Baku, Azerbaijan: Tales of the Old City and the Ancient World

Baku, Azerbaijan // From Humble Beginnings

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My trip to Baku was a homecoming: the first time I had been there was in 1995 when I was born just four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Spending two weeks with my mother’s side of the family in the 4th microregion of Baku, I was given the opportunity to explore the region’s history as well as my own family’s origin.

The capital city of Azerbaijan, Baku, lies on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Rich in oil-laden, sub-seafloor sediments, the Caspian is the crown jewel of Azerbaijan. Its abundant natural resources have resulted in the city’s sprawling opulence, both in history and material wealth. Its affluence is evident anywhere from the labyrinthine walls of İçərişəhər, the Old City, to the breathtaking Flame Towers, a feat of both engineering and artistic prowess. Situated on the border of Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan is a cultural melting pot of Persian, Russian, and Soviet heritage truly unlike any other country. The majority of people speak Azerbaijani, the national language, and a minority speak Russian.

My trip began when landing in Heydar Aliyev Airport. As the plane made its decent in the heavy dusk, I watched the twinkling lights of Baku beneath me. I had a churning feeling in my stomach – the standard travel anxiety mixed with the glee of discovering something new. I was home. But what was “home” exactly? It was something abstract and untouchable, a game of telephone I played with my parents. The only way I had learned about my cultural origins as a kid was through stories my parents told me over 6,000 miles away from Baku.

As a kid I spent hours daydreaming about what life in Baku would be like – what people ate, how they lived, what the streets at night looked like. The airplane’s touchdown to the airport jolted me from my daydreaming into real life – I felt the sudden thud of the plane’s main gear contacting the landing pad and the roaring whoosh of deacceleration. In a few long moments, I would be on my way to claim my baggage and meet my Babula, who was waiting for me at the arrival gate.

Walking out of the airport, buildings which seemed so small and distant in the air, were now close and shimmering in the recently turned-night sky. My first sight of Baku was the 2nd terminal building harboring an iconic domed gonbad with mosaics backlit and brought to life. The sight of the Persian dome was so distinct and otherworldly – I knew then that I had in fact landed in a very different home.

An Origin Unknown // The Maiden Tower

Exploring the Maiden Tower my first day in Baku.

Exploring the Maiden Tower my first day in Baku.

The next few days were devoted to exploring the center city. When my aunt asked what I would like to see first, I recalled a wooden cutout that hung in my parent’s kitchen – on it was the carving of the Devochnya Bashnia, or the Maiden Tower. An iconic symbol of Baku, the tower is located on the southern edge of Baku’s Old City, İçərişəhər, and looms dark and enigmatic over the modern city. The Tower itself is shrouded in mystery: no one knows exactly when it was built, or what purpose it originally served. Some historians believe that it was built in the 4th century as defense fortification. However, more unusual features such the correlation between stone protrusions at the upper and lower levels and the lunar cycle have led other archaeologists to believe its significance lied in astrological observation.

Regardless of its true origin story, I was excited to explore the unique Tower and make my way up its perilous, 8-story staircase. As a kid, I was enchanted by the fairy tale of a Maiden’s forbidden love leading her to become locked up in the tower by a disapproving father. Hearing the footsteps up the tower of her unwelcome betrothed, she leapt down from its height. As fate would have it, the footsteps were in fact her beloved, who had defeated the other for her hand. Seeing the sight, he also leapt after her to his death.

Climbing up to the top of the Tower.

Climbing up to the top of the Tower.

Of course, there are more grounded explanations for it’s the Tower’s origin aside from myth. One of the largest pieces of evidence I witnessed in favor of the defense fortification origin story were giant central openings several meters-wide on every level. The only way anyone could climb up the tower was by being offered rope from an ally above. More support for the defensive tower hypothesis is a secret underground passage discovered 1982 that is thought to connect the Tower to the Shirvanshah’s Palace. It is quite possible that the Tower’s purpose could have evolved over the course of its history – from Zoroastrian worship, to astrological observation, to finally defense. One fact that remains certain is that the Maiden Tower is a cherished landmark of Baku.  

The most rewarding aspect of visiting the Tower besides learning about its history was the panoramic view on its rooftop. After 15 minutes of climbing up its low-hanging stone passages, I was rewarded by the Baku city skyline. Toward the East stretched out the Caspian Sea and while looking West, I witnessed the marriage of the Old City with modern architectural marvels such as the Flame Towers. Special care was taken to preserve the original Persian, Turkish, and Ottoman buildings. New metal and glasswork were built hugging the original domes and tiled mosaics, reinforcing and strengthening them and bringing them to life in the modern world.

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A Breath of the Caspian // The Boulevard

To the West of the Tower also lies the Boulevard – an airy promenade running parallel to Baku’s seafront. Almost 26 km in length, it is impossible for the casual walker to traverse the entire path in a day. We returned multiple times over the course of my stay to experience the breeze of the Caspian Sea, have a drink of tea, or to simply walk around the shaded park areas.

I also loved to imagine how this Boulevard looked in 1909 when it was first constructed. Mansions belonging to the original Baku oil barons would line the seafront, demarcating the line between human expansion and the relentless Sea. Back then, the Park served as a space for relaxation and recreation to the emerging middle class – an escape from the rapid urbanizing city center. The original design of the Boulevard also included a luxurious bathhouse, restaurants, and a dozen pavilions.

Walking through the Boulevard during sunset.

Walking through the Boulevard during sunset.

In 1999, the Boulevard was proclaimed as a National Park by Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan. The status helped to mitigate environmental and safety issues, as well as develop modern attractions such as an amusement park, yacht club, musical fountain, and various statues. Walking through the modern Boulevard today is a treat for all senses – feeling the breeze of the Caspian Sea, seeing the lush green gardens, hearing music along the street, and smelling freshly baked treats from cafes lined along the seafront.

Tea for Two // Traditional Azerbaijani Tea Drinking

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On a particularly hot day, my Aunt and I found a café under the shade of some olive trees and sat down for a cup of tea. If there is one important thing to know about Azerbaijan it is that tea drinking is a sacred ritual. In fact, tea is central to the Azerbaijani household. Traditionally tea is served freshly brewed in a kettle with accompanying pear-shaped glasses called armudu. This shape is thought to keep the tea hot since only fraction of the surface area of the water exposed to the air. Drinkers will typically consume 4 or 5 cups of tea in one sitting, usually during conversation and socializing. It is also traditional to drink Azerbajani tea with lump sugar and lemon, with accompanying sweets such as baklava, fruit preserves, and nuts. Be forewarned before visiting Azerbaijan: when someone offers you a cup of tea, it is best to be ready for an hour or longer occasion of drinking and snacking.

While this festive tea tradition was very much present in my household growing up, I experienced it at a café for the first time with my Aunt. The table was covered with two kettles, a tray of cashews, almonds, peanuts, and raisins, as well as plates of baklava and two types of fruit preserves, strawberry and watermelon. In Azerbaijan, tea is a symbol of warmth and hospitality. It is true that a household will not allow a guest to leave before he has had a cup of tea. As I sat drinking tea outside on the Boulevard it was like Azerbaijan was welcoming me home.

The Old City, İçərişəhər // the Shirvanshahs Palace

              A stone throw’s away from the Maiden Tower stands the labyrinthine Old City Baku, or İçərişəhər. A sprawling heritage site dating back to the medieval period, the Old City is surrounded by the fortress walls and towers, one of which includes the Maiden Tower. The Old City includes historical landmarks such the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and their bathhouse which dates to the 15th century both of which I explored while visiting the Old City. The ruins of the bathhouse were sprawled across a dozen meters or so near the palace; they seemed akin to what one would see of the ancient bathhouses in Rome. My Aunt revealed that back in the day she was growing up, she and her friends would roam around the bathhouse, playing hide-and-seek. Now, the bathhouse was closed off to visitors.

Ruins of the Shirvanshahs bathhouse where my aunt would play hide-and-seek as a kid.

Ruins of the Shirvanshahs bathhouse where my aunt would play hide-and-seek as a kid.

The Shirvanshahs dynasty existed as an independent state from 891 until 1538 which is longer than any other dynasty in the Islamic world. The original dynasty of Shirvan was the Myzyadi dynasty (861-1027) which was founded by Mahammad ibn Yezid. Many dynasties followed but by the 15th century, Shirvan became a center of economic and cultural development. The capital city of Baku was established during the rise of the Shirvanshahs Khalilullah I and his son Farrukh Yasar. Once Baku was established, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs was constructed at the highest point of the city. The complex includes the palace itself, the courtroom, several mosques, tombs, and the bathhouse.

Standing at one of the gate’s to the Palace entrance.

Standing at one of the gate’s to the Palace entrance.

My favorite part of exploring the Palace was the courtroom – it included an underground cellar which opened into the courtroom through a barred window. Prisoners would look up through the barred metal to plead their case as the courtroom determined their fate. The Palace and its accompanying structures are thought of as the finest examples of medieval architecture not only in Azerbaijan, but in the entire Middle East. 

An Ancient Art // Gobustan, Mud Volcanos, and Petroglyphs

Our last stop was outside of Baku and into a neighboring town called Gobustan which harbored more than four hundred mud volcanos – half of all the mud volcanos in the world. We decided to explore Gobustan and its bizarre rock formations, burning gas vents, strange musical stones, and ancient Petroglyphs dating back 20,000 years.

As we drove outside of Baku, I began to appreciate the expansive landscape of the country. Desert ascended into mountains and stretched out for miles into the horizon. Large industrial complexes started to emerge. Lined along the shore of the Caspian Sea stood arrays of oil rigs and storage vessels. Entire towns were erected near these facilities to support the workers responsible for the facilities. After about an hour, we reached our destination of Gobustan. It was evident that the town prided itself for its famous relics of ancient civilization – even the welcome sign into Gobustan featured stick men emulating the town’s cherished Petroglyphs.

My aunt and I outside of the Gobustan National Park. She had taken the same photo over 20 years ago on a school trip with my mom.

My aunt and I outside of the Gobustan National Park. She had taken the same photo over 20 years ago on a school trip with my mom.

Before seeing them in real life, however, we made a detour into the desert for a view of one of the largest inactive volcanos. The journey required entering several gated locations where only certified tour agencies were permitted to enter. Once past the gates, we ascended the height of the mountainous terrain. I couldn’t help but think: if our car broke down, there would be literally miles of desert and rock surrounding us and the nearest civilization. As we ascended the mountains, the elevation change was enough to make my ears pop several times, as well as make my head dizzy looking down from the Jeep. The driver, luckily, was very skilled in the off-road setting and even offered to leap the car over several meters of rock for an “extreme” experience. My Aunt kindly declined.

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The top view of Gobustan was breathtaking. Several kilometers away we could see the peak of the inactive volcano and all-encompassing barren lands surrounding. Red, grey, and every color in between married and merged to form the rocks and rubble stretched out before us. We were at least 800 meters from sea level, and we could clearly see the town of Gobustan from our vantage point. A slight red tint clung to the low clouds afar and the beaming sun made the mica-laden brown and grey rocks sparkle back at us.

Onward, we followed a path toward the much-acclaimed volcanos. These volcanos do not spew magma, but mud. They form in regions where pockets of underground gas accumulate in a weak area of the earth, allowing the gas to force its way to the surface. Perhaps surprising due to popular misconception, the volcanos are quite cold inside, reaching temperatures just above freezing.

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 Seeing them in person I witnessed large grey mounds of clay piled on top of one another – some wet with newly erupted clay, others cracked and wrinkled in the blistering sun. The more interesting ones were audibly bubbling and gurgling and spewing mud from their summit. I climbed onto the tallest one I could find to have a look inside. The orifice of the mud volcano gurgled back at me as if it was annoyed by my intrusion. While mud volcanos do not release magma, they can be known to erupt from time to time. Every 20 years, one of the larger mud volcanos will ignite underneath and release a massive explosion. While generally benign as these volcanos exist miles away from towns, they can cause disruption for local wildlife.

After exploring the modest-sized volcanos, I happened to overhear a tour guide with a group below mention an even larger mud volcano about half a mile from where we were. My aunt and I then decided to make the trek towards it, looking under our feet for snakes and other animals of the biting-sort.

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Playing music on the Gaval Dash.

Playing music on the Gaval Dash.

The larger volcano was perhaps on the order of four or five meters in height and required some skill trekking up as its recently spewed mud made its surface slippery. Reaching the top, I was not disappointed. I stared into the eye of the volcano, approximately two meters in diameter – enough for one bold enough to hop in for a bath. Not as bold as those before me, I simply filled a water bottle full of the magical elixir.

As an experiment, I let my mud-laden hand dry in the desert heat: I would compare it with the hand that hadn’t been exposed. As the mud began to dry, it cracked and broke off like chalk. I couldn’t deny that my skin was undeniably smoother from the miracle dirt. A combination of crude oil, minerals, and clay were responsible for the observed difference. My aunt and I laughed over it as we hopped back into the jeep and started to head toward the Petroglyphs.

Walking with a guide towards the demarcated zone of the protected petroglyphs, we  were first greeted by the “musical stone” right outside of the gate. This stone, when hit with the same form of rock as itself, sounds completely hollow like a percussion instrument. The stone is called Gaval Dash and is approximately two meters long – when hit, it resonates like a tambourine. The history behind this strange stone is that prehistoric people would use it to play ritual melodies such as the archaic Yalli chain-dance. No one knows exactly why the rock sounds the way it does – some believe it might be due to a combination of the unique climate and the effects of natural gas.

Our final adventure of the day was to visit the prehistoric cave drawings dating back to the upper paleolithic to the middle ages in Eurasia. Hundreds of drawings were visible in the cavernous region including a myriad of flora, fauna, hunting, fishing, and animals. Even more drawings represented primitive men, ritualistic dances, as well as astrological symbols such as the sun and stars. While we only witnessed a hundred or so drawings, over 6,000 carvings were present in the region, engraved on more than 1,000 surfaces. I was greatly impressed by the sheer volume of drawings and the quality by which they were preserved. The most intriguing drawings were those of humanoids – stick figures with three fingers, multiple heads, or no limbs at all. In their strange humanoid form, they seemed to wave me goodbye as we concluded our trip.

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My Own History // A Familiar Farewell

Visiting the Azerbaijan State Oil and Industry University, where my father studied when he met my mom.

Visiting the Azerbaijan State Oil and Industry University, where my father studied when he met my mom.

My final days in Azerbaijan were spent visiting sites around Baku imbued with personal history. Walking through the neighborhood my mother grew up in, I visited her old high school as well as my dad’s Institute – the Azerbaijan State Oil and Industry Academy. I even walked by the building where my parents held their official marriage ceremony.

Spending these two weeks in Azerbaijan was a gift I had dreamed of ever since a child. Occupying the space where my mother grew up, where my parents met and fell in love, and where I was eventually born was like remembering a memory that I had never experienced physically but lived through metaphysically all my life. In the U.S., I lived in Azerbaijan through the culture and values that my parents instilled in me. Undeniably, flying back to the States still felt like home. But like an elaborate mosaic, I learned in Azerbaijan that home is crafted from a multitude of places and people, each fitting together to create an entirely unique masterpiece.