Fuelled by Azerbaijan‘s abundant reserves of oil in the age of escalating energy prices, Baku is not only the countries’ capital, but is also the largest and most modern of all the cities in the Caucasus region. The wealth that has flooded into this former Soviet republic in recent decades has been utilized in stylistic ways, as skyscrapers that have risen in the past few years resemble works of art rather than the old staid functional concrete blocks that used to suffice in more modest times.
This drive towards shiny new things hasn’t come at the large scale expense of its past though, as the UNESCO recognized Old City contains many culture rich attractions that will satisfy discerning travellers.
Whether you decide to soak in the money-laden newness surrounding you, or delve deep into the ancient times of Azerbaijan, Baku offers plenty of opportunities to do both.
Your initial explorations of Baku should centre around its old city, which as mentioned earlier is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most popular sights within this historic sector is The Palace of the Shirvan Shahs, a medieval palace constructed in the 15th century after a devastating earthquake in nearby Shemakha forced the kingdom’s monarchs to move the capital of Azerbaijan to Baku.
The complex consists of the remains of an ancient bathhouse, a mausoleum containing the body of a Sufi saint, and a mosque in addition to the main palace building. Major restoration work is erasing the damage done by time and strife, but the soaring arches and intricate detail work on the walls of this former royal residence still make visiting it a must on any trip to Baku.
Another sight that history buffs should make a point of seeing before moving beyond the Old City is Maiden’s Tower, a lofty position whose primary purpose is still a focus of much debate in the present day. Measuring a shade under 30 metres high, experts have pontificated that this tower could have served as a fire beacon, a temple, or even an astronomical observatory.
Even the name’s origins is not a certainty, with many speculating that it garnered its name from the sister of the king throwing herself to her death to escape the shame of being jailed by her brother, while others say that since the tower has never been taken by military force, it is a virgin or “maiden” tower. These days, the Maiden Tower plays host to a museum that details the development of the city of Baku over the years to the present day.
Those looking to see a unique religious cultural site should make their way just outside the city limits to the Atashgah Fire Temple, a former Zoroastrian or Hindu temple that sat upon a shallow natural gas formation. In centuries past, this gas pocket was used to light eternal flames that travellers in the days of old described in glowing terms.
In more recent times, gas plants built nearby in the 19th century sucked the gas pocket dry, robbing the temple of its natural source of gas that used to light flames inside temple walls, bringing religious use here to an end. It operates as a museum today, with gas piped in via local distribution infrastructure to allow the former flames within to glow as they did in previous days.
In the past century, Azerbaijanis has leveraged their fossil fuel resources to vault their nation into the modern age, with development accelerating exponentially after the fall of the USSR. To signal to the world that Azerbaijan was now a force on the world stage, they commissioned a new centre for the performing arts alongside all the new shiny skyscrapers that were going up, giving birth to the iconic Heydar Aliyev Center. The most striking feature of this cultural hall is the fact that it avoids square edges wherever possible, featuring plenty of flowing walls composed of glass, steel and concrete, garnering several architectural award nominations.
If you’re seeking a chill place to go in the evening to people-watch, heading to Fountains Square will prove to be a fruitful endeavour, as locals can be found here unwinding from their work day at this time. Countless water features, lit up spectacularly at night, compliment modernist works of art perfectly, making for a backdrop that is hard to beat as you enjoy a meal or a coffee at one of many cafes or restaurants that line the edges of this popular public space.
Finally, before delving adventurously into Azerbaijan’s hinterland, get a preview of what awaits you by making a trip just outside the city at dusk to the luminous Yanar Dag, a mountain that is perpetually on fire. A large hillside where natural gas seeps through porous sandstone, it is said that an area near the peak was lit ablaze accidentally by a shepherd in the 1950’s. Unsurprisingly, views of this display of petro riches that are everywhere in the Baku area (in some places, crude oil bubbles up through to the surface) are best at dusk, where visitors can look on contemplatively while sipping on an Earl Grey from one of many teashops nearby.