Azerbaijan is probably not the first place you would think of, when considering where to take your annual vacation. In fact, I had no such thought in my head until a newsletter landed in my postbox, detailing the August activities of the Retirees Association of the organisation for which I used to work – and these included a five-day trip to Baku, capital of that oil-rich nation, between the mountains of the Caucasus and the waters of the Caspian Sea.
And I thought to myself – why not?
My friends from choir are constantly travelling to all kinds of unusual places. Everyone seems to have visited Vietnam, or Georgia, or Armenia, or India.
None of them have yet been to Azerbaijan, a Shiite Muslim country which, nevertheless, maintains friendly relations with Israel.
A masterstroke of one-upmanship?
Well, not quite. After I had booked the trip, I discovered that Baku is one of the “hot” locations for Israelis this summer. Hot in more ways than one. My stepsister informed me that many of her friends had visited there, and that the climate, at this time of year, was unbearably hot and humid. And my stepmother, envisaging Baku as the godforsaken provincial Soviet town it was in the 1970s, when she left what was then the USSR, on hearing my holiday plans, asked: “What on earth for?!”
Not very encouraging.
How glad I am, though, that I did not let myself be discouraged!
Baku, a three hour flight from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, is a thriving modern town – at least, the part that tourists get to see – often described as “the Dubai of the Caucasus”, with numerous upscale shopping malls, skyscrapers and state-of-the-art avant garde architecture, as typified by the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by Iraqi-British architect, Zara Hadid, side by side with an Old City reminiscent of a scene from The Arabian Nights, and juxtaposed with Soviet Era buildings which have been renovated by the simple addition of 19th century European-style façades, leaving the tiny, crowded Soviet apartments unchanged.
Our hotel, just across the road from the seafront promenade, was well up to my exacting standards. And, although the 6th floor room I was originally assigned faced inland, a quick word with the extremely helpful Lala, at the front desk, brought instant results in the form of a 10th floor room overlooking the vast expanse of the Caspian Sea.
I have to admit, however, to being somewhat disconcerted by the minibar menu:
And something else that I found odd – the elevators. There were three of these, labelled A, B and C. There was a touchpad beside each elevator. The way they worked was as follows. You had to key in the floor you wanted to go to, on the touchpad, and then a letter would appear, telling you which elevator would take you to your destination. Only rarely would your designated elevator be the one beside which you were standing. Almost every time, I would key in my destination and then have to run across to the opposite side of the lobby to catch my designated elevator before the doors closed!
We landed at about 1 pm local time (Azerbaijan is one hour ahead of Israel) but the long queues both at the automatic visa machines and at Passport Control ensured that we didn’t leave the airport much before 3 pm, and there wasn’t much time therefore, for sightseeing on that first day. We did get a panoramic view of the city, stopping to take photos beside the iconic “I Love Baku” sculpture outside the Heydar Aliyev Centre (see above). We also visited the Avenue of the Martyrs and the Eternal Flame Memorial, dedicated to the Azerbaijanis (mostly civilians) who were killed by the Soviet Army on January 20th 1990, (Black Saturday) in a crackdown on the Azerbaijani independence movement.
Our guide told us the Soviets were aided by ethnic Armenians. The Soviets claimed they were forced to intervene to protect these ethnic Armenians from pogroms by ethnic Azeris. Of course, it is true that the enmity between the two nations is long-standing. It is also true that the Soviets – and later, Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union – had a history of intervening “to protect” one ethnic group or another, when the group that supposedly poses the threat is invariably the one striving for freedom from Russian control (further examples – Georgia, the Ukraine etc.). What our guide did not tell us was that a week before “Black Saturday”, and over a period of several days, Azerbaijani nationalists had carried out a pogrom against ethnic Armenians living in Baku.
As I said, the enmity between the two nations, one Christian, one Muslim, is long-standing.
The Martyrs’ Memorial is unexpectedly moving – especially when you look at the pictures and the names and dates of the dead and realise how young some of them were. For example, the very first memorial is to Ilham and Fariza Allahverdiyev, a young couple in their twenties. The picture on the black marble memorial shows them on their wedding day. Ilham was killed by the Soviet troops and on learning of his fate, his young wife committed suicide.
Possibly even more heart-rending is the memorial to the young daughter of a Ukrainian mother and an Azerbaijani father – Larissa Mammadova, not yet 13 years old when she was killed:
At the far end of the avenue is a soaring monument, sheltering the Eternal Flame.
Returning along the Avenue, one is treated to magnificent views of the Caspian Sea:
As one walks along the Avenue, away from the Eternal Flame Memorial, the iconic silhouettes of the Flame Towers loom ever closer:
These skyscrapers are completely covered with LED screens, which, when darkness falls, illuminate the Baku skyline with images of the Azerbaijani national flag, sportsmen and women and, inevitably, a dazzling display which gives the illusion of buildings on fire. All this we saw the following night, from the 24th-floor terrace of the Hilton Grill Bar:
The flame motif occurs again and again in Azerbaijan, which is known as “The Land of Fire”. Some say this is because of the burning hillsides, where natural gas leaking from fissures gives the appearance of flaming mountains. We saw one of these later in our tour – Yanar Dag – the Burning Mountain. I have to admit that I did not find it overly impressive. More interesting was the Fire Temple complex known as Baku Ateshgah, possibly Zoroastrian, but this is open to debate. The flame there is no longer fed by natural gas but the site is very interesting as a museum, with a courtyard around which are reconstructions explaining the ancient, pre-Islamic monotheistic religion of the Zoroastrians. What can I say? I like museums, especially when they are as “user-friendly” as this one. So, as I am now the owner of a new computer and learning how to use Windows 10 😉 I decided to make a video of some of my pictures from this visit.
In Baku itself, and not very far from our hotel, the Old City, with its many mosques, bath-houses, the Maiden’s Tower (or Maiden Tower) and the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs (described by UNESCO as “one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture) is quite small and easily explored on foot. I could have happily spent the whole day there, but the fact that this was only a five day trip meant we had to content ourselves with something of a whistle-stop tour. In fact, it was only after I got back home to Israel and began looking things up on the internet, in preparation for writing this post, that I realised how many things we had not managed to see 😦 .
At all events, here are some of my pictures of the Old City of Baku (Icheri Shekher):
Our rather rushed tour of the Old City included a visit to the delightful Museum of Miniature Books. I have always had a fondness for tiny books, a fondness I share with my siblings, ever since, as children, we first learned about the tiny books written and stitched together by the young Brontes. Inspired by their creative genius, we attempted to emulate them. In fact, cleaning out a cupboard recently, I found one of our own tiny books that had survived. Alas, it contained only the beginning of a story…
After an all-too-short visit in this enchanting and unusual museum, we had what was, in my opinion, an overly-extended lunch break in and around Nizami Square, before proceeding to what our guide described as one of his personal favourites – the Carpet Museum. Situated in a building of startlingly modern architectural design, shaped like a rolled up carpet, the museum is home to the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world.
According to our guide, carpets from Azerbaijan hold third place in status after Persian carpets and Afghan carpets.
The museum showcased the history of carpet-making, as well as explanations of how the carpets are made, the traditional patterns of carpets from different regions of Azerbaijan, and the different uses to which carpets were put – such as saddle-bags:
And here, we can see how carpets would have been used in a nobleman’s house, not just as floor covering, but also as wall-hangings:
On the top floor of the museum are contemporary carpets, and it was there that I realised that carpets can be a medium for artistic expression just as well as watercolours or oil paintings.
Here, for example, is a carpet depicting the tragic love story of Layla and Mejnun:
In the Soviet Era, carpets were used to promote political and social ideas, such as this one, lauding sporting activity:
Today, in nominally democratic Azerbaijan, where all the power and money are concentrated in the hands of the President’s family, and dissent is frowned upon, carpets can serve to convey political criticism. This one, for example, declares in no uncertain terms, that the oil industry is destroying the Azeri heritage:
Earlier, I mentioned our extended lunch break around Nizami Square – a pedestrian mall with elegant shops and cafes, lined with statues and offering a green lung in the heart of the city – one of many.
The following evening, I returned to Nizami Street, a popular evening promenade – to find a scene reminiscent of London’s Regent Street decorated for Christmas.
While most of our time was spent in Baku, we did travel outside the capital to visit the Gobustan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its prehistoric petroglyphs, or rock paintings, depicting life in the region thousands of years ago, including pictures of hunting scenes, animals, and even people dancing the traditional Azerbaijani dance, the Yalli, which is still danced today.
The landscape of the site reminded us of Israel’s Arava region and the mountains around Eilat:
At the site there is also a small, but well-designed Visitors Centre, explaining how people lived in prehistoric times, with displays of articles in daily use, as well as three dimensional displays:
On the way back to Baku, we stopped to visit the Bibi Heybat Mosque. The original mosque was built in the 13th century, over the tomb of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammed, who had the reputation of being a holy woman. That mosque was blown up in 1936 by the Communists, but was rebuilt in the 1990s, after Azerbaijan gained its independence, and dedicated in 1997.
The day before we were due to depart was given over to two very different places. First thing in the morning, we visited the Green Market – Yasil Bazar. This is a covered market where you can buy all kinds of fruits, vegetables, caviar and honey, locally-made cheeses and confectionary, and spices such as saffron, at what – for the western visitor – are ridiculously low prices.
Our second port of call was completely different – the Heydar Aliyev Centre, which I already mentioned at the beginning of this post. An icon of contemporary architecture, to enter the museum, one had to pass security measures worthy of an airport – such as metal detectors at the entrance. Once inside, one is confronted with an equally avant garde interior, where straight lines are shunned and graceful curves are de rigueur. Even the views from the windows are futuristic.
In many ways, the centre is intended to serve as a shrine to Azerbaijan’s third president, Heydar Aliyev (father of the current president, Ilham Aliyev) – and contains a great many exhibits pertaining to his life, personal items such as his uniforms, his official cars and items gifted to him by visiting dignitaries and other celebrities. But the museum also serves as a temple to Azerbaijani culture, including an extensive display of traditional costumes from the different regions of Azerbaijan , a section devoted to the art of carpet weaving, and one of particular interest to me – a collection of traditional Azerbaijani musical instruments. You cannot touch them, of course – but before each instrument is a pad on which one steps to activate a recording of the sound of that instrument.
I think my favourite part of the museum was the Art of the Doll exhibit. I took as many pictures as possible, before being told by one of the custodians that photography was prohibited in this part of the museum. Why this part specifically, I have no idea – but I incorporated those photos I did manage to take into the following video:
That evening, we rounded up our tour with an evening of Azerbaijani food and folklore at the Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant, which really does look like a museum, with displays of Azerbaijani culture and costume on each floor and where the staff wear traditional Azerbaijani national dress:
As we dined, we were entertained by traditional Azeri dancers:
At some point in the evening, a young couple on the opposite side of the room announced their engagement, and more music and dancing ensued – in which most of the other diners had no hesitation in joining:
After supper, there was just time for a last look at Baku by night, before returning to our hotel.
The following day, after a leisurely breakfast, we made our way to the airport – another strikingly modern piece of architecture – and boarded a plane back to Israel, where we landed mid-afternoon. It was a Friday and I made it home just in time to shower and light my Shabbat candles.
I will leave you with a last view of Baku, the old-new city on the shores of the Caspian Sea.