Two years ago, I probably would have left Azerbaijan off my itinerary. My guidebook described the visa process as a “headache” and proceeded to devote five paragraphs to describing all the tips and tricks and pitfalls of obtaining entry to this country. Fortunately, things have changed. With a process simpler than paying my rent and costing only twenty-three dollars, I had a visa in hand and was ready to hit the ground running when I landed at Heydər Əliyev Airport.
And by “hit the ground running,” this is what I mean:
You’re hanging on to the back seat of an ancient Soviet car. The radio is blaring Turkish pop music as the driver dances in his seat, paying no attention to either speed limit or lanes. The seat belts don’t work, and if they did no one would be wearing them because who wants to be stuck inside a Soviet car?
The landscape is barren, and you’re speeding down a narrow road that is alternately lined by clusters of oil jacks, a high wall concealing houses, and open expanses dotted with sheep and shepherds on horseback.
Suddenly, your driver stops to pick up a hitchhiker. Except they’re not a hitchhiker, because you’re riding public transportation – the new passenger owes the driver one manat. Not long after, another passenger climbs in. And then another. And another. Eventually there is no need for seat belts anyway because the car is so crammed with people that no one is moving anywhere if they tried.
Azerbaijan is perhaps an exotic destination – and certainly not well known here in the United States. As a small country, it is often overshadowed in the news by its neighbors, but I tend to find such places particularly interesting to visit. Azerbaijan is located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, south of Russia, north of Iran, and east of Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. The Greater Caucasus mountains run along the northern border, while the Lesser Caucasus mountains stretch into the southwestern region. In the east, the arid lowlands roll downward, culminating at the flame-shaped Abşeron Peninsula that reaches out into the sea. The peninsula is home to Azerbaijan’s capital, over a third of its population, and most of its industry, and this is the part of the country that I visited.
Legend has it that the word “Azerbaijan” comes from an ancient Persian phrase meaning “Land of Fire”. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant, because the country has taken full advantage of the moniker. A popular explanation for the name of Baku, due in part to the sacred flames that burn on the Abşeron Peninsula, is that it derives from the Sanskrit word baga, meaning “god” (compare with Russian бог/”bok”, also meaning “god”, and Baghdad, meaning “God-given”). Alternatively, it could come from an Old Persian phrase, meaning “wind-battered”, which I would also believe after nearly being blown off a hilltop (fortunately that didn’t happen, because the base of the hill was on fire!).
If there is one thing the Abşeron Peninsula is known for, it is oil. The local people have known of its presence for thousands of years, and even Marco Polo reported back on it. Just pick up any history of the oil industry, and the Absheron Peninsula and Baku will be among the first places mentioned. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Azerbaijan was one of the largest and most strategic oil producers in the world, even surpassing the United States for a time. The region is so rich in oil and gas that it doesn’t take much digging to reach it. In fact, in many places, it makes its presence known without any digging at all – the oil and gas simply seeps out of the ground naturally. If the conditions are right, the seeping natural gas burns naturally and continuously. If it passes through groundwater on its way up, a bubbling “mud volcano” results. Some of these can be violent and are inaccessible, but others are small and benign – like something you could bring to the middle school science fair! 😂
With such bizarre geological features, it’s not hard to imagine why the ancient inhabitants of the Abşeron Peninsula considered fire to be sacred. Before Islam was introduced to the region, the primary religion was Zoroastrianism, which persists to this day in smaller numbers, mainly in India. Zoroastrians are known for their traditions involving fire as a means of ritual cleansing and of obtaining spiritual knowledge. In their fire temples, priests were responsible for keeping the flames alive. But in Azerbaijan, where the ground burns naturally, there was no need for this task. The most famous temple here is located in the town of Suraxanı (which means “burning fountain”). The natural flame made the temple a pilgrimage site – but the flame eventually went out. After all the gas was drilled from under the town, the temple (now a museum) had to revert to modern plumbing to maintain the flame.
Even though the drilling has been extinguishing some of the once-permanent natural flames, and the country no longer tops the production charts, Caspian Sea oil remains the largest factor in Azerbaijan’s economy. The industry is hard to miss. From the plane, I could see the maze of hundreds of offshore platforms, many of them connected by a baffling network of overpasses (the offshore oil platform was invented here, and in the 1950s they built an entire city of 2000 people on platforms thirty-five miles offshore). On the ground, pipelines crisscross the countryside. Residential neighborhoods are punctuated by bobbing oil jacks still pumping in the same ancient fields where the locals were digging oil wells by hand since before the colonization of America. Each day during my stay in Azerbaijan, I commuted back and forth between Baku and the home of my Couchsurfing host, who works on the offshore platforms. Along the way, I would watch the scenery go by: refineries, factories, sprawling suburbs, and desert. The desert was the only exotic part – the rest reminded me of home.