Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Caucasus 2018


I’ve had a very full day exploring the lovely city of Baku today, confirming my initial impression that the city’s character is strongly European (in spite of its location, which is clearly in Asia), and that it is as elegant, sophisticated, orderly and clean as any city in Europe.  It is a tasteful mix of an old walled city, surrounded by beautifully maintained opulent classical buildings, interspersed with some breathtakingly bold examples of the best of modern architecture.  It is unusual among post-Soviet cities in that it is located within a buoyant economy based upon rapidly expanding oil exports.  Streets that have been converted into wide pedestrian malls are lined with a mix of expensive brand-name boutiques, kerbside tea houses and lines of shady trees, all this is backed by the blue waters of the Caspian Sea in a beautiful climate of warm temperatures in the mid-to-high twenties (at least in autumn, which is when I am visiting).

Much of the day was spent walking, but the first place to go walking followed a short ten minute bus ride to a moving memorial on a hill overlooking the city known as Martyrs Lane.  The hill has been converted from a park during Soviet times into a memorial to Baku residents who were killed when the Red Army put down a revolt in 1990.  Most of the graves and memorials feature engraved portraits of the victims, some of whom were just teenagers (the youngest I saw was just 13.).

The visit provided an opportunity for our local guide to emphasise the uniquely noble glory of Azerbaijani history and the bravery of the Azerbaijani people in resisting Soviet (and more recently Armenian) oppression.  It was clearly an opportunity to convey the ‘truth’ (his specific word) that Azerbaijani’s are good and honourable whereas Russians are devious exploiters.  We can say that based on what we heard today, not one single Azerbaijani thinks that either Lenin or Stalin might have had even a gram of goodness in them.

Martyrs Lane provided great views across Baku Harbour, the Old City, the CBD, a lovely little mosque built recently by Turkey, and the now-famous triplet of signature buildings known as the Flame Towers, designed to celebrate Baku’s Zoroastrian history as well as its natural gas industry.

Having enjoyed the views from Martyrs Lane we took a short bus ride to a gate in the Old City’s wall behind a new glass pyramidal structure built by an Israeli company to replace an older Soviet-era entrance to Baku’s underground railway system.  Apparently the Soviet entry building, which post-independence authorities wanted to replace because it was hiding part of the Old City wall, was built so strongly (to serve as a nuclear bomb shelter) that the Israelis weren’t able to demolish it, so they built the glass pyramid over the top of it instead.

Upon entering the Old City, we stopped briefly to admire a large statue of the head of the famous Azerbaijani poet Aliaga Vahid (1994-1965) who “defied the tradition during Soviet times of glorifying the state by writing poetry that described life as it really is”.  The statue was interesting because a close view of his hair showed details from the stories told in several of his poems.

A short walk along narrow alleys with overhanging wooden balconies brought us to a small sidewalk café where Anna, the guide who will be with us on the trip all the way to Yerevan, kindly bought everyone a pear-shaped glass of tea (containing a hint of rose water) plus some Azerbaijani-style baklava (which is less sweet and syrupy than Turkish baklava).  Suitably refreshed, we made a brief stop at a quite amazing museum of book miniatures before beginning a substantial visit to the Palace of the Shirvan Shahs.

This beautifully restored palace complex was the seat of power for Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty in the 15th century comprised the palace itself, a mosque, some tombs and the ruins of the royal bath house.  Much of the interior of the palace had been fitted out as a museum, and the throne room was especially impressive in this regard.  Many of the original fittings, and even the blue mosaic walls, had been destroyed and/or moved to other museums both in Azerbaijan and Russia, but the architecture and views from the palace made the visit worthwhile.

The last stop before the lunch break was the Maiden’s Tower, a 29 metre high stone tower that seems to be Baku’s most famous architectural icon judging by the snowflake domes in the souvenir stores.  Built in the 12th century, there are at least four mutually exclusive folk takes that try to explain the name of the tower, but several of the tales involve suicides by distraught and/or lovestruck young maidens that led to so many copycat cases of real suicides in the 1990s and early 2000s that authorities recently erected a glass wall around the top of the tower that has successfully stopped the all-too-frequent suicides from the Tower.

By this time, it was 2:00pm, and we were given the individual choice of breaking for lunch or going to the top of the Tower.  I chose the latter, and found the climb to be quick and easy despite the unevenly spaced stairs.  The views from the top were of the Old City rather than the entire city (as was possible from martyrs Lane), and I had to be careful to avoid cloudy glass panels and reflections, but overall, I thought the climb was well worth the time and effort despite the misty cloudy weather that had emerged at the time.

The group reconvened at 3:00pm and took a ten-minute walk to the Azerbaijan National Historical Museum, located within the former home of one of Azerbaijan’s late 19th century oil barons.  Purporting to show the complete range of Azerbaijan’s history from Palaeolithic times until the present day, the museum did indeed portray a glorified picture of Azerbaijan’s power and influence over the centuries (one would think that it was the dominant influence of the region for most of history, putting Iran and Turkey to shame but being a frequent victim of rampant, aggressive Russian expansionism over many centuries).  Interestingly, the Soviet period was ignored completely, something I would have thought was a rather obvious omission in such a large museum.  On the other hand, the recreated rooms showing the lifestyle of the building’s original family were lavish, grand, opulent (pick your word), revealing a great insight into lifestyles of the wealthy at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.

It was 5:00pm by the time we walked back to the Old City where our hotel was located.  While some members of the group decided to walk to the Carpet Museum, I (with seven others) decided instead to go and visit the Heydar Aliyev Centre, perhaps the most spectacular example of modern architecture in Baku.  Named after Heydar Aliyev, who was the person who is said to have brought independence and welfare to Azerbaijan, the exterior design of the building is said to mimic the signature of Heydar Aliyev – certainly there is not a single straight line to be seen.  The Heydar Aliyev Centre is a multifunction complex with exhibition rooms, a conference hall, performance spaces, a gallery and a museum. It is also the preferred backdrop for wedding photos; while I was there, there was a constant procession of white wedding cars bringing young couples to have their photos taken in front of the building.  The building looked fabulous in the late afternoon light and the views across to other parts of the city were also wonderful; I can’t recall enjoying photographing a single building as much as this one.

Day 2



4 September 2018