After two years of limited travel (two weeks in Madrid and Portugal, a crazy drive across Northern Canada to pick up a puppy and six weeks in Florida), I’m finally on an extended trip, starting in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I’ve joined a tour offered by Adventures Abroad of the Caucasus; Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
Let’s start with the geography. The Caucasus is a mountain range bordered by Russia to the North and Iran and Turkey to the south. In the west is Georgia and the Black Sea; to the east is Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Its neither in Asia or Europe or in both, depending who you ask. And despite its name, the Caspian Sea is not a sea, but the largest lake in the world.
I could give a long dissertation on the history of the region, but there are great documentaries on YouTube if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the region has been fought over by Persians, Christians, Muslims, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and Orthodox Russians for centuries. The countries first declared independence in the 1920’s, but Russia brutally annexed them after 23 months and made them each republics of the USSR. The Soviets displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijani and created artificial borders, resulting in the tension and war between the countries that still exists today. Independence from the USSR occurred in 1991, despite a bloody crackdown by the USSR in Azerbaijan in 1990 resulting in massive fatalities.
I would like to tell you that Azerbaijan is filled with fascinating architectural and archeological sites dating from time immemorial but that wouldn’t be correct. Invading armies, earthquakes and Soviet policy left little intact. Instead, the current regime has embarked on a massive reconstruction of past buildings in an effort to create a glorious Azerbaijani past. Thus, we visited reconstructed fire temples, mosques and palaces, all dating from 2000 or later. To erase the Soviet Realism style of high rise buildings, many of the facades have been refaced in a more Azerbaijani style, like government house:
Now about the government. Two year after independence, in 1993, Heydar Aliyev, former KGB and former Communist Party member became president. He was succeeded by his son, the current president, whose wife is vice-president and his son is the heir apparent. There are “elections” which the opposition alleges are fraudulent, a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. Freedom of expression is not allowed; opponents to the regime are either jailed or living in exile. We were warned not to discuss politics with locals.
However, the government is wealthy, owning the expansive oil & gas reserves that make the country rich. Ostensibly, it spends its money on public works; the streets are broad and well cared for, cranes dot the city skyline erecting modern high rises, water, power and internet are reliable. Education and health care are free.
But it’s somewhat of an illusion. The vast amounts spent on public works do little to benefit the majority of the population who struggle to survive on meagre wages. Preparations for a Formula 1 car race inconvenience the entire city for six weeks prior to the race. Corruption is rife. Ill paid doctors, teachers and police officers demand bribes to do their jobs. As if to prove the point, our tour bus was stopped by a police officer “ seeking dinner money” before allowing us to resume our journey.
We visited some of the main sights in Baku, like the Maiden Tower, one of the few non-reconstructed towers, which no one can accurately date and whose purpose is unknown:
And walked through the attractive but mostly reconstructed Old Town:
Wonderful new buildings line the Caspian Sea waterfront, including the Flame Towers, so named because in the night, their lights resemble flames:
Our tour travelled to the old capital of Shaki, stopping along the way at more reconstructed buildings – a mosque, a Zoroastrian fire temple, a palace- all rebuilt in the last few decades following destruction by Mongols, earthquakes or the Soviets, take your pick.
The single original sight is the petroglyphs in the Gobustan National Park, where a large number of cave art paintings dating back to Palaeolithic times (10,000 BC) are visible, including the dancing women:
I spent a pleasant 5 days in Azerbaijan. The country is clean, safe, with modern roads and good food, but lacks the eye-catching historical sights that I love. What it does have is an interesting political history with Russia and Turkey fighting a proxy war in the area for territorial supremacy and Caspian Sea access. Azerbaijani people we met were divided over the current war in Ukraine. While some expressed displeasure at the Russian invasion and decried Russian aggression, we also saw signs supporting the Russian fighters.
I was happy to have visited Azerbaijan but was equally happy to move on to a new country. Next up, Georgia.