Saved: December 29th 2012April 20th 2012
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from Baku, but after my jaunts around Central Asia, the previous year, I was hoping the capital of Azerbaijan would be a heady mixture of Islamic Asia and Western Europe, sprinkled with a dash of Sovietness. I wasn’t disappointed.
My hotel was located smack in the centre of the city and I was soon out in search of lunch. Only minutes away was Fountain Square, the pulsing heart of Baku. At one end loomed a McDonalds packed with teenagers but I ignored it and opted for an outdoor café that had a few spare tables. While waiting for my kebabs to arrive, I gazed out at the square and the people passing by.
Like I’d expected, the vast majority of Baku’s citizens seemed Turkish or perhaps Iranian in appearance, but unlike the latter, very few of the women were wearing traditional Muslim veils, preferring instead Western-style clothing and free-flowing black hair. The square, as its name suggested, was full of fountains, but the most impressive one had a collection of silver spheres above it. Below them on a bench sat a young woman applying some lipstick and as I
watched, a trio of small boys rushed over to her. While one waited with a camera the other two sat either side, one even draping himself across the poor woman. She wasn’t bothered though and in fact made no move to shift them whatsoever. The reason for this was simple: she was made from metal and statues like her had been placed all over the city. Another bronze girl stood at the entrance to the square speaking into her mobile phone.
My food arrived and it was delicious if a little pricey, but with a full stomach, I was off, heading to Baku’s old town.
“Let me tell you about the Maiden Tower,” said a smiling man in a suit who had just approached me. I was standing underneath the medieval stone structure, easily Baku’s most famous sight, which unfortunately was undergoing some sort of major restoration work. The top section of the cylindrical tower was cloaked in cloth and the secondary tower was covered in scaffolding. I turned to the man who introduced himself as Natan, a freelance guide of the old city. “And if you like what I say, then perhaps I can show you more
I told him I didn’t need a guide but he persisted and offered me his card. It also advertised his service as a taxi driver. I took it but then walked to the booth to get a ticket to go inside the 12th
century tower. I couldn’t fault the man for his ingenuity but was in no mood to have an unofficial guide trailing me about all over town.
“Okay, I understand,” said Natan, still smiling despite the rebuke. “But let me tell you one thing about the Maiden Tower. According to Azeri legend its name came into being because of incest. A king had fallen in love with his own daughter and then wanted to marry her. Naturally, she was disgusted by this thought and so came up with a plan. She demanded that a tower be built in honour of their impending marriage and reluctantly her father agreed. It took a long time but eventually the structure was finished and was taller than anything ever seen in medieval Baku. Thanking her father the girl climbed to the top and then threw herself off, dying at the bottom.”
It had been a good story and
perhaps I’d been a little rash in brushing Natan off so quickly. He seemed very knowledgeable and was certainly friendly enough. The man seemed to sense my shift in mood and so gave me more information. “Another possible reason for the name – Maiden Tower - is more mundane. It was possibly a reference to the tower’s strength and the fact it was never penetrated by enemy fire.”
As chance would have it, a couple of quite obvious tourists with a child of about ten appeared at the entrance of the old town. They looked lost. “Ah,” said Natan. “If you will excuse me, I think perhaps these people are in need of my help more than you.”
I smiled and nodded, fishing out a couple of mantas from my pocket. I watched as he rushed off and took the newcomers under his wing, switching to fluent German after only few seconds. The last thing I saw was him leading them to a medieval market square just along from the tower. Glad he had found some willing people to be guided I entered the arched entrance to the Maiden Tower and was soon climbing the spiralling stone staircase
to the top. A security guard nodded when I stepped out into the small open-air platform and as I circled it, he lit a cigarette despite the signs saying: No Smoking.
The weather was terrible. Even though it wasn’t that cold, the entire city was bathed in a fog flowing in from the Caspian. Virtually the whole of the sea was shrouded in white and many of the high rise buildings were too. A young couple appeared from the steps but after only a cursory look around they soon left, leaving me and the security guard alone again. After stubbing out his cigarette he approached and smiled, revealing a mouthful of gold teeth. Gesturing to my camera, he offered to take a photo with me posing in front of the indistinct background. I handed it to him and stood smiling while the wind ripped about my ears.
Baku’s old town also contained a fair few other old building and ruins, all surrounded by a quite extensive old wall full of turrets and battlements. Carpet shops were everywhere as were a few Mosques and a lot of winding little pathways. I followed my map until I came to the
impressively-titled Palace of the Shirvanshahs.
The Shirvanshahs had been a royal dynasty originating from Persia who had moved their capital to Baku in the 15th
century. Their leader was Ibrahim I who ended up playing a crafty little game to save his people’s skin. After building his palace, he became aware of an Uzbek warrior called Amir Timur (the very same man I wrote about in Tashkent) who was running rampage, causing no end of carnage in the process. Not wanting this to happen to him, Ibrahim allied himself with the bloodthirsty Uzbek, and even participated in a few bloodlust sorties himself to cement their friendship. It worked. While cites all around were burning, being pillaged and slaughtered, Baku survived intact. I wandered into the palace where Ibrahim had once lived.
Bored teenagers stood huddled around a guide showing them a stone pavilion. Two boys at the back were punching each other light-heartedly, with no interest at all in the decorations being pointed out to them. I left them and quickly rushed through the Palace Mosque, the small mausoleum and a room full of the obligatory pots that all museums specialised in. I wondered what the teenagers would
think of all that. After a cursory glance at a few carpets I left, heading out of the old town and into the heart of the city.
Baku was full of statues, but one in particular was gigantic. It was of Nariman Narimanov, a Soviet leader of Azerbaijan during the 1920s who had died suspiciously in Moscow in 1925 most probably under orders from Stalin. According to his relatives, Narimanov had come home as usual, eaten a few sandwiches, and then an hour later promptly died. His statue was one of the few to remain from the Soviet era and loomed over a hilltop road (that was also named after him) with a backdrop of ugly apartment blocks cloaked in cloud. I quickly decided it was the sort of statue I would like for myself. Mine would be just as big but the pose would have to be different. Instead of simply standing there looking deep in thought, my monument would feature me on bended knee holding an injured child aloft whom I had just saved from a burning building. In my mind’s eye, all my cowering subjects, but especially the ladies, would be worshipping it with awe.
Heading back downhill to cool my thoughts of becoming a despot, I began to pass through the backstreets of Baku, edging my way past some parked Ladas. Across the road a large woman wearing a headscarf was leading a small child by the hand, and above us, leaning over an upstairs balcony window, a middle-aged man in a string vest smoked a cigarette. I carried on past them until I arrived at the grand entrance of the Taza Pir Mosque.
It was a quite beautiful sandstone building with a great big golden-patterned dome and two hefty minarets reaching skywards. It had been built in 1914, but then, only three years later, it had been turned into a cinema and then a barn. A man wearing a skull cap appeared from somewhere and glanced over at me. When I gestured whether it was okay to take some photos he nodded and then went back inside.
Afterwards, I found myself on another narrow street filled with fruit and vegetable shops. Just along from one store I noticed an overflowing bin with a clear plastic bag tied to one end. The bag contained pieces of bread. This wasn’t because there was
no room in the bin for the bread, instead it was because according to certain Azeri customs, bread was regarded as a holy thing and could not be discarded with other trash. As I took a photo for prosperity, I heard a voice and turned to see a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries. She looked at me and said, “Why you take picture of street? It not very beautiful. Mosque beautiful yes, but street no. It very old, maybe more than hundred years. So why?”
I thought it pointless explaining I had been taking a photo of a rubbish bin and so shrugged and told her I thought the street had looked interesting. The woman scoffed and gestured along it. “Not beautiful!” A large woman who looked like she knew her way around a turnip stall was walking along wearing a dark green dress patterned with white flowers. “Look!”
Instead of arguing with her about the relative merits of a Baku street scene I asked whether she knew the way to the Russian Church. I knew it was in the general vicinity. Amazingly her reaction grew even more severe. “Why you go there? It very old
and not very beautiful!” She scrunched up her face. “Photos no good!” Nevertheless she proceeded to give me some directions to it.
I thanked the woman and walked off downhill from the Mosque, at the same time wondering why she had been so bothered that my photos should only be of beautiful and modern things. Perhaps she only wanted to look to the future and not dwell upon the past, I thought. Whatever the reason, her directions were good and I found staring at the Church of Michael Archangel. And then I spotted the platoon of old crones sat outside with tins. All of them were staring at me. Wearily I approached the entrance and the rattling began to the accompaniment of babbling.
“I give money on way out,” I said as I stepped past them. “Okay?” Most looked blankly at me but one woman nodded and turned to her friends. I left them to it and entered the tiny courtyard. It might not have been very beautiful but it was still a pretty little church with a nice silver onion dome and some fetching red trimming. A young couple entered just after me and after the girl
had received a headscarf from a little booth, they both entered the actual church. As for me, I ambled around the courtyard, stopping to look at some religious icons and then headed back out. The rattling begun immediately and after depositing a 20 qapik coin in one of the tins I escaped.
I soon found myself walking through a square dominated by a drama theatre at one end and a large statue of man pondering at the other. He was called Mehmed Fizuli, a famous poet and thinker. More interesting though were the old men playing nard, a type of backgammon, at the side of the square. Groups of them sat huddled around boards flinging dice and moving their pieces while their pals looked on. I wandered over to one group and watched them awhile. When I asked if I could take a photo, they nodded happily, continuing with their game.
The next morning the weather was sunny and pleasantly warm. From the seventeenth floor of the Radisson I found a panoramic view of Baku, which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the hilltop skyscrapers that made up the skyline of the city. Clearly visible were the brand-new
Flame Towers, an almost-finished trio of new skyscrapers designed to resemble the curves of a flickering fire. They looked fantastic and added a bit of glitz and glamour to a hill otherwise dominated by a spindly TV Tower.
I headed away from the hotel along a shopping street full of designer shops and mobile phone stores. Young women in high heels strode along with heads held high while teenagers carrying iPhones stood about laughing and joking. Baku was a fairly affluent city, that much was clear to see and I passed under another large banner informing me the Eurovision Song Contest was coming to Baku in a month’s time, a prestigious event for the city which was trying to get everything shipshape before the cameras arrived.
I veered left and arrived at what I wanted to see – a huge Soviet-style monolith called the Heydar Aliyev Concert Hall. It reminded me of a similar building I’d seen in Tashkent with sections dramatically tapering downwards like a monster egg slicer from hell. I loved it, especially since it was located in a square with a statue of Aliyev too. He was standing on a mighty plinth waving at the
unseen masses before him.
Heydar Aliyev was, and still is, regarded as Azerbaijan’s National Leader, even the airport was named after him. During Soviet times, he’d joined the KGB and quickly risen through the ranks to eventually become the Communist leader of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1970s. One of his main jobs was to stamp out corruption, which he managed to do by sentencing five factory managers to death for gross corruption. Ironically he was eventually forced to resign himself due to alleged corruption charges in 1987 just a few years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. And when independence did come, Aliyev was nowhere to be seen, but then due to the bungling incompetence of the first two presidents, Aliyev staged a comeback and was re-elected in 1993. Astonishingly, he proved himself more than capable at leading the fledgling nation and one of the first things he did was to bring about a ceasefire with neighbouring Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh. That done, his next job was to secure foreign investment to fuel the country’s oil industry. Money flowed in. Aliyev proved so popular with the people of Azerbaijan that he
remained president for a decade, and then in an almost king-like move, he passed the political torch onto his son who was quickly voted in an the new president. I wandered away from his statue heading towards the sea.
Facing the Caspian was Dom Soviet, a great Communist piece of architecture now known as Government House. It was massive, featuring extensive sandstone wings and a huge Azerbaijan flag flapping in the breeze given off by the sea. During Soviet times, a statue of Lenin had been given pride of place in front of the building but had been removed after independence. Surprisingly for such an important building, I couldn’t see any guards at all and was able to walk around it totally unhindered.
I began a leisurely amble along Baku’s pleasantly airy sea-front promenade, passing a fairground as well as people cleaning, painting, polishing and generally making the place look spick and span. Young couples sat canoodling along the promenade and the whole area seemed geared for tourists or power joggers (and skaters) especially with a great view of the Flame Towers in the distance. Just then I passed another group of teenagers sat on a wall, one
of whom furtively pointed and laughed in my direction. Trying to ignore them, I walked onwards, wondering what he had found so funny. And then I felt the breeze. With a sudden change of wind direction the unmistakable feeling of air rushing through my gaping flies explained it all.
Up in the hills near the TV Tower was the Martyr’s Lane Memorial dedicated to Azeris killed by Soviet troops in 1990 during Black Friday, when they had entered Baku to stop the killing of ethnic Armenians, as well as to those who had lost their lives in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. In addition to being a stark reminder of the brutal way humanity sometimes dealt with one another, I’d read the sight offered good views of the city.
It contained about 15000 graves and had an eternal flame contained inside a large open-sided pagoda. I wandered past the first two graves and noticed they were of a married couple. Ilham Allahverdiyev had been shot dead by Soviet troops during Black Friday and his wife Fariza committed suicide afterwards. Another notable grave contained the remains of Chingiz Mustafayev, an Azeri journalist famous for his coverage of the Nagorno Karabakh
conflict who died during the filming of it. He had only been 31.
As well as Azeri graves, there were memorials to Turkish soldiers killed in 1918 and a smaller one dedicated to British troops killed at the same time. There were no memorials to any Armenians killed in the events leading up to Black Friday.
My short time in the Azerbaijan capital had come to an end. I checked out of the hotel and caught a taxi back to the airport, getting caught up once again in the ridiculous traffic jams in downtown Baku. Surely there was a better way than this, I thought as we came to another beeping standstill. It seemed every car was changing lane, forcing their way through, or else simply parked in a stupid place, all adding to the problem. An hour later I made it back to the airport. Strengths:
-Lots to see
-The sea front promenade
-Flame Towers Weaknesses:
-Visa hassles to get in
There are more photos below