I arrived in Baku in the morning, tired and dirty after a long day at Kyiv airport and a night-time flight. Flying up from Odessa early the previous day, my onward flight to Baku was cancelled, and I was re-scheduled on a later flight. But then came the news of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine that afternoon, and all flights heading eastwards were delayed. I sat in the airport departures area, struggling to communicate with the other three Baku-bound transit passengers, and texting my friend in Odessa about the horrifying news. But eventually we got under way. Do you like the airport, my young Azeri travelling companion asked me when we arrived at the shiny modern terminal building? Very nice, I replied. The city too, he added.
The Maiden's Tower, Baku
Baku is indeed a fine looking city, at least in the city centre. Further out, it resembles a vast building site, with clouds of dust whipped up by the strong winds for which the city is notorious. For Baku has been thoroughly revamped and reinvented in recent years, oil money poured into the transformation of the former Soviet town. Swathes of Soviet-era apartment buildings have been cut down. The old city centre has in part survived the changes of the 20th century. Wandering in the old walled city, narrow, shady streets overhung with balconies retain their charm. But it is quite different from so many other old Muslim towns, such as one sees in Central Asia, with the dusty streets of windowless walls hiding the secret lives of the families behind them. In Baku’s old town the houses are open to the world, with windows and balconies. It is an eclectic mixture, reflecting Azerbaijan’s complex history, influenced by east and west. Previously part of Persia, modern-day Azerbaijan was conquered by Imperial Russia in the early 19th century. The city centre also boasts impressive mansions built with the oil wealth of the early 20th century.
The tension between Baku’s eastern roots and western influences was poignantly portrayed in Kurban Said’s marvellous novel ‘Ali and Nino’. Coming from a wealthy Baku Jewish family, the author moved to Germany at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and converted to Islam. The hero of the novel, Ali, is a sophisticated product of Russian education, speaking French and English, and with a modern, educated bride, Nino. But Ali is also the scion of a notable Persian Azeri family, and is drawn to his eastern heritage.
Old town and flame towers, Baku
Baku also boasts interesting modern architecture. Beyond the old city, the wavy, pointy tips of the flame towers shimmer and flick at the sky. But the iconic building of Baku is the mysterious, bewildering Maiden’s tower. No one knows for sure for what purpose it was built? Only that its shape, with the long projection jutting out from its cylindrical core, is unique and unfathomable. It appears to have been built in the 12th century, although its foundations may date back several centuries earlier. Popular legend attributes its name to the story of a King’s daughter who threw herself to her death from the tower rather than marry an unloved suitor. Another explanation links the name ‘virgin’ to its never having been taken by force. Some experts think it may have been designed as an astronomical observatory, although it also for a time formed part of the city’s defences.
Baku’s story for the past 150 years has been dominated by oil. Vast fortunes were made here, for the Nobel brothers and the Rothschilds among others. The young Stalin cut his revolutionary teeth as an agitator among the oil workers. Hitler’s drive against Stalingrad was aimed towards the oil wells of Baku, which he considered critical to the German war effort. In the middle of the 20th century almost half the world’s oil production came from Baku. While the city’s wells contribute far less proportionately nowadays, oil has again been central to the country’s efforts to rebuild itself since independence and the disastrous war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s.
Much of today’s production is offshore, from rigs in the Caspian. But the land around Baku, on the Absheron peninsula, is cluttered with wells, the derricks like some kind of giant, demented birds bobbing their heads up and down, stretching for miles across the flat, dust-blown landscape, pecking away at the oil-soaked earth. It is a forlorn and hideous scene.
For thousands of years oil has oozed, and gas has seeped out of the ground on the Absheron peninsula. In places, once ignited, the ground literally burns. At Yanar Dag (Burning Mountain), a short bus ride out of Baku, flames lick the blackened sandstone of a ten-metre long strip of hillside. It is said it was accidentally ignited by the dropped cigarette of a careless shepherd in the 1950s. Not far away, at the Baku suburb of Surakhani, is the temple of fire, or ‘Ateshgah’. Thought to have been built in the 17th century, it consists of a courtyard, with an altar in the middle, and cells around the perimeter where holy men once lived. On the altar, a fire burns. The shrine was once a Hindu place of worship, and has also been a place of pilgrimage for Zoroastrians, followers of the pre-Islamic religion of Persia. Some have speculated that the site may have been a Zoroastrian place of worship much earlier. The fires at the shrine used to be fuelled by natural gas vents of the type that proliferated around the Absheron peninsula. But the commercial exploitation of the gas wells caused the flames to go out. They are now fuelled by the Baku mains supply.
As in the time of Ali and Nino, modern Baku still has a face to the west and a face to the east. The city centre, outside the old-town walls, has a modern brash feel. On the central square, a statue of a sassy young woman in jeans and a skimpy top holds an umbrella in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. In cafes and bars around the square perimeter evening revellers sip cold beer and tuck into kebabs and pizza. Yet it was Ramadan when I visited, and at restaurants away from the city centre tables were prepared well in advance for the diners who would sit in front of their plates waiting for the signal that it was time to break the day’s fast. Conservatism and modernity exist side by side.
- Tradition and Modernity in Baku