Baku is the surprising capital of Azerbaijan, building on its past and still defining its future.
Straight out of the plane, the first impression of Baku is the smell of oil in the air. The highway from the airport to the city crosses a desert with nothing but oil rigs. The pretroleum industry developed in the 19th century in Azerbaijan and brought wealth to the country and attention from the international community.
Azerbaijan has a unique geologic activity. Apart from the oil, the soil is rich in minerals and metals. There are hundreds of mud volcanoes which erupt in slow bubbles. There is so much natural gas underground that it finds its way up to the surface in places and catches fire that cannot be estinguished. This phenomenon attracted Zoroastrians from India, a religion based on the adoration of fire. They built temples around these eternal fires like the one in Ateshgah just outside Baku.
The city of Baku is split in three sections that reflect its History: the old town, the soviet district and the modern district.
There has been human activity in the region since Prehistoric times, as the carved drawings on the Qobustan rocks testify. But Baku became prominent in the Middle-Ages with the development of the Silk Road. The Maiden's Tower and the Shivan Shahs Palace are well-preserved vestiges of Islamic style from this era. The small streets of the old town give an even better idea of what Baku must have looked like a few centuries ago.
During the USSR years, the city was redesigned in a Soviet and a mix of Western styles: Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Venetian Gothic... The development of the oil industry fuelled the construction of buildings destined to the new elite: universities, an Opera house, a theater, an Academy of Sciences, etc.
In recent years, Baku invested heavily in a new Business district. The three towers in the shape of flames have become symbols of the city. The Heydar Aliyev Center was built by Zaha Hadid and hosted the 2012 Eurovision. Even if postmodernism architecture is not your thing, it's worth climbing to this new district for its great views of the Baku bay. In the distance, offshore structures extract oil from the Caspian sea incessantly.
To get in the mood:
Listen: Aziza Mustafa Zadeh - Bana bana gel
- Eat: Local cheese and Bozbash (Broth with mutton, peas and potatoes)