked into a hotel on the Bulvar, a tree-lined boardwalk overlooking the Caspian Sea.
We walked along the bulvar under the cover of an early darkness. With many families about and a healthy police presence (albeit in golf carts), we felt at ease. Enjoying the mild temperatures, we drank in the light show which plays out upon the City of the Winds each night.
From the boardwalk, a twinkle of lights could be seen on the horizon. The Land of Fire owes its wealth and (relative) economic health to the natural gas flares that burn across its countryside. At one point half of the world’s oil supply originated here.
The omnipresent oil industry drives Baku’s economy, providing – among other things – the means with which to create a downtown resembling the majority of western European cities. Lush vegetation and impressive fountains belie the senses in this arid, desert region.
Oil is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Early human history is recorded here, dating back 20,000 years. Once part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, the land changed hands many times over, spending time under the rule of the Turks, the Ottomans, and finally the Shah of Iran.
The region’s more recent past is also clouded with successions and discord. Following Iranian rule, Azerbaijan was forcibly ceded to the Russian Empire in the 1800s along with the rest of the Caucasian territories. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the region briefly entertained democracy before becoming a Soviet state, remaining so until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Today Azerbaijan is 26 years young, a proud country still finding its footing.
In this former Soviet state, Russian is spoken by anyone over the age of 20 (and many under). Only recently have schools here begun introducing the Azeri language. English is spoken by many, especially in downtown Baku.
Our hosts, the art teachers of the Azerbaijan International School, arranged for us to spend an afternoon at the Gobustan petroglyphs. Etchings found here date back to the Paleolithic Era (20,000 years old) – mind-blowing to see in person.
Driving back to the city, it’s quitting time. People line the sides of the road, hoping for a ride. Are you going my way? We picked up a few hitchers ourselves, women working at the Gobustan Museum who are thrilled for a free 60km ride back to Baku.
As dusk falls, we pass the shoreline. The oil rigs rise out of the ocean like extraterrestrial spaceships. If submarines are villages below water, these must be the same above. There’s no escaping the grip oil has upon this society, no matter where you look.
The dichotomy of architecture in Baku is both curious and uncomfortable. Oil derricks pierce barren desert landscape as far as the eye can see. Pompous Neoclassical domes sit adjacent to Soviet-style welfare housing. Perhaps the only thing that could possibly answer this juxtaposition would be something completely out of this world.
With dramatic curves and not a right angle in sight, Zaha’s masterpiece is as visually stunning as it is bizarre. The dips and waves of this Caspian seaside masterpiece prove more fantastic in person than could have been anticipated. Gone too soon, her genius lives on.
Overall, Baku was fascinating. I can only say positive things about the city. The rich history coupled with the modern atmosphere and the kindness of its people impressed me greatly. I highly recommend a visit to anyone willing to make the journey. No doubt there are many more treasures to behold.