May 162014

I arrived at 9:30 last night April 29th, 2014 after leaving San Francisco at 3:00 April 28th.  Flights like that make one know that people circumnavigating the world before the age of jets must have been a very special breed of human.

I woke to this view of the Caspian Sea.

Baku, Azerbaijan*

Baku, AzerbaijanThe day began with a walk down Baku Boulevard, also known as National Park.  It is a promenade established in 1909 and runs parallel to the waterfront. Its history goes back more than 100 years, to a time when Baku oil barons built their mansions along the Caspian shore.

Baku, Azerbaijan

 This is a parachute tower, (yes we thought it was an oil derrick too) built in 1936 and used for “extreme activities”  However, the tower was turned into a weather forecast station after a fatal accident in the 1960s, which led to the ultimate ban of parachuting from the tower. To this day, the tower is considered one of the landmarks of the boulevard, and at night is lit with the time and the date.
*Parachute Tower, Baku
Baku, Azerbaijan

The Cleanliness of Baku is one of the first things you notice 

As early as the 15th century, Baku was an important international trading center for merchants traveling between the East and Europe. Caravans of camels and merchant ships transported oil, salt, plant dyes and saffron. In the 19th century, the rapid growth of the oil industry caused a total modernization. By the turn of the 20th century, Baku was one of the biggest industrial cities of the world, and today it is the largest city in Azerbaijan.

In fact the oil wells drilled in 1846 at Bibiheybat in the Baku region were the first mechanically-drilled oil wells in the world, an important technical innovation. It is worth pointing out that the USA, the world’s first oil producer, started using this mechanical-drilling method 13 years after Baku.

We know we are going to visit the important sites of the old town of Baku in the next few days so we thought we would take the opportunity to just wander. It was odd, we felt we had walked into a ghost town. The old town is walled, and yet we saw no people to speak of. It was obviously inhabited, and along the outside walls there are people, but deep in the interior we found no one.

Baku, AzerbaijanI did find lots of great public art however.  This is a stack of  Armudu, Azerbaijan tea cups called the Twelve Beauties.

Baku, AzerbaijanThe Inner Walled City is one of the few surviving medieval towns in Azerbaijan. It retains the characteristic features of a medieval town, such as the labyrinth of narrow streets, congested buildings and tiny courtyards. The walls of the old town, which still survive on the western and northern sides, were built by Menutsshochr Shah in the 12th century and were repaired in the 19th century. In fact there is much repair on the walls  and archaeological exploration within the old town itself still occurring. The narrow streets are lined with houses dating from the late 18th century onwards.

Baku, AzerbaijanWe had been told by the concierge to go to one of the three restaurants that bake the Azerbaijan bread as you order it, so that was our morning snack with tea.

Baku, Azerbaijan

My friends Lolly and Gary with the Bread Oven

Azerbaijani Bread MakingNotice how HUGE the loaves of bread are, I am pretty sure we left at least 1/3 of our loaf behind.  Oh, and by the way it was 1 Manat which is equal to about $1.28
Break Making in Azerbaijan

 Bread making at another restaurant down the street.

AzerbaijanWe have no idea why these three sheep were lazing in this little alcove, but we thought them rather cute.  Possibly tonight’s dinner?

Baku, AzerbaijanAzerbaijan is truly where East meets Europe and where Russia intruded itself for a while.  The architecture just makes your jaw drop.  There will be European Palaces built for the original oil barons, and then Persian Architecture, and then a Russian style housing project left from the 1960’s.  However, the new economy is attracting a new and highly modern type of architecture, that actually works.  Some of the modern structures are a tad flashy, but many are a lovely addition to the skyline. 

Baku, Azerbaijan

 These are the “Flame Towers”, which have turned into the symbol of modern Baku. The three buildings, were designed by HOK in 2012. The one on the left is a hotel and the other two serve as business centers. They are 620 feet tall and their shape was inspired by the city’s history of Zoroastrian fire worshipping and its ongoing connection to the natural gas industry. The three buildings are a continually changing light show at night, which is attractive, not garish.
A few shots from our wanderings: 

Baku, Azerbaijan*
Baku, Azerbaijan*

Baku, Azerbaijan*

Baku, Azerbaijan

A few last thoughts. The people here and their language are called Azeri. 

Baku is located in the state of Shirvan, which existed from the 9th century CE until 1538, when it was annexed by Safavid Iran. In 1585 the town was captured by the Ottoman Sultan Murat III, and in 1723 it was occupied by the Russian General Matushkin, when it was destroyed by fire. It became part of the Russian Empire in 1783, and gained independence in 1991.  I think that pretty much explains its eclectic architecture and fabulous food.
I am off for a hammam at the Four Seasons,  followed by what I know will be a fabulous dinner somewhere along Baku Boulevard overlooking the Caspian Sea and watching the sun go down.
May 152014
We began the day at the Fountains Square,  a public square in downtown Baku.  The name derives from the presence of dozens of fountains throughout the square first constructed during Soviet rule of Azerbaijan.  The square was completely renovated in 2010.

Fountain Square, Baku*Fountain Square, Baku

I instantly fell in love with this carousel, and yes that is an octopus occupying the top of the ticket booth.

*Fountain Square Baku*Fountain Square, Baku
We then meandered over to the Funicular that runs from a square on Neftchilar Avenue to Martyrs’ Lane.   It was originally opened in 1960, but closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It was reopened again in 2001 and then went through a major renovation in 2012.  The views from the top are spectacular. 
Top of the Funicular in Baku
We then spent the afternoon walking around the The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center which was designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid  and named for Heydar Aliyev, the leader of Soviet-era Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1982, and president of Azerbaijan from October 1993 to October 2003.


According to the architect’s website: As part of the former Soviet Union, the urbanism and architecture of Baku was heavily influenced by the planning of that era.  Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has invested heavily in modernizing and developing Baku’s infrastructure and architecture, departing from its legacy of normative Soviet Modernism.

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

Zaha Hadid Architects was appointed as design architects of the Heydar Aliyev Center following a competition in 2007.  The Center, designed to become the primary building for the nation’s cultural programs, breaks from the rigid and often monumental Soviet architecture that is so prevalent in Baku, aspiring instead to express the sensibilities of Azeri culture and the optimism of a nation that looks to the future.

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center*The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center*

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center*The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

The building is surrounded with wonderful outdoor sculpture and is truly an experience to behold.

A little bit about the art scene here.  Art is everywhere, and everything is artistic.  However, we visited the Modern Art Museum and while there was good art in it, it was not what I would consider museum quality.
That is not a criticism.  I can not imagine what it must have been like to have been an artist under Soviet domination.  It is exciting to see that it has so much potential and feels to me like it is a coil ready to spring and bring forth an amazing amount of energy and new things. 

We have sadly moved hotels, and join our group tomorrow.  The new hotel leaves a lot to be desired.  The one thing that is especially going to be difficult to deal with is the smoking situation.   This is a part of the world that still has a heavy smoking culture.  The rooms and restaurants are difficult to inhabit, and I am sure my clothing will all have to go to the cleaners when I return.

Funny how we have forgotten how badly that can be. 
May 142014

When taking the funicular yesterday we ended up at Martyr’s row.  Like so many city’s around the world have, this is an area of war memorials.  I waited until today to go into them as there is so much history tied up in this tiny area of grave sites and memorials.

At the top is this mosque.  It represents the loaded political scene of the Caucusus region.

CAUTION: – Complicated History Lesson is about to Ensue.

I am going to start with including an older map I found, I had to add a bit to it, so I hope it helps in understanding this region without confusing too much

The map was drawn up in 1991-1992 by the Rand Corporation

This entire site above the funicular was originally a muslim cemetery with victims of the 1918 Russian Civil war.  It was completely destroyed and the corpses removed when the Bolsheviks came to power.  They then created an amusement park in the area.   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the amusement park was removed and the area again became a burial site for national heroes.  

War Memorials Baku

This tower is the Baku Turkish Martyr’s Memorial dedicated to Ottomon soldiers killed during WWI in Azerbaijan. Along the tower is an alley of name plates.  1,130 Turksh solders were killed in the Battle of Baku in 1918. (For those that want to truly delve into your history it was the Azerbaijani forces and the Army of Islam against the Bolsheviks-Armenian Dashnaks and Baku Soviets)

War Memorials Baku

The monument was designed by Turkish architects Hüseyin Bütüner and Hilmi Güner.  The mosque was built by the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs and opened in 1996.  It was dedicated in 1999 with both the Turkish and Azerbaijani Presidents of the time.

In April 2009 the mosque was closed down by the Azerbaijani authorities.

Bear with me as we are continuing with the conflicts in politics here:

 This area  is the site of the men who died in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, an armed conflict that took place from February 1988 to May 1994, in the small enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, between the majority ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by the Republic of Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan.  The Nagorno-Karabakh region is still contested today.

War Memorials Baku

The eternal flame and the graves that line the right hand side of this walkway are from Black Saturday, also known as Black January or the January Massacre. 

Essentially during the breakdown of the Soviet Union there was a flaring up of the Azerbaijani and Armenian conflict.  

On January 19th 1990, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku. The troops attacked protesters, firing into crowds.  The shooting continued for three days.  On January 22nd almost the entire population of Baku turned out to bury the dead and the country stayed in mourning for another 40 days, by staying away from work.

According to one report, 93 Azerbaijanis and 29 Soviet soldiers were killed in the street skirmishes. Other reports state that 21 soldiers were killed and 90 wounded in the fighting, however these numbers are highly disputed.

War Memorials BakuThere is one more memorial on the hill.

War Memorial Baku

This memorial to British troops killed during WWI is also not without controversy.  The British were sent to prevent the Turkish invasion which most Azeris supported.

In total it is estimated there are about 15,000 people buried here on Martyrs’ Lane.

This small area on the top of a hill in Baku is a prime example of how difficult it is to understand so much of the world we live in.  Baku is a melting pot of history and invasion, and this little area is an amazing reminder of all of that.

We did so very, very, very much more today, and I will eventually write about that.  However it is late so I will finish up with this wonderful piece of art work.
This is Aliagha Vahid he was an Azerbaijani poet and Honoured Artist of the Azerbaijan SSR (1943). He was known for reintroducing medieval ghazel style in Soviet Azerbaijani poetry.  A ghazel is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain with each line sharing the same meter. 

 It is a very detailed sculpture, and all of the items have meanings, but I am unclear on most of it. The tree trunk is apparently an oak to symbolize age and strength.  The back of his head has the scholars over the years that he has influenced and that influenced him.  However, the meaning of the others are not quite so clear.  None-the-less it is a massive, and yet really well crafted sculpture.



May 132014
Flag of Azerbaijan
 I feel like I have just stepped up to the water fountain and haven’t even had a chance to reach for a glass in the cupboard and we are leaving.

The name Azerbaijan is Persian and means “protect(or) of Fire”, which is said to have a direct link with Zoroastrianism.

Eternal Fire in Azerbaijan

But lets begin with our visit to Yanar Dag.  The flames emanate from vents in sandstone formations, and are the result of steady gas emissions from underlying soils. Even on the surface of streams near Yanar Dag, fire can be ignited with a match. These streams are known as Yanar Bulaq – “burning springs”. 
These burning springs and rocks are mentioned by Alexandre Dumas, during one of his visits to the area. Only a handful of fire mountains exist today in the world, and most are located in Azerbaijan. Due to the large concentration of natural gas under the Absheron Peninsula, natural flames burned there throughout antiquity and were reported on by Marco Polo.
While I know that the above photograph looks like every fireplace in California, imagine how magical it was in the 13th century.

Zorastrian Temple Baku

This is Atesgah, a Zorastrian Fire Temple.   Some scientists believe that the temple was built between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first building of the reconstructed temple dates from 1713 and later other buildings were added in the 18th century and served as cells for monks, chapels and a caravanserai, as well as a hospital and a sanctuary.

Remember, Azerbaijan “protect(or) of Fire”, which is said to have a direct link with Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism  is an ancient Iranian religion and a religious philosophy. It is estimated that the current number of Zoroastrians worldwide varies between 145,000 and 2.6 million. Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan goes back to the first millennium BC or earlier.
The last worshiper left Ateshgah in 1887 and the complex fell into neglect throughout the final years of Russian Tsarism and the Soviet era. The temple was restored in 1975 and opened as a museum.  In 2009 and 2011 a further restoration took place and resulted in what you see today.
As someone who spent years in restoration, I despise this type of reconstruction as you are unable to tell what is old and what is new, and you walk away with the look of Disneyland.  So here are some photos  showing what it looked like in an earlier century.  I will grant you, not much different, but the new one is a tad too polished for my liking.
 We took a trip out to Mardakan Castle. Mardakan is one of the oldest villages of the Absheron peninsula. It is named after a tribe called the Mards who lived in the area during the 1st century AD.

Mardakan Castle, Baku

While it is a lovely castle, I believe what I took away more from it is how it really is an oil country.  This is what you find as you start to leave Baku.  I know that there is the sophisticated drilling that we associate with the oil industry occurring all over Azerbaijan today, but these wells are on some of the very first oil fields discovered and are still running, and also showing how destructive to the environment this type of drilling is.

Oil fields of Azerbaijan *Oil fields of Azerbaijan

This goes on for miles and miles and miles.

We also visited Ramana Fortress, parts of which have been standing guard over this coastline since before Tamerlane invaded Azerbaijan in 1380.  But what was the coolest thing was this old man.  He takes care of the castle for free out of his love for the history of his region.  He invited us to walk the battlements and it was scary but a heck of a lot of fun!

The last of our trip consisted of a trip out to the petroglyphs of Gobustan,
Caesar never actually visited the petroglyphs as far as I know, but the Caspian Sea rises and falls throughout the millenia and at one time the sea was much farther inland.  So Caesar made sure that the world knew he had been here.
Caesar was here

“The time of Emperor Domitianus Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Lucius Julius Maxim, Centurion XII of the Lightning Legion”

We had a delightful surprise visit to the home of the Nobel family, known to the entire world because of the one brother Alfred, that created the Nobel Prize after a successful run in the chemical business.  However, in Azerbaijan the other two brothers Robert and Ludwig, are better known for being some of the richest oil barons of Baku. 

Nobel Family Home Azerbaijan

 So…some wrap up thoughts about Azerbaijan.  The country is secular, but predominately Muslim.  Having said that, you would not know that.  There are no mosques (with the exception of a few of historical significance) and no call to prayer.  Alcohol is served, and there were pork sausage at morning breakfast.
We ran into so many people that truly did not know why we were there visiting their country.  It is difficult to get a visa to the country; while you can apply on-line it takes over a month, which requires some serious planning.
 The Azerbaijan Manat is essentially equal to the Euro so it is not cheap, and you do not come to sit by the beach.  However, the people are friendly and their history is rich.  Sadly, thanks to a soviet influence service is still indifferent and sometimes surly.

Statue outside a restaurant along the Caspian Sea

Azerbaijan is heading down the path of  Dubai with a new island being developed with 12 palm leaves for high-end homes restaurants hotels and shopping. 

The Entryway to this new man made Island This photo was taken out of the bus, hence the big blue dot.

Their GDP is higher than the other two countries (Georgia and Armenia) of the Caucasus because they are the one country rich with oil and natural gas.  Their education levels are high, and their number one friendship in the world right now is with the US, followed closely with the EU and Israel.  Cultural and educational exchanges are occurring regularly now that they are independent and we even ran into three U.S. Army men in our hotel this morning here to help with training exercises as the Azerbaijani work to be accepted into NATO.  Something that will happen when hell freezes over as long as Russia is part of the UN.  All three countries, however, are doing what they can to become part of the EU.

Baku Carpet Museum

The new Carpet Museum
 Azerbaijan had a classic oil economy prior to WWI and then the Soviets took over turning it into one of its republics.  In the 20 some years since its independence the country has taken those petrol dollars and done amazing things.

Baku, Azerbaijan

They have poured them back into the economy and at least the city of Baku is as modern day a city as one can imagine.  At the same time they must pour dollars into a military establishment to keep up a front against Armenia. 
Historic Maiden Tower.  No one really knows what it is for but it dates from the 12 Century
They have hosted a European World Song Fest which I am told is huge, and they are getting ready to host the European Games in 2015.  I will be anxious to see if they attempt in the future, to develop an economy outside of oil.

Main Boulevard of Baku

 I am an avid reader, and try very hard to read as much as I can regarding a country before going.  There was not much to get my hands on that I felt wasn’t also difficult to wade through.  Prior to leaving on this trip I read The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Charles King,  is a wonderfully informative book, but as I said a tad thick to get through.  Upon my return I read The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, while only the first few chapters are about Azerbaijan in particular, the book is an absolutely fascinating read and well worth picking up.