Though I was staying with a Couchsurfing host in a suburb about an hour north of central Baku, I spent a couple days exploring the multi-layered center of the city. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a city in such a peculiar position as Baku. Would it reflect the Islamic heritage of its Middle Eastern neighbors? Would two centuries of czarist and Soviet rule have given it a Russian feel? Or would it display the European culture you might expect from a country that proudly flaunts a one-time victory in the Eurovision Song Contest?
İçərişəhər, the very center of Baku, is a pretty typical old town – a labyrinthine cluster of buildings enclosed by a fortified stone wall with elegant gates spaced along the perimeter. Some buildings are dilapidated, others over-renovated, and others nicely preserved. A close-knit community of local families has lived within the walls for generations, and now shares the neighborhood with tourists and hotels. At one end of İçərişəhər sits the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, where the medieval Shirvan dynasty ruled the region for several centuries. At the other end of İçərişəhər, closest to the waterfront, is Baku’s most beloved symbol, the Maiden Tower. This is a huge fortified stone tower that stands separate from the city wall because it likely was not even built for defensive purposes. The explanations for its origins are varied, but the most plausible is that it functioned either as a ritual site or a burial site for the Zoroastrians who inhabited the Caspian Sea region prior to the introduction of Islam.
Azeri is a Turkic language very closely related to Turkish, which means that the C sounds like J and Q sounds like G. İçərişəhər is pronounced “ee-chuh-ree-shuh-har”, the capital is called Bakı “Ba-chih”, and the country is Azərbaycan “Az-er-bay-john” with the J of “John” rather than “Jacques”.
The fall of the Shirvan dynasty led to several centuries of Persian rule followed by a century of Russian rule. The İçərişəhər of Baku, however, remained a small regional city all the way up until the end of the nineteenth century, when two Swedes by the name of Nobel rolled into town and began drilling for oil. Almost overnight, the Abşeron Peninsula became the largest oil-producing region in the world, putting out over half the global supply. Wealth poured in, and a new city sprang up around the İçərişəhər in an eclectic mix of elegant European and intricate Islamic architectural styles. The people of Baku similarly found themselves being pulled in two different directions: to the East, rooted in the Shia Islamic traditions of Iran, and to the West, with culture and technology imported from Russia and Europe.
When the tsar was overthrown and Communism took hold in Russia, Azerbaijan tried to opt out and briefly experimented with independence beginning on May 28, 1918. However, being trapped along the landlocked Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan was dependent on Russia to bring its oil to market, and Russia had every reason to want control of the production itself. So, on April 28, 1920, Azerbaijan was re-occupied and incorporated into the new Soviet Union, where it remained until 1991. Thanks to the Soviets, Baku gained another layer, this time of endlessly boring concrete facades. It’s no surprise that the metro station that the Soviets named “28 April” is now called “28 May.”
Since the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan regained its independence, Baku has gotten very creative with its new construction. They have given many Soviet buildings nostalgic facelifts and dotted the city and coastline with shiny glass towers. Among the interesting skyscrapers are the wavy SOCAR Tower, representing wind; the Azersu Tower, in the shape of a giant water drop and home to the state water company; and the three Flame Towers, representing a huge fire burning at the top of a hill – a fitting centerpiece for the capital of the “Land of Fire.” Other interesting buildings include a mall that looks like the Sydney Opera House; the Heydər Əliyev Center, which looks like a cloud; a carpet museum, which looks like, well, a giant roll of carpet; and the Crystal, a prismatic waterfront concert hall built to host the country’s largest ever international event – the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.
As I only spent a few days in Baku, it’s hard to say which cultural influences are strongest. Parts of Baku feel very European despite being so far from Europe proper. The former president, Heydər Əliyev, was responsible for strengthening ties with Europe through projects such as a new oil pipeline through Georgia that bypasses Russia. However, he and his successor/son are also disliked by many people for their corrupt, less-than-democratic methods and human rights violations. As for religion, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more bars than minarets in Baku. It’s a complicated place sandwiched between much more powerful neighbors, but certainly interesting to visit. Fortunately, I didn’t get on the wrong side of their border dispute with Armenia, so I still have the possibility of visiting again some day!