9-13 September 2018
The ‘Mad Hatter’ drives us from the Heydar Aliyev International Airport using wide avenues of multiple lanes, flashing his headlights to move others from our path. Government official or royal family? Actually, a Baku Grand Prix hopeful. The Baku City Circuit, a motor racing circuit constructed along these boulevards, is the second-longest circuit on the Formula One racing calendar. I think we are being treated to an example of ‘driving the circuit’.
Our little taxi careens and tailgates toward our hotel, certainly beating his previous land record. We exit our taxi in laughter of relief. This was our initiation into the insane driving of Baku. The Baku Grand Prix may run each April, but these wide, one-way streets appear designed more for a Ferrari than a Kia or Lada.
I have landed in Azerbaijan.
When choosing a travel destination, I admit my ignorance about the Caucasus. That needed to change. Baku is one of the five biggest cities in the former USSR and the most prosperous of the Caucasian capitals. It seemed an interesting place to go.
Eight lanes of one-way traffic speed across town impeded by few lights and even fewer pedestrian crossings. Passages are underground, thankfully, as some of the best strolling is across the boulevard. Milli Park is the place to be with its four miles of seafront promenade, cafes, breezes and benches – a place to see and be seen.
Baku City wraps around a natural south facing bay on a peninsula jutting into the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest saline lake. I stand at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, with the Caspian to the east, Russia and Georgia towards the north, Armenia west, a northwest sliver of border shared with Turkey, and Iran to the south. The first democratic state in the Muslim world, a lot of history has sped along its streets.
Petroglyphs of the 10th BCE and other archeological evidence dates this region to antiquity – a long, long time ago. Think Stone Age. Early settlements included the Scythians, Iranian Medes, and Zoroastrians. At one time, Alexander the Great claimed this as part of his empire. This Land of Fire is displayed nightly by LED lights on the Flame Towers and symbolizes an ancient Azerbaijani culture and geographical land.
The Sasanian/Persian Empire entered this region in 252, later adopting Christianity as a state religion. These Sasanians and the local dynasty of the Shirvanshahs pretty much held onto the region for centuries to come.
Built on a rocky promontory sloping steeply up from the Caspian, the Qız Qalası or Maiden Tower has been the symbol of Baku since the 12th century. Its cylindrical tower walls are 16’ thick at the base, narrowing to 10-14’ at the top. This 97-foot structure is steeped in legend and mystery; one such legend involved a red-haired virgin girl who saved people of Baku from slavery. Some question its design and purpose, but most date the tower to the Zoroastrian/pre-Islamic era. Was the tower designed as a fire tower, astronomical observatory, or fortress lookout? The stairs are an easy climb and the views superb. But the winds are fierce, thus earning Baku the nickname of “Windy City.”
As the Caspian receded and more shore emerged, land was developed between the 9th and 15th centuries and not only the Maiden Tower and protective city walls were built, but the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. The palace, built in 1435 by the Shirvanshah rulers, is described by UNESCO as “one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture.” Once surrounded by walls and watchtowers, today there remains the palace, a burial vault, the shah’s mosque, a mausoleum, and ruins of a bath house. All is built in a simple Azerbaijani style and what little tile work and ornamentation used was destroyed by the Soviets.
The palace complex is surrounded by a maze of quiet alleys and cobblestone streets of Old City (UNESCO). Small mosques, cafes, shops, impressive architecture, and the Yaşıl Bazar line the streets. Not much has changed thru the centuries and a genuine effort is made to retain the original character and architecture within the walls of the Old City.
It is outside these walls that a high rise Baku has been born. An effort to compete with Dubai? Baku City’s luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture and LED light displays are gearing up for the challenge. You can read the wealth and prosperity of a city on its streets: Porsche, Maserati, Ferrari; caviar and furs; Fendi, Armani, Cavalli. It takes little time to recognize Baku has wealth and prosperity. It is a city where police drive “Beemers” and a brand name mall is within easy reach of even grander “seven star” hotels.
Many gigantic mansions of the Oil Barons’ remain in Baku. One of these is now the comprehensive National Museum of History of Azerbaijan. Within its walls is more history and artifacts than one can absorb in the short time we are there.
In 1501, the Safavid dynasty of Iran conquered this area of the Caucasus, including parts of Azerbaijan, subdued the Shirvanshahs, and converted what was a Sunni population to Shia Islam (as with modern-day Iran). Sunni Ottomans tried to win the region via the Ottoman-Safavie War 1578-1590, but by 1600 Safavid Iranian rulers dominated.
Letting no opportunity to go untried, Baku was briefly occupied by the Russians following the Russo-Persian War of 1722. In 1804, Russia returned for an encore when they invaded and sacked the town of Ganja, sparking the second Russo-Persian war lasting to 1813. The Russians, better armed, won that skirmish but had to return in 1826 to finally force the Iranian sovereign to depart the last of Azerbaijani soil.
Known as Azerbaijan as early as 1067 (but made official in 1918 in spite of Iran’s protests), this country has seen its share of upheaval in the modern era. After the Russian Empire’s collapse during WWI, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia attempted to unite into a common republic. That was followed by the “March Days” massacres in Baku, leading to the dissolution of the republic. Azerbaijan declared its independence and became the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world – a parliament that granted suffrage to women, making Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men.
By March 1920, it was obvious Soviet Russia would attack Baku. As is the usual case of an aggressor, Lenin said the invasion was “justified.” Less than a year and 20,000 lives later, Azerbaijan was incorporated into the USSR.
During WW II, Azerbaijan played a critical role in the supply of oil for the Eastern Front. Hitler had his greedy eyes on the region. Masses of men and women went to the front, with over 250,000 killed (out of a population of just 3.4 million). However, Baku remained in the hands of the USSR.
In response to Moscow’s indifference, Azerbaijan called for independence, which culminated in Black January (1990) in Baku. Gorbachev declared military law to stop independence and “protect Armenians.” Estimates of those killed range from 150-300. Later, in 1995, Gorbachev apologized to Azerbaijan:
The declaration of a state emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career. – Mikhail Gorbachev
On 30 August 1991, Azerbaijan declared independence, adopting a Declaration of Independence in October, months before the fall of the USSR in December of that year. Another gutsy, quiet revolution in the east.
But one point of contention remains. Following the politics of Gorbachev’s glasnost, in September 1991, the Armenian majority of the disputed northwest Nagorno-Karabakh region seceded to form the Republic of Artsakh. This is a landlocked region in the South Caucasus where about 150,000 people live. (This is similar to a portion in the middle of your state being claimed by a neighboring state, or Russia claiming the Crimea when they have no road access to the region.) Over the years, ethnic massacres have occurred with an estimated 30,000 people killed and over a million displaced. Human Rights Watch seem to place most responsibility on Armenian forces.
The Baku Funicular was never operating while I visited, but our tour did drive us up to the three futuristic Flame Towers. (evoking the fires of Zoroastrianism). Built in 2012, they quickly became iconic symbols of Baku, soaring over 600 feet skyward and covered with flashy LED screens projecting images of dancing flames, the Azerbaijani flag, and waterfalls.
Atop Memorial Hill at Dağüstü Park, neatly landscaped terraces overlook the spectacular Bay of Baku and Martyr’s Alley. Martyr’s Alley is a solemn stretch of walkways and gardens dedicated to those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War with Armenia, and during the turmoil Azerbaijan experienced immediately prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan pending a solution and woe to the traveler who enters that region from Armenia rather than from Azerbaijan. (Much as it exists between Serbia and Kosovo.) The UN has demanded “the immediate withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan.” Nothing is resolved.
And what of modern Baku? Azerbaijan ranks on par with most Eastern European countries. Their Constitution avoids declaring an official religion and all major political parties appear to be secularist. Though the majority of the population are Muslim (89% Shia), most Azerbaijanis do not actively practice any religion, stating it has little importance in their lives. Unemployment is low and literacy is high.
Azerbaijan belongs to several international councils from NATO to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and is a member of the UN. It maintains good relationships with the EU and potentially could become a member in the future. Foreign policy leans more toward Euro-Atlantic structures than Russian; supports ethnic and religious tolerance, science and education; and desires a restoration of its territorial integrity. Azerbaijan is an active member of international coalitions fighting international terrorism and was one of the first countries to offer support after the 9/11 attacks. The country is contributing to peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the Azerbaijani government has stated that the long-standing dispute over the Armenian-occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is almost certain to spark a new war if it remains unresolved.
But, all is not perfect. There has been criticism of some human rights abuses. There is a lack of free speech and a free press in the country.
Former leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, was elected President in 1993 and held on through several attempted coups. Upon his death in 2003, his son Ilham replaced him as President and was elected for a third term in 2013, receiving 85% of the vote. However, I read that a day before voting began, the Election Commission released a smartphone application intended to allow citizens to watch the ballot counting in real time. Instead, the app mistakenly showed the results of the election before the election had taken place. In 2018, Aliyev won the presidential election with 86.02% of votes. Either he is extremely popular or the smartphone app extremely bad.
The term of President has been lengthened to seven years with no term limit. The rules were also changed to allow the president to appoint his vice-presidents. The current first Vice-President is First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva. The age to become eligible for President was also recently lowered to 18. One wonders if there is a young Aliyev grandson in the wings. And the oil riches pour in daily.
Heydar Aliyev International Airport was named for the former president as was the Heydar Aliyev Centre (a masterpiece of Zaha Hadid’s architecture surrounded by modern sculptures and gardens), Opéra House, parks, streets and statues. Heydar portraits hang everywhere, including the lobby of our hotel. I hesitate to ask if Azerbaijanis really love him that much.
Throughout Baku are stunning examples of typical Azerbaijan buildings, rejecting the Soviet architecture of its past for a future of beauty and technology. Rather than razing the ugly Soviet buildings, the Azerbaijani has renovated and built new, attractive facades in keeping with the euro-style of the city. Since the second oil boom in 2006, high-rises have sprung into the sky with regularity.
There are a plethora of shopping malls, an efficient and subsidized metro, modern airport, and lots of traffic police to keep the Grand Prix dreamer zipping along in his Porsche. Efforts are made to keep their traditions and culture vibrant with the expansion of the seaside promenade, addition of a wonderful Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, construction of the Crystal Hall, expansion of its port, and the opening of new restaurants and cafes. And to keep the populace occupied, a KFC, Papa John’s Pizza, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Hard Rock Cafe surround Fountain Square.
Azerbaijan still lives with the greedy boot of Russia at her back. However, this county appears to have taken the best (Russian built subways and restaurants) and rejected her worst. Her Azerbaijani Carpets and Folk Art, food, hospitality and people, are unique. Azerbaijanis have rapidly entered the modern culture of Europe, even winning the coveted Eurovision Song of the year in 2011.
I missed the gigantic flag atop National Flag Square on my stroll of the waterfront. The once tallest flag pole is being renovated and lengthened to regain its record height. Like its determination to maintain the world’s highest flag pole, this city of contrasts is well on her way to being the up and coming “in” spot of global travelers.
Saturday, September 15 is a national holiday in Azerbaijan. A several storey banner of Azerbaijan-Turkey flags cover the facade of our hotel. I watch men tethered to the 20-storey Hotel Absheron, dropping and attaching a huge banner along its facade. It colorfully depicts the Azerbaijani flag commemorating the 100th anniversary when Turkey came to the rescue of Baku to liberate the city from the Armenian-Bolshevik occupation on Sept. 15, 1918.
The drumbeats that have awaken me in the mornings are of soldiers and a brass band lining up at Government House just across the street. Hundreds of marchers and horseback riders prepare for a parade along the waterfront.
On our own hotel, a several storey banner of Azerbaijan-Turkey flags celebrate a common friendship. It is the pomp and circumstance of another glorious page of Azerbaijan history.
An added Footnote:
6 October 2018
Perhaps I should change this “glorious page” reference, but I shall not. I have mentioned a couple times that I admit my limited knowledge of the history of the Caucasus. Following my visit to the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, I would rewrite some of this glowing tribute to Azeri-Turk friendship and assistance in time of troubles. I would be slightly more cynical about the September 15 commemorations. I will include my footnote to my Yerevan blog below:
I did not have time to read all the information while at the museum, so I took photos and read it after my return home. Reading this one particular placard, I could not help but recall the preparations for the 100th Anniversary of friendship between Azerbaijan and Turkey to be celebrated on September 15, the day after I left Baku. Soaring, colorful flags were being raised upon hotel buildings. It was explained that the flags, marching drills and drum beats were in preparation for a celebration commemorating Turkish assistance in ridding Azeris of the Russian yoke.
After reading this bit of history, I realize our Armenian’s friends may take a different view of all that celebratory activity.
“One of the aims of the Turkish intervention of 1918 to the east was the capture of Baku, rich in oil resources. Their advancement towards Baku was accompanied by massacres and looting of Armenians along the way. The Armenians reverted to organized resistance. After massacring the Armenian population of the Elisabethpol* and Baku governates, the Turkish forces and local Turkish-speaking population took Baku on September 15. It was accompanied with the massacre of about 30,000 Armenians. The population of Artsakh** organized efficient resistance to Turkish atrocities. Turkish soldiers worked out a new plan of large scale massacres against the population of Artsakh. The danger looming over the Eastern Armenian population, that it might share the fate of the Ottoman Armenians, was ended only with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.”
(*Elisabethpol is today’s Ganja. **The disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territories)