To my surprise I fell in love with Baku. I’d actually been here a couple times in the early aughts when I worked for an international NGO; my memory was that Baku was OK, but nothing special. Traveling for work is a lot different from being a tourist though and during our four days here we discovered great food, great parks, and great architecture all at a fraction of the price we would pay in other big cities.
A few things to know about Baku. It’s the capital of Azerbaijan and, with a population of 2.2 million people, the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region overall. It’s a boom town dependent on oil and its fortunes over the years have ebbed and flowed with the demand for oil; these days, it’s booming. And here’s some trivia you might find useful some day: because the Caspian Sea lies in a big basin Baku actually sits some 93 feet below sea level. Thus it is both the largest city in the world below sea level and the lowest capital city. File that away for when you need it.
Because the Azeri people are primarily Turkish – the two languages are closely related and mutually intelligible – they are largely Muslim. Notwithstanding their affinity with the Turks, though, who are largely Shiite Muslims, the Azeris are primarily Shia like their neighbors in Iran to the south. But – and this is the huge difference, perhaps related to the effects of being an oil boom town, perhaps in part a reflection of the long Soviet domination here – the Azeri people are pretty much non-secular. So while Iranians just a few miles away live in a theocracy, I didn’t see a single woman in a burka nor did I hear the call to prayer once. How’s this for an unexpected experience in a Shia Muslim city: in 2009 Lonely Planet declared Baku one of the top ten cities in the world to party the night away. Strange that such a difference would exist in such close proximity.
During our stay here we experienced, to some degree at least, three separate parts of Baku. The Inner City is the old, historic town declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. The Maiden Tower – a 12th century tower of ambiguous purpose – is the emblem of not just Baku but Azerbaijan itself. We climbed the tower (kind of boring actually) and poked around the Inner City. And while the ancient walls were attractive, to me at least it felt as though the Inner City had been cleaned up a great deal since I was here maybe 13 years ago, and not entirely in a good way.
The newer part of the city dates from Baku’s original oil boom in the late 19th and early 20th century. There are some really beautiful streets with grand turn-of-the-century buildings that clearly remind you of walking in Paris or Vienna. And in those great buildings are some really high-end stores that seemed awfully empty since although there is a lot of oil money floating around by most accounts not a lot of that flows to the vast bulk of Azeris.
And then there’s the really new part of Baku reflecting the oil boom of the 21st century. Stunning architecture, an enormous parkway stretching some four miles along the Caspian that’s extremely well maintained, an attempt at building the world’s largest flag pole, an entirely new cultural region at one end of the park.
While there is a lot of new and ongoing construction in the city, two developments really stood out. The first was the Flame Towers that dominate the city’s new skyline. They are three glass skyscrapers, each shaped like flames. (Baku’s ancient history is based on the town being founded near the spontaneous flames that would erupt from the oil near the surface of the earth. As flames are central to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, the region was considered holy.) In the daytime they’re beautiful but at night they really come alive with some 10,000 lights creating a light show that displays variously such sights as the Azeri flag, water flowing, and massive flames burning. Now if I were designing a skyscraper I might not want to evoke in people’s minds huge cataclysmic fires, but it is truly striking.
The other almost insanely beautiful building is the Heydar Aliev Cultural Center, designed by world-famous starchitect Zaha Hadid. We knew it was supposed to be beautiful but we were genuinely blown away by it. The building was closed on Monday, the only day we had to go there, so we didn’t go inside but the exterior is simply stunning, big flowing curves and striking movement. And as a bonus as we explored the exterior the grounds are decorated with large blow-ups of National Geographic photos shot by Azeri photographers.
(How is this for a coincidence? The very morning we were planning on walking out to see the building I was reading the morning Axios political update email. And there, item #9, seemingly randomly was a picture of the building simply calling it one of the most beautiful buildings on earth. Coincidence or proof that we’re being followed?)
One downside to the building can’t be attributed to Dame Hadid. It is named for Azerbaijan’s third president, a guy who created what can only be described as today’s authoritarian, dictatorial regime. Aliev had been a bigwig in the Soviet Union and after that government collapsed he began a quick rise to the top in his native Azerbaijan. He ruled for 10 years until just before his death in 2003 when he was succeeded by his son. And just in case it’s not clear that this is a family operation, the current vice president is the current President Aliev’s wife. With this much oil money at stake you wouldn’t want to risk letting it out of your control.
The only other downside to the Cultural Center – and this is shared by locations all over Baku – is that it is nearly impossible to get to on foot. This is a city meant for cars and the challenges of getting around as a pedestrian are significant. I won’t blame Ms. Hadid for that, either; she deserved all the awards she won with buildings like this.
For walking, though, you can’t beat Baku Boulevard, the huge park running along the Caspian Sea. Mark & I walked pretty much the whole distance to get to the new Yarat Contemporary Art Center with its current show of Azerbaijani artists from the post-Stalin era. The whole route was beautiful but oddly we saw almost no one out. Sure, the weather was a little misty, but it wasn’t that bad and it was a Sunday morning. For us, though, it was so nice that although we hadn’t intended to initially, we ended up walking all the way back too. And for whatever it’s worth, the next day, Monday, the weather turned nice and there were lots of people out enjoying the park then.
And so yes, there was a lot to love about Baku. The food was excellent and almost insanely cheap; our hotel was beautiful and a fraction of what you would pay for that quality in any other large city; and we loved the parks and buildings. We had debated scheduling a five-day stop and decided not to but now I kind of regret that decision. Instead we’re moving north up into the Caucasus mountains themselves, eventually into Georgia and Armenia.