Despite only being in Baku for a few days, there was a definite progression of my impressions of the city. For the first time since I left Beijing, I was in a city that was not only well-developed, but also quite nice. Throughout my time in Baku, I went through a whole range of emotions and feelings about the place, starting with a feeling of being awestruck to finishing with a feeling of cabin fever.
Because there’s only so much I can write about a handful of days in a single city, Azerbaijan will only have a couple posts to cover my experience. I spent four days in Baku, which was the longest I’ve spent in one place since I left Beijing at the beginning of all this. As a result, I was exhausted. I would have liked to explore Azerbaijan a little more, but ended up staying in Baku and recuperating from the past month-and-a-half crossing Asia.
So here’s post number one: Baku from afar. When I first arrived in Baku, I was taken aback by several things, the first of which I touched on in my previous post: It’s shockingly developed relative to the region. But the second thing that surprised me after that initial shock was simply how nice Baku is. The city stretches from Azerbaijan’s mountainous coast, down the slopes and all the way down a huge peninsula that juts out into the sea. Much of the city is built onto steep, jagged mountains. The only real flat ground lies along the coast, which is also the nicest part of the city.
The farther you go up the mountains, the more you pass through various levels of the city. At the coast, it’s all designer stores and a downtown that was modeled after Paris. Even the old city of Baku, which sits close to the coast as well, has been refurbished into an upscale tourist destination, where wine bistros and art galleries line the narrow alleys. A kilometer inland, the city changes to something more like an American or European urban center — tall brownstone buildings, a little grimy, and full of the shouts and horns that reverberate through the streets. A lot of Baku honestly gave me the same vibe as Boston in the US. However, if you walk further into the poorer and traditionally Muslim neighborhoods that surround the mosques, the city descends into shabbiness.
To my observation, Baku is what you’d get if you combined Boston, Paris, and Istanbul. Though you can’t characterize the city as being from any one style period, there are definite themes that run through it. The most modern parts of the city have a very European influence, as they were built up by the Russian Empire prior to Azerbaijan’s declaration of independence and later incorporation into the USSR. Many government buildings and state universities have a Victorian style going on Baroque, like you might expect from Paris. But the oldest parts of the cities date back to the 12th century when it was a largely Zoroastrian settlement. Yet above the Zoroastrian ancient city and the Imperial Russian old town, modern glass-shelled skyscrapers tower overhead, giving Baku a three-tiered look, with various other style periods and influences sprinkled in. The architecture of a city tells its story, and that of Baku tells it better than most.
A Short History of Baku
Let’s start with a fun tidbit: the etymology of Baku. The name comes from the Persian Bad-Kube, back in the days of the Persian Empires that came from modern-day Iran. The name meant “Wind-pounded city,” as bad meant “wind” and kube was essentially “to pound.” Just like we in the US affectionately call Chicago “The Windy City,” the ancient Persians did the same for Baku.
Other translations, though less reliable, say the name is derived from the Persian Baghkuy, or “God’s Town.” If this is the case, then Baku would share the same etymology as Baghdad, Iraq.
Whatever the etymology of the name, it dates Baku’s identity as Baku since ancient Silk Road days, and even older. The oldest records of human settlement are from the Stone Age, but that’s all I’m gonna say on that millennium. Much later on, the Roman Empire reached as far as Baku, and there have been several artifacts with Roman inscriptions dating to the first century AD found nearby. So it’s an ancient part of the world.
However, the earliest management of Baku that is still visible today is the Shirvanshahs, a group that ruled Baku during the 8th century AD, and the one responsible for building Baku’s old city and its walls that still stand today. Baku remained this way until it came under Iran in the 16th century, who briefly lost it to the Ottomans before regaining it. During this time, Baku was always a center of trade for the world, not just the region. Traders from India had established themselves in Baku, and established a Sikh and Hindu temple that still stands in the outskirts of Baku (though it today is a Zoroastrian temple).
In the following centuries, Baku was a constant point of contention between the Russian Empire and various Persian groups. By the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, Imperial Russia decided it was done disputing Baku and Azerbaijan as a whole with its southern powerhouse rivals, the Ottoman Empire and Iran. The following 30 years saw Baku as a site for several battles, ruled mostly by Russia until Iran took it back for a few years. Russia had had enough, and took Baku back, once and for all incorporating the city into the Russian Empire.
In the next 75 years, oil was discovered and Azerbaijan’s position as a global oil power became apparent. Prior to this, Baku had been tiny. Only 8,000 people lived in the city when it came under Imperial Russian rule. But in the second half of the 19th century, half of all oil exports worldwide came from Baku. During this time, its population grew at a faster rate than Paris, New York, and London.
Baku flourished until World War I, which broke out just as the Russian Empire collapsed. The city came under Bolshevik rule in 1917, who fanned the sparks of inter-ethnic conflicts. By 1918, the Bolsheviks had essentially pushed Baku into a civil war. An Azerbaijani militia tried to fight back and push the Bolsheviks out, which resulted in as many as 12,000 Azerbaijani deaths in Baku alone. The remnants of this militia fled to a city called Ganja, near the Georgian border, and declared independence. With support from the Ottoman Empire as per a treaty between the two countries, the newly-formed Azerbaijan Democratic Republic marched back and retook Baku. The following four days are infamously known as the September Days, where Azerbaijani and Turkish Ottoman forces killed anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 Armenians living in Baku. Shortly after, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Baku became the capital of the newly independent Azerbaijan.
Immediately after, Azerbaijan came under Soviet rule, where it was the energy center for the USSR. In World War II, Baku was one of the most important strategic sites for both the Allies and the Axis. A German effort to capture the city reached as close as the Georgia-Russia border before being turned back.
Following the collapse of the USSR, Baku underwent a transformation the likes of which has never been seen. They demolished the majority of the Soviet buildings, created new greenspaces and parks, and literally rebuilt the beach that was lost. Sustainability is a major focus for Baku as it moves forward, and despite the social issues and corruption within Azerbaijan, Baku is really kind of a success story. For that reason, and from a zoomed out perspective, Baku is one of my favorite cities that I’ve visited thus far.
So that said, let’s look at Baku, but from a distance to start.
Baku Zoomed Out
Up next: Baku Up Close. I think that there’s two different ways you can look at this city, and both are necessary to get a better feel for the place. I’ll elaborate on that next time. So stay tuned!