There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Baku (2), The Qobustan Petroglyphs and the Old City: Part 2 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

After a restful night and a good breakfast we set off with Yassim and a new driver who introduced himself as Togrul on an hour's journey south from Baku along the Caspian coast towards the small town of Qobustan.

The Azerbaijan Parliament, Baku

Northern Baku is the city’s industrial area (‘the Black City’). In the south is the almost circular Old Town and above that, on a low hill, is the nation’s modern administrative centre. Having rounded the hill we soon left the city, but that did not mean we were in for a scenic drive.

We did see a fine new mosque built over an earlier shrine destroyed in Soviet times, but after that we passed a shipyard assembling derricks for the off-shore oil industry, a concrete factory spreading its chalky unpleasantness across the countryside and a large facility owned by Halliburton. The flat, arid scrubland itself is ugly, and everything done to it or on it leaves a scar visible for miles.

With no desire to linger, we moved quickly through this landscape on a well-made and well maintained six lane highway.

The arid plane stretches away to the Caspian Sea
Looking inland as we approached Qobustan we could see two flat topped hills and a third conical one with apparently deeply eroded sides. Yassim called them mountains, though none were much more than 50 metres high - the Caspian Sea is 27 metres below sea level so the 'summits' were barely above sea level.

The conical mound is a mud volcano formed when methane under pressure forces its way to the surface through a layer containing water. The eruption throws up mud rather than lava and what I had taken for erosion were actually streams of mud. Azerbaijan has some 400 mud volcanoes, roughly half the world’s total.

The other two mountains are steep-sided, flat-topped benches about a kilometre long. They, and a third hidden behind them, make up the Qobustan archaeological site.

Turning off before we reached the town we headed for the new museum at the base of the southernmost 'mountain'. Stepping out of our air-conditioned car into the growing heat of the morning, we were hit by a wind as hot as a hair dryer howling across the scrubby plain.
The Qobustan Museum

The 'mountains' are covered by 6000 petroglyphs and the little museum did an excellent job explaining when they were put there (between 5 and 40 thousand years ago), what they represent, what the area was like at the time, and how to see them - scratches in the rock tens of thousands of years old can be easily overlooked.

Group of men, Qobustan Petroglyphs
A touch screen allowed us to whiz the tortoise of time through the last fifty thousand years and watch the landscape changing. Today’s arid plain has sometimes been green savannah while at other times the waters of the Caspian have lapped the base of the mountains; at the end of the ice-age the hills briefly became islands.
Deer - or mountain goat - Qobustan petroglyphs

The petroglyphs are of men and women, boats and animals - foxes, deer, aurochs and later bulls, which were of great significance to them. The most recent carvings, dating from the Bronze Age, show domesticated horses and cattle - at least that is the interpretation of what appear to be ropes round their necks.
Pork scratchings, Qobustan Petroglyphs

The museum was well organised, the exhibits thoughtfully laid out and the route through clearly marked. Technology was cleverly used either to give a greater depth of understanding or to catch a child’s imagination. It was a model of what such museums should be, though it was not overwhelmed with custom – Azerbaijan sees far fewer tourists than it deserves.

Equipped with the means to interpret what we saw, we took the road up the 'mountain'. The summit is a chaotic landscape of windswept, shattered rocks and collapsed caves.
Chaotic landscape of shattered rocks, Qobustan
The path is well marked and Yassim knew where to direct our eyes. We saw groups of men, goats and a boat that Thor Hayerdahl (whose name will crop up again) thought looked so much like Viking boats that he conjectured that the proto-Norsemen had found their way to Scandinavia from the Caspian. There were carvings of women, too, reduced to their basics, breasts, pregnant bellies and wide hips, apparently heads, arms and legs are not important. Lynne pointed out that as interpreting these petroglyphs involved a measure of guesswork - none of those who made the carvings had been consulted - perhaps they were not representations of women at all. Fair point, I thought. [In a Georgian restaurant some days later we noticed a small wineskin - no head, truncated limbs, belly swollen. It made us wonder]
One of the boats that so excited Thor Hayerdahl, Qobustan

We saw many dozens of petroglyphs of different ages, some clearly visible, others harder to make out. We also saw holes in the rock thought to have been made for cooking. The holes were filled with water, hot rocks lobbed in and food boiled.

Neolithic cooking pots, Qobustan
The trip back might have been tedious but neither of us had fully recovered from the flight so we both nodded off.

Back in Baku we drove up the hill and stopped by Martyr’s Alley. The events of the 19th/20th of January 1990 are not well known in the UK but in the dying days of its empire the Soviet Union declared a state of emergency in Azerbaijan. The Popular Front responded by imposing roadblocks around Baku which Soviet troops broke through, killing some 130 unarmed protestors. The Russians claim the first shots came from the Azerbaijan side, but this hotly is disputed. What Yassim did not tell us was that the state of emergency was declared to stop a pogrom against Baku’s Armenian residents which had already killed 90. What the Armenians forgot to mention when we were there in 2003, was that the pogrom was provoked by Armenia granting citizenship to ethnic Armenian residents in the Azeri district of Nagorno Karabakh. What the Azeris forget to mention..... and so on in a time honoured chicken and egg argument.  The resulting Azerbaijan-Armenia war ended in 1994 with Karabakh a de facto independent state (recognised only by fellow unrecognised breakaways South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria), and left Azerbaijan with the feeling that it had been hard done by. Negotiations – and occasional shootings - continue.

Some in Azerbaijan believe that Armenia only exists because Russia wanted a buffer between the Azeris and their Turkish cousins. Some in Armenia believe that most of western Turkey should be theirs. Having enjoyed the hospitality of both countries, I have no wish to take sides.

Martyr's Alley, Baku

The 130 who died in Black January are commemorated with names and photographs in black marble. Martyr’s Alley ends at an eternal flame commemorating the Azeris who died in two world wars as well as in the Armenian war.

Eternal Flame, Martyr's Alley, Baku
Less controversially, the memorial has excellent views up to the ‘flame towers’ (in the Land of Fire what else should buildings portray?) at the highest point of the city,.....

Flame Towers, Baku
... and down to the almost circular old city and right across the modern city curling round its bay.

The Old City (the surrounded circle of low-rise buildings, left of photo)
and the green Boulevard Park beside the water
At the southern end, on an artificial peninsula, is the Crystal Hall, built to stage the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. The event maybe more a festival of tosh than a cultural highlight but to Azerbaijan, not long independent and a relative newcomer to the community of nations, winning in 2011 and being the host in 2012 gave a welcome feeling of belonging.

The Crystal Hall, Baku
Venue of the 2012 Eurovision song contest
As at Qobustan, the view was accompanied by a strong wind. Not for nothing is Baku known as the Windy City. If I ever visit Chicago (and currently it is not a priority) I will be able to comment on their relative windiness.
Lynne and Yassim in the pedestrian area near Fountain Square

Walking down the hill to Fountain Square which is considered the centre of modern Baku, we lunched in a basement restaurant amid traditional Azeri decor. Wanting something light I went for 'sweet dolmas’ with chestnuts and walnuts chopped into the minced beef, while Lynne opted for a ‘dolma selection with aubergine and peppers’. We think of dolmas as being something wrapped in vine leaves, so suspected this might be a vegetarian option, the Azeri view is that dolmas are minced beef with a wrapping, usually vine leaves, but in this case peppers and aubergines. Vegetarian option? In Azerbaijan?  What were we dreaming of? With them we drank draft Xirdalan beer, which had the virtues of being cheap and brewed locally, if not much else.

Eating dolmas, Baku
Baku is a city of fountains and those now in Fountain Square are minor compared with several other squares and parks – it was different in Soviet times.
Fountain Square, Baku
It is a short trip from Fountain Square to the old city gate. Baku retains a kilometre or so of its medieval city wall, half encircling the town.

The City Walls. Baku Old City
Baku’s founding is lost in the mists of time, but it first came to prominence in 1191 as the capital of Shirvan, a small kingdom comprising most of north eastern Azerbaijan and some of southern Dagestan. Sacked by the Mongols, the city rose again in the 15th century only to be sacked by the Persians in 1501.  After Shirvan finally fell Baku underwent an unhappy period, being regularly swapped between Russia and Persia and when Peter the Great took the city in 1723 the population had dwindled to around 7,000. Baku became finally established as Russian in the early 19th century and began to spread beyond its walls. Surface oil had been found and used locally since antiquity, but the sudden growth of world demand in the early twentieth century turned Baku into a boom town. The newly wealthy oil barons built lavish mansions (and the Boulevard Park we walked through yesterday), and changed the face of Baku permanently.

Baku Old City
Old Baku was an important trading post on the Silk Road and two caravansaris survive, though an oil baron’s mansion was built over half of one of them. Both are now restaurants.

Caravansari, Baku Old City
From here we passed a recently excavated ancient graveyard.
Baku's ancient graveyard
Beside it are the remains of the church of St Bartholomew. Local tradition says that the apostle came to evangelise Azerbaijan in the first century but fell foul of the Zoroastrians and was skinned alive and crucified for his pains. The church was his long delayed consolation prize but, adding insult to injury, it was demolished during Soviet times.

The remains of the Church of St Batholomew, Baku
Nearby, the Qız Qalası (Maiden’s Tower) is the symbol of old Baku. 29 metres high with immensely thick stone walls, its original date of construction is unknown - though most of the present structure is twelfth century. Its purpose is also a mystery; it may have been a Zoroastrian fire temple, a tower of silence, an observatory or merely defensive. A modern spiral staircase takes you up to the second floor which originally could only be reached by ladder. Above this the staircase winds upwards inside the thick walls. There are exhibitions on the various floors, but the main attraction is the view from the top.

The Maiden Tower, Baku
Here again Baku reminded us why it is known as the Windy City. The name Maiden’s Tower has given rise to any number of fanciful legends, each source favouring a different tale, but the dull truth is that it probably derives from the tower never having been taken by aggressors.
The Flame Towers from the top of the Maiden Tower, Baku

As we left we encountered a couple apparently looking for locations for their wedding photos and they kindly posed for us. Afterwards they popped up everywhere we went and I began to think they were probably models hired by the tourist board.
Must be models, surely. Baku Old City
We wandered through the streets which become narrower as they approach the centre.

The narrow streets of Baku Old City
The Muhammad Mosque, built in 1079, is the oldest in Baku. It has been known as the ‘Broken Tower' since the minaret was struck during a Russian naval bombardment in 1723. It has recently been repaired.

The formerly broken tower of the Muhammad Mosques, Baku
At the one room Museum of Miniature Books, the enthusiastic owner - who had a box for donations but charged no entry fee - showed us round her collection. She has 6,500 books published in 64 different countries and could name the publisher and date of publication of every one of them. In a case of religious books, tiny Qur’ans, Bibles and Torahs jostled amicably. There were Azeri classics and many more in foreign languages including Russian (Pushkin featuring strongly) French (Dumas, Balzac) and English (including the complete works of Shakespeare in a set of single volumes). There were popular works, too covering subjects like The Beatles and ‘William and Kate’. Most were three or four centimetres tall by one or two wide, but she had some smaller books; the complete works of Jane Austin in a centimetre square edition and her pride and joy, a twenty page book 0.75mm square. Fortunately it was in a glass box inside a glass case, I would hate to have sneezed.

Nearby is the modest palace of the Shirvanshahs.

The entrance to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (and that couple again)
Baku Old City
The Shirvanshahs ruled Shirvan, from the 9th to the 16th century. A single dynasty, the Yazidids, clung to power for seven hundred years sometimes ruling an independent state, sometimes as vassals of the Mongols or Timurids. The capital moved to Baku from Samaxi, 50km to the west, in the 12th century after the royal palace was destroyed by an earthquake. In 1538 Shirvan became a province of the Persian Empire and ceased to be a political entity in 1607.
Throne room, Palace of the Shirvanshahs, Baku Old City
Through the almost hidden entrance we wandered round the throne room and the Divan Dana, the small court of a small, if persistent kingdom and, like the rest of the palace, a bit over-restored.

Divan Dana, Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Baku Old City
That finished a full and very hot day's sightseeing. 

In the evening we made the lengthy walk back to Fountain Square because we failed to find any better options on the way. This time we wanted to stay above ground, preferably on the square itself and this left us with the choice of Pizza House (so much better than a mere Hut, but still it failed to tempt me) or an Italian Restaurant/Sushi Bar - not a combination I am familiar with. My chicken breast covered in tomato and cheese was fine, as was Lynne's fettuccini with ham and mushrooms, but it was only as she was finishing that we realised she has been eating pork in a majority Muslim (if constitutionally secular) country. 'That's odd,' we agreed and had another sip of beer - Efes, brewed in majority Muslim (though constitutionally secular) Turkey.

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